Read an Excerpt
A Memoir of the
1: My First Look Around
March 1968: House Hunting Is a Drag
My story began the first day Paul walked into our apartment and announced that he had found a house for us. We had been house hunting for several weeks. Each trip began with eager anticipation and ended with the words, "We just can't afford this one." The houses I
loved were always out of our price range.
We were a one-income family, period. Although many wives and mothers were carving out a nice spot for themselves in the workplace,
Paul didn't want me to join them. He had a troubled childhood and seriously believed that children raised by a stay-at-home mom would fare better than those with a mother who worked outside the home. This meant less money, fewer material things, and the frustration connected with both. I stayed home with our two small children just to keep peace in the family, even though it meant living without a lot of things we needed and many things we wanted-including my dream house.
At first, we dragged the kids with us on the numerous househunting trips. The weather was still cold and snowy, so this meant boots, scarves, and lots of whining-and that was just me! Finally,
to simplify matters, Paul began going out by himself. I didn't like that arrangement at all, but back in 1968 the assertiveness movement was still in its infancy. Come to think of it, I hadn't even heard the A-word yet. The afternoon Paul came home saying he'd found a house, I was overjoyed, in a suspicious sort of way. "Where is it?
How much is it? When can I see it?" It was in Blaine, Minnesota,
and the asking price was $16,500. We could just barely swing it. Paul called Jack, the Realtor, to set up a date for me to see the house. I
arranged for a babysitter. I was so excited.
By the time Jack and Paul took me to see the house, the FHA
people had already looked at it, given the owners a list of repairs that needed to be made, and assessed the value of the home at
$12,500. When I called to share this good fortune with my best friend, Carrie, she asked, "What do you think is wrong with it?" I
laughed and blurted out, "Maybe it's haunted!" Why I said that, I'll never know. Those prophetic words just popped out of my mouth.
We cackled over my silly joke like our cartoon role models, Wilma
Flintstone and Betty Rubble, and then got down to the business of discussing my long-overdue move. By this time, all my friends had abandoned apartment living and settled in new or nearly new homes in the 'burbs.
En route to my first tour of the place, the Realtor explained that the house was an older, two-bedroom expansion model. This style made its debut around the end of the Korean War, when these homes sprang up all over the country to accommodate returning war veterans.
These structures were designed to be starter homes-built quickly and cheaply.
Is This Really My Home Sweet Home?
I'll never forget pulling up in front of the small clapboard house. I
couldn't understand why anyone would paint this style of house in two colors, since it only accentuated how small it is. It looked like a sad little orphan in tattered clothes. Yet there it stood, proudly holding its head high, adorned with peeling white paint on its top portion and cracked aqua blue on its bottom half. I actually felt sorry for it. This was the awkward child in the orphanage whom no one wanted, the child always left behind after his pretty playmates were placed in good homes. I've always been a sucker for a hard-luck story, and now the orphan belonged to me. Although it's difficult to admit, I was embarrassed to end up with the worst-looking house in my circle of friends. Apparently, history really is destined to repeat itself-especially my history-because I grew up in a house that always looked shabby and rundown. My family never had any money, and even though my darling dad did his best to provide for the family, ours was the worst-looking of all my friends'
houses back in those days too. I'd hoped for something better when
I grew up.
Everything in Minnesota looks its scruffiest in March. I sighed as I gazed at my future home sitting on its bleak piece of property.
There was no garage, but apartment living during the past six years had rarely afforded us a garage, so that was no big deal. There were a couple of massive oak trees in the front yard that looked pretty friendly despite their dormant state. I pictured the gnarled giants covered with leaves and flanked all around by green grass, flower gardens, shrubs, and maybe a white picket fence. I'd had my heart set on a house with a picket fence for as long as I could remember.
Here was my chance to make that dream come true. If only I'd had a fairy godmother who could turn this melancholy property into a sweet little cottage with one grand sweep of her magic wand.
Two huge elms stood guard in the backyard, surrounded on three sides by an odd assortment of neighbors' fences. This poor little house had to wear hand-me-down fences too. How unfair! There were clusters of dormant shrubs around the property line. I hoped they would magically become lilacs when the sun warmed everything in the spring. The scent of lilacs wafting through the springtime air is delightful, and it stirs up wonderful memories. The old elm trees would give off lots of shade, and there was plenty of room for a swing set and sandbox. I could finally have the vegetable garden
I'd always wanted. I made up my mind to dwell on the positives.
There was no other option.
As we entered the house, we found ourselves on a small landing,
looking down the basement steps; I wondered if we'd have to put up a gate to keep the kids from falling down there. Then we entered the plain-looking kitchen. The smell of coffee brewing on the stove welcomed us. It actually made this dour little house seem friendly. Years later, I learned that this was the oldest real-estate trick in the book, designed to give prospective buyers a "welcome home" kind of feeling. The friendly smell did nothing to change the size of the room, however. I was soon to discover the kitchen was approximately nine by thirteen feet. The area adjacent to the back door was completely wasted space: possibly enough room for our drop-leaf table and two chairs, but there were four of us! The fridge wouldn't fit there because of the south-facing window. There was a traffic area through the room that ended with a very narrow opening into the hallway, flanked on either side by the stove and the cupboards. This opening was eighteen inches. I made a mental note never to gain weight.
The other window in the kitchen had been located over the sink,
facing east. It had been turned into a pass-through and knickknack shelf when an addition was built. After stepping inside the back door, it was plain to see the previous owner loved bland colors. The floors in entryway and kitchen were covered with gray tile speckled with white and pink dots-typical forties and fifties fare. The walls were grayish taupe, and pink and white organdy curtains adorned the window. It was certainly not my taste. The badly stained sink had residue stuck in the drain basket. Even if you couldn't afford new appliances,
you could at least keep the old ones clean, I thought.
The addition was called a family room, and it was thirteen feet square. This room was painted the same color as the kitchen and sported the same organdy curtains and the same blah tile. It was furnished with a couple of armchairs, end tables, and lamps, as well as the kitchen table with chairs and a toaster. As we gazed into the dull,
drab room, Jack quickly pointed out that most two-bedroom expansion homes didn't have a nice-sized addition like this. I had to admit it had possibilities. A fireplace and a pair of wingback chairs would look great in here. Maybe cozy shutters over the four small corner windows-or better yet, larger windows could change this gloomy living space into something more cheery and transform this room into a perfect place for growing plants, since it got the morning sun.
The biggest drawback was money. So for now, we'd leave the ugly tile, replace the curtains, and paint over the boring walls as soon as possible. I couldn't say anything about the color scheme, because the current owner, Agnes Miller, stuck to us like glue. Home owners are usually not around when their properties are being shown,
as a courtesy to the prospective buyers. Apparently, Agnes didn't know how to drive, had nowhere to go, or was just plain nosy, so the chubby, rosy-cheeked woman was always in the way. This house was so small that she became a hindrance during the showing. Our group pressed onward as Jack walked us through the rest of the house.
Next, we moved into the living room. This room was roughly eleven by seventeen feet in size. It had one average-sized window on the south side and a large picture window facing west. This room also had a tiny coat closet located opposite the front door. The doors could not be opened at the same time without banging one into the other. Although I'm sure the architect's plans were followed to the letter, it's a structural aberration if you ask me.
This room was a mournful dirge of brown. A thin mud-colored carpet rested loosely atop the floor while light brown paint covered the walls. The focal point was the large picture window, dressed with boring Austrian poufs. They were made from a milk-chocolate-colored fabric. I stared at them with genuine disbelief. Agnes proudly proclaimed, "I made the curtains myself." I think Jack mistook my stunned expression for one of admiration, because he stated with confidence, "Marlene, those curtains will stay with the house." I
thought to myself, Oh no, they won't. Jack confirmed that the carpet was staying with the house as well. Lucky us!
This room was sparsely furnished with a nondescript couch and armchair (both in the tan color family) and a couple of end tables,
but what caught my eye was the monstrosity against the short north wall. It was an oversized, cumbersome chair made from ornately carved wood with a very dark finish. This chair most definitely had spent a previous life as a gargoyle. In a museum, this huge piece of furniture would have looked quite interesting; however, in a room this size, it was seriously out of place. Agnes said it was a genuine antique throne dating from the eighteenth century. Antique or not,
it was genuinely unattractive. Trust me.
Virtually everything in this room was some shade of brown. I
couldn't explain why, but something about the monochromatic color scheme disturbed me. So did the air in the living room-it felt heavy.
The coffeepot was still perking on the stove, and the smell of overcooked coffee wafting in from the kitchen added to the dense composition of the air, giving the room a suffocating quality.
The bathroom was grungy and cramped. Neither Paul nor I were large people; however, the two of us could barely squeeze into the tiny room to look it over. It was approximately the size of a small walk-in closet-about nine by six feet. With the tub, toilet, and sink,
it became much smaller, making it a one-person room. It looked as if someone could dangle their legs in the bathtub while sitting on the toilet.
Generally speaking, when someone puts their home on the market,
they make sure it is as clean and shiny as possible. This poor little house smacked of gross indifference, neglect, and apathy both inside and out. Dirty pink tile extended halfway up the painted pink walls. Several of the tiles were chipped on the edges, and the toilet bowl needed a lot of work. It was quite apparent that Agnes preThe ferred to spend her quality time with her garish throne in the living room rather than with its china cousin in here. The sink was almost as bad, and there was precious little porcelain left in the bathtub;
the yellowish brown scum and the black cast-iron spots seemed to battle for squatters' rights along its bottom. The tub, toilet, and sink would be difficult to restore to an acceptable level of cleanliness. If
I'd had my druthers, there would have been a junkyard in this trio's future, but some good old-fashioned elbow grease would have to work its magic in the meantime.
Some time ago, cupboards had been installed above the tub, so anyone over five feet ten inches was unable to comfortably stand upright in the shower. I drew attention to them, saying, "There isn't much headroom for taking a shower." Jack, who was standing in the hall, pointed out that the cupboards take the place of the linen closet. Agnes laughed and said, "It's a good thing that we're short people." She told me her husband was five foot six and she was only five foot two. I knew, at five-four, that I'd have no headroom concerns,
but my husband wouldn't be very comfortable in here. And at that point in time, we had no way of knowing the height our children would reach in the coming years. To add inconvenience to the mix, I'd have to balance on the rim of the tub to put towels away. I
knew that could get tricky, since I'm not a graceful creature.
At the end of the short hallway-which was covered with brown asbestos tile-and to the right of the bathroom door stood my son's future bedroom; it was about nine by ten feet. The walls were an uninspired tan color, and the floor was covered with the same asbestos tile as the hallway. I thought it a little strange to have cold tile in a bedroom, without even so much as a throw rug for warmth. This room held a twin bed covered with a patchwork quilt, some toys,
and a dresser. Since it needed a lot of work, I decided to have the kids bunk upstairs and make this a playroom for the time being.
The Millers' bedroom was located kitty-corner from the bath. This room looked a bit larger, but not by much. Agnes was finally introducing some heavy-duty color into her home decorating: these walls were covered with eye-popping fuchsia paint, which gave the room an odd luminosity. After that shocking surprise, my eyes were drawn to the throw rugs that covered the taupe tile floor. Oh boy, more tile! The rugs were bright red acrylic shag. I blinked several times before my eyes bounced from the French provincial gold-trimmed bed to the windows and back to the floor. Screaming red curtains and a matching bedspread completed her decor. If snapping my fingers could transform this garish room into a living human being, it would have instantly become a painted French floozy loitering under a streetlight and waiting for some action to come her way . . . but that's just my opinion.
When we'd first entered the house, I thought there had been a glow emanating from this room. Now that I was standing in it, I
could see why. Paul blurted out, "You need sunglasses in here!" and
Jack laughed. I didn't look at Agnes, but I'm sure she didn't appreciate that remark. From my perspective, it's puzzling why she used such bland colors in the other rooms and then put fuchsia and bright red in here. I assured Paul that the color would change as soon as possible.
On the tall dresser sat a jewelry box, a clock, and a picture of a little boy. Agnes had referred to the tan bedroom next door as her youngest daughter's room. She said the older girls slept upstairs, so
I didn't know where this little fellow fit in; maybe he was a godson or a favorite nephew. After I saw his sweet little face, I wanted to ask about him later, but that shocking assault of fuchsia knocked me for a loop and I completely forgot.
Jack was prattling on and on about how this house was a true handyman special. Now, that would be a good thing if Paul were a handyman. Trust me, he's not! I thought maybe my father-in-law would help us fix this house up. He was a bona fide handyman. I just hoped he'd be agreeable to it. I pressed my fingers tightly against the paneled walls for stability. The more I saw of this house, the more
I disliked it, but it was my only chance to get out of the apartment and get settled before Krissy started kindergarten that fall.
Jack was eager to show us the second floor. We took a leap of faith and trekked up the creaky steps behind him. The threadbare carpet on the risers shifted with every step we took, and there was no hand railing to grab in case one of us lost our footing. Halfway up the steps, Jack directed our attention to the cheap paneling on the stairway walls, as if to convince himself that it was a selling feature.
It looked like it had been slapped up in a hurry. The stairs groaned under our combined weight. A couple of the steps didn't feel safe,
but with new carpet, some new boards, and a couple of handrails,
this could become a good, sturdy flight of stairs. We'd have to deal with the ugly paneling later. Paul liked the paneling on the walls, but then he's a paneling freak. We looked at one home in another suburb that was completely paneled-even the kitchen and bath. Paul loved it. Thank God the asking price was beyond our price range, or
I would have ended up in the loony bin.
As we passed the storage area on our left, Jack pulled aside a drab gray curtain to reveal several suitcases. "Here you will find ample storage. The cubbyholes that open onto this space run along the entire length of the house." I peered into the storage area. Just beyond the suitcases, I saw a wooden door that Jack opened to reveal a cubbyhole with a small floor inside. I felt very cold and prickly as we stood in that area. This hostile space made it quite clear that it did not want to hold anything that belonged to us. I made a mental note to respect its wishes. The cubbyhole on the other side of the room had a friendlier attitude. We could store a lot of belongings in there if we wished. At the time, our little family didn't have much in the way of storable possessions, but when we did, I knew which cubby to use.
One interesting feature in this style of home is the layout of the second floor. The walls were only four feet high, and then they angled up to form a slanted ceiling. The most headroom up there is a strip down the center of the ceiling that runs the length of the room; it's about three and half feet wide. Veering away from that area could result in a nasty bump to the head. This was a perfect room for small children or gnomes-and a bloody inconvenience for everyone else. I planned on putting our two small kids up there until they required separate bedrooms. One thing that bothered me was the fact that there was no two-way light switch at the bottom of the steps. (I'm embarrassed to say there still isn't.) Every trip taken up or down the steps after dark would have to be made in the dark.
The first light switch was located about seven feet into the room after you'd climbed the stairs. This large bedroom took up the entire second floor and consisted of three distinct spaces. The smallest, at the head of the stairs, was about six by ten feet; the next area, which included the closet, measured nine by ten feet; and the largest and most usable area was eleven and a half by ten feet.
Due to the structure of the walls, the pint-sized closet was a squatty kind of space. The rod would accommodate adult shirts, but anything longer, such as a dress, would hit the floor. This bedroom had a melancholy feel to it in spite of the cozy ceiling. The absence of color could have been the culprit. Color makes almost any space livable and attractive. Eons ago, the cavemen worked wonders with it, and in this case I thought it couldn't hurt. I had spent the first six years of my marriage in apartments with white walls. I couldn't wait to start painting this house.
This dreary space had grayish walls, an unstained hardwood floor,
a couple of unmatched metal beds, and two dressers in it. Agnes said her two older daughters bunked up here. Jack fell all over himself pointing out the hardwood floor. He was getting on my nerves. I silently wondered how many prospective buyers had tramped through this gloomy little property and turned it down flat. I wished we could have as well. But since that wasn't an option, I focused on ideas for sprucing up the house with paint and accessories. It had to work.
This house was in our price range, and Paul had already put earnest money down on it. That was two strikes against me.
Our return trip down the stairs was eerie. I felt a cold, prickly sensation as we passed the hostile cubbyhole. I whispered to Paul how chilly this house felt. Jack must have overheard me, because,
sensing my displeasure, he interrupted our private conversation by loudly declaring, "It's March, what do you expect?" Good ol' Jack must have felt very sure of himself when he uttered that sarcastic remark, knowing he'd already made the sale. He could finally take this fixer-upper out of his inventory. While his insensitive words hung in the air, the back of my neck felt like it was being bombarded with thousands of tiny needles. As I made my way down the steps, I
knew right then and there something was amiss in this melancholy place, and it couldn't all be blamed on the cold dampness of March.
Strike number three!
Our tour wouldn't have been complete without a trip to the basement.
It was unfinished, but the Millers had furnished the first room at the bottom of the steps with a couch, a couple of cast-off chairs, a television set, and an old upright piano. From the odor in the air, we could tell the cement floor had been freshly painted: a lovely battleship gray. Impertinence is contagious! The cement block walls were sporting a coat of deep carnation pink. Does anybody want to guess what Mrs. Miller's favorite colors were? Jack directed our attention to the exposed joists supporting the living-room floor, claiming that the excellent craftsmanship would keep the floor from squeaking.
As if on cue, Agnes, who was still underfoot, chimed in by saying,
"My father was very impressed with those two-by-fours. This kind of quality workmanship isn't done anymore these days." Why she made that remark, I'll never know. As long as we've lived here, that floor has always creaked.
Our Realtor opened an ill-fitting door held shut by a hook-andeye lock located at the top, and we saw the other half of the basement.
In this space, the floor was painted in that same fuchsia paint
Agnes had used in her bedroom. These people wasted nothing. This area was home to the furnace as well as the washer and dryer. More fixer-upper talk spewed from Jack's mouth. His phony enthusiasm annoyed me. I wanted to blurt out, "So when are you coming over to start working on this dump, Jack?" Tucked around in back, on the other side of the living space, was a room filled with tools. Paul seemed very pleased to have his own work room, but I wasn't comfortable down here. The basement didn't feel as hostile as the cubbyhole upstairs, but it didn't radiate warmth either.
When we arrived back at our apartment, Paul told me his mother and stepfather had already looked at the house. "What? I exclaimed.
I was quite disappointed that they had seen my future home before I
had. They advised him to buy it, because it could always be fixed up.
The main thing was to get in and get settled. Then Paul cautioned,
"This is the only house I'm ever going to buy you. You better not start any fights with the neighbors, because we're not moving." That just about covers the dual decision-making in our family back in the sixties.
I called my mother-in-law to see what she really thought of the place. Their home was beautifully furnished, so I didn't believe she approved of our little orphan by any stretch of the imagination. In a semi-sarcastic tone of voice, Dora admitted she'd never live in a house like that, but she said that with decent decorating and much-needed repairs, it wouldn't be half bad for a starter home. She emphasized the word "starter." Dora said we could always move into something better in a few years. Paul's words-"This is the only house I'm ever going to buy you"-reverberated in my mind after she made that remark. I asked if the kids were home when they looked at the house. She said they were, so I asked her if she saw a little boy. She replied, "That's a sad story. He died six years ago of a ruptured bowel. There is a picture of him on her bedroom dresser."
I could hardly wait to hang up. I immediately called Carrie with that piece of news and added, "Maybe my house has a ghost after all!" She whined, "My house didn't come with one. I'm jealous."
Wilma and Betty laughed again while Carrie and I made plans for the upcoming move. She and her husband volunteered to help.
A closing date was set, and late one afternoon in a cramped office downtown, we signed the papers with our two small children scuffling on the floor at our feet. The adoption was complete. We were first-time owners of a small house with very strange vibes. I was overwhelmed with happiness, though it was tempered with misgivings.
Paul had qualified for a GI loan, so several repairs had to be made before we could take possession. It would have been perfect if new bathroom appliances and a new kitchen sink had made the fix-up list,
but that didn't happen. The septic tank was replaced with a sewer,
and upgrades were made to the furnace to bring the house up to code.
After the new sewer pipe was installed, we were left with three huge mounds of dirt in the front yard, and it was up to us to dispose of it.
Somebody told Paul that watering the soil would eventually blend it back into the ground. Guess who got that job? I could imagine the neighbors saying, "Hey, have you seen the crazy lady who moved into the rundown blue and white house? She waters those piles of dirt in her front yard every single night." Boy, did I feel foolish standing out there, hose in hand, making mounds of mud. It made no sense.
One evening, a neighbor walked by and asked me what I was growing in those mounds. That did it. After that bit of humiliation, I ended up shoveling the stubborn dirt around the base of the oak trees and against the foundation. But I've jumped ahead of myself.
Although the Millers had legal rights to the house till month's end, they moved out in mid-April, as soon as we closed on it. I'm sure they weren't happy about having to sink more money into the place, as they were getting over a thousand less than their asking price. They left behind an old junky car and said they'd be back for it, but they never returned.
On a positive note, their hasty departure gave us a rare opportunity to get in early and paint. I could hardly wait to get at it. Paul worked nights, so I spent my mornings hauling small loads of nonessentials from our apartment in Fridley to the house. Since we were a one-vehicle family, it was imperative that I return before Paul had to leave for work. I painted or cleaned as time permitted during those visits.
Krissy, my social butterfly, was in her glory. She was busy meeting all the neighbors. Scott played with his trucks in the empty, echoing rooms while I did battle with the fuchsia floozy in the bedroom. It was quite a nasty scuffle, but after three coats of soft avocado paint, the room was habitable. It was the first room I painted, because no one could have slept in there without suffering permanent brain damage.
While I rolled paint, my little daughter ran around the neighborhood and then raced back to tell me the names of all the housewives on the block. She brought with her their invitations to come for coffee as soon as we were settled. She also rattled off all the new friends she had made. Scott was perfectly happy playing in the house by me, and I was thankful for my three-year-old's company,
because it kept me from working in the stone-cold silence. I didn't feel comfortable in the house quite yet, and I wondered if I ever would.
The tiny kitchen got a coat of pale coral paint before we moved in.
That wasn't a favorite color of mine, but it coordinated with the ugly floor tile. I was no fan of the blond pine woodwork and cupboards either, but with one income, we had to pace ourselves on redecorating.
The rest of the rooms would just have to wait their turn.