A COUPLE OF YEARS AFTER MY husband left, a neighbor commented that my house must seem awfully quiet with just my daughter and me. How do you stand it. he had asked, and at first I thought he was kidding, Then, I realized he hadn’t the slightest idea what had gone on back then, back in that other life. A house to me should be the safest of places-the most serene, too, if that’s what you want. Anyway, it should be a sanctuary for its inhabitants, and what 1 resented most-more, even, than my failing marriage-was losing that sense of haven; home no longer was the sacred refuge I’d believed in since childhood. And if you can’t feel secure, or at peace in your own house, then you can’t feel truly safe anywhere, can you? That was-and remains-the most surprising lesson of my life.
Today, almost every time I turn into the short, shady street tucked between Colonial Country Club and TCU, I feel a lift. Yea. I’m almost home. But I can remember pulling into the driveway with deep dread of what the rest of the day might bring. Those times seem not only long ago but in somebody else’s life; I look back, and I hardly recognize the person I was, and to this day. I don’t remember how I got to be her, or how she got to be me. Last summer, I described a little something about those days to a close friend who hadn’t known me then. “1 can’t imagine you that way; you must have been very different,” he said.
I was. So was my house. It was 17 when we bought it. and on a favorite street, one I’d played on as a child. It had just been redone, top to bottom. The yard, front and back, was elaborately landscaped, the walls freshly painted and wallpapered, and the carpeting like new. I’d used my teachers retirement fund for the down payment, and six years later, when my husband and 1 split up, 1 took over the mortgage, straining mightily to pay several years of back taxes I hadn’t known were owed. I wasn’t sure I could keep the place, wasn’t sure I even wanted to, or if I could run out the demons, so that it would really be mine, mine and my daughter’s. But I thought I’d try to hang on until my daughter, who was 8 at the time, graduated from high school.
IT’S OUR FIRST SUMMER IN THE
house. My son, 10, dressed in his Little League uniform, watches a baseball game on television. His stepfather, my second husband, reeking of the city’s longest happy hour, rolls in, jerks my son’s cap off his head, says, “Gentlemen don’t wear hats in the house,” then passes out right there by the TV.
The first couple of years we were here, I’d spend a morning or two each week hosing down the outside until the whole house sparkled, but once on my own and working, I didn’t have that kind of time. Now, on the rare occasion I go out through the kitchen door, say, I’m dismayed by the dust, bugs and cobwebs collected on the back porch. The rest looks OK, but it’s definitely lost some shine. For instance, I had to replace the leaky but still beautiful cedar shake roof with a cheaper, bland version. The jackleg roofer removed the cupola, then left town, so it’s still around by the side of the house. When 1980’s heat blast killed the pine trees planted along the retaining wall. I couldn’t replace them, either; I say the natural growth is prettier. But the odd thing is that while the outside shows its years, the inside has become not only more attractive, but infinitely more interesting, speaking with a voice of its own.
The house and I, we adapt, like my friend Claire, who says she can shudder over something in a new house, like shocking pink bathroom tile, yet within weeks, she no longer even sees the color. I’m like that, too, while others keep working over a house, as though painting a portrait, brushing, smoothing, whisking away until it’s perfect. Recently, I read of a couple who moved into an old house and discovered the downstairs shower didn’t work. A handyman diagnosed the problem as major, saying something about a whole new plumbing system, which they couldn’t afford. So, whoever had the downstairs bedroom trekked upstairs for a shower. It was years before the couple learned that all the shower needed was some simple gadget and an hour’s labor. Well, I identify with that couple; if I can’t solve the problem right away, the flaw becomes a part of me, sort of like my slightly twisted left elbow, forgotten and thus scarcely inconvenient.
For some time now, two oven burners haven’t worked; I’ve forgotten they’re there. And the kitchen is laid out so that after I rinse the dishes. I have to walk all the way around an L-shaped counter to the dishwasher Don’t ask me why the appliances were so installed, but someday. 1 bet, somebody’s going to walk into my kitchen and say, “For goodness* sake, why are you doing it that way? All you need is. ..”
Sometimes, you need nothing more than nerve. For instance, I lived with dreary paneling in the middle rooms of the house for years, just because somebody-somebody I didn’t even like-once said it would be a sin to paint over such nice wood. Thing is, the dark wood was depressing to me. Finally, it dawned on me-OK, so it took 10 years-that hey, this is my house. I wanted the walls white. Now they are. and the whole area has opened up. bright and airy; all it took was a bunch of white paint that even my budget could manage and, of course, that nerve. Well, I did accentuate the positive with a skylight and had the adjoining green fiberglass patio cover hauled off, so now the glass doors let in even more light. That, too, should have been done years ago. What went wrong?
“You know, if you took down that patio cover, you’d get more light in here,” a friend said.
“Take it down? But it’s not broken or anything,” I said.
“So what? You don’t like it or need it. Take it down.”
The gold carpet in the living room wasn’t broken or anything, either, but who pulls up good carpet just because they don’t like it? Who besides rich people, I mean. Well, I did, finally, and you know, all this lightening, tearing away and lifting, all this unfettering of the house sort of unfettered me, too. That was about the time I started having dinner parties again and painted the drab, institutional gray exterior a cool. Federal blue that I consider both properly dignified and cheerful.
MY DAUGHTER AND I ARE IN HER BEDROOM WITH the door locked. 1 know by the hour and the slam of the door that he’s drunk. He yells for me to come out, bashes a hole in the door. I have a phone with me, but I don’t know who to call. My parents? Friends? I’m too embarrassed. The police? But I’m not afraid of physical harm; it’s the way he grabs my arm and screams and screams.
When my son was here one Christmas, he painted the living room a sort of Chinese red/coral. Two black Chinese cabinets and a long white sofa add substance, but the other furnishings are mostly inexpensive Scandinavian glass and steel pieces. Pictures of family and friends are all over the house, sharing surface space with some small African carvings, a few pre-Columbian pieces, some authentic, some not. and the walls hold a couple of good prints, one or two framed posters and some pieces by regional artists.
The room where I write, watch television and listen to music has massive futon sofas of turquoise and mauve on natural wood frames. This is also where my daughter entertains when she’s home. Back in middle school, she started having classmates over on Sunday afternoons, founding sort of a teeny-bopper salon and firmly establishing our house as a regular spot in certain less-than-lofty social circles. But the best party was for her graduation, when several sets of parents and I opened up the whole house, stuck a small band on the patio and a buffet table on the grass, then leaned back to watch. The house never became that kind of place for my son; when he was 14 he moved to Rockwall to live with his dad. I cried and cried, even knowing, as I did. he’d be better off in his father’s new and happy family. His leaving, though, gave me the impetus to get my life back in shape. And with that came freedom.
They say drinkers must hit bottom before changing direction, and perhaps that’s true of their spouses. At least it was of me. and my son’s leaving was when my head smacked against the pool’s concrete floor. This is how bad it is, I realized. He’s run off my son. What more could he possibly do? And I stopped being afraid. I headed back to the surface, a route almost easy emotionally, once I’d made the initial revolution, gaining speed and strength with each break from the past, with each decision, however small, that gave me control. I keep wishing my son had been here for the good years, but maybe they wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t left. Of course, he was, and is, a frequent visitor. but it’s not really his house, the way it will always be my daughter’s in her scrap-book of memories.
Finally, I’ve taken steps. not wanting to return to teaching, I’ve gone back to school to take journalism courses. My 20-year-old, baby-blue, electric Smith Corona, a high school graduation present, has just been repaired, and now, at midnight, I’m typing a term paper. He stumbles in from somewhere, demanding dinner. “Sorry,” I say. “Gotta get this paper done.” He lifts the typewriter over his head, then smashes it to the floor. This time, I remain calm. 1 stare at him, and miraculously, he backs away and goes to bed.
Well. Let’s look around. The hall carpet has a couple of unobtrusive rips. Some doors balk in winter, others in summer, and I need a pair of pliers to unlock one in the back. Redwood outdoor benches have rotted and been removed, not rebuilt, and the yard offers few hints of the previous owners’ intricate landscaping. No matter. Native pecan trees and ivy fill in the blanks of neglect. I’d love a really splendid front door, something massive and handcrafted, maybe with stained or beveled glass. The kitchen certainly could stand some updating, and I’d like to start all over on my bedroom, keeping only the platform bed. which my friend Linda and I put together ourselves. But even with its flaws. 1 like my house just fine,
Every once in a while, usually in the line of work, I visit a truly fine house, one even the most objective eye would designate as wonderful, and inevitably, I’m genuinely surprised that a house more wonderful than mine exists. I look around in amazement, and fleetingly, from that pampered vantage point, I see that mine is a bit tired, a bit worn. And 1 can’t wait to see it again.
The other day, suddenly realizing the house will be paid for in a year, I called practically everyone I knew to tell them of this miracle, but (hey weren’t impressed. One even suggested that paying it off might not be financially advantageous and s(arted talking taxes, deductions, whathaveyou. I cut him off. He had missed the point, which is that on my own, I’ve bought a house. An entire house. Imagine that.
Of course, the property taxes and insurance have now grown larger than the mortgage payments, so my bank account will hardly notice the difference. Every extra cent goes for whatever fell apart yesterday, anyhow. You know how it is. So. I’ve been thinking about selling the house, putting the money into mutual funds or CDs to buttress my eventual retirement. I’m even thinking about marrying again, and now, with my children grown, and my house my own, now that things are in order, I can leave. I really can let go.
“What a happy house.” a visiting interior designer said the other day, and I beamed. He was right. Absolutely right. It is a happy house. Or rather, we are. We’re a happy house.