The University of New Mexico Best Student Essays

The House That Love Built

What did my husband and I, two overweight and out of shape late 30-somethings, know about building a house? Absolutely nothing. In my mind, however, that fact was not going to stop us from accomplishing our goal: building my dream house. Having lived the previous fourteen years in a 14’x80’ single-wide mobile home, I was past ready to live in a home whose foundations were sunk deep into the earth. I wanted to be able to spread out and roam in any direction I so chose, no longer to be constricted by the linear directions of a mobile home. This was my one shot, and I knew it. Careful planning along with subtle, and not-so-subtle, hints over sixteen years of marriage had brought us to the brink of my dream—a real house. Of course, it wasn’t until our drug-dealing neighbors across the street had shot a bullet through the front window of our mobile home, imbedding itself in the dark wood paneling above our couch, that my husband began to actively pursue other living arrangements. But to me, the “why” didn’t matter as much as the fact that he was finally moving in the right direction. I am an optimist. Yes, that glass is half-full, tomorrow is another day, and love conquers all. My husband, on the other hand, is a pragmatist. Who is going to fill that glass? Before we get to tomorrow, let’s get through today. Love is great, but it doesn’t pay the bills. So, as the Optimist and the Pragmatist stood upon our newly purchased acre of land in Bosque Farms, New Mexico, we both viewed the scene before us through very differently colored glasses. The Optimist’s rosy glasses saw a beautiful green pasture surrounded on all four sides by what my mother would have called “Gentlemen Farms,” one or two acre lots with beautiful homes and frolicking livestock. The pasture itself was flat but brimming with potential. Flower beds, trees, driveways and fences, and, of course, THE HOUSE, popped up before my eyes: the perfect picture of country living. The Pragmatist’s glasses were shaded against the sweltering glare of a New Mexican August sun. He saw a pitted and pock-marked field, barren of any shade, surrounded by broken fencing and large, smelly, fly-attracting animals. He saw months, nay, years, of back-breaking work lying ahead of him just to make the place livable. “We should hire a contractor and have him build it for us,” Pragmatist said. “Come on, where is your sense of adventure?” I cajoled. “This is the American West, where the pioneers came to start a new life and build new homes.” I could tell after glancing at his face that my appeal to history and patriotism had no effect, so I added, “I come from a long line of homesteaders.” And that was that. My credentials were laid bare before him. And I was not bragging in vain. My very own grandmother had traveled by covered wagon as a child, for a brief homesteading stint in Canada, while my grandfather’s side of the family had homesteaded and managed successful farms in northern Idaho for nearly a century. I felt confident that I could call upon that homesteading instinct which was lying latent within me, and that together, my husband and I would build a new house with our very own hands. “Well,” he said, staring morosely at the sandy soil under his feet, “I guess we’ll at least save some money doing the work ourselves.” And so with this pragmatic blessing we soon moved ourselves and our eleven-year-old daughter into an old 8×35 foot fifth-wheel travel trailer. Parked on the side of the property, it sat just a few feet from a freshly poured cement foundation, which we had wisely hired someone to do for us. As an optimist, my picture of what it would be like to build a house was largely based on a Snow White-type fantasy. In this scenario, my husband and I would lightly skip out of the travel trailer and be immediately surrounded by happy, friendly animals. Birds would chirp merrily in a circle over our heads as we picked up our tools and began to joyfully tap nails into the side of the house. Occasionally, we would even break into cheerful song or whistle a happy tune, just from the sheer joy of the task. Reality was just a bit different. I quickly learned that if I tried to lightly skip out of the travel trailer, I risked breaking my neck on the steep, slippery metal steps. Instead, one needed to tightly cling to the handle on the side of the trailer and slowly back out, going down each step until reaching the safety of the ground. As for the friendly animals, we were surrounded on all four sides by a total of 10,000 mosquitoes, 5,000 flies, fifteen horses, ten sheep, five mules, four turkeys, two pigs, and of course our own addition of a family dog. While the horses and mules were friendly enough, it took some time to get used to being awakened from a deep sleep in the pre-dawn darkness by the loud braying of our neighbor’s mule! The nearest we came to birds happily chirping was when the turkeys would invade our yard and run around in circles trying to avoid our barking dog. The closest we came to breaking out in song was when a groan would escape our lips as we forced our tired aching muscles to bend down and pick up a hammer, and, alas, the happy dream of whistling was replaced by screams of agony when the rapidly descending hammer struck an unsuspecting thumb! But in spite of these vast differences between fantasy and reality, the optimist in me never wavered. We began framing on October 30, and with help from my in-laws, we had the entire lower floor framed in just one week. “See?” I gloated to my bruised and tired-out husband. “It’s not going to take us eight months to build this house. Why, I bet we will be living in it by Easter!” Either through wisdom or fatigue, Mr. Pragmatic kept silent. Just two short weeks into framing, my husband and I engaged in what is now known as The Battle of the Door. The controversy centered around where the door leading from the house to the garage should be placed. Because we had made an adjustment in the original floor plans, the placement of this door was now up for grabs. Option number one was to place it in the front entryway, eliminating a coat closet. Option number two was to place it in the family room, conveniently close to the kitchen for easy access to the freezer, which would be kept in the garage. My husband and father-in-law stood firmly on the side of option number one, bringing with them the full weight of their skill and expertise. I stood alone on the side of option number two, common sense my sole companion. The battle lines were clearly drawn and the battle raged over a series of three days, halting progress on both walls. Measurements were taken, arguments made, tears were shed. I felt outnumbered and outgunned, and eventually caved in to the pressure of the men. After all, I couldn’t frame and hang the door myself; I needed their cooperation. Suddenly, the golden light of compromise glimmered across the battlefield strewn with the broken artillery shells of acrimony and bitter words. Each side agreed to the idea of installing both doors, a solution which has since proved to be both practical and convenient. The battle over, we picked up our hammers and began to work in earnest once again. By Christmas, the second floor was framed, and by the dawn of the New Year the roof was on, and we were installing windows. I was smugly confident in my optimistic world; little did I know how far we still had to go. Every spare moment was spent either working on the house, watching how-to videos, or attending workshops at our local Home Depot. In fact, we were such faithful customers that my husband couldn’t walk down an aisle at Home Depot without being greeted by name by a passing employee. Each of us focused on learning an area of expertise. My husband was responsible for plumbing and electrical, I was responsible for learning how to tile, watching over finances, and being a willing assistant in any and all endeavors. We quickly learned that building a house is a neighborhood event. Cars would regularly slow down as they passed by to see what the latest progress was. Neighbors would stop by and talk, offering advice and tips, and filling us in on neighborhood news. Our neighbor just across the mule-filled field had been working on building his own home for just over a year. An adobe structure, his outer walls were still unfinished, and there was vast speculation in the neighborhood as to who would finish first. As we neared the end of winter, I would walk through each room of the house, seeing cement floors and wall studs, but in my mind I could visualize the white painted walls and the soft plush carpeting under my feet. I would poke my head through the eighteen-inch gap between the pine studs that represented the master bedroom wall and stare into what would be my daughter’s bedroom. I was giddy with excitement. Then, suddenly, we hit the vast desert wilderness called Plumbing. While my father-in-law and I were running thousands of feet of electrical wiring, my husband valiantly struggled through stacks of PVC and copper pipe. He used mountains of fittings to put them all together, forming winding trails of venting, drains, and supply lines. Side by side, my husband and daughter worked to sweat pipes together, his dark head bent beside her smaller blonde one, she trying to hold steady as he aimed the torch’s flame at the copper pipe clenched between her hands. By the time they were done, it was late spring. Ok, so we weren’t living in the house by Easter, but by mid-July the drywall was up and the inside was painted. We installed bathroom tile, doors, lights, tubs, toilets, cabinets, and ceiling fans, squabbling over each purchase. One day Mr. Pragmatic pulled me into the house and had me stand in the front entrance. “Look up.” he said. I stared upwards at the light hanging twenty feet above. He flipped a switch and suddenly the area was flooded with light. I stood there in awe. Tears welled in my eyes as my husband wrapped his arms around me, staring up at the light with me in silent unity. The dream was becoming real. Then, it happened. Ten months and twenty-two days from the day we started framing, we received the Certificate of Occupancy. This precious little piece of paper meant that we could now live in the house! I declared to my husband, “I’m sleeping in the house tonight!” So we hauled the mattress out of the fifth-wheel and threw it down on the floor of the master bedroom. I lay there that night with the moon shining in through the un-curtained windows, windows which I had helped to install, and I slept the sleep of the weary but satisfied. Before we had begun this adventure, people had warned us that building a house was hard. It was. They said we would argue a lot. We did. They said some marriages didn’t survive the stress. I never doubted that we would make it. Now, twelve years later, I walk up the stairs and down the halls and through the rooms, and I remember. I remember studs and chalk lines, pipes and wires, insulation and drywall. I remember the sweat, the tears, the heated debates, and the pulled and tired muscles. In spite of this, the memories of that time are sweet. It was a time we pulled together as a family and faced a multitude of challenges. We learned new skills and how to use new tools. We came up with creative solutions and learned to compromise. It was a time of growth for each of us, personally and as a family. Someone once asked my husband if he would do it again. The words were barely spoken before his resounding “No!” filled the air. My daughter and I were much more open to the possibility, probably because we didn’t actually do the brunt of the work ourselves. However, now that we have lived in the house for twelve years, I asked my husband if it was worth it. “Yes,” he replied with a gentle smile and the twinkle of love in his eyes. I can’t help but agree. And so it was that through the dreams of an Optimist and the sacrificial love and hard work of a Pragmatist, we built more than my dream house. We built our home.

Added December 9, 2011

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