How important is the place where one lives? Is the building itself important? Or is it the way one feels when one retreats to one’s abode? Is home the heart? The mind? A fortress? A retreat? What makes a house a home and not a dwelling place? We waited for this house because we wanted this house. Everything about the house appealed to us—the long driveway, the sunroom, the office off the master bedroom. The house whispered New England to us. But we were Californians, was this really the nest for us? As we waited in the limbo that is escrow, I had doubts.
Once we entered escrow, the owner living in the house became uncooperative. He did not respond to inquiries regarding the electric dog fence. He would not add chemicals to the well when the water test indicated bacteria. He would not let us back in to measure a room. All we had was a contract and photos. I studied the photos to make decisions about where to put furniture. My youngest daughter and I shopped for blankets and sheets for the nursery, ordered what she liked and then looked at paint and borders. We had very little time between the closing date and her due date. Waiting in a small hotel suite was difficult. We tripped on each other and the cats. Once we closed, we would need to move in immediately. Our household was in storage. Our dogs were in a kennel. We felt an urgency to move right in and settle down. Once there would I like the house as much?
Home for my husband and me had been impermanent the first ten years of our marriage. My husband and I lived in two apartments in Santa Barbara and a guest house in Montecito the first year we were married. We lived in two different apartments in the three years we lived in Centerville, Ohio—mostly because the apartment managers gave us an incentive to move into a bigger apartment. We spent nine months in a cramped one bedroom apartment in San Francisco. Eldest daughter’s crib was in the dining nook. My mother-in-law then generously let us move into a small cottage in Palo Alto that she owned even though it was a commute for my husband who was at UCSF. As our family expanded, she leased us a three bedroom house. Eventually we were ready to buy.
Our first house was in the East Bay: a three bedroom ranch with an expanded family room but a sixties kitchen on a good size lot. The house had great potential but I had no idea how to unlock it. I would wander around the house trying to envision the remodel and then climb up the slight hill in the back so I could sit on the deck and stare at Mt. Diablo. We owned it for a year and managed not to lose money. Our second house was our backup house. The owners of the one we really wanted didn’t want to negotiate the price. We moved down the list to our second choice. It was only five years old. I didn’t have to think of remodel (until the 1994 earthquake). Our New England house had been built in the 1970s but remodeled—several times. It seemed perfect. Is any house really perfect?
We hoped that the house would work for us, our daughter, and my parents. A house with four generations. Would it be big enough? Would it be comfortable?
The owner didn’t move out until the day before closing. During our walk through an hour before closing, we were too excited to notice much. Well, some things were a surprise. Sometime in the past, someone had built on engine on the dining room floor judging from the oil stain. The basement carpet was rank. The refrigerator was empty but filthy. Nothing to stop us from closing. It was after closing that we noticed the bathroom mirrors were missing. Another addition to the list to do.
The next day the movers brought our things. We weren’t sure how our California possessions would look in the house. The moving crew had problems reading the outside of the boxes. Bedroom boxes went into the basement; Family room boxes went into bedrooms. Everything else they tried to leave in the garage. A piece that I thought should go into the dining room to use as storage wouldn’t fit and ended up in the living room. An armoire that used to be in my bedroom went into the dining room instead. The furniture went into place but boxes were everywhere. I thought I would never get them all unpacked (and I haven’t yet. I just put them in the garage.)
Unpacking isn’t easy. If you take something from the box, you have to know where to put it. Dishes were difficult; books were easy. Only boxes of books that belonged in the family room were in the office and office books were in the garage. For a week I was missing books by authors whose last names began Les through N. Poetry books were in a bedroom. A piece of art—a tree etched on sheet metal—had to be in a special crate. The company that built the crate came to unpack it but couldn’t hang it—unless I paid more. I recrated the piece until my husband could help me hang it in the living room.
I would start unpacking in the morning, take a break for lunch and keep going. I would think I was almost done with a room only to realize I was missing something, something that was in the garage or basement. Up stairs. Down stairs. My husband would come home, kiss me and announce: “I love this house. It’s home.” I didn’t feel like it was home. I didn’t know where my stuff was. I didn’t have my books. I couldn’t find a casserole, a wine glass, a photo album. I wanted this to be home, but I needed my nest to be just right.
Finally things had places. Artwork was hung. Boxes were gone from the house (to the garage). We sat in the living room and admired our new home. The furniture and art we had accumulated over 34 years of marriage were made for this house. We were home.