lj idol season nine | week three | 1500 words
In another castle
We lived in five different houses in four cities by the time I left for college, and my dad didn't even have the excuse of being in the military. Sometimes we moved because he ran from his problems rather than facing them, but usually, it had to do with his unerring tendency to buy the "albatross" house.
You're probably wondering exactly what that term means. Say that someone tries to sell their house and a year or two later, there are still no takers. If you were to go look at the house, you might find a room or a feature that was utterly weird. My father would look at that same house and not notice the weird thing until after buying it and living in it for a few years. Once he did notice it, the house would then become completely unlivable and he would have to sell it, but he would never see the problem early enough to avoid getting caught up the whole mess.
I don't know what our first home was originally like inside. Outside, it was a nice-looking, white two-story house that burned to the ground before I was born. My father rebuilt it as a black, ranch-style house that seemed normal enough apart from the birch-forest wallpaper in the living room, and his having cannibalized one of the four bedrooms to turn it into a library with built-in shelves (this last part would become a recurring theme in all his houses). The original garage remained, though. It was wholly unusable for cars because the previous owner had run his dental practice from it, and it was full of patient chairs and the strange machines he'd left behind. When Dad sold the place (because my mother finally decided she'd had enough of working full time, raising two small children, and trying to maintain a 72-acre farm), I think the dental equipment was still there.
The next house was a Spanish-style mini-mansion (fairly unusual in northern Oregon), in a lower-middle-class neighborhood. It sat diagonally from a Holiday Inn motel, and despite its size had only three bedrooms (not quite enough for our family, which numbered seven during the Christmas and summer breaks). It had a full basement, which flooded every year during heavy rain, and the first night we discovered something else:
It was situated right above a set of train tracks.
The warning horn woke everyone up, and the sound of the chugging wheels convinced us all that we were going to die. The next morning, we explored the area around the property a little more. Ah, those days before widespread full-disclosure laws... they were really something.
We moved to Portland two years later to help my mother launch her new career as a psychiatrist (she'd gone back into residency and changed her medical expertise). Northwest Portland had lots of houses, including in the school district my parents had already selected. But instead of any one of those fine places, Dad picked an almost entirely isolated house on top of a small, artificial hill. The closest neighborhood (associated with a different school district) was three blocks down a busy road that had no sidewalks. One block in the other direction was a very large cemetery. What a location!
It was a lousy choice for kids (especially for those of us who were still pretty young), but that had never mattered to my dad—and after the farm house and the out-of-school-district Spanish house, it was hard to be surprised. The house did have five bedrooms, though he immediately destroyed one to make a library. Two of the bedrooms were connected by a wall that mysteriously ended about 15 inches from the ceiling. One of those rooms was mine.
The back of the house was flanked on both sides by raised garden "courtyards," in addition to the regular yard. On one side, a door from the laundry room led out and there were stairs down to the main driveway at the far end. On the other side, there was a door from my bedroom leading out, and a three-foot drop. No stairs. The only other way to get there was to scale the rock wall from the driveway (and of course, being kids, we often did).
I don't know what the original owner was thinking, either with the missing stairs or the incomplete wall. The house was otherwise in decent shape, though as kids we spent whole summers following my Dad's directive to beat the forest back down the hill… until he finally realized that the weeds were what kept the dirt from eroding.
A couple of years before we moved again, Dad inflicted his own an albatrossian insult upon that house. He decided that the downstairs rec room needed a fireplace, but because one wall was all windows and the other was behind the dirt barrier of the elevated garden… clearly, the only possible solution was to put the fireplace flue up through the second floor and then out through the roof.
That was how my bedroom came to have an uninsulated two-foot-diameter pipe coming up through the floor, in addition to the door to nowhere. I have no idea how the next set of owners coped with that.
We then moved to Eugene, and lived in a duplex while my parents looked for a house. The duplex was utterly normal, and even the house they bought was normal at first. Once Dad turned the fourth bedroom into a library, walled-in the front porch to make a woodshed (blocking off a couple of windows), and plastered over the used-brick fireplace inside the house, it was less so. Cutting open part of the garage wall to make a dog-door for a Great Dane and painting the house a unique neonesque color somewhere between "school bus" and French's mustard finished the job.
There was an intermediate house while I was living in Illinois post-college (someone once joked that being my dad's realtor would be a full-time job). Then my parents moved to a house across the street from the duplex we'd first lived in. That was actually the third time my dad had lived on that same hill in Eugene. He had once owned most of it, decades and many houses earlier.
The new hill-house had a nice view, and a cozy front room. Dad built floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in there after also doing the same in the house's second bedroom. Theoretically, there was a third bedroom downstairs, but the builders had not insulated the lower floor of the house, and it was miserably cold down there except during the summer. My father left that house for someplace with more gardening space (during the years of flip-flopping between not-enough-yard and too-much-yard). Enter the Contractor's Special.
The contractor's house was in a nice little valley, and the original owner had probably built it over years of weekends. The thing was, he had used the shoddiest of materials in creating it. It had thin, cheap walls, and ultra-hollow doors. The whole interior had the look of a run-down Motel-6. Instead of appropriating a bedroom, my dad used a weird little room off the kitchen as the library, and actually improved it. But the house's only really good feature was a hexagonal living room with high, beamed ceilings. At some point, Dad decided it was too dark in there, and instead of opening the drapes or changing over the heavy walnut furniture or moss-green sofas… he painted the non-beamed part of the ceiling white, thus ruining it forever.
He and my Mom have since moved to a retirement community, owing to his health and the need for a smaller yard. He recently put skylight windows in the living room ceiling rather than open the drapes against the murkiness there, and he still has the same walnut and dark–green furniture. The third bedroom was cannibalized for a library again, in addition to built-in shelving in the living room. Dad once told me he'd never had a library card in his life—as if that were a good thing. It sure explains why he has moved that huge book and VHS collection from house-to-house, all these years.
In case you think my father is the only person drawn to buying or creating albatross houses, I offer this specimen in Sacramento. It was on the market for more than two years (priced at more than $1 million), and then withdrawn. The outside has Mediterranean tile, rustic brown river-rock, and wrought-iron multicolored grillwork. The detail around the perimeter includes Statue-of-Liberty lamp-posts, but if you look at the photo array, the inside is actually even more horrifying:
(A realtor's website presentation, with detailed photos of doooom)
Now really… who wouldn't buy a house like that? Thank goodness my father is happily settled up in Oregon, and not in the mood for a new home. But I think even he would balk at that one!
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