The Young Collector
When we lived in the schoolhouse, it was maddening to lose something. By the end of our time there, the four of us were packed in like sardines, but there were only two small, atypical closets and there was no basement, so when something vanished, it was infuriating. Many times we scoured the house for some crucial item—a power strip, the canning funnel, or the spare tank of butane for the pellet stove torch—muttering the whole time, “This house is only 1200 square feet! The folder of last year’s family photos is here somewhere. How the $#&% can I not find this?”
In the year in our new house, we have discovered that we were naïve fools. If you really want to lose something forever, it takes five closets, a linen closet, a hall closet, a storage room, and a workshop. Before, the search was a tear-filled rant about the metaphysical impossibility of a Christmas tree stand to be in anything other than three potential places. (Not true. It will actually fit in the lower drawer of a chest.) Now, it is the bleak resignation of a person staring across a vast desert, knowing that the odds are not in his favor.
That is one of many things that have changed over our first year in a modern house. We have come to love the small things that most people take for granted, things such as reliable heat that is, you know, actually warm, and a kitchen sink with no snake. It has also made us reevaluate several pieces of our furniture. In such a small space, everything had to be utilitarian. We kept some pieces that we did not love in part because they were so useful. Now, our furniture does not have to be useful in the same way. We can consider owning things that are much more form than function. We are also reassessing how to use so much storage space in a house that has storage spaces of its own. There is no need, for instance, to stow the Christmas tree stand in the bottom drawer of a four-drawer chest or to fill blanket chests with actual blankets. What is the role of all this stuff in our new life, and how do we shift our views and usage to keep it relevant? These are problems people have time to consider when they don’t have to worry about things such as the dryer vent sticking shut, steaming up the capped chimney it ill-advisedly vents across, spalling bricks and mildewing an entire closet (which is one of only two).
But still, sometimes we feel as though we have somehow sold out. Hollie finds that she sometimes misses her old nemesis, the pellet stove. Perhaps it is simply Appalachian stoicism (or the writer in her who will suffer all sorts of misery because they will eventually become great stories), but living in a house that does not require a constant fight somehow feels as if we’re cheating. There is no fight in this house. Everything is standardized, uniform, and accessible. Life in this house is no victory in an existential battle of wits. Did we quit, Hollie often wonders, did we give up an adventure, abandon some individualist track through the unknown for the well-trod path of being the same as everyone else, or are we just finding our individuality in other places? Will we live in an old house again someday? Do we want to?
We got the chance to consider the choice recently when a house we had watched for more than 15 years came on the market. The real estate agent knew we had been interested and contacted us first. We had been back and forth with her over the house for some time, as one-half of the couple wanted to sell and the other did not. They changed their minds about ten months after we needed them to. It is a beautiful stone house, circa 1800, on a spacious lot on a river, largely untouched in many ways. It would have reduced our mortgage too, by nearly 40%.
So we thought about it. First, it is seven miles up a dirt road that floods. Moving would have absolutely required upgrading to at least one four-wheel-drive vehicle. This was one of several “hidden” expenses that we would have been required to address. And there would be no reliable Internet, other than satellite-based Internet, and Internet is an integral part of both of our businesses. The school district would be a small step down. Our current grocery store, the best in a fairly large area, is only ten minutes away. If we had moved, it would have been half an hour to any grocery store. Activities for the kids, art camps, swim lessons, and their homeschool co-op, all would go from 10 to 20 minutes to 30 to 60 minutes.
And then there was the house itself. It was originally a two-bay-over-two-bay plan, and one downstairs room had been divided in half to make a bedroom that allowed for a double bed and a path into it. While a fully functional modern kitchen had been added on, the staircase to the upstairs was the old narrow dogleg form with nary a landing in sight. Nothing bigger than a one-drawer stand was going up it, a problem given Andrew’s penchant for wardrobes a person could live in. The property also had a long-neglected barn, but it was claimed to be one of the earliest in the state, so we would have felt the obligation to repair and maintain it. And we would have been giving up a sizable chunk of the square footage we have come to enjoy. (As do most things, human beings—or, ahem, their wardrobe collections—tend to expand to fill the space they are given.)
We also were not sure that at this point in our lives we were ready to pick up the heavy mantle of historical responsibility that would, our being who we are, come with an old house. It is a considerable burden to be constantly thinking about—and saving for—the work to be done in an old house. The schoolhouse windows were enormous and not very efficient, for instance, but new ones would have come with a host of structural and material considerations, not to mention an exorbitant price tag. At this point in our lives, we realized, we might have to be honest about the fact that we have put and need to continue for the foreseeable future to put our energies elsewhere.
The bittersweet kernel of the decision, however, was the knowledge that 12 months ago, we would have said yes. We would have said yes immediately, paid asking price, and then asked to look inside. We were that certain, that in love. And it felt disloyal and unsettling to realize that yes, things have changed that much. We were not ready to throw over our lives, upend everything after a year of nestling in and finding our rhythms here, and perhaps that is because we do not love old houses as much as we once thought we did. Perhaps it is also possible that we have simply found things that, at this moment in time, we love even more.
It is surprising, but after having a snake in your kitchen sink, even years later, you never stop expecting there to be a snake in your kitchen sink. To this day, a part of Hollie’s mind compels her to lift dry dishes out of the sink with a great deal of deliberation. She laughs at herself now. That was then. There are no snakes here, no weeping copper pipes, and no mouse-sized baseboard gaps. But then, just this week, she went down into the laundry room and found what appeared to be a very tiny black racer enjoying the cool tile floor. He was easier to remove than the kitchen snake ever was. (It was insultingly easy really. He is too young to know how to make a good anecdote, we guess.) Maybe he will become a more formidable opponent. Maybe we will just find another fight. Nothing (not even weather stripping, apparently) can keep some things, the things that define who you are, from finding you. Our homes change us. We leave them, and yet they never leave us. For a while the surroundings seem different, different enough to make you think you might be different too, but it turns out though that much of that is just window dressing. Wherever you go, there, in fact, you are.
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Originally published in the October 2018 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2018 Maine Antique Digest