I love my house, even though we’re not supposed to love things, only people. I’ve been told that things don’t make you happy, they only provide momentary bliss. Yet, the house I live in has made me incredibly happy for a decade. I’ve loved it as I love a wonderful relative, partner or close friend.
A single woman, I bought my house on my own, becoming part of the second largest group of homebuyers, following married couples. For me, the purchase came late in my life, after age 60. It was a chance to be near family once I was on my own, following a divorce. I bought my prior three homes and one apartment as many do with a spouse or partner.
Now I was flying solo after renting an apartment for three years in my former adopted Midwestern city to decide what to do. While I debated where to go. I saved and improved my credit rating, collateral damage from the divorce. After looking for a year, I was introduced to a small village that reminded me of the Vermont town where Diane Keaton had fled from New York City in the movie, Baby Boom. Both the house and village seemed to welcome outsiders. Mine was walkable and shopkeepers welcome residents as friends.
My initial attraction to the house was visceral. I knew this home wouldn’t be an acquaintance. It would become a good friend. For those who say houses are inanimate, I know otherwise. Houses are living, breathing entities. Listen carefully, and they speak to you--the squeak of the stairs, the foundation settling, the whine of the northwest wind running up along the edge of the outside walls. I got used to its noises, and it got used to mine as it quickly became my confidante once I moved in. It understood my loneliness and offered me shelter from what had been a very rocky period in my life.
It also shared signs of how to use its idiosyncratic rooms and surrounding landscape. It didn’t seem to take offense having its parts tugged at and rearranged whether to build in bookshelves where there were none, cover original slanting wide floorboards with rugs to warm them on cold winter days, gain new modern paint colors to brighten aging plaster walls rather than become a staid period piece, or have its ground ripped up to plant perennial beds and vegetables and herbs in raised wooden planters so I wouldn’t have to bend. My house has cooperated. It has taken my changes in stride. We’ve grown together.
We both have weathered many storms together too, sad, disturbing, challenging… and joyous times. My house never complains, and, in fact, seems happiest when family and friends crowd in to visit. For my mother’s 95th birthday celebration, people filled up the rooms, including four generations of my extended family from New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, St. Louis and Bermuda. I looked around and thought. “Hmm, we did this together, house, and no place would have been better to toast my mom, who loves everything about you (especially your sweet back porch).” It was especially gracious during the pandemic, continuing to offer wonderful shelter indoors and out in the garden where I watch the seasonal plantings change, from spring tulip, daffodil and allium bulbs to summer astilbe, cone flowers, lilac, lilies and roses. Fall and winter mean berries and branches glistening with snow and icicles.
To date, my house is almost 225 years old, or at least some of its parts are said to have been built in 1797, though my local historic society has no firm records of this. Dutch settlers founded the village in 1686 as a place to trade near the Hudson River. According to historic lore, the Dutch crossed from Kingston, later New York state’s capital, and bought 2,200 acres from three members of the local Sepasco tribe, reports to Wikipedia. During the Civil War, my house was owned by Louis A. Ehlers with the deed granted in 1826 and the house built about 1860, according to my village’s historical society research. Hence, my home is called the Ehlers house. Photos show the front with two lovely bay windows at the side, a long foyer with two doors even though it is said never to have been a two-family house and curlicue trim outside on its wide front porch. I’m not sure when the steep peaked roof with matching chimneys was constructed.
Is there any wonder that it’s showing such wear and tear? There was rotted wood on the side of the front porch that was recently repaired, pickets in the front fence with peeling paint, a splintered floorboard in the dining room that had to be replaced and still must be stained the same rich deep brown as the original boards. It has needed its equivalent of doctors or house experts to maintain it—carpenters, roofers, electricians, plumbers, gardeners, floor, window and specialists, and more. At the same time, we have aged in lockstep. Now that I’ve stepped into my 70s, I, too, am experiencing my own wear and tear such as a list of aches, pains, medical procedures and new physician contacts to keep my eyes, ears, knees, hips, wrists, colon and feminine parts humming along.
Besides maintaining my home for comfort, safety and financial reasons, I also feel it is my civic responsibility to keep it up since it occupies a prominent spot on one of my village’s main streets. It’s diagonally across from the oldest inn in America, dating from 1766, and a hop, skip and jump from the still older Rhinebeck Reformed Church of 1731 where the current reverend has become “my minister,” even though I’m a nice Jewish gal. Small village life can make that happen.
The house is also in walkable distance from the village’s main stop light where its two streets come together, close to restaurants, shops, movie theater, new swank hotel and spa, and more, which has taught me firsthand the joy of the buzzword, “walkable,” which means the town’s center is a manageable distance on foot, which now is increasingly important to health-conscious people. And during the pandemic, the house allowed me to relax in my backyard and also wander easily onto neighborhood streets, notice more of the area architecture and wave to more fellow quarantining residents, also enjoying their homes and gardens.
Barbara's backyard shed.
Now, each time I spot another sag, wrinkle or system that has shut down in my home and I have to hire a workman, I sigh and maybe announce to my home in an angry tone that I have had it. It might be time to end our relationship, to part and sell, I say. And then I come to my senses, apologize and go back to thinking, “Hey, house, you and I were supposed to be in this together for the long haul.” That was until recently when we hit a double snag. A shower pan, which some owner had installed at some point to create an upstairs new bathroom, caused a small leak in my living room ceiling. Then, as that was being repaired, a workman going into the basement said some bricks from the original fireplace were crumbling a bit and moist. Time to look up at the chimneys, which had never been capped or tuckpointed.
A big decision was required. To repair the mortar, add caps and more would be expensive. I could tuckpoint or remove the chimneys, add plywood and cover with shingles that resembled those on my roof. The chimneys had been closed off years ago so I never could use the fireplaces. I researched more before deciding to keep the chimneys and repair them, so a future owner might use a wood stove or add a new fireplace. The house and its parts needed to have a future without me.
The experience quickly brought back memories of my mother needing to put on a new roof on her house three years after my father died and 40 years after they had purchased their house. She also faced the choice alone. And she couldn’t bear to handle it, so she cleared out the attic and called her favorite real estate salesperson who priced the house fairly. It sold within a day, and she was off to her adventure of living in New York City on her own although she would say from time to time how dearly she loved her home. Yet, she was glad she made the change.
So, I wonder, will all the repairs and the twin chimneys be the tipping point that will push me to be one of the many boomers downsizing so we can kick up our heels and enjoy life before we’re too old or something terrible happens with our health? I weigh the pros and cons regularly of staying versus going and am still grappling with a conclusion. However, I have started the process, following Margaret’s example since she moved to New York City from St. Louis, to ruthlessly discard belongings that I don’t need and have no space for in a smaller space. Smaller is good I decided whether a house or condo. The stumbling block is that I’m not yet ready to accept that I’m old enough to face this milestone decision.
What I do accept, however, is that my house and I will part amicably unlike many breakups. In a heart-to-heart talk I will tell it that it needs someone younger and with more family members always around, who’s more energetic and has deeper pockets for all the necessities so it can continue to thrive for another century or two. I will add that no matter how much I love it, if I stay, I won’t be able to have one last grand adventure, wherever that takes me. I’m not sure when I will leave—six months, a year or even five years, but I know that if I listen well, I think my house is telling me that it’s time to go. It’s already started that conversation.