As a rule I am not overly sentimental. I am not one who saves stacks of photo albums or souvenirs or old socks from high school, or, as Phil does, every T-shirt he’s ever owned.
Right now that’s a good thing—sort of.
What few relics I have found worthy of saving over the course of my life I am in the process of evaluating. I’ve been able to face the task in a pragmatic way, making choices about what really matters and what I am willing to say goodbye to. Over time, material items lose their glamour, but my grandfather’s poem, my mother’s shell coin purse, my great-grandmother’s eyeglasses, the whirligig my youngest son made me in his first shop class, things that have touched my family’s hands, have been part of their lives, their day to day, these I will keep. The trunk full of manuscript drafts must stay. The infant clothes and receiving blankets I made for my boys—can’t part with. What strikes me now as a bit sad is how few items I’ve kept over the years, not including the Pandora’s box of a footlocker to which I’ve misplaced the key. I can’t open it without destroying it, and I’m not sure I want to anyway: I know the contents go back, way back, to before the marriage that inflicted so much damage, before children, before careers, before lost innocence. I could haul it to the landfill and forget about it, as I haven’t thought about any of that stuff in more than thirty years. Only when I’ve had to haul it from storage to move it have I wondered about what might be inside. I have no idea what will be reflected back to me, what the twenty-something version of me thought this current version of me might want to see.
If you’ve been following my writing, you know about “The House.” The two-story Victorian Phil and I have been renovating these past ten years. No, the house still isn’t done. It will never be done. It’s big. It’s 114 years old. The room we updated in 2008 is now ten years old. The layers and layers of wallpaper never got removed as was the case with all the other walls on the second story and part of the downstairs. We only painted on top of the blue faux finish the last owner had covered it with, but as the paper was tight and in good condition, with our new cream-color coats of latex, it looks pretty good. The ceiling still has a funny mix of textures that needs to be redone, however, and there were stars glued to it that wouldn’t come off with a chisel, not without leaving pockmarks. At that time we didn’t know about primering over the old, mudding on the new, so a few coats of paint was all it got. We also didn’t know that ceilings should have a flat finish, so all those weird textures shine glossy bright, and those painted-over stars look pretty obvious in the afternoon sun.
The wood floor in that bedroom, well, we had no clue what we were doing when we sanded it and put on a new finish. It’s darker than the floors we refinished two years ago that are now bleached Scandinavian blonde. It was the worst of all the floors in the house, covered in gummy oil paint then some kind of gooey black mastic, then linoleum, then carpet. Not all of the old oil paint came off around the perimeter, and we didn’t know it at the time, but it probably had lead in it, and we probably reduced our IQs in the process of sanding and stripping it. Perhaps that explains why we continued with the renovations for ten more years, even though sane persons would have given up eons ago.
We don’t know what drove us to keep working on The House, but now, in our sixties, we’ve grown pretty tired of it, and there are still lots of cubbies and nooks that need to be redone. Out of twelve rooms, there are still four to go. Two more floors need work. The laundry room hasn’t been touched. Three rooms still have 114 years of wallpaper over lathe and plaster. The shop out back with it’s witch’s hat turret, which we thought would become Phil’s shop and my writing studio, never quite made it to prime time.
We’re not tired, however, of all the many gardens, nor do we ever tire of the way the house greets us with its warmth and charm and endearing creaks after we’ve gone off camping or traveling or even after we’ve just stepped out for dinner. We never tire of how cozy it is in winter and how cool it stays in summer. The big sycamore in the back arches long limbs in greeting each time we sit on the backyard deck, as does the hawthorn, the chestnut, the maple, the ponderosa pine. The hawthorn and the chestnut are in full pinkpeach blossoms right now, and the yard is abuzz with the army of giant bumblebees they attract each spring. The pond and its waterfall delight us with an array of migrating bird species twice a year. We wage our annual battle with the dandelions on a single tiny patch of actual lawn. Everything else on our 1/3 acre is covered in ivy, vinca, every manner of tulip and lily, daffodils, Sweet William, lavender, lamb’s ears, hyacinths, painted daisies, holly, Oregon grape, asters, succulents, Russian sage, February snowbells and crocuses, plus dozens of other plants, flowers, trees, and shrubs people who came before us planted that we have yet to identify. Birds feast on Concord grapes, currants, mulberries; squirrels favor the chestnuts and walnuts and move our flower bulbs so that every spring is a scavenger hunt that leaves us shaking our heads.
Alas, the time has come for change, and we are on a new road. The Victorian is for sale, and life is all about house plans and contracts, a new town, and a new word: DOWNSIZING. We’re starting to get it that we are not as young as we used to be, that we don’t have decades and decades hovering in front of us (or maybe we do, but we don’t expect our bodies to be quite as pliable and capable as they have been in the decades behind us). Phil’s goatee is nearly all white. I have a silver streak in my hair that starts at the part near my hairline and stands out like a spotlight in contrast to my normal sandy-strawberry hue, and this crazy white eyebrow nearly an inch long once in awhile appears from nowhere, as if I were an eighty-year-old man. Last week in an odd moment Phil and I were comparing the crepe-y quality of the skin on our forearms—whose is worse? We groan and creak when we move as much as our wood floors do. We’re in bed most nights by nine-thirty, and sleep is punctuated by trips to the bathroom. By comparison, when we first moved in together in 2007, at nine-thirty we might be dressing up to walk down to a local pub to take in a Saturday night of music.
The worst part about the build-a-house exploration has been the realization that all our years of hard work will not translate to buckets of dollars with the sale of our current home. At the same time we are downsizing our possessions, we’ve had to downsize our expectations around the new place. It will be eleven hundred square feet, not fifteen hundred. I will not get my Swedish soaking tub. Only one bathroom will have a tiled, walk-in shower, not both. The exterior will be sided not stucco. We’ll have a gravel driveway not concrete. And—here’s the worst part, or maybe it will turn out to be the best, who knows?—we’re going to have to do the bulk of the work ourselves. Oh, somebody else will put in the foundation and build the walls and put on the roof and install windows, but, god help us, we will be doing all of the finish work ourselves. Paint, floors, trim, tile, cabinets, lighting, hardware—basically anything that doesn’t require a lift or a license. I look to that future, which is fast approaching, and wonder if I’ve lost my mind or if I’ve just gotten so used to balancing writing, teaching, book coaching, and construction with family, friends, and the myriad obligations that come with a life that I don’t know any other way to live.
The limiter on this little project, of course, is the bank, and thank goodness for that, because they’re only giving us eighteen months to get the job done. It occurs to me that my carpenter father is up on some heavenly perch laughing, as he, too, tried throughout my childhood to finish the remodel work on the house we lived in and finally gave up in favor of a new modular on a piece of ground near a small village not unlike the one we’ll be moving to. If we keep our promises to ourselves, anticipating the need for some way to get distance from each other, at the end of this journey is also a free-standing writing studio for me, something I’ve long craved, even as much as I’ve enjoyed writing books in the breakfast nook, the mess I create has not been Phil’s favorite thing. It’s the part of the dream that propels me, keeps me faithful when time after time a real estate agent shows our house and a sale fails to materialize. “You are only looking for one buyer,” our agent reassures us. Once in a while a thought tries to sneak through: this old house will never sell. Meanwhile, we keep chipping away at projects: paint the staircase, grout a new tile back splash in the kitchen, trim the dead branches from the hawthorn, stain the window sill that gets too much sun—all the while imagining who will come to love this old place next.
A friend said to me today that if you start placing limits on yourself, the line moves closer and closer until you are at a standstill. If you stop pushing against fear, you arrive at stasis. I think about this as I think about what it means to be moving into a place less than half the size of where we currently live, that will still require us to go up and down stairs, that has nearly three times the land, land that we have fallen so deeply in love with we are willing to put our hearts and bodies on the line one more time, in hopes that we aren’t too old for yet one more big adventure. We pore over nursery websites that specialize in prairie blooms and grasses. We imagine a grove of pines, one of cedars, wonder if those apple trees that look so gnarled and wise are heritage apples. We have put our stamp on this house, lovingly moved it as far forward as we could. How far will we take the new place? Will we meet our eighteen-month deadline? How will we fair under winter snows? Late springs? Early frosts? Will the moose and her calf who bedded down on the property this winter return once we’ve set up residence? Will this new project be our blossoming or our demise?
We are about to find out. The only question remaining is how soon. It is either my best or worst characteristic that I am always about the leap. I never leap blindly, and I always do my research, and this time is no different: the new house binder is four inches thick. This time, and for the first time, however, I’m in good and equal company.