Why "Dorothy's House?"

So here’s what happened:

In fall 2005 I was heading for divorce and looking for a place to live. My friend Jeannie tipped me off about a nearby house that was going up for rent. It was owned by an elderly lady, Dorothy, who had moved into a managed care facility. Her nephew Rich was handling the upkeep of her house and preparing it for the market. Slowly. Because he lived an hour away and had his own life.

He agreed to meet with me and show me the house, even though it was not ready. I was so eager for a place that my only criteria was “not horrible.” As we walked around I was barely registering any details other than “no, it’s not horrible” until we came to Dorothy’s sewing room. On the walls were kitschy paintings and artwork, obviously from an African safari. “Did she travel a lot?” I asked Rich. No, she just took that one big trip with her friends to Kenya. Interesting. I happened to have been a Peace Corps Volunteer, in — guess where? Kenya.

Then we went downstairs to the laundry room, furnace, and storage area. Plastered on the walls were (and still are!) magazine photos of US Olympic gymnasts. Oddly I didn’t recognize the athletes, despite an entire childhood spent upside-down or balancing on narrow objects, or poring through Gymnast magazine and plastering my own bedroom walls with the pages. A close look at the dates showed the images to be from 1988 and 1989… when I was living in Kenya. Ok, so that’s why I didn’t recognize them. But wait—Why does an 85 year-old woman have gymnast photos on her walls, anyway?? That’s when I noticed that this house was inviting me in.

Dorothy passed away between my initial phone conversation with Rich and our arranged first tour.

After that initial meeting, our negotiations went something like this: He wasn’t going to have the house ready for another 6 months. The rent would be X.

I offered to paint the walls and take care of the gardening. The rent went down to X minus $200.

I offered to deal with all of Dorothy’s remaining stuff, since I’m dialed into the consignment/thrift store scene. Really, I didn’t mind. He wouldn’t have to do anything else to the house except take out the current contents of the trash.

The price went down to X minus $500, the house would be available next week, and he wrote into the rental agreement that upon signing, the entire contents of the house would become property of the renter (me).

I signed and got the keys.

I moved into Dorothy’s house on December 3, 2005, ten days after that first tour. There were sheets in the closet, beds to put them on, scissors and masking tape in the drawer, and mugs in the cupboard. My kids were enamored with the vintage Dishmaster self-soaping brush-on-a-hose sink attachment thingy, and of course the laundry chute, but especially the fact that we wouldn’t be leaving the neighborhood. We had fun shopping for the only thing the house needed: a shower caddy.

I realize that some people would be less than excited to live with the deceased’s second-hand everything, not to mention that the decor was frozen in the ’70′s. But for me it was a comfortable cross between two happy places: a thrift store and my grandparents’ home. And I sensed that Dorothy approved of me.

I used to greet my new abode out loud every time I walked in. (“Hello, sweet house!”)

The place wasn’t perfect. Did I mention the general amber sheen from Dorothy’s heavy smoking? I scoured every dish, fork, and pot, took a toothpick to the crevices in the gas stove, climbed on the counters to wipe whatever was hiding there—and yet I couldn’t help smiling while I scrubbed. These were now MY dishes, MY pans. My space.

Within a year I bought the house from Rich, and continued making myself at home. I gradually changed out most of the furniture. I did paint the walls—pumpkin orange here, turquoise there, lavender in here over the lime green that was under the peeling wallpaper… I was thrilled to remove the heavy lined curtains and their painted wooden valances, to reveal the gorgeous dark-stained wood window frames beneath. I pulled up the dusty yellow shag carpet in her sewing room/my bedroom, uncovering lovely blonde hardwood. I collaged maps over the the funky wallpaper in the bathroom. I added mosaic swirls in the archways.

I gave away lots of her collectibles at my ’70′s-themed New Year’s Eve party that first year, but there’s plenty of stuff I kept. I use her good china on special occasions. When Mark comes over we bring down her 1967 cribbage board and a deck of her playing cards from the hall closet, and go a few rounds. We drank margaritas the other night from her cut-glass tumblers.

Every day I sit at her dinette set, on a green vinyl-covered chair at the faux-wood-grain laminate table, drinking coffee and pecking away at my laptop. This is where I hatched the idea for HandyGal, my business. This is my office. I write newsletters and blog posts, and check email from here. I do my accounting here. I upload and edit photos, add listings to my Etsy shops, brainstorm new projects, and write grants while sitting at Dorothy’s table.

I transformed the garage that once held her behemoth Pontiac LeMans (or similar) into a creative oasis—a studio space that I open to my neighbors and their kids for workshops and camps. My vast collection of supplies for “making stuff” is down there. It’s where I stay up late at night indulging some quirky new craft idea. Or firing little clay do-dads in my kiln. Or staring, motionless, because the size of the creative mess has frozen me in my tracks.

In the warm months I keep the big garage door open so my studio spills into the driveway. When we tie-dye, the driveway gets tie-dyed too. I don’t think Dorothy minds. (Notice the splattered concrete background on this blog??)

I never knew Dorothy, and yet we talk about her as though she’s still among us, like this:

Natalie: “Mom, do we have a [fly-swatter/bandana/roll of tape/clock radio/hole punch/cake pan]?”

Me: “Yeah, I think Dorothy’s got one here somewhere…”

Despite the way we’ve settled in to this home and made our marks, I choose to keep thinking of this place as Dorothy’s House. I guess it’s out of gratitude.