It’s been over a year, and I still don’t feel quite at home in this house. I still think of it as “The Murder House”. Not because of any actual murders—none that I know of, anyway,—that’s just what I called it when we first toured the property.
My son had been born a week earlier and everyone was flipping out about it. My parents, my wife’s parents, and my grandmother were all in town for the birth. We each handled it in our own different ways. My wife and I were hardly sleeping at all, we had to wake up every couple of hours to feed him or change him. I had two weeks of paternity leave from my job, but it wasn’t restful in the slightest. Sleep is a necessity, something I never realized I needed until I didn’t have it anymore, and without it, I was constantly delirious, a stainless-steel travel mug of coffee accompanied me wherever I went. All I could think about was satisfying his myriad incommunicable needs, guessing my way down the list until he could nap peacefully again and we could try to get some sleep ourselves.
It was the second house we looked at, and I joined my parents there during one of his sleeping spells, when I finally felt comfortable leaving my wife to nap next to him. The house was this towering grey monstrosity, a fixer-upper that would cost us less to buy so long as we were ready for the extensive remodeling that would make it livable. I recorded video tours of each floor to show my wife and narrated my realtime thoughts on the place. The basement was the spookiest part, labyrinthine in its many additions and reconstructions over the hundred years or so of the house’s previous owners. Rooms were added without regard to the existing floorplan, yielding unpredictable twists and turns through carpet, tile, and vinyl linoleum flooring.
The main floor wasn’t much better. The fireplace had a tile footer that was missing a whole chunk of corner, exposing bare concrete beneath. The white walls were crumbling away in places, revealing chunks of browned plaster behind it, and all the trim was glossy with layer upon layer of paint. In the dining room, there was a little corkboard for mail above a small square chalkboard that had a single word written on it in white permanent marker like indelible chalk. The word simply read, “Run!”
There were no doors on the first floor, and the second floor doors all had deadbolts at eye level. It was hard to see it for what it could become—bedrooms, playrooms, a study—instead, everything just raised questions. Why were there so many locks? Why didn’t we have keys to them? Why were the deadbolts only accessible from the outside? Was someone locking people inside these rooms? My sleep-deprived mind, always prone to worst-case-scenarios, imagined a sordid tale of imprisonment, torture, and yes, murder. There was an out-of-place deck in the backyard where I guessed the bodies might be buried, if not in the strange walled-off corner awkwardly set in the middle of one of the basement walls.
And yet, it was the best option that was available. My parents decided that the duplex where my wife and I were living was simply not enough space for a growing family, and they had enough capital that they could afford to buy a house for us outright with enough left over to pay a deconstruction crew to tear down the basement walls and a restoration team to strip the paint from the hundred-year-old trim and skim the hundred-year-old plaster walls. Since my wife was completely, physically preoccupied with the baby, I was left to make all the executive decisions about how we would refinish the floor, paint the rooms, and restore the wooden double-hung windows to their former glory. Sweat equity would bridge the gap between the mess we purchased and the home we would build, and I would have a strong hand in the remodel.
My family has built a few houses from the ground up, the first of which was finished shortly after I was born. Together, we built a log house in rural Alabama that would house my parents, my sister, and me, and that house felt like home in a way this one has yet to accomplish. Maybe it was that sense of communal effort, of creative control, and of sheer labor. I still remember cutting all forty-six rafters with a circular saw, placing the responsibility for the stability of the roof in my teenage hands. We built a bedroom for each of us, my parents sharing theirs with each other, as well as an office for my freelance interpreter mother and a music/art room back when I was still trying to be a musician and my sister was still trying to be an artist. The exterior walls were fourteen inches thick, huge logs that were painted brown on the outside but finished with a clear shellac interior. In spite of all our effort, the four of us only lived there together for a couple of years.
We moved around a lot when I was a kid, so there’s not really an archetypal “childhood home” in my memory. When pressed, I consider “home” the house we rented in Decatur, Georgia. It was small enough that my sister and I shared a bedroom until I was old enough to demand my own space and moved into the attic. There was no air conditioning, just a box fan that lived in the window, constantly circulating the stifling southern heat in the summer to give the illusion of cool. When we gathered in our tiny dining room around the little collapsible table for dinner, I felt connected to the space and my family in a way that has been hard to capture since.
We moved from that little rental—barely more than a single floor with an unfinished basement—into a church-sponsored manse provided as part of my father’s job at a rural Presbyterian church in Virginia. That was certainly the oldest and largest house I’ve ever lived in, built sometime in the 1800’s alongside the chapel itself. The space was so massive that everything we moved into it felt small and out of place. There were ten feet between my bed and my computer desk before I even made it to my bedroom door. We had a living room with two couches and a television but nothing else, and the empty space echoed with every footfall. The only part of that house that I liked was the library, a smaller room toward the back of the house with floor-to-ceiling built-in bookshelves.
My wife and I moved into the duplex when we found out we were pregnant because the one-bedroom unit of a ground-floor apartment complex was certainly going to be too small for our needs. The duplex at least had two bedrooms, one of which could be used as a study for my writing until the baby came, at which point it would be dubbed the “baby study” until such a time as he was old enough for me to move my desk out. We planned on looking for a house to buy for ourselves, but with our meager salaries (I was working as a temp, having recently left my job in tech retail before we discovered we were pregnant) we knew we wouldn’t be able to afford much of an upgrade, and then not for a few years. Until then, we made the space feel like home by picking up a couple of towering seven-foot-tall matching bookcases at a secondhand construction store. When I could see all of my books in one place, I felt like I could comfortably inhabit the space for an indefinite period of time.
Now those bookcases live in the library of the Murder House, a ground floor westward-facing room with no door in the doorframe. The main floor only has doors leading into the bathroom and the basement, otherwise it is completely open. For the longest time, all I could see was project after project after project until the house would be “done” and I could finally look forward to living in it instead of working on it. It’s been more than a year and I’m still finding things to do. The bathroom window needs to be trimmed out. The trim in my study still needs to be treated with Rubio monocoat oil. The fence in the backyard, a horrid red monstrosity, needs to be removed and replaced with something that feels more welcoming.
Our house is a work in progress, and maybe it will take a few more years of settling before I recognize it as a home. But we own it outright, we can make any modifications to it that we want to, that we can afford, and so it’s only a matter of time before the balance tips from looking at the house as a renovation project and being able to enjoy it simply as a living space. My son will grow up with a clear and distinct recollection of what home looks and feels like, even if I never get there myself. I just need a few more years to warm up to it, to see it not as a remodeling project that still needs to be completed, but as the comforting home he’ll remember for the rest of his life.
You can check out our progress here