If we call it just a house and not a home, does it still possess a
soul separate from the vagaries of mortgages, layers of paint, or
crayon, or grease on the walls, busted pipes in the winter, the seepage
stains that are like Mercatur projections of alien continents on
whitewashed mortared walls?
Does the heart of a house exist outside any memory of the tangible moments that mark the living within? Or does the spirit of a house, soul-centered in an aging body of wood and brick and nail, pulse simply because there are lives, loves and deaths that pass through? Perhaps an invisible, silent, tender skin of cares, of worries, of hopes, coats every moment exchanged. Coats the hallways, the rooms, the stairs, the steps leading away. In this old house on Earl Avenue.
My relationship with a certain house that has a soul has been more of a connection like that with an old childhood friend or an indirect but familiar relative. Sometimes lost, sometimes found, sometimes irritated, sometimes enjoyed.
I've been trying to find my way around telling this tale of this house for awhile now. There are layers and layers, some of which I've touched on before, some of which I've avoided delving into – even with myself, in the interior, in the back corners of memory that evoke smells, and sounds, and memories, and events...and some of those things are somehow like rotted garbage, detritus floating as obstacles to what lies ahead for this house with a soul, a house no longer really a home, a house that has been neutered due to time and miscalculations and tragedy, and loss, and well, the inconsequence of plans not so well laid.
I could start the story in 1969. I was eleven and Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. In May that year, my nephew was hit by a car in the crosswalk a block away from his house, and killed. He was five years younger than I. The house my sister and her husband lived in became a house of ghosts and so they sold.
They found a charming, though small, Tudor brick in Ballard, a Seattle neighborhood just to the west and north of downtown. Wedged in between two sister Tudors, the house was build in 1927. Carl, the builder and his wife Marge, lived in the sister brick house to the north. Carl passed somewhere late in the 1980's, and Marge moved out around three years ago, and passed away a year later. The first tomatoes fresh off the vine that I tasted were from Marge's backyard vegetable garden the summer of 1970.
This old brick. It represented stability, community – many of the neighbors that are still there and still alive, have spent upwards of 40 to 50 years there. Houses bought on the GI Bill. Generations of families continue to roll over their family house to relatives when finances allow. There is an eclectic mix of small old Tudors, Craftsman bungalows, post-WWII square one-story with basement clapboards. In the last couple of decades, an occasional rash of residential lots here and there have been purchased as tear-downs and narrow two-family townhouses have been erected on postage stamps plots barely 45 feet wide in the odd wedges of long neighborhood blocks with alleys between the backs of houses fronted on slender streets.
Stability. Sharon and Richard bought stability when they really couldn't find it anywhere else.
1969, the death of their son and then my dad in October. Sharon was pregnant with my niece, now 39, when her first son was killed. My niece was born in September, a month before our dad died. We held the shower for her daughter, my niece, in the new, old house, and then three months later, the Seattle reception for my dad's funeral. Two years later, Todd was born (a part of his story here).
Richard was a traveling salesman for an electronics company. Again, they bought stability, or tried. Through the years, my mother would get late-night calls from Sharon, asking for money so they could catch up with their mortgage, the original loan on the house was somewhere around $24,000 in 1969. I have no idea how many times over the years the house was re-mortgaged to provide funds when money was tight and commissions were low. Or how many times bills went unpaid because Richard refused to pay a bill on time when he couldn't cover the entire amount. The little office upstairs off the master bedroom, tucked into an alcove of the pitched roof over the porch, still has stacks of unopened bill envelopes yellowed with age and roughened with a silica-like dust from literally decades of negligence.
Somehow, through a multitude of means and borrowing and patchwork jobs taken by both Sharon and Richard, they hung onto the little Tudor. Never refurbished it beyond a small change in the kitchen – they borrowed funds in the late 70's, early 80's to extend the kitchen into the breakfast nook and added more cupboards. Those old houses and their small kitchens.
The scalloped apron wood work that arched under the old porcelain sink with built-in drainboards (the kind you'd hang a skirt on to hide the wastebasket and the drainpipes) was banished, and a fancier Price-Pfister double sink with a spray hose was added.
More cupboards. A Jenn-Air convection range. A solarium window overlooking the side yard of the shared space between the southern sister Tudor. New linoleum.
That was the sum total of upgrades to the old, small dame.
Maybe I should have started this story in 2007, when the house, my sister's home for 38 years, turned its final corner as an equity bank, meant to fund an additional two years of living expenses for a widow living now on Social Security and funds from the state provided as compensation for her duties as in-home caregiver to her mid-thirties Down Syndrome son. My sister's choices and the road she traveled that year, in 2007, well, I've documented them already here. And here. And more.
But the house, with a soul, always somehow fronted as a bank; it still hinted at stability. That was an ongoing American dream in 2007. Correct? You had wealth if you owned your home. It was money in the bank. Even if the bank held the major portion of your wealth in your home in a note ransomed by high interest rates and impending adjustable payments. Strange how the word adjustable is now a euphemism for extortion.
Sharon wanted just two years. Then she would sell before the adjustment and take the equity and buy a modest condo or townhouse within a block of grocery stores and downtown Ballard. And finally find a group home for Todd. She was getting too old and too physically incapable of the strenuous chores involved in keeping up with Todd. He was growing older, too. Increasingly, as he ages, Todd exhibits frustration and anger in physical ways. Possibly the effects of depression and loss; possibly signs of early-onset Alzheimer's, which researchers are discovering in middle-aged Down Syndrome individuals at a rate higher than the greater "abled" population. The day he knocked her down in anger in late 2006 signaled a crucial need for a change. A re-adjustment of expectations about the end-game.
Just two years before the new interest-only mortgage at 11% and payments, minimum payments, at $1300 a month, would balloon to over twice that amount and then increase on some weird algorithm even I couldn't understand as I sorted through the paperwork a few weeks ago. But she thought two years would buy her some time to look for the start of a new life in her late sixties. And to determine a longer-term care outlook for Todd, finally.
The theory may have been sound enough in early 2007 when house values were still projected to increase. The desirability of a 1920's Tudor in residential Ballard, and the appearance of an ever-growing economy from constant new construction of multi-use residential/commercial structures in the nearby surrounds of Old Town Ballard buffeted Sharon's belief that she could make this work for two more years.
My sister Sharon was 69 in early March of 2007. She had worked for thirty years, the last twelve or so as a receptionist/executive assistant for a small steel fabrication company that contracts with Boeing. Never made more than $12 an hour. Then, in December of 2001, her husband, my brother-in-law, was diagnosed with kidney and bone cancer, and a rapid descent through failing chemotherapy and increasing morphine culminated in hospice by early July 2002. Sharon continued to try to work through the first few months of 2002, but due to the combined chores of monitoring my brother-in-law, and taking care of Todd, each day life became too great for her to handle and still remain employed.
She retired in April 2002. The next few months ate up the
remains of the IRA she had paid into (without company matching; too
small a firm), as she was too young to draw Social Security at that
time, and the drain without her income (and without Dick's income – he
was granted an unpaid leave of absence but his employer still covered
him with insurance benefits throughout his decline, bless 'em) pretty
much tapped them out.
Dick died in mid-July 2002. The remaining IRA went to pay funeral expenses and an emergency plumbing repair on the house later that fall.
Given all of that, Sharon scraped by over the next five years – paying down her existing mortgage at that time to around $200,000 – not too bad for a house in a residential area where the median price of most residences was around $500,000 to $600,000 for the standard post WWII bungalow 3 BR, 1 to 2 BA house. Seattle suburbia was and is still expensive.
She paid off all those bills that had never fully been paid. She saved. She ratcheted up her FICO score and was so, so proud. And angry that all those years she had let Richard administer the finances. It was the one thing he would never budge on through forty years of marriage.
In 2006, Sharon took a long-needed and long-dreamed of solo vacation to San Antonio. Something about the bluebells, the RiverWalk, and the Alamo. She asked my opinion before she left on whether or not she should wear her wedding ring on vacation. I encouraged her not to, fully understanding what the underlying query meant.
By February 2007, she made the decision to remortgage, consolidate and took the plunge on a GMAC ARM, with an end-term of two years before the doubling payment. The papers were signed on March 2, 2007, finalized on April 1, 2007. On March 29, 2007 Sharon found out she had cancer. By April 26, she was dead.
My niece moved in at the end of that last month to help with Sharon's needs and get Todd out the door to work at his job at Northwest Center. She and her new husband (they married last summer) still live there; the estate is still in probate, the payments barely manageable until May 1 of this year. Those payments double to over $2700 a month on a $360,000 mortgage principal on May 1.
The mortgage is, of course, nonnegotiable. It was sold to Wells Fargo a year after Sharon signed the papers. In 2007, my sister was somehow able to qualify for the extremely dubious ARM in 2007 with no future assurance of income beyond Social Security and caregiver pay from the state. The house itself needs serious work to grow in value even in a good economy. My niece and her husband can not qualify for a renegotiated mortgage though they both work full-time, (but at $15/hour jobs) and are still in their late thirties, early forties. The house has dropped some $150,000 at this writing, bringing the current potential market value down to the amount of the mortgage my sister borrowed. Potential only, because nothing in real estate is moving there now. Three houses in the neighborhood have been on market for almost a year though prices have dropped dramatically. Soon, it will be upside down at the increased interest and nominal principal payments.
My niece will have to walk away. Does a house have a soul? Can the spirit of a house truly break?
The little Tudor has wounds – nicotine-patina walls from a two pack a day smoker; the south wall bulges, broken mortar, from the earthquake in 2001 that my sister and brother-in-law neglected to obtain FEMA funds to fix. The ceiling over the porch leaked one year in the mid-eighties, and the house was re-roofed, but no one ever replaced the drywall over the exposed beams in the ceiling of the entry. The yard is uninspiring and overgrown.
The shower pipes in the only bathroom have had plastic secured damply with duct tape across open gaping holes in the lathe and plaster behind the tiles for at least eight years now; the leak was fixed, but the black vintage ceramic tiles were never replaced.
These are battle scars and age spots in the fight for the elusive American Dream. Unhealed, now never healed, a terminal condition. This old house will be a tear-down. In a few moments now, a few days, weeks, maybe months, maybe the week when they say the market has finally bottomed out, that invisible, silent, tender skin of cares, of worries, of hopes, that coats each moment exchanged, will become memory only. Memory drowned out in the hawking calls of the auctioneer.
Does a house have a soul?