One evening last week, my son, Jimmy, and I were playing Scrabble in the family room. “Do you hear that?” I asked.
“Do you think it’s---“
“Sounds like it,” he said.
The scratching noise on the other side of the basement door continued while we finished our game. The door is on a wall next to our kitchen and is the only way in and out of our concrete basement. When I finally eased it open a crack, I screamed and quickly closed it. A skunk was sitting on the top step.
It wasn’t the first time we’d had skunk in our basement. Five years earlier, we’d had three of them down there. Our crawl space ends with a six foot drop to the floor, and three skunk/lemming hybrids had walked right off the edge only to find that they couldn’t get back. They, too, had scratched on the door, scarring it with their claws.
Dan, the critter man, had come and boldly gone where none of us dared go to set a trap with a tranquilizer hidden in a ball of food. When he’d returned the next day, we got the good news/bad news report. The good news was, he wouldn't have to carry a skunk in a cage through my home. The bad news was, they were all still loose in our basement.
I don’t know whose brainstorm it was, but finally a plank was positioned so they could walk from the basement to the crawl space and out of our lives. We could do the plank thing again as soon as the skunk left the steps, but before that could happen, things took a nasty turn.
I was getting ready for church around 9:00 last Sunday morning when I smelled skunk. It was intense and got worse fast. Then, Jim called me into his room and asked if I smelled the other foul odor in the air. It was a different bad, but too mixed with skunk to identify. And, oh yeah, had I heard the commotion in the attic over his bedroom the night before? He described thumping and clawing and screeching noises that went on for several minutes. I hadn’t heard a thing from my upstairs bedroom.
Church was out of the question since we smelled like skunk, so we stayed home to air out the house, and thank goodness we did because it wasn’t long before Jimmy called me back to his room to show me the blood that was dripping from his tongue and groove ceiling. Forget loosening,, heart strings were snapping with each gagging breath I took..
I called Dan, the critter man, and told him what was happening. He joked that even Steven King wouldn’t want any part of this, but quickly came to our rescue. He searched the basement, but couldn’t find skunk anywhere and reasoned it must have gone from the top step to a nearby beam and back to the crawl space.
But he’d found something else worth mentioning. The skunk hadn’t been able to go to the basement floor because the sump pump wasn’t working and there was about two feet of water down there. Additionally, it was rigged with no ground wire and in his opinion, was an electrocution and fire hazard. Swell.
He was aggravated that none of the measures he had recommended the last time we had skunks had been applied. Things like attaching a wire mesh barricade so nothing could fall into the basement again. Or properly screening crawl space access so nothing could get under the house. I told him I would have seen to it if he’d given me the instructions and assured him that I’d see to it now.
Once he’d removed the plywood that serves as a door to our attic, we all knew where the putrid odor was coming from. Something had died up there and he could see it wedged in a space about six inches high between the attic floor and downstairs ceiling.
He grabbed a Skilsaw from his truck and he and Jimmy went back into the attic. They would have to cut away wood to reach the dead critter. When my son emerged, he was carrying a plastic trash bag with a skunk in it. Somehow, an animal not known for its climbing prowess had made its way from the basement to the attic and into a six inch space where it had impaled itself on a nail or screw and writhed to death on the ceiling above my son’s room. Heroically, the next day Jimmy went back into the attic with a bucket of bleach water and a brush and scrubbed what was left of the skunk from the boards.
Mild weather has allowed us to air out the house these last few days, and as I write this, an ozone generator in my son’s room and another in the attic, are doing their best to rid us of two of the most noxious odors on earth.
It’s still possible that the judge will award me this property, but no matter. I may choose to go even if I can stay. One of my sons and his wife and children are here, but I have children and grandchildren in Texas whom I love and miss. One of my daughters is headed to New Hampshire in the fall, and the other will be in the Portland area. Jimmy’s not sure what he’ll do next, and I’m still raising a cat and dog (though I refuse to homeschool them).
While I was fretting over leaving here, I told my three youngest that I felt like I needed to stay so they had a home base until they were finished with college. One of my daughter’s answered, “Don’t worry, Mom. Wherever you are is where our home base will be.”
Those are the heart strings that matter.
No house is without its problems, but a century old house has a century's worth of problems. As soon as my STBEx left, I began to realize how poorly maintained our property was. Add to that the normal wear and tear of time and use, and my children and I were bombarded with challenges.
First to act up was our dishwasher. Isn't the water supposed to stay inside the door? The kitchen sink leaked, the disposal ground to a halt, and the bathroom fan stopped working. Okay. Bad timing, but nothing out of the ordinary. Right? Then, an irrigation faucet broke and we had to cap a geyser. I felt a heart string loosen.. I love my home, but…
Winter rains came and washed a different set of problems our way. The not-so-handyman we’d hired to finish trimming the guest house had not properly sealed the two steps that led to the bathroom, and muddy water flowed down the sloped ground, under the steps, across the bathroom floor, and into the garage. Another heart string loosened. I love my home, but, but…
Hoping to warm our way through winter as inexpensively as possible, I bought two cords of wood, turned down the furnace, and fired up the wood stove. All was warm and well until the afternoon a cloud of smoke filled our home and coated everything with soot. The chimney sweep I hired said the wire cap at the top of the chimney was clogged and the whole works hadn't been properly cleaned in quite a while. I’m pretty sure that hadn’t been part of my job description in the past, but I added it to my new and growing list of chores.
Spring showers brought more seeping water, and another heart string loosened. I love my home, but, but, but…
Summertime equaled sunshine and baseball and swimming pool woes. Our pump quit working, but my daughters coaxed it back to life. The wood deck had long needed attention,, so we repaired loose and broken boards as best we could with my lady hammer and screwdrivers.
As Autumn follows summer, winter, too, will come, and winter 2013-14 brought record breaking cold. Heartless, bitter temperatures froze and cracked our well pump and burst several pipes. We were ten days without running water.
The day after our pipes were fixed, our 27 year old furnace died , and we dressed in layers and kept a round the clock wood stove vigil for 45 days. Installation of a new furnace required removing the attic door and cutting a larger opening. A promised new door never came, and a piece of plywood remains.. Next day, the wallpaper on our downstairs bathroom ceiling filled to bursting with water. Turns out, the furnace guys had jostled the condensation duct causing accumulated water to seep from the attic to the bathroom ceiling below. I was starting to feel picked on..
Again, heavy rains washed muddy water down the slope, through the guest house bathroom, and into the garage. According to my STBEx, the sump pump outlet had long had a habit of shorting out during the wet season. Gee, thanks for the better-late-than-never-I-suppose heads up. Another, and even another heart string loosened. I love my home, but, but, but, but...
Ceiling lights and fans stopped working, and a window pane never more than barely installed fell out and broke. The board we covered it with matches the pane where a snowball left a perfectly round hole. And for good measure, our washer and dryer gave out within a month of each other.
Okay, God, I see where you're going with this , but, but, but, but... I still love my home.
I love my home sweet home - a turn of the century Queen Anne farmhouse built on three gently sloping acres. Its front porch is gateway to a house that grew willy-nilly over the decades, which sort of explains why my daughters can only access their bedroom through the main downstairs bath. Built-ins and wood floors and french doors with skeleton keys are reminders of an era past..
Halfway up the drive, a one room guest house is tacked on to the back end of the garage, and across the way, over the fence, and through the grass, a playhouse with front porch and a mailbox of its own is tucked under a tree. My three youngest children made it their own for the years that such things mattered.
The original barn still stands, home to a barn owl who trades lodging in the second story hay loft for all the rodents it can eat. A smaller structure squats in the shadow of the barn - part chicken coop, part garden shed, and so ‘primitive’ that others would have bulldozed it if I hadn’t stood my ground.
To the south, a neighbor's vineyard borders our property, and I often sit in the gazebo next to our pool and gaze across rows and rows of grape vines to the verdant hills beyond. I do so love this place.
But, the path from love to covet can be a short one, so when my STBEx filed for divorce 2 years, 10 months, and some days ago, I knew what had to be done. I hadn't endured thirty difficult and lonely years for the sake of the people I love only to see it end by fighting over real estate. So, I loosened the first of many heart strings that bind me to my home and offered to sell it as part of our settlement. I included it in my first proposal, as well as my last, offered at our trial on January 16, 2015. We are still awaiting the judge’s ruling.
I've spent many a day and night wondering how God would prepare me to leave my home, but He finally, surely has, and like all of His plans, it’s a one-of-a-kind humdinger.
Here's how it began…
"I do not need a website."
"I think you do."
"What for? My book isn't even finished yet."
"So what. Don't you wanna reserve 'your name dot whatever' while it's still out there? Or would you rather wait until it's snapped up, then whine about it?"
"I hate you."
"Yeah, but you know I'm right. Now, quit being a baby and get yourself a website."
That's how I talked myself into creating KarenGrace.net, and both of us are glad I did. (Are you surprised to learn I'm a Gemini?)
I played with the site for several weeks, finding just the right photos, deciding what categories to include, and promised myself I would never write a blog. What a time waster, I reasoned, carrying on about things that no one wants to read . Blah, blah, this, and blah, blah, that.
Until one night, deeper in thought than sleep, I wrote my first post, and when I hit 'publish,' I felt slightly less invisible. The possibility that a complete stranger might read my words and think, Me too! brought a measure of solace to my soul.
The thing is though, blogging turns out to be harder than it seems. If you're working it properly, you've got to keep it current, write about what's 'trending,' and care about 'search engine optimization.'
What a bunch of bother. I've got a book to write, darn it!
But, I've also got a divorce to finish, and as it wears into its third year, I've found that it's trying to leave its stain on a story so dear to me that I must hide it away for a time in order to protect it.
I was twelve years old when I first began writing my book. Back then, it was mostly in my head, or jotted on pages of my secret notebooks, waiting for a better day; a day when I believed I could write something worth reading.
Now, I find that I've allowed thoughts of my Someday-to-be-Ex-Husband to infiltrate my story. I've written him as the nasty next-door neighbor who smells of beer and sweat. The uncle who pathologically keeps every piece of mail in its original envelope. Or the town creeper who sidles up beside the hand-locked couple out for their evening stroll.
And I say to that, "No siree! I'm the creator of this world, and you're not welcome in it!"
So, I've granted my characters rest for yet another season. I'll miss them, but it's for their own good. They were in danger of telling the wrong story.
Meanwhile, I'll be blah, blah, blahging along, and I don't care a whit about optimization strategies, 'cause I've got my own thoughts trending.
By Monday afternoon, we had our water back. By Monday evening, we had lost our heat. Early Christmas morning, I awoke to find that we had no water again, but - and this is a big but - I was able to prime the pump and get it flowing once more. Merry Christmas!
By Thursday morning, our hot water heater was no longer making hot water - something to do with the tank not being full enough to submerge the upper heating element. Luckily, we still get hot water from a separate tank out in our guest house, but it means trekking out there and back in the icy chill, sporting wet hair on the return trip.
Meanwhile, we keep our house barely above 60 degrees with a round the clock wood stove vigil. For the last 4 nights, I've slept on the couch so I can feed the fire every two hours, and that's where I'll stay until January when I have enough money to hire a handyman to come in and fix everything that can be fixed.
Update: January 13, 2014
Our furnace was 27 years old, which in furnace years turns out to be, well, dead. Thirty-five hundred dollars would have us back in heat and have me back upstairs in my bed instead of sleeping on the couch so I can feed the hungry fire all night, but short of my someone helping us out, or finding way more bottles and cans in the recycling container than I imagined, that isn't likely to happen.
My three kids, barely young adults, have taken it mostly in stride, There's been the occasional seethe and the amused wondering if someone has put a hex on our house, but all in all, they've been my heroes, and it breaks my heart to have them trapped in the chaos of my failure.
I fired my divorce attorney last week; I should have done it sooner. I hired him on advice from a counselor at church, but from the beginning there were red flags, starting with his 'modern chaos.' office decor. On my first visit, I saw boxes haphazardly stacked around the room and paintings leaned against walls as though he was just moving in, or maybe out. Trouble was, that never changed, but because I myself am a messy housekeeper, I didn't judge too harshly.
As the months drug on - eighteen of them, to be exact - his lack of housekeeping became the least of my worries. Days and sometimes weeks would pass without my phone calls being returned, and as my court date drew near, I began to feel desperate, irrelevant, and even invisible.
Finally, four days before we were due in court, with no case prepared that I was aware of, self-preservation made me pick up the phone and hire another attorney, one who I hope will be my advocate. The following morning, the judge granted a postponement of our court date.
I am now living for January 3, 2014.
Update: January 13, 2014
Another postponement. I am now living for February 11, 2014.
Update April 13, 2014
Another postponement. I am now living for August 29, 2014
A friend once told me that money is coined life. Those words reverberated in my mind the day I learned how little the last 30 years of my life might be worth. As I drove home, I tried to console myself with the knowledge that having raised and schooled my seven children was its own reward, but the truth stung like my welling tears; I had traded my life for theirs, and there is little coin to be had in that bargain.
I can't say when I first began to suspect that I was invisible, only that I have no memory of not feeling so. As a child, I was timid and self-conscious, fearful of embarrassing my parents or myself, so I stayed as quiet as possible and was relieved to go unnoticed. By the time I was in my teenage years, I had become an attractive girl, fair of face and figure, and not being noticed was no longer an option,. But while my physical-self received attention to spare, my soul-self remained always in the shadows.
My boyfriend loved me, of that I was sure, but never more than he loved his own dreams. When I married my first husband, he saw only the girl he wanted me to be, choosing to believe that I was ready to be married, in spite of my words to the contrary. Our brief relationship ended in divorce, but produced my first born son. I remarried, and at once began to pay the price of what scripture calls, 'being unequally yoked.' God help us all.
Six children soon followed, and it became easier to believe that I was a woman of substance, not shadow. Their interests became my interests, and their dreams, mine. Through the years, I rode their coat tails into the future, pretending that I had a life of my own and had not merely co-opted theirs.
And now, after 30 long and lonely years, my lifeless marriage is mercifully coming to an end, and I realize I have never been more than wallpaper; wallpaper against which all things more important have been arranged. My children, now grown, have moved on to more interesting backdrops, and my husband, well, he never did see the beauty of my pattern, and after years spent without protection from life's elements, it has all but faded away.