I have this knack for finding quirky places to live. When my husband and I commenced our first house-hunt in Greeley, CO, the cookie-cutter houses that neatly fit into our budget also trimmed the joy right out of my bohemian inclinations. At last we happened upon a venerable Gothic Revival structure, built in 1870, held up by rotting wood and a bit of magic. The porch sagged and the curtains danced in the wind – when the windows were shut. Our parents, upon seeing our fanciful purchase for the first time, respectfully masked their horror and rolled up their sleeves. Several work parties later, it was structurally sound. However, that first winter, my husband and I played cards in the evenings wearing heavy jackets, mittens, and hats.
Our personal affection for this merry old house was validated when it was selected for the National Register of Historic Places. However, even I have a practical bone here and there; and after the first winter, my frigid bones longed to thaw. So, we bid farewell to our cheerful daisy bargeboard and migrated a handful of blocks north to a much younger house, built in 1916.
When we moved to the larger city of Colorado Springs, we regretfully encountered a pricier housing market. Once again cookie-cutter houses taunted our budget. But one day I passed a for-sale sign in the yard of a snug two bedroom bungalow. A quick call to our real estate agent, and I knew as soon as we stepped across the friendly front porch and through the door that this was it. Light streamed through windows on three sides of the living room. Mellowed gold wood floors, original to the home, radiated warmth. The kitchen, with whimsical black-and-yellow color scheme and 1940’s Shirley sink cabinet, over-looked a yard shaded by towering trees. It was a cozy, happy place.
It’s fascinating to me how houses absorb the personalities of their inhabitants. During our house-hunt, we visited a very strange shell of a place in Old Colorado City. It was empty in a haunting kind of way as we wandered the first floor. I tried to reason myself out of an irrational urge to flee. It was old, it had character: two important criteria. So why did I want to run? We followed our realtor up creaky stairs and peered into a second story bedroom. There, lined up neatly on the floor, lay an assortment of guns. No furniture or any visible traces of the seller in the entire house, other than the weapons. It took a while to shake the creepiness after we hurried outside, back into the sunlight.
This house felt quite the opposite, like people had written life and love into its walls since its inception in 1913. We decided to write ourselves into the story.
I think it was meant to be. Before leaving Greeley, I received a gift certificate for framing. I chose a favorite piece from my college days, “Return to the Source,” with no idea at the time where we would live in Colorado Springs. On the day I hung it above the mantel, I was astounded. Its patterns and colors perfectly mimicked the stone work of the fireplace, the shape of the light fixtures, and the decorative muntins of the windows on either side. And, indeed, I found myself returning to the “source” – to the area in which I grew up, to live closer to my family of origin.
Our house is 100 years old this year. Most likely it originated as a Sears and Roebuck mail-order house. The American catalog company offered plans, materials, and kits to build entire homes between the years of 1908 & 1940. We know very little about previous inhabitants, but we know it changed hands only a few times after it was built. And we feel the goodness that the walls absorbed from them.
We’ve definitely made our own mark on this house. We moved in as a family of three, with our then-fifteen-month-old firstborn son. Now we pop its seams with four thriving, active children. In 2004, we rearranged some of the original lay-out and added a second story. Errant balls here and there have rearranged some plaster on the walls since then and also broken glass in the original leaded-glass cabinet doors. One of our children, who shall remain nameless, laboriously whittles down a debt after cracking a window while engaged in an against-the-rules activity. There will be time enough for a flawless house when all this energy flies the nest.
Meanwhile, I savor creaky floors that make it impossible to sneak around in the morning without waking up my son. I appreciate lack of closets that prevent us from keeping things we don’t need. I enjoy the challenge of the front door with original hardware that sometimes works with a key and arbitrarily decides not to. I love that there is nowhere to hide; calling someone’s name from anywhere in the house, apart from the phenomenon of “selective hearing,” prompts a reply.
Over the years, eclectic layers have settled into its nooks and crannies. A rustic weathered wood trunk guards our front door. It carried my maternal Great Grandmother’s possessions from Germany to a Colorado Springs address stamped on its top. My Scottish/Irish Great Grandmother sewed the quilt hanging in our living room. My Dad’s family mailed their old clothes to her, and she magically transformed them into functional works of art. Created by more recent artisans, paper mache stars adorn my kitchen and trigger happy memories of crafting with my children when they were little. Scattered here and there, global handiworks remind me of people I admire in faraway places: primitive burlap wall-hangings from Rwanda, an intricate embroidered textile from Nepal, print of an Ethiopian Madonna and child painting, brilliantly-hued batiks and soapstone from Kenya, carved giraffes from Namibia, folk-art table runner from Vietnam.
There are aspects of this house that I wish I could change. A busy street swipes our front yard. I wish it was a bit more private – our windows are positioned such that anyone can see almost the entire first floor from our porch. We’ve replaced almost all the original windows, except for the decorative panes in the living room. Although I could never trade their aesthetics for warmth, I drape the chairs with extra lap blankets in the winter. (And, anyway, after that Greeley Gothic Revival, this chill is nothing!) However, I am not so foolish as to lack gratitude that I even have a home. I’ve wandered the desolate labyrinth of a World Vision tent camp of Internally Displaced People in Kenya after 2008 post-election violence. I am grateful for any safe, clean place to sleep.
Here, we live, laugh, cry, disagree, forgive, and love. Here we grow. Here, we add to the “once upon a time” story that began 100 years ago, a tale only the walls can tell. The Bible promises that “love covers a multitude of sins,” so even though the current inhabitants are far from perfect, I hope that we will continue to embed worthy chapters into its walls to shelter future inhabitants.
Houses come and go, but it is the people you love who make it a home.