What We Keep

Max and I have a new fantasy for disposing of our extra furniture and belongings: buy a small house in Charlevoix, Michigan and haul it up there. We’ve picked out the house, it’s right next door to my step-mom and her husband and where we occasionally stay we visit. It’s small enough to be easily maintained and the kids can roll right over to Grandma’s in the mornings when we are there.

In our minds, we have already moved in. We know where the extra dressers will go, the three double beds we don’t need, the antique shelves, the 1950s dinette, the extra dishes, cookware and linens. Don’t forget the decorative objects, original paintings, coffee table books. All fit perfectly in our little pied-à-terre.

Never mind that the cottage is not for sale. Nor that we couldn’t afford it if it were. Nor that we already own three homes. And what about the fact that not only does the house we live in have a three car attached garage, there is an outbuilding that is the equivalent of a four car garage? All full, yet only the mini-van gets parked inside.

“We live like hoarders!” I plaintively whined to Max this past weekend as I listed the rooms stacked with boxes. We’ve been in the house just over a year and, as the demands of our daily lives overtook the formerly pressing need to unpack, we became oblivious to the boxes. So much so that now we blithefully trot the goatpaths between the walls-o’-cardboard. Yikes! We really are hoarders!

For every improvement, there is an attendant cost.

That sounds like a quote from someone historical, but it’s just me (I wish I could say, an equal and opposite cost, because it sounds catchier. But that’s generally not the case). I first struck on this notion when I was an undergrad and at the time was pondering computer software. Computers were beginning to make automatic corrections and, as someone who began writing in the days of electric typewriters, I wondered if grammar and spelling would degrade in younger generations. Looking at the writing of my teenaged sons, I think it has. Hugo especially has pervasive capitalization errors because he relies on auto correct to clean it up for him. Sometimes it does and sometimes it does not.

The word “cost” sounds negative and sometimes it is.

Take for example, buying a house. You might improve your financial situation by paying for a mortgage, in sense paying yourself, rather than giving your money to a landlord. However, as the homeowner, you now must do the yard work and maintenance on the house. Maybe you love yard work and maintenance, so that’s great for you. But all homeowners have had those times when things unexpectedly break and you, not your landlord since you don’t have one, have to replace them.

When I divorced, I got the house. The same month I took sole possession the water heater broke. A few weeks later the dehumidifier died. Followed in short order by the refrigerator, the washer, the dryer, the oven and the garage door opener. I became well acquainted with Alan, a sales clerk in the appliance section at Home Depot.

I believed then as I do now that I had greater security for my children and myself by owning my home. But without Home Depot’s wonderful 12 months-same-as-cash programs, I would not have been able to replace everything that broke in a timely fashion. Even with interest free financing, my money was pinched making those payments.

In other cases, improvements may only seem like they have an attendant cost but as those cute t-shirts say, it’s all good.

In the first few months after I had Claude, my first child, it was impossible to get anywhere on time. Born in January, I’d feed and burp him, change his diaper and dress him in his little snowsuit. I’d put on my coat and as I picked him up to walk out the door, he’d poop. I’d take off my coat, his snowsuit, his pants and diaper, clean his butt and then rewind. Or he’d spit a belly’s worth of milk down his front, causing another adventure in tiny clothing. It was then that I realized I had lived a completely self-absorb existence pre-baby.

Six weeks before Claude’s third birthday, I had my second baby. I was better at getting a baby out the door and would often have wee Hugo bundled into his car seat before suiting Claude up for the cold. Still, anything that involved getting in and out of the car overwhelmed me. There is no dashing into a store when you have two small children. The stroller has to come out, the baby goes in the stroller and then the toddler comes out. Hopefully you don’t leave the diaper bag behind, because you most certainly will need it if you do. In those days when I would see a woman pushing a stroller with one baby in it and no other children around, I would think she doesn’t know how easy she has it.

Now I have five, count them, five children! The Episcopalian Church across the street from our home has a community dinner each Wednesday evening. We are not members of the church, but have many friends who are. One in particular has made it a point to invite us to come each week and who could resist? I don’t have to plan a dinner, the boys don’t have to do the dishes and we get to visit with friends. Best of all, the food is delicious!

“You know,” I said to Hugo and Jules as we walked over to the church last week, “there are five of us here right now, but it doesn’t feel like so many people.” I was holding Lyra and Hugo had Leif’s hand. Max had gone to visit his elderly uncle that evening.

“What are you talking about?” asked Hugo.

“Well, if you had told me when I was a young woman that one day I would have five children, I would have imagined some crazy scene, like kids running around all over the place. But I’m walking with four of you right now and it’s not crazy—it’s just us, you know what I mean?”

“Yeah, well, we’re each other’s company, we’re your peeps,” said Hugo.

Granted, I don’t have five little kids, which would be far more chaotic than having a young man (Hugo) and an adolescent (Jules) help me with the two peanuts. As my mother’s only child, growing up was very different for me than it is for my own children. I spent most evenings by myself while my mother worked in bars and my stepfather traveled for his job. I cannot imagine having only one child. Or as Lena Olin’s character says about small families in the film The Polish Wedding, “You wouldn’t bake just two cookies, would you?”

I greatly appreciate the fact that the human population is growing at a rate many find alarming and I fail big time on the reduce, reuse, recycle mantra in terms of putting so many humans on the planet. But I am a better person for having become a mother. Perhaps only one or two would have done the trick. But I had five. And I have learned from my five kids both that I am not the center of the universe but it is paramount that I take good care of myself in order to take good care of them. Children have humbled me and taught me how to hold my seat as the boss. They keep me grounded by reminding me who I am while pushing me to be my very best and to reach, reach, reach. Sound familiar? That’s because it’s also how I raise them—it’s a symbiotic gig. My kids bust my butt better and more often than anyone else. And they believe in me more than most do or will. Claude and Hugo regularly tell me to publish my book. That they believe in my writing makes me want to be a better writer. Every day.

Sometimes it’s a no-brainer that what you lose is better off lost.

Leaving a soul-sapping marriage is always an improvement, no matter how difficult it is to do so.

For years, I complained about what I did not like about my marriage. Then one day I did something different: I declared what I needed. I needed a partner who showed up, both physically and emotionally, for the boys and me. I needed sovereignty and for my partner to be a real partner. To support my ambitions just as I supported his; to invest in our children just as I had done; to build a life that on most days meant being together was better, easier even, than being single. And I was no longer willing to accept IOUs for changes in our relationship. That bank had gone belly up.

I got what I wanted, but not where I thought I’d find it. My demands were too high for my ex-husband, which is neither his fault nor mine. We found the meaning of “irreconcilable differences,” the cause often cited in newsworthy divorces. Our divorce was not newsworthy, but rather followed a predictable pattern to the bitter end, routinely confirming just how irreconcilable our differences really were.

I got what I wanted when, a year later, I fell in love with my friend, Max. He hit everything on my list. I fell in love with him a second time when many months later, he stepped into the lives of my boys and filled a void. Not by buying them things or trying to impress them. But simply by showing up. Even when it is inconvenient, even for situations that simply aren’t fun.

A New Life in a New House

Max had just built a three-story addition onto his home in a northeastern suburb of Cleveland when we converted from friends to lovers. It had been the home of Max’s father, who had died almost ten years earlier. Many of his father’s things—furniture, art, collectibles, papers—were still there.  Before returning to Ohio and his father’s house, Max had lived for more than a decade in other states and had packed a household of his own into the 1930s bungalow. While the older parts of the house were as full as a funky antique shop, the rooms in the new addition were invitingly open. A new life accepted the invitation.

My house is in Akron where, in 2003, my children and I solidly rooted after years of moving. When my ex-husband moved away, he took with him many family heirlooms he’d inherited including three dining room tables and two hutches. Beautiful as they were, it was a relief to see them go for they made me feel like the curator in a museum. If the house felt a little empty, or refreshingly open, it quickly refilled with furniture like water pouring into a capsized boat. One friend gave me a couch; another gave me dressers. Max himself brought over a leather wing-backed chair, a cabinet and tables. Soon my 1909 four square was as full as it had ever been.

For three years, we happily lived in two homes. When we had our first baby together, Max decidedly began staying most weeknights at my house and on the weekends we pretended his house was our pied-à-terre. His two cats grew terribly fat and lonely.

I don’t recall when we started looking for another house. We certainly didn’t rush and had we not had the world’s most patient realtor (www.barbsnyder.com), we might never have bought a third home. Time and again, a house would look appealing online and appalling in person. We soon realized that as much as modern floor plans have to offer, we prefer old construction. Solid doors, brass handles, curves in the plaster, quirks in the design, windows wherever possible. We’d go months without looking at any houses.

And then, like at the end of Miracle on 34th Street when child actress Natalie Wood sees the house she’s been dreaming of and makes her mother and (soon to be) stepfather stop and go inside with her where they find Santa’s cane in the corner of a room, we knew immediately when we had found our home. All other houses we had dashed through, knowing instantly that they were not what we wanted. In the house that was to become ours, we went from floor to floor, room to room, squeezing hands, whispering, “Look at this.” Because he was the most resistant to moving, we had taken Jules with us whenever we looked at houses, including that day. “Please buy this house!” he told us. That evening, Max made an offer. It was quickly accepted.

It took us six months to fully move in. First, we emptied and rented Max’s house. Then we did the same with mine. Things we had long housed were discarded. For Max, that meant many of his father’s things. What had once been hard became easy, as we built our future instead of holding onto another’s past.

But like archaeology, it has happened in layers. Since moving in, we have had garage sales, taken a truckload of things to Habitat for Humanity, sent boxes of art to Max’s sisters in Colorado, sold things in an auction, given more to the American Cancer Society’s local Discovery Shop. And the back garage is filled with furniture that doesn’t fit in the new house. Built in 1940, it calls for a mid-century aesthetic and we both came from Arts and Crafts homes. Our Arts and Crafts pieces of furniture look incongruous in the new home. We have loved them, but they don’t belong here.

I only have one piece I’ve yet to let go of (yes, other than books of mine waiting for shelves to be built, the rest really is Max’s stuff). An antique child’s armoir-dresser built of dark wood in Mission style. It was in my room until I was in high school. Years ago, my mother called and said she was going to sell it unless I wanted to pick it up. Hugo used it for several years, but doesn’t fit in any of our current rooms. Corralled in the back garage with the other outcasts, a man spied it at our last garage sale and insisted on buying it. He kept coming back to the house to offer me more money until I cried. I just wasn’t ready to let it go. Not yet. Soon. Maybe.

p.s. Max reminds me, and wants me to inform you, that we have more rooms without goatpaths (kitchen, dining room, living room and four bedrooms) than with (our two offices and the basement). 

p.p.s. The basement is really big.


2 thoughts on “What We Keep

  1. I can almost visualize your home. You are a fantastic writer Holly. I am with the boys. PUBLISH your book!!! I am an avid reader and I would read just about anything you wrote. I look so forward to what you will talk about next in your blog. I hope you are enjoying every second with all five children at home. I will be thinking of you and wishing for a fantastic holiday full of moments that will tuck nicely between the boxes and furniture for future use. 🙂

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