I AM HAUNTED by houses.
They seduce me with their porches and staircases. However impractical their charms, I can’t help but cast a wayward eye. Even when just passing through a place to which I will never return, whether it be Nova Scotia or the Bahamas, I find myself perusing the real estate listings. I’ve priced lighthouses and grist mills as well as bungalow colonies and factories. A firehouse even. I can tell you the cost of not only the local bowling alley and the pharmacy long defunct, but the movie theater as well. I’ve imagined turning them into galleries and yoga studios. Coffee shops and art projects.
I am nothing if not far reaching in my affections and ambitious in my renovation plans. Houses for me are about both past and future. I cannot imagine living in a fresh home with no vestiges of its old inhabitants. How could I live in a place that needed no work, a place I could not shape to fit the shape of my life?
I can blame this insanity on my parents—isn’t it always their fault?—who dragged us kids Sunday afternoon after Sunday afternoon to open houses. Promiscuous in our house hunting even when there was no real impetus to move…. we projected ourselves into houses all over Rochester that briefly became the repository of our dreams of a future. There was the rambling farmhouse miles from anywhere, with Civil War newspapers as insulation. But it had a pond and acres of orchard. The thatched roof cottage in Sligo was a pittance in 1985. Another house was a historical treasure, but was located in the path of a thruway so all that had to be done was move it to a new lot. My father made a little cardboard model of one house to demonstrate just how the roof could be raised.
But despite the number of houses we invested with our plans, we weren’t in it for short-term flings. These weren’t turnkey or pristine. Not one of them. They were consistently wrecks and so they would have to be lived in during the years that it would take to reclaim them. It was the long haul. There were going to be phases of the renovation, some of them extremely uncomfortable ones involving sawdust and noise.
So now it isn’t the ones with slate countertops and the finished basements or radiant heating that enchant me—it’s the wrecks. The ones that house history but have seen better times. The ones that need me to come and jack up their beams, solidify their soffits. The ones that saner folk would give up for dead.
I grew up in houses under renovation. My mother went into labor with my sister before my father had secured the plumbing. Hardly anything about a fixer upper, handyman’s special, TLC-needing wreck scares me, even when it ought to. You can tell me the foundation is shaky and the roof gaping with holes and I will point out the marble fireplace or the gabled roof. Show me the termite damage and I’ll counter with the pocket doors and the sun splashed garden. My houses, like my men, have always been fixer uppers. Though I might add that it is quite a bit easier to jack up a sagging beam than repair a character flaw. And houses are more open to change and respond better to guidance. I have lived with the fissures in plaster and dated linoleum a lot more sanguinely than I have tolerated the vagaries of men.
Once I got married and had a child, I grew desperate for a home even though we had no money. Hence the first house of my adult life was a foreclosure. The second house of my adult life was a foreclosure.
They were haunted houses of a sort. When you buy a foreclosure you also buy a failure, which you can imbue with hope or else let it succumb to the same fate. In the contract for the first house was a proviso that should the Doberman still be there at closing, he was our responsibility. This first house of my grown-up life was an 1860 servant house situated just a block away from the grander houses. It sat in a neighborhood of other humble homes known as Frog Hollow. The residents had all come up from the South. When I found silver spoons in the yard I gave them to the granddaughter of the original owner, who lived still on the same block.
When we moved into the next foreclosure it was a side hall Colonial from 1924, which I loved most for its garden and towering Tulip trees. The former owners must have scrambled to hold onto it, grasping at any job they could, for the garage overflowed with boxes, unsubmitted census records, and the basement was replete with faux red leather and seemed to have been used as an after hour’s club.
Perhaps the most flagrant overreaching was my attempt last summer to purchase a defunct ashram in the Catskills. With so many bedrooms, the listing agent hadn’t bothered even to count them—there were more than 28. This particular entanglement was bound to end badly. I try never to utter the term “money pit” because almost every house I adore is one—it’s almost built into the foundations of them. The ashram had in its various incarnations been both a Hungarian boarding house and a night club of sorts, and in the sixties the spiritual home of the guru, Rudanandra. On the edge of a crater on a road called Lost Clove that was somehow always missing that essential C on the sign, the ashram had hardly any infrastructure, but it had history and romance. And it was crumbling. Somehow I felt myself wanting to save it despite the enormity of the task.
I knew a writer once who told me she knew that, having chosen a vocation that would offer her little security, she had given up the hope of ever having a house. I tried to adjust myself to the idea of never owning a house, of being forever a renter—something that would have upset my parents more than if I had revealed a penchant for kleptomania or a career as a drug mule. I thought for years that as a writer and painter, my house lust was a betrayal of my artistry. I took this to heart and felt a bit guilty about my bourgeois leanings until years later that writer who had vehemently eschewed property owning was featured in her little San Francisco cottage in The New York Times Home section.
Just days ago I left a suburban behemoth that I have occupied for the past five years and am in limbo now in the Catskills. As I write this my possessions are packed into a pod. I’m benefiting from the generosity of friends who have allowed me to temporarily use their own magnificent fixer upper. It’s on fifty acres on a crest overlooking a pond that reflects the Juniper trees, planted by an enterprising farmer cum gin-mill operator generations ago. In a few weeks I will take up occupation in the next house I find.
So now I wait to buy the first house I have ever lived in alone. This is the first house that does not project in my thinking a kid kicking a ball around in the yard or a partner who will help me shape it. But it isn’t the ranch house I professed to want. Not the neat, one-level simplicity I claimed I had converted to. It’s another ramshackle beauty with a long porch and an acre of trees. The kitchen is a wreck and the furnace on its last legs. It’s an empty nest that I will fill with my own things, the home of a new set of dreams. I want chickens and bees and a large, bright studio to paint in. I will plant grape vines and paint the rooms in new colors. I imagine that I will stop clicking on Zillow and stop slowing down when I see a For Sale sign. I imagine that this house is the one where the restlessness will stop and I will grow old on a porch watching my garden grow.