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Twenty years in the big house

Sounds like a sentence handed down to a Jimmy Cagney character in an old gangster movie, but it's the landmark we're grappling with this summer. This coming Labor Day weekend, it will be two decades to the day since we closed on the CrazyStable. Staggering half-witted into this impossible undertaking at the tender age (we now realize) of 29, we had no inkling of what lay ahead. But this looming anniversary makes me realize that time, even more than money, has been the aspect of our lives most transformed by the journey.

Things here have a history of seeming to happen either very, very quickly or in geologic time, as if time itself expanded and contracted in some whimsical Einsteinian ballet. The decision to buy the place, for example, we recall as a panicked whirlwind: The housing bubble was expanding so fast, and our resources were so sorely limited, that a delay of months or even weeks seemed likely to lock us out of the market forever. (This, in fact, proved to be true--one of our rare correct financial intuitions.) And as the market soared, my recently widowed mother was in freefall, depressed, anorexic, and in imminent danger of winding up on our fold-out couch when she couldn't face another night alone in her Manhattan apartment. (The possibility that she would wind up anywhere else but with us never entered our minds--not yet, anyway.)

And so we made a frantic offer on the first few places we could afford that were big enough to accommodate us all in two separate apartments. (Thank God, at least we realized that my mother was unsuited for the spare-bedroom/share-the-couch arrangement.) As it happened, most of these houses were far bigger than big enough--an irony we only understood when we started to pay our heat bills. (We quite literally couldn't have afforded a smaller house, the kind sane people buy.) There was no leisure for pondering, or researching, or comparing; the real-estate agents would stand around in bored impatience like villains out of Dickens, reminding us of how many others were lined up to snap at each nasty morsel we viewed.

Our first walk-through of the CrazyStable, as ghastly as it was, left the vague impression of space and light and possibility, of squared-up timbers, and of honest decay ready for debridement instead of sleazy modern "remuddling." (No "original detail," but neither was there any dark faux-wood paneling, dropped ceilings, or interior Astroturf...just lots of rotting plaster and red-painted floors.) In a hurried glance, I could envision a parlor floor-through studio for my mother, a big eat-in kitchen for us upstairs, and an office and guest room on the third floor--and somewhere out there in back, a garden. [Spouse, by the way, claims that he remembers little of that first visit, because he is cleverly "blocking" it.] That sad and frantic March, we put down most everything we had on the scariest, sorriest house on the block.

And then time stretched...as we awaited the approval of our mortgage, a process that apparently required more consideration and paperwork than the preparation of a Vatican encyclical. April, May, June passed, countless phone calls were made and ignored, and still the bloody mortgage was "pending." We would drive past the house (to see if it was still standing, and to try to comprehend the scope of our folly), and Chang fils would spy us on the curb and scramble out to nag us. "When mortgage?" he would hector. "Lot other people want house!" (Once, he tempered his rant with a kindly comment about the length of our earlobes. "Long!" he said admiringly, tugging mine--which are, I think, of only average length. "Means long life!")

Finally, the mortgage came through (after I called the bank pretending to be a New York Times reporter, then wept noisily at our elusive loan officer for 10 minutes.) Closing was another whirlwind, Moving Day was a veritable "fog of war"...and then, after the dust settled, began 20 years worth of "renovation," about 87% of which has involved absolutely nothing happening. Years at a time during which our finances just about covered lightbulb replacement, and our skills and energy never rose to the task at hand. (In fairness, we were coping with a parade of dying relatives and then, in a rapturous change of pace, a new baby.)  To this day, people come for the first time, look around, and say, "So! How long ya lived in this place?" I imagine they expect the answer in months. Mortified, I usually hedge: "Oh, heh heh, longer than you'd think!"

And that is why I want to celebrate 20 years in the big house, even though we're not even remotely "done." But we've survived, and we're still married, and the Mater was sheltered to the best of our ability, and now there is a Child who professes to love the house fiercely in its blowsy state of half-repair. Come September, we may host a house-warming, and a house blessing too.  It's time.

Posted on Sunday, June 18, 2006 at 04:39PM by Registered CommenterBrenda from Brooklyn | CommentsPost a Comment

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