A Sense of Home

This Revisited was written in the Fall of 1999 as part of the BA degree I would receive the following Spring. It has been edited for clarity. “A Sense of Home” was also an award-winner in the creative non-fiction category in the IUS Writing Contest in 2000 and was previously published in the IUS Review, 2000. Our boys are grown and moved out now, but Dean and I still plan to retire in this house. It was almost 20 years ago that the renovations were complete, and we still love it here.

Photo by Susan Fischbach Isaacs

After five years of living in rentals, it took awhile to sink in that this house was, in fact, our home. I spent the first year despising the wallpaper until I realized that I could change it if  I wanted to. Didn’t have to ask anyone. Paint it any color I wanted. Home, what a concept.

Dean and I always liked our plot of land much more than we liked the house. Driving by it the first time, I said, “I want that one.” The lot was just under three acres and roughly square, with most others up and down the road a similar size. The house sat toward the back of the property, giving it large front and side yards, with a small rock-bottomed creek running through the front. No fences blatantly pointed out property lines, and behind the house, an open grassy hillside spanned several acres from horizon to horizon. The lot immediately reminded us of South Dakota, where we had both grown up; while the majority of places in southern Indiana were so wooded that some didn’t even have grass in the back yard. Most of our friends were looking for wooded lots — it just seemed like that’s what a person should want — so our realtor was befuddled when we said we wanted a place with fewer trees.

We pulled onto the blacktop horseshoe drive (tree-lined, but not densely), over a small bridge and up to the red brick ranch style house. The appliances, flooring and wall treatments were outdated, and the kitchen was a horrendous avocado green complete with cigarette burns and torn linoleum; but seeing it, I immediately knew that this was the house for us. There were neighbors, but it was not a place where we would be required to keep the lawn just so and our garage doors closed.

Every house up and down the road looked different from the others. The retired couple up the road had a simply-built, 30-year-old, 1200 square foot home, while the widow across the road lived in a turn-of-the-century farmhouse, and all the houses on our side of the road were seventies-era. Next door on one side was a two-story brick and on the other side a split level. A half-mile down the road sat another farmhouse with a couple of barns and a livestock yard, complete with cattle truck traffic and the occasional smell of money we recognized from our rural upbringing.

Dean is a pilot, and we had lived in five different states in the first five years of our marriage before we finally landed over a thousand miles from our prairie roots. Confident that he had found the job he would eventually retire from, we were ready to buy our first house; and we were subconsciously looking for a home that reminded us of home. Growing up on the plains, we were used to gravel driveways that were miles long, next-door neighbors who lived several miles away, and ranches spread over thousands of acres where a person could get lost in virtually treeless pastures.

Although we knew we’d never find that kind of space, one pleasant upgrade we did find was the lushness of green in this part of the country. The pastures here were smaller than we were accustomed to, but the grass is thicker and greener than many of the nicest lawns in western South Dakota. This rolling river valley landscape is more rugged and rocky than the easy hills of the prairie, and the denseness of the trees is beautiful, if, at times, claustrophobic. For the first several years we lived here, I got restless every few months to head West and stretch my eyes.

Another reason that this house was perfect for us was that it’s several miles in either direction to any store with a name recognized across the country. Friends who had settled just across the Ohio River in Louisville couldn’t believe we’d want to drive that far to do serious shopping or go to doctor appointments, but the way we figured it, we could still be almost anywhere we needed to go in 15 minutes, and we were pretty sure that while the mileage may be less, it would take our friends just as long to get to the grocery store in city traffic. We hadn’t known what we were looking for until we saw it, but it felt instinctual that this place was our home.

So the appliances, flooring, and wall treatments were outdated, and the kitchen was a horrendous avocado green. Once we bought the house, I eventually realized that these surroundings were mine to change, and I began working to make the house feel more like home. I accomplished most of this by painting over the paneling in many of the rooms and adding color in place of the living room’s sterile white paint. Then I stripped the wallpaper with the long gold stalks of wispy grass and replaced it with a design my husband wasn’t sure he liked until he saw it on the wall.

Our 27-year-old ranch style house had been the victim of the remodeling rage of the late seventies: its garage was converted to a family room – and finished with paneling. We bought the house always intending to build a garage, but never satisfied with where to locate it. Months into our discussion, Dean had a flash of brilliance when he realized that our house already had a garage – the current family room – in a perfect location. What we needed to do was add space behind our rambling 80-foot-long house to help centralize the living area. That’s where the architect came in.

Earlene got us to talk about how we used our living space, making sure we were working on a home and not just a nice-looking floor plan. Her first drawing included a utility area to die for – space for a washer and drier, plenty of closets, and a bathroom for people outside needing to make a quick trip in. Then we realized that while it has become customary to have the utility room near the garage, we’d be more likely to have dirty kids coming in for potty breaks at the other end of the house, nearer the shed Dean had built, and landing smack in the middle of our new family room unless we changed the design. Moving the laundry to the other end of the house also put it much nearer the bedrooms, which made perfect sense as well.

The whole process turned out to be quite personal, discussing things like how much time family members spend outside, what they’re likely to come inside for (bathroom and snack), and even things like whether or not we close the bathroom door or need a shower large enough for two in our now-to-be expanded master bath.

The project ballooned. During discussions and revisions it became apparent that our house was lacking in many other ways that we might as well remedy since we were able. Rather than simply remodeling the kitchen, we decided to move it completely into the addition, and the resulting kitchen/laundry hollow would become the new family room. While we were at it, I’d always wanted a sunroom, the house is so dark, and a screen porch would be nice, and yes, let’s expand the master bedroom to a respectable size.

It felt good to see all this on paper. I could envision living in the new space, could see how when friends came over we could linger at the bar in the kitchen or wander to sit by the fire on the screen porch. I could see that the kids would have a quiet place to work on the computer, and I’d have a spot for my sewing machine, so maybe it would actually get used. And did I mention the vaulted ceiling? The open space leading to the bank of windows in the sunroom. The view of our South Dakota hillside to make dish-washing a little more pleasant. My kitchen, unconfined.

Since the first step was all done on paper, I figured we might as well dream big. We could always use the eraser later if we had to. The problem with dreaming big turned out to be that Earlene, our architect, was up to drawing any challenge, but of course, she couldn’t give us a quote on the actual construction costs. And once I saw my dream on paper, it was hard to let go of any of it. We did simplify the roof by taking out the dormers she had over the kitchen and family room to let in extra light and changing them to skylights. We also let the wrap-around porch go when we decided to let the pool go as well.

Still, the project ballooned. The first time our builder looked at the plans he wanted to show us a piece of land he had for sale and just build a new house for us there. We considered the idea for all of about ten minutes. The one bonus would have been not to have to live through the construction mess, but there were too many negatives.

After buying this house, our boys were then ages three and six months, we talked to neighbors and were happy to find teenagers next door willing to babysit. We began going to a church close-by and started making friends. Pretty soon the kids were in school and t-ball, and every time I went to the store I ran into someone’s mom or dad. Then these people started overlapping. I’d notice the lady I volunteered at the library with behind the counter at the Italian restaurant or someone from church running a booth at the science fair.

Besides making friends in our local community, we also started meeting other pilot families who, like us, were miles from any home they knew. Though not in any geographic sense — we were scattered over the Metropolitan area — we became community and support for our unique lifestyle. At first, I just thought we were making friends, and that was what I needed, but I’m realizing lately that what we have done is to have chosen our local family. These are people we don’t have to clean house for — or even get out of pajamas for. No apologies needed. They’ll give the kids a ride home from school or come over and check out a mysterious noise outside when it’s dark and Dean is gone. It wasn’t until we had developed this chosen family, this sense of belonging, that I began to feel at home and happy here.

With getting to know people has also come a sense of community. People know me enough to call when a school committee needs publicity fliers or if a church group needs a punchy announcement for the bulletin. They know I’m interested in kids and ask me for help with Vacation Bible School, and because my children are parts of these school and church communities I feel the responsibility (and genuine desire) to take an active role. Becoming part of these and other kinds of communities has helped firmly root me in my home.

It feels warm and comfortable to be part of a place. We know that if we aren’t home, the kids can get off the bus at Bud and Jo Ann’s. We know that we can call Amanda next door to babysit on a moment’s notice We know that it only takes 15 minutes to run to Thriftway and back for a gallon of milk, so the kids can stay home and watch TV. And most importantly, Dean recently built a huge steel shop (his connection to home) on the back corner of our property for all his lawn mowers, go-karts, and power tools. No, the place was already home, now we just needed to make the house match our feelings.

The project ballooned. The next thing the builder said was that if we wanted a vaulted ceiling, we should do a real vault not just try to vault the peak height we already had (we had decided with Earlene to draw the line at raising the roof). We would never be happy with that, he said, so he brought us a new roof plan. And we approved it.

I am living in this space already, though as I write there are remodelers in the rafters above me working to tie in the new roof. The project is less than halfway to completion, but it is already my home, not at all just a house. It is of our design, to serve the purposes of our family’s particular lifestyle. Greasy, muddy kids will be able to get a snack in the kitchen, use the bathroom, or strip down in front of the washing machine when they come in for the day. My husband will be able to shower and shave in our redesigned master bathroom before his middle-of-the-night departures without disturbing me, or he’ll be able to sleep undisturbed in daylight hours in our cozy, dark bedroom while the rest of the house goes about its business. And I will have a bright comfortable environment in which to write and take care of my family. Our house is starting to feel as good to live in as our lot felt the first time we saw it.

The project continues to balloon as we discuss the merits of ceramic tile versus hardwood, Formica versus granite, paint versus stain. Although we plan to stay within a budget that leaves us able to live comfortably with our new mortgage payment, we also look at this as a once in a lifetime project. The whole reason we’re doing so much at once is that we don’t want to have to rip things up every few years while we, little by little, transform our house. We have committed to retiring in this house, so we need to do this right. We certainly don’t want to do it again.

That’s another attitude that I sense is taking others by surprise — our certainty in what we’re doing, our desire to own only one house in our lives and to make sure that that house is our home. Now in our mid-30s, maybe we seem young to be making retirement decisions, but I guess we felt this way about the house even before we planned this transformation. We wouldn’t have thought of buying a house only to live in it for a few years until we found a place we really liked. Maybe this way of thinking goes back to my roots. Until I left home for college, I lived in the house my grandpa built and that my dad had lived in since his childhood. Though it’s polite to say that home is any place you are with the people you love, home for me is a very specific place — this house.

The excitement others seem to have about our project in many ways, reminds me of the excitement that surrounds a couple when they are expecting a baby. Friends are at first slightly envious of our nerve, but ultimately glad it’s not them. They continually ask for updates on progress and the expected completion date. People we hardly know stop us after church and mention that they watch the progress from the highway whenever they’re going by. And I’m almost as excited to tell them all about every little snag and creative solution, every step of the evolution of our new (though not originally planned) gable as I was, years before, telling about feeling the baby kick. It feels like we would be remiss if we don’t send out invitations to some kind of open house when the house is finished. Not a housewarming, not any expectation of gifts, but a chance for people to have an up-close view of what they’ve been watching from the highway.

With the project now just over the halfway point it has become much more intrusive in our lives, and we are now living in opposite ends of the house. The master bedroom is under construction, so we’ve moved into one son’s room while he and his brother share the remaining bedroom. And we do still have a full bath across the hall. Walking through a large, unheated cavern in the middle of the house we come to the rest of our living space at the other end. The old family room has taken on additional roles and now, and in addition to the TV and computer it contains a washer and dryer, refrigerator, microwave, toaster oven, and a very functional set of shelving (a temporary pantry) Dean devised of scrap wood from his shop.

I have to admit to getting some kind of masochistic pleasure from this whole process, besides loving the new stories we’re collecting. Somehow as outrageous as some of the stories seem, I guess we anticipated such scenarios and for the most part have had no problem going with the flow. It’s so much fun to watch people’s reactions that I can’t help playing up the details, making it sound as awful as they expect it to be.

We’ve also discovered unexpected benefits to living under these conditions. It’s a ready-made excuse for a whole host of sins — appearing in public sans makeup, welcoming guests into a cluttered home with stained carpets, missing appointments, and finally resigning from groups joined where there had previously seemed no way out. Friends have been generously accommodating of our limitations, inviting us for holiday dinners and weekend get-togethers with no expectation (thanks anyway) of our contributing much beyond a bag of chips or of our returning the favor anytime soon.

This temporary lifestyle is comfortably cozy, and we haven’t spent this much time together for quite a while. These days it’s typical to have one child working on homework at one TV tray, the other eating microwaved macaroni at another, me watching the news between the two, and Dean working at the computer. We’re all right there with each other but surprisingly remain out of one another’s hair. I dare say we’re getting along better with this extra time together, and I’m getting a little nervous about the expanse over which we will be able to scatter ourselves in the new space.

But I do have good feelings about our completed project. Houses have feelings about them that I’m sensitive to. Again I think it has to do with whether or not the house feels like a home. When we first bought our house, I have to say, I was a little nervous about the feeling it gave me. We bought it from a couple who was just divorced, and it didn’t take much sensitivity to pick up on the fact that it was not amicable. I was nervous that our new house had not been a happy home. We were a young family, and I didn’t like the way the feeling of the house hung over us.

As we painted and settled in, started adding our memories to its story, the house became ours. We have pictures of Dean flying our toddlers around the family room in the laundry basket, and I remember taking a break from a wallpaper job and dancing with the kids in the scraps. The kids got a free evergreen seedling they insisted on planting a few years ago, and we have a great little five-foot tree by the bridge now. Just recently we heard the boys first notes on the cello. This is definitely our home.

And now with the renovation it starts a whole new chapter, very much including the care that Steve, our builder, has put into it. I know that his nicely-squared footer and each-block-leveled foundation and the 1X4 webbing between the floor joists, things we will never see again and wouldn’t have thought twice about have they been done in more conventional ways, will show in the finished product. If a house has a personality ours will stand taller (okay, also because of the raised roof line) when the last coat of paint is dry, in large part because we didn’t just stick on a room but planned our lives in it.