We found the dream house, my daughter and I, sometime in January of 2003. It didn’t resemble a dream house at first glance. Didn’t have what House Hunters likes to call “curb appeal.” The front yard was somewhat overgrown behind an ugly chain-link fence. The blue paint was a little shabby, and when I peered into the living room window, it looked dark and forbidding. But while I was doing that, Caroline had gone around the house, and when she returned she dragged me back there with her.
The back yard was huge, surrounded by tall trees – two firs, two maples, a white pine and a cedar, at first glance. There were two storage spaces, one an old playhouse with a tiny fireplace inside. There were three planted circles, one of which turned out to hold a magnolia. But the pièce de résistance, cradled within three arms of the house, was a warm flag-stoned patio, that put me immediately in mind of a scene from My Mother’s House, by Colette. Twin arborvitae stood sentinel against the living room wall.
There was an arbor over the door, crowned with a winter-bare wisteria. A dormant rose climbed the wall of the south wing that had been invisible from the front yard. An open-work shed with a sagging cover of heavy plastic formed the north wing, connected to the house via a small walkway. Big windows gave us a view of what looked like a big kitchen and sunroom.
When we met the landlord a few days later, we found that the living room felt small and dark because it was paneled in dark knotty pine. The landlord asked if we would like it painted white. We said yes. There was one small bedroom in the front corner, with an adjacent bathroom. That south wing turned out to be the master bedroom – my bedroom. A huge room reached by a long hallway, with its own bathroom and walk-through closet. There was a sizeable utility room and a third bedroom, converted from an old garage. Ugly, but who cared. I wasn’t going to sleep in it, and neither was Caroline.
We got the house.
The firebox in the fireplace had big rusty holes in it which we discovered our first night there when we lit up a Duraflame. It put a bit of a damper on the party, so to speak, but we installed a wood stove and a new chimney liner, which turned out to be a very good thing because the wall heater in the living room never did work. There were a couple of electric outlets that didn’t connect to anything, either, and it seemed that several of the wall switches didn’t turn on what we thought would be the obvious lights, but we soon learned what they did turn on and we lived with it.
We bought it a new red couch and a Tree of Life rug. I set up my computer desk in the sunroom. Coming out to the car one day in late February, I found pink blossoms had fallen on the roof, from a camellia tree I didn’t even know was there. As spring came on, the magnolia bloomed and bluebells sprang up in all the planting beds. When summer came, the wisteria hung thick with purple bells, and the south wall burst into bloom with yellow roses. Two rhododendrons, a lavender and a red, bloomed in the front dooryard, and between the camellia and its neighbor, the laurel, I never got wet carrying the groceries inside.
I loved that house.
We had huge summer parties, birthdays, Thanksgivings, tree trimmings, Christmases. We played video games and watched everything from The Walking Dead to Call the Midwife. Caroline moved in and out and in again and went through two relationships. She started her business from that house – Sweet Caroline’s Jams and Jellies. I finished one novel and wrote two more, writing at my computer desk in the sun room watching the birds and squirrels come and go from my feeders.
We cooked and played and argued. We laughed and cried. We lived the hell out of that house.
And then, all too soon, even though it had been 14 years, it was time to go.
The New Yorker published this piece by Nora Ephron last spring and, aside from the obvious points of difference, it told the story of me and my dream house. I, too, had handled rent increases with a bit of aplomb over the years, but in the last 18 months at the house, the rent had increased $250/month, and I didn’t drink enough tea to amortize that amount into anything reasonable. On top of that, I was getting too old to take the best care of the gardens. The English ivy was creeping in, the wisteria was climbing the twin arborvitae and threatening to climb down the chimney. The pots I had used to fill with pansies every spring were the worse for wear and abuse. The lewisia had split the sides of its container, and the huge pot where I had once tried to grow a peony was overflowing with moss.
The refrigerator leaked, the utility room floor felt soft underfoot, and a few rats had begun to sneak in. These were things the landlord should handle, and likely would have, but somehow I could see another rent raise coming should I complain about it. I got rid of the rats by stopping up the holes and putting all the food in bins, but little pools of ugly water seeped from under the fridge on a regular basis, and that just couldn’t be put off much longer.
What finally did me in, though, was the plumbing disaster.
One day the toilets backed up, and when I plunged mine, it came up in the shower. Scratch that backbrush. I shoulda hung it up, anyway. I called the landlord, he called RotoRooter. Problem solved. A few days later, it happened again. RotoRooter again. This time they call me out to take a look: there is toilet paper blossoming out of the access pipe. The landlord says it is my fault – they found a (he whispers the word) tampon. He wants me to pay half of the bill. I’m 74 years old. My daughter uses new-fangled washables. ‘Tweren’t us, honey. The landlord suggests (in a strangled whisper) that perhaps I could use less paper when I, er, clean myself. I’m left speechless.
The third time it happened, it blew the lid off the second access pipe. There are bouquets of used toilet paper strung along the side of the house for six feet. This time, RotoRooter ran the line all the way to the road, which is where he found the block. Tree roots. The landlord calls me to suggest that I dig a hole and shovel it all under. I need to stay just a couple more months so I can finish packing, so I don’t suggest that he go fuck himself. I tell him I’ll think about it. I don’t.
But just like that, I fell out of love with my house. I couldn’t afford the rent. There was more to take care of than I could handle. And then, there was all that rotting toilet paper. Which to the day I moved out did not get cleaned up. We put plywood over it to move stuff out from the backyard.
I loved that house. I left a piece of my soul there. Few of us are lucky enough to find a dream house. I did. Nora Ephron did. But there comes a time when the good times are all gone.
Time to go.