I was caught off guard the other day when my wife reminded me that this December marks our 11th year in our “new” home. It doesn’t seem possible because to me it is still just that- a new home. I know better than that, however. I can look around and see the scuffed woodwork, the dented walls, the faded and oxidized house lights and the cracked concrete on the drive, but her spirit still feels young. We lived in our prior house for nearly 13 years, and that house always had the feel of an older home. It was probably about 15-20 years old when we purchased it, and the bold flooring, the harvest gold appliances and the dark paneling definitely marked it as from a prior era. I’m sure there are many who would walk through our current house and comment on the polished brass fixtures and textured ceilings and find it out-dated, as well, but for us, this will always be our dream home.
Sara and I were married in 1987. It was our first year out of college, and I had just taken a job as a small animal veterinarian in Brownsburg, a bedroom community west of Indianapolis and halfway between my Indianapolis family and Sara’s home in Danville. I spent the first month or two making the 45 minute drive from my parents’ home to work each day, but as the wedding neared, Sara and I decided it was time we should start looking for a home. We found a nice little double that had just been built only a few minutes from the clinic, and so I moved in for a couple months of bachelor life until Sara joined me after our wedding in August. The duplex was small but suited our needs quite well. There was a small patio where we could hang a feeder and watch birds, or grill out on a summer afternoon. There was a lawn service which, although they didn’t live up to my demanding standards, was a nice perk given I did not yet own a lawn mower. A washer and dryer were tucked into a small closet in the kitchen, but it spared us trips to a laundromat. Furniture was sparse. Being dirt poor, we did not purchase any of our own; instead we relied upon gifts and hand-me-downs. My sister was clearing out everything she owned in preparation of pulling up roots and moving to the Caribbean, and so we became the beneficiaries of her couch and several small tables. Knowing we liked the look of antique furniture, my parents bought us a bedroom suite in the waterfall style. I recall it was of the fashion that had adorned my Grandparent Fifer’s bedroom. My Grandmother Hayden’s dining room table and chairs, along with her desk, rounded out our décor. It was stark, as were our finances, but we were quite happy there.
A year later we decided we could afford the down payment on a small house of our own, and so the hunt was on. We looked at a few in the area. Most that caught our attention were well beyond our financial means, and some of the ones we could afford had seen their better days. Then one day my wife spotted a notice in the paper of a house that was “for sale by owner” and the seller was returning to town for one day to show the house. That evening we stopped by and toured the 3-bedroom ranch with the nice lawn and mature trees. The house was everything we were looking for. Its size was perfect for a starter home, and the layout was just what we had been seeking. There was a family room opening into a small dining room that was visible from the kitchen. Although outdated in appearance, the kitchen had working appliances and a convenient layout. A small living room greeted you as you entered, and tucked away in the corner was a fireplace, something I had always wanted. The bedrooms were comparable to what I had grown up with, and the master bedroom had its own bathroom and shower, which was a luxury I had never known. Sliding doors opened from the family room onto a small wooden deck and a spacious backyard led to a small park with playground equipment. My only disappointment was that it lacked a basement, a feature I had always had and appreciated because of Indiana tornadoes, but there was ample storage space in the attic above, and we would just take our chances with storms.
|The aged paneling and the hand-me-down dining room set|
We were smitten and knew we had to have this house; however, another couple about our age was also touring and looking interested. The home had been on the market some time already, and I knew the owner was motivated to sell since they had relocated to Illinois. My wife immediately wanted to offer above the asking price, but I put the brakes on that idea. We were afraid the other couple might also be interested, so we made a verbal bid for the asking price before we left. The next day my wife contacted a real estate attorney to draw up an official bid proposal, and this was promptly submitted. Our suspicions about the other couple turned out to be well-founded as we were told that they too had made an offer, and so began the anxious period of waiting for a reply. A couple days later, the seller contacted us with a counter proposal. They said they would accept our bid if we would handle a few additional closing costs. Being rookies in the game, we immediately agreed to their terms (fees we should never have been expected to pay, but we REALLY wanted that house) and the bid was accepted.
Our duplex was only a few blocks away, and in the evenings my wife and I would walk through the empty fields and willow thickets that then bordered the neighborhood (urban sprawl has now replaced these wild areas with housing additions) just to go and sit on the deck and look out on our future backyard. At that time of day, the setting sun struck the earth at an angle throwing long shadows and revealing the topography of the yard. The lawn had a gentle, rolling nature that dipped into a back corner. Birds sang from high in the large poplars that towered over the backyard, and occasionally a rabbit could be seen nibbling in the shade. It was such a pastoral scene, and we could not have been happier.
|The back deck|
The move was simple enough. We piled our meager furnishings into the back of my father’s pick-up truck and traveled the few blocks to our new home. With Dad and me doing the moving and Sara and my mother doing the unpacking and arranging, we had everything moved in and stowed away by lunchtime.
We were still too poor to do any wholesale renovations, so the house got a good top to bottom scrubbing and my retired father volunteered his time to paint all the rooms, but nothing more was done. Over the next few years we started working to make the house more our own. One of the first projects to tackle was the driveway. The aging blacktop was sunken in the middle and cracked. No longer would splashing a sealer on it each year hide its flaws, so our first significant cash outlay as home owners was to have it repaved.
The asphalt company came out to look and found that the drive was lined on each side by bricks which were half buried in the dirt and sod. They suggested removing these for a stronger edge, and so I began prying up brick after brick. When I was done, I was left with a stack of bricks with which I didn’t know what to do. I decided to create a little half moon garden against the back of the house and use the bricks to form an inner walkway. The result was an attractive little flower bed with perennials in the center and various herbs around the outside. Other than making teas from some of the mints, I found we did not make full use of the herbs, although Maynard, the neighbor’s roaming cat, soon discovered the catnip and spent his days rolling in my plants. The next year, the herbs were abandoned for salvia in rows of red, white and blue, and since they reached their peak bloom around the 4th of July, it made a very patriotic show.
|Looking down on the backyard. Perennials and lilac bushes.|
With home ownership comes the duty of maintenance and repairs. Some come into this job well-equipped, having been born with a curious nature that encouraged them to watch their parents do odd jobs about the house, or lured them to the neighbor’s home whenever they were tinkering with something. I think we’ve all seen the little boy who can always spot the neighbor’s legs sticking out from under their car or find them standing on a ladder, only to suddenly appear at their side asking, “Whatcha doin’?” Over the years they’ve asked questions, purchased tools and honed their skills. And then there was Sara and I. I had never felt a great urge to interfere with my father’s work around our house growing up. He seemed more than up to the job without my aid, and I usually had more important things to do like ride my bike or play on the swing. So when the time came to start working on our new home, I was like a fish out of water.
Never was this more evident than when I decided to install shoe molding around the bathroom. After living in our home for a few years, we had saved up enough money to replace the boldly patterned, ugly, stained carpeting in the kitchen with bright, clean vinyl. Since we were making the plunge, we also picked out vinyl to replace the carpeting that the previous owners had placed in the bathrooms. The thick carpeting in the bathrooms meant there was no shoe molding around the base, a problem which I took upon myself to remedy. The prepared home owner would have gone to his workshop and set up his table saw, or at the very least, would have grabbed a miter saw and miter box. I lacked every component of this equation. Instead, I armed myself with a yardstick, a large, wieldy crosscut saw, an old, plastic high school protractor and a big box of Tide to act as my workbench. Rather than a workshop, Sara and I set up on the driveway on a warm summer’s evening. Having already stained and sealed the supply of quarter round, it was simply a matter of measuring and cutting. Carefully, I would measure the length of the wall, then go out to the driveway and transfer the measurement onto the back of a piece of molding. Taking my protractor, I would then plot out a 45o angle, mark it with a pencil, set the piece of wood up on the detergent box and start cutting away with the big saw. Sounds quite simple really, but in practice I could not pull it off. I had a very big problem with inside and outside angles. I think maybe it was in flipping my quarter round over to lay out my angles that I got turned around, but whenever I would bring a piece back to the bathroom to install it, the piece was either too short or rather than meeting at a nice point on an outside corner, it would create a gaping, V-shaped void. Over and over I would go back to the bathroom, re-measure the wall and “carefully” transfer that measurement to the wood. Sara and I would discuss the angle, and confident we had it right this time, I would mark and cut the wood then proudly return to the bathroom to find I had again gotten it exactly backwards. As darkness fell and we worked in the dim pool of light thrown off by the open garage door, we could hardly complete the job because we were paralyzed by fits of laughter and our eyes were clouded by tears. However, we persevered and in the end the molding was installed, albeit a little imperfectly.
The main bathroom proved to be a bigger problem than just shoe molding. Tiles in the shower of the master bath had started coming off the walls, so we moved to the hall bath to take our showers. However, a moisture issue had always seemed to plague us in that room. One day when I found a three inch mushroom growing from the wall, I knew it was time to call in the professionals. While waiting for our master bath to be repaired, we stopped showering altogether, resorting to leisurely baths instead. It would be several years before we finally tackled the hall bath by hiring a handyman to strip the walls around the tub and retile that portion of the room.
It was during this bathroom remodel that our cat, Dusty, disappeared one day. He was never allowed outside, and I had turned the house upside down looking for him, but to no avail. My only conclusion was that he had gotten into the bathroom and jumped through the open studs into the crawlspace below the house. I am very claustrophobic and couldn’t bring myself to wriggle into that narrow space and slide around looking for my cat, so I cajoled the carpenter into doing it for me. He was no more a fan of crawlspaces than me, but he dutifully made his way through the spider webs, mummified birds and dead mice, army crawling through the bowels of the crawlspace. Meanwhile, our cat lazily strolled into the living room with a look on his face like, “What’s up guys?” To this day, I have never figured out where he was hiding, and I stood red-faced as I told the dirt-covered carpenter, struggling to pull himself free of the crawlspace entry, that the cat had miraculously reappeared.
We also hired someone to replace the sliding glass doors leading onto the deck when the sill beneath them rotted out and the door no longer slid in the track. To close the door, you had to lift one end as you slid it back into place and then latch it while still supporting it in the air. It was an awkward maneuver, and when closed, a gap was left at the bottom through which large, rather intimidating looking spiders and the occasional misguided cricket entered the living room at night. The old, slightly fogged and poorly functioning doors were replaced with beautiful wooden French doors. I was certainly too ignorant to hang the doors myself, but to save money, I agreed to stain and seal them. In the end they made a beautiful addition to our home and perfectly framed our view of the backyard and park.
In addition to learning the ins and outs of normal home upkeep, we unfortunately were educated in how to deal with unexpected emergencies. One sultry evening a classic Midwestern thunderstorm moved into the area. Interspersed with the heavy rain came small hail stones which quickly grew to the size of golf balls and increased in intensity. The house literally roared as the hail beat on the roof and ricocheted off the decking. Outside I watched the hail stones bury themselves into the soft, wet earth, strip leaves from the trees (killing a mother robin sitting on her nest and breaking the eggs beneath her,) shatter my birdbath and flatten my vegetable garden. In the end, like every house in the town, we found we needed a new roof, and the fins covering the compressor on the air conditioning unit needed “combing” to re-open the smashed areas of metal. I still recall the sound of hammers echoing throughout the neighborhood for weeks.
On three separate occasions, we had to deal with fallen trees- the fast growing hybrid poplars that gave our yard a mature look and which cast so much shade proved to be very weak. The first instance followed a long night of storms. My wife had heard the wind and loud thunder and thought a tornado was approaching. Rousing our son from bed, the two of them huddled in the bathroom (Darn the lack of a basement!) until all warnings had expired and the howling wind ceased. We thought we had successfully weathered the storm, but the next morning as I opened the drapes in our bedroom, I saw only leaves and branches blocking the view. The tree next to our bedroom had snapped in the storm and fallen onto the front corner of our house. Thankfully, other than the loss of the tree, no property damage had been done. The next occasion caught me totally by surprise. It had been a sunny but breezy day of visiting with my parents on the eastside of Indy, but when I pulled into my drive back in Brownsburg, I found one of the trees in our backyard toppled over onto the neighbor’s property, lying across his pool shed and fence, but miraculously not damaging either structure. His son worked for the parks department, and before the next day was done a crew had shown up and cleared all the debris. And shortly after we accepted a bid from the person who would eventually buy our house, a storm brought half the remaining poplar down across our deck, shrubs and fencing. In all three instances, other than some bent fencing, no property damage was incurred. However, most of the tall trees that had always marked our yard were now gone. The once cozy backyard seemed bare and bleak in the afternoon sun, and for the first time in 13 years I was looking forward to leaving it.
|The poplar tree and yard before it snapped.|
We had purchased this house with plans of starting our family there, and it proved the perfect spot. I can remember working to turn the one front bedroom into a nursery. We painted the walls white then stenciled a Peter Rabbit design near the ceiling. I had never done stenciling before, but I was quite pleased with the finished product. Each night after work, Sara would sit on the floor and talk to me as I climbed the ladder and applied one of the four stencil colors. During the daytime while I was away, she was sewing a quilt for the bed, and this too was stenciled. We purchased a changing table and crib, as well as a bassinet, and the nursery was ready. The room was directly across from the bathroom, and I can still see my toddler son hurrying across the hall each evening to grab a clean diaper and bring it back for his bath. Occasionally, once his clothes were off and the cool air hit his exposed skin, he was invigorated and a giggling naked boy would take off running down the hall inviting a chase.
|My library furniture in their new home in the living room|
|My wife's piano along with hand-me-down furniture|
|Rebecca's "big girl" room|
The home was everything we thought it would be with children. Although not large, there was ample room for play in the house. In the morning, Sara would push the youngest child in a stroller around the quiet neighborhood. In the evenings, I would join her for those walks. As each child grew they would walk with us, and David would sometimes ride his bike with us. The backyard was large, but seemed so much bigger since it opened into the small neighborhood park. In fact, David grew up thinking the playground equipment was his own, and I would sometimes catch him at the door yelling at kids in the park to, “Get off my swing.” That swing set is where he and I would spend our evenings together. As we swayed back and forth, I used the rhythm to teach him his numbers and ABC’s. We identified cars and trucks and planes and called out their colors. It was great bonding time, but also great learning time. Although I used the same technique to teach my daughter, Rebecca preferred to sing to me as we swung. Being small and timid, she enjoyed the swing, but for most of the years in which we lived there, she could never muster the courage to tackle the large slide and didn’t have the strength to climb the monkey bars. But she could never get enough of the merry-go-round. These were some of the happiest days of our life as a family.
Sadly, all good things must come to an end, and as our children grew and we accumulated more and more “stuff,” the house felt smaller and smaller. We always knew this was our starter home and the day would come when we would seek out a larger house. I had always wanted more land, so Sara and I started checking out any large tract that came on the market. Brownsburg was pretty well developed and open acreage was rare. What land there was was either labeled as commercial or was too expensive for us to buy. We looked at some lots farther out in the county, but none of these appealed to us. Either they were too far from my clinic or they lacked amenities such as gas and cable. However, just as with our first home, Sara was the one who spotted the property that we would eventually buy. And just like our first home, this sat practically in our back yard. And that is where I will start in my next posting.