Thursday, October 27, 2011

The little house where we started out: June 9, 2002

Because we had absolutely no idea what we were getting into, Jim and I spent nearly a decade improving and expanding a dumpy little house we bought together in North Chattanooga. We haven't lived there in years, but whenever we're in the neighborhood we still drive by and make sure it's still there.

It sure looks small. But it also still looks like home. 

Chaos makes our house a home

    People often ask me, "When will your house be finished?" In low, sympathetic tones they say, "I'll bet you can't wait until it's done."

    The truth is my house will probably never be finished.

    Our to-do list is years long, and every time we cross something off, we add three more things. It's all OK with me. I love making a crooked little house no one much cared about into the home where our family history begins.

    My 2-year-old son will grow up watching his home take shape, and the work is already part of who he is. While his father toils downstairs, Jack tilts his head, listening.

    "Table saw," he says as the screech of metal on wood echoes up from the basement.

    Ours is not an exceptional house in the ways that matter to the outside world. It's a two-bedroom bungalow circa 1925 -- which means it's old and small. It is not special architecturally. It's not even pretty, really. It has old aluminum siding and flat green paint on decrepit trim.

    In the last five years, we have gutted the kitchen, rebuilt the porch, shored up the sagging floors. We've overhauled the bathroom, installed central heat and air. We have painted and painted.

    A house like this becomes a way of life, and it's not always easy. But for all the challenges our house has presented, it also has given us gifts.

    Soon after Jim and I moved in, we found a high school diploma on a piece of rolled-up parchment paper in the attic. On May 17, 1918, Mary Jo Thompson graduated from Central High School in Hamilton County. She took sewing, stenography, bookkeeping and commercial arithmetic. Also algebra, Latin, literature and something called Caesar.

    I don't have what you'd call a high school diploma -- I got my GED when I was 18 and then went to community college -- so I adopted this one. If I ever have an intact wall in my bedroom, I'll hang it.

    I like that the original owner of this diploma was named Mary, and that she took sewing, stenography and Latin. I wonder why her diploma was rolled up in an attic instead of hanging on a wall somewhere. I'll probably never know. But I like wondering, and I'm grateful to our house for giving me something like this to ponder.

    When we first toured the house in January 1997, it was filthy and cluttered and every room was painted dead gray. The kitchen hadn't been touched since the 1940s. The plumbing needed replacing, as did the wiring. The plaster ceilings were cracked and stained.

    But it also had a cavernous basement, a pretty fireplace and a small price tag. It was a mile from Jim's job, and two miles from mine. I was too young to know I was supposed to feel discouraged by all the work ahead. The house just felt to me like home.

    So we bought it, and we started working. After a few years, things started to improve. Then we had a baby, and the house was suddenly too small. So we took out a new loan, added on a family room and a master bedroom, and kept on working.

    I've had more than one friend tell me it's dangerous to get too attached to a house. You never know what might happen, they say. You might have to move. You might find a better house.

    Of course, to most people, any house probably would be a better house than this one. But this house feels benevolent to me, and I like to think there is more to that than just my own good memories here.

    A neighbor tells me a woman named Mrs. Parker lived here for decades, and that she had an elaborate garden in the back yard, complete with a fish pond. By the time Jim and I got here the garden had been plowed under. There was nothing left but an impenetrable tangle of weeds higher than our heads.

    You can tell someone once loved this place, though. When we penetrated the weeds and turned over the dirt in the back yard, we found hundreds of old flower bulbs, a deep layer of rich soil and the remnants of a stone patio.

    Knowing that we're not the first people to care about this house comforts me on the days when the whine of the table saw is grating, or the check to the lumber store missed clearing by $3.76. It helps me realize that what we're doing isn't just for us.

    I hope the people who live here when we're gone enjoy this house, and that it becomes part of their family, too. Maybe when I leave here -- whenever that may be -- I'll put something in the attic for those people to find.

    Maybe I'll leave a copy of this column. And my high school diploma from 1918. 

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