You may tell yourself / this is not my beautiful house
Buying a house because I fell in love with it may not be the best reason to be sitting in my living room surrounded by boxes this morning. But there’s no rational reason to be trading in our perfectly serviceable little cottage we’ve called home for 10 years for a house so vast we’ll lose each other and the dogs in it, so old that the bricklayers laying the 75,000 bricks that make up its bulk had scarcely lost sight of the Civil War behind them as they worked, and so bewitching that it was a done deal the moment we set foot into the foyer.
Buyers are liars, I’ve heard tell, and our realtor can attest to that, as we started out eyeing little shotgun houses we could fix and sell. Emboldened by our Detroit adventures and surprised by the value of houses selling in our Germantown neighborhood (thank you guy across the street who paid an eye popping price for that x-small house) we thought we’d take on a project in our own town where going to work on the house didn’t mean a 400 mile drive, and we have resources and know people. But somewhere along the way Brian found a rambling brick behemoth in Old Louisville possessing what had to be the country’s most wildly ugly kitchen — along with 11 foot ceilings, eight fireplaces, pocket doors, the original staircase, and the potential to rent the garage apartment and maybe even a third floor suite (both of which, I might add, are barely any smaller than our current home), therefore kicking in on what would be a pretty significant bump in mortgage. But all that’s just math (albeit math that keeps me up at night plotting my freelance work and wondering how our utility bill will compare to that of a frugal elderly lady who surely wore sweaters and never turned up the heat).
We stepped in that first afternoon and craned our necks to look up and around and a grin split my face as I knew we were home. Golden light poured in the great front windows casting rainbows from the stained glass across the hardwood floors. Never mind that said windows were painted shut. I wanted never to leave. This could be ours. How could that be? I never considered a life in such a house. Until I dreamed of the abandoned mansions in our Detroit neighborhood that is, it was a life maybe on a parallel track to ours somewhere in the world of what might have been. But standing in that foyer that late fall afternoon those tracks swerved over and locked into place over our own. I could see us here. Not just in an ‘oh, I can imagine us living here’ way. I could see us here like this house had been there all along waiting for the day when this chapter would start, when a couple nomads would find their way home.
I can understand the appeal of new houses with their warranties and their certainties and their roofs that don’t need an immediate replacement, and I’ve seen the joy homeowners feel when they create and build the house of their dreams. I grew up in a family of builders. But new houses, they hold no mysteries. I’ve wound through their newly hewn bones and seen them from the inside out. The smell of fresh lumber is a ticket to my childhood spent exploring jobsites. It’s a magic of its own kind to see a house stand where once there was nothing, thanks to the work of my dad’s own hands, but as for where I want to live, that’s not my magic. My magic is in the not knowing.
Whose hands built this house? Did their daughter come play as this corner plot of land south of the city on the Ohio River gave way to a stately brick home? What jokes did the craftsmen tell as they worked on the details that would still shine a century and a quarter later? Who was there on that very different moving day when horse and carriage brought a family’s worldly goods to fill the house, making it a home? What did they cook and read and drink and talk about? Why did they leave, and what secrets did they leave in the fabric of the house? There is nothing in this world if we don’t have wonder, and the same urge that compels me to criss-cross the globe pulls me into an old house whose bones echo with an unknown history.
We’ve never bought a house for love. For that matter we’ve only bought two. Our first, where we live now, we chose because it’s what we could afford and it was cute. It’s the place we’ve come home to from our jaunts around the world, the place that’s seen us grow from an unsure young couple to (somewhat) wiser and experienced grown-ups who have learned the heartbreaking speed at which time vanishes and that when you know what you want, you have to make it happen. But for me, it’s just been four walls. I’ve never had a connection with the structure. The Detroit house we bought because it was the first and only one we saw in a yearlong search that met our needs. We’ve made the building ours in a way our home has never been, through nearly two years of grinding labor and worry and adventure and dreams and failings and successes. But we bought the building for its intact plumbing and its replacement windows — not terribly romantic.
There are people who invest in real estate. They see profit potential and analyze risk, and, I don’t know, do math and use budgeting software. I suppose we’re investing, in that we plan to make an income. But that couldn’t be further from the reason we’re doing this. We’re doing it because when a house tells you you’re home, you listen.