A Home of One's Own

For 20 years, she yearned for her own plot of land. Then she saw a little country house and decided that a single woman really could settle down solo.

By Lisa Schwarzbaum

I was 52 years old. I was — as I’d like to think of it — between romantic adventures. I was solvent, prudent, and, in walking the little rooms of that dollhouse, I felt calmly giddy. Or was it giddily calm? "You can do this," I said out loud. And just like that, like getting the hang of a swimming stroke for the first time, I knew I could. In fanciful moments, I imagined planting peach trees, taking up carpentry, meeting sturdy men at the Home Depot, writing a novel. In practical moments, I made lists: get mortgage preapproval, find house inspector, buy power drill.

"And find someone who can plow the driveway," Leah said with the expertise of new ownership under her belt. "And schedule oil burner service. And think about getting an alarm that monitors when the temperature of the house gets too low in the winter."

In short order, I, who had never meted out a sum larger than a rent check, found a financial adviser who could assure me that my big-ticket desire would not bankrupt me. I could even buy the car I would need, he calculated, if we moved sum X, freed up sum Y, and kept an eye on balance sheet Z. I hired a mortgage broker and achieved the existential state of preapproval. I made an offer — my first offer! — and afterward stood outside the real estate office and called friends with the news of my new offer-maker status, shivering with cold and elation not entirely distinguishable from shock.

From 10 miles up the road, Steph said she would be right over to celebrate, as if the offer itself was the goal. From 100 miles away, another friend, Mark, a lifelong city type still living in the ZIP code of his youth, said he would visit, provided there were no mice, bugs, dead animals in the chimney, or tick-infested grass in the vicinity.

A House Is Not a Home

Dear reader, I didn’t buy the dollhouse. At the last minute, it was taken off the market. And if I don’t dwell on how heartbroken I felt — how thwarted, how convinced I was that I’d never love again — it’s only because the house I was meant to buy presented itself two months later under even snowier, can’t-hide-the-flaws conditions down the street from the dollhouse.

The House I Was Meant to Have, as opposed to The House I Thought I Had to Have or I Would Die, was a classic configuration of north and south parlors, with a gathering-place kitchen and a center staircase leading to three bedrooms. The home looked calm but cheery, snug but airy — at least it did once I looked past the mint-green shag carpeting in the master bedroom, the dining room that was painted eggplant purple and hunter green, and the plastic-toy clutter of a time-pressed couple with two small children.

I made an offer. The owners countered. I counter-countered. They counter counter-countered. We reached an agreement, which was followed by the making of lists wherein I concluded that I could spare exactly two city chairs, a floor lamp, an extra set of Ikea drinking glasses, and an inflatable bed. I also unearthed a crimson- and pumpkin-colored kilim that I’d bought on a hiking trip through western Turkey, hopeful that I would one day have a home with hardwood floors in need of its homespun brilliance.

My urbanite brother made me nervous. "Does it have central air-conditioning?" he asked. It does not. It does, however, have a porch and an unrenovated barn and an absurdly fecund pear tree. And my friend Mark reminded me that while people sleep, mice have a tendency to walk on their faces. (How did he know?) But I would not be spooked.

On a gentle Friday in early April, when Hudson Valley trees were blushing a modest yellowy green, I sat at a table flanked by players in the great American ritual of closing: I began, as directed, to write checks, hand over pieces of paper, and release sums of money I never knew could be surrendered so blithely in the face of so momentous and yet so common a rite of passage. That the sellers had forgotten to hand over the keys hardly mattered — I was stunned by my own confidence that I was doing the right thing. I signed more papers, and then I shook hands, and then I owned a house.

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