One of the kindest things anyone ever said to me occurred in the kitchen of my newly bought very first home. The previous owners hadn’t listed the house, so it hadn’t gotten realtor-ready before we bought it. I had hoped, since the owners were friends-of-friends and had met us and seemingly found us charming, that they would clean it up nicely before we moved in. They had apparently decided that leaving us flowers and champagne was enough (and this was v nice, to be sure, but also my baby’s onesies were grey with someone else’s dirt and dog hair).
We had lived there for several weeks, and I had been trying, inexpertly, to deep clean the house while chasing a three-year-old and crawling baby. It wasn’t going very well, and when I mentioned my frustration, my truly lovely sister sent me money as a housewarming gift to hire a cleaning service.
So there I was, holding a writhing baby and making small talk with the women cleaning my house, trying not to feel incredibly awkward — I don’t come from a family who indulges in help with household tasks. And the woman said, “You know, your house looks really pretty, then you get up close, and there’s like, five years of dirt.”
THANK YOU, CLEANING LADY.
What we have here, I think, is evidence of people who merely camped in a home. The sellers had indeed lived in our house for five years, and the longer we live here, the longer I realize that the way we own and occupy a house is very different from the way they did.
It’s not as though they threw frat parties. The house was not derelict. It’s just that they didn’t appear to do any deep cleaning, maintenance, or anything but very superficial improvements in their tenure here. They painted the downstairs interior appropriate Craftsman colors and the upstairs lurid colors according to their children’s preferences and…that is it. (To see the more put-together bedroom before we moved in, scroll to the bottom of this post.)
When they wanted to hang pictures, they drove little pieces of metal into the plaster. They started to paint one room then stopped. They got samples of granite to consider how to redo the countertops, then didn’t. When the air conditioning unit broke, they forfeited central a/c; when a lightbulb broke in a socket upstairs, they left it.
These were people who are perfectly nice, but didn’t have any lasting concern for the health of this place. It’s something I’ve been considering a lot this summer, as J’s work schedule slows down and we chip away at our to-dos (most recently, razing the murder shed out back and thereby uncovering a dead opossum and a live skunk).
They were camping. You could call it squatting, but that makes me think of ne’erdowells, and these were perfectly pleasant suburban people. It’s not like they created a fortress of trash or anything. Instead, they refused to do the work of loving deeply and investing patiently in a place. I’m sure they were busy. Or it wasn’t a priority. This post isn’t to fuss at them.
To mix metaphors, what I’m trying to do here is not to camp but to put down roots. I plant bulbs. I replace laminate countertops with ones that I hope might outlive me and all the fads in between. I do the unpleasant work of rehabilitating a yard that has been entirely neglected for at least five years: removing disintegrating landscapers’ plastic, weeding, reading up on the creepy volunteer bushes and trees I can barely keep up with.
I do not know what I am doing. But I do know that I hope our life in this place is long, and that we can do better. Our yard may be strewn with kids’ sand buckets and our dining room table cluttered. There may be a thousand projects left on our to-do list to keep ahead of an older house’s aging. But I don’t want to camp — I want to belong. And I have to face that this means work.