When things don't go as planned



It was the beginning of July in the year 2020 and the sun was at its peak point in the sky
while sweat dripped down my face, my neck, my chest. My elbow was throbbing from the
heaviness of the cement brush that I had been holding all morning. After researching
options and joking that it sounded like a bagel topping, we had decided on a
“german schmear” technique to change the old worn bricks of our newly purchased home
from red to gray. This is a repetitive process of dipping a masonry brush into wet mortar and
then meticulously stroking the heavy brush back and forth along the bricks.
Back and forth, dipping, repeating, again and again.

We had started early in the morning when the air was cool but then the thick of the summer heat found us and the sun was drying each brick faster than the last, making it difficult to keep up. I considered driving to ‘aloha snow’ for a pina colada snow cone and then adding vodka (to simultaneously cool down and numb the pain) but because the schmear technique is extremely time sensitive I knew that was wishful thinking, and I instead staggered backwards to cry beneath the shade of our gazebo where my tears stuck to the salty sweat matted on my skin. 

I fumed under my breath through sobs. All of my pain and all of my anger honed in on the half red half gray house in front of me, and in that moment that unpretentious sixties ranch house standing on one acre of unkempt land began to take all of the blame. The house that we had recently purchased for its potential to be our perfect oasis, the potential of which right then looked like staring out at a distant mirage in the desert. 

While directing all of my anger towards this house that wasn’t yet home, I instinctively looked down at my feet where normally my fur-baby Rockie would sit panting and smiling, ever at my side, always there to lift my mood with her perfect unlimited love. But instead all I had were weeds growing heartily between the uneven cement pavers that I stood on. Only days earlier, Rockie had died in my arms after being bitten by a rattlesnake on a family camp trip. It hadn’t even been seven days since we buried her in the mountains next to all of the other family dogs who had passed on before her, and after over a decade of my life spent with her I had completely forgotten what life was like without her always there by my side. I thought about how much my adventurous Rockie would have loved her freedom on this fully fenced land, but instead she was abruptly taken away from our world just weeks after we moved in.

My sobs grew louder while thoughts ran through my head such as, why did we buy this house? What massive mistake had we made? How will we ever turn this cold emptiness into something that feels warm and breathable?

Without bothering to wipe the tears from my face, or even to stop them, I mustered the strength to leave the shade and face the sun blazed brick again because this kind of visceral pain was not new to me and I already knew that moving forward was the only way. I already knew that I couldn’t move backwards because I wouldn’t survive there. 

So I went back to it. Dip the brush. Swipe back and forth. Feel the unbearable heat on my skin. Accept the pain. Repeat.

I couldn’t have predicted that the german schmear would turn out even better than we had envisioned it would, even despite an unexpected summer thunderstorm that rolled in suddenly the next day and pounded rain on some of the still-drying cement. I couldn’t have predicted just how much better it would look once the faded brick turned a fresh gray and we added board & batten shutters next to all of the windows. 

Honestly, I couldn’t have predicted any of it.

We would pull heaps of overgrown lilacs, trim piles upon piles of branches from overgrown trees, rose bushes, grape vines and weeds - oh the fields of waist high weeds! We would use a sledgehammer to demolish decaying wooden shelves that were rotting inside the old blackened half-burnt shed, and then we would fill that shed with pine chips and tractor tires and turn it into a fortress of a chicken coop that would be filled with happy chickens and spoiled rabbits - animals that would breathe some life back into this land.

Dan would hand-build a wooden sifter that looked more like a soccer goal to sift and filter massive mounds of dirt - turning up things hidden beneath it like rusty metal, potato factory belts, torn tire bits, ripped chunks of green shag carpet, beer cans and candy wrappers.

While we worked through it all that first Summer, we would find such random things that we began joking about the possibility of discovering a body in all of our digging. Sure enough, that Autumn we would indeed find a small tombstone deep in the dirt beneath some of those overgrown lilacs, the tombstone of a stillborn baby named Bert from 1905.

For weeks and weeks we would move wheelbarrows and trailers filled to the brim. We would bring in fresh manure and fence the garden beds where there would eventually grow things like corn, tomatoes, peas, lettuce, onions and radishes, and all of that cement we cleared of dirt mounds would eventually become our very own half court with a basketball hoop and space for the boys to drive their dirt bikes in circles. 

We would pour a solid cement patio the size of some people’s backyard and then add a hot tub nestled warmly beneath our string lit gazebo. I couldn’t have predicted how much peace I would find on that patio, how sacred a space it would become for me.

I couldn’t have predicted that one year would turn into three years and that by then, as I sit now, I would be enamored with this space. I couldn’t have predicted that this old house would speak to me through the creaks in the floors, that it would somehow breathe a spirit all of its own, that it would thank us and love us and carry us for how we brought it back to life again.

I think a lot lately about how, so often what we think we want isn’t what we need at all, and vice versa. I started very young thinking I knew what I wanted and discovering something different.

“I won’t be like them!” I once said, as everyone says in the unnerving innocence of youth.

I won’t become a wife while in my young and free twenties!

But then at twenty-four I met this man who made me laugh and whose familiarity rattled me and I immediately knew that I couldn’t live without him.

We won’t have kids right away though, we’ll travel and explore the world first!

But then I learned that no force, not even birth control, can stop fate, and less than a year after our wedding we were holding a pumpkin sized baby boy in our arms while discovering an otherworldly and life changing kind of love.

I won’t stay here, stuck in the town I grew up in!

But then, just as we were in the midst of potential job offers that would take us north to finally leave this town behind, we were hit with covid lockdown and potential layoffs in my husband’s line of business. So instead, we buy this unique property with an old house that needs a lot of love smack in the middle of my hometown. On a busy road right in the middle of the bustle, yet boasting a magnificent tree-filled one acre backyard that could be our dreamworld. A property that’s a little bit city, a little bit country. Just like me.

And now it reminds me of sunday dinners at grandma’s and the innocence of my youth. It reminds me of heavy eyes closing slowly beneath a sleeping bag on the couch, lulled to sleep by familiar chimes from her grandfather clock in the hallway. Of thumbing through a pile of newspapers as tall as myself in her hall closet, searching for the sunday comics or the weekend movie times. Of rusted squeaky swings in her backyard, picking fresh tomatoes off the vine, hunting for easter eggs, ‘the sound of music’ playing from her tube tv, purple petunias lining the front yard, always being able to depend on orange creamsicles in the freezer or poptarts in the pantry.

It reminds me of all the things a good childhood could be made up of. Comfort. Solace. Safety and life-sustaining love.

And then my kids ride their bikes to school every morning and walk to baseball games across the street for concession-stand cheeseburgers on summer nights. They take swimming lessons and play basketball games at the same high school I went to, with kids of parents I grew up with. We make a ritual of evening walks together beside the same river I built forts next to when I was only as tall as them. I watch from the kitchen window and soak in the sounds of their laughter while they play night games all evening and long past dark, using our treehouse as their home base.

And then driving to work in the mornings I listen to the very same country radio station I grew up listening to, with the very same DJ and his heartfelt anecdotes. And then I have a usual spot at my favorite sandwich shop, and the local friday night bartenders know my name, and when I drive main street or the backroads or the canyons into our mountains every turn and corner comes naturally, fluently, something I’ve always known and don’t have to think about doing anymore - like drinking from a glass or blowing on hot tea.

And then, the longer I stay here, the more I realize that I still see my little brother and my Dad everywhere I go. I see them where they once walked the halls of the school. I see them in the back booth of the same restaurants we sat and laughed at hundreds of times before - during ride-alongs in Dad’s police car, when James came home from Army boot camp, whenever someone in the family had a birthday to celebrate or we were all bored on a friday night. I see them at the summer fair, the marketplace, our old churchouse, the home not far from my house now where we all once lived. 

I see them every morning in the sounds of the black capped chickadees singing in my backyard, the same birdsong I woke up to for all of my own childhood.

And then we fall into this rhythm of life that is what my dreams are made of. We go to sunday dinners at grandma’s. I have thursday writing dates with my sister. We camp all summer long with family and I watch my kids make the kind of memories with their cousins that they will treasure for the rest of their lives. It’s all perfect because it’s all simple, comfort, safety and life-sustaining love.

And then I realize that home isn’t a place anyways, it’s people. It has always been. It always will be.

And then I know in my marrow that for better or worse this place is forever a part of me. It’s engraved in me now, just like the curve of my nose or the lines on my hands. Wherever I go later on, once my kids have flown this coop, nothing will ever compare to the love and memories and people and heartache and joy I had right here in my hometown.

And then, slowly and suddenly all at once, I don’t ever want to leave.

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