Birches

As my husband and I make plans for the future, my doubts surface.

 

Desiree Dolron - Cerca Trocadero 2002-3My husband made the sharp right turn onto the dirt and gravel driveway, parking the car on the left. We sat studying the house and grounds, wondering if we had found our next home. Before scheduling this visit, we had studied the on-line photographs, filtering the exalted realtor-speak into, what we believed were realistic expectations. We knew the house was rustic, but the pictures charmed us.

The house looked smaller, shabbier than I expected. The casually maintained grounds were shaggy. The exterior buildings were in poor condition. The storage shed to our left reminded me of a boathouse. Its large opening skewed to the right, exposing grubby piles of firewood and ratty tarps scattered about inside. Thick rotting planks served as its floor, an ancient iron bell tilted on its peak. To our right a two-story barn loomed. It’s ridgeline was broken and the roof needed replacing. Three openings yawned across the bottom. Each room had an overhead garage door, but the framing drooped and sagged. I suspected none of them would close.

Our realtor arrived, the seller’s realtor arrived and soon the owner of the property strode out onto the lawn to greet us. No matter how unobtrusive and quiet they are, I always find it disconcerting and awkward when owners stay in the house. It makes me go quiet. I don’t voice my observations. I stop verbally marking the compromises, changes and needed repairs I see. I end up feeling I’ve merely toured the house and not inspected it.

The owners are about 20 years older than we are. It is startling seeing the woman use a walker. I’m using two canes to maneuver about myself; carefully, precisely planting each from side to side assisting my progress. Stairs and steps are difficult for me to negotiate. My being trapped and isolated in my second floor office at home is the primary motivation for our move. We are seeking a new place, a country place, a place with more sunlight, fewer neighbors. A place surrounded by quiet and dark night skies where I can track satellites on warm summer evenings. I long to watch birds at feeders through multiple large windows; to see chippies and bunnies scooting across the yard; to wonder at the occasional deer, fox, or turkey visiting ancient apple trees.

The listing describes the house as a one story. This turns out to be false. After entering through the front foyer, we see a small staircase. I peer into the narrow stairwell, noting the triangular steps, which make the rooms unavailable to me. Not a deal breaker as we anticipate our son will move with us. This can be his wing. Still, it irritates me to discover the omission.

Because my mobility is limited, when we view a house my husband investigates the basement and upstairs rooms then reports their condition to me. Leaving my husband to his explorations, I proceed into the large combination dining room / great room. Its high, timber ceiling with dark exposed wood is imposing. The picture window at the far end of the room is fogged and dripping with moisture, making it impossible to see the view. The realtor apologizes, explaining the thermal seal has broken and the window needs replacing. Obviously the owners need to do that, but why haven’t they? Their decision obscures and diminishes a prime selling point of their house.

As soon as I walk into the great room, I know I will never agree to purchase the house. I want to turn around, apologize for taking everyone’s time, and leave because there is an oppressive mold smell in the room. It is a deal breaker for me. Mold is one of the things I’m most sensitive and allergic to. It causes me all kinds of respiratory problems. I keep my opinion to myself, choosing to wait and express my misgivings privately.

My husband doesn’t notice the mold smell. He is delighted with the house’s quirkiness and happily continues his assessment. I tag along at the end of the parade in silence. Many features of the house dishearten me. The kitchen is small and dreary, the floor of the Florida room is dangerously uneven, there are stairs up to a third bedroom, the shower in the master bath is a claustrophobic nightmare and my hopes for a bright, sun-filled bedroom sink in the dim, junk-filled reality. I can’t get out fast enough.

As I sat in the car waiting for my husband to finish touring the yard, I was frustrated and inclined to be angry. Our realtor characterized the owner as someone who was rich as Croesus. He had been a vice-president of a prestigious realty agency. This agency handled many of the most expensive and exclusive properties in the area. Considering the man’s history, the condition of his home offended me. The realtor’s dictate to, above all, attract eyeballs had backfired, leaving me with sour, uncharitable feelings. We had wasted our time coming to see a garbled property.

The puzzle of it niggled at me the next day. A time or two I’ve come into the orbit of affluent men (they all seem to be men) who maintain their wealth by being cheapskates. They crab and complain at frivolous or extravagant expenses. Grumbling when parting with their pennies, they astound friends and family with their scrooge-like negativity. Perhaps the owner was one of these men, but it didn’t parse. He knew the realty business; surely, he understood the importance of maintaining and staging his estate.

I began to wonder if he was one of the unfortunates who lost a substantial portion of his fortune in the economic collapse of the early 00s. Had the loss combined with the escalating costs for his wife’s cancer treatments hemorrhaged his funds? Was he trying to hold onto the one thing of value he had left? Was he desperate to squeeze as much money out of its sale as possible? If so, he’d placed himself and his wife in serious jeopardy by refusing to budge on the asking price. Perhaps he was right. Maybe someone would look at the thick hickory walls, the floors made from slate slabs hauled up from 18-mile creek, the historic brick fireplace and recognize its uniqueness. Was he holding-on for the one person with the half-million dollars it would take to purchase and revive the house?

I thought it much more likely, his wife would die first and he would live in the decaying house until he too had a health crisis triggering his precipitous move to a care facility. His incapacity would allow his heirs to jettison the property at a fire-sale price. My disgust and frustration turned to sadness and the fear this man’s future, which displayed clearly to me, was a dim reflection of my own, shadowed by false buoyancy and hope. Were our budding plans for building a dream home of our own, so much sand slowly funneling away? The thought bothered me, even as I sifted through floor plans and house-styles, I wondered at our future. Was I in my own bubble of magik thinking? Will I ever walk properly again? Will I return to doing my share of the housework, laundry and cooking? I tell myself I will, but am I being as shortsighted and unrealistic as the man whose behavior I pondered? Only time will tell, and that is the problem.

We are told to dream big, to strive for what we want, to be all we can be. In another year, I will be sixty. It is frightening to contemplate pursuing my dreams at this late date. It’s hard to believe they can come true. Once again, I fear I will compromise. I will let my vulnerabilities lead the way. This is my reality and my quandary. Am I bold enough to persevere?


“Birches” from “Night Train” by Bill Morrissey. Released: 1994. Track 3.

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