My wife and I wanted to join our extended family together. As my wife’s parents grew older, they needed more help. My mother-in-law, Nana, struggled opening wide mouth pill bottles, of which there were many. Climbing stairs became difficult and soon impossible even with my father-in-law’s help.
The rest of the family included my wife’s and my three children and two large but happy bumbling golden retrievers, Copper and Taffy. Our goldens tried to help, but their support remained limited to the emotional. We needed a home where we could all live with, and get along with, and maybe escape from, each other.
Fortunately, my wife acquired great powers of observation by scouring neighborhoods looking for the right house. She could sense houses that would soon be coming on the market. Fresh paint, or new windows showed that someone intended to sell soon. Like Dorothy from the wizard of oz having to complete an impossible task of collecting that broomstick, my wife focused on minimum standards for the house such as a double driveway for all of the cars and a straight staircase for the wheelchair lift for Nana. And enough square footage that everyone could carve out their own separate space.
We chanced upon a lovely 1912-character home that could accommodate all our needs. The Kelly Brothers constructed the 4600 square foot, red brick, three-story beaux art style home for soon to be senator Benard. The same Kelly Brothers built the Manitoba legislature, defrauded the government, and caused the downfall of the reigning party. So, the house started off with a bit of ‘bad boy’ type of upbringing.
Once we found the home, the love of my life did grab me by the lapels and told me she wanted this house. Since I am lawyer, I immediately did the necessary due diligence and offered cash even though we needed a mortgage. I scoffed at the need for an inspection since with a character home, problems are to be expected and what problem could not be fixed by simply leaving a box of money out on the portico for the endless troop of contractors.
With a character home you retain the exterior and the interior. The wiring, plumbing and the completely random insulation material in between those two walls need replacement.
Nana and her husband warmed to becoming a hamburger family where they played the bottom bun, the kids took the top bun meaning all of the third floor, while my wife and I essentially formed the meat in the middle. Copper and Taffy became the relish and mustard.
Character homes retain their own nature and personalities, and you ignore them at your peril. The boiler rates its own room along with a moat. Any fixture that comes with a moat deserves extra care and attention.
After joining families and furniture, we joined familiar routines. Grandpa excelled in getting the kids to school and picking them up. My flexible schedule allowed me to do more of the procurement and cooking. Nana’s extensive pill regime required a clocklike 6:15 dinnertime.
My cooking talents aligned with the Swanson’s TV tray style of cooking. I ensured a slot for protein, a slot for carbohydrates, and a slot for vegetables. During one holiday preparation, my father-in-law wheeled Nana backwards through the kitchen to the lift at the back staircase. During that brief 10 second tour, she managed to list 10 different spices and steps to get that perfect turkey. My father-in-law smiled quickly, but he didn’t slow down either and up the lift she went. I picked up my cooking game and incorporated most of her suggestions.
Of course, my wife and mother-in-law had not lived in the same house for the past 22 years, so I quietly observed the power dynamic shift. Except for when I had to step in front of the proverbial unstoppable force meeting the immovable object. I always imagined myself flying through the air, parallel to the ground, arms outstretched, in slow motion while yelling ‘noooooo’! Also, the house provided 4600 square feet of emotional space. Important safety tip for anyone considering this arrangement.
Copper and Taffy became highly protective of Nana. They would come in and lie down with their heads towards the door and their horse size rears facing Nana. If the dogs had gaseous episodes, her respite involved turning up the fan higher.
Our kids camped on the third floor where the servants used to live. That notion did not rub off on any of the children. But they did regale Nana with all of their latest soccer, football, rugby scores cross country race times. This became the best part of her day.
As kids started to age out of the house, the next one vied to get the largest room and repaint it to claim it as their own. When they boomeranged home, the chagrined returners became relegated to the smaller rooms.
The home’s Tyndall stone front steps finally started to crack, and one smart blow with a sledgehammer collapsed it. We replaced the steps with a comparable pressed concrete. We intended to have our eldest son and daughter-in-law married on the steps that summer. The ceremony started along with the rain, so we pushed everyone inside. We moved two family’s worth of furniture against the oak paneled trim in the living room and squeezed all 60 people somewhere inside. The steps did not have their moment of glory. But we do have two more children.
For the house, there were some firsts, and some lasts. Nana could shuffle slightly to the next room. I was down the hall when I saw her catch her foot ever so slightly and fall. I held her till the ambulance came. She spent her last days in the hospital then.
My father-in-law still lives with us. He prudently gave up his car a year ago, so now we drive him around. Having a parent give up part of their freedom that they have had for more than 75 years can be tough. Digging through the basement archives, I found a photo of him in his flight suit standing in front of his sabre jet. We keep the photo in the front hall as a reminder that we all came from somewhere.
After COVID struck, we grounded him to the house. After getting his dual vaccinations, he became the typical teenager with a driver’s license wanting to cruise the world. But until that time comes, he cruises the world on his desktop.
We still have two golden retrievers, Maguire and Seamus now, but all of the children moved out. I took over the third floor for my COVID office. My fortress of solitude.
The character home fulfilled our purpose of joining our families physically and emotionally, but the home needs to re-fulfill its own purpose of being full of life.
No one truly ‘owns’ a character home due to the permanent nature of such a home and the ephemeral nature of owners. Some people and pets have now come and gone, but the character home that brought us together remains for the next generation.
We hope one of our kids kept notes for any new potential family joining.