Sunday, March 29, 2009

House Stories: Flipping the Grandparents' House

House Stories is a collection of personal narratives, a teaching experiment in History of Domestic Architecture (Wesleyan ARTS 637). See Introduction, and Table of Contents.


By Matt Strekel

Growing up, there was nothing remarkable about my grandparent’s house in Colchester, CT. They had moved there in 1981 just before I was born from South Windsor, CT. It was a simple house. A raised ranch, built in the late 1970’s, with plans and materials from a Sears store. Mint green vinyl siding clad the house, white vinyl faux-shutters on either side of each window. Nothing, I promise, remarkable about it. The house sits on a little less than four acres, set back far from route 16. My grandmother was passionate about birds and other wildlife. Heading down the driveway always meant seeing deer, fox, and many birds. There were purple martin birdhouses in the front yard, a bat house, and around the back, more birdfeeders and suet cages than you could count.

The inside of the house was certainly remarkable, but not in a good way. My grandparents had owned a travel agency in Colchester after their retirement, and they had traveled all over the world. As part of their travels, my grandmother would bring home wallpaper from Japan and Egypt, and fabric from Panama and Chile. Each wall in the entire house was covered in a different pattern, but brought together through a common color. My grandfather laid the carpet by himself, which means that the floors creaked, and little padding was left between the thin carpet and plywood floor.
My grandmother passed away on April 4, 2004 at 4:04 a.m. (should would have really gotten a thrill about passing away at a date and time that was all 4’s). My grandfather lived for a few years without her, but despite his tough exterior, was very sad and alone without her. Nearly seventy years of marriage is hard to just forget about, and it was hard for him to begin living on his own.

On a Sunday in August 2007, my brother, uncle, and I went to take my grandfather to lunch. It had become a ritual to take him to, what for him, was an early dinner once a month. When my brother and I arrived, my uncle was in the garden, picking through cucumbers and tomatoes that were ripe. The door to the house was locked, which we assumed meant that gramps was in the shower. Not unusual for him to lock the front door until he was ready to go. After about half an hour in the garden, and no sign of my grandfather, we entered the house through the garage and up through the basement. My brother walked up the stairs first, and upon reaching the top, found my grandfather dead on the kitchen floor. He had passed away while washing the dishes, sponge still in hand. I tell you this story not because of my grandparents or to relive fond memories, but about what role that house played for me after his death.

At the same time that we were dealing with his death, I was going through my own tribulation. I was divorcing from my ex-wife, and the opportunity presented itself to move in to my grandparent’s home to “flip it” before we sold it as part of his estate. I had extensive experience flipping entire homes in the Boston area, and it seemed to be a great time to do it. My grandfather was a tough and hard man, and there were few times when his true emotions for both his sons and his grandsons would show through. But we knew that he loved us. Flipping this home was my way of honoring his memory and doing the best that I could to make him proud. One last tribute I suppose.

About twenty-five years in the same house meant that they had accumulated lots of possessions. I was responsible for going through everything that had belonged to them. It should also be noted that I was not yet working at Wesleyan, and flipping this house was my full-time job. I spent a month, full time, going through their life. Slowly but surely things went in to boxes, off with relatives, or in to the basement to be sold at an estate sale. After moving their life in to boxes and selling it off, it was time to start on the house. Peeling wallpaper that had traveled halfway around the world and then painting the walls. For me, it was a job. For them, it was a memory whenever they looked at those God-awful patterns. As I spent nearly 16 hours a day, 6 days a week working on this house, there was lots of time for me to think about them. About growing up with them, spending nights in that house when my parents were away, dinners, Christmas Eve’s, and more. I have always believed that there is little use in associating a person or a memory with a physical object, and that the memory of that person is inside you, not the thing. For me, it was my way of saying goodbye, saying I loved them, and saying that they were wonderful people by fixing up this house. Room by room, I tore off wallpaper, painted, pulled up carpet, laid new carpet, replaced light fixtures and electrical outlets, installed tile and new plumbing, hung new cabinets, and brought in new appliances.

This house was more than a piece of real estate. It was part of my family, held many memories, and was my quiet way of honoring my grandparents. Shortly after finishing my work in the house, I started working at Wesleyan. I lived there for a while after I started working at Wes, while the house was on the market. We sold the house in an awful market; for $80,000 more than had we not flipped the house. I have no doubt that my grandparents were with me the entire time, checking in on my work, encouraging me, and making sure that I was safe and that we got the best price for their home. It was not always easy, but for me now and always, there will be something remarkable about that house.

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