First Light | The Meaning of Home

By Roland Merullo My wife and I bought our first home when we were 27 and 30 years old, respectively. It was an extremely modest property with a $40,000 price tag: a four-room chalet two miles down a dirt road in southwestern Vermont. The road had a steep drop-off on one shoulder and was treacherous […]

By Yankee Magazine

Feb 22 2022


The Meaning of Home

Photo Credit : Julia Emiliani and Wing Club Press

By Roland Merullo

My wife and I bought our first home when we were 27 and 30 years old, respectively. It was an extremely modest property with a $40,000 price tag: a four-room chalet two miles down a dirt road in southwestern Vermont. The road had a steep drop-off on one shoulder and was treacherous in winter, the backyard was a wooded hillside, and in order to take a shower we had to fill a miniature stove—shaped like a scuba diver’s air tank—with chunks of oak and maple, start a fire, and wait 15 minutes for the water to get hot. But the place was ours. We both remember the joy of that, the feeling of waking up for the first time in a place that wasn’t owned by our parents, our college, or a landlord.

We stayed there three years, then sold the house at a fair profit to another young couple and moved to a slightly larger home on a paved road an hour south in Massachusetts, a place nearer to our parents, a small Cape that offered the great luxury of water heated by a furnace. At the time we had no children, but we did have decent-paying jobs, so we took out a loan and embarked on an ambitious building project, doubling the size of the house, adding two bedrooms and a bath, two offices, a full basement, and even an exercise room. In our earlier years together I’d been a full-time carpenter, which meant we could do most of the work ourselves, and the 1,000-square-foot addition, which took us three years to finish, cost us a third or a quarter of what it would have been with labor charges.

The Meaning of Home
Photo Credit : Julia Emiliani and Wing Club Press

We’ve been in that house for more than three decades now, raised two daughters there, and we’ve moved from middle age to the start of something else, “the golden years” they’re sometimes called. We’re still young enough and healthy enough to do almost all the maintenance on the house and yard without hiring anyone. We mow the lawn and shovel snow from the steps and walkway (though we pay someone to plow our long driveway). Room by room, we rip up the carpet in the old part of the house and lay hardwood flooring; we clean the shower and sink drains, fix small leaks, pump water out of the basement after a big rainstorm, grout bathroom tile, patch roof shingles, adjust the striking plates on doors, caulk windows, replace storm doors, and perform all the scores of other tasks that home ownership involves.

A house, as any carpenter will tell you, is a living creature. It shrinks and swells with changes in temperature and humidity, and it ages as incrementally and unstoppably as we do ourselves. Sills begin to rot, foundations and interior walls show cracks, roof shingles gradually wear thin. The lawn needs mowing, the trees and bushes need trimming, the driveway needs regular infusions of gravel. Like so many other homeowners, we deal with mice and carpenter ants, wasp nests, wind damage, mildewed decking, a furnace that needs servicing, frozen pipes, cracked windows, peeling paint. We’re more fortunate than most, however: Except for serious electrical and plumbing issues, I can do most of the repairs myself. In fact, both of us enjoy the household tasks, relishing in a newly mown lawn or a freshly painted living room ceiling. But it’s work, and worry, and sometimes expense, and it never, ever ends.

I’m in my late 60s now, Amanda a bit younger, and we can see the time coming, not far down the road, when shoveling a foot of heavy, wet snow or squeezing into a crawlspace to insulate a pipe will be too much for us. We won’t have the strength to mow in August or rake in October, and the idea of climbing up onto the roof to replace a shingle damaged by a falling branch will no doubt seem like a risk not worth taking. Then, too, physical limitations aside, we might just run out of patience for the constant care a home requires. A few years and many repairs down the road, the idea of living in a condominium—something we can’t really imagine now—might seem like an attractive option.

It occurs to me that home ownership is a lot like marriage. There’s the constancy, the decades of daily closeness, but it never really stays the same, and sometimes utterly surprises you. There are times when you take for granted a warm bedroom or a good roof, just as there are times when you take for granted the company of a spouse. There are small and not-so-small aggravations, sometimes tragically bad turns of fate—a fire, a flood, an infestation, a terrible diagnosis—and almost always the requirement of a high level of attentiveness and care.

There are good relationships and difficult ones, partnerships that last for decades and others that disintegrate after a year or two. The partner—house or human—becomes intimately connected with your sense of self, a repository of memories, something or someone to return to after a difficult day. Both marriage and home ownership require constant work, and offer, in return, a crucial shelter—from loneliness, from the weather—and, in the best cases, a satisfaction that takes decades to build, conversation by conversation, argument by argument, fixed leak after mortgage payment after painted ceiling.

In most marriages there are happy and less-happy moments; in most houses there are pleasant and less-pleasant jobs. Whenever we have a heavy rain or snowmelt, the basement beneath the older section of our home takes on quite a bit of water. This week we had both—three inches of rain on top of 16 inches of snow—and half the old cellar was flooded with dirty water a few inches deep in places. I unfurled, cleaned, and pressed the kinks out of our garden hose, stretched it up the bulkhead stairs and into the yard, set the sump pump in the deepest section of the flood, attached the hose to it, plugged in the pump, and monitored it for an hour or so, moving it here and there into wetter sections, using a push broom to direct the water. It wasn’t a very enjoyable task, but I was thinking, afterward, about the men, women, and children who have no home at all—no bed, no kitchen, no warm place to sleep on a winter night. And I was thinking about two friends who, even though they’re well along in years and have spent their whole adult lives working, cannot afford to purchase a home. There are, of course, people who prefer renting, happy to trade the absence of equity for the relative lack of responsibility, but my friends don’t fall into that category. Like tens of millions of other Americans in these times of astronomical home prices, they don’t have the credit, or the savings, or the income that would enable them to convince a bank to offer them a loan. Month after month they put money in the landlord’s pocket, and if the faucet leaks, they pick up the phone, not a monkey wrench.

Among other blessings, it’s hard to overestimate the financial advantages of home ownership, especially over the long term. When our parents died, both Amanda and I inherited some of the equity they’d had in the houses where they’d lived for decades. We used the money to pay off car loans and credit cards, and to make tuition payments, and month by month, we’re building equity in our own home, as well. My houseless friends won’t be able to pass on to their children such a welcome gift. They’ll move into their golden years without the sometimes substantial harvest that’s reaped after years of mowing lawns and painting ceilings and writing a check to the bank every month. I try never to complain to those friends about the endless maintenance that’s required of a homeowner, the expense, the worry, the unending list of tasks, large and small. I try never to do that.