It took me 19 years to love my house and now I may lose it.
I don’t know when the ash trees died. By my estimate, it was at least eight years ago, maybe longer. That means we let them stand, dead, for nearly a decade because we could not afford to remove them.
This past spring, I finally called the town to see if there was anything they could do. Two of the trees were precariously balanced near the road. I could scarcely afford to have them both removed, but luckily I didn’t have to come up with the money. The town came by a couple of weeks after I called and took the trees down for me, much to my unending relief.
A third dead ash tree that was further back on our property, right beside the driveway, also needed to be removed. Nine years ago, when the girls were ten and seven, my husband had used that particular tree as the foundation for a swingset.
He’d screwed a sturdy plank to the tree, and built an A-frame contraption to support it on the opposite side. We hung four blue plastic swings on the homemade marvel, all of us quite pleased with the results. In retrospect, the tree was probably already dying.
The final ash tree fell on its own two weeks ago. It simply keeled over, taking down another tree, which destroyed my neighbor’s carport. We escaped with our lives, and most of our property, intact. The ash tree took the swingset with it, of course, but that’s fine with me.
I’d been wanting to dismantle it for years. Like so many other home projects I aspire to, I never got around to doing it. The swingset stood abandoned for roughly four years, claimed by vines and spider webs, until the tree that supported it finally took it down.
There was a time when I hated this house. I despised its perpetual neediness and resented our lack of resources to fill that need. Our well ran dry in 2008 and we very nearly pulled the girls out of the tiny private school they’d loved because we had no money to fix it. Ana was in third grade, Emily in kindergarten.
Private school was too expensive for us to comfortably afford, but we’d sacrificed pretty much everything else to make it happen. The girls needed it, we’d reasoned.
Ana, in particular, had been an extremely sensitive child. Public school was simply too much for her. We’d pulled her out in the middle of first grade, when she’d been so anxious and depressed that she told me, on a morning walk to the bus stop, that she hoped the bus would hit her so she wouldn’t have to go to school that day.
The little private school nestled in a scenic town called High Falls was like an (expensive) dream come true. The school folded Ana into its child-centric, progressive embrace and she flourished. They’d let her play outside for hours, fostered her love of art and music, and celebrated her sensitivity rather than punished it.
Somehow we managed to pay for it, though barely, but it was at the expense of the house.
When our well stopped working, we were fresh out of money. It turned out that the pump deep within the well and the pipes leading to the house all had to be replaced.
The choice wasn’t really a choice — running water or private school. I wrote an email explaining why I had to withdraw the girls from the school, weeping as I hit send. I’d dreaded removing them from a community they loved and that loved them. To my relief, the school said they’d work with us. They made it financially possible for the girls to stay.
The house got its new water system, perhaps the first upgrade to the well in half a century, and we dodged another bullet.
Six months later, on a chilly morning in September, I flipped a switch to turn the oil burner on and heard a terrible rumbling. Our boiler uses a hydronic system to heat the house. Water heats up, circulating through thin pipes to reach the radiators.
My husband had drained the pipes to clear out the air pockets. He’d told me this, but I didn’t understand the implications of turning on the boiler when there was no water in the system. With one flip of the switch, the ancient boiler overheated, rupturing the metal. I’d killed it right before the cold weather was about to settle in.
That was the year that oil prices were skyrocketing. The cost of a gallon of gas in New York was approaching $4. We ended up purchasing a pellet stove (on credit) and using it to heat the entire house. We’d taken on more debt, but it turned out okay. The pellet stove was our only source of heat until we got a new boiler a few years ago.
Old houses are insatiable. There are always more repairs and (for us) rarely enough money to address them until they become emergencies. If I could go back and give my younger house-hunting self one piece of advice it would be, “don’t buy a fixer upper.”
There was the year the ceiling in our bathroom collapsed one stormy weekend when a leak in the roof turned into a geyser.
There was the time the front steps simply fell off the house from rot, ejecting my husband onto the driveway.
There were months that the cesspool stank even after we’d (finally) paid for it to be drained. My husband built a system to vent it out, but the ground still gets saturated over there. He’s always warning me not to stand on it.
This house is over 115 years old. It needs new windows. It needs new doors. It needs an updated electrical system. Half the roof still needs to be replaced. And that’s just the functional stuff. There are a host of renovations that I dream of doing that we simply don’t have the money (or energy) to address.
We’ve been in this house for 19 years, the exact age my daughter would be if she hadn’t died from cancer three years and seven months ago.
I was eight months pregnant with her when we moved in. I’d stood in her soon-to-be bedroom and painted the walls pastel pink and purple.
Now, her room is my office. I write here daily, staring out a window that needs replacing into a yard that perpetually needs mowing.
I may lose this house.
The pandemic may be what finally pushes us past our ability to hold onto this place. We put the mortgage into forbearance back in March and I haven’t paid much into the escrow, so when I finally start paying again, my monthly payment will be roughly 32% higher than it was before the pandemic.
I regret putting the mortgage into forbearance, even though we desperately needed the reprieve, but then I regret a lot of things about this house — that we never had enough money (or time or energy) to renovate much of it, that the yard always seems one step away from becoming sheer wilderness, and that I didn’t rip out the ugly drop ceiling in my bedroom.
I used to hate this house, but after Ana died, I finally realized that for all the imperfections and perceived failures, these rickety old walls have done well by my family.
In the very beginning, when I was young and still had hope that we could fully transform this place, we had our babies and brought them here. Back then, I didn’t understand that we were creating a home.
Now I understand.
Echoes of my children’s lives are etched into every corner of every room. We have lived tremendous joy and exquisite heartache within these walls. I don’t want to lose this place now — not like this, not without saying a proper goodbye.
I desperately hope that we will find the money to emerge from this latest crisis. I never planned to stay here forever, but I also didn’t plan on leaving before the story of this house was over.
I’m not worried about the projects left undone or the visions left unrealized — not anymore. It’s okay that the house isn’t perfect. Now, I dream about an ending worthy of two decades spent in a place that sheltered me and my children, a place filled with our memories and our love.
My new dream is that I’ll be able to say a proper goodbye and hand the well-worn keys to a new family who will pick up where we left off.