7. A Sound Foundation. “The home should be the treasure chest of living.” -Le Corbusier (Architect)

If I backtrack to when I first went from being just a wife to becoming a housewife, I have to admit that it didn’t start out so bad.

When my children were born, I put my life on hold (that is how I thought of it) so I could be with them and care for them until they reached school age. It seemed like I was embarking on a magical “detour” from my life path. A temporary “diversion”.

I had no idea what I was getting into.

I had planned to treasure every moment of my children’s formative years –and I did. It was miraculous watching those little beings grow! I could spend countless hours with them just marveling at their existence.

I loved doing things with my children and for them. I loved cooking for my appreciative husband and throwing dinner parties with elaborate menus. I loved decorating our apartment.

But, at the same time, no one can do a job day and night, twenty-four hours a day seven days a week, for years and years straight. No sick days. No date nights…

My family and my husband’s family were thousands of miles away and we couldn’t afford a babysitter. Well, I’m exaggerating, we could have probably splurged on a babysitter once or twice a year but then we would have had just enough money left over to sit in the car together and listen to the radio.

We were on the shoestring budget of graduate students. Then, the shoestring budget of a new professor at a small liberal arts college at the height of the financial crisis. We were paying off student loans even as the university’s budget was so tight that they didn’t really give raises for my husband’s first five years. (Not long before tenure, he got a raise along with the other professors hired the same year as him because they were the lowest paid faculty on campus).

We got by simply by cutting corners. Our food budget was the only thing sacred. Everything else was deemed a luxury. No TV, no cell phones, no ipad, no mp3/ipod, no printer… no nothing… well, almost… we had one of those old computers with a huge box-like monitor and a dial-up internet connection and one used car. But we were lucky, one of the retiring faculty members told me that back when he had been hired his family had to live on food stamps for several years. And, we ate well. Nevertheless…

I was miserable. It was fine to be a mother and a wife: I still love that! But, I was also the housekeeper (if a lousy one), cook, barber (while my own hair looked like I had launched an informal personal competition with the 1980s country singer Chrystal Gale and her floor-length hair), laundry-lady, plumber, handyman, butcher, baker, candlestick maker (okay, I admit, I’m getting a bit carried away… I didn’t actually make any candles).

In the process, I forgot to ever do anything for me.

As if this wasn’t challenging enough, we discovered that for the same money we were flushing down the toilet every month in rent, we could be paying mortgage on a house: so, we bought one.

Our criteria was simple, the house had to be: 1) old; 2) within walking distance of our downtown and biking distance of my husband’s office so we could continue to get by with one car; 3) dirt cheap. We knew it would be a fixer upper. And, it was.

In fact, in the early naïve phase of our house search, we’d driven by our house twice while searching for other addresses on the same street. Each time I saw the “for sale” sign in the front yard I’d thought “I hope it’s not that one”. Of course, in the end, it was “that one”.

Before we settled, we had spent a year looking for a house.  Nothing had met our “simple” criteria.

The houses in our price range were either in the right area and completely dilapidated, or so far out of town and newly built that my husband said we’d be better off staying in the apartment. Besides we couldn’t afford another car.

One month before our annual departure for France, I became truly desperate to find a house so that I wouldn’t be condemned to another year in our dark, crummy, low-rent apartment…especially now that I was pregnant with our second son. Let me tell you, there is nothing quite like desperation to ignite my imagination. I think I should probably call a spade a spade and admit that desperation is my muse. There is clearly a recurrent theme in my life wherein I find myself seemingly without an option and then, BAM, I get creative and do something unexpected. In this case, it was the unimaginable.

The “oh-god-I-hope-it’s-not-that-one” house wasn’t for sale anymore… But, I didn’t know that because I was doing my searches at night on dial-up internet while my son slept. Thanks to a lazy realtor, the house was still listed online: it was one of the few in the right location, at the right price that didn’t appear to be falling down. I say “appear” because the pictures can be quite deceptive on those realty websites.

It was a depression era (1920s-1930s) bungalow to which the 1970s had been unkind: faux-brick planters cemented to the wooden front wall and porch, a tiny extension slapped haphazardly over the front porch with aluminum windows and a “decorative” wrought iron front porch post. The extension displaced the front door location, but no one had bothered to remove the walkway so there was a cement path leading directly from the street to a barren, doorless wall.

What the 70’s hadn’t damaged, poverty and neglect had: a crooked old streetlight, boarded up windows, grime…

In the little thumbnail pictures, there weren’t enough details to reveal how truly awful the house was and I could see that we might be able to do a relatively inexpensive facelift to make it look, well… less embarrassing. Most of the problems were things that needed to be removed: the 1970s half-brick façade and planters, the non-functioning street gas lamp that had been hit by a car (or at least I assume that is why it was crooked), and various other things… the biggest outdoor expenses would be repainting and replacing the aluminum front window with a wooden one to match the rest of the house.

The inspector said the foundation was sound. Everything else would need to be replaced. Everything except the tin roof because we could just caulk all the empty screw holes that made it look like a planetarium when you were in the attic. Of course, there were also the boarded up windows, rewiring the electricity, shutting off the gas, replacing the window units with air conditioning (this is Texas –we often see 100 days over 100 degrees in the summer) and replacing the small gas heaters with a heat pump… and we’d need an exterminator for the vermin: there were fleas, cockroaches, termites and rats. In short, it was perfect.

We signed the papers the morning of our flight to France… who knew the stack of legal papers would be as thick as a set of encyclopedias?

And THAT was when I really officially became a “housewife” and “homemaker” and my job description expanded to include: house painter, plasterer, roof repairer, window installer, floor re-surfacer, gardener, and I’ll just end there but the list goes on. Somehow, I still managed to avoid making candles: don’t tell me there are no miracles.

You get the picture. My life was exhausting and not particularly intellectually stimulating.

As reward for the joys of staying at home, I spent a year with just one pair of jeans and five shirts, ridiculously long hair and raccoon like circles under my eyes from sleep deprivation …even though we used part of our home improvement loan to indulge in our first real bed with a nice mattress. Without my two sweet darling boys my life would have been truly bleak. It is amazing how wonderful children’s laughter can make you feel. It is amazing how a tiny little hand can make everything seem alright.

But everything was far from alright. Financial strain, fatigue, and my glamorous uniform: they were all taking a serious toll on the relationship between my husband and me.

Then again, what relationship? We didn’t have time for a relationship.

Once a year my mother-in-law would watch our children so we could go out for our anniversary. I’d get the boys all ready in their pajamas to make things as easy as possible for her and my husband would book a lovely restaurant close to their bedtime. We’d stroll there happily and it would always end in tears: when you just go out one night a year, it needs to be perfect. On the best year a sweet lady with beautiful silver hair at the table next to us talked to us all night, on the worst year I slipped on vomit in the lady’s room. Ah, romance!

Oh well. Though I now wish I had been smart enough at the time to spend a little time on myself (hindsight is 20/20 isn’t it?), at the time, having a real “home” to actually “make” gave me a sense of purpose and drive. I threw myself into the work and drowned out the misery.

 

“What you need to do is build the house you will live in. You build that house by laying a solid foundation: by building physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health.” -James Altucher (founder & cofounder of more that 20 companies)

 

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