Wednesday, February 10, 2016

"The Home That Helped Me Rebuild My Life" The Boston Sunday Globe

The first time I saw the “For sale” sign on the cottage I would buy, I pressed my face up against the fence and said, “I would give everything to own that home.” Little did I know how true that statement would be.

The previous owner had lived there for 35 years or so, and there was deferred maintenance. How bad could it be? A new roof and a little bit of love . . . It wouldn’t take much, would it?

I headed off to work, and my wife went to the realtor’s office and made an offer. I hadn’t even seen the interior. First-time homeowners are optimists by nature, and I was no different. To the rookie, thin shingles, tired roofs, and weather-beaten chimney mortar are charming.

After the closing, it would have been most cost-effective to place a few sticks of dynamite in the basement and start over. But after the down payment, we had no money left. Instead, the house would be fixed up in phases over many years. This allows the homeowner to maximize both the expense and the misery.

The kitchen renovation that was supposed to be just two months stretched to 12. The cabinets weren’t ready, the subcontractors weren’t available, the pipes were filled with rust, and the bathroom that was above the kitchen was rotten to the core.

In New England, nothing lasts as long as in other places. The grill started to rust out after just two years. Windows that were guaranteed for 15 failed after three. The winter wind turns shingles into potato chips — thin, crispy, and prone to cracking.

After the kitchen renovation, there was a new roof, a new mudroom, new closets, new windows, a new garage, a new heating system, and even a new crawl space under part of the house. It’s a pity that after you go through all of the work of putting a new crawl space under a 135-year-old house that you can’t invite guests down into the basement to crouch and enjoy a cocktail while they admire the new insulation above their heads.

It would be convenient to blame the demise of my first marriage on the brutal New England weather or the renovation projects that turned living into camping, but it is more complex than that. When a shingle fails, the cause is usually rain or snow driven by 90-mile-per-hour winds. The catastrophic failure of a marriage is more complex, and any explanation will inevitably come up short.

The Registry of Deeds will inform you that the price I paid to buy out my former wife was $1, but that is a spectacular lie. It took everything I had to buy my home a second time.

But after the divorce, the home that I had lovingly rebuilt helped me rebuild my life. A deck project gave me a place to put my energy. Replacing warped decking was a suitable transitional experience.

Eighteen years have passed since the first time I pressed my face up against the fence that surrounds my home. I’ve given it everything I have, and I have no regrets. It’s still the only place I’ve ever lived that speaks to my soul.

Joe Berkeley lives and writes in Hull. Send your comments to and 550-word essay to Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.

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