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
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
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
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
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.