- By Teddy Robertson
- Monday, December 20, 2010
- Hits: 1136
A year or so ago I was thinking about my house as a chapter in my life gradually approaching a close. Our relationship was changing. Each year I move closer to retirement, selling the property and moving on. A poignancy had crept into our conversations.
I have always loved the layout of the house, its coved ceilings, the views of the golf course through the windows, its airy and open position on a corner lot. This house taught me about the capacity of the right real estate to frame possibilities for a changing family — a newly single mother, a teenage son, an aging grandmother, a dog. And, at one point, a visiting Doberman who did not do stairs. The arrangement of its rooms had enabled three people to invent a new life successfully.
When my partner Dennis was here that October he replaced the screen doors with glass for winter. The last tomatoes were picked and the plants pulled up. He hosed the gutters clean and our high school helper Grant raked leaves to the street for city pickup. All the annual fall tasks, the rhythm of the last 10 years.
But I knew then that things were not the same between us, the house and I. After Dennis left, my relationship with the house did not return to its slightly bittersweet equilibrium. The mortgage crisis had disturbed our formerly philosophic dialogue. My side of the conversation grew querulous. How will this house sell in a depressed Flint market a few years from now? Reproaches about market value loss had replaced gratitude for shelter and security. The house stopped talking.
In other times in America, in other centuries and other countries, people lived in houses for generations. Tragedy often struck and families sold off goods and furnishings until finally the house would have to be sold to a new owner. In a final, sacrificial service and now a shell of former self, a house would generate cash to pay its owner's debts.
The colonial mansions of Jefferson, Washington and Madison went through this process until restoration societies could salvage them. Memoirs and autobiography, novels and drama often convey the connections between human life and houses. Psychologically and metaphorically the house has been understood as an analogy for the self and human relations. In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard described the fortitude of the house that anchors us in the swirl of the universe.
How can the value of a good house be measured?
The mortgage crisis has advanced since the fall when these ruminations began. Those fortunate enough to still have our homes have gone bi-polar, lurching between dismay at drops in home values and hope for floors or plateaus so that at least we'd know we are at the bottom. The federal incentives have hit snags. The mortgage modification options have not been implemented well by the "Great Lenders." Unemployment now causes mortgage defaults, pushing more properties onto the market.
Meantime I began to size up the condition of my conversation partner and to list the repairs — roof, garage door, basement walls, yard.
The list was not what I would do, of course. Parallel to the column of tasks were the names of those who had always worked on the house before, back in the duplicitous days when our real interest lay in marketable improvements — "updates," as realtors say. Maintenance was an irritation.
Ron the builder, Tim for heating and plumbing, Bill the glass man, Big Dan the tree man, Lewis the painter — a roll call of repairmen. Flipping through an old Rolodex, it appears that about a third of my Flint social life is connected to house maintenance. My house has been kept together by friends. They were respectful. My house provided them work and displayed their talents.
Each noisy, dusty day of a project brought hoots of amazement or humor at finding out how things were constructed 60 years ago when the house was built. Or disdain at previous owners' cheap and un-workmanlike fixes. I'd be called on to make decisions about the quality of materials to purchase or the cost of extra hours of labor to do it right. Extended deliberations ensued.
One summer my mother, then about 85, set herself up on the front porch with a novel and the New York Times while eaves troughs were spread around the lawn, scrubbed and repainted. The dog slept under her chair, my son went off to friends, I went to work. Everyone was happy. That was more than 10 years ago. The mortgage crisis makes it seem so far away.
After a winter of sulking and silence, my house unresponsive, I galvanized myself this past spring. I returned to the Rolodex, got some estimates and then a surprise. A new friend for the house turned up — Kyle, the part-time landscaper. He's from the Mott Park Neighborhood Association page on Facebook.
By late summer he'd laid out a new plan for the front entrance with hardscape design and shrubs. Long deliberations about which plants to choose, trips to the nurseries and the gravel yard. This time Dennis sat on the front porch. About 5 p.m. the beer came out. Everyone was happy.
The house is talking to me again, our conversations have resumed. The house has taught me something again, this time about flexibility and imagination in hard times. Oh, and our philosophic dialogue reminds me that I've found a man who likes house repair.
Teddy Robertson grew up in California but has lived in Flint since 1984 and in Mott Park since 1995. She teaches history at UM-Flint, specializing in Polish history. Her research is about the Polish-Jewish writer Bruno Schulz and she has published translations from Polish to English.
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