Enjoying a mellow buzz from back-pain medication, I had gone up to bed even earlier than usual. Ann was watching a movie downstairs when she heard a loud noise from the second floor. After satisfying herself that I had not fallen, she looked around and found water running down the walls of the dining room and dripping from the ceiling. It came from a pinhole in a flexible faucet connector, a part that plumbers advise replacing every few years (preferably, before it leaks).

If the water had run until the end of the movie, or worse, all night, the damage would have been extreme. So, three cheers for the loud noise. But what caused it? We never found out. That got me thinking.

Angels maybe? Could have been. Angels looked after us during the nineteen years we were occupied with converting a monastery in the Adirondacks to our residence. Maybe one or two of them got tired of the cold and came with us when we moved to Texas.

It doesn’t matter that the damage could have been greater, it was still substantial. Nevertheless, Ann accepted it with unusual equanimity. That gave rise to other questions. Was she really unruffled, or was she faking it to protect me in my semi-invalid state? Is she smoothing out as she gets older? Were angels at it again? (I was unruffled myself, but that was due to the nice pill I’d taken.)

But hold on. Maybe our calm response came from being conditioned by year after year of tussling with old pipes up at the monastery. When the angels were off duty or testing us (it was never clear which), we endured leaks that have made workaday plumbing problems since then seem manageable.

On one occasion, poop came dripping down from the dining room ceiling. We moved the waste line to a location far, far away. One would think the problem solved. It wasn’t. On a second occasion, sewage leaked from the same spot – where there was no longer any plumbing. Twice, a third-floor bathroom fouled a closet below so disgustingly that one of the heroes working to repair it had to climb down from his ladder for a vomit break. A shower drained into a newly painted bar on the floor below. On three occasions, radiators burst while we were out of town, each time causing a hell of a mess and impressive levels of swearing.

Another possible explanation was that it didn’t occur to us that this newest leak might be the first in a series. One leak can be tolerated; it’s when they keep coming that the going gets rough. We couldn’t imagine that happening – not again. Certainly not in this house that had been renovated and remodeled from top to bottom not long before we bought it last year.

ServPro, a disaster-recovery company, was able to make the room ready for painting without having to replace the sheetrock, and a few weeks later, Israel, a handyman, showed up and put the crown molding back in place, painted the ceiling, and spackled and prepped the walls for Ann to paint. She likes to do her own painting, but she has aged out of ladder climbing and ceiling painting.

A sidebar here. Israel’s way of working was unusually pacific. He hummed along quietly with big-band music and standards coming from his jam box. After he finished, he asked me to play the Tony Bennett-Diana Krall cd that was on the kitchen table. I did, and we had a beer and talked. I meant to ask him why he didn’t listen to conjunto Tejano like most Hispanic construction workers, but for some reason I forgot. I did learn that he has a brother named Jericho, and his father’s name was Ruben. “We’re Catholic,” he explained. I let it go.

Coincidentally, as Israel worked, a crew came to start a basement project we had planned before buying the house. They didn’t show up until about 9:30, an hour that made me wonder if they had their hearts in the job. Then they deposited mud and dirt in the front hall instead of first putting down the floor covering as had been promised by the company. And they didn’t seem at all clear about what it was they were there to do. After about half an hour, I sent them away until a manager could come supervise them.

A man who was scheduled to come by and plant a row of boxwoods, didn’t show up. (The hedge was a replacement for one that had died from too much watering, my overcompensation for Texas heat and lack of rain.)

Big sigh here. Downsizing and moving into a newer house that was in tip-top shape in a part of the country where extreme cold doesn’t tear up houses was not supposed to be like this.

Naturally, I began to imagine a one-of-these-days book. Something like Downsizing: The Impassable Dream. Or perhaps Downsizing and Moving: Less Painful Than Shingles, But Only Just. Too negative? Too harsh? Maybe. But mostly just off the mark.

Downsizing was not the cause of my disquiet. The correct deduction was that ownership of any detached single-family dwelling (even one in excellent repair like ours) requires regular maintenance and a good deal of it and sometimes it comes in waves and sometimes as emergencies. (See above.) If you strongly dislike fixing things and herding contractors, owning a house is not for you.

During our time living with maintenance mayhem at the monastery, we also owned a small coop apartment in Manhattan. In it, a leaking faucet or a noisy neighbor or a heating problem required no more than a quick call to the super. The doormen provided services including security, privacy, aid in emergencies, and a sense of being cared for.

I don’t know how it came to be that the American dream includes at its heart a detached single-family house with extra rooms that you use little and a large yard. We are led to believe that if you don’t have one of those by the time you reach a certain age, you aren’t worth squat, and you’re not a good American. Whatever the source of that misguided belief, I’m done with it. Henceforth, I am apostate; the housing part of my American dream is a Goldilocks-size unit in a well-managed coop or condo.


  1. Darlene Yanez

    Agreed, that’s how I roll! A phone call and done!
    The single home ownership American dream is a myth and I believe conjured up by some national reality association. Good news, angels fit in single family AND condos/apartments/coops…

  2. Ellen Rienstra

    Paul–I empathize with every fiber; I’m living in my grandparents’ farmhouse (built ca. 1896), and every year the old house and big yard get older and bigger. Maintenance? Well–you just wrote the script. Lately I’ve begun to entertain the increasingly attractive idea of “a Goldilocks-sized unit in a well-managed coop or condo,” but I can’t quite bring myself to do it. I’m reasonably able-bodied and so far have just enough to hire a lot of things I used to do myself, but I’ll have to downsize sooner or later (I’m trying not to kid myself; it’ll probably be sooner). I love this old house;. My grandparents and parents lived in it, and I was in and out of it all my life, as are my kids and grandkids, and I know I’ll never have the sheer joy of loving another place like I do this one. I realize someday I’ll have to sell it and move–but not yet, I tell myself. In the end, I suppose, to quote a friend, someone–either mortal or immortal–will let me know when it’s time to go.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *