Balancing Act

Loving an old house that doesn't love you back

Flooded basement, busted furnace and other travails leave this homeowner feeling like a glutton for punishment

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Loving a house that doesn't love you back

Loving a house that doesn't love you back (Tom Merton / OJO Images)

My dad warned me long ago about unrequited love.

It was more lament than warning, I suppose: "It's hard to love something that doesn't love you back," he said.

We were talking about my cat, who was evil. It was hard to love that cat, so I didn't. Problem solved.

My house is a different story. I fell fast and furious for this house and it has proven a needy, selfish partner since the day we met nine months ago.

First there was the soggy basement, which revealed itself to be not just leak-prone but also leak-damaged when we (and by "we," I mean contractors) started peeling back layers of old drywall and carpet to refinish the space.

There was the washing machine, which appeared to have laundered as many clothes as my grandmother did in her 93 years and was equally weary of the task. The only way to coax it through an entire spin cycle was to place a 25-pound dumbbell on its lid, and even that stopped working after the first six loads.

There was the busted furnace.

And the family of rats living in the garage.

There was the frozen pipe the day after Christmas, and the other frozen pipe during January's polar vortex — the pipe that grew bored of the whole exercise and burst at the seam.

There was — is, actually — the new water damage. So very much damage from that pipe that burst open and flooded our newly refinished basement. The drywall, the baseboards, the floors — all shot.

The dryer will quit next, I figure. We broke up a matching set when we replaced the weary washer, and the dryer has worked triple time since the flood, tackling every towel we own. (In addition to three children, boundless energy and eager hearts, we brought roughly six dozen towels each to our midlife marriage.)

Still, and through it all, I love this stupid house.

I love the way the transom windows in the kitchen reveal a beautiful tangle of branches from the emerald ash in our backyard. I love the welcoming window seat perched atop our living room radiator, and the winding, wooden staircase that leads to the tiny, cheerful bedrooms where my children nestle in for the night. I love waking up to the house in the morning and coming home to it in the evening.

This all had me feeling pretty dysfunctional. People go to therapy — heck, I go to therapy — to defend against this type of codependency.

Are you trying to rescue this house? Is this a relationship based on mutual respect and equal effort? Do you find yourself canceling plans with friends to pacify this house? Is it controlling you?

I was starting to worry about my misplaced, unrequited affections.

Then I came across a lovely thought from author Valerie Frankel, who wrote a New York Times essay about an expensive ring she purchased and fell in love with. She had other rings in her life: a diamond from her first husband, who died at age 34. An inexpensive pearl from her second husband, whose love was priceless.

Was it superficial, she wondered, to love this new object? Nah.

"Loving a thing is shallow," she wrote, "only if you don't deeply appreciate its emotional, as well as intrinsic, value."

The emotional value of this house is incalculable. Its walls hold my children's Cray-Pas self-portraits and its floors hold their handstands and Legos and scattered boots, scarves and backpacks.

We five — my husband and his son, my daughter, my son and I — became a family here. Each kid has blown out birthday candles here. We've decorated a Christmas tree here. We've made one another cry a few times and laugh a lot more times in this house. And that's where its value lies.

It is hard to love something that doesn't love you back. But it's not hard as in "tough to conjure the energy for." It's hard as in "heartbreaking and soul-sucking and confidence-sapping and really, really expensive." Which is probably what my dad meant all along.

So I'm going to forge ahead, open-hearted and willing to love this house and all of its problems and proclivities and parts.

Except the rats. Their days are numbered.

hstevens@tribune.com

Twitter @heidistevens13

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