Vol 3, Num 7 :: 2004.03.26 — 2004.04.08
My husband and I bought a house last August. Eight months ago. Not that long, but it’s starting to feel like ours. The boxes are unpacked, the kitchen feels like home to me, and our focus has turned from the immediacy of hanging pictures and organizing cabinets to making plans for future remodels. One thing that hasn’t changed at all since we bought our house, though, is the amount of time and energy we spend contemplating the previous owners: who they were, why they did the things they did, how we can wrap our minds around the decisions they made. Normally, our contemplations aren’t that articulate or philosophical; rather, one of us will yelp, “What the heck were they thinking!?”
The people I meet these days seem to be wondering the same about us. Our house prompts a lot of conversation, most of it stunned and full of baffled silences. It’s in Lake Zurich, for one thing, which is a suburb of Chicago in only the most theoretical sense—people from the city have rarely heard of it and people from around here don’t venture far beyond its blight of shopping centers, chain restaurants, and grocery stores. Jeff drives fifty minutes (on a good day) to work, and we travel almost the same distance to go to a good church. Lately, when we introduce ourselves to people after the service, they perk up and say, “Oh, you’re the ones from Lake Zurich.” To which we nod and shuffle our feet a bit.
When people visit us, though, they immediately understand our choice, commutes and all. The house is a rambling, cobbled-together structure with crazy features like an official-looking sign on the porch that says STAIRWAY, and three kitchens, two of which are mostly unusable. Friends see these quirks as funny and endearing, which is more than you can say about most houses. But more to the point, there’s the lake right outside our door, visible through banks of windows on every floor of the house. The lake is small enough to not allow motorized boats (unless you count the snowmobiles zipping back and forth across the ice in January) but big enough to support fish, several blue herons, and a few too many cranky geese. Last fall we saw a cormorant, which thrilled me at first because from a distance it looks like a loon, sitting low in the water and diving under for nerve-wracking amounts of time. But close up, it’s a prehistoric-looking creature with a hooked beak that reminds me of something that would be happy to stumble upon you in the desert where it would circle your slowly dying body with patience and a growing appetite.
No matter the weather, when people first drive up to the house, they head straight to the dock where they gaze for long moments at the water. Chicagoans live with an insane amount of traffic noise in their ears, and as they eagerly accept one of the fishing poles we have on hand, they say with hushed gratitude and longing, “You must feel like you?re on vacation all the time.”
But once inside the house, those who know anything about plumbing, wiring, construction, carpentry, or aesthetics are eager to join us in our contemplation of the previous owners. Our well water has a smell I don’t care for, and although we’ve been assured it’s perfectly safe for human consumption, one of the first things we did was install a water filtration system. The Culligan man wanted to set it up in the basement so it wouldn’t usurp the cabinet under the kitchen sink, so he followed me into the dungeon to check out the options. We stood amidst the cobwebs, mutually squinting into the darkness, trying to get to the bottom of the maze of pipes going every which way. Our “conversation” went something like this:
Him: “Oh. My. Gosh.”
Him (pointing): “Look at that.”
Him (swiveling his head):“?And over there?”
Him (finger still pointing): “And look at!”
Him (rubbing the back of his head): “What the heck?”
Him (finally): “I think we should go back to the kitchen.”
Back upstairs, his head beneath the sink, he wondered aloud why the previous owners hooked up the hot and cold water backwards. It was a rhetorical question, so I said nothing. After a few moments of silence, he took pity on me and reversed the hoses going to the faucet without charging any extra.
I’ve had similar conversations with the carpenter who is currently installing new windows, with the notable exception that he sprinkles his unfinished sentences with hearty laughter. Often and liberally. I hear this laughter now, coming from him and his two assistants in the next room, and I know from experience that they’d be only too happy to enlighten me about whatever new oddity they’ve discovered.
“Did you know that you have outside stairs leading nowhere?”
Yes, thank you, I did.
“Even if they moved an entrance, why wouldn’t they get rid of the old stairs?”
Another rhetorical question.
“Did you know that all the light switches are about six inches too high?”
“Why would they do that?”
I have no idea.
“Did you know that they used a stir stick to ‘fix’ one of the bedroom doors that’s falling off its hinge?”
“Did you know that they dry-walled over a window in the entryway without bothering to remove it?”
Now that I didn’t know.
The previous owners were Ukrainian immigrants, and I find myself wondering how much that explains. An elderly woman lived here (her husband, the original owner, is deceased) with her son, daughter-in-law, and three grandchildren. They all spoke fluent Ukrainian and the walls were liberally decorated with icons of the Virgin, her Son, and countless saints. The son, who looked to be in his forties, was eager to tell us that we could put anything out for the garbage men to take. According to him, Waste Management routinely ignored the neighbors’ trash, but no matter the size or quantity of stuff he put out, they would take it faithfully, because every year he gave them two bottles of vodka for Christmas. For about 9.4 seconds, I was impressed by this gesture. What a generous and neighborly thing to do. Christian, even. Then my American logic kicked in. Wait a minute. I pay every month for garbage collection. I follow their instructions, put the recyclables in the appropriate bin, break down and tie the cardboard, even cram the yard waste into big paper bags that I have to buy at Home Depot. They should take our garbage, even if we don’t give them vodka. Which we certainly won’t.
But liquor was clearly a form of currency for the previous owner. He had bottles in the garage, furnace room, closets, and the bar in the basement. He even gave us a few bottles of forty-year-old whiskey (which would be handy for stripping paint), perhaps to apologize in advance for the headaches he knew would soon be ours. Or perhaps it’s simply an ingrained way of life for him, a way of getting what he wants out of people, of making sure they’re available when he needs a favor. It’s possible that his father, who immigrated from Ukraine when it was part of the former Soviet Union, taught him that bartering and greasing the palms of those around you was a necessity. A means of survival. Even now, in the limping post-communist economies of Ukraine and Russia, vodka may still be a stronger, more reliable currency than rubles.
The day we signed our lives away to the bank and received our (single) key, we arrived at the house to find that the previous owners had left forty years worth of junk in the garage, basement, rafters, and almost every closet in the house. On the occasions we had walked through the house with our realtor, we had marveled at the sheer quantity of stuff in every nook and cranny, but all three of us had naively assumed the piles would mysteriously disappear along with the Ukrainians. It was all so admittedly useless and grimy, I wouldn’t have wanted to deal with it, either, if I were them. But still. After we went through all the stages of grief, lingering long and hard in anger and disbelief, we rented a 15 yard dumpster and filled it. Heaping. With plans to rent and fill another one in the near future.
The moment we saw all they had left behind, my mind and mood went directly to the dark side. I naturally assumed the worst of their character and ethics. “What makes them think we want to deal with all their trash?,” was one of the very nicest (and only printable) questions I asked during the month-long cleanup effort.
My father, who travels often to Slovakia, a small Eastern European country, offered an opinion about the mess. In Slovakia, he said, he knew people who bought a property that was chock full of trash. Whether garbage collection is expensive, inconvenient, or unpredictable in that country, he didn’t know. His Slovakian friends were amused when he expressed indignation at the thought of buying a building full of someone else’s junk. The thing that impressed him most was the fact that they considered it a normal occurrence, nothing worth getting bent out of shape about. Perhaps, he suggested gently to me, the Ukrainians didn’t mean anything malicious by their actions. It could be cultural.
This mollified me somewhat, though not as much as taking digital pictures of the heaping dumpster and e-mailing a copy to their lawyer. Understanding why doesn’t justify their actions, but it does make it, well, a little more understandable. If your father was born in the Ukraine where chronic shortages meant that nothing should be thrown out, scraps should be salvaged and cobbled together even if it’s more work than buying something new, that selling property is an opportunity to get rid of the stuff you no longer want, and that bottles of vodka make sure things work in your favor, then your house would probably look remarkably like the one we’re living in right now.
Jeff’s grandfather was a farmer who struggled to support his wife and eleven children during the Great Depression. He salvaged scrap iron, threw nothing away, made the things he couldn’t afford to buy, and worked on his farm and at a chicken slaughterhouse just to make ends meet. His view of the world is colored by the Depression still; he is frugal and reluctant to waste anything. His home is functional, with just enough space to host the eighty or so family members who make it on Christmas Eve and enough food to feed at least eighty more. Any artwork is homemade, lovingly created by children and grandchildren and displayed with pride. The beds have sinkholes in the middle—it is imperative that a couple not go to bed angry in that house—but there are enough handmade quilts to keep everyone snug, even on the bitterest winter night.
Every year Jeff’s sister makes a list of Grandpa’s continually growing family—his children and grandchildren and great grandchildren—which he folds carefully and puts into his shirt pocket, pulling it out and looking at it so often over the course of the year that the paper is limp and shredded by the time it’s rewritten. Perhaps partly because of the Depression, he understands the fleeting nature of possessions and therefore values family more than anything else. His home is a reflection of his heart.
All this serves to make me acutely aware of the choices Jeff and I are making as we seek to undo some of the previous owners’ more unsightly and frightening choices and make this house uniquely ours. What will our home tell others about who we are?
Real estate still seems to be booming in the Chicago area. As we drive through the quickly growing subdivisions, we are amazed by the size of the houses. At night, when lights are on and curtains are not shut, I catch glimpses of towering cathedral ceilings and cavernous kitchens; I get exhausted just thinking about cleaning day, even though my husband points out that if you can afford one of these houses, you can afford a cleaning service. Starter castles, we call these enormous houses, and the term makes me sad, bringing to mind a family of three or four who are too busy to spend much time there. I wonder what the people who live in these houses are aiming for, consciously or unconsciously, and how their houses reflect their longings.
In Sex and Real Estate: Why We Love Houses, Marjorie Garber writes, “For busy people, space has come to substitute for time, and the house becomes the unlived life. In an era when the welcome mat and the answering machine all-too-often stand in for personal greeting and the human voice, the house—with its ‘living’ room, ‘dining’ room, ‘family’ room, and ‘media’ room—is the place where we state the life we wished we had time to live.”
This is exactly what I don’t want my home to be, either for me and my husband, or for people who visit. A home, it seems to me, should be a place where people slow down and instinctively put up their feet. A place where they can shake off the busyness of work, the pressures of traffic, and the constant demands of cell phones. If this is our goal with this house, I think God has already done most of the work. There is something inherently soothing about water: the sound of it lapping the edge of the dock; the way it reflects the weather, turning gray under cloudy skies and brilliant blue when it’s sunny; how it provides a home for fish and herons and the occasional cormorant. I hope that this feeling follows people indoors, regardless of how skilled they are in picking up on all the oddities.
There are times when we can?t believe anyone would enjoy being here because we ourselves are so overwhelmed by the problems needing attention. Usually, we?re the first to laugh over the fact that the toilet on the main floor doesn?t flush with confidence unless the upstairs toilet is also periodically flushed. But a few days ago, my husband noticed a leak in the garage and it was enough to steal his laughter, to allow the fear to creep in that the house is too far gone to be redeemed from the Fall or that we are not up to the challenge, mentally, physically, or fiscally.
Yet God always has a way of graciously pulling us back from this point, of reminding us what this house—this home—is really all about. A vehicle will pull into the driveway, and we’ll put on our shoes so we can join whoever has arrived on their stroll toward the lake, ready to offer folding chairs or a tour among the perennials or a ride in the canoe—anything as long as we can be nearby when they exhale deeply and then fill their lungs again as if they haven’t truly breathed in weeks. If this home, both inside and out, can be a resting place for weary souls, increasingly beautiful and yet always comfortable, where there is safety and good food and unhurried time, where the people who visit know that their names are cherished enough to be written on a piece of paper and kept in a shirt pocket, then I, too, can breathe deeply, knowing that this is what God called us to when he led us to the broken down house that a Ukrainian family was ready to be rid of.
Marsena Konkle is currently working on her second novel, trying not to be distracted by the fact that her agent is negotiating a publishing contract for her first novel, What Life Comes To. Marsena?s work is overseen by her husband, Jeff, who provides financial assistance and editing suggestions, and her cat, Ivan the Terrible, who spends hours each day exhausting himself with all the bird activity outside his window. She also works with Denis and Margie Haack at Ransom Fellowship, editing their publications and managing their website.