Of Love, Loss, Home Renovation & Men
She was a serial renovator — of both houses and men. And then she fell in love
At 63, I figure I’ve got what? 25 years left? Thirty? Forty if I’ve lucked out and gotten my great aunt Frances’ genes. She lived to be 104. How do I want however many years I have left to play out? Same old, same old? Or maybe it’s time to move on?
We’ve been together for almost 40 years. That’s a long time to be without a working shower, air conditioning, or uniform heat. Is it too much to ask for windows that actually open and close? When the wind blows they moan like paid mourners at a mob funeral.
It Was An Old House, But it Was My Old House
Should I leave her? Could I leave her?
We met through an ad in the classifieds: “Partially Restored Vic, double city lot, outbuildings.” I should have known, classified ads were works of creative nonfiction. It was 1982. My husband, Mark, and I had been avid watchers of This Old House. Every Thursday, we’d sit on the edges of our second-hand sofa’s cushions, slurping ramen noodles out of mismatched melamine bowls, and watch as Bob Vila et al undid the many wrongs that had been forced down a lapsed Victorian’s throat.
When the time came for us to buy a house that’s what we’d do! Restore! Renovate! Save the world! It all looked like so much fun!
Real estate agents told us newlyweds that we needed to be looking for something called a starter home. We were young, and according to their crystal balls, in five or seven years we’d be trading up to a better house in a better neighborhood before we finally found our forever home. Really? Their crystal balls hadn’t taken into account our degrees in art and theater. Would we even be married in five or seven years? The jury was out on that one, too.
Trying to Renovate Mr. Wrong
He and I met in a bar. I had gone out alone, not looking for a husband, but for a flirtation, that may or may not have ended with a retaliatory screwing because my live-in boyfriend of three years had decided to exercise the open clause in our relationship.
He had said he didn’t believe in marriage. He had been down that road twice, and each time it had spun off course, got stuck in a rut, and then the wheels came off and lawyers came and towed it to the marital junkyard. He told me he wasn’t a one-woman man. I had to give him points for honesty, laying it all out there, on the table in the restaurant, on our first date. Why had I agreed to his terms? Because he was Al Pacino in Serpico attractive. A ten to my self-perceived five, which rose to an eight by association.
I thought Serpico needed a little renovation, a few of his emotional walls knocked down for optimum flow, but as soon as I broke through one, he built another, bigger, thicker. Apparently all those magazine articles “You Can’t Change Him!” had been written for someone else.
He hadn’t seen the need to open things up until the night he came home from the bank to tell me had met someone in line. There had been something beguiling about the way she had filled out her withdrawal slip, how she handled the long ball chain that kept the pen in its place. I shouldn’t have been hurt, I had agreed, remember?
Meeting Mr. Right-But-Boring
I saw this guy. At the bar. Underneath a blinking arrow, as if the universe was saying to me, “Over here! He’s The One!”
We talked. He bought me a beer. He seemed nice. I wasn’t used to nice. I was used to drama. Scheming. Grateful for any emotional crumbs that got tossed my way. This guy didn’t need a lot of work. He was move-in ready. So, after eight hours of talking, drinking, necking, after he had asked for my number, after I had told him about my current situation, I told Mr. Nice Guy (Mark) I didn’t want to date. Him. Or anyone else. Where would it lead? We’d move in. We’d have the “Where is this going?” talk, and in a year, I’d be back at this bar.
I was done dating. I wanted to be married. So, I asked him. To marry me. Cut to the chase, as it were. Did I expect him to say yes? No, I did not. Even the priest who performed the service thought we’d never make it.
With the ink still wet on our marriage license, we made a 30-year commitment to love, honor, and cherish this fallen woman of a Queen Anne, till death or the mortgage was paid off, whichever came first. She had been badly scarred from a recent porch-ectomy. Her roof needed replacing. She came with 13 pages of code violations.
Could I Have a Rescuer’s Complex?
My therapist told me I was a rescuer, and this house needed some serious rescuing.
Mark and I worked at our poorly paying jobs during the day and came home to urban decay meets construction chic — five-gallon buckets filled with tools, paints, solvents, scrap lumber, stacks of drywall. Every night before bed, I’d corral the sawhorses, tame the unruly extension cords, and push the buckets of joint compound up against the upstairs back door to prevent intruders.
I’d lie in bed, worrying. Had I made a mistake? I hardly knew this man snoring next to me. Sure, he was nice, but would nice become boring? Were the experts right about starter homes? Was he my starter husband? Where were those elves I had been promised? How come our mice couldn’t sew?
I could have thrown in the trowel and left. But, I’m not a quitter. I had made promises. Better. Worse. Rich. Poor. And then I had children, and with them came depression. Baby Blues. Which made it sound as if there should be songs written like: “Lowdown and Sleep-Deprived,” “My Baby Got Colic,” and “Ain’t Nobody Gettin’ Any Lovin.” I tried to Mrs. Miniver it, with pluck and determination, but most days pluck and determination were MIA, and I had no energy. To leave. To renovate. I went on autopilot. Ignoring the holes in the ceilings and walls was easier. If only I could have ignored the hookers and drug dealers.
Putting My Anxiety Disorders to Work
Crime-fighting is in my blood. My father was a cop. I watched Dick Tracy cartoons after school. Dragnet, anyone? I traded in Mrs. Miniver for Gladys Kravitz. I took to watching the street from behind my curtains. I jotted down license plate numbers. Noted times and types of activities. Christmas of 1996, I asked for night vision goggles. My husband worried. I thought I was being vigilant. He thought it might be time to call in the experts.
I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and chronic depression. Duh! You try living in a house that doesn’t live up to your standards, in an underachieving neighborhood! Was I worried about my kids? Constantly. I learned to use the hookers and drug dealers as teachable moments, warning my children that if they didn’t buckle down in school they were looking at their future.
My daughter is currently a Ph.D. candidate and my son is a buyer for a bicycle empire.
We’ve never taken flicking on a switch — and having a light come on — for granted. Plumb and level are concepts. I can’t tell you how many eyeliner pencils I’ve dropped on the floor and never seen again. I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit, yes, I coveted other people’s even heat. Central air conditioning. I fantasized about something younger. More up-to-date. Boring!
The Unsung Advantages of Hanging In There
Forty years later, I finally feel like all the dirt under the radiators is ours. I know her. There’s a comfort in drying mittens on her radiators, a feeling of safety in the basement during severe weather (eight feet below grade). Lilting Mariachi music has replaced the sounds of gunshots and squealing tires. It’s not a weekend without a bouncy castle in someone’s yard.
The marriage survives. Nice does have staying power. I have put my husband’s name in for canonization.
She may not be perfect. She has flaws. Who doesn’t? I’m sure the day will come when I can’t climb the staircase or shovel the 13 front steps, and I will be sad to see her in the rearview mirror of my flying car. I can’t imagine life without her. I guess what I’m trying to say is, after 40 years, I’ve finally fallen in love.