From across the street, the handsome, red-brick duplex in the historic district made a good impression. The three-bedroom home, built in 1907, looked sturdy enough to withstand most anything Mother Nature could throw her way; certainly more than a home with aluminum siding. The roof was ten years old and the water heater was brand new, but the age of the boiler was unknown at the time. The stone cellar didn’t leak and had never flooded, a huge plus in my mind. I knew all that before my tour of the home because my Uncle Jack, a master carpenter and builder, had schooled me on the important questions to ask before seeing any house, after I gave him my list of naive must-haves, all decorative.
I adored the charming courtyard at the back of the house that sat at the end of a narrow grassy area, and I fell in love with the old, gnarled grape vines shading a cement patio. The exterior of the duplex reminded me of our house in Provence, which I’d never got over selling after my divorce. Talk about sacred spaces. That property was truly magical. I loved living in France, which had been a long time dream.
The French house sat on a dirt road on one acre of land between two vineyards, with a pool and an orchard at the end of the property. I named the house, ‘La maison à côté des vignes’, the house next door to vineyards. I’d never named a house, which is quite common in Provence, and the little plaque on the mailbox proved to be quite handy as our road had no name. I was heartbroken when a single, French lawyer bought the home we’d lovingly redesigned, decorated, and enjoyed with mostly my blood, sweat, and heart, but c’est la vie. The attorney now lives next door to her brother, which is nice for them. After the sale, she kindly extended an open invitation–I could visit my home any time. I think she meant it. So you see, I had to love the West Virginia house; nothing less would do. I had to fall in love with the red brick duplex that would take most of my money to buy.
When the realtor opened the door, I couldn’t place the odor emanating from somewhere in the door jam. “Cat piss,” said the realtor scrunching her nose and pointing down. “They had cats.” Great. “A little Kilz will take care of that.” I didn’t know what Kilz was, but I was all for eradicating the smell from my world. I followed her inside. The acrid, lingering odor of cat urine and how to get rid of it loomed large in my dubious mind as we stepped into the living room.
In my mind, the West Virginia house already had two strikes against it with no wood-burning fireplace and the cat urine. However it had three major things going for it: it was an historic property; the owner was willing to agree to owner financing; and the sale price and yearly taxes were incredibly low (to me). I could buy the house by putting down a chunk of my half of the proceeds from the sale of the French house, which would keep my monthly payments at $500. I had to give this house serious attention and consideration.
I asked the realtor to allow me to tour the interior of the historic property alone because first impressions are important to me. I knew what I was looking for: hardwood floors, period features, and real wood doors with original door handles. My mental check list also included sash windows; a dry cellar, hopefully with a cement floor; and a large attic with cathedral ceilings, which I thought this house had because of the three small windows in the attic I’d spied from across the street. I went through each room, taking notes with no distractions or interruptions, sniffing inside two small closets and every corner, praying I wouldn’t detect any cat urine. Thankfully, I didn’t. I chalked it up to a highly pissed off, indoor cat making a statement to its’ owner, who had kicked it outdoors. Made sense to me.
I was very pleased with the inside. I discovered sash windows with hazy, original glass; wide floor boards; Southern pine steps under blue shag carpeting; original doors with beautiful brass handles; and as I suspected, an enormous attic with cathedral ceilings, plenty of light, and thick, beautiful, exposed oak beams. At that point, the only negative, which was a shame, was that the fireplace on the main level had been removed, but the brick chimney was still in the attic. Was a wood-burning fireplace still a possibility? Oh, and I discovered countless layers of old linoleum on the attic floor which were probably hiding asbestos…a minor problem if I removed it, right? My mind was already on the placement of my old furniture and antiques in each room. All the windows, doors, and door frames would need painting, and despite the linoleum flooring in the kitchen and utility room, the rest of the home had impeccable Southern pine floors under the carpeting, which I would immediately rip out. This house was perfect for me. I’d buy plenty of Kilz when I figured out what it was.
I met the realtor in the kitchen and asked my questions. Fireplace? A possibility. Asbestos? A definite possibility. “If you don’t mess with it, it won’t mess with you,” she offered. I made a mental note to call my cousin who works for EPA. This was my home. “About the cat piss…” Kilz, an odorless sealer for hiding stains and sealing odors, would do the trick. Done.
Two days later, I walked through the house as an artist and a writer. I’d set up my art studio in the front bedroom with the morning light and wasn’t sure where I would write. I decided to wait and see how the house felt before deciding where my writing desk would go. I bought the home. I spent March through June painting the kitchen, bathroom, and utility room with my sister and a friend, and the movers arrived on a glorious day in July. In August, much to my dismay, I discovered the smell of cat urine in the cellar, which I thought emanated from the cement floor in the stone cellar. I Kilzed it two times. I spent August through November unpacking, decorating, and enjoying wine under my grape arbor that I thought might yield enough Concord grapes to make a few bottles of red wine.
Well, it turned out my sacred space and perfect writing spot is at the dining room table, right smack in the middle of the house on the main level with a view of the flower garden. I’m quite happy with my quirky, charming home with the drafty windows. I have no savings and live frugally, but c’est la vie. I’m blessed to write full time and I smile most days. Do I still dream of living in France? Mais bien sûr!
The cat piss? Killz works wonders. By the following summer there was no trace of the previous cat. I swear by that stuff. Did we make wine? No, but every year, my neighbor makes two batches of her wonderful Concord grape jelly. Last year’s bounty yielded 25 small jars. The asbestos? When I win the lottery, I’ll call the EPA people to come out and remove the sheets of linoleum in the attic. So for now, if you see me glowing, you’ll know why.
Note from the author: A year after we sold the French house, I discovered two previous owners. Like us, long-time married couples, they’d divorced after buying the house. Years later, I read that water flowing under any home is a sure sign of marital disaster. I hope the French attorney remains single.
Puerto Rican novelist, Eleanor Parker Sapia, was raised in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Europe. Eleanor’s careers as an artist, counselor, alternative health practitioner, Spanish language family support worker and a refugee case worker, inspire her stories.
‘A Decent Woman‘, Eleanor’s debut novel, set in turn of the nineteenth century Puerto Rico, was selected as 2015 July Book of the Month for Las Comadres & Friends National Latino Book Club, and is listed in Centro Voices, The Center of Puerto Rican Studies, ‘Essential Boricua Reading for the 2015 Holiday Season’. Eleanor is featured in the anthology, ‘Latina Authors and Their Muses’, edited by Mayra Calvani, and in the soon-to-be released anthology, Organic Coffee, Haphazardly Literary Society, edited by Allie Burke. Eleanor is a proud member of Las Comadres Para Las Americas, PEN America, The National Association of Professional Women, and the Historical Novel Society. She is a contributing writer at Organic Coffee, Haphazardly Literary Society. When not writing, she loves facilitating creativity groups, reads, and tells herself she is making plans to walk El Camino de Santiago de Compostela a second time.
Eleanor adores her two adult children and currently lives in West Virginia, where she is writing her second novel, ‘The Lament of Sister Maria Inmaculada’, and a collection of short stories.