As a military family, we had not lived in one house for more than 2 years. This is an under-appreciated expense of military life. Our choices are: (1) rent for 20 years and never have the chance to build equity, (2) buy and sell houses on a regular basis, also without building equity, or (3) live on base. That last option is becoming increasingly impossible. Long waiting lists for base housing mean most families will never get in one. Dustin and I have always chosen to buy and sell (and buy and sell, and buy and sell).
This picking-up-and-moving does have its advantages though. Packing up a home is a great motivator to “thoughtfully consider” your husband’s shirts with holes in them. By the time we had been married 10 years, we hadn’t had the opportunity to be hoarders.
Moving every two years also forces you to unpack quickly. As soon as the movers drop off your boxes, the race to unpack them begins, because you know you’ll be loading them again in two years. If you’re going to even pretend to enjoy your husband’s map of the world, you’d better do it quickly. Also, unpacking the moving boxes fast is genius because then you find the full trashcan the movers packed before it’s had a chance to sit in the garage for six years. More on that in a minute.
When we moved to Maine, it was only supposed to be for two years. Because of this, I said I wanted to live in a “really impractical, small house.” It was sort of an experiment: How much space could my family do without? So we filled up a storage unit and embraced living on top of one another. Like every move before it, we unpacked at record speed. I remember digging through boxes in the front yard while my dad broke them down behind me. He was wearing a Transformer mask. I don’t remember why.
Almost seven years later, we are still in that impractical, small house. (And my dad claims not to remember the mask.)
I did empty our storage unit at year number four. It turned out there was absolutely nothing in it we needed anymore. But we’d left a few unopened boxes in our non-temperature-controlled garage. Dustin found those last month. They contained: (1) trash, (2) old books, and (3) our wedding album. Oops. All of these things had molded. After lovingly cutting the mold off each wedding picture, Dustin ceremoniously threw out everything else. Besides the pictures, we hadn’t missed any of it in seven years anyway.
But our long stay in our home has meant that other strange things have happened. Fire alarm batteries need changing. LED lightbulbs burn out. Driveways need repaving. Siding needs to be painted. The roof needs replacing. And, the lovely white carpet that existed when we moved here has turned brown. These are all things that the people who bought our houses had to deal with. Not us. If you’re lucky, nothing of significance happens to a house in just 2 years.
We were dealing with these issues one at a time, with constant trips to Lowe’s (for the military discount). Everyone at home improvement stores looks the same: beaten down by their aging homes and projects. I’d never noticed that until then. But the most constant reminder of our old house was the white-turned-brown carpeted stairs I walked down every morning.
I was waiting for Dustin to have time to help me pull up the carpet and (fingers crossed) find wood beneath. But then, in a moment of despair one night, I decided to do it myself. We military wives are good at doing things like that by ourselves. As I hammered and scraped, the boys came out of their rooms and wiped their eyes.
“What are you doing?” Owen asked.
“Taking care of the stairs,” I said.
“But at 9 o’clock at night?”
I handed Ford some pliers.
We peeled back the first square of carpet like we were unwrapping a present. And, ta-da, there below it was a perfectly good wood stair. It was definitely worn, and it had dry paint splatters on the sides, but it wasn’t brown carpet.
I ran my hand across the rough wood and thought about the people — 60 years’ worth — who had travelled these stairs before us. What were their troubles? Their happiness? Their surprises? It was the first time I had a sense of sharing a home with others throughout the years.
I started thinking about our house as a living thing: a grand old girl. She’s stood through all the summers and winters, and teenage boys hitting baseballs onto the roof. Imagine the stories she could tell.
And if she ever tells them about us, I hope it will be about the Transformers mask and the baseballs, not the giant mess I made of her stairs with the hammer and pliers.
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at Facebook.com/Sarah.is.Smiley.