Back on October 1st, after a family vacation in California, a third birthday purposefully infested with ladybugs of the stuffed, cupcake and pinata varieties, and well-executed flower girl duties in Minneapolis, we moved into our first home.
We’d looked at about 40 houses. With. Stella. You get how astounding that is, right? As we drank champagne after getting news that our offer had been accepted, I realized I remembered frighteningly little about the abode we were about to drop almost all of our non-retirement life savings into. Because with Stella in tow, only half of my attention ever went to the house we visited. Maybe 60% on a good day when our real estate agent had luck distracting Stella with dandelions (God bless that woman). I’d say the record low was 15%, when Stella wouldn’t let me put her down and also insisted on snacking continuously. Try assessing property while holding a 35-pound human and balancing a small container of rice crackers—which, if they are food, are incredibly vulnerable and insecure, because they weigh nothing, are easily flung, and if you look at them the wrong way, they’re crushed. So, add the tasks of rice cracker protection and emotion coaching of a giant clingy toddler to the pressure of finding the right home and you’ve got a recipe for half-assing a momentous process.
I don’t think I ever opened a kitchen cabinet, in any of the homes we looked at. We managed to find “the one,” apparently mostly by gut feel. Way too late, I peppered Cody with hysterics along the lines of, “Was there some sort of weird pantry in the kitchen? Um. Doesn’t that place have a lot of road noise?” Sometimes my ignorance resulted in delight: “Wait. There are two bathrooms? And another unfinished one in the basement? Sweet!” And because Cody and I moved several times during our apartment-dwelling years and consistently failed to check on this crucial detail, with devastating effect on quality of life, I looked at Cody and he looked at me and we both had terrified expressions and no words were needed. We realized simultaneously that we didn’t know if the place had a dishwasher. It did. But a week into living there, we realized it was broken and we’d been eating off dishes that had been weakly rinsed in tepid water. Then we bought our real shared dream, a new dishwasher with features we never dared imagine after two years with half an ancient dishwasher on wheels that we hooked up to our sink all classy like. The new stainless beauty? It’s been sitting in the corner of the kitchen with the plastic still on the sleek handle, taunting us, because we simply could not hook it up to pipes that turned out to be corroded beyond belief. Water flow was restricted to the diameter of a human hair, then Cody touched it and its structure went from pipe to pile. Fixer-upper ownership is a rabbit hole of setbacks, with bursts of dizzying progress that illuminate how lame the rest of the house is.
This wonderful place with all its infuriating, fabulous potential was built in 1959, and has some classic mid-century style. And some of the ugliest 70′s light fixtures ever produced, and three layers of gross vinyl underfoot in the kitchen—held together by a seam of frayed duct tape. Those, for example, are the little touches most people pick up on during the search process. Thankfully there’s a lot to love. I adore the globe lights, the high sloped ceilings, the generous eaves that keep the place feeling cozy and protected in the rain. I love the beautiful wood floors with their new matte finish, and all the open space. We settled for a neighborhood we hadn’t initially sought out, and wound up with some very friendly neighbors who welcomed us with coffee, soup, and a My Little Pony. Score, score, and score.
Despite wanting so badly to move out of a rental that came to enrage me, I was shockingly sad when we did. Though technically not Stella’s birthplace, it’s where I became a mother. Its location, if not its living space, was to die for. My hope is that someday we’ll be able to afford a home we love in that neighborhood, but not yet. Not by a long, pathetically out-of-reach shot. That little blue craftsman is where for 48 straight hours my pregnant self worried psychotically about having eaten carpaccio, where I went into labor with Stella, where we brought her home for the first time, where she encountered and overcame painful feeding troubles (by now the sweet triumph overshadows the heartache), where she learned to walk and talk. From there we’d stroll to the park, cafe or grocery store down the street, once or more a day.
Stella loved her home, and we loved its location, but it wasn’t sustainable or financially prudent. It was small (too cramped to welcome family, all of whom live very far away) and dumpy and needed a lot of work and as renters we weren’t about to do it ourselves. I’d gotten to the point where I blamed that place for all my ills. It was unfair. Though I’m pretty sure the house could be indicted for crimes against Feng Shui, as in: Having to use a hamper for a closet-blocking side table and spilling my chamomile through said hamper for the tenth time (I just know someone smoked there back in the day because I could smell it when the floor got wet), a closet that made our clothes smell like a rotting consignment store, ten inches of usable (admittedly cluttered) kitchen counter space, the need to again clean any pot or pan to remove possibly lead-containing wood-paint dust before use (though it did add a nice smokey flavor to stews), wanting to have people over but always refraining due to over-the-top insecurity about the burnt vinyl floor that looked disgustingly dirty even when clean, worn raw floorboards that creaked maniacally, and menacing plaster that appeared to bubble and drip from the walls like sad lava. We’d worked hard and saved money and we were tired. Mainly from the parenting demands of toddlerhood, but also from challenges including eye patches. Sheer exhaustion that threatened to eat us whole. Especially given a completely lack of grandparents, aunts and uncles around to help with Stella, we knew we needed more of a refuge. A place we could make work for us, and provide comfort for us. We’re still tired, because of all the DIY needed around here, but Cody and I are more hopeful and less stuck now. And there’s something energizing about that. Stella is witnessing our efforts to build, improve, and create something we’re proud of. That’s got to be better than hearing her mom yell at utensil drawers with road-rage intensity.
There’s a bit of an underdog element to the story of our first home. We beat out four or five other offers, two of them all cash, thanks mostly to a pre-inspection and partly (maybe?) to a letter I wrote. The elderly owner had died, and his children wanted to sell the house as quickly as possible, preferably to a family. We served up a very solid down payment, excellent credit scores, and a pre-inspection that told them that we weren’t going to back out. Of course, I like to think that my writing helped us get this house, not just through earnings that helped make the down payment possible but by sheer force of charm and skill. I love that there is now a bit of legend associated with the purchase, a tale I can flagrantly exaggerate as the years pass.
We’ll overlook the fact that 10% of our renovation budget was spent removing dead trees–one of which fell on our neighbor’s house two hours after we officially took ownership. That’s right, 120 minutes in. A month before we even lived there. Turns out several trees, about 60 feet tall, were suffocated by swarms of ivy. But. While we were told that a new roof was in order, and so we’d mentally allocated thousands to that cause, a well-regarded roofer told us we had five to ten years on our current roof. It seemed to balance out. The kitchen needs to be replaced, though the footprint can remain just about the same so maybe that will downgrade it from outrageously expensive to mindblowingly pricey. The decrepit main bathroom features metallic wallpaper with “exotic” topless women in a tropical setting. While far less tantalizing, the master bath also needs to be completely updated as well. The toilet in there is frumpy. Cheesy, too. I didn’t think this was possible, but it’s the toilet version of a boxy Christmas cardigan with snowmen around the mid-section. It’s way wider and dumber than any toilet I’ve ever seen and whoever designed it should be ashamed.
Whenever the toilet gets to me, or I feel like this was too much to take on, I think about those two cash offers and how they saw the value but in the end were told to suck it. And I smile. This place was a good find. We’ve painted. We’ve replaced some doors. The electrical has been completely updated. Cody is re-plumbing the place, and one day, we’ll throw a party to welcome our new dishwasher. After a tutorial from my dad during my parents’ visit, Cody replaced the windows. My dad got rid of an exterior door, transforming a previously unused area of the kitchen into a space for what I supposed you’d call a breakfast nook—you know, with a booth. We got rid of fabulously horrendous wallpaper, so gloriously bad that I felt a tinge of remorse. That stuff had balls. The original oak floors look new. There are sky lights in the kitchen that make gray Seattle days a bit brighter. Several times, Stella has caught sight of the moon through them with the excitement of someone who discovered it for the very first time, and in those moments I feel 100% sure we made the right decision.
While the location isn’t my first or even second choice, it’s convenient and in-city, and the upside is immense. Stella took some convincing, however. Of course. This is a big adjustment and when we feel dead tired for no reason we blame it on the stress of moving. Stella was going to have an adjustment period, we knew. During the transition, she was “off.” She wasn’t herself. Very emotionally volatile, and I even saw her eyes cross once–with her glasses on. Stella was stressed out. And no wonder, as she began her first foray into preschool just before the move. During a visit from grandparents, Stella hit rock bottom. A traffic-laden ride home was the last straw on the camel of a rocky day, and she threw the biggest tantrum I can recall. Ever. The screaming was so intense, so visceral, that I started to think something was seriously wrong. Like medically and/or mentally. I frantically scanned my brain to figure it out. And then Stella yelled, in pained fashion, at the top of her overworked lungs: “I WANT TO GO TO THE OLD HOUSE!” Oh.
That was weeks ago. Since then, she’s mentioned the old house several times. Stella’s vision has been assessed and is fine. Her toe-walking is still increased, after having been reduced with help from vision therapy, but she’s definitely herself again. Stella is currently hooked on red beans and satsumas. She is incredibly sweet. She frequently tells us she loves us, she enjoys school, friends, and gymnastics, and delights in everything about Christmas, even the otherwise forgotten paper ornament at the back of the tree. By now we’ve decorated (partially), developed new rhythms and pathways and chasing rituals, walked to the nearby school playground in zig zags, taken the bus to the store, and put up a Christmas tree–and then another tiny tree just for Stella. We got a pair of alien-looking, yet clearly very comforting (to Stella) night lights for her new room that she loves. We made, frosted, and ate cookies, patted pizza dough, cleaned up the yard leaf by leaf, snuggled up and read dozens upon dozens of new and old books. We’ve done the million little things that make a place feel cozy, happy, and familiar—even houses with oozing walls, splinter floors, and style-challenged toilets.
Just yesterday on her way out of the kitchen, Stella suddenly stopped, turned to me, and said, “The new house is my home.” And that’s how it became official.