My dad’s house, as it looks now
My dad loves to tell the story about how I convinced him to buy our house. I was fourteen. He was forty-five. (Katie is fourteen. I am days away from forty-five. This is not lost on me.) We didn’t have, as he would say, a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of. We were starting over.
After my parents divorced, they sold my childhood home and split the proceeds. The town in which I grew up was was not yet the boomtown it would later become. The proceeds were slim. Half the proceeds were even slimmer.
My dad had been offered a job as the principal of a small, competitive middle school on Long Island. It was a good opportunity. It made sense. That’s where we’d go.
We looked at houses all over the Island. The South Shore seemed to have more that we could afford at the time, but it just didn’t feel right. The North Shore had nothing we could afford, but it did.
At every house my dad would say, “Use your imagination, kiddo. Look past the things that can be changed.” So I did.
The little cape was on less than a quarter of an acre smack in the middle of a ramshackle former fishing village. The cottages dotting the hills above the shore looked as though they’d given up on agreeing upon anything, even which way was Front. On a single road, one faced North, the next East, the next surely had a door but not one that a passerby could easily spot.
The house itself was in a state of disrepair. Six kids had improbably been raised in the two bedroom cape. Its exhaustion showed. The roof was leaking. The detached garage was an unusable mess. The basement was a disaster. The so-called sunroom was completely uninhabitable. The small yard was an overgrown tangle of weeds.
“This is it,” I told my dad.
He told me we couldn’t afford it.
I told him it was home.
We don’t have the money, he said.
I told him this was our house.
He found a way to make it work.
The first year, there was no choice but to repair the roof, so my dad climbed a ladder and figured out how to repair a roof. When his cousin asked what the heck he was doing up there, he said, “The only thing I can.” Later, he fixed the basement, then the gutters, then the garage.
When I was in college, Noelle moved in. Eventually, they demolished the so-called sunroom and, building ever so slightly up and out, turned it into a gorgeous master suite.
When Noelle was first diagnosed, my dad redesigned the kitchen, turning it into a bright, beautiful baker’s wonderland. He called to tell me, fighting tears. “I need her to believe in a future,” he said. “That’s why I’m doing this, Jessie. No one would build a new kitchen if they didn’t have a future.”
Every part of her being came to life in that kitchen. She sang, she danced, her hands flew across the marble counters creating master works of spun sugar and love.
Over time, they turned the overgrown backyard into their very own slice of heaven. My dad designed a tiered patio and planted a garden with which no English manor house could hope to compete. He filled stone planters with an abundance – abbondanza, he would say – of color, texture and wonder. They were Noe’s favorite part of all of it. She loved those pots. This last summer when there was no choice but to acknowledge that her time was growing short, he planted them early. He was intent that she would see them begin to bloom. She did.
Here and there he’d come home with another adornment for the garden. “I was never sure if she really liked them or just tolerated them because I loved them,” he said. That was Noelle. If he loved them, that was enough. When he brought home a huge concrete gargoyle to sit by the fence in the driveway, she said, “Wow, that’s …. big.” That was Noelle too.
Her last week was spent in the Eden he’d created for her. From early morning until long after the sun began to set, there was nowhere else she wanted to be. When it was too hot, we cooled her with wet towels and fans. When we urged her to go in because it was getting cold, she opted instead for a blanket. Even when – especially when – she couldn’t open her eyes, that was where she wanted to be.
On Sunday morning, I stood on the patio with my dad, looking out over the yard. “I’m proud of this place,” he said,
“You should be, Pop,” I said, “It’s absolutely beautiful.”
“It was all for my girl,” he said, choking up.
I leaned my head on his arm and watched a sparrow land on the edge of the fountain.
“I’m going to take pictures,” I said. “Of the stuff around the garden.”
Later, I showed him what I’d taken. “I wanted to get the details,” I said.
“The details are what’s important,” he said. “I like having something catch your eye no matter where you look.”
“Did you get all the gargoyles?” he asked.
I told him I had.
“Are you sure?” he asked.
Knowing my dad, I said no.
He led me out to the driveway. “This is my favorite one,” he said. “Let me move the car so that you can get it.”
Before I could tell him not to, he was in the driver’s seat, backing up so that I could take a picture. And I couldn’t stop smiling.
This is my dad’s house.
And that once tiny little rundown cape on an overgrown 1/4 acre in a ramshackle fishing village is an awful lot to be proud of.