Saturday was a damp, grey day, certainly not the kind of day which inspires a 100 mile road trip. But, the plans had been made and downstate friends and I were meeting at my brother’s new house to celebrate his recent birthday.
“House” is a bit of a misnomer in this case because where my brother, his partner and their 3 dogs are currently living, doesn’t quite earn the title of house. It’s more of a glorified cabin. Sort of.
They’ve been living in this building for a few months, as their retirement home became a project that involved tearing down and rebuilding, while occupying, the small house they purchased in spring.
They’re working with a contractor but everyone knows the challenges of construction during a global pandemic, complete with supply chain failures. It’s not easy. There have been delays with materials and start dates and unimagined complications. I’m not sure what the time frame is for completion, but from what I saw yesterday, it’s months from now.
My brother’s renovations have stressed me out more than you can imagine. As he’s regaled me with tales of the septic system (requiring immediate replacement), the new Sheetrock hung by the previous owner to hide random and widespread failings and leaks, the charred interior of the shed from the previous owner’s decision to move the gas grill into the shed when it began to rain mid-bbq and the calendar of the contractor, my heart would race with anxiety.
I’m not kidding – I would nearly hyperventilate.
They’re living in approximately 300 sq ft. The floors are weak and the kitchen is a cobbled together work space without a range or sink. There’s also a salt water fish tank that takes up more real estate than most anyone else would ever tolerate when space is at such a premium.
I’m unsure about the source(s) of heat, or if the electric service in place is sufficient. It all sounds crazy – and dangerous. Like carbon monoxide, electrical fire, frostbite, dangerous.
Saturday, I finally saw where my brother is living for myself. The drive there was shorter than my previous ride to Syracuse where he had lived for decades, and the last 5 or 6 miles were borderline interesting and exceptionally scenic. As I obeyed Waze and made the last couple of turns, I couldn’t help but take note that my brother had once again bought a property which is, at times, inaccessible because of a combination of hills and winter weather.
I recognized the house from across the small body of water his property sits above, as soon as I saw it. It was the one with a tiny cabin connected to a large concrete slab which sported a single wall at one end for definition.
I parked my car, put my rain boots on and entered his home, taking in the interior which prompted a wave of memories. The small wooden footstool that every single one of my childhood friends reading this right now can immediately picture, was there. Tucked into a spot where it fit perfectly, it was visible and accessible.
My brother and I talked about the space and how things were going. A couple of times he referenced houses we lived in as children. (I’ve written before about how frequently we moved.) He mentioned characteristics of specific houses from when we were quite young, something about the wind filtering its way inside between poorly insulated siding and through cheap windows, the terrible stall shower in another.
I looked around at where he was living, quietly amused.
He and I took advantage of the rain temporarily relenting to go outside. As I opened the door, my eyes were greeted by a gorgeous bald eagle posing on a branch directly across the pond from where I stood. I was awed.
I couldn’t stop smiling.
We walked the slab and I could see how it all was going to fit together. The placement of the windows and the kitchen island and the indulgent pantry finally all came together in my imagination. It’s going to be really lovely – and probably very close to just what he wanted.
On the drive home, I thought about how we often recreate what is familiar from our childhoods, even if it’s chaos. I believe we do this without conscious thought because we, on some levels, seek what is familiar.
As I’ve done often before, I considered how my life has been impacted, emotionally and physically, by the circumstances in which I grew up. A childhood without a father or primary male figure probably provides some insight into my tendency to find unavailable men appealing and might even explain my need to maintain distance in relationships. I know I replicated for my children my own childhood bedroom placement when I turned the former attic in my home over to them as their bedroom space – with the added improvements of heat and air conditioning, that is.
My brother’s current living situation is reminiscent of a house we lived in for a few years as teens. It was a large home, for us, but not all of it was habitable. There were rooms beyond the hallway door that were not occupied or heated or even fully enclosed from the elements. It was just unusable space, housing the scary hot water heater that demanded a relighting of the pilot far too often. He shares his current home, as we did as children, with a woman who suffers from terrible back pain, a state familiar to us both.
As I reflected, though, on our shared history and our current home owner circumstances, I realized that maybe what my brother and I have both been doing is trying to heal from, not replicate, the past. Perhaps we’ve each recreated specific situations because we wanted to demonstrate that we now have the capacity to correct them. To fix them. To at last escape the conditions which we once knew as normal, but can now finally see, with eagle eyed clarity, as needing improvement.