As I sat to write this, my children were having a heated Nerf battle and the television blared in the background. My ears, however, were attuned for a sound much more subtle. Taps or thuds from beneath the floor boards.
Otherwise known as the universal signal for distress for amateur handymen everywhere. It could mean anything from an “S.O.S.,” to “please, fetch me something, flip the breaker or hold this flashlight for me.”
Fixing up a home is not for the faint of heart, as I was reminded again just this past week.
A few months ago, my better half went to close windows accessing the crawl space beneath our home before the first true cold snap of the season bared down on us. Shining a flashlight into the gaping space before crawling underneath and sealing up everything, instead of seeing dirt he was met with a glare from his light hitting standing water.
The sump pump we thought had been installed when we bought this home not even two years ago was actually…not a sump pump. And because life works this way, our region of the country experienced record shattering rainfall last year. It was a perfect, water-logged storm.
Because what’s one more project when you’re a family with three young children and one more on the way, who also happens to homeschool, with a husband who works full-time as he tries to complete his master’s degree on the side?
Let’s add one more thing to the pile because we may as well. We totally have the extra time, energy, money and brain cells to figure out how to solve one more problem, right??
And these major repairs always seem to crop up at the most convenient times, don’t they?
The toilet only backs up after the kids have gone to bed as you sit down on the sofa with a bowl of chips and the television remote.
Pipes only freeze overnight on a Saturday so there’s no chance for hot coffee or relaxing on a Sunday morning.
The full scale emergencies only arise right around when you’re both excited to finally see your savings account balance actually growing, and a family vacation seems within your grasp.
I can’t tell you how many sandwiches I’ve made for whatever pulled together work crew we might have at our house on a Saturday. Or how many baby gates we’ve had to live around to keep small children out of the mess of yet another repair or renovation. Or how many times we’ve had to live without appliances or entire rooms at a time. Or the number of weeknights or weekends my husband was preoccupied with another project and I wanted to pull my hair out after who knows how many straight days spent cooped up with feral kids.
This last week, almost every night I hosed off his mud-caked coveralls so I could wash them. I set a hot dinner in front of him and tried to feed him enough to bring his exhausted body back to life so he could push through for one more day. I sat silently berating myself, wondering why I didn’t learn how to rewire an electrical outlet instead of learning how to iron decals on to cotton shirts in middle school home economics class.
We know the tangled and confusing web of pride and resentment that comes with home ownership very well. We find ourselves thankful when there’s enough funds to cover whatever emergency repair crops up and thankful that my husband can do most of the work himself, and also completely exhausted by all of it and ready to move into an RV to avoid doing one more project – even if it’s jusr changing a light bulb.
This crisis is not our first rodeo. The first home we bought was the very definition of a fixer upper. In fact, we spent nearly ten years on it before we outgrew it and had to move on. We had just moved back to Maryland after his stint in the service. We were supposed to be renting a small house in the even smaller town we both grew up in. But he caught wind of a large home for sale just up the road.
He went to have a gander. Beneath the rugged exterior, the odor of cat urine and the sight of insulation pouring from holes in the walls and ceilings, it’s grandeur and charm and character were obvious. He brought me back to take a gander, and we were both officially smitten.
We could see what had been. We could see what could be, even under the layers of neglect and age.
Having gotten married young and quickly, much to the surprise of those around us, we figured what was one more major life decision that didn’t seem to quite add up? We only had practically no money and my husband and his father would be working on the house when they weren’t working full time. But what’s the worry? What is rhyme and reason when there are dreams to be had??
The project was supposed to take four months. It ended up taking fifteen.
But oh, how we mourned when we sold that house. As the last of the furniture and boxes were carried out, after sleeping for about three hours the night before, as we woke to prepare to sign away that home and a chunk of ourselves, we walked through it one more time. I hugged the walls and said my silent thank you’s.
For those creaky stairs. The unfinished trim and molding. My tiny laundry closet. The second bathroom I insisted we needed to install upstairs if my husband ever wanted to have more children. The original bathroom I had repainted just a year before, the one I trekked down to in the middle of the night I don’t know how many times as an unborn baby bore down on my bladder.
I remembered living without a dining room for nearly three weeks, hurrying small children through the room before they could cover themselves in plaster dust or hurt themselves on some large, jagged tool. I remembered many projects when I had propped a baby gate up to keep tiny kids out, stepping over it to fetch a snack or sippy cup countless times, hurrying back justbefore the paint could dry on my paint brush.
I remember arguments we had in the kitchen and just about anywhere else when we were both tired of this project that didn’t seem to end.
But we remembered that magic of what it meant to make something yours. And to do it together. To know something so well, every nook, crevice and cranny, from the attic to the basement. The familiarity of knowing the floor creaked in one particular spot – disastrous to learn the first few times we tried to lay a tiny baby down for a nap. Or that the hot water would run out after fifteen minutes. Or how the house had settled and you could tell by the trim over the bedroom doors in the upstairs hallway.
How that familiarity is what makes a house a home.
Oh, but the bones. It had such good bones. And we hope the people living there now are treating it well.
We’ve since moved on to house number two. A much “younger” home this time, only about sixty years old. I stare at the brick exterior and the paint peeling on the trim near the gutters. I can’t wait to paint bedroom number four from a sky blue to a rich gray to make a nest for baby number four. We have more work to do. And I’m thinking we always might if we keep setting our hearts on these older homes.
People who choose fixer uppers they have to manage through themselves don’t do it expecting it to be easy. And, being completely honest, sometimes a house that needs extensive work done is financially the only option.
But we also have this reserved hope. A hope that says making everything our own will be worth it. It helps us have eyes to see what’s underneath, what’s been deemed lost. What was once there.
And what could be there again.