Thursday, November 18, 2010

"This old house..."

"It took me by surprise.
This old house and these old feelings.
Walked round and looked inside,
familiar walls, and halls, and ceilings.

Where I'd dream and plan,
every moment of sunshine.
This was my whole world.
It was all I knew.
Like the hull of a seed,
this old house cracked wide open as I grew..."

-     Sara Groves

Sara Groves' "This House," brings up so much love and gratitude, and so many memories, for me.  This is a post about, and to, a house...and God, who made the dream come true.

We were outgrowing our loft-style apartment...high in the trees, as quickly as our daughter was growing out of her footed sleeper pajamas.  No yard for her to play in, a long flight of stairs that was no longer conducive for a walking, running, leaping toddler, a kitchen in the middle of our one big living, we were no longer a young professional couple, we were a family.  And a family needed a house and a yard.

I passed by the object of my affection every day.  Once a petite, smartly appointed turn-of-the-century Victorian debutante...a beau on the front porch swing every Friday evening...she was now a sweetly, nutty old spinster with her stocking rolled down to just above her knees, her gray and turquoise apron faded and torn, the corner of her front porch propped up with a railroad tie.  But I loved her.  I still saw the debutante she once was, and wanted to fix her hair, wash and press her house dress, and sit on that same porch listening to her stories of grand balls, and teas, and the beaus she'd turned away.

Thus began my love affair with a decrepit little Victorian house in a small university town in Northern Colorado.

The first time I saw her she was, quite literally, falling apart.  Her gray clapboards were peeling and her garish turquoise trim was a reminder that someone's mistake at the paint store was her landlord's "Wow, can you believe it? I got this whole can for $2!" moment.

But I could see her high cheekbones, her delicate frame, her soft eyes...and I was smitten.   It didn't matter that I had no money to buy..or even lease...her.  It was of no consequence that we were up to our ears in debt...I knew that she and I were destined to share stories.   I knew that she was like a wonderfully colorful spinster aunt who would hold my daughter's heart and tell her tales of lost loves, dog-eared classics read under the eaves, and kisses stolen on that same time-weary old front porch.

It was also obvious that she was horrified by the indignity of her current situation.  She had been purchased in a fire sale as an investment, and rented out to college students en masse.  Like a phone booth, or a volkswagon bug, crammed with fraternity boys, she was rented out by the bed.  $175 got you a key, a shelf in the refrigerator, and a place in line for the one bathroom.  On the weekends she spent her nights perfumed by the spray of beer kegs on her faded wallpaper, and her days filled with boys sleeping off the night's hangover. 

Since no one seemed to know exactly who owned her, and her neighbors...families who were trying to reclaim a part of town that had formerly been the jewel of the city...were thoroughly disgusted by the sight of beer cups in her front garden each Saturday and Sunday morning, I started asking around.  I eventually went to the office of the town Clerk and discovered, in the county records, that she was owned by a man who was broadly considered an opportunist, the town "slumlord," because he bought up older homes...once their elderly occupants had passed away...and turned them into college rentals without taking responsibility for the crude and disrespectful behavior of his tenants, or the effect it had on the neighborhoods they'd moved into.

As soon as I had his phone number I began calling him.  Would he be willing to rent her to me for a minimal amount and let me fix her up.  He laughed...and he laughed loudly.  Was I joking, he asked.   He was able to make ten times what I could pay him, renting it to college students, and he didn't have to do a thing to improve her condition or appearance...those kids just didn't care.

But I persisted. He may have seemed like a dolt of an owner, but he was HER dolt of an owner, and I knew that if I loved her, I had to see him differently. And I did love her. So I would persist...and I would persist calling, not a slumlord, but the only kind of man I could imagine being connected with her...good, kind, honest, responsible. She deserved that. I had to do something, she just looked so sad.  I would walk by every day, and imagine her in her hayday.  Gardens blooming where car parts and beer cans now littered the oil-spotted "yard" (read: hard-packed dirt and tumbleweed). I could just see her with a picket fence and an arbor gate, roses trailing along the pickets, and lavender along the steps leading from the sidewalk to the wide front porch. 

But each time I called, he would laugh, until he just stopped taking my calls.  But I was unstoppable, I could never give up on her.  I talked to the neighbors, as our daughter and I passed each day on our way to church, downtown, or just for a tricycle ride around the block.  I would ask them about their home improvement projects, paint color choices, comment on the beauty of their gardens...all the while wishing that I had just walked out of the kitchen door, to lean over the fence with a plate of cookies, and a cup of tea.

One night, after being away at camp for six weeks, I was walking home from church and noticed that she had been painted the perfect soft shade of pale, butter yellow.  Her trim was a pefect shade of leaf green, and her front porch was no longer propped up by a broken off railroad tie, but perfectly poised on latticed ballet slippers to match her dress.  My heart sank.  Someone had talked him into selling while I was away, and they'd bought her, and were fixing her up.  Then my heart soared.  I knew how unhappy the neighbors had been with her state of disrepair and her tenancy.  She must have felt like a girl in a new party dress.   I was sad that she wasn't mine, but I was happy she was looking more like herself, and that someone would love her...and they darned well better love her A LOT. 

But day after day, as I passed by, no one moved in.  Finally I asked the neighbors what they new about the new owners.  They said that all they knew was that one day workmen started arriving, they had worked inside cleaning for a few weeks, and then they'd repaired, scraped, and painted the outside without saying a word.  When they were finished, they left, and no one had come by to inspect. So, she'd just been sitting there in her new party dress, waiting, ever since. 

I was really curious now.  I went back to the county office and discovered that there was no record of recent sale.  So I called the landlord and he told me that he'd just gotten tired of the neighbors (and me) calling about the way she was being treated by the tenants, and the effect it was having on the neighborhood they loved, and he had decided to clean her up and paint her so that he could sell her.

We still had no money.  But I knew she was my house.  I asked him if he would give me a week to figure things out.  We agreed on a fair price...a very fair price...and I started praying for the steps we'd need to take.  We talked on the phone every day, and when I couldn't find a bank to write a mortgage to someone who was newly self-employed, in debt, and with no collateral, he offered to carry the loan if I could just come up with a modest deposit.  Okay, I thought, I might be able to do this...and actually thought I had...for a while. 

But at the last second...a hour before the signing of our source for the down payment retracted the offer to advance the amount needed, and I was unable to bring anything to the table..  I was devastated, but I also knew that the owner had extended a wonderful opportunity to us that had taken his house off the market for weeks.  As I told him that I no longer had any money for a down payment, I assured him that I would do everything in my power to help him sell her to the perfect family.  He looked at me and he said, "This is your house, what can you afford to pay in rent until you can buy her...I will still carry the loan when you are ready." I had brought what I DID have to the love for her. And it had been enough.

I almost collapsed with gratitude.  I told him a ridiculously low (but honest) amount that we could afford monthly, and he agreed to lease it to us with the option that when we could come up with a down payment, he would sell her to us, and carry the loan at a very low interest rate.

That night, by the light of the moon, we moved from our loft apartment around the corner, into my perfect little girl of a cottage dressed in butter yellow. Carrying chairs and loveseats, beds, clothes, dressers, and dishes through the silents streets under a blanket of stars...I thanked God with each step. 

Before long she had a beautiful lawn, gardens overflowing with lavender, roses, hollyhocks, rosemary, and lush veggies, a matching butter yellow picket fence and arbor gate, and beautiful dark periwinkle front doors with beveled glass windows and a wide front porch for sitting on and listening to her stories.  And we had neighbors...the most remarkable neighbors you could imagine.  I was, to say the least,  blissfully happy in a little yellow little house, set in my version of heaven on earth.

Two years later...after the Colorado real estate market  had exploded in value, and our little house was now worth more than double the price our landlord was originally willing to sell her to us for, we had that down payment.  I called him on the phone, and asked him if he was still willing to sell her.  He said, of course, but that we should get an appraisal to discover what her current value was. 

A cold shot of dread coursed through my veins as the appraisor walked through her sweetly appointed rooms, shutters thrown wide so that softly filtered sunlight could splay itself across antique quilts and oiled hardwoods.  I held my breath as he commented on the beauty of her lush lawn and fragrant, colorful gardens.  He promised to get an appraisal to us right away, as he slipped through the arbor gate, and let his hand trail along the rose-laden pickets. 

Later that week the appraisal arrived in its innocuous manila envelope.  I pried open the little silver clips, pulled out the report, and immediately noticed the assigned value.  My dread was well placed.  The number was more than double the price point we had been offered two years earlier.  It was a price we could not afford. 

I called the owner and told him that I would be sending a copy of the appraisal in the mail, but wanted him to know what it was right away.  I told him the number, and he said, "Isn't that nice. You've got equity before you've even bought the house."  I asked him what he meant by that, and he said that because the purchase price would be the same as when we originally talked about buying the house from him, all the equity it may have gained was ours.  Because, as he said, "That house has always been yours."

For two years we had poured our heart and soul, blistered hands and sore shoulders into returning her to the beautiful belle of the ball she already was in my eyes. We'd invested so much sweat equity that she glistened. Friends and family who knew that we were still just renting her had expressed grave concern that we were just building value for an owner who would never even acknowledge our work. But, for me, there was no other way to live in her and love her. She deserved to be loved...and loved she was. And they'd been wrong. He did see all that we'd done. It was such an act of grace.

That day, with the help of a family member, we bought her.  She was ours...she was mine...for a while.  A wonderful, sweet, beautiful, cozy, while...

A couple of years later, when the former owner was being maligned in the local newspaper during a run for public office, I was honored to be able to write an honest editorial about his integrity, generosity, and kindness in our dealings with him.

This is the story of a little house...a slip of a clapboard girl, dressed in butter yellow. A girl with periwinkle eyes and the scent of lavender on her shoulders.   She told me her stories. She held my daughter...and my and warm...for a while.  I will never forget her.

Kate Robertson, CS

The photo, at the top, is of the picket fence between our home, and our wonderful neighbors' (Barb, Kent, Heather, and Tyler Stauffer) was the place our daughters met each morning to plan their days, and where we would stand and talk...mugs in hand, and with dreams to share. This shared fence is one of the "places" I loved most during that chapter of our lives...thanks Barb and Kent for sharing it with us.

If you would like to read it, here is a link to the poem,
"Butter Yellow Picket Fences," written in her honor some years ago.


  1. Anonymous1:32 PM

    This beautiful story makes me cry. To see and love something, to connect and dream and then to pass along that dream to make another believe, just touches my heart. Your purity and appreciation brought out the genuine value of this precious home and especially of this very dear man. Thank you for sharing today and always.

  2. Anonymous12:31 AM

    You painted such a beautiful picture and told such a heartfelt story that reduced us to tears. Thank you so very much. Love Marilyn and Mark