Once a writing teacher, genuinely mystified, said: “Wow, so many of you have parents that are jerks. It’s like, why do you still even talk to them? That’s what needs to be explained in these essays.”

I love this guy, but that’s one of the craziest things I’ve ever heard. We talk to them because we are family. They are family so we talk to them. It’s a tautology, but it’s true. (Also, I really like my family, so there’s that, too).

I don’t claim to understand what makes family bonds so potent. They are an accident of blood. But they are. And I know they are, because I have this to prove it. Here is the back of our house before Kyle’s cousins came to visit:


And then this happened:


And here is the back of our house now:


Those guys took down a room in a day. Strangely enough, they decided to head back home a day earlier than originally planned. And then they sent us this:


That is a thank you note. They thanked us for letting them drive four hours (each way) to spend a day tearing apart a room.

That’s family.

But the work wasn’t done. The next week Kyle’s dad came to help. He and Joe (handyman/savior) spent a day jackhammering up the concrete. For context, Joe has been in the construction business 15 years and volunteers to bale hay on weekends. Kyle’s dad played hockey for years and can bike better than most teenagers. They both described it as “Probably the hardest day. Ever.” Strangely enough, Kyle’s dad decided to head back a day earlier than planned.

All I can say is that this house makes me very thankful for things I don’t understand. The tribal beat of family. The mystery of indoor plumbing (which needs to lose its mystery fast). The way you can feel like you’ve just survived the hardest day ever, and then start again the very next day.


The other day the dog therapist came over (a whole story in and of itself) and said, “These houses have such great craftsmanship. Built by Germans. Great builders.”

Great builders? More like great drinkers.

Here is what we’ve collected from our basement, all predating 1915:

All I know is that a bedroom floor was put on wrong, our foundation is falling apart, and the advent of indoor plumbing sent workmen happily hewing through most major support beams. The people living in our home excelled in one art: survival.

As evidence, we recently spent a day exposing the brick chimney in our future master suite. (Really, it was a whole weekend tag-teaming the brutal chiseling off of plaster while sweating it out on other projects.) What we found was this:
A homemade vent crafted by wedging a paint can, removable lid and all, into the brick.

Our people were resourceful. They had to be. Our home was never the home of the rich. By 1899 it had passed hands from a gunsmith to a plasterer to a restaurateur to a real estate agent. It wasn’t a home graced by easy times, either. This house, and the people in it, stood through the civil war and children who didn’t grow up and the flood of 1913. Our people shoveled ten feet of mud out of our house’s water-logged walls. And then they moved back in.

I like to think we are part of this lineage. The work we are doing is dirty and slow, and we often go at it stupidly, like the neophytes we are. But we are doing it. I think that’s why the flood mud found in the kitchen roof means as much to me as the lovely molding in our foyer. I admire beautiful things. But it is the sheer stubborness of the hands that shaped these walls (even if they sometimes made a mess while doing it) that I can relate to.


I moved every single year between the ages of 18 and 27. Sometimes more than once a year. The only good thing I can say about moving is that it makes your ties with things more tenuous. You learn to shave down your love for things made of plastic or wood or paper: leaving is easier when you can leave a lot behind.

27 to 30? Three blissful years of not moving. I forgot the smell of  dusty cardboard boxes. It was lovely.

The last two months? We’ve moved three or four times, depending on how you count it. Not lovely.

From Texas to a hotel in Dayton. From the hotel to our house. Out of our house into our neighbors’ duplex. Out of their duplex into our second property, assuming the short sale process ever wraps up. Here is how Godiva and I feel about it:


It’s miserable. I read George Saunders’ graduation speech the other day, and it made me realize we’ve only made it through this relatively unscathed because we are, generally, kind to each other. I mean me and Kyle, and also, our small circle of friends and neighbors. (On the other hand, Kyle is sort of a jerk to Godiva, and limits her supply of well-deserved cookies, but that’s another story).

Why are we moving so much? The short answer is that we are crazy. But also, we thought we’d be able to live in our house. And then, once we realized we couldn’t, we thought we’d be able to move back in after two months. And, also, we decided owning one old house was so much fun, we might as well get a second. So here we are, having just finished our last-for-a-while move. And then we will move again.

Lesson: in the short term, optimism looks a whole lot like stupidity.

But I think it will pay off. As proof, take a look at our house, which looks like it is recovering from a chicken pox:


Nail holes nearly all patched. Priming and painting happening soon. And forget what I said about moving keeping you detached from non-sentient physical things: I am totally obsessed with our broken-down baby.

Kyle at work on floor

This weekend it rained. Actually, it’s rained every weekend. This has been one of the biggest changes since leaving Texas: the need to know where my umbrella actually is.

This Saturday, though, we panicked. We had plans! Big-outdoor-happening plans! So we stood on our porch at 8 am and watched the rain come down and had a moment of despair. This house will never be done. What makes this thinking funny (in retrospect) is that our house is nowhere near being done.  It’s not like we are one Saturday away from moving in; we are months away, so  much so that one day doesn’t mean much of anything. But still. Rain.

A house magazine I read had a feature where they asked designers what they like to do on a rainy day. Basically, their answers went something like: I snuggle up with my dog while drinking a (fill in warm drink of choice here) and reading the New York Times, all while watching the droplets come down.

We went inside and started pulling things down.

We lost two walls, half a floor, and the plaster over our brick chimney. We cleared out ten or so (not structurally utilized) ceiling beams. And then we figured we might as well get into other things. We power-washed the bottom half of the house in between spurts of rain.* We bought our exterior paint. We made a vain attempt to clean up all the destruction we had wrought.

The picture below is of Kyle removing the floorboards from our back room. We have to do that because the guys who laid these lovely planks in 1871 ran them parallel to the joists, rather than perpendicular. This explains why our inspector described the flooring in that room as “squishy.” Most of the boards weren’t supported by anything other than flimsy shims. Fun!

Kyle at work on floor

We’re saving the floorboards and hoping to re-lay them in the other direction. In the meantime, some photos of the room “before”:

Blue room

This was the room when we first made our way in. That happened about a week after getting to Dayton–the door was locked and there was no key to be found. We were hoping for gold doubloons behind the door, but instead we found two dressers,  several questionable chairs, an even more questionable mattress, and an old phonograph table. Also, a bunch of curtain rods and an old carpet. Then we emptied it out and I took down the (several layers of) wallpaper and we ended up with this:

Before we ruined it

Look at that old linoleum! As I explained to Joe, who is working on the house with us: Kyle does not respect this piece of fine old linoleum. Neither, it turns out, does Joe. But all of the women who have come through have cooed at it.

If there is one thing our back room proves, it is this: progress doesn’t look pretty. Also, panic may be underrated. By the time we left we had 12 productive hours in. And the rain had stopped, and the next day we had a picnic with our neighbors, and Godiva frolicked in a park that looks like this:

Godiva in the garden

It was a good weekend.

*Um, what about the top half, you ask? If I ever mention anything that involves a tall ladder, it was all Joe, the handyman who works with. I remain unconvinced of my coordination and Kyle remains afraid of heights.

Front of house

Insulbrick. It’s been called “the brick that is not a brick.” It’s a thick siding made of asphalt that was popular in the early/mid-1900’s. It purportedly could go up in a day, provide insulation and keep a house fire-resistant, and would last forever.

I can’t guarantee it really did go up quickly, or that it worked like it was supposed to against the ravages of cold and heat. I can tell you this: it does last forever.

No one knows when the insulbrick was put on our house. We spoke with the granddaughter of the woman who last owned our house, and she said it was already there when her grandmother bought it. That was in the 50s. In all likelihood, the insulbrick was on our house for a solid 60-something years. More likely it went up in the 30s, which means that it was dressing our house for a good 80+ years. And against all the odds, that stuff was pretty much still in place when we bought it. I actually thought our house was a brick house when we bought it. Again, dangers of buying a house sight unseen. And not having very good eyesight.

The house looked like this:

Front of house

One of the first contractors that came by eyed the house sadly. “Yeah,” he said, “I don’t think we’ll be able to patch the missing insulbrick.” That’s when I knew we had different definitions of renovating. The insulbrick had to go.

Luckily, it’s not incredibly hard to get rid of. There are about six nails holding each board of insulbrick in place; you yank them out, pull off the board, and move on with your day. And you know what makes it even easier? Hiring someone unafraid of heights to pull off the boards up high.

Also, we had our neighbors. One neighbor brought us fresh apricots and beer. Lots of neighbors came by to encourage us. Another neighbor lent us a ladder. Another neighbor came on a Sunday ready to roll up his sleeves and get to work.

So, it’s really not taking insulbrick off that is the problem. The bigger issue is that you never know what you’ll end up with once the insulbrick is gone. Insulbrick is notorious for trapping water and rotting the boards underneath. We ended up with this:

Naked House

Dirty siding. Gloriously whole, dirty siding. That now needs a ton of work.

Our neighbors are still coming by. They stop on the sidewalk and stare at the house. “Wow,” they say. “It looks great. It’s going to be beautiful.”

It’s nice to live around visionaries.


Once upon a time, Kyle and I thought we might actually live in the house as we renovated it (spoiler alert: we were crazy). I headed to Dayton a couple of weeks before we moved, with the idea that I’d “clean things up” and set up a living space in the best-looking room.


What actually happened was that I didn’t just see our house for the first time. I smelled it, too, the special aroma of cigarettes/shag carpet/dampness. And felt it: touching the curtains still hanging on the window left my fingers black with dust. I’ve been told by a friend that nothing I told her about the house before showing her pictures really prepared her for it. I get it. And looking at pictures didn’t begin to prepare me for the actual house.

I called Kyle and told him to buy me a new house. He declined.

So here we are. Before I start showing what we’ve been working on, I think it’s important to see what we started with.

This is the kitchen:


And the future master bedroom:

Future master

And (just a little bit of) the dirt:

Dirt, dirt everywhere

And the dining room–with carpet. Of course.

Dining room

It doesn’t look like this anymore. It doesn’t look good. It just doesn’t look like this. Our mantra of remodeling has become: it’s going to get worse before it gets better. We’re sure about the worse part, hopeful about the better.


My grandfather says there are three rules of real estate: location, location, location. There’s a fourth rule, one we forgot when we bought our new old house: you should see a house before you buy it.

We tried to do this house-buying thing like practical people. When we found out we were moving to  Dayton, Ohio–a new city in a new state–we watched real estate listings for months, crunched numbers, and made lists of what we wanted (by we, I mean me, but Kyle was a good sport about it all).

Then we came to Dayton. We had three days to find a house, and we saw more than 30 houses in five very distinct neighborhoods. One of my favorite things about Dayton is the diversity of lifestyles it offers–urban, suburban, rural–within the metro area, but it doesn’t make decision-making easy. On our last night in Dayton, we went to bed completely confused.

I’m going to minimize the logistics of the flight back, but suffice it to say that somewhere between entering Dayton’s airport and exiting Austin’s, we:

–made an offer on a house

–found out someone had beat us with a cash offer

–found another house in the same neighborhood at a ridiculously low price

–told our real estate agent to make an offer

Our real estate agent is awesome, so he talked us down from absolute crazy, and told us he’d take a look at the place and report back before he’d let us buy. His diplomatic response, after seeing it? “We’ll, I’d say this place is going to be a labor of love. It’s not something I’d want to take on unless I was planning to live in a place for a long, long time.”

And then we made an offer. And we got it. And the adventure began.