Nearly twenty years ago, a job change uprooted my little family from our country farmhouse and deposited us in the Mid-Ohio Valley. Not willing to give up the rural privacy we’d been enjoying, we avoided the city neighborhoods and scoured the surrounding area for that perfect house. Perfection never appeared, at least not in our price range. Instead we decided on “far from perfect”, in the form of a log home built in 1949 and in the middle of DIY renovations.
Our rambling ranch had been built from a kit, from one of the first log home companies in the U.S. Our purchase included the original blue prints, invoices and photos of the construction—men worked in fedoras and ties with miles of pre-tree hills in the background. Our first job was to re-chink and caulk the entire exterior, a daunting task from which the previous owners had walked away. Our wish list of repairs and improvements seemed to only get longer; lack of time and resources meant that our plans usually didn’t make it past the talking stage.
During that decade, my daughters grew from children to teenagers. They had sleepovers, swim parties, pre-prom dinners and Easter egg hunts. We complained about the single pane windows that gathered ice in the winter, the insects and even snakes that found entrance between the logs. The bathrooms were too small, the wood walls became monotonous. But we loved the quirkiness, the personality, and most of all the world outside the windows. We watched wildlife close to the house and the lights of Lowell in the distance from our hilltop.
But like a thunderclap on a cloudless day, disaster struck in the form of old wiring and a spark of heat.
On a December day in 2011, the house was dressed in its Christmas best and the kitchen smelled of Christmas cookies from my endless baking. My spirits were high, preparing for the girls’ visits – Sarah, recently graduated and living in Cincinnati, and Rebecca from OSU. But like a thunderclap on a cloudless day, disaster struck in the form of old wiring and a spark of heat.
When my husband Michael returned from a morning shopping trip, he found the kitchen in flames. Despite the efforts of 5 local fire departments, I was summoned from work to watch our house become a charred ruin. After hours of battling the blaze in a cold drizzle the fire departments declared the job done and gathered their hoses and equipment. We were left with the walls standing around an open charred wound, half a foot of water and foam mingled with Christmas ornaments, all our possessions, and sodden furniture.
The kindness and support we experienced in the following weeks taught us that possessions are merely things; we were ready to downsize, live even more modestly than before, and find joy in doing rather than “having”.
Stunned, displaced and grieving the loss of pets and keepsakes, we were tempted to walk away from the loss and find another house. The kindness and support we experienced in the following weeks taught us that possessions are merely things; we were ready to downsize, live even more modestly than before, and find joy in doing rather than “having”. But we couldn’t imagine our lives without nature—the privacy, the amazing night skies, the trees and weeds and critters big and small—the whole package that is life in the country. The good news was that our insurance coverage would enable us to build again. The bad news was that we would have to build on the original foundation. So much for downsizing; the new house would have to follow the same rambling footprint as the old.
Lucky for us, Sarah had a newly minted diploma proving that she was now qualified to help design a house—why not have her parents as her first client? She packed up her finally-on-my-own city apartment in Cincinnati and joined us in our ramshackle rental duplex in Marietta. While we adjusted to close quarters, noisy neighbors and concrete instead of landscape, Sarah worked with contractors to see her design take shape. I won’t detail the building process here—let’s just say I’ve learned more about contractors, insurance companies and suppliers than I ever wanted to know.
My gaze swept across the cement expanse and the vista beyond. The surreal sense of loss literally made me gasp for breath.
A week after the demolition of the scorched ruins, Mike and I stood on the bare foundation rising from a yard that had been trampled and gouged by machines. My gaze swept across the cement expanse and the vista beyond. The surreal sense of loss literally made me gasp for breath. I stood in a spot that had once been surrounded by walls, under a ceiling, with carpet beneath my feet. Now it was all gone – every nook and cranny that had held our memories, every wall that had witnessed our lives – it had all vanished. Like an episode of the Twilight Zone, the solid reality had been replaced by a wisp of memory.
As with any storm the dark clouds eventually break, giving way to light and renewal. After all, it WAS just a house, and we had so many other blessings for which to give thanks. It was time to move forward and embrace the excitement and challenge of building a new home. And we embraced the opportunity in a big way. With Sarah’s help, our new house would include many of the features I’d always dreamed about, and would be minus some of the flaws we had grown accustomed to. Tall roofline and elegant gables replaced the low, squat ranch. Bright, open floor plan replaced the dark, choppy layout of the log home. Closets expanded, windows multiplied and attic made way for a loft area. How strange it seemed to have a staircase where we once had a wall of shelves. My wish was finally granted—a large kitchen with a wonderful island, at just the right height for rolling cookie dough.
Nearly a year after the fire, we were quite ready to leave our crumbling rental and make our way back home. It had been a year of loss, but also a year of renewal and attitude adjustment. Our attic full of keepsakes and mementos may have been destroyed, but we learned that memories and relationships are much more important. We’ll never again own as many things as we had, but we are okay with that, too.
Those first weeks in the new house were weirdly disorienting. The window over the kitchen sink is in the same location, but a different sink, an entirely different kitchen. Our bed is on the exact same spot, but surrounded by different walls and a higher ceiling, and a master bath that used to be in a hallway. I found myself being more clumsy than usual, because years of habit had me turning corners that no longer existed or misjudging distances between new walls. We marveled at the improvements—A laundry room! A stone fireplace! Big double pane windows! And best of all, the view outside those windows, our beloved little piece of nature. We couldn’t walk from one room to another without stopping to look outside, enjoying the absence of streets and sidewalks.
One day as I stood in my lovely new kitchen, I leaned against the counter and closed my eyes. I could almost sense the old kitchen surrounding me with its old wood and dark cabinets, like a wistful spirit lingering in this world. Until then, I hadn’t truly allowed myself to grieve for what was lost but had been focused on rebuilding. Now, I realized that although we may have replaced the bricks and wood and glass with a new structure, the part of the old house that was our home still exists. The memories and moments that defined our lives are still swirling about this space, just housed within drywall instead of log.
It’s still a bit of a shock to drive down our gravel lane and see a tall angular house instead of that squat log home. We cross a new patio to a new front door, which opens to a new entry and great room. But stepping over the threshold feels familiar and comfortable. If houses could talk, I think our old house would say it approves of our new one. And I think both would join together to say “welcome home.”