But it didn’t start with my house. It started in my childhood, probably with my favorite TV show, Leave It to Beaver. Beaver lived in a house—a two-story house with a wide lawn, bright siding, and a picket fence. Beaver and the Cleaver family were very happy there.
Although as a child, I, too, lived in a house with my family—my mother, my father and my brother—my family life wasn’t quite as happy as Beaver’s. I was too young to understand, but I knew, staring into our 20-inch black-and-white TV, that Beaver had it good. But the specifics of the Cleaver family, or mine, aren’t really the point. Somewhere along the way, watching TV families in an assortment of houses throughout my childhood, I came to believe that a house is where you end up as an adult, the place where happy families live.
When I adopted my daughter, it seemed right that we should live in a house. In fact it seemed important, maybe even essential, for our future family happiness. So I bought one—a ragged frame house engulfed by beautiful trees. It was almost 100 years old, and, at the height of the housing boom, I decided to renovate it. I would use the profit from my previous home to create a house that matched my dreams.
For nine months, I battled with an architect and construction crew to add a second floor and fix up the first. I designed the floor plan, including two dormered bedrooms, a homey office for me, and a small loft space that overlooked the den. Large windows would provide views of the yard and add dappled sunlight to every room. I expanded the kitchen by taking down the walls of the neighboring room. The unfinished basement was the size of a gym, perfect for my active daughter. I sectioned off a play area with bright white tiles, and equipped it with a hammock and ropes and a climbing ladder.
And it is all too sad to write about. My heart literally aches as I begin to describe the specifics, so I must stop. It will have to be enough to say that I succeeded. Physically, my house was just what I imagined. It had every detail of my wildest dreams. I was overtaken with excitement about our future happiness there as I packed us up to move in.
As an adult, I was wise enough to know that Beaver’s family was a fantasy. But there was still a part of me that believed in the Cleavers. When we moved in, I wasn’t married, but I expected marriage to come along now that I had the kind of house that married people lived in. I envisioned neighbors and new friends chatting with me on the porch or in the spacious kitchen. I assumed single parenting would get easier, aided by all the moms and kids who lived on the block. The house was cozy and calming, and above all built with love. I believed my daughter and I would thrive.
It didn’t work. Just like the details of the house, I can’t describe those years—they would fill volumes with difficult stories. I’ll simply say that the physical space the house provided was not a cure for life’s complications. Plus, the house itself completely consumed me with an endless to-do list. I didn’t have energy left to entertain all the guests I hoped to have, much less date, much less marry.
One day, after a rainstorm, earthworms crawled through the cracks in my basement floor. Brown and crusty, they had dehydrated overnight. I took pictures and I showed them to the man in the hardware store. He sold me a tub of ready-made cement, but told me it was a temporary fix. Within a couple of years I would need to dig up the basement floor entirely and replace it.
I thought about the assortment of surprises my perfect house had given me—the beehives above the back door, the woodpeckers pecking holes into the siding, the biting spiders in the garage that left pock-marks on my forehead, the skunks under the porch. And my beautiful trees–the maple that crashed onto my daughter’s dormer in a storm and the large locust branch that fell onto the hood of my car; the Dutch elm disease that killed three trees; the ash borer that finished off a fourth. And who knew how overwhelming a yard could be—the seeding, the mowing, the weeding, the raking. And the snow! Shoveling the sidewalk, the walkway to the front door, the steps, the path through the backyard to the garage, and my short driveway where city plows heaped heavy chunks of ice from the alley.
As I sat on the basement floor scraping up dehydrated worms and slathering cement into the cracks, I knew. It was time to give up. I could not take any more failed expectations. I was done being superhuman, caring for my old, feeble house in addition to my energetic daughter. I was not happy. The house had failed at its job.
We moved. I picked a townhouse on the opposite side of town. An ugly one with narrow courtyards between rows of indistinct, slim units. I lost my views and most of my light, but views and light didn’t bring me the joy I had hoped for. We don’t have a yard now much less a picket fence. But I no longer have random animals on my property, and there are no trees that might crash through my roof. A crew of fit young men and women shovels my driveway and sidewalks.
I didn’t do anything to fix up my new home except to paint it, and I may never. Beaver be damned. My daughter and I were never going to have a perfect life. The house we left reminded me of that all the time—just how let down I was, how far I was from my hopes and dreams.
Now our townhouse, which I will never love, at least not in that I-poured-my-heart-into-it kind of way, holds who we really are—a single mom and a strong-willed teen. Half of a Cleaver family at most. But it houses love anyway, the backwards inside-out kind of love that comes from wrestling through difficult times.
And now I know. We were never meant to live the Cleaver life. It would have been nice. But it’s not fair to blame Beaver; he was just a kid following a script, after all.