I’ve read two house-related posts by Rebecca that have had me thinking a lot about marriage, family, and the houses that play the stage for both. The window up there in the picture is a storm window from our first house. It’s on the eastern wall of a treehouse that we built for the girls. It is brittle and yet it has endured more seasons than I ever will. It is a view and a reflection, the care that we took in saving it and the way that we gave it a new use, offer hope.
We bought our first house late in the summer of 2003. We were newlyweds and had already lived in 3 rentals together in Framingham, Watertown, and Saratoga. To say that we were hungry to own a place of our own would be an understatement. Securing the house was not easy —it was an estate, we were broke, and the person managing the sale made a last minute money-grab, but somehow it all came together and 118 became home.
Our first night there Sean tickled a loose ceiling tile with his finger. He made a face, his chin wrinkled and his eyes were curious.
“Pull it,” I said. His head whipped around, “What?” I smiled, “Yank it out; it’s our house now,” I said with a shrug. He tore tile after tile out with a look on his face that I imagine he had a lot as a kid. It was equal parts triumph and delicious-rule-breaking delight. As he poked holes in walls and tore up carpet, I yanked down the copious sheers, curtains, and blinds. It was as if the previous owners had been on a mission to cover, paper, and cushion every surface in the house. I have such tender fondness for the couple we were; undaunted by the bottomless needs of the house—roof, furnace, hot water heater, windows, walls, kitchen. It was a baby bird with its mouth wide open:
Feed me, give me everything you can and more.
Those years are a blur of memories of face masks and the musty smell of lath and plaster, the feel of the porch steps under my weary ass, a cold beer, and salty kisses. We found out that I was pregnant 5 months after we moved in, which changed what I was able to help with, though I didn’t really let that stop me. We did what we could ourselves, contracted for other things, and gratefully accepted the financial help of our families.
Over those seven years, during which we brought home three babies, we established our way. Sean developed a knack for gently protecting me from my tendency to set my expectations for myself too high. He rallied my dashed hopes with a mixture of ribbing and worship. He’d wrap his arms around me, a smile on his face as he planted Eskimo kisses on me, his whiskers tickling my skin as he’d say things like, “It’s ok, we’ll buy tomatoes at the market, your blight-stricken critters can be early jack-o-lanterns.” I faltered at times as a wife, exhausting so much of myself in the work of being a mom. I gave my tenderness and cushion to our daughters, he gave his patience and energy to work. We’ve both had to work at being who we want to be at home, which isn’t anything anyone ever explained would happen as we dove into marriage and homeownership.
It astounds me that in nearly ten years of parenting and eleven years of marriage I’ve received more advice on child-rearing than I could ever hope to put into use and only one piece of marriage advice. We’ve done the raising of our girls on instinct and memory, tossing in the odd piece of wisdom we’ve heard. Marriage? That’s the big secret, you only hear about it when people are splitting up. Do we only care about people’s children? Or is it really that we have to have people think we know exactly how to do everything with kids? That single piece of advice I got on marriage? I was nursing Briar in a chair beneath a sun-drenched window on the eastern side of our house. She was 4 days old. My mom set a sandwich on the arm of the chair, stroked Briar’s head and whispered with her lips touching my ear, “You leave something for Sean. Promise me that you’ll leave something for him.” I nodded absent-mindedly. She walked away nodding almost as if she had accomplished the whole purpose of the trip in those two sentences
Eventually we outgrew our house, the tiny rooms without closets and the one overworked bathroom cracking under the abuse of three kids under six. When we moved to this new(er) house, we came into it with new hope. Maybe things would be easier, maybe we’d be better at it all. Marriage is not easy. Raising children is not easy. And gracefully accepting someone’s advice is not easy. The thing I learned between a house built in 1896 and another built in 1996, it’s all work and we’re all making it up as we go. We just have to save something for ourself and share it with someone we love.
I weep thinking of my mom’s words. I understand now that saving something for Sean, was a code for saving something for me. Apportioning some small part of myself for love and conversation, for silence and balance. I chose Sean, just as we chose that house. We chose it to protect us and keep us warm, to be our place to build a life. We chose each other for those same reasons. My entire life I have pursued belonging. It hasn’t been waiting for me in a club or in a professional benchmark, it hasn’t arrived with a certain number in the bank account. Belonging for me is a nickname, it’s being loved in a way that makes me know that I am special and that even as I grow rotten tomatoes and throw tantrums over bad pancakes, I am it for him. Belonging is not easy, but through that window I am understanding that it’s worth the work.