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Finding Home

December 27, 2005

We have lived in Fairwater, Wisconsin, since 1976. Our daughters grew up here and have gone off from here to make homes of their own. Mary and I remain, and I cannot imagine living any other place than this big cinnamon-colored house. When I die, you might as well bulldoze it in on me; this house is where I want to be.

I’m an Iowa farm boy; that is to say when I was born they dropped my butt on good black dirt and I have stayed close to it since. I need to see farmers work their fields, need to live among common folks and their common ways. I met and married my wife while I was in college in Milwaukee. I’m not a city fellow. Milwaukeeans are fine people; I’m just not one of them. I needed room to run and jump, holler and hoot. And I wanted to raise our daughters in a community more like the one I had known as a child, where you knew your neighbors, where your neighbors knew your business, sure, yet they also watched out for you, where you could leave a car in the driveway with the keys in it. Where community is a face-to-face business.

It was the Bicentennial summer when we started looking for a house. Mary’s parents had a summer place in the sand country of rural Marquette County, Wisconsin, to the west of here. I recognized it would be difficult to make a living in that area, so we looked closer to where one could hope to find work. Mary was a nurse and her job prospects were better than a poet would have. She found a job quickly, at the hospital in Ripon; we knew where to look for a house.

We looked in Ripon, but the houses we toured were too rich for our hand-me-down budget. We looked in nearby Berlin, but ultimately decided we didn’t want to live next to the junkyard in a town which had leather tanning as its major industry. We looked in nearby Brandon, at two houses, both of them remodeled without regard to architectural integrity, in a community where doing laundry on Sunday might be frowned on.

It must have been the hottest day of summer when Mary and I stood in front of the Action Agency Real Estate office in Ripon, looking in the window at a photo of a big old grey battleship of a house offered for sale in Fairwater. My breath caught: that looked like it could be our house. It was set down there as if it meant to stay where it was.

“Where’s Fairwater?” we asked each other.

We went into the office. “Where’s Fairwater?” we asked the realtor. “Can we take a look at this house?” It was in our price range.

“Fairwater is ten miles south of Ripon,” we were told. “Yes, you can see the house.”

When we arrived ahead of the realtor, we rang the bell at the front door. We didn’t know any better. In Fairwater, it appeared, as on the farm where I grew up, one used the side door or back door or garage door; only strangers would come to the front door.

Standing in the front door of the house, we could see the great expanse of wood floor stretching across living room and dining room to the far wall where stood a built-in hutch with glass doors and oak woodwork. The dining room, the living room, and the other room at the front of the house had oak woodwork, too, and high ceilings. The place was filled with a light which contained us. The wood floors gleamed; they radiated endurance. Oh, we looked at the rest of the house, but after seeing those floors and the hutch I think we’d already made our decision.

Of course we knew we’d have to deal with that grey paint flaking away from the house’s clapboard exterior. That could be taken care of the next summer. First we had to make an offer, get a loan, and sign the contract. We had to close on the house, take possession, move in. And we did.

It was the Hankerson house when we bought it; it was the Laper house when the Hankersons bought it. Built in 1903, signed and dated in the attic by the man who created it, the house has had only the three sets of owners – the Lapers, the Hankersons, and now the Montags. Owning a home here seems to be a long-term proposition.

Our younger daughter was not quite two years old back then. We had lived in the house about a week when Jessica stood full height, took hold of the knob of the kitchen door and rattled it; she said, “Go home now,” which was her way of telling us she was ready to go back to Milwaukee. That’s where her home was still, the place we’d lived previously. We had to explain: “We are home now.”

The Hankersons built a ranch house just down the hill from us. The next summer we did paint this old house which had been theirs. All my family came from Iowa to help, and still it took us more than a week.

Truth be told, Mary and I bought the paint we could afford for the job – red barn paint – and the house brightened considerably with the first brush stroke. In the midst of the painting, in the long light at the end of a long day, just as I’d come down from my work atop a tall ladder, Mrs. Hankerson came up the hill behind us. She said to me, “You know, it takes a lot of self-confidence to paint a house that color.”

It wasn’t self-confidence: I was home.

Nearly thirty years later, I am still home. After a quarter century, people finally call this the Montag house. It would take quite a winch to move me.

Written by Tom Montag, of The Middlewesterner.

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  1. December 28, 2005 at 12:19 am

    What a heart-felt and heart-warming story, Tom! With today’s average of moving house every 4 years (here in Vancouver, I don’t remember now), 30 years is a lifetime. You have indeed put down your roots and called it home! Thanks for sharing!

  2. December 28, 2005 at 8:38 am

    Oh, this is wonderful, Tom. Thank you for this. I love the gentle pace at which this story unfolds.

  3. December 28, 2005 at 10:45 am

    You’re lucky, Tom. Our house in Vermont has some of those characteristics, but the place around it has changed an awful lot since we bought it nearly thity years ago. Hearing you say you’d just as soon be buried there makes me realize, even more clearly, that that’s NOT how I feel about my present home – and that’s helpful, actually. I hope you get your wish – and it sure sounds like you won’t be going anywhere anytime soon! Thanks for this well-written, simple description of a not-so-simple proposition.

  4. December 29, 2005 at 1:05 pm

    Sounds like a wonderful place. And it sounds like you are truly rooted to that place. Is the house still red.

  5. December 30, 2005 at 11:31 pm

    Picking up on Fred’s comment, I guess it was red the summer after you moved in, and it turned cinnamon over the ensuing years. Seasoned and sweet!

  6. December 31, 2005 at 8:09 am

    Fred & Peter – Actually, a big old house like this you have to re-paint about every seven years. It was barn red for many of those, and then we did a “painted lady” version of it for seven years, with raspberry red, pink, grey, and white paints, and finally – tired of the scraping and re-painting and needing to do something about the wind coming through the clapboard – we had seamless steel siding of clapboard width put on, and that siding is cinnamon-colored. She remains a beautiful old battleship of a house; the siding is in keeping with her character.

    M-L – I cannot imagine moving every four years. Of course the average length of a marriage these days is about the same, isn’t it – four years? And Mary and I have been married for 36 years. I guess it’s the stubborn farm-boy in me – what I choose to do is what I do, even when the going gets tough….

    Thanks, Rachel – the whole essay was improved immensely after I got suggestions from my co-editor, Lorianne, and from previous Qarrtsiluni editor, Dave Bonta, who was our extra set of eyes for the piece. They helped me see possibilities I hadn’t imagined at first.

    Beth – I am fortunate that the changes you speak of remain at some distance. Oh, it’s true I am not particularly happy to see Fairwater’s “suburb” on Mary Lane go up new house by new house, but that development was platted back in the 1870s, so who am I to complain?

  7. January 2, 2006 at 8:59 pm

    It’s so nice to re-read this as if for the first time, as a reader rather than editor. (I’m sure you know what I mean!) I smiled at the image of you needing room to hoot & holler…

  8. January 3, 2006 at 2:39 pm

    The Montag house. That says so much.

  9. January 4, 2006 at 6:18 pm

    Lorianne – Re. hootin’ and hollerin’ – I guess I was much younger then….

    Dale – “The Montag house” is it exactly, yup.

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