In a midlife crisis, some wives sneak off to have salacious affairs. Erica Bauermeister, feeling restless, simply gave all her passion to a heap of a fixer-upper.
Erica Bauermeister on falling in love with a house
MY HUSBAND HAD AN AFFAIR with a kayak once. It was a long, dark winter in Seattle, and his job was close to intolerable— although he didn’t admit that at the time. What he did do was buy a kit for a wooden kayak. Every evening, every weekend, he went down to the basement and put long, thin slats of wood together, filling the house with the sounds of sanding and the fumes of varnish. Our kids were young and bursting with energy, and it rained a lot that year. I was furious. I didn’t understand.
At least not until years later, when I fell in love with a house. As with many affairs, I didn’t see it coming. We’d been exploring the wild Olympic Peninsula of Washington State, and in the process we became enchanted by an old Victorian seaport town, Port Townsend, perched on the northern edge. It was small and quiet, so different from our bustling city life. As we drove up the hills and around the curves of the meandering streets, suddenly, there it was. My house.
What was actually there: asbestos shingles, boarded-up windows, a tilting foundation, decades of trash, vegetation rising up walls like a king tide. What I saw: straightforward architectural lines and a graceful front porch—a soul inside that pile of wood and nails. The house that had been, could be, rather than what was.
People who say houses are silent just aren’t listening. This one practically shouted my name. Why? At the time, I had no idea. What I do know is that I fell in love, as hard and fast as anyone first seeing Brad Pitt saunter up to Geena Davis in Thelma & Louise. We all knew he was trouble, knew he was probably going to take the money and run, but boy howdy, did we want him anyway. And I wanted that house. Even though, or perhaps especially because, it made no sense.
At that time in my life, I was in desperate need of diversion. I was a stay-at-home mom and aspiring writer, and not feeling great about my chances of success at either. Our 13-year-old daughter didn’t need a mother so much anymore and had the verbal skills to tell me so, often. Our son, then 10, was at the point where he needed to not need his mother so much, and that was hard on both of us. I felt like my life was turning into one of those old sitcoms, on the blackand-white channels people don’t watch very often. My husband and I had started out as artists, writers, travelers, determined to have a marriage that looked nothing like my parents’ 1950s version. And yet Ozzie and Harriet crept out of the TV set and into our home all the same, instilling gender roles that over the years became as inflexible as rebar.
But then, there was the house in Port Townsend. The very drama of it was fascinating. All that trash. All those stories. A chance to undertake a hero’s journey, even if I apparently couldn’t write one.
“It could be exciting,” I said to my husband, and I saw an old fire in his eyes.
It turned out that the owner of the house had just died, an odd coincidence in what would become a serious collection of them. We negotiated with his heirs for months, making, changing, extending offers. At night, I’d lie awake and obsess about the house. I couldn’t stand the thought of it out there alone, unloved. My husband wanted the house as well, but I could see him watching me, a bit concerned about my intensity.
Why do we want the things we want? It would have been so much easier if I had fallen in love with our handsome postman instead. But that’s not how I’m wired. I was not raised to take such a drastic leap simply for myself. That would be selfish—and thus, no postman. I would do it for a house, however. That would be maternal, not romantic. Altruistic, even artistic, not personal. These are the things we tell ourselves as we step off the edge.
After almost half a year, the heirs agreed to terms, including our offer to clean out the trash. We worked as a family, hauling out 71/2 tons of accumulated objects, sledgehammering old plaster and lath, pulling down those asbestos shingles. If we had thought the work would be bonding, we were both right and terribly wrong. The sheer magnitude
of labor became an almost overwhelming stress. We were in way over our heads.
And then a major earthquake struck. I stood in a friend’s home in Seattle, the ground rolling beneath my feet, and thought of the house in Port Townsend. I envisioned the long, jagged crack in its foundation, the 30-foot stone chimney leaning perilously, pulling the house with it. It was all gone; I could feel it.
I drove out the next morning, certain I’d find disaster. But somehow, the house stood, miraculously upright, like a cat dropped 10 feet. The glass had slipped in some of the old windows, and wind whistled through the gaps, but the house was still there, surviving.
I should have headed back to Seattle—there are always aftershocks—but somehow I couldn’t leave the house alone. I spent the day like any convert, on my knees, scraping off the carpet backing that had stuck to the old wooden floors like a layer of sludge. Back and forth, back and forth. Just the two of us, a quiet spot in the midst of uncertainty. I understood then that we would take care of each other.
And we did. I ended up overseeing the renovation. My husband was working from home and offered to take on childcare duties while I was at the site during the day. Perhaps he knew, better than I, how itchy my feet, my mind were. Perhaps he’d seen my glance or two at the postman. In any case, the project was mine.
I threw myself into it. Over the next year, I made plans, had fantasies of different lives lived in different rooms. The plans were for my family, but the making of them was for me, for the part of my mind that needed to roam, to create. I developed confidence again, having to work with men who would rather turn to my husband for a decision. As I sledgehammered the plaster and lath from the walls, pulled out dump-truck loads of ivy from the overgrown orchard, I regained my prematernity body. Over the months, the house straightened, stretched. Breathed. So did I.
Every day, I set out with a sense of excitement. I was breaking the rules I had grown up with. Be good. Be quiet. Be safe. The house was none of those. And when I was there, neither was I.
In the end, I was one of the lucky ones. My love affair was with a partner most people would never recognize as such. The house allowed me to discover what many look for in a tangle of sheets—myself, again. Because what I really wanted was what many people want when they have affairs, what my husband wanted when he was in the basement with his kayak: a way to step outside my life for a while. A chance to figure out who I had been, who I could be, rather than who I was now. I needed to remember the girl who believed she could write, the girl who once traveled on her own and swore she would always be an explorer. And I needed to see myself as a woman, with a vision that filled her imagination and the strength to make it happen. A mother who loved her children but could let them, and herself, go.
As I changed over the course of that year, I started to work with my husband, and my kids, rather than for them. My days away gave us room to see each other once again. And as our family shifted, we underwent a second renovation, equal in magnitude to the first, unexpected, and every bit as beautiful. Because that’s the funny thing about renovations—we think we are saving the houses, when it’s often the opposite that is true.
It’s now been more than 20 years since we first saw our house in Port Townsend. Over the decades, it has held our celebrations and griefs and love. The room where I once scraped the carpet backing off the floor is now the hub of extended-family dinners. A book nook waits, halfway up the stairs, for our new granddaughter to sneak up there and read. And down in the orchard, where I pulled out all that ivy, there is a writing shed where I go, by myself, to explore.