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

Grasping their little hands, I led my daughters, then four and six, through their new house, excitedly pointing out the open-plan kitchen and living room and, upstairs, their bedrooms and specially designated art room, where they could get as messy as they pleased while working on their projects. They couldn’t see any of it, or at least not what I was seeing. Of course not: The house was a construction site, a three-floor disaster littered with steel I-beams, clots of broken plaster and piles of particleboard flooring. But what I saw was the place where my daughters would grow up, where they’d have their own private sleeping spaces, where we’d dine together as a family. Home.

That was the summer of 2007, and this was the second place in two years that my husband and I were renovating. We weren’t fancy people—definitely not rich (I was a freelance writer, he an independent consultant) but financially fine. We desperately wanted a beautiful, comfortable, happy home for our children and were willing to break the bank to do it.

My generation—the one known as X, born roughly from 1965 to 1980—grew up at the junction of the women’s movement and the epidemic divorces of the 1980s. For my family, as for many members of Generation X, home was a moving target. By the time I was 11, we had uprooted from San Francisco to Manhattan to Berkeley to Palo Alto, before landing in Villanova, Pennsylvania, in 1979. That house was a monster: 12 bedrooms, three floors and two furnaces to heat it all. My dad was almost never home—traveling for work, he said, but mostly, it turned out, having an affair with his assistant. My mom, depressed, often didn’t get out of bed. When they were together, they fought. Terrifyingly. After their divorce, in 1983, my father decamped to a city five states away, and the moves resumed for my mom, younger brother and me: from the Villanova leviathan to a rented cottage in the country to a shabby apartment on the wrong side of the tracks in Bryn Mawr. That three-bedroom purgatory was empty when my brother and I got home from school; our mom was, necessarily, working. When I graduated from college, I maintained the migratory patterns of my childhood, moving at least six times in three years. Home was a cheap place for me to pass out after working 12-hour days as a reporter. I wasn’t bothered by my lack of roots. To me, quite literally, there was no place like home.

Once I got married, I started to settle down. For eight years, my husband and I lived in an 800-square-foot rental apartment in Brooklyn; it was the first time I’d ever stayed put for so long. Cramped as it was, the space still seemed far grander than any of our friends’ walk-ups in Manhattan; plus, we were great roommates. So what if we didn’t have the crazy, soul-locking passion of other couples? We knew how to live well together. Over time, we dotingly outfitted our place with a higgledy-piggledy collection of paintings inherited from my family, a flea market dining set that we’d stained what we imagined was Martha Stewart green, a Married to the Mob–style overstuffed black leather sofa that was outlandishly comfortable, if enormously ugly. We both worked hellish hours, and we went out a lot at night, but coming back to our apartment was like crossing the threshold of a sanctum sanctorum. We were safe here.

After I got pregnant in 2001, at 31, I had what I think of as a white-light experience. My miraculous little bunny rabbit! She was never going to live in the psycho-spiritual SRO of my childhood. Suddenly I wanted to set up house—not just a nice, practical spot but the coziest possible dwelling in a ridiculously family-friendly neighborhood. I wanted a place where my daughter could feel safe, comfy, understood: a real home. So we painted every room in our apartment a different shade of happy yellow and improvised a lovely nest for our newcomer in the anteroom off the master bedroom, tacking handmade quilts to the walls, hunting down a secondhand cradle and adorning shelves with framed family photos. After she was born, time was sweet, and one day dovetailed into the next. We’d haul out our laptops and work in bed when our daughter was sleeping; we played with her in bed; we all slept together.

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