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My husband says he’d rather watch paint dry. The pace is faster. And even I admit the cheerful narrator of “Househunters” looks and sounds like a Stepford Wife. “Will they choose house number one with the crummy kitchen, house number two with the awful yard, or house number three that mortgages their soul?” she asks, showing all her teeth without a crease in her smile. And yet, I can’t turn the TV off when “Househunters” comes on.
I’m mesmerized week after week as eager buyers set out to find a home that matches their budget and their dreams. For one thing, I feel smug because I live in beautiful Kentucky where an ugly one-bedroom bungalow doesn’t cost a million dollars. But mostly I watch because I’ve learned so much about buying houses over a lifetime. I could tell the househunters on TV a thing or two if they’d only listen.
Ten years ago this week, we moved to our current place, the one I’ll call the October House. It wasn’t love at first sight, but we were exhausted with the search, and we needed a good shower. More precisely, we needed enough showers to accommodate our three 20-something daughters when they all came home and wanted to wash their hair at the same time.
The price and the location were right, and its good bones trumped its shortcomings. We could make it work. We’d owned four houses prior to the October House, and we’d learned that there’s more to a good real estate match than passion.
We’d been wildly infatuated with our first house, a trendy A-frame. We bought it the early spring, not long before our first wedding anniversary when we were still green behind the ears. It had been abused by a leaky roof and the previous owners’ bad taste, but we were captivated by the deep, wooded lot where deer sometimes came to nibble. I had visions of building a tree house for our unborn children, a tree house so magnificent that even our grandchildren would cherish it in time. And we’d become famous thereabouts, too, for the live white pine, 12 feet tall, we’d mount each Christmas in the tall living room. But despite the charm of our soaring ceiling – not to mention Bambi scampering on the lawn – in a few years, we fell out of love with our two-bedroom, one bath cottage.
Our heads were turned by a pretty ranch with more bedrooms and a huge playroom in the basement. We signed the contract on a hot summer day, and I figured we’d live there forever. I even saw myself writing a Pulitzer Prize winning novel at the kitchen table looking out over the child-friendly back yard.
We did stay for a good long stretch though I never got around to much writing. Our three girls pretty much grew up in that house, and we worked it near to death. Then in its dowdy middle-age, we ran off and left it for an affair with a dream house.
A three-story brick Georgian with a park-like lawn, the dream house was all we’d ever wanted. I envisioned forever again – the weddings we’d have there and the crannies where the grandchildren would play. And yet, we learned that it can be difficult living up to a dream. For example, can you eat pizza straight out of the box in a dream family room? Should you dress up a little for morning coffee in the dream breakfast room?
When job changes took us to another city five years later and with our last child off to college, we decided to be practical – for the sake of pizza I think. Anywise, I remember we ate pizza hot from the box on our January moving-in day. The cute sort-of-Victorian we had bought was perfect for empty nesters. Forever had started seeming shorter to me by then, and I stopped thinking about it as much.
But the Empty-Nester was shy on showers, and to be honest, our nest didn’t feel as empty as we’d expected. First one son-in-law and then another showed up and then, of course, a grandchild. That’s when we went hunting for the October House.
Its two walls of bookcases in the front room charmed me despite the ugly paint on the walls. I thought I might be able to write in such a house, and I have (though no Pulitzers loom on the horizon.) Deer don’t graze in the citified backyard, but we do see plenty of squirrels and rabbits. The sub-division lawn isn’t zoned for a grand tree house, either. But the high back deck – built by some sensitive soul around ancient locust trees, saving them – sort of feels like one, and our five grandchildren love to play out there. The great room’s tall ceiling even accommodates a 10 foot tall Christmas tree. It’s artificial, but we can put it up the week after Thanksgiving, and it’s famous within our family if not the city.
And we’ve had a wedding or two while living here. We’ve grieved, too, for friends and loved ones lost, but we have good memories of Mother and the others sitting around our holiday table in the October House.
After a decade, I realize with surprise that we might live here forever. Then again, we may not. And so if I could make the anxious househunters inside my TV hear me, I’d tell them what Mother once said to me.
Except for a handful of years at the end of her life, Mother lived all her days on the farm where she was born, land her ancestors settled on in the 1830s. She valued place and permanence. When I once complained to her, however, that my family and I wouldn’t have the same sense of home she had known, her reprimand came quick.
“Home is not a house, but the people in the house,” she said.
Remember that forever, I would add.