It became real when I drove my scooter into the office of the title company. Through a glass partition, we saw the buyers and their agent, looking juiced. There were specialists to make it all legit and we were maybe seven minutes late, due to screwing around with the scooter.
Danielle and Caleb and I moved to Minnesota in April of 2005, when Caleb was fifteen months old. Atlanta’s maddening traffic, the job constraints of Athens, and lower southern culture had us longing for a new start. During an October trip through Colorado, to see a bit of the west and to scout the communities outside of Denver, we’d received a phone call. Danielle’s sister was getting divorced! After the birth of a second child, her marriage had suffered catastrophic engine failure and so we saw what we would do: move to the upper midwest to help our family and to shake our lives awake, back in Danielle’s home state. I was all in.
Our real estate agent in Minneapolis was a man of chuckling certainty. While he had a bent for healthy square footage and sound mechanicals in the places that he showed us, many of those homes were uninspiring. Danielle and I had met in the hand-rubbed lustre of Savannah. We liked things and places that were a little bit funky; that had a vibe or a patina to them. We wanted to feel the love in any potential home, but we also wanted to feel safe in the neighborhood and to avoid buying beyond our means. Thus, we burned through the gas as we drove through winter streets in our realtor’s SUV, looking at houses that didn’t satisfy. We had only a few days left to search before we were due to fly back to Georgia.
An assistant agent picked up on our style. He mixed some quirkier and overlooked properties into the tour routes, and one afternoon we stopped outside a house on Monroe Avenue in Edina, a Minneapolis suburb known for its self-regard and affluence. Mature oaks and maples spread overhead. The listing information told us that the place was built in 1910. That made it around fifty years older than the surrounding homes, and it looked like it in a good way. It had a steep gable roof and a bay window, and tight bands of wood lapped up its walls. The eaves cantilevered two feet beyond, their undersides following the roofline. Symmetrical dormers on either side of the ridge added heft, and the hip roof over the finished front porch beckoned us to enter.
We were goners once we saw the staircase within. Deeply colored douglas fir matched the substantial baseboards and the door and window casing, and the railing’s clean details evoked an era and aesthetic that resonated in both of us. Nine foot ceilings gave intoxicating headroom. The kitchen was huge–though it was wall-papered with roosters–and there was a tidy basement. The house…had brown shag carpeting throughout most of the main level. Um, say what now? Oh, peel back a corner and…there were maple floors underneath. Looked pretty good but they might need patching and definitely refinishing. From the low deck in back, we watched the property edge into a sweet park with a playground and ball field and a great hill for sledding, a communal back yard. Three bedrooms huddled upstairs, hoping to distract us from the bathroom situation. There, waxy hardboard surrounded a tub that was so close to the toilet facing it, you’d have to spread your legs to sit down on the pot! The house had no fireplace. And some of the plaster walls were cracked or skinned over with hideous paneling. Oh, and the single-car garage was technically standing, but beyond repair. It needed full replacement.
Many buyers would have blanched at the amount of renovation required to make this place sing, or hell, just to get it to the point where we could host folks without apology. But it had good bones, as they say. More than that, it had heart. You knew that generations of kids had grown up under its roof; that its families had listened to FDR and for news from the front; that they’d watched suburbs slice up the apple orchard around them. The love was still there and we would amplify it with our efforts. I was a pro carpenter, after all, and Danielle liked the smell of sawdust and the feel of a pry bar in her hand. We could do this! But in hindsight, we made the mistake of sampling the recent years of our lives and extrapolating those capacities.
You see, at that moment we were putting a bow on our Georgia home. We’d created equity by improving and updating; spending our own time and some spare cash. In the two year run-up to Caleb’s birth, we’d replaced windows and a front door, built a small deck, installed laminate flooring, constructed a fireplace mantle, put new tile in the master bath, stained all of the cedar siding, and turned a knee wall along the interior stairs into a classy railing. Most of all, we’d done yard work. Insane amounts of it.
Our property was heavily wooded, and the shade and privacy that the trees provided had helped to sell us on the place. We’d cleared a lot of underbrush, including some poison ivy that blistered Danielle so badly she developed a staph infection and had to treat it with steroids. The efforts showed, though, and it was satisfying to groom our surroundings. But some of our large and plentiful pines–the southern type that are pure trunk for fifty feet before they pop into a rounded crown–were looking sick. First just one or two, but then more of them showed thinning needles, an orange powder at their bases, and white gobs on their bark. To our horror, we learned that beetles were inside of the pines. They would girdle our trees and spread inexorable death through the whole lot. We were hosed!
A neighbor shared our problem, and he’d hit upon a radical solution: rather than wait for the trees to sicken one by one and have them extracted at great cost–or else face a potential liability when it was time to sell the house–he would invite loggers onto his property. They would take the trunks at no charge, leaving the crowns for him to process. They’d assured him that they could spare the tree species not doomed by the beetles. It was a bold, manly move and I wanted in.
On the big day, a crew arrived with heavy equipment. The Hydro-Axe was a four-wheeled beast that seized a pine like a person would grasp a flag staff, while fearsome shears cut the trunk above its base. The machine rumbled forward, holding the entire severed tree erect and quivering, before tipping it into a zone of snarling saws.
The mess they left suggested the wrath of an EF-3 tornado, but I was resolute. For well over a year, after wrapping up a long day of hanging doors or running crown molding, I oiled my chainsaw and attacked the chaotic piles of branches, slowly slicing and piling and hauling away. It was therapeutic, really. I didn’t mind. I liked the mingled smells of sweat and gasoline and pine sap. On the weekends, Danielle and I tackled the house renovations together. Even once Caleb was born, I was able to complete projects while he bounced in his jumper or napped or ate. It was all so doable! And it paid off, netting us good money for our efforts when we sold.
So, now you’re inside our mindset when we bought another fixer-upper. We weren’t thinking that two kids might make more than twice the impact of one; that we’d both need and want to spend most of our free time talking and playing and being with them rather than patching plaster; that our bodies would begin to balk at endless labor. We didn’t know that a looming recession would gut the industries in which we worked, leaving us fighting to simply keep the house, let alone restore its glory. We were unaware or heedless of so many things, but we knew that we were capable and we trusted in our love for each other.
Our neighbors to the north were Tim and Debbie. Tim had grown up in their house. Norm and Joan lived to our south. They’d been there for forty-seven years! Norm stopped raking or mowing his lawn whenever he saw me on the other side of the split rail fence, and he would reminisce or ask after Caleb or razz me about my own lawn, smiling and laughing beneath a handlebar mustache. Joan delivered a warm, homemade apple pie when we moved in. To their south lived Bruce and Marilys, and the four of them were longtime friends. Marilys had operated a beauty salon in her basement, and she now ran a home daycare that our boys would attend. While Marilys bustled with the kids, Bruce groused on the sidelines. Perpetually agitated by everything from the evening news on down to the price of beef, he seemed–as when he called tv shows “programs”–like a throwback; a character from the Nixon era, perhaps. He was a retired shoe salesman, and on guard against specious reasoning and hype at all times. He squinted at anything edgy or spicy. “I hate Mexican food!” But I loved the guy; he was good stuff. And I know that he loved our family, as well. His act protected a tender heart. When he came to our door in May of ’15, curious and likely concerned because he’d seen my truck sitting idle for weeks, he was full of his usual sarcastic needling. But when I mentioned the name, “Lou Gehrig”, he stopped short and I saw his eyes brim as he turned away, stammering.
The first three years were mostly great. Caleb was healthy and happy, and I remember swinging him in dizzy circles and throwing him into the air as he squealed and the grass stretched all around us. His bedroom was across the hall from ours, and at night we tucked him in beneath a window where–according to neighbor Norm–an autistic boy had seen lightning strike his tree. Danielle and I got close to our niece and nephew as their mother rebuilt her social life. We made steady improvements to the house, removing an awkward closet and refinishing the surface of the hardwood floor. Warm as melted butter, it enriched the caramelized millwork along with walls the color of yolks. We stripped the roosters out of the kitchen, and after peeling the fibrous tiles and stark brown paneling from the dining room ceiling and walls, we replaced their busted plaster with new drywall. This was all disruptive, though, and it was a little tougher than it used to be to laugh at the always unfinished feel of our surroundings. We had decided to give Caleb a sibling, as work was plentiful and parenting suited us, and our love wanted a bigger mark on the world.
But things turned dark, both out there and at home. Our neighbor, Tim, got throat cancer and it took him out fast. They moved not long after his diagnosis. We went to his benefit dinner and said goodbye, though I couldn’t admit that’s what it was at the time. Adam and Bella moved into the house, a young couple with a baby. On NPR, I began to hear alarm over rotten bank holdings and the financial instruments that they underpinned. Within the panic rooms on Wall Street, operators tried to contain what they’d tinkered into existence: an impersonal and bottomless debt. Confidence crumpled in on itself. It sucked in a wind that would destabilize life around the globe, and a couple of weeks after the ’08 election and only days before Danielle’s due date, I learned that my job was something my employer needed to shed.
I was a mote within the storm. Relatively new to the area and without many contacts, I knocked about as wallets closed, people puckered, and businesses hunkered down. We brought Hollis into our home and I tried to focus on holding him and looking into the depths of his eyes while winter descended, but in the small hours, rocking him against my chest as frost veined the window panes, I felt afraid. I was lost. “Shut up!” I told my son more than once when his nocturnal crying unnerved me. Full of shame, I tried to draw strength from the house itself, knowing that it had stood solid while the Great Depression howled through the land.
Danielle was self-employed as a residential realtor, with a gift for soothing sellers under duress and holding the hands of buyers. Increasingly, it seemed like I would also need to become my own boss. The news told us that a third of the workers in construction had lost their jobs, and few contractors or builders looked to hire a methodical carpenter who could relate to clients without someone watching over his shoulder. They wanted grunts who worked briskly on foreclosures, investment properties, and flimsy commercial buildings. It all felt really grim. I set up an LLC and that first year, I earned a third of what I was accustomed to as I did small fixes for the homeowners whom Danielle and her colleagues represented, and sometimes for the agents themselves. We certainly had no funds for improving our own house. But I was anxious to act and to use my skills there in some way. I started a few projects with demolition and maybe some framing, but they were sketches at best and lingering, self-inflicted injuries at worst. One day, tired of dealing with a sagging garage where we couldn’t park or keep things dry inside, I decided to tear it down. Our neighbor, Adam, helped me and it was cathartic.
Caleb started kindergarten while Hollis became his own little person, and I loved his style! Instead of crawling on hands and knees, he scooted across the hardwood on his butt, one hand on the floor and the other reaching for fun and trouble. The boys and I splashed in Bruce and Marilys’s pool at summer’s end. Across the fence, Norm and Joan were feeling pressure to move; to get closer to grandkids and away from the maintenance that engrossed Norm, yet had the family concerned for his safety. Danielle listed their house for sale, and its immaculate condition helped it to move easily. At the closing, however, Norm struggled to hand over the keys. Fifty years in the home where they’d made their lives! Our old neighbors went to a new development where crews took care of things for them. Sadly, Norm’s health declined after the move, and I wonder if he’d been grounded through those cyclical chores. Ryan and Jill, a childless couple around our age, now tended to things next door.
We continued to want for money. The accounting agonies of self-employment bedeviled me, and I had no head for estimating costs and profits. The high premiums for cobra health insurance were deflating us as well, and eventually, even that option ran out. We identified some short-term solutions, but one day, during a small gap between policies, Hollis had the first of many seizures. Caleb and I were in Albuquerque, where my parents were paying me to help them renovate their own home. Over the phone, Danielle described ambulance rides and hospital testing. Late the next day, Caleb and I arrived at Hollis’s bedside, where a tangle of wires snaked from his scalp. I watched him seize there in front of us, Danielle stroking him while nurses counted the seconds and then minutes as they ticked by.
It was a life-changing diagnosis: epilepsy. And the news came with a bill for tens of thousands of dollars. It seemed like we should be the ones getting paid! Danielle talked the hospital into forgiving some of our debt, and our families helped when we got really pinched, but it would take us years to get free. Fortunately, business did pick up and I began to work as a subcontractor, giving us some stability. We savored life despite the challenges. I cooked elaborate and exotic meals in our kitchen and we fed visitors, including Danielle’s sister and the man who became a devoted stepfather to her children. The boys and I rode bicycles around the neighborhood and took long walks, climbing the hill behind the cemetery and counting all of the water towers that we could see. In the park beside our house, we rode saucer sleds under the streetlights. Halloween, Christmas, and birthdays were special for the boys as Danielle went all-out decorating and throwing parties for their friends. We weren’t able to do much else for our home, but its love for us seemed unconditional. I found a postcard from 1916 behind a molding, with the address simply listed as the original homeowner’s name and a numbered route. Once, during a nighttime power outage that blackened the entire neighborhood, the bulb in Caleb’s bedroom continued to glow somehow, and I thought of the little boy who’d seen lightning strike.
Beloved pets came and went. Our dog, Sneetches, died at the age of seventeen. She’d helped Danielle to judge my character when we first met, and she stuck around to watch us welcome two sons whom she adored. There were frogs and guinea pigs and endless fish. A stout black cat, Chumbe, came to nestle against us and patrol our yard until he wasn’t at the back door one morning. We adopted two dogs, Lottie and Luna, and they filled the house with frisky energy.
The recession ended as wreckage choked the hole that those moneymen made too cleverly. But to our south, Ryan and Jill prepared to move to a smaller place in the city. They’d once entertained the idea of starting a family next door to ours, but the downturn had decided things for them. Now they would go. To our north, Adam and Bella packed up to head in the opposite direction for the exurbs, where the culture better suited them. Greg and Sarah moved in with two busy boys. We stayed put. My own work returned to full strength as the community regained its confidence and guys whom I’d worked with in the past made contact. Although I’d liked the notion of being my own boss, in truth I knew I lacked the drive for sales and the follow-through to get paid on a timely basis. I simply wanted to put my hands on projects. Fortunately, a former co-worker did have some entrepreneurial mojo and he needed a guy like me. I was soon an employee again! A lot of the uncertainty lifted and we could unclench. Our family was able to take some road trip vacations, making durable memories. It was good to get back to our home afterward, but its unfinished parts were always waiting for us. By that time, we were able to do a little here and there, but that wasn’t cutting it. We were actually moving backwards! Our downstairs bathroom developed a spongy subfloor because of half-assed work in the past, and I tore it up and left it like that for at least a year. The missing garage was an ulcer in our marriage. I felt overwhelmed by all that needed to be done, versus what I had the capacity or frankly even the will to do with my own hands and time. Nearly ten years had passed since we’d envisioned the results of our cheerful handiwork. Now we were different people with different priorities and limitations. I was also feeling stiff and crampy all the time, come to think of it.
My ALS diagnosis mocked whatever resilience we’d shown before. Now, an implacable disease would call the tune and we’d better move, like to a whole different house! My cherished stairs were far steeper than modern codes allowed, and adding on to and modifying the place would cost nearly as much as what we still owed for it. It hurt to get chased out like that. But we had to set pride aside and ask ourselves: how in the hell would we get our house ready for the market? So much maintenance was overdue and so many projects long in progress, but we would be underwater if we tried to sell the home as it was. We needed to extract equity to pay for the life that my disease would demand. That financial imperative also meant that hiring a full-blown general contractor–while saving us time and headaches–could be a mistake. I’d stopped working, so that I could get my head together and do what needed doing while I still could. I was a carpenter, damn it! And I was experienced and creative and had friends in the business, and beyond that, this was my house and fuck ALS! Realizing at least some degree of our vision for the home and passing it on would be the way.
With the help of Danielle’s parents, we were able to move out in November. We found a nice rambler with a finished, walk-out basement a few miles from our house on Monroe. The boys could go to their same school. Now, we needed to finish the empty place for the spring market. A crew of friends had helped us move, and a huge group rallied around us on a bright fall day to paint the wood siding, clean cabinets, and trim the hedges at our old home. I limped around gabbing with everyone. It was touching to see how many people cared for us, but it was also difficult to watch folks who weren’t particularly handy do the things that were now physically beyond me. On a different Saturday, some of my old colleagues pitched in for another productive push, and it was great to banter and whoop with them like the old days. My parents came to stay with us frequently and would help for a week or more at a time. I enjoyed working alongside them, going over news and memories, laughing, and grappling with the weird way that I had leapfrogged past them.
I paid two carpenters to work on the house. Tom was one of my best friends in town, a good-hearted man who loved to learn and to collect the finest tools that money could buy. We discussed everything from political primaries to apex predators (maybe there’s a connection), but there were swells of sadness at times. His work was impeccable, whether he was taking down an old chimney or cutting maple quarter-round. The house and I both loved him, but he was often entangled in other projects.
Danielle met Chuck, an interesting man who drove with Uber, played music, and took occasional handyman jobs. So many musicians are carpenters! On the phone he assured me that this wasn’t his first rodeo, and we put him on the upstairs bath. His confidence was a bit unwarranted, but I had to look past the sloppy flaws and let go. He installed subway tile all around the shower area and up to the ceiling, and refinished the old tub to virgin white. The work would be good enough, but that had never been my target in building.
There were some individuals whose solidarity and kindness went way beyond anything we could’ve asked for. Though shaken from the early skirmishes of a divorce, one friend helped steadily for months. I taught her some insider techniques like California drywall patches. A couple with twin boys the same age as Caleb provided whole-family reinforcement on the weekends, and Greg from next door was always joining in if he was around and his kids weren’t too squirrelly.
We discovered more maple floors beneath the linoleum in the kithen. Why would anyone have thought to cover them? We paid to have the entire main floor refinished again, and the elegant surface was stunning. The downstairs bath got a period-faithful makeover, and we finally built a proper mudroom out of the two closet-sized spaces near the back door. We hired one of my former associates to replace the sloughing shingles on the roof, and nearly every wall got some fresh paint. In a controversial move, we elected to pass the task of building a garage to the home’s next owners. We could only handle so much! Danielle was still plenty steamed that I’d torn the old one down.
Beyond overseeing things, my own skills went toward mending buckled plaster and finishing the front porch, where I’d stripped and reinsulated the walls five years ago. Now it was time to install millwork and dress up the splintered beam against the ceiling. I knew that it would be the last time I’d use tools that felt so familiar in my hands. It probably wasn’t the safest thing in the world for me to be tottering next to power saws, but I was determined! The amount of work to be done was too much to contemplate in its entirety. I just tried to show up and work a little every day. It gave me purpose. Despite the one-time efforts of many and the steady ministrations of a few, I often felt abandoned as spring ran into summer. Didn’t people know how we were struggling? When I was alone in the house, crawling across the floor or straining to lift a nail gun or a drywall knife, I allowed myself to bellow and even scream with effort and frustration.
Finally, finally we crossed the last little things off of our lists. The place was ready to sell. I stood in the dining room, turning and taking it all in one final time. The vintage surfaces and fixtures; the lofty ceilings; the light through the wavy old glass with its vertical muntins; the generous millwork. The house felt alive and I was deeply satisfied. Again, I thought of others who’d sheltered there in the past. I thought of our family and who we’d been in that home. But we weren’t there anymore.
It took three or four weeks to get an offer and we accepted the first one. Amazingly, we sold the house for only fifteen thousand more than we’d paid for it, eleven years ago! But money was not what mattered most here. When I drove my scooter up to the desk where we would legally transfer ownership of the house, some of the smiles sagged. It was difficult for my hand to form a signature and to raise even a plastic flute to toast the transaction. The buyers, an attractive couple, were close to our age. There were three young kids in the picture, and hints of a fading divorce. So many comings and goings; so much turbulence! We walked with them to our cars afterward and the wind was stiff and cool. I thought of the winter nights when I’d lain awake in our former home, wondering what was to come.