Burning Down the House

In her efforts to create the perfect home, the writer set her marriage and her finances on fire. How a child of divorce finally healed old wounds

by Susan Gregory Thomas
Photograph: Dan Saelinger

Then, after about three months, I started doing the rounds of mommy groups and made a terrible discovery: The other families all owned their homes. Theirs weren’t functional, above-the-corner-market apartments like ours but niceplaces that had been renovated with inviting, giant (read: expensive) kitchens, where the whole gang fixed meals together. I was astonished; so was my husband. Why hadn’t wethought of buying a place? What was wrong with us? We must be stuck in some kind of lame adultescence to think we could raise our daughter in a noisy, junky rental, where she would have to sleep in the dining room, where we couldn’t even control our own heat! We needed to invest in something stable and permanent.

And we proceeded to do so, but not in a way that was prudent or diligent. We were driven to find the perfect home, and perfection seemed to require, in HGTV parlance, a lot of “must-haves.” Though it would have best suited our budget, we didn’t want a newly constructed condo. To us, those places felt like antiseptic hospital wards. No, we wanted a homey home, with antique moldings and period light fixtures. So, blind to financial foolhardiness, we borrowed money from both sets of parents, emptied our 401(k)s and mutual funds and in 2002 put down 20 percent to buy a $550,000 prewar, three-bedroom apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn, with an adjustable rate mortgage. A year later, our second daughter was born, and that made our nesting instincts even stronger. Suddenly the nice space itself wasn’t enough: We wanted nice stuffto put in it. Soon we were renovating.

It was easy in precrash 2005 to take out a home equity line of credit, so we did. Everyone in our yuppie neighborhood was doing it, as was much of the rest of the country. Home prices were doubling, and a designer kitchen was the key to increasing property value. In the early to mid-2000s, virtually every playdate seemed to revolve around parental discussions of whether a Miele dishwasher was worth the cost (“So expensive but so quiet!”) and the relative merits of various countertop surfaces (“I’m thinking poured concrete is ‘it’ now”). And to my husband and me, a kitchen was more than an ultimate resale payday. Raised on TV dinners and takeout, we saw our new kitchen not only as the place where we’d lovingly concoct meals for the kids but also as the heart of our family’s home.

That lofty, almost spiritualgoal somehow drove our connection as a couple into decidedly materialistic territory. Once, we’d loved talking to each other about ideas, music, religion, books, the girls, reflecting on life at large. Now we talked only about our house and the things it needed. Sometimes I’d wake up in the middle of the night, struck that we were losing each other, that the essential glue that had kept us together was growing brittle with yuppie insatiability and envy. But I didn’t dwell on it. Around the country, the housing market was going insane, and so did we.

We bought a $6,000 Wolf range, at least a grand’s worth of glowy red Italian glass tiles for the backsplash and a $3,000 refrigerator (a compromise—the one we really wanted cost more than $5,000); we spent about $2,000 for old-fashioned-looking faucets and a farm sink, and God knows how much for marble countertops and wide-planked, hand-stained wood flooring. And so on, for a total of about $100,000. The children, of course, could not have cared less. As long as they had enough space to run around and some cast-off scarves and heels for dress-up, they were happy. But it’s as though we somehow felt that the quality of such domestic aesthetics would translate into profound stability for them.

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