My Love Affair with a House

Twenty-two years ago I spent my first weekend on Chincoteague Island, Virginia.

I brought my bike and explored the island; I swam in the ocean; and, I ate locally raised flounder stuffed with crabmeat. Then I went back to my home in Philadelphia and thought no more about it.  As the saying goes, A nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there. 

Chincoteague Island is the town made famous in its day by the Marguerite Henry book, Misty of Chincoteague, which won The Newbury Honor the year I was born.  I’d read it in third grade, in the early stages of my lifelong love affair with horses.

Horses 4
Chincoteague ponies, March 2016

Six years later, I found myself once again on Chincoteague. Woody and I were looking to buy a small cottage, something he could use as a weekend fishing retreat, and something I could use as a base to swim in the ocean, another lifelong love.

Each Saturday morning that summer, we drove the three and a half hours to meet with a realtor and explore the three or four houses she had lined up for us. Then we drove home.

The first property we fell in love with was a bait and tackle shop with a ten-unit motel attached. That affair ended quickly once we spoke at length with the seller, younger than Woody, who was retiring to a simpler life. Wasn’t that what we were wanting to do? A month later we fell in love again, this time with a hacienda type stucco home on the mainland, with an interior loft surrounding the sunken living room. The house inspection ended that affair.

Finally, we rented a vacation house for the last two weeks in August, determined to find the place for us before we left. On the last day of our stay we drove ourselves around the island and found a neglected shell of a log house, priced at the cost of the lot alone, and for sale by owner. We grabbed it. She needed us and we were smitten. 

Once closing was over, we spent ten months renovating it: sub-floor to roof; windows, doors, kitchen, and plumbing in between. On the outside we added landscaping, and had sixty logs professionally sawn out and replaced. I learned about chinking; I learned about borers; and I learned how to garden. It was the first garden I didn’t resent. In fact, I came to love gardening in the island’s sandy soil.

front yard Chincoteague
Latest batch 002
In the early years, when we were there full time, gardening in sandy soil was a joy.

Woody bought a Boston Whaler for his fishing excursions, I bought a sunfish. Our greyhound, Merlin, could run free in the empty lot between our house and Oyster Bay.

My sons loved it. Neither one yet married, they both took active roles in the renovations, one establishing the landscaping skeleton and the other finishing the interior woodworking after the new windows were installed.

Through it all I could never quite shake the sensation that this newer, sexier, and more exotic house was pulling me away from my steadfast, secure, and somewhat staid home on Philly’s west side.  But I laughed it off and reminded myself how very lucky I was to have two houses to call my own.

Nine months later we applied to the Peace Corps.

In At Home on the Kazakh Steppe, the memoir of our years in the Peace Corps, I wrote about how this little house on a Chincoteague canal fit into our life in the two years prior to and the one year following our life in Kazakhstan.


This was the house we kept, the house we retreated to while awaiting our departure, and the one we settled back into upon our return.

And the one that we couldn’t sell for the next ten years.

Some realtors said it was because buyers who wanted a beach house didn’t want a log house.

2012-03-28 16.16.34

Others said it was because it was too dark inside.


A few said it was overpriced.

last 066

They said a lot of things, and with each one, I inwardly cheered because I didn’t want to let it go. If I waited long enough, I thought, the market would come back. If I waited long enough, eventually the right buyers would find us. If we waited long enough, those Vermont winters would chase us south. And we’d have a house ready and waiting for us.

Richardson St in winter
Chincoteague in winter. Three inches lasts about a day.

I kept waiting for that special magic that would make it work for us.

And, as in all codependent relationships, that magic never came. Here was a house that had surely needed me and I have a long history of sinking my tentacles into people (and houses and one Renault Fuego to be precise) who drain me of energy or money or time — and often all three — and who can’t give back in any way. It used to be hard for me to let them go. I’m getting better at it.

On September 1 of this year, at 1:30 in the afternoon, our little log house on the water is scheduled to go up for public auction.  We are pretty sure who’s going to buy it; he’s already paid for the various inspections that accompany a signed contract.  I keep paying the taxes and insurance on it, so I guess we still own it. But the bank is calling all the shots and for the past week they have stopped taking calls from me.  Or from the attorney we hired to steer us through the “letting it go” process.

Hindsight can often show us where we erred. For now, I’m not focused on what hindsight might have to teach me. Instead I’m celebrating all the joy this little house brought us over the years. How lucky we were that we could share it with so many.

We’re in the process of losing our proverbial shirt, but I have no regrets. I still have a roof over my head — a roof I’m quite fond of too — food on the plate before me, a family who loves me, friends who admire me, and nearly a hundred subscribers to my blog. I am blessed. Oh, and a dog who adores me; I’m doubly blessed.

It was fun while it lasted, but the party’s over.

Here, for your listening pleasure, is Willy Nelson.

How about you? Have you ever had a love affair with a house (or a car)? One that, like most love affairs, clouded your judgment? 

Next week: back to My Tenor Story: Part III (last one, I promise)

30 Responses

  1. Kathleen Pooler
    | Reply

    Oh, Janet, this is sentimental, bittersweet and poignant. It reminds me of the emotional impact on me when we had to sell our family cottage at Keuka Lake several years ago. These special places become memory makers. How blessed we have been to have experienced them! I am so happy I was able to share in the memory of your log cabin on Oyster Bay.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Thanks Kathy. It means a lot to me that you were able to be there for that first writer’s retreat.

  2. Merril Smith
    | Reply

    I will always have fond memories of the brief time I spent in that lovely Chincoteague House–and the friendships that have formed as a result.

    I didn’t know the full history, so thanks for sharing it here. You are indeed blessed to have had it, and now to have so many other wonderful things and people (dog, too) in your life.

    As Kathy said, this is bittersweet and poignant. Sending you a virtual big hug.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      I can use all the hugs I can get, virtual and otherwise, so thank you, Merril.

  3. Joan Z. Rough
    | Reply

    I’ve had love affairs with houses all of my life, as I do with the one I’m living in right now. But over the years they’ve all ended, usually because life calls for a change and it’s time to move on. I always grieve, but slowly fall in love again with the next very special house we find.

    And I always find it difficult to go back to see those houses I left behind. There is always something I miss about them. And usually the new owner makes changes I wouldn’t approve of. I can’t seem to get it out of my mind that they are no longer mine.

    I’m one of the lucky people who got to visit with you in your house on Chincoteague. It was a glorious time. It is special place and filled with your beautiful energy. I will miss it as I know you will.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Thanks, Joan. I knew you’d get it. My funniest “love affair” with an inanimate object (that I was aware of, at least) was with that Renault Fuego. For years I kept telling myself that as long as the monthly repair costs weren’t more than I used to pay in car payments, it was OK. Crazy the stories we can tell ourselves when we want to.

  4. Marian Beaman
    | Reply

    I know many of the nooks and crannies of this special place and feel I’m such a lucky duck to accept your invitation not once but twice for the writers’ retreat. I can understand your bittersweet sentiments as you let go of it now. 🙂

    To answer your question, we have had attractions to houses, but I wouldn’t call them love affairs – just ways to generate residual income as artists and teachers, not particularly high on the salary scale. One we bought in 2006 at the height of the market and will hang on to it until it becomes profitable again. My brother-in-law is renovating another one we’ve had for over 30 years, which we hope to sell soon and both benefit.

    Of course, our homestead is on the market now and we’re hoping for a young family that will appreciate it, including some pencil marks on the kitchen door that record our children’s heights. We’ve had a 37-year-attachment to what was once our primary residence but have moved on. On today’s blog, I’m featuring books in the house we’ve moved to just less than a month ago.

    Like you, we’ll feel relief to divest ourselves of houses we don’t want or need now. You are wise to celebrate the joy, knowing that vacationers will see ponies and enjoy the gentle lap of the canal as they breakfast in your amazing sunroom.

    This post has prompted me to check my iPhone for photos of the last retreat. I think I’ll post some pictures in another post with links to this one, including signs from the cute gift shop Susan, Merril and I visited in March.

  5. Ian Mathie
    | Reply

    I well understand your heartache at leaving your log house. I still hanker after my mud hut in West Africa. Actually I still own what remains of it, but sadly much of it and the rest of the village, about a hundred and forty houses in all, was soaked and crumbled into the disastrous floods of 2008. Now only a couple of families live there and the place is in a sorry state, but I’m pleased to say the well I dug for the village still holds good water at 48 feet, so there is hope.
    Burkina Faso might be in turmoil and with islamic extremists now active just north of there life is a bit precarious, but if I were fit enough I’d go back tomorrow and rebuild that house. Like your log house, it holds so many happy memories.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Oh, Ian. You remind me that it’s not merely the bricks and mortar I fell in love with, it was the potential, the actual experiences there, and the memories. Thanks for that. I’m sorry for your little mud hut and its village. BUT, your comment has helped me decide which of all your books (and I have them all) I shall read next. I read your books when I’m riding my recumbent bike in the basement. You take me away.

      • Ian Mathie
        | Reply

        It’s not the house that matters, it’s the memories you accumulated whilst you were its custodian, the associations you built and the friendships that grew and flourished. The house was merely a vehicle to enable all those, and you still have every one of them. It’s all very well being sentimental, but steer that to something useful and it will no longer be painful.
        Now enjoy Vermont to the full! 🙂

        • Ian Mathie
          | Reply

          And Happy Travelling, even if it is vicariously! 🙂

  6. Shirley Hershey Showalter
    | Reply

    Ha ha ha. Famous last words: “Retiring to the simple life.”

    Sorry that the house you have loved so well has not sold on its own, but I love your attitude. I have always admired the way you plunge through experiences others would find daunting and often have a way of laughing and helping others to laugh.

    I too have very fond memories of your house and your generosity in sharing it.

    Thank you. And may karma return all the joy you put into that place back to you. Even if the dollars never quite match up.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Thank you, Shirley. I like believing in karma. I call on it often when looking for a place to park. I didn’t know it was good for non-vehicular needs as well. 🙂

  7. Laurie Buchanan
    | Reply

    Janet – In borrowing and making slight tweaks to John O’Donahue’s poem, “Poetry: For a New Home,” you can feel that…

    You have the eyes to see
    That no visitor ever arrived without a gift
    And no guest — including yourselves — left without a blessing.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Thank you, Laurie, for introducing me to John O’Donahue. I had to look him up and what a glorious find he is. His poem “for a new home” reminded me of the Kazakh proverb, “A guest is a gift from God.”

      And yes, I am focused on the blessings, the gratitudes, at this particular time.

  8. Carol Bodensteiner
    | Reply

    A beautiful ode to your Chincoteague home, Janet. I know you will miss her but it is time. I also appreciate your great attitude about all of this. I’m glad that I got to slip in for one visit On Chincoteague. Thanks for leading Mary and me on a bike ride around the island. I remember the day fondly. Good luck. Hope to see you again soon.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      I remember that day fondly as well. And I was just thinking of it and our stop at the restaurant for some refreshment where Mary introduced me to the microphone on my iPhone. I need a refresher!

  9. Tim Fearnside
    | Reply


    “Instead I’m celebrating all the joy this little house brought us over the years. How lucky we were that we could share it with so many.”

    Really, we’re all just leasing our way through the physical world. What will matter in the end is how we lived — our experiences, relationships, memories, and the ways we influenced and touched other lives. From your story and the comments above, it strikes me that your house was the perfect vehicle for all of these things.

    And as much as I love both Peggy and Willie, and at risk of sounding “ecclesiastical” (trusting, you know better), perhaps instead of “The Party’s Over,” a more apt song might be the Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn?”

    To every thing (turn, turn, turn)
    There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
    And a time to every purpose
    Under heaven

    • Janet
      | Reply

      Perfect! Thank you Tim. I’ve called it up on Pandora and will blast it away as 1:30 approaches.

  10. Susan Joyce
    | Reply

    My husband and I often buy houses because we fall in love with them and think of them as a creative project. When time comes to move on, we also take time to be grateful for the joys and learning the home gave us, and then nudge each other forward as we let go. Not always easy … but necessary to make space for more creative adventures. Blessings!

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Susan and thanks for weighing in, all the way from Uruguay.

  11. Pamela
    | Reply

    I DO believe in love affairs with homes, and I’ve had two. The first one was for 17 years in a home overlooking the SF Bay. Yes, we loved the views, but what we loved most was raising our two kids in a small home that just hugged us into a happy family. I didn’t realize how in love I was with this home, though, until we had to leave it. I touched each wall and thanked it, each hallway, each bedroom, the entire space, for its tender care. That home sold quickly and sold for too much money (we were shocked, but that’s SF for you). The next home was twice the size, well-built, on two acres of land and gorgeous. Ten years brought us new love, children who met their loves and brought home grandkids, a happy home. But when it was time to sell that, no one wanted it. GO FIGURE! Real estate makes little sense anyway, and it makes no sense when we factor the ‘love’ inside those walls. Whatever . . . bringing that love and gratefulness along with us to the next space, the next adventure, that’s what really counts. Good luck, Janet!

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Oh yes, Pamela. That is the poignancy: that no one wants that space into which we poured so much energy. I’m feeling sad for it. IT, I remind myself. I was also struck that you mentioned how we value something once we lose it, or are about to. I discovered that in the run-up to leaving for Peace Corps. Makes for a great reminder to appreciate what we have when we have it. Thanks for stopping in.

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  15. Nurken
    | Reply

    Everything happens for a reason?

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Nurken. Being from what we sometimes call a fatalistic culture, you express a belief I found often in Kazakhstan. It was the reason (one of your classmates told me) that no one wore seat belts. It’s what I called “a fatalistic culture” in my book, that is, one that holds to a central office (Allah, God, good) which oversees all things below. With such a belief, of course everything happens for a reason. And that can be a comforting thought in times of trouble. Thanks, as always, for weighing in.

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