When tech was bubbling, our software business was there in a minor way, my husband contracting for a billionaire who wanted his MP3 and image collections database set up and made accessible from his various homes and yachts, and was willing to hire a whole team and pay well. We bought land then and paid off our “starter” house in town, a 1200 square foot rancher plus garage. Not a dream home, but acceptable, and affordable. We invested not in the stock market, thank heaven, but in land–our own twenty acres, the dream property that satisfied my husband’s longing for woods and mountains and water view, and mine for enough light for a garden and lots of cool places to explore with the kids.We got to work on it right away–smoothed the driveway, cut down alders and blackberry vines (after harvest), scraped away a ledge for the garden, planted and watered it from the dusty well, planted miniature daffodils around an old willow, and fenced the garden to try to keep out deer. Then we planted apple trees, killed a porcupine that was devouring them, and skinned it at midnight back at the house, me holding the light and giving directions as a former novice trapper. I don’t recommend learning this skill on a porcupine.
We worked on a house design, a modified mirror-image of one we found in a magazine. It was to be a homeschooling family house with room for crafts, a shop, lots of light. But it always ended up too big, too overwhelming to tackle, and too much of a leap, seemingly, into exclusivity, and the promise of an enormous tax bill once the land was changed from woodlot to view residential status. I couldn’t imagine myself living such a privileged existence anyway. And in trying to combine our ideas and preferences, we kept getting stressed and stuck. One wanted a soaring ceiling, one wanted a cozy height. One wanted a huge shop, the other a small one. One wanted rooms for every type of activity, the other didn’t wanted to multi-use to cut down on housekeeping. And we both cared about wood finishes, colors, styles, and furnishings, so even that couldn’t be divided and conquered. The discussion was taking too much, time, too much energy, and was generating too much conflict. We had children to raise, other things to accomplish, so we shelved the house plans. We didn’t have time and mental space, as my husband was commuting to the city and I was raising the four kids, homeschooling, keeping the books. It was a very busy, absorbing time without extra projects.
The property sat idle, produced trees, thistles, deer, butterflies and spring peepers faithfully. We’d go now and then, drawing in our breath at the beauty and peacefulness—a fern-dressed creek hidden in the gorge at the back, the aroma of live woods, at the view–southwest over the Puget Sound, but it never did feel like the right time to build our house. So we just camped there when we could, set up a big tent, a repurposed sink to wash up, solar shower, gas barbecue, even electricity for the cooler. The kids ran around, dug miniature rivers and lakes, carved sticks, built forts, caught lizards and snakes and hunted for shed antlers and fossils. We had all their birthday parties there, with Capture the Flag, water fights, an evening campfire and sometimes tent camping. kids running around in the woods, up and down the gravel lane between tall alders and arched blackberry brambles. The parents visited around the food tables and campfire, and sometimes we camped around in various clearings. We mowed now and then, tried to keep back some of the brambles, and left it houseless (though we did pour a foundation for a cabin above the main site).
A neighboring property sprouted a castle-like house, complete with emerald lawn, tidy ferns, picnic park. The neighborhood gate opened and closed to its various coded inputs, we paid our dues to help with road maintenance, but went to the property less and less. We started looking for an already built house elsewhere in the county, but everything we both liked, and these were few, and overpriced, because it was the Bubble. Then tech slowed down, and instead of investing in overpriced real estate, we banked on our savings for a two and a half year study sabbatical overseas. The property would be a fun place to visit, and a long term investment to atone for low retirement savings. It grew cedars and regrew alders where we were away. for another few years while we were away
We came back rich with experiences, but financially broke–more than broke, as the economy continued to flag, and we had little work. We chose to resettle in our same town instead of closer to urban-based tech work, and I was to return to teaching. But my credentials were outdated and I had no recent references, and responsibilities at home were still heavy, our kids adjusting to life back in the states, to public school, and getting involved in athletics, music lessons. Plus our house had been water damaged and needed updating, so when my husband got work, extra cash went into the remodel, which we did mostly ourselves, and so it took a long time. We couldn’t afford to add on, so reconfigured the inside and set up a bedroom in the garage for two of the kids. Smaller than our overseas apartment had been, it was tight with six of us; there was tension, our oldest two moving into adolescence and wanting more space we didn’t have. A psychiatrist friend mentioned research on rodents kept in cramped quarters.
We pressed on to finish the fix-up so we could upsize, but to that rare entity, a house with arable land on the south side. Prices were down–in some cases to almost half. But so was our income, we couldn’t get a loan because of our years off work, and savings were non-existent. We’d even dipped into retirement and borrowed from family on both sides (and paid a penalty).
The castle next to our dream property, one our neighbors there built on spec, sold for several million. We met with the neighborhood association for the first time, all very nice people, but not the type of cultural experience I wanted for us–I felt like an oddball among such wealthy and semi-retired people with no children at home. I foresaw feeling awkward about sharing my home with friends because of my obvious privilege, rather than enjoyment of the perks of the gated life. I hated the message of the gate, though I understood its usefulness- don’t explore, camp, dump garbage here; we paid for this spot. And I could see myself being lonely way out there, especially as the kids started to go on their ways to university, college, work, travels. I’d miss my runs on the trails, walks down to the local coffee shops, random encounters with neighbors and friends living close by. And access to the pool was so easy for the kids and me. The prime time for a happy family home in the woods had passed.
We took up the possibility of adding on to our little house instead of buying another one. I used CAD to design a two bedroom, one bath addition with cozy library, my husband got ready to dig the hole for the slab, and then suddenly we dropped that plan too. We’d go back to house hunting, he decided–cheaper overall, and less hassle, and we’d built up some savings and a better income history. We went to open houses, had our realtor keep his eyes open, and searched online and across the county by car in our spare time for what turned out to be another impossible dream– a house on property that we could afford, that we both liked, and that was in the right spot to commute to the city and had a neighborhood I felt I could relate to. I brought my husband to the table three times to make low ball offers on fixer-uppers he thought were acceptable and I saw some magic in, but over a span of about five years, nothing. Instead, I was expanding my garden, with my husband’s help, no longer willing to wait for the dream garden property, under the guise of improving the attractions of out little place to future buyers. People are into raised beds and mature fruit trees, I reasoned. But in my heart, these became MY apple trees, MY blueberry bushes, and I was ready to settle down. We had lived in the place almost twenty years, after all, way past the average of seven before up sizing. Yes, it was a tighter fir than ever, and our teens were going out a lot to socialize in friends’ houses, struggling with covetousness at times, or finding their personal devices useful in making them feel spaced out.
The other factor was two were just about ready to head off to college, and the years would fly by, and soon we’d be empty nesters. Sure enough, in two years, we had some more space. Not to use for new purposes, because the bedrooms had to be kept, but relational space, at least. It wouldn’t be long, I said, and our house would be just the right size again, so I held the line. My husband, tractor parked in front of the Subaru in the driveway, still longed for a mini-farm. My longing was fading, along with my sense of the likelihood of our finding the place, and as my attachment to my nurtured soil, fruiting young trees, and plans for a rainwater harvesting system and bike shed grew. I quietly turned over another foot of lawn’s edge to convert to vegetables. My husband’s protest was out of habit only–his vision of playing touch football and croquet with the kids on an expanse of green lawn was fading. He even seemed to like my ideas for a writing studio/office extension on the tool shed. We replaced most of the fence, which was falling down, and build a retaining wall in the process, although my husband chose to view that as improving sales appeal. But then, I admitted that I would be okay with getting a hot tub–something he’d wanted long ago but we’d decided wan’t necessary, as the kids could swim at the pool down the road, and what time did we have in those days to hide away in a spa, anyway? Now the kids were grown, and they could enjoy it with us, or with their friends, and we had mid-life stresses to soak out. We installed oneon the windowless side of the house in a corner of the fenced area, and the house didn’t feel too small at all any more. The hot tub became our away room.
As it turned out, we all needed that spa. Not so much as a place to hang out together, but to get away and de-stress, calm down, process feelings, and shed tears. In the process of setting up the hot tub, my husband we fighting some kind of gut flue, it seemed, that didn’t o away. An herbal cleanse made it worse. There was something wrong. He finished installing the hot tub, but was feeling so bad, with bloating, nausea, and sensitivity to smells, he didn’t want to try out the steaming, bubbling waters in case the bromine made him gag. During the process of seeking answers about his condition, cancer was suspected, and then it was confirmed though various scans and biopsies that he had through the diagnosis of metastatic pancreatic cancer. Expected survival of three to six months. He started a super-healthy diet, and started a few medications, decided to stay away from the even greater discomforts, and uselessness for cure, of chemo. He also stayed out of the hut tub. For the rest of us, except my oldest son, who was away at college, it became our refuge. A soak in the steaming water that winter, looking up at the dark trees, the stars, feeling the cool rain, and sometimes, snowflakes, was so, so, soothing and healing.
I wanted my husband to enjoy it too, especially as he became more bedridden and butt sore. I urged him to see if he too found it comforting and soothing, promised to let the bromine dissipate, and finally, in he went. It was so good. For the next three months, he soaked for a few hours several times a day, finding relief for his body as well as that sense of being enveloped in warmth that feels unspeakably comforting. Sometimes we’d soak together, not saying much, or just me chattering away about the kids, the garden, whatever.
To me the discussion about upsizing is irrelevant now. My husband still enjoys talking about the dream, even seems to plan on it–they tractor stays in the driveway, and he is ever hopeful. But now, it really is just a dream.
Our house is, if not perfect now, a home I see myself living in for a long time. The garden is my exercise, my useful work, and my interesting distraction between times of caring for my husband. There’s life, change, always a new season past and another one coming, but so much in the present every day. I planted sweet peas and sunflowers by our bedroom window where my husband can see and smell them, and each morning now I pick berries for his breakfast granola. Whether we, I ever make any more improvements has become less important, and the feeling of our mortality and the shortness of this life has made home mean something different to us all. All four children are home, even our oldest, who is in transition between graduating from college and having enough to get his own place. It’s way too early in my husband’s life for something like this to happen, but here we are in our little easy-care, nothing fancy, neighborhood house with a garden, all together, and life is good.