Twenty-nine years later, our first house is still our first house, although in important ways, it isn’t the same house at all.
It is a three-story old farmhouse-cum-something else in western Maine, a combination of an 1850s part and a 1913 part. The story goes that a section of the house burned down in the early 1900s and was rebuilt in 1913.
It was the only place two recent graduates of a master in fine arts program in creative writing could afford in 1987, when we were moving to Maine to take positions at small colleges. I still have the realtor’s spec sheet from when I first viewed the house that spring. I keep it mostly for the annoying pleasure of revisiting these words in the description: “completely renovated country home.”
Now, nearly three decades later, I’m still trying to figure out what, if anything, had been renovated — certainly not the front door, a slab that didn’t really fit into its frame; not the room it led directly into, which had no heat and whose floor, walls, and ceiling were made of some sort of sad pressed-board material that bowed and flexed; and not the windows, which were single-pane and leaked. The home had very little insulation. There was tacky wallpaper — everywhere. The pipes froze in winter, and we heated the place with a giant wood stove, burning nine or 10 cords of wood a year. As far as I could tell, everything was original to either 1850 or 1913.
Still, the house was good to us: It cost so little that we could send kids to college, vacation in Europe, and buy a camp on a pond. And we gradually made changes. The first stage was to improve on what was already there; the second was to take those improvements and make them right, or as right as we could afford and my limited skills allowed. Chimneys have been repaired, fireplace inserts installed, floors sanded and revarnished, an entire kitchen added to the square footage, and every single window in the house swapped out with a good double-pane one. The ugly mudroom has been stripped and redone and the room above it made into an interesting space with an oak staircase, wide pine floorboards, and a floor-to-ceiling window. There isn’t a square foot that hasn’t received some attention. Except the front door.
As retirement looms, we’ve been thinking about moving. We’d like to be closer to the kids, who are in Portland and the Boston area, and we have looked at houses in southern Maine. Yet our enthusiasm for the search quickly dimmed; moving would feel like abandonment. Probably most people who buy a house and then work endlessly on it over three decades feel the same way, but I was surprised to find it’s true that the work put into the house, the dramatic transformations, makes it hard to imagine giving it up. The house was a mess when we bought it. It’s not a showplace, but it’s an interesting, comfortable, and well-cared-for home now.
Eventually we’ll move, either out of necessity or because we’ve come to terms with our attachment. It will be difficult, no matter the circumstances, but the one aspect I’m looking forward to is the pleasure of writing these words on the spec sheet: “a completely renovated country home.”
Michael Burke, an English professor at Colby College, lives in Wilton, Maine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Send comments and a 550-word essay about your first home to Address@globe.com. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.