27 September 2010

Home is Where the Heart Is

Ten years plus a few days ago, I stood in a minister's living room surrounded by friends, wearing pajama pants and a sweatshirt with my hair in a ponytail, and married my very best friend in the world.  We celebrated afterwards with a breakfast-to-go from Great Canadian Bagel, and later that night we "did it up right" by hosting a second ceremony in suits and dresses, and throwing what we still think was a fabulous party.  It wasn't what most people would envision when they think of a great wedding, but for us it was amazing and perfect.

In the days leading up to our anniversary, my husband and I have been reminiscing about our lives back then: living together with our small son in a tight basement apartment; relying on the support, goodwill and often, let's face it, charity of our families to get by; struggling to plan our dream wedding on a budget the size of an afternoon nap.  I remember very vividly being curled up on the loveseat - our only piece of soft furniture in the "living room" and one on which the baby had thrown up several times, much to our dismay - and flipping through endless bridal magazines by the light of a single lamp.  It wasn't glamorous by any stretch of the imagination, and I remember wishing at the time that we could be living anywhere other than where we were.

Taking such a long walk down memory lane set me to thinking: if home is where the heart is, and my heart is my husband and family, why wasn't I satisfied with that small, dark basement apartment?  What drives us to keep searching for the perfect home, and how do we instinctively know when we find it?

In our ten years of marriage and five years together before that, my husband and I lived in a variety of places:

  • two dorm rooms in university: one in a co-ed residence, and the other in an all-male dorm (except for me!)
  • hubby's basement bedroom in his mum's rental house in uptown Toronto
  • a basement apartment in another of his mum's rental houses, in another area of uptown Toronto
  • the basement apartment in his dad's house in midtown, where we became engaged, planned our wedding and were married
  • our first house on the Danforth: a rundown semi-detached in need of lots of TLC, and finally
  • our little bungalow in the suburbs and current recipient of bathroom masterpiece make-overs.
All of them in their own way were special, for the simple reason that special things happened in each of them.  I will forever be indebted to the room I first fell in love in: messy like all boys rooms are, stiflingly hot in winter, crowded and overlooking the quad so that everything we did was generally on full display to the university, and smelling like sweat, grease and men’s deodorant, it was a hot, messy, crowded safe haven that cocooned us from the world and just let me “be”.  The dorm room in which we conceived our son was similar to the first, except that noisy, rambunctious boys ran up and down the corridors and shouted at all hours of the day and night.  It boasted a field view (more privacy!) and its own private bathroom, which was an incredible luxury for a girl living on an all-guys floor.

That same baby conceived in a dorm room was brought home by his bumbling, first-time parents to a light-filled apartment in the basement of my mother-in-law’s semi-detached rental house in north
Toronto.  We lived there only a few months, but everything that happened there was momentous: baby’s first bath in the sink; baby’s first bath in the tub (what an adventure!); the first night baby slept through the night, and all the nights in between that he didn’t.  The apartment was spacious and light and filled with borrowed and university furniture, until baby’s things started taking over.  Soon we were inundated with swaddling blankets, soothers, bouncy chairs and diapers, with barely any room for us!

When baby was nearing 9 months old, we moved again to the basement apartment of my husband’s dad.  This apartment was dark, damp and very loud (the house is situated directly above the Yonge subway line and every 5 minutes – 3 during rush hour – we’d listen to the train come rumblin’ through), but it was in that apartment – all 400 square feet of it – that we truly became a family.  It was there that my husband proposed, that we planned our wedding, and that our son learned to walk.  We cooked family dinners, entertained friends (though usually just one at a time!) and formed the foundation on which our entire marriage is built.  We fought, we cried, we laughed and we loved.  We were very young, and we did all of these things 
a lot.  But we also grew up considerably and when we purchased our very first home together in a tree-lined Danforth neighborhood, we were as prepared as we could be for marriage and homeownership.

This, it turned out, was not prepared enough.  What a difference renting to owning makes in your life!  Suddenly, that tree root growing into your exterior pipes is no longer your landlords problem, it’s your own.  When your back porch rots away to sawdust and needs urgent replacing, it is you who gets out there with a smattering of hand-me-down tools to cobble together another structure (no less rickety, mind you, but at least not disintegrating in any slight breeze).  A new homeowner must learn not only how to slap on paint semi-evenly and without ruining the floors, s/he must also become an amateur plumber, electrician, carpenter, seamstress, landscaper, gardener, roofer, janitor and general contractor: quite a lot of hats to wear for two kids who were already newly minted parents and newlyweds.

Much time was spent in that house – our first – fumbling around trying to find the right fit.  I was never happy with the paint colors or the furniture layout or how the space functioned.  It was always in the back of my mind that the kitchen wasn’t right (it needed to be ripped out and replaced), the basement was dingy and damp, the bedrooms were small and unmanageable, and the living room so miniscule that fitting in our huge second-hand furniture in any way that made remote sense was impossible.  During our relationship with that house, we welcomed a new daughter and a rescue dog and completed our family.  Yet despite the good tidings and happy events that came our way while we lived there, I still couldn’t find any satisfaction with the space.  Like a sweater that’s too small or too short in the sleeves or too itchy, I could never get comfortable in that house’s skin.

As ridiculous as it sounds now, I think the house knew it.  More than six years ago, we decided to move to my hometown and purchase my grandparent’s house on a quiet court street.  I was for all intents and purposes born and raised in that house, and moving back was very much coming home for me.  In trying to sell our
Toronto house, we tarted her up a bit with new paint and new carpet in the basement, and rearranged the furniture.  We took care of all the little things that had been driving me crazy while we lived there, but it wasn’t until the For Sale sign went into the lawn that I think we both – the house and I – breathed a sigh of relief.  Just as living in an environment that you find dissatisfactory is wearing, so too is living with someone who finds you dissatisfactory.  I have seen the house since her new owners took over and her transformation is amazing.  They clearly love her inside and out, and their affection shows: she fairly beams with pride.  It was never that it was a bad house, it was only just not the right house for us.

Fast forward six years and we have finally taken the bull by the horns on our forever home.  Moving in to so much established history and so many memories presented its own challenges, but not ones we shied away from.  For a long time we lagged about, wishing and dreaming of changes we wanted (and fully intended) to make.  I planned and re-planned and changed my mind a dozen times before the impetus struck us to just
start; to just meet the challenges of our space head-on and start making it our own.

This is not to say that our home is not still a work-in-progress: it very much is.  My husband complains quite routinely that he is tired of living in a messy, chaotic construction zone, and is deadly disappointed when I remind him we will live like this for many more months, maybe years, to come.  The amount of work is overwhelming and challenging and beyond any scope we ever anticipated taking on, but truthfully I think this has made all the difference.

It comes down to this: I believe that to find the house that’s truly yours, you need a little experience under your belt, confidence in yourself and most importantly, the will to mould something old into something new.  You must be daring, outrageous, courageous and whole-heartedly engaged.  The difference between this home and my others is that despite its many challenges, I consciously decided to love it for better or worse.  Every day I make the decision to remain committed to it and in houses, as in marriage, that commitment will make our relationship will go the distance.

Happy anniversary, babe.