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A House Brought Back to Life

Monday, June 13, 2022

By Rachel Levy Lesser

My father has lived at the same address for over 75 years. In 1967, my grandparents sold my father’s childhood home, built a new mid-century home on the field next door, and moved into it with both their early 20th century antiques and their address. I still don’t understand this, but they got the rest of the neighbors to change their addresses so they could keep theirs.

My grandfather built the new house. When I was little, I imagined him laying each pink Georgian brick. It seems funny now that I thought the slim, six-foot-four, gray-haired gentleman with large, black, 1960s-style eyeglasses, high-waisted dress pants, and a sport coat built the whole house with his bare hands. I eventually learned the difference between designing and building.

My grandfather planned that house in great detail: high bathroom countertops, a six-foot long bathtub upstairs that he could comfortably fit in, a single living/dining room wall made from the wood of a tree from Oregon, a secret channel from the living room bar to the kitchen, a delivery closet by the side door also accessible through the garage, a hidden closet off an upstairs bedroom, a laundry chute in that same bedroom, and a very large kitchen. He was a forward-thinking man (or so I was told).

My grandfather died in 1978, and my grandmother did not want to live in the house alone, even with the in-home art studio built specifically for her, complete with a sink, projector slide, and oversize bins to store her paintings. She moved to New York City to be closer to all things art and culture. I moved into the house with my brother and parents in 1981.

My mother made that house ours. She purchased several stools so her young kids could reach the high bathroom countertops. She converted the A-frame attic into our playroom with a ping pong table and school and sports banners. My bedroom was the room with the hidden walk-in closet, where I kept my dollhouse and stuffed animals. The laundry chute was also in my room, and my brother and I spent way too much time throwing said stuffed animals down the chute, amazed they always arrived safely in the laundry room. My brother took up residence in my grandmother’s old art studio, using the bins for his books, baseball hats, and backpacks. The secret delivery closet was where we hid the spare key in an old metal band-aid box, though not so secret to most everyone we knew.

I loved growing up in that house. I felt safe and happy there, and my friends were always over to hang out and explore the cool things in it. My mother loved that house too. When I was a teenager she told me she initially was scared to move in because she thought she would see ghosts of my grandparents. She didn’t want to step on my grandmother’s toes by changing things in the house. That could not have been further from the truth.

My grandmother complimented my mother about any change or update she made, including ripping up the hallway carpet to reveal the pegged wood floors beneath it and adding walls, windows, and a sloping roof with skylights to the back patio to serve as a family room. We called it the porch. My mother took great care of the house and great pride in it as well. Every room showcased her colorful country signature style, and family photos adorned the baby grand piano in the living room. She planted flowers out front by the mailbox every spring and picked up every stray branch after a storm.

My mom got sick in 1998. She died in 2004. My father only very recently told me that once my mother became ill, she gave up investing time and energy into the house. She focused on getting well and taking care of herself, and my father tried to do the same. My father still lives in the house. When I run into people I haven’t seen in a while, they usually ask, “how’s your dad?” followed by “is he still in the house?” Most are surprised to learn he still is. I am not surprised at all. He flirted with selling it several times over the years and even had a few offers, but I don’t think he ever seriously considered it.

If my math is correct, the house has not been properly cared for in nearly 25 years. Last spring, when my father came back to the house after spending the winter in Florida, it seemed the house was finally crying for attention once again. I picked up my dad and his girlfriend, whom I call his sort-of wife, at the airport. I set them up years ago with the help of two other friends. The friends and I regularly report to each other that the set-up was the best thing we ever did. His sort-of wife has lived in the house with him for years, and I sometimes wondered why she never wanted to fix it up. She would eventually tell me that she was respectful of it being his house.

I drove them to the house from the airport only to discover that both the side door and front door were warped shut. When we made it inside we saw large leaks in parts of the roof throughout the kitchen, upstairs guest bath, and porch. The old tube TV in the porch, where I watched all the sitcoms and soaps growing up, was soaking wet.

I started to inspect the house. Many of the kitchen cabinets were warped, the kitchen floor looked buckled in parts, and the paint on the walls was cracking. The yard was a mess. The gutters were clogged, the bricks in the front walk were wobbly, and the six-foot hedge around the side yard was overgrown. I stood outside talking (out loud!) to my long-gone mother about the state of the house. “Mom, you would not like this—not one bit,” I said, waving to a neighbor who looked twice at the crazy lady talking to her dead mother in the driveway.

I don’t want to think about the number of hours I spent alone in that house over the last few months. I couldn’t seem to tear myself away.

I went to my own house 20 minutes away that night and reported to my husband that my once beautiful childhood home had turned into Grey Gardens. He laughed and assured me it couldn’t have been that bad. I wasn’t so sure, but like my father’s sort-of wife, I didn’t want to push my father on this. How do you tell an 80-year-old man that his beloved family house, that his own father built, is falling apart?

Turns out, I didn’t need to. My father called me a few days later to ask for the information for the contractor who had recently re-done my kitchen. I am, if nothing else, most certainly my mother’s daughter, taking great pride in my own house: decorating it, making sure it is up-to-date inside and outside. When old friends come to my house, they tell me that they see my mother in it everywhere. I do too.

My father needed a new roof, gutters, and front door. He needed major landscaping work. He initiated the meeting with the contractor. It went well, so much so that he asked me about redoing his kitchen. I couldn’t believe it. He was so impressed with how my kitchen had turned out that he wanted to follow suit. Our team, as I soon came to call it, imagining that we could have our own HGTV show — Dad Daughter Design? — got to work right away.

Strike while the iron is hot, I kept telling myself. And also, don’t push.

Last summer and fall, the roof and gutters were replaced. The grass was mowed, the walkway fixed, the hedge trimmed back, and the porch was demolished after being declared structurally unsound. The glass sliding doors on the wall of the living room actually looked better without the porch walls blocking the view of the house next door. The Dad Daughter Design team picked out new drapes, paint colors, furniture, flooring, a front door, and more. I really couldn’t believe all that my dad was willing–and wanted–to do.

This past winter when the snowbirds flew to Florida, I took over the fake design show along with a real designer and a contractor. I promised my dad I would clean out the kitchen before the demo, knowing it was too big of a job for him.

I don’t want to think about the number of hours I spent alone in that house over the last few months. I couldn’t seem to tear myself away. Once I started going through the items in the kitchen, the dining room, the upstairs den and more, I couldn’t stop. Cleaning out the house in preparation for the work being done on it became somewhat of a meditative practice for me.

I found a drawer full of corn holders, remembering countless family dinners in the late summer at the wobbly antique table where we had hamburgers, corn, and tomatoes, followed by Carvel ice cream bars. I packed away the small juice glasses, the large coffee mugs, and the sharp knives we were taught to stay away from as kids. I browsed through endless stacks of papers, tossing many of them as I texted my father that he no longer needed doctor visit summaries from 2008. I found a few treasures in a collection of campaign buttons dating back to Eisenhower and New York Times issues with cover stories of President Kennedy.

As the real work started on the house, I could see (and feel!) it coming back to life. This was perhaps my favorite part of the process, imagining I was starring in my own Design On A Dime, my favorite HGTV show. I dug out pillows and throws from the attic playroom and found a home for them downstairs. I hung my grandmother’s old oil paintings in the living room and her watercolors in the dining room and first floor bedroom. I even displayed updated family photos on the piano.

I spoke to my mother once again, explaining what I was doing. “I think it looks good, Mom. More modern than your style, but good.” No response. I even spoke to my grandfather, assuring him that the giant wooden wall in the living room had held up quite nicely, as had the surrounding plaster walls and grasscloth wallpaper in the hallway, still original and in decent shape.

One night after reporting to my husband on all I had accomplished that day, he gave me a big hug and kissed my forehead, declaring me the president of the historical preservation society of my dad’s house. I laughed and told him I would consider adding that title to my LinkedIn profile. My husband wondered why I spent so much time at the house when I had other responsibilities and work projects.

I think a part of me felt guilty for not having taken action earlier, for letting the once beautiful house turn into Grey Gardens. What I’ve come to understand more recently is that it was never up to me. It wasn’t up to my brother or my father’s sort-of wife or anyone else. It was up to my father. He had to want to do this. He had to be motivated and find the strength to do it. And somehow, he did.

My father was happy again. He is happy again. It took him a long time to get there. I give a lot of credit to his sort-of wife for this happiness, but also a lot of credit to him. In his own way, and on his own time, he has overcome the devastating loss of my mom and the blow of several unforeseen health crises.

But now my dad is back and his beloved house is too.


Rachel Levy Lesser is the author of Life’s Accessories, A Memoir (And Fashion Guide). Her work has appeared in the Huffington Post, Glamour, Parenting, Modern Loss, Kveller, and more. When not writing, Rachel can be found baking, as she hosts a show on A Mighty Blaze where she interviews cookbook authors and bakes along with them in her home kitchen. (She still lets her teenage kids lick the bowl.) Rachel is also forever practicing yoga, knitting scarves and wearing them, indoors.