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.
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.
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.
Others said it was because it was too dark inside.
A few said it was overpriced.
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.
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)