That phrase always makes me think of the Cosby, Stills and Nash song:
Our house is a very, very, very fine house with two cats in the yard…
Except our house isn’t a fine house. In truth, it’s sort of a dump. Or it was. Now it’s more like the canvas our lives are painted upon; ideas attempted and embraced or rejected and painted over with a new idea taking its place with Fate’s ever-present hand sending us in directions we never intended. Maybe it’s not a masterpiece, but it is so woven into our family fabric, I’m not sure where we stop and the house begins.
We bought our farm in the spring 2005. Our son was six months old. My husband was still a professional polo player with a three-goal handicap playing in very competitive polo in and around Dallas, Texas. We had nearly thirty horses at the time and the farm was almost a five-hour drive away. Polo would continue five to six days a week through June and then break until September. With an infant, a demanding job, a large herd of horses and a narrow window of time to establish a new home, it was going to be a difficult move compounded by the fact the farm had no water, septic, electricity, fences and certainly no HOUSE-just rolling acres of South Texas mesquite, hack-berry and huisache. How on earth were we going to pull this off?
Building a house was out of the question. I just couldn’t see how I could work with a builder given the distance and time frame. The remaining ideas were an RV, throw up a quick barn and enclose an apartment to camp in for a while, or move in a trailer house. “No, no and maybe, just because I can’t think of anything else” were my answers.
The purchase of this farm was the end result of the dissolution of some family property in West Texas. We went in with my mother and bought this property together and divided it between us. It has been a sometimes trying and always rewarding arrangement. Someday, I’ll tell you about her house, well, errr, houses? But not today.
Most of my early recollections of the farm involve my mom. I found the real estate ad in the San Antonio Star Telegram and emailed it to my mom, who was a realtor in San Antonio at the time, specializing in farm and ranch properties
“What about this place?” I asked.
“Oh, I’ve seen it. It’s not what we want at all. In fact, I’ve shown it to some buyers, but only from the road. There are no roads on it so you really can’t see it, and besides, it’s way off the highway.”
I talked her into looking again.
Rolling sandy hills dotted with oak trees, a wet-weather creek, some old peanut and watermelon fields with fifteen years of re-growth mesquite over them, native grasses and some virgin South Texas mesquite brush with mesquites twice as thick as my waist. It was exactly what we wanted.
It’s funny. I still remember clicking on the photos in that ad and thinking “this is were we will live…
That spring that we first moved on the farm was exceptionally beautiful. The blackberries were everywhere. Huge, shiny black orbs of sweetness distracting us from our purpose on every visit. The grass was thick and green and the wildflowers were doing their thing with extra gusto. Love bugs were everywhere; coating car grills with their squashed little bodies, sitting together on any idle surface and flying conjoined through the air. I’ve never seen so many love bugs before or since.
Mom and I did most of the initial projects because Jeff couldn’t leave North Texas and polo. Our first order of business was to find a house site. Mom and I hemmed and hawed and looked and walked and drove and argued about how to divide the property between us. One afternoon we turned off the path we were pounding into a road and made our way through the brush just to see what we could see. Low and behold, there in the midst of a mesquite thicket was a beautiful, giant, ancient oak. Home-site discovered. That tree had seen General Santa Anna come by on his way to the Alamo. It had seen buffalo and Comanches and maybe even a Spanish conquistador and now we were going to live in it’s shade.
Mom had rented a bobcat that spring and the next weekend she and I cleared and burned the brush around that oak. I ordered installation of the power poles. I got on the well guy’s waiting list. The creation of a horse farm was under way.
We had thought maybe we could buy a double-wide mobile home in foreclosure on the cheap and discard it in a year or so and build a house. Have you ever walked into one of those? I wanted a shower. Like NOW! Forget that plan. No way, Jose’!
Ultimately, I designed a house with Palm Harbor, who happened to have a factory about a mile from where we were living in Fort Worth. That proved challenging enough with an energetic kid that was getting pretty mobile on my hip-or more accurately-crawling under an office desk trying to stick his fingers in an electrical outlet or some other leprechaun-like mischief. I made some design mistakes. I got some things right. We got a brand new home, free of cooties.
July 10, 2005 with a hurricane blowing into the Gulf and a ten-month old red-headed kid in the back seat, we loaded our furniture into the horse trailer and pulled onto I-35 headed south to meet our new home under the oak tree. The day before the well guy had called to say he would be a few days late. An old client had called him in a panic. His well was out. His horses needed water, it had to be dealt with.
“His horses need water??? Mine, however, are camels, I suppose, and will do just fine until you decide to show up.” I thought.
He did show up, though. I will never forget watching the first water pump up out of that well and how cool and sweet it tasted. It isn’t far down the list of pivotal moments in my life; our wedding, the birth of our son and water flowing from that well. The flood of emotions that overwhelmed me belied the terror I had tried to ignore that there would be no water. I grew up in the desert. One thing I know is that water is a life-giving, life-affirming substance that has complete control of where and how we live-and we had it! By the time the hurricane dumped ten inches of rain on us, we were soundly sleeping on our first night in our new house with running water on tap. Water and rain-we were blessed from the start.
I have both hated and loved this house. Our plans to discard it never materialized. Instead, when I thought I could not bear living in it one more day, I waited until Jeff was gone and ripped the carpet out of a room. He came home and groaned.
“Then build me a new house.” I said.
“What color do you want to paint the walls in here?” he replied.
That’s how it began. Room by room we built our house within what we had. Our first attempts were not very good, but we learned and got better tools and the product improved. Walls came down. Walls went up. Cabinets went out. Shelves came in. Pinterest and I had a love affair that impregnated me with all sorts of ideas Jeff took on and raised like bastard children; at first with annoyance and later, as they became his, with affection.
In case we were to become over-confident in our control over our house and our lives, God would remind us how powerless we truly are. It had taken us three years, but we had recreated every room in the house. I had just embarked on a major landscaping facelift in the front yard and all that remained between us and a “new” house was to paint the exterior and convert the porch from carpenter’s shed back to a porch.
We worked on a ranch near Gonzales that day in May, on the east side of the Guadalupe River. Rains had been heavy for over a week and the river was flooded when we crossed it that morning and it was forecast to crest far out of its banks later in the day. It was hot and humid. The wind blew hard all day. The sky had an ugly, unusual, yellow overcast. It made me anxious.
2015-05-25 18.53.22 Photo credit to my neighbor, Laura Gordon, who took this photo of the tornado as it moved away from our house
We had just returned home, crossing back over the river, which by then was as high as I had ever seen it, when my mom called to tell us she could see circulation in the clouds over our house. I leaned against the sliding glass door in the bedroom to peer out at the weather and the entire sheet of glass ballooned away from the frame. I ran to the front door to call in the dogs and saw a tree flying sideways.
We had just installed an antique cast-iron claw-foot tub in the back bathroom, which is in the center of the house. I threw the kid in it and laid down on top of him. The storm roared. Jeff stood under the door frame.
Quinten wailed, “Mom, I don’t want to die!”. I’m still not sure if it was the storm he found life-threatening or the weight of his mother laying on top of him in a very small bath tub. Then, like a train moving away down the tracks, the roaring faded off to the east and was gone.
The oak tree was standing, though sorely wounded with giant branches near its heart broken away. The house was standing. The porches were gone. The roof was gone. The mesquite thicket we had lived in for ten years was flattened. Life was different. Tornadoes do that.
Our lives could have ended the day of the tornado, or could have taken a drastic turn for the worse. Thanks to our sturdy little hated and loved and re-made house, we were safe. Thanks to a wonderful insurance agency and our dear friend, Martin Saldivar and his SK Construction company, our house evolved from the drab cabin in the woods to a Coastal Plains beauty, full of character and Southern charm.
The oak re-grew it’s branches and still stands tall and shady. The thicket is gone and not missed. Wildflowers grow in its place and the horses graze in front of the house now.
Martin devised an ingenious way to replace the porches and roof with a gorgeous standing-seam metal roof that secured the house to the earth more firmly than any site-built home. Two years later, when Hurricane Harvey devastated the Texas coast, our house not only stood strong against hurricane force winds as the eye of the storm came within twenty miles of us before turning back on its tracks then slowly northward to inundate Houston, it was the refuge for our neighbors as well, who took shelter with us for the duration. It shuddered against the winds occasionally when a particularly hard gust would hit, but it sort of felt like the house was laughing and playing with the wind. This house was going nowhere.
Thanks to Martin’s ingenuity and skill, this house cannot and will now never leave this farm, and I’m okay with that.
Perhaps Graham Nash did have it right…
Our house is a very, very, very fine house