Vassar has written that the fundament of our ordered liberty is the ability to build a home and pass it on to your children. I agree with that notion fundamentally. The original phrase was, Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Property. As far as I can tell, I am the first member of my lineal family in America who has ever made a mortgage payment on the house in which he lived. My family has been on pretty much the same piece of Georgia dirt since 1795, and there were others in VA and NC going back to the 1640s. I slipped the surly bonds of The South in the ’70s and got rid of all that heredity stuff. That meant I had to buy my own house.
I tore down my parents’ house this year. Glad I wasn’t there to watch it. It was built in the ‘teens from timber off the property by my Grandfather and the menfolk of the family. The bird’s eyes in the rafters were cut by hatchet and the sills were shaped by an adze. But after 70 or 80 years, and old house is just an old house; spending a hundred thousand bucks on an old house doesn’t make a hundred thousand dollar house; so I tore it down and hauled it away. And I hauled away all the stuff that was still in it. I lament some of that, but since none of it had been particularly useful to anyone for twenty years or so, it might as well go to the dump.
It’s not easy; my sister and I were conceived in that house and grew to almost adulthood there. I say almost, because leaving for college doesn’t make you an adult – even though you think it does. In the dark hours when I am melancholy and thoughtful – like now – I can’t really calculate the balance; was it a wonderful, naive childhood or was it just Southern white trash poverty? I lean towards the white trash poverty but there was some wonderful in there. There was a wonderful self-reliance, a wonderful faith, not Faith, that you could do what you needed to do. I heard “Thy Will be done” used as an excuse all too much in my youth. To my mind, God’s will, if there was a God, was for you to get off your ass and do something for yourself. I think that was a lesson often lost in the rural South.
So now I’m doing what I always envisioned my kids doing; cleaning up the family place. Twenty five years is an eternity in today’s world. I’ve lived in this house for 25 years! When Wife 1.0 and I split up, I needed a place not associated with her. I did first a lease purchase and then an illegal wrap-around mortgage, you could do that if you had a job in the oil crash days, on a ’60s three bedroom, single bath ranch in a not very good neighborhood. I sold my old Dodge pickup and camper to pay the closing costs and with that sale surrendered my rights as a free man; if you have some tools, a pickup, and a camper; you’re a free man.
I and we raised four kids in that house and yard. The first few years were just me and my daughter. If you haven’t raised a teen-aged daughter as a single father, don’t talk to me about parental responsibility. In retrospect it was funny. She didn’t much care who she was sharing her Cheerios with as long as she didn’t see her as a threat; this was, By God, her house. I could troll some bit of fluff in and she’d just say “Hi.” But, let an older or more serious woman come along, and the claws came out. When my now-wife and I decided it was time to live together, the first issue was the “woman of the house.” So, I moved her to the dormitory at the university. You’d have thought I had put her in a burlap bag and took her out the road to throw her in the ocean. But she got over it and after a while couldn’t have been brought back home with dynamite.
The back yard saw never-ending baseball games. There was the eternal struggle between my insistance that they play with tennis balls and their desire to destroy all neighboring property with baseballs. There was a “jungle-gym” of epic proportions for many years. There were camp-outs in the yard; many of which ended with freaked-out children sleeping on the living room floor. There was the God-damned trampoline, and you know, I loved the pleasure that the kids took from those trampolines, but if you have a trampoline and you kids have friends from all over the neighborhood, you might as well just have a lottery for which kid’s parents get to own you your house and your retirement. Fortunantly, nobody ever got seriously hurt or killed, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.
So, now they’re all gone. There are no more baseball games and the trampoline was long ago sold to a neighbor. The yard is now eccentricly decorated with all sorts of statuary and “stuff.” The sideyard is beautifully lit to accent the gargoyle and backlight the arrowhead picket fence that I built. My family bet against me on that fence; I finished it before winter and they bought the pizza. And I put in all the fancy doors, and the trim, and all that other “stuff.” After all these years, that house is pretty much exactly as I wanted it to be. My hands have been on every single square inch of that house.
And now to the point; the kids don’t want it. They have their lives in SEA and ANC; they don’t want to go back to a backwater like Juneau just to have an old family house. They loved the dogs and cats buried in the little plot complete with headstones in the back yard, but they don’t want to come here and take care of it. Well, maybe, If we didn’t charge them rent for living here.
So, I’m selling it. The highest and best use is for some developer to buy it, tear it down and put a zero on it; the land is the valuable part. I just don’t think that family tradition is a part of American life any more. I know I abandoned it for fast cars, old whiskey, and pretty women. My kids abandoned it for what they saw as economic opportunity.
Miranda Lambert has a song about, “The House That Made Me,” that is pretty popular theses days. I can relate to it; that old country farmhouse in Georgia made me, and it broke my heart to accept that there was nothing for it anymore but to tear it down and haul it away. So, now, I have the house that I’ve spent the last twenty five years in. The kids say, “don’t sell it,” but none of them want to live in it. Tomorrow, I sign the listing agreement. Maybe it goes to a young family that can see their kids grow up in that wonderful back yard. Maybe it goes to a developer that just shows up with a bulldozer.
Vassar, you’re right, that house that you can hand down to your children is a fundament. For people our age, it is why we did what we did. But the reality is the kids don’t think they want the house. They may later; they may blame you later for getting rid of “their” house, but those “family” homes that we all thought we needed to build were really just for us; the family doesn’t give a damn.