After decades on the move, one writer found herself single, successful, and yearning for something built to last.
The question “where are you from?” really means, what is your place in the world? I’ve never quite known how to answer it. Navy brats, my brother and I grew up on a succession of military bases, uneasy hybrids of everywhere and nowhere. Whether our officers’ quarters were built on a Pacific bluff clawed by storms or beside a miasmic Georgia swamp, they had the same generic feel and floor plan. When I visited a schoolmate for the first time, I knew to walk down the long hall and take two lefts. Naturally she’d have the same room as me.
The only house that seemed different was ours. A gifted interior designer, my mother had worked hard to get accredited—I remember her studying for her ASID exams with the same ferocity as a law student studying for the bar—but it was difficult to find clients when she had to pull up stakes every couple of years. Often her talents were lavished on us instead. Trying to raise a family on my father’s lieutenant commander salary, she lived by a severe but pragmatic dictum: “Color dates, but pattern is forever.” In practice, this meant that our house was entirely black and white, a savagely chic combination of Ingmar Bergman and Morticia Addams, down to the sofa upholstered in black-and-white cabbage roses. Even the books had black-and-white paper jackets. I believe she terrified the other officers’ wives.
Growing up, I’m not sure I appreciated the bravery of her vision, or how hard it must have been, over and over, to dismantle the illusion of a home and prop it up again several thousand miles away. I was too busy looking out the back window of our Volvo station wagon, gulping down a final glimpse of a place I’d never see again. What I inherited from this nomadic upbringing was a chronic low-grade nostalgia with a boiling streak of restlessness, plus an addiction to house tours. In adulthood, I’d feel the itch to move on—from a school, a job, a relationship, a city—at those familiar, navy-mandated intervals. I had little sense of a future that could be arrived at and therefore should be planned for.
Everyone thinks they’ve left their childhood behind when they set up house on their own. But old patterns work in us without our noticing them. For a time, I shifted between illegal sublets and friends’ fold-out couches. After all my possessions—clothes, shoes, books in paper bags—were jacked from a car in the middle of one of these many moves, I took shelter in a shabby Upper West Side apartment. My friend came back from a run in the park, pleased and proud. “Look, Hodell! I found you a drawer!” For a time, everything I owned was contained in this orphaned drawer on the floor.
Enough: It was time to start casting a shadow.
At 32, I got my name on a lease of my own, for a tiny, high-ceilinged Brooklyn apartment, but home was still a slippery concept, and I kept choosing boyfriends who didn’t live in my own zip code, or even my state. The most preposterously distant lived in Milan. Yet even during these rootless years, I hungrily studied shelter magazines and rented a storage unit to hold the furniture that I bought for a place that didn’t exist—a toile daybed, Serge-Mouille-if-you-squint lamps, a $35 armchair with unfortunate upholstery but greyhound lines. I took twilight walks past lit-up windows, peering at the enchanted scene within as if it were the inside of a sugar Easter egg. When I traveled, factories abutting railroad tracks, adobe-clad mobile homes, and upstate chicken coops all called out to be reimagined and lived in. These transitional spaces were more compelling to me than actual houses.
Somewhere I’d sopped up the notion, common enough among women, that buying a house wasn’t something you did on your own. One friend says she can’t have the dog until she has the country house, and she can’t have the country house until she has the man to share it with. But it wasn’t that I was waiting around to get married. I had the opposite problem: serial engagements I never quite confessed to family and friends. I wasn’t in a rush to get to that settled place; instead, I was consumed with the absorbing trick of building a work life, a life life. Perhaps that hesitation came, too, from witnessing the stoic loneliness of my parents, my father exiled on an aircraft carrier for five months at a stretch, marriage no guarantee of companionship.
More loomingly, I was, also like many women I know (how I hate writing this!), scared of money. Sometimes I had it and sometimes I didn’t. These floods and droughts seemed to have little to do with my day-to-day behavior, but how could I know? I winced as I paid bills without checking my balance, too anxious about what I might learn to investigate my situation. Someone once suggested that this was an ingenious way to make certain I’d never get what I wanted, and that not getting it only seemed like a better bet than getting and then losing it. This scrap of paradoxical insight infuriated me, so I batted it aside. Anyway, to buy a house you needed real money.
And then, one year ago, my friend Georgie—whose nickname for me, “the Lodger,” dated from my addressless days, when I’d stayed in her spare room—sent me a real estate listing and a simple “Be my neighbor.” Fun to pretend for a day, I thought. I walked into the diminutive folly with pointed gables, clinging to the bank of a creek that twisted its way down to the Hudson River, and my heart constricted; I wanted to take a bite out of it, like Gretel gnawing at the witch’s cottage.
By this time I had a certified, locally dwelling boyfriend who’d astounded me by passing all my silent tests. He ducked under the front door’s very low lintel and observed, “It would be hard to feel like a man in this house.” In fact, I later learned that for the last hundred years, single women had lived there: First the town postmistress who, in her eighties—in the ’80s!—was still using the
double-seater outhouse in the yard; then by a widow fleeing the city in the wake of 9/11. I abandoned my crush on the house that was only big enough for one. But Georgie’s e-mail had set loose a virus, and it was fizzing in my bloodstream. I saw 20 houses—finally I was inside the spaces I’d been redecorating from the sidewalk—and in short order, with Berkshire winter sunlight slanting through casement windows, I knew I was standing in the right one. With haphazard additions built on a 1790s core, it combined age and welcome. I wasn’t pretending any longer when I said to the real estate agent, “I’m putting in an offer on this one.”
I’d said what I wanted and said it out loud, and the gods had not struck me down. I belatedly checked my credit rating, trembling at the referendum on my worthiness. It was excellent. It didn’t correspond at all to my rueful sense of my own biography. How had I managed to convince myself that I’d been living so close to the line, when in truth my bank account was the solid reflection of years of effort? A friend set me up with a tough-talking, sweet-hearted mortgage broker—Rosemary, I owe you an ode—and we swept the cobwebs out of every corner of my financial closet. Monsters there were none.
But there were other hurdles. The inspector walked up to the house and stabbed it in the side with an awl. I yelped and grabbed my own side. “That’d be rot,” he said brightly. The mice in the attic threatened insurrection. A contractor told me to run for the hills. On receiving this last call, I was overcome with giggles and then cried. At last, I found another contractor willing to take on the needed repairs without insisting we forge our own nails according to eighteenth-century best practices.
Just five months after I’d started looking, I signed the papers on a 30-year mortgage. For the first time, I liked that number. I drove up to the empty house after the closing, hauling the rickety chair I’d bought for good luck at a stoop sale outside the law offices, and nearly fell over. I’d first seen the place in icy February; now peonies bent heavy heads to the earth and birds hollered. It was exploding with life, and it was mine.
First discovery: no running water. I am a fairly intelligent person, but I remember thinking wildly, Oh God, I forgot to ask if water was included! It was a simple matter of the pump having been turned off by the caretaker, but my ignorance gave me the vapors. The weight of responsibility might have been the thing I was dodging all those years, and now it was pressing down. But slowly, slowly, this tolerant house and I are getting to know each other. The fact that it has been around for such a long time calms me; it feels good to be in a place softened at the edges by its own history. And surely I’m not the most nitwitted person to be its steward. My job is to see it through to the next one.
One of my favorite novels is Georges Perec’s odd and beguiling Life: A User’s Manual, a series of “biographies” of the residents of the different apartments in a grand Parisian building, their spaces meticulously inventoried, down to Japanese-print wallpaper and half-finished jigsaw puzzles. I love it for the way it shows how a house and its objects are a cup to contain our uncertain, liquid selves. This upstate house is my cup. I still can’t quite believe that 14 acres of woods stitched by stone walls, a red barn, and a sugar maple that was a seedling during the Civil War belong to me.
My boyfriend loves the place as much as I do, makes good use of his birthday present of a felling axe in its woods, and cheerfully performs the filthier chores, such as mouse wrangling. But we’re quite clear on whose house it is. I pay the mortgage; I’ve chosen and bought and placed every single thing in it. Finding it, wanting it, and struggling to buy it have helped me reconsider not just my own life, but my parents’, and the 10 homes they made for us.
Now they’re on their eleventh, but each on their own. Perhaps as a result of the ways they were forced to develop separate lives, they have parted, with regret but an abiding affection; the interior designer now lives on a mesa near Taos, New Mexico, the retired navy captain on the water in North Carolina. They visit and they talk. Most recently, they agreed that some of the beloved things they had collected together—a massive incised bronze tray from Iran, a pine cupboard my mother found and my dad refinished, the Rosenthal crystal he brought back from Germany in the hold of his Super Constellation—would be their joint gift to me for my first home. I look around and see a good place to be from.
GOLD COAST REAL ESTATE – GOLD COAST EXCLUSIVE – CHICAGO REAL ESTATE – GOLD COAST EXCLUSIVE REAL ESTATE – KRISTINE FARRA – TRUMP TOWER – RITZ CARLTON CHICAGO RESIDENCES – THE RESIDENCES CHICAGO – PARK TOWER – PARK HYATT – PALMOLIVE – 980 N MICHIGAN – ONE MAG MILE – 10 EAST DELAWARE – 110 WEST SUPERIOR – LINCOLN PARK 2550 – 2550 N LAKEVIEW – THE GRANT – 840 N LAKE SHORE DRIVE – 850 N LAKE SHORE DRIVE – 500 N LAKE SHORE DRIVE – 65 E GOETHE – 340 E RANDOLPH – THE LEGACY AT MILLENNIUM PARK – 55 E ERIE – THE FORDHAM – 30 E HURON – THE ELYSIAN – WALDORF ASTORIA CHICAGO – THE PINNACLE – 77 E WALTON – THE FOUR SEASONS – 132 E DELAWARE – WATER TOWER PLACE – 250 E PEARSON – PEARSON ON THE PARK – OLYMPIA CENTRE – NEIMAN MARCUS – 980 N MICHIGAN – ADLER PLACE – 111 W WACKER