We bought our first home eight years ago. Our starter home. It was about 1,200 square feet—three bedrooms, two bathrooms. A palace compared to our previous two apartments. Buying that house was the next point on our classic American upward trajectory, from dorm room, to one-bedroom apartment, two-bedroom apartment, and then small house.
I lay on the mattress on our new bedroom floor pregnant with our first baby, watching Noah paint, reveling in the happy cliche we embodied: young couple, starting a family, first house. This will do nicely, I thought.
Our plan was to bring our new baby home to our adorably humble house, then outgrow the place and move on in three or four years. It would be our family’s greenhouse, nurturing us until we were ready to be planted somewhere grander.
It’s not an uncommon plan. My parents told fond stories about their first “wee wooden house” in Redondo Beach, and I held onto those like a talisman, as a template for memory making. I easily adopted the even-though-we-ain’t-got-money ethos, knowing that in just a few years we would have the money, rendering those stories of hardship a charming backdrop to our success.
The booming housing market gave the nationwide illusion that trading up was no more difficult than waiting it out on an apartment lease. The timetable was ours to set. Of course, the month after we moved in, the housing bubble rose to its peak, the overambitious American Dream pressing against the surface tension of embellished prosperity until it couldn’t help but burst.
Eight years ago, we bought our starter house. We’re still here.
Growing up, my family moved around a bit. Mostly to different houses within Los Angeles County, but three years during toddlerhood in Northern Ireland (my mom’s home) and a cross-county move to Chicago when I was thirteen rounded out my young life.
So I never felt extremely strong ties to a particular house. There were things I enjoyed and remembered about all of them—the huge rock outside Nanny’s bungalow in Newtownards, walking to the beach from our apartment in San Pedro, the car port and covered patio to play under on Delia Avenue, the huge red hibiscus on 167th street. I still dream about our house in Chicago, though I haven’t lived in it for fourteen years. Still, when I went away to college in Nashville, it wasn’t really a particular home I was leaving, but rather the cocoon of family.
After college, when Noah and I were married, we decided to move to North Carolina, where he had grown up. The only state he’d ever lived in, actually. I liked the idea of ready-made roots. The much lower cost of living in Winston-Salem compared to Chicago didn’t hurt. I felt more comfortable with going somewhere new than going back to a place that couldn’t be the same as it was when I left.
For two years, we stayed in a two-bedroom apartment with a screened porch. We began laying the foundation for our life together in that apartment. We adopted an anxious shelter dog and named him Cody. We entered the workforce from that apartment. I sat at our desk in the second bedroom and applied for an editing job at the newspaper, which I eventually got. Noah’s career as a theologian had taken a left turn; instead of attending Wake Forest Divinity school, he entered the police academy.
My brother Kyle lived with us for a few months during his transition to college, which fortified my feeling of home, sibling bickering included. The apartment, while being a fun experiment in homemaking, was part of the transient moment of our new life stage.
After a time, the romance of the apartment faded. The charm of the porch wore off when the ants became a problem. When we tried to rescue a litter of feral kittens born under our bedroom window, housing them on the porch, they shredded the screens (driving home the point: they did not wish to be rescued). And the relative spaciousness of the place paled when the shabbiness of the carpets, the kitchen cabinets, the dull walls started to show.
When I became pregnant, the urge to move on was even more compelling.
“I’m not taking the dog out at night by myself,” I told Noah. Our apartment complex wasn’t rough, per se, but the random rotation of neighbors and some standard shady behaviors made me, awash in pregnancy paranoia, nervous.
We knew several police officers who lived in a little neighborhood in unincorporated Winston-Salem. It was quiet and almost rural, while still being convenient to everything. The houses were small but the yards big. And thus a house was bought.
Thin apartment walls and unlikable neighbors were maybe not the best reasons to acquire a mortgage, but a mortgage payment was barely more than rent. We were gainfully employed, and ready for the next step forward.
We didn’t know that those flimsy reasons would determine the next decade or more of our living space. And we certainly didn’t know how much our living space would determine our lives.
Expecting to move on in a few years, I didn’t fully embrace the house as a defining aspect of home. Moving on isn’t so difficult when you haven’t invested who you are into where you are, and I’d never connected the two before.
Ethan was born in February 2008. I’d never spent more time or thought decorating than I did for his nursery. The paint, the furniture, the arrangement of it all. Sitting, holding Ethan in a rocking chair in which my mom had done the same with me, I noticed how beautiful the light was as it came through the window, afternoon sun through the trees gently illuminating Ethan’s whole world.
The longer we stayed, the more I began to feel root bound in our little greenhouse of a home. By the time Oliver was born, in December 2012, I was antsy to find the next house. Something bigger, with more character, more land. We thought about leaving. Moving somewhere we could really make a home to last. Our house, though, intruded on my scheming.
The affection I felt for these 1,200 square feet threatened the reasoning of my plan. All sorts of uncomfortable questions arose, seemingly asked by the house itself.
Why is 1,200 square feet a stepping stone? Could it not be a stopping place? Are you outgrowing this house, or over-inflating your needs? What’s wrong with the school around the corner—test scores? Is that what matters most to you? By the way, who exactly do you think you are, if you aren’t someone who belongs here?
Still, I persisted in browsing real estate listings. We met with a realtor. We toured a charming 1950s house with double the square footage on three acres just five minutes away. Charming is code for money pit. And really, what have you done to manage the third-acre you have now?
We considered adding on. An extra living space would mean the boys could each have their own room, and Noah and I could keep our room for music and writing. They’ve got plenty of space—heck, you could fit four kids in there. Easily. Maybe you just have too much stuff. Is avoiding self-examination really worth a $20,000 addition?
The answers to those questions surprised me. I was dismayed by the discovery of an underlying condescension I felt toward my own situation, my own choices. I was embarrassed by our home’s smallness when so many of our friends had bigger houses. I turned my nose up at the basic, cookie cutter design of the neighborhood. I craved the character I felt our home lacked, but discovered it was my character that dissatisfied me. By moving, I could adopt the history and character someone else had invested into a place. By staying, I’d have to create it myself.
We began to dig in. The choices we made for and about our house began to reflect what we valued, our personalities. We began to see our house as a perfect fit: not too difficult to maintain, inexpensive to heat and cool, a filter for our possessions. A place where we literally could afford to invest in what mattered to us: stewardship, gratitude, generosity. This freedom found in our house’s diminutive stature led to affection for the house. I began to cherish it, even.
I painted our bedroom a soothing blue, refurbished our inherited furniture—a four-poster bed from my parents and a midcentury set of nightstands and dresser from my grandparents. I felt less claustrophobic in our eat-in kitchen when I tucked modern acrylic chairs around a secondhand pedestal table. My parent’s old enormous TV stand I sawed in half on a whim, stripped it to bare wood, and realized I’d made a media console into a smaller but more functional heirloom.
On our third-acre property, we’ve planted things and watched them grow. Fruit trees, vegetable gardens, butterfly bushes, herbs. We have two dogs now, and a cat…and two rabbits and six chickens and plan on keeping bees one day, maybe in the spring. We plant things for their beauty, for the friendly insects and birds they invite, and for their unknown but promised yield in years to come.
We hike the steep hill in the backyard, up to the copse of trees that contain a hidden clearing, perfect for a fort. We sled down that hill in winter. We let the hill grow wild in summer, watch the boys race up and down the mowed paths. We affectionately observe the birds and squirrels that make their nests in the tulip poplar, the oak, the maple, and the pine.
We’ve let the tendrils of our daily life curl around this place like the bean vines holding fast to everything they touch in the kitchen garden. Time and experiences, memories made, truths we’ve learned about ourselves, have enriched this place we thought was temporary, and made it arable. Quite unexpectedly, the blossoming of our life in this house has drawn all important things in toward us, like the mesmerizing call to insects of a flower’s pollen on the wind.
My parents sold their house in Chicago and moved to Winston-Salem. My grandparents moved from Albuquerque to Winston-Salem, too. Noah’s older brother and his wife bought a home in an adjacent neighborhood, starting their family a stone’s throw from ours; Ethan and Oliver play with their cousins nearly every afternoon. Our best friend just bought a house at the end of our street.
With each labor of sweat and resources, with every considered decor choice, our decision to stay strengthens into desire.
The gallery above our couch is a treasured art installation on coveted wall space. One day while I was gazing up at it, I examined a photo of Noah and baby Oliver snuggling in an enormous porthole window on a cruise we’d taken a couple years ago. Noah’s mom had planned it, but when the time came to go, she was too ill with cancer to join us. She’s gone now. In that photo, the ocean rippled beyond the porthole glass, reflecting Oliver’s little face in deep shades of green and blue. I could feel Debbie in it.
My eyes moved over the mementos on the wall.
Three copper quails that used to hang above our garage when we lived in Chicago; the patina of time and weather had painted emerald green and peacock blue across the bronze.
The point-and-shoot Kodak Noah had taken of the Very Large Array in New Mexico, a happy accident of artistic perfection in saturated Big Sky blue and washed-out desert.
The framed letters, one written by me, the other by Noah, we sent to each other while he was in Navy boot camp.
The 50 on 50 state motto prints of Tennessee, California and North Carolina, three spots along interstate 40 that traced our route to each other: our home states, and the one where we met in the middle. All rendered in oceanic navy, coral and white.
The close-up portrait of a cherubic Oliver, hair wild and cheeks rosy, captured just before he took one of his famous daring leaps off a piece of furniture.
The image of Ethan crossing the finish line in his first one-mile fun run, at age 7 beating out everyone—even the adults, his innocent smile hinting at the most gracious winner he was about to become.
Those, and all the other photos and mementos on the wall, showed me who I was. All of it together, a pastiche of my life. All of it, leading to and happening right here, in our starter house. It’s a different story than the one we thought we’d be telling. It’s a better one.