Tuesday, November 24, 2009

In Which We Settle into Our New Home

Once the former occupants were moved out, papers were signed, and our belongings moved into the attic and basement of our new home, renovations began in earnest. Our family stayed with Ramsey’s parents for a month while Ramsey and two carpenter friends ripped out wall paneling, dropped ceilings, old windows and an old stairway, then replaced it all with new sheetrock, new windows, and new stairs. We hired a man to clomp around our enormous new living room and the bedrooms in his strapped-on stilts and mud and sand the fresh sheetrock. My mom and a sister-in-law spent hours helping paint the bedrooms- a light, soft sea foam for Ramsey’s and my bedroom and, because we let the kids pick their own colors, a pale purple for the girl’s room and a dark turquoise for the boy’s room (I hated that color but I was trapped into it by own promise. I bided my time, though, and last Christmas repainted their room as part of a surprise makeover.). As the clock was winding down, Ramsey sanded down the hardwood living room floor and refinished it.

By the end of the month, I was so ready to move into our new home. Ramsey’s parents had been so gracious and generous to let us stay with them but I just wanted to be in my own home again. Finally the day arrived. Ramsey and our helpers wore stocking feet to prevent damage to the newly refinished living room floor and we sorted furniture and boxes out of the attic and basement into the rooms where they belonged.

The overwhelming task of unpacking had only begun when, a week and a half later, Ramsey had to leave for a work trip. This trip would be longer, more intense, and take him further than any others before- he was going to Vietnam for two and a half weeks. The morning the kids and I dropped him off to meet the rest of his group, I cried as I pulled out of the parking lot.

I certainly had plenty to keep me occupied while he was gone, though. My mom helped me tackle the monumental task of painting our enormous living room. First we primed the whole gargantuan thing, and then Mom began expertly cutting out around the ceiling with the paint- hideous, bright blue paint. I was horrified when I first saw it. On the paint chip it had appeared to be a distinguished, calm, slate blue. This was wild and raucous, jarring, bright light blue.

“It probably just looks bright because it’s surrounded by white,” Mom suggested optimistically. I was doubtful but agreed that maybe it would appear less obnoxious when there was less of a contrast. Besides, we’d already bought the paint.

That blue pissed me off every time I walked into my living room for the next two and a half years.

One morning shortly after Ramsey left for Vietnam, I made a horrifying discovery. The prior owners were taking their final revenge on us. Apparently their two ancient canines had housed more than mange and now our home was infested with fleas. I learned that fleas go into a hibernation state when they have no host available and the temperature is cool, so they’d been hiding out in the cracks and crannies throughout our old Colonial. Now that the weather was warming up and they had new prey to feast on- us- they were hopping, and in full force. Let me tell you, there is nothing more disgusting than picking fleas out of your four-month-old baby’s hair.

So now, in the midst of trying to unpack and cope with the kids alone, I sealed off the kitchen shelves with plastic, hauled the mattresses off the beds, and purchased flea bombs. Unfortunately, I underestimated the amount of bombs needed to saturate a house of our size, so my attempt only served to discourage the nasty little parasites, not eliminate them.

Somehow we survived until Ramsey returned home. The day after he got back, the fourth of July, we re-bombed the house while we attended the local fireworks display. This time we won.

Ramsey had brought gifts for us- each of the children received a Vietnamese outfit, the boys also got beautifully carved wooden swords and he gave the girls decorative little dolls. And for me- Ramsey had brought me an embroidery. A large, framed embroidery, so detailed that most people mistook it for a painting when they saw it. It detailed a vase full of flowers, all beautifully stitched on a background of blue silk. Silk the exact same vibrant blue as our freshly painted walls. Somehow, without having seen the new color of our living room, Ramsey had managed to match the background of the embroidery to the color of our walls as perfectly as if he’d taken a paint swatch with him. The embroidery was situated in a place of honor, set on the mantle above our new fireplace.

A couple of weeks after Ramsey had arrived home from his trip and we’d gotten more unpacking and settling in accomplished, my grandmother called. She wanted to know the street address of our new home. She had been talking with one of her neighbors in her building across town and had mentioned that we had recently moved to this street. Her friend had grown up in this neighborhood and was curious which house we’d moved into.

Small world that it is, of course this was the house that Edna’s parents had owned for thirty years. Their home had burned to the ground after Edna was born, and a contact Edna’s father had within the city government had told him about this house- a house possessed by the city because the former owners had neglected to pay their taxes. It was, even then, a fixer-upper, but Edna’s father was a carpenter, it was large enough to house their large and growing larger family, and they could afford it.

Edna and my grandmother came by to visit and see the old place and I took the opportunity to interview Edna. During the thirty years that Edna’s parents had owned the house, Edna’s father had made some major renovations- completely changing the layout, including moving a stairway and adding four feet onto the whole back of the house- and by the time they sold it the house had been in good shape. Edna was sad to see the state of disrepair the following owners had allowed it to fall into but was gratified to see the improvements we’d begun to make.

I told you Edna’s family was large but I didn’t mention how large. Edna was one of seventeen children who lived in this house. Some of the children slept in the attic and I can only imagine how cold it must have been to occupy that giant, un-insulated space during frigid New England winters.

Edna told us of stringing tin can phones across the street to her girlhood friend’s home, of the enormous vegetable garden they’d planted every year in the then empty lot next door, of coming home from school on her lunch break every day to hang out mountains of laundry that her mother had spent the morning washing. She told us that she never saw her mother sit down until she was an adult and I believe it.

When I first heard a few bits of Edna’s story over the phone, I could envision myself basing a novel on it, something heartwarming and Walton-ish. But, hearing more details in person, there were strong undercurrents of pain and sadness to the story that I couldn’t just ignore and didn’t want to deal with then. One of the sisters had died in childhood from a brain tumor that was missed until too late. Another sister had felt unwanted and never could come around to feeling accepted. The parents didn’t seem to have the loving bond that I wanted to base a story on and eventually sold the house after thirty years when they divorced.

I have several special reminders of our visit with Edna and of the family that lived here decades before we did. Edna brought copies of a number of photographs for us to keep. Black and white, they are like opening a time capsule when I look at them. There are photos taken in front of the fireplace mantle- our mantle. There is a photo of one of the brothers in his military uniform- and in our daughters’ bedroom, part of the floor is a board from his military trunk, labeled with “Sgt. Richard F. Holt” and our home’s address. If we ever get around to painting that floor, I have no choice but to leave that board unpainted. And there is one photo that was taken of the entire family as adults in front of the birch trees at the back of the yard, the same trees that we hang our hammock from in the summertime, and the same trees that I have only to glance from my desk-side window to see at this very moment.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Pop Heard Round the World.

I grew up in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s. Which means that I should be a total Michael Jackson fan. My home was a fairly conservative one, however; we didn’t even have a t.v., except when our neighbors would go on vacation for two weeks in the summer and loan us theirs. Then we would rent “Anne of Green Gables” on VHS and, every four years, soak up the summer Olympics.

But I didn’t live under a rock. Probably even the Amish have at least heard of Michael Jackson. I was certainly familiar with his music and I can recall seeing the “Thriller” music video for the first time on MTV at a friend’s house, and being completely freaked out.

But a lot of my exposure to Michael Jackson has been since I reached adulthood, as he faded, both from reality and in the public’s opinion. The small amount of brain space that I’ve actually devoted to Michael Jackson has primarily been used to draw my own conclusions about what went wrong with his life and to feel sad for him.

One thing that I’ve always gotten a kick out of, though, is the fact that the entire rest of the world seems to adore him. I’ve shaken my head in amusement at the news stories and magazine articles that mention Michael Jackson’s popularity in third world or restricted nations, and I’ve assumed that they must just be twenty years behind the times.

A few weeks ago, I watched a biography about a young girl growing up during the revolution in Iran. Sure enough, even amidst all the veils, the lead character gets in trouble for wearing a Michael Jackson patch on her jacket, as you can see in this trailer for “Persepolis”.

A few months ago, I watched hundreds of inmates of a Filipino jail reenacting “Thriller” in this youtube video.

But the moment that has made me come to really appreciate the talent and widespread international appeal of Michael Jackson just took place a few nights ago. I had the delightful and unanticipated pleasure of seeing for myself just how far-reaching Michael Jackson’s appeal is.

I had stopped in at a new friend’s home for a visit. My friend and her family are new to the U.S., they arrived from Africa just a couple of months ago. She had been astonished to learn that I’d never eaten sambousas (she was so astonished that I didn’t dare tell her I’d never even heard of them, prior to that conversation) and declared that she would give me a call the next time she made some. The next time she made some happened to be last Saturday evening so when she called me I ran right over to pick them up while they were still hot. (Might I mention that, in spite of my prior ignorance, I am now a fan of sambousas, which turned out to be the African cousin of Asia’s spring rolls and Latin America’s flautas. They are delicious.)

Throughout our visit, her children and the three neighbor children visiting from the apartment upstairs broke out in song several times, mainly in an attempt to coax the 15 month old to show me her dance moves. As the visit went on, the older kids got inspired, and silly, and started showing off a few of their own moves. Let me mention that though these kids can fluently speak French, Arabic, and Somali, they’ve only had the opportunity to master a few English words, as of yet. Dance, however, is an international language, and they’d certainly mastered MichaelJacksonese. The singing that accompanied mainly consisted of “I’mbad, I’mbad,” but really, the head twitches, shoulder shrugs, spins, and hip thrusts, were the main event. I laughed and laughed, mostly because the kids were just that entertaining and partly because witnessing an M.J. dance-off in this Muslim home just felt so darn surreal.

The performance continued until it began to deteriorate into complete silliness and my friend, having seen one too many crotch grabs, declared, “No more English!” Apparently French and Somalian music is safer.

On my way home, I pondered the possibility that perhaps the rest of the world wasn’t twenty years behind on the times. Perhaps I’d just managed to miss something big.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Rosmery 2

Almost two years ago, just before Christmas, I went to Guatemala with a friend. Her family was nearing the end, finally, of their process of adopting their daughter and she wanted to go visit her and get in a couple of weeks of language school. She joked with me in an e-mail one day, “Want to go to Guatemala with me??”

I’m sure at first she thought I was joking by my enthusiastic “Yes!” but I wasn’t at all. I had been studying Spanish on my own for a year and a half by then and I would most definitely have jumped at the chance to go to language school. Not only that but I was dying to get out of the country and see a different place and culture. Ramsey travels occasionally and, though it’s always all work and no leisure when he does, I have to admit to having a slight case of travel envy, anyway. So, yes, I absolutely wanted to go to Guatemala.

Ramsey so generously agreed to let me go and worked out arrangements for childcare. I drove three hours to apply for my passport instead of mailing in for one, in order to expedite the process. My friend and I spread the word that we were going and that we planned to visit an orphanage while we were there, then collected the school supplies and Christmas presents that were donated, to bring along in our luggage.

It was hard to believe that I was really going, and so all of a sudden, too! I hadn’t set foot on an airplane in over ten years or left Ramsey and the kids alone overnight, let alone left to go traipsing around in another country for seventeen days. But I was and soon it was the night before our trip.

The kids were in bed and Ramsey was in our bedroom with me while I did my last packing. “If you find our kid, start filling out the paperwork while you’re down there,” he said. That’s not really how it works, but I loved the attitude that was behind the comment. Rams and I had talked about adopting for years, since before we were even married. Now our youngest was almost two and we felt like it was finally time to really do it- we would adopt our next child. I don’t remember what I said to him in reply but I do remember thinking, Out of all those children, how could I possibly just pick one? How would I possibly ever know which child was meant to be ours? But it didn’t really matter anyway, because I knew it was impossible. The world of international adoption is complicated and even if you choose to adopt a child from a country where the process is relatively smooth sailing, there is still always the possibility of everything turning upside down overnight and being a royal mess by the morning. At the time, Guatemala was having its own issues and even families that were well into the process of adopting their child, as my friend’s was, were in danger of having their process disrupted. No new applications were being accepted, anyway. It just wouldn’t be an option for us.

Guatemala was such an adventure. Language school was wonderful, everything was beautiful and warm, and volcanoes erupted nearby, drifting ash on our heads while we studied in the school courtyard, like Central American snow. We ate authentic Guatemalan meals at the school for breakfast and lunch, then ate out at nearby restaurants for dinner. We haggled over prices in the nearby mercado and, after being suckered once or twice, I prided myself on not getting taken in again, at least not too badly. December is an amazing time to be in Guatemala, there are pre-Christmas festivals every other day, the only downfall is not being able to sample the enticing food offered by vendors all around the plazas.

And in Guatemala, everywhere, everywhere, were the poor. There were people begging for coins on the sidewalks and there were women and children who would follow after us in the streets, trying to get us to buy their wares, everything from cheap pens to lovely jewelry.

Midway through our trip, we were ready for our orphanage visit. Our original contact didn’t pan out. My Spanish teacher told me about another orphanage across town, home to a dozen girls. No success in making a connection there, either. Somehow my friend heard, through another friend, of another orphanage. Attempt number three. The American man who answered the phone told us we could come by any time and gave us the address, then hurriedly got off the phone. Well, all right then.

We felt a little awkward just showing up unannounced at an orphanage that we’d only made a random connection with but what could we do? We hired a car, loaded our two bulging suitcases and ourselves into it, and headed off to Casa Aleluya. We pulled through a mural-painted gate into a large central courtyard and parked. Unsure of where to go or what to do, I saw a man near a building on the other side of a playground and decided to go ask him if he could tell us where to find Mike, the director of the orphanage and the man we’d talked to on the phone.

I took four steps from the car, then, somehow right in front of me where she hadn’t been a moment before, a small girl stood, reaching her arms towards me for me to pick her up.

I didn’t know what to do- my first impulse was simply to pick her up, of course, but I didn’t know how the staff at the orphanage felt about complete strangers just scooping up the children. I took her by the hand instead, and she walked with me across the playground. The man, another American, helpfully pointed out the building where we’d likely find Mike. I told him that the little girl had wanted me to pick her up and asked, hesitatingly, if it would be all right if I did. “Sure, of course!” So I picked her up and she immediately wrapped her arms around my neck and her legs around my waist.

I and my friend and her two children did find Mike and his wife and they led us, towing our two suitcases, to their “Christmas building”. The building was full of gifts that they’d bought with money that had been donated for that purpose. As they shared with us the history of the orphanage, a couple of teenage girls swiftly sorted through the items in our suitcases and stored them in the appropriate places throughout the building. The suitcases were empty in minutes.

Casa Aleluya had been started by Mike and his wife 20 years earlier after Mike, a pastor, returned home to the U.S. from a short-term mission trip to Guatemala. He’d only gone on the trip to placate a friend of his who’d been harassing him to go but, while there, his heart had been broken by the sight of so many children in need. He and Dottie had started the orphanage in a house with just a few children but within a year they’d received more children than the house could comfortably hold. They moved to their new location and the orphanage had grown and grown- it was now home to five hundred children and he told us that, if they had room for them, the government had another two thousand that it would like to place with them.

This sweet little girl still clung to me, her glossy dark brown hair pressed against my cheek. I asked her name. Mike didn’t know and asked one of the teenage girls who followed along with us. Her name was Rosmery 2 (the “2” because the orphanage was apparently home to more than one Rosmery) and she was four years old.

Mike gave us a tour of the whole facility, showing us the school, the cafeteria where older residents received training in food preparation and which doubled as the chapel, the “Baby House”, and construction projects that were currently underway and waiting for the next group of volunteers who would visit and continue work on it.

To be honest, though I was impressed by the orphanage’s amazing organization and structure, I was most definitely distracted during the tour. Little Rosmery never loosened her hug on me except when I once set her down to get my camera out of my backpack. Then she reached in and rummaged around, finding one of the flashlight pens I’d bought on the street from a little ragamuffin boy. She was intrigued by it and of course I let her keep it. Then she was back in my arms again, her fingers winding gently through my hair. I asked her questions and called her sweet things in my faltering Spanish and she smiled back at me but never said a word.

I held her the whole time we were there. More than an hour after we’d arrived, our tour had ended and another little girl had come to say it was time for Rosmery to have a shower. We needed to leave, too, and, really, there was nothing more for me to do there except to hold Rosmery and claim her as my own. Instead, I walked with her to her little dorm where a dozen other little five-year-old girls were stripping down in preparation for their showers. I crouched down to let her go and she scampered off among the other little girls, obviously less impacted by me than I was by her, and moving on with her life.

My arms ached a bit on the ride back to school and, though my friend and I had both been impacted by our visit to the orphanage and discussed it at length, my mind was largely on Rosmery. The rest of our stay in Guatemala was as interesting and delightful as the first half had been and, finally, two and a half weeks after our arrival, we were on our way home again.

Back at home, it was almost time for Christmas. As lovely as our stay in Guatemala had been, it just hadn’t felt like Christmas when we were walking around in short sleeves every day. Home was cold and snowy, as Christmas should be, and our house was cozy and familiarly decorated. It was so wonderful to be greeted by my four children, who all ran to hug me at once, and so fun to hand out the souvenirs I had brought them. I enthusiastically jumped into last minute Christmas shopping and baking and I sipped eggnog in the evenings, cozied up on the couch with Ramsey, only the fire in the fireplace and the Christmas tree twinkling in the corner softly lighting the room. It was so good to be home again.

I’d told Ramsey all about little Rosmery and I showed her to him on the orphanage’s website- the orphanage had a sponsorship program so it was possible to find specific children. From the website, I learned that Rosmery’s mother had died and she had no other relatives. We discussed the “what ifs” and were both in total agreement that, if it were possible, we would adopt her in a heartbeat. But it wasn’t possible.

Finally, a few days before Christmas, I found myself alone in my room, and thought again of Rosmery. And, finally, all my thoughts and emotions that she evoked came to the forefront and I let myself go with them. All along, knowing that adopting her would never be possible, I’d held myself back. As I’d held her in my arms, I’d held back. As I’d talked with Ramsey about her, I’d held back. As I’d thought of her, I’d held back. Because, really, what is the point of letting yourself connect when you know that it will only cause you pain? Keeping a safe distance is just that- safe.

And so now I finally let down my guard and stopped keeping myself safe. I wept and wept, grieving over a little girl that I’m sure never gave me another thought but that I couldn’t get off my mind. I grieved over the fact that I would never see her again. I grieved over the fact that she would be unlikely to ever have a mother. I grieved over the fact that I would never get to be her mother. And I grieved over the fact that, when I’d had the chance to just full-out love on a little girl who so clearly desperately needed it, even if only for the brief time I had with her, I’d chosen to keep myself safe, instead.

I checked in on the orphanage website from time to time, just to see her and to find out if anything in her situation had changed. Much later, I went to check in on her and she wasn’t there anymore. I e-mailed the orphanage to ask about her and never got a response. I’m sure the staff there has more to keep them busy than to answer inquiries from former visitors about their children.

I know I’ll never see Rosmery again. But I also know that she will always be a reminder to me to love lavishly, for whatever time is available, in spite of the risk of pain.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

In Which We Take Ownership of Our House

Just the very process of legally transferring ownership from the previous owners to ourselves was slightly traumatic and a definite hassle. The day before the closing, Ramsey, our realtor, and I showed up at the house for our scheduled walk-through- which is when you go to see the house one final time to make sure everything is in order and on track for the closing the following day. Normally the owners would have moved their belongings out by this point and would have it to the point of being broom clean. Normally.

Not being the type of people who like to take the normal route to go about anything, however, Ramsey and I had chosen to buy a house from the Packrat of the Ages, which also included dealing with her equally eccentric, still-living-at-home, 40-something year old son. Which meant that when we showed up the day before we were scheduled to not only buy the house, but also to move all of our own belongings in, the owners were just beginning to pack. Forty years worth of accumulated clutter and not a bit of it had been budged from the last time we’d seen the house, weeks before. I don’t mean simply that things weren’t moved out of the house, I also mean that nothing had even been packed into boxes, beyond the stacks of boxes that had been piled up for years. The son had his pickup truck with a trailer backed up to the basement door and there were a few cartons stacked on it. We discreetly watched to see his progress. He would go up somewhere into the house- I don’t know where, the attic? Second floor, maybe?- then trudge back down the two or three flights of stairs and through the basement to load his burden into the back of the truck. Then he’d sit on the trailer for a few minutes, breathing heavily, until he’d recovered his breath and head back inside for another box. He informed us that he had health problems that affected his lungs so he had to take it slow. He also mentioned that once he had his trailer loaded up, he’d be driving it two hours north to a storage space that his uncle was making available to them. Then driving the two hours home and beginning the process over again, presumably continuing until the house was empty. We were… dismayed. At the rate these people were plodding along, they might possibly be out of the house in a couple of months but most definitely not by the next day.

Powwow in the living room. The son seemed shocked to hear that we had expected them to be out of the house before the closing. He began to become belligerent and raised his voice at us until finally Ramsey forcefully said, “I’m not talking to you, I’m speaking with her,” referring, of course, to the actual legal owner of the house. The mother looked slightly horrified and answered with the only words I remember her speaking at all, “Whatever he says…”, indicating her son. I wondered at which point she had stopped being the parent and had let her youngest child take over as the head of the household. The son continued to be rude and unreasonably make statements like, “Then we just won’t sell the house, then,” until we pointed out that they were under contract and that breaching said contract would invoke some pretty severe consequences on their end. His tone did change then, now instead of directing his verbal refuse at us, he began to sputter against his mother’s realtor, blaming him for not having informed them and suggesting that he would like to take a baseball bat to their realtor.

We took our leave and had a hurried consultation with our realtor on the curb. One phone call to the seller’s realtor and a day later, we were back at the house, an hour before the scheduled closing. The other realtor had hired two moving vans and had rounded up a number of congregants from the seller’s church to help them pack and load the vans. The impossible had been accomplished- the last of the ancient stash was being loaded into a moving van even as we looked over the house for the last time before it became ours. The interior looked even larger now that the rooms were empty. No cleaning had been done but I was just relieved to see that they were on their way out. We found the owners and a few of their helpers in the basement and remarked, with forced cheeriness, “Everything looks good!” They glowered at us as if we were Satan’s spawn, come to evict unwilling occupants with smoldering, three-pronged pitchforks, but silently handed over the key.

Because they were concerned about the threats of baseball bat beatings on the original realtor, the seller’s realtor firm sent another agent to the closing to represent them. A friendly, no-nonsense woman, she took their end of things in hand and we progressed through the legal proceedings efficiently and without incident.

Occasionally I think of them, the phantom mother and the confused, bull-headed son, and I wonder where they are now. We had been told that the son planned to build a log cabin in the woods a couple of hours north of here; judging by the progress he’d made on the renovations he’d started on this house, I can only cringe as I imagine how far they got on the cabin. I picture the son’s braggadocio having landed them in a camper parked next to the skeleton of a structure located remotely down some logging road, the silver-haired mother shivering over a cup of tea as snowflakes fall outside. But I tend to think of them more in the summer because grilling in our backyard brings them to mind. The yard has a handsome brick fireplace, one of the only things this house has to brag about, but it can’t be used because the son spitefully took the custom sized grill out of it when they left. When we have get-togethers we use the sides of the brick fireplace as extra space to lay out paper plates, bowls of salads, and corn on the cob and we do our grilling on our old charcoal grill.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Six Things I Love About My Husband. And Also, An Introduction.

First off, the introduction. For a couple of reasons not important here, when I first started this blog I decided to keep my husband anonymous so I gave him a pseudonym and have been calling him Sam. For the record, his nickname within his family really is Sam so it wasn’t that great of a leap. However, I do not call him Sam and so it just felt weird. It also occurred to me that my sister is now engaged to a man who really is named Sam, sort of, which just makes it all the weirder. So I reconsidered and decided that if the other considerations ever become a factor, I’ll just have to figure out some other way to keep him anonymous there and so I’m letting him have his real name back.

Blog world, meet Ramsey (or “Rams”, as I more frequently call him). Ramsey, meet blog world. You are both pleased to have made the other’s acquaintance, I am sure.

Now for the fun part.

I love that Ramsey notices when I clean, even small things, like when I cleaned the bugs out of the light fixture on the kitchen ceiling.

I love that Ramsey can catch a baby completely unassisted. And not just by the skin of his teeth because no one else made it in time to help, but he can remember to warm the receiving blankets, change the sheets on the bed, prepare warm compresses, and, most importantly (sorry for this, men), support the perineum. Ladies, if you’re in labor and know you’re not going to make it to the hospital in time, call Ramsey.

I love that Ramsey spends hours playing in the yard with our kids and wrestles with them on the living room floor. Even though they outnumber him and are now starting to get big enough that they can actually inflict a bit of pain.

I love that not only is Ramsey extremely good at his work and does his best to provide for our family, he also remains committed to his job even when it means he must deal with gruesomely obnoxious people. This point came to mind because the last couple of days have been filled with said gruesomely obnoxious people.

I love that Ramsey cuts his own hair- and it actually looks good.

I love that Ramsey recognizes that he has a higher calling on his life than to slouch by from day to day, living for retirement.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

In Which We Find Our Real House

Our home is the biggest house on our street. Don’t get all impressed by that. Not only is it the biggest house on the street, the view from the street shows that it also has the most peeling paint and the most cracked windows. I have not conducted a personal inspection of the interiors of every other home on the street but I strongly suspect that our house also has more unpainted walls, more unfinished floors, more untrimmed windows and doors, and a vastly more ancient and inefficient heating system than any of the others. In short, we own what is optimistically called a “fixer-upper”.

We bought this house just over three years ago from people who had owned it for forty years. At the time, Sam and I had four children, ranging in ages from five years to three months. We’d started our marriage in a small, two-bedroom bungalow that we owned, then sold that and bought and sold an apartment building, then bought and sold another, each time talking about what we wanted our “real” house to someday be. We talked about the possibility of building a house, looked at land and drew out countless graph paper floor plans.

The last apartment we lived in had three bedrooms. We had our third and fourth babies in that apartment. The building had a tiny yard, a large parking area, and ridiculously high flood insurance because the nearby river had flooded once in the past seventy years. The front of the building was right against the sidewalk- we overheard bits of many, well, interesting conversations during the two years that we lived there. The large picture window in our living room made it possible to get a great view of the many passers-by during the day and for them to take a good look at us, as well. We used the upstairs apartment for Sam’s office mostly, and briefly rented the back half of it as a one-bedroom apartment to a vegan college student who felt trapped into her relationship with her much older Indian boyfriend who was paying the rent for the apartment. We had interesting conversations with both of them and I still sometimes wonder whatever happened to Lacey and Mahit after they broke up. The apartment itself was fine but between the traffic noise, tiny yard, and the overflow from the bar next door, it just wasn’t where we planned to raise our kids.

After we’d lived there for the two years that the government requires so that it won’t tax the heck out of you if you sell it sooner, we started house hunting. And we found it- our real house. It needed a lot of work, in fact in order to make it presentable, it would have sucked up every spare penny we had plus many more. But it was big- plenty of room for our growing family. And it had character, complete with a spacious front entry that included a beautifully bannistered stairway that led to the second and third floors. It had a stream that meandered by the house, disappearing into the seventy acres of woods behind the back yard, and was located on a lovely, rural road just over the hill from an apple orchard. Sam talked about building a small studio behind the house for me, which just sounded so wonderful and luxurious. We made an offer, contingent on our apartment building selling, which was accepted. I packed while we waited for our house to sell.

There’s only so much packing you can do when you’re not actually moving yet. After that you just twiddle your thumbs and wait impatiently. The terms of our offer expired without a nibble on our house. The sellers of “our” house graciously renewed the contract, which included their option to sell the house to another buyer if we couldn’t come up with someone who wanted our house.

You guessed it- the sellers got another offer while our two-unit remained pathetically unwanted. Poof- our real house, gone in a puff of magician’s smoke.

We moped and “Why God?”-ed for a week, then received an offer on our home. I’ll tell you, there’s nothing like accepting an offer on the house you’re living in to motivate you in your house hunting. We scoured the listings and visited every house on our A-list, even making an offer on one. No good. We scoured the listings again and visited every house on our B-list. No good. We half-heartedly inspected the listings again and put together a C-list, while discussing the possibility of buying a camper and taking off to tour the United States.

Houses look different on paper than they do in real life. When we pulled up to the curb of 69 Meadow Street, I actually began to feel slightly optimistic. I could see that it was certainly large enough. There was an actual front yard, with a couple of good-sized trees, and a large back yard, with a well-established lilac bush (I love lilacs) - and behind that were acres and acres of city owned woods, full of trails and, very occasionally, deer.

We surveyed the neighborhood. I liked that it was a quiet, side street even though it was still in town and close to stores. Our realtor liked that a cop lived a few doors down- “neighborhoods with cops are safe neighborhoods,” she told us.

Then we went inside. Remember how I said that the people who lived in this house before us had owned it for forty years? Yes, well, nothing that had ever entered that house in all of the previous forty years had ever, ever left the house again after that. Ever. I was carrying our daughter in her infant carrier seat and I literally had to turn sideways and hold the seat out in front of me in order to maneuver the paths that led throughout the house. There were multiple bookshelves and stands that I believe were purchased just to house the multitude of knick-knacks. Boxes were piled shoulder high, filling every room. The cavernous attic boasted clothes-lines hanging with clothes from who knows what decade, and 1960’s National Geographic stalagmites rose from its floor. You may have seen something like the interior of this house in the movies but I know you haven’t seen it in real life.

The actual house itself was a whole other story. The owner was a silver haired woman who didn’t utter a word and who disappeared somewhere into the disarray soon after we arrived. Her forty-something year old son, who still lived at home, proudly showed off his handiwork. It turned out he had started many renovation projects on the house over the years. He never actually completed any of them so the result was that the majority of the house had portions of it torn apart and either not put back together at all or only partially, and poorly, completed. The couple of projects he had finished were no great improvement. The bathroom had been “remodeled” and, though I hate to use the word I can think of no other that fits better, it now has the stupidest layout possible. At five foot nine and a hundred and twenty-five pounds (that’s my non-pregnant weight, anyway, I’m not telling what I weigh right now.), I am a fairly thin individual. But I have to turn sideways to fit between the corner of the sink and the corner of the shower, in order to get to the toilet. See what I mean? The kitchen has “custom”-made wood cabinets- really just wooden shelves that are not standard height so that none of your taller countertop appliances (say a Kitchen Aid mixer, for example. Or a blender.) can fit on the counter underneath them. Nor can a cereal box fit upright on any of the shelves. Though the basement, which was the son’s woodworking shop, has been decked out with enough electrical outlets that a couple of dozen power tools could all be run at once, the kitchen blows a fuse if you attempt to toast a piece of bread while the microwave is running.

For all of the house’s faults, I was delighted to see that there was a fireplace in the giant living room. I had given up on the idea of getting to have a fireplace, since none of the A-List homes had worked out, and the paperwork on this house had not mentioned one. Sam is a visionary and has the ability to see whatever potential may exist in even the most decrepit buildings. Between knowing that we could never afford a house of this size that was in good condition, envisioning the potential, and praying about it hard-core, we came to the conclusion together- we would make an offer.

That forty-something year old son turned out to be quite the stinker. He refused our lowball offer and countered only slightly lower than their asking price. If the clock hadn’t been tick-tick-ticking against us, we would have just walked away and let him stew on that for a while because there sure as heck wasn’t going to be anyone else making a better offer but, as it was, we needed a place to live so we agreed to it. The closing date was set and I began packing again.

We lived with my in-laws for a month after we closed on the house, while Sam and a couple of carpenter friends worked full time on it. They removed the drop ceiling and “wood” paneling from the living room and re-sheetrocked it, the upstairs hallway, and three of the bedrooms. Windows were replaced in three bedrooms and trim added around the windows in all of them. A wall in one of the bedrooms was moved to restructure the room’s closet and the hall closet. The stairway and its railings were torn out and replaced. Lots and lots of mudding. Three of the bedrooms were painted. The wood floor in the living room was refinished. Etcetera. And there was still plenty more to do that would have to wait until we had more time and money.

All along we had been discussing it as if it were just another step along the way to our elusive “real” house. But the day we moved in, the third time in four years that we’d rounded up our family and friends to help us deposit all of our earthly possessions into our newest home, Sam announced, “I’m not moving again for another thirty years.” Although I was slightly startled by this proclamation, when I stopped to consider it I didn’t think I could face the prospect of fixing up a house just to sell it and move again in another two years, either. For better or for worse, it seemed that we were home.

Monday, November 2, 2009

When Sperm Meets Egg

My three-year-old explains the moment of conception this way- “If a sperm gets to the egg, there’s a baby. If the sperm doesn’t get to the egg, no baby!” That pretty much sums up all that she knows about the conception process and it’s all I hope to need to tell her for some time. This brief conversation comes up with regularity at our house these days because I am six months pregnant and because she is happy to share her knowledge.

Last year I had the slightly uncomfortable pleasure of sharing about this topic in more detail with two of my older children. I certainly hadn’t planned to bring it up but there it was and so I got to have my first “the birds and the bees” conversation, from the telling end of it.

It came up during, of all times, our Bible study at the beginning of our home-school day. There I was, innocently reading through Genesis with them when we came to the verse that includes the words, “go forth and multiply”.

“What does that mean?” I was asked.

“Well, it means to go have children,” I answered.

“I know that. But how?”

There was no escaping it at that point. I plunged in and told the basic facts, from A to Z.

They weren’t impressed. Ew.” They had no more questions.

It’s not that I’m a prude. I like to think that I’m fairly open with my kids- Sam and I answer questions as they arise and we don’t hide our affection for each other from them. Well, occasionally I give his hand a slap. But generally speaking.

I think it somehow just feels like an intrusion on my own privacy to fill them in on this whole act of procreation thing. Once they know how it happens, then they’ll know what we've been up to. But maybe not. I’m a grown woman and I find myself perfectly content to believe that my own parents did only what was necessary to conceive the seven children that they had.

Huh. Ok, so maybe I’m a prude after all.