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Thursday, November 27, 2008

Home Never Seemed so Sweet

I'm very pleased that this post has been chosen as recommended reading in the 87th Carnival of Money Stories, hosted by The Financial Wellness Project. It has also be chosen as "The Best Post of the Week, Anywhere" in On the Moneyed Midways, Political Calculations' roundup of the best financial carnivals of the week. Please visit these sites for other interesting reading about personal finance. While you're here, please poke around at some of my other posts. If you like what you see, please sign up for my RSS Feed. Thanks for dropping by.
Like many of us, I've taken stock of my blessings during this season of Thanksgiving.

I am most thankful that we still have our home and that it looks like we will be able to stay in it. In past years I have taken this fact very much for granted.

This house represents stability to me. To have lost it would have nearly broken my heart, although I know we would have managed somehow.

Yes, it's cluttered. We've deferred maintenance. The basement is dark and damp. The kitchen needs to be painted. The weeds have taken over the yard. But it is where we became a family.

My parents and Mr. Poorhouse's are gone now. His childhood home is occupied by another family, and another little boy lives in his room. As an Army brat, I have lived in upwards of 20 houses. My mother made a home in each of them by accumulating stuff (much of which, I'm ashamed to say, I still have).

In my twenties and thirties, I spent many years in a major city. I loved almost every minute of it. Mr. Poorhouse, on the other hand--not so much. A carjacking finally kicked us to the suburbs. I made a fantasy wish list: our dream house would have a porch, sidewalks, a garage, a yard, 3-4 bedrooms, and a hallway staircase. It would be an older house within walking distance of shops, public transportation, and good schools. It would be in a place with a strong community feeling.

When we first toured our house, it was way out of our price range. It was the last of seven houses on a kamikaze house-hunting weekend day. As we walked out the front door that day, I sighed to Mr. Poorhouse, "This is a great house. Wouldn't Christmas be wonderful here?" The agent, rather desperately I thought, said, "Make us an offer." We just laughed.

We started calling it "The house with the weird porches" because not only did it have one porch, it had three--a front porch, a partially enclosed side porch that had been part of the original wraparound porch, and a screened-in porch added in the 50s.

As we got closer to actually making a decision (months later), we engaged a buyer's agent to help us. One day she said, "The next house we'll see is in a far better neighborhood than anything we've seen yet, but it has a structural problem."

It was the house with the weird porches. The price had come down. We swallowed hard after our home inspector gave us the run-down. "At no point," I said to him, "did you say the words 'falling down'."

"No," he replied, "It is not falling down."

So after reading his 20-page report, we made an offer, closed, and dealt with the structural issues. We stalked the neighborhood for weeks before we actually moved in, and every time we met people on the street, they looked us in the eye, smiled and said hello. This behavior was foreign to us. Where we had lived, making eye contact was a losing sport.

The first week in the house, we made a home video for our parents modeled on This Old House (complete with Fat's Waller's Louisiana Fairy Tale playing in the background.)

The house was built in 1904. The architect lived in our neighborhood and designed each house to look a little different. It was a bedroom community built within walking distance of the first commuter rail line in the country. I went to town hall and looked up the census to see who had lived here before. I pulled the engineering permit and was charmed to find the hand-written request from the 1920s "for to enclose the piazza" which explained one of the weird porches.

A four-year-old neighbor girl came over one day and asked us if we had any kids. When we said no, she looked dejected and wandered away. We learned quickly that without kids, you're nobody in this town. We discovered our neighborhood used to be known as "Rabbit Hollow" on account of the number of large families who have been raised here.

Even the plants spur memories here. Like my brother-in-law telling us with absolute certainty that the big tree in the back yard was a linden tree. (It's a pignut hickory, for the record.) Or the Tropicana rose we planted to remember my Grammie, the Peace rose for Gramps, and the burning bush we planted in memory of my father-in-law, who passed away during our first year in the house. Or the weeping cherry we planted when baby Prissy was born. Or the maple tree I hugged with all my strength while in labor with baby Paul. Our first year we re-graded one side of the house and planted shade-loving plants which our new neighbor dubbed our "love garden." Mr. Poorhouse planted corn three years in a row, only to finally have it all stolen by squirrels, who not only ate it, but left the cobs strewn about the entire neighborhood.

The inside of the house, too, surrounds us with memories of our families. Many of the rugs and furniture were Grandma's. The walls are littered with paintings by Mom, Grandpa, and my mother-in-law, who I never met. Upstairs in the hall we have the wall of babies--family pictures from many generations. Adjacent is the wall of teenagers--our parents and grandparents when they were young. Also upstairs is a box of letters Mr. Poorhouse's parents wrote to each other when his father was in the Navy, one for every day of his three-year tour on an aircraft carrier. Another box contains the letters my mom sent to her mother from every new house we lived in when I was growing up--from Alabama to Frankfurt.

Almost as soon as we got the key, our first order of business was to get a dog. Pal, though not cleverly named, was a clever dog. A shelter dog of Australian Shepherd descent, he would escape the house at every opportunity, and then herd all the neighbors to their porches. He wouldn't actually run away, but just buzz anybody who was trying to catch him. And you couldn't catch him the same way more than once. He wouldn't come home until he was completely worn out. Sometimes this took twelve hours! Everyone in the neighborhood got in on the action trying to help us catch this evil genius. In every other way, Pal was a gentle and loving friend.

In this house I stayed up with our 20-year old black cat, PJ, as she breathed her last.

Eventually, we also lost Pal to kidney failure at the age of 11. We invested in a fence for the back yard for our new puppy, Pax. She became part of our family routine, without the drama Pal had provided.

How could we forget the day a film crew with its award-winning director spent a rainy day on our front porch and in our basement creating a short film that went on to win critical acclaim at a number of festivals?

Or the many Thanksgivings? My brother-in-law was a regular at our holiday feasts until a falling out last year. One of the most memorable was the Thanksgiving day we brought new baby Prissy home from the hospital. My mom and sister were here to manage the cooking while I set up a nursing nest in our crazy blue striped library. I spent many hours in that room--nursing and snoozing and reading and crying and laughing as Prissy and I worked out our sometimes tumultuous mommy-baby relationship.

On our front porch, we met our dear au pair Pavla, as she literally charmed a bird who hopped right up to her. We stripped and sanded three generations of old wallpaper on plaster walls in our spare room into lavender splendor for our first au pair, Patricie. Mr. Poorhouse joked that these wonderful young women were more responsible than we were!

I started a business and worked from a converted bedroom for seven years. I remember the phone calls I took at my desk--the call when my mom told me she had breast cancer--the call from my Dad when my lovely niece was born--the call from my mother's neighbors the day they found her on the floor of her condo.

One of my favorite memories was of our long-awaited piano sailing through the back yard because it wouldn't go up the steps to the front porch. I played late into the night for months. Though we can't afford lessons anymore, the kids still play on occasion, and it feels right.

This is where I came home to be with my family when I left work early on September 11, 2001. On this porch I stood on with a candle later that week. Here is where we hang our flag. Here is where we have watched in dread and relief as elections have been won or lost.

Prissy and Paul are now 11 and 8. This home is the only home they have ever known. I wonder sometimes what that must be like. They have friends they've known since preschool. They've dressed as characters from their favorite books and movies for Halloween, run through the house and yard finding Easter eggs, lit the Menorah in the window over prayers, and wondered with delight at their presents from Santa.

Here we cuddle on the couch for family movie night and pile into bed together to read Harry Potter. Here the kids can go outside to play with friends without us having to arrange formal play dates. They walk to school and back on their own now. How grown up they are.

In the past year, we have been through two periods of foreclosure warnings from our bank. It looked for a while like we would lose our home. We only dodged the bullet by being lucky enough to find better jobs (not easy after extended periods of unemployment and self-employment) and by the generosity of my father's wife. We have a 30-year low-rate fixed mortgage. We have equity. We just didn't have the income to pay our bills.

A few years after we moved in to this quirky, not-falling-down, fabulous house, I found that list I had written describing our fantasy home. I realized this house had everything on that list. Plus things we could not have begun to imagine then.

I am thankful for my home.

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