Not My Home
At 62, Trisha Kostis looks back at all the homes she's loved and lost, including her most recent one.
I am moving again, against my will, at the age of 62. This will be my fourteenth move since leaving my family home in 1978, at age 18. That house, built by my parents, and occupied by my sisters and I until we achieved adulthood, represented permanence, like an ancient ruin. Yet somehow, I have failed to gain a foothold on a plot of land for longer than a few years at a time. As with the last three fine dwellings I’ve rented, this house that I have styled with elegance and flair for the past three years is about to be sold out from under me.
Before signing the lease for this cottage with a fireplace and charming archways, I told the landlady my intention was to remain until my retirement. After her emphatic reassurances, I signed. Seven years short of collecting my first social security check, she changed her mind. Perhaps I look older than I think.
Somehow, I have failed to gain a foothold on a plot of land for longer than a few years at a time. As with the last three fine dwellings I’ve rented, this house that I have styled with elegance and flair for the past three years is about to be sold out from under me.
In 1950, my parents built our family home in Trenton, New Jersey, and paid off a mortgage in less than a decade. There they remained until retiring to Florida. Raised as strict Catholics, we understood that the road from our parents’ house to our own homes went straight through marriageville. We didn’t talk about options for a young single woman.
The concept of owning a home seemed futuristic, like driver-less cars. A rental apartment seemed like the logical conveyor belt between what I hoped would be my wild twenties and a more settled thirties. Having just dipped my toes into the unglamorous side of the restaurant industry as a waitress, I was not in a position financially to rent an apartment on my own. I persuaded two of my co-workers from the Colonial Diner to join me in this adventure, and we moved into a freshly painted two-bedroom apartment by the Delaware River.
The day I broke the news to my mother of my flight to freedom, she narrowed her eyes behind her dark, severe glasses and proclaimed, yet again, what a disappointment I was to both her and God. It was clear she thought herself to be the more wronged party of the two.
For six months, my roommates and I played Springsteen’s Greetings from Asbury Park every morning and evening, drank Mimosa’s at 9:30 am on Wednesday and Saturday, and left our dirty clothes and wet towels wherever we dropped them. I was dating a chef ten years older than me and because we both had roommates, we resorted to awkward, twisty sex in his VW convertible Bug. Sometimes we had a condom. Sometimes I got my diaphragm in correctly.
Raised as strict Catholics, we understood that the road from our parents’ house to our own homes went straight through marriageville. We didn’t talk about options for a young single woman.
I announced my pregnancy to my parents when I could no longer use the diner’s banana cream pie as an excuse for my weight gain.
“Are you gonna marry him?” my father demanded.
“No! I hardly know him!”
“You misunderstand. This is not a question.”
“I don’t love him!”
“Do you love being part of this family?”
“Not right this minute.”
They had leverage. If this union failed, I might need my old bedroom back.
My betrothed agreed to an elopement in a tiny town in Virginia where we were joined in holy matrimony by the 89-year-old city clerk-cum-Justice of the Peace-cum-preacher. Our reception at the Golden Arches featured the mighty Filet-O-Fish sandwiches and fried apple wedding pie.
We lived together in a two-bedroom apartment with his hirsute and odorous cousin and our newborn son until his gambling addiction caught us short on rent one time too many. The eviction was a traumatic experience, leaving me with shame compounded by bad credit. Out of desperation, we moved into an apartment with a hideous red and yellow foam carpet and the most terrifying basement since The Silence of the Lambs. We lived there for six years, until we divorced. When my dad helped me move out, he said “I can’t believe you lived like such pigs.”
The eviction was a traumatic experience, leaving me with shame compounded by bad credit.
I remained in New Jersey for several more rentals, not dreaming about home ownership but rather imagining an actual life starting somewhere new, with possibilities. In the early 1990s, Seattle was still affordable and flush with new restaurants offering limitless opportunities. With discipline, I could save enough for a down payment and secure a small but perfectly suitable little house. I had no such discipline. I had a 10-year-old son, a robust drinking problem, and a long delayed teenage rebellious streak emerging that did not allow for thrift or foresight.
With my 10-year-old son and $4000, I drove across the country. We quickly found a 500-square-foot apartment to rent in the north end of Seattle. I coveted the houses in the neighborhood, convinced of the idyllic lives of their inhabitants, the couple in the gray Craftsman surely the IRL incarnation of Michael and Hope Steadman from thirtysomething. I wanted that house. I wanted that life.
We bounced around from one too expensive rental to another every few years. An elegant and historic building in the central district, a mid-century modern in Ballard; all of them gone now, replaced with Chernobyl style abominations.
I coveted the houses in the neighborhood, convinced of the idyllic lives of their inhabitants, the couple in the gray Craftsman surely the IRL incarnation of Michael and Hope Steadman from thirtysomething. I wanted that house. I wanted that life.
Having transitioned from serving to cooking, I was earning a salary that allowed me to pay bills, but l could not save. In my early forties, I showed no evidence of adulthood, no proof of respectability. Families from my son’s high school owned funky bungalows that bordered the schoolyard like a colorful scarf. Their yards were big enough to provide a forested terrain for raucous paint ball battles. Renters don’t really become part of long-established neighborhoods. We existed on the periphery, like the dirt ring left in the tub after a bath.
I went to work as a private chef for a wealthy couple who owned a profitable mortgage company right up until the financial crisis of 2008, which devastated their business and cost me my job. The small 401K that I took with me was quickly exhausted while I fruitlessly sought employment in an extremely competitive field. I accepted catering jobs and waited for Bill Gates to respond to my resumes, until my sister in Florida called to inform me that mom had “gotten much worse” and that she needed help. We had watched the tortuous progression of dementia in our mother for several years but now it had accelerated, and my father could no longer manage alone.
What better time to go to Florida?
I accepted the temporary and unpaid job of companion to my mother. My parents’ home in Florida was built from the blueprint of a fantasy retirement beach cottage that mom carried in her brain for decades. Situated one block from the beach, it had been my vacation destination for many years. When I arrived, Mom was unable to speak a coherent sentence or remember my name. I was prepared to devote myself fully to this gig for three months and provide my dad some relief, but mom had a stroke after just a few weeks and died ten anguished days later in a nursing home. My father, her husband of 65 years, sat on a wooden chair in the corner of her room, inconsolable and weeping openly for only the second time in my life. There was no way I could leave him.
Renters don’t really become part of long-established neighborhoods. We existed on the periphery, like the dirt ring left in the tub after a bath.
It wasn’t long before all the dementia “tells” became evident in my dad, too. I thought I could do it, stay with him in that house and take care of him as the disease pulled him apart, brick by brick but after 18 months, I was shattered. From Seattle, news had just come that my first grandchild was on the way. I was about to turn 51. I had to get back home before I became as unrecognizable to myself as I was to my father.
We moved dad to an assisted living community and I briefly considered keeping my parents' house in Florida as a rental property that I might manage from across the country until my retirement. But penciled out on paper, the numbers refused to bend to my will.
When dad died, there was some money left. For the first time in my life, I had enough for a down payment on a very small house. Again, I ran the numbers. Mortgage, maintenance, the relentless cost of replacing and renovating, and the unimaginable expense of outsourcing everything that required skills I did not possess made the buying part of a home seem more attainable than the maintaining part.
It logically followed that a woman alone in her fifties should stuff the only inheritance she would ever receive into a retirement account, where it could not be touched without steep penalties. It took discipline, but I did it.
Two rentals and 11 years later, I am tired and sore and too cranky to think about spackling and painting someone else’s walls again. I’ve downsized so many times I could live in a dollhouse. With each new move, I’ve lost mini quiche pans, cookie cutters, wooly sweaters, and precious things that I can’t bring myself to replace. I mourn it all.
I’ve dragged my regret and shame along to each new address, feeling like an imposter at adulthood.
Living in someone else’s home always made me feel like an intruder. Each iteration of the final walk through, where the place I’ve called home is assessed for any damages and I am penalized for every coffee stain and broken shitty blind, feels like a penance. I’ve dragged my regret and shame along to each new address, feeling like an imposter at adulthood. I have no assets, no equity, nothing to bequeath to my loved ones other than an awesome super automatic espresso machine and some late-to-the-party Bitcoin.
I’m not sure where I will land next. My soon-to-be ex-landlord suggested I consider buying this house. They plan to list it for $900,000.00. I love that they think I could.