Creepy was the word that came to my mind when I found the house on Trulia. Not the kind of word I wanted to think about my first house. We spent two years living in the servant quarters of an old mansion-turned-college-dorm rumored to be haunted and padded with ghosts, and while I appreciated the free housing and the ancient charm and endless dust of the place, a few nights by myself in there during a thunderstorm in mid summer was enough to make me want to move far, far away from the creepy factor.
We looked at it anyway, because our realtor told us it had potential. She told us not to be turned off by the smelly, damp carpets or dark rooms or the red shag because this place had that magic word potential. Luckily for her Andrew and I had been through a major binge recently of Fixer Upper and Chip and Joanna had turned Potential into our new favorite idea.
The house was overgrown when we pulled up; the windows nearly covered up by sprawling rhododendron bushes, when we looked at it on a Saturday afternoon in November, the sidewalk hidden beneath their thick branches. Potential, our realtor said as she struggled with the deadlock and let us in.
And so, we saw potential: in the stained carpets that gave of a thick, musty odor, in the badly painted, puke-colored walls, in the linoleum kitchen floor and in the dark wood panelling. We saw potential in the awful, torn up carpet in the basement and the beams eaten away by termites—okay, Andrew was the only one of us who saw anything promising in that. The bathroom was covered in pepta-bismol pink and black tile, a painted black poodle standing guard over the sink. Andrew spouted off ideas faster than I could keep up about what we’d do with each room, making me see the beautiful stove, the wood floors, the tiled kitchen with butcher block countertops, until, in a moment of complete insanity, we said, yes, we’ll take it, where do we sign.
My dad says we robbed the previous owners. I say we got a fair deal, when you think about everything on Andrew’s To Do list and the fact that I, Rachael of Suburbia, who hardly knew the right end of a hammer, was moving into a genuine fixer-upper (Luckily, Andrew and our amazing almost-brother-in-law and father-in-law really knew what they were doing and did most of the work!). A series of snafus with the inspection and closing pushed us back to a February close date. So while the rest of nature slept against the deepest part of winter, Andrew and I turned the key and started waking this house up.
What I love most about houses is that they all have secrets, if they were ever lived in. They are privy to a person’s deepest, most personal life. They hold memories, experiences, fights, betrayal, remnants of parties and childhood. This was the real pleasure of deconstructing the house—dismantling the dark curtains, stripping off the wallpaper, tearing out the carpet and the kitchen cabinets. We found stories, maybe hundreds of tiny ones that build off of each other and shape, more than the banisters do, what this house was and what it means.
The house has only been owned by one couple. They bought it when it was built in 1954 and the husband-turned-widower moved out last June. The walls in the dining room, all a thick, bland color when we bought it used to be bright pink. The kitchen had pink and green floral wall paper hiding beneath the telephone box. In the stairwell, that cream cover up barely covered the lines of the wall paper up there previously, which we found out after some inspection was a beautiful, Laura Ashley worthy Birds and Branches pattern. The closets were lined with floral paper, and as we raked years of leaves off of our garden, we found a forest of yellow flowers poking out from beneath.
Anyone who knows me even a little bit knows my unquenchable love of flowers. There are never enough fresh flowers out in vases, never enough floral-patterned dishes, never enough blankets or towels with roses or tulips or wisteria printed on them. Andrew gave up the floral-fight long ago, quickly succumbing to my Laura Ashley Garden Party bedspread, my Birds and Branches shower collection, my Cath Kidston primrose teacups, the bunting that has hung, proudly, across every kitchen.
So, to find that the previous woman of this house loved floral too helped immensely with the creepy factor. It was like a sign that we were meant to be there; that our job was not only to make this house comfortable for us, but to restore it to its formal floral glory. (Why everything was painted white is another question. I can only answer, in my writer’s brain, that after she died, the husband was so stricken with grief that he covered everything up to shut out her memory. That, and maybe white walls are supposed to be easier to sell.)
I am a big believer in the idea that houses should have names. They host so much of life, so much of a person’s identity and history, it only makes sense that they should be named. Thinking about the role flowers have played in this house, I wanted the name to be a flower.
We found azalea bushes in our front yard one of our first weekends here. Azalea means abundance. That has been my prayer for this house, as we have peeled it back and refilled it with new things—that this would be a place of abundance. It is our prayer that this house would be abundantly filled with memories, with love, with laughter, with happiness, with good things.
The house is not done. We still have pictures to hang, rooms to furnish, backsplash tile to put in place, flowers to plant, touches to add that will make it feel more like home. I was going to wait to post pictures until it felt more complete, but I am starting to realize what everyone told me is true—houses are never complete. There is always something to add, change, enhance—a little bit like us. I want to love this house in all of its stages—everything it was, is now and will be. This is the Azalea House.