Finishing the Hat

Finishing the hat,
How you have to finish the hat.
How you watch the rest of the world
From a window
While you finish the hat.
 – Sondheim, Sunday in the Park with George
 

It was our big audacious gamble. For thirteen years she had waited patiently for me when I worked late, tackling some stubborn piece of technology that wouldn’t work the way it needed to. Taking care of three kids for eleven years stuck in the starter house that had never been owned by anybody else for more than three years, either before us or since.

How the kind of woman willing to wait’s
Not the kind that you want to find waiting
To return you to the night,
Dizzy from the height,
Coming from the hat,
Studying the hat,
Entering the world of the hat,
Reaching through the world of the hat
Like a window,
Back to this one from that.
 

George got that one wrong.  There is more than one kind of woman willing to wait. The woman who understands, who knows that some things can only be done through intense focus, she is willing to wait for a while, but only if she is given her due in time. Only if she knows when her turn comes you will give that same level of focus and intention to her. The weekends were hers and the kids, full of adventures, but we remained stuck in that small house far too long, as my startups failed to pan out.

Eventually I had some success with my side engineering projects, and after fourteen years of watching me do the engineering, she got her turn to join in. When the bank laughed at our plans to expand the starter ranch on the oh-so-pretty lot as over-improvement, we went looking for a house that would make us all happy, and be big enough the kids now in and approaching their teenage years wouldn’t kill each other. We couldn’t find it.

Instead, I waded out into waist-deep grass on an empty hillside and announced “Barbara, you have to see the view from your front porch”. We went to lunch after talking to the realtor and discussed whether it was too much to bite off. I told her there was a window, maybe a once in a lifetime window, where we could do this. If we waited even a year longer, it wouldn’t work. A year earlier and we couldn’t have afforded it. We held our breath and jumped.

We bought plan books, we looked at some really big really nice modular houses. We got plans drawn up by a builder that were a modification of an existing design. Nothing worked. The beautiful lot that had the best views kitty-corner to the slope angle defied off-the shelf design. We re-learned the lesson we should have learned from the failed attempt to add on to the overstuffed ranch house, the lesson I already knew from fifteen years of engineering: start with a clean sheet of paper.

Studying the hat,
Entering the world of the hat,
Reaching through the world of the hat
Like a window,
Back to this one from that.
 

We engineered a home together. It took us months to get a design that worked. We sweat it out with the builder, draftsman, and head carpenter over the placement of every wall, every window. We had meetings where four or five us argued for an hour about moving things inches.

All the while we talked about how the space would be lived in. How we would handle big meals and parties in the kitchen. Where we would sit waiting for the girls to come home from dates. How the place would have a Christmas tree in every room (we actually did that the first few years).  There wasn’t a wasted inch of space, nothing for show, all for function. It was beautiful, but beautiful in a functional way. It was a tool, designed to be lived in. We stacked the adult space up, the formal parlor over my office, the master bedroom over the parlor. Teenagers are going to be loud, so let them be, but build buffers. We didn’t want the fanciest house on the block, we wanted the one that worked, and worked specifically for the purpose of raising a family.

Studying a face,
Stepping back to look at a face
Leaves a little space in the way like a window,
But to see-
It’s the only way to see.
 

We went to the construction site every day to watch our dream take shape, and make sure nothing fell through the cracks. A year after we bought the lot we finally moved in. The house worked exactly as planned. It took much of the first year to finish it up. Some things never got done. I didn’t get tile around the fireplace until I started cleaning it up this spring. The attic never got finished. But we lived in it hard and it served us well.

IMG_0007We threw impromptu parties for a hundred people. We hosted my parent’s fiftieth wedding anniversary party. We hosted every Christmas and most other holidays for my extended family for sixteen years. Our kids filled the house with their friends. It was the place they liked to come. The porch hosted more weekends for the extended family than I can count. The place was filled with love and laughter and chaos.

Finishing a hat…
Starting on a hat..
Finishing a hat…
Look, we made a hat…
Where there never was a hat
 
 

We built the place with a ten year plan, to serve the family through until our youngest graduated from high school. We had fifteen years there before she died, a five year bonus. When our youngest graduated from college still living at home,we talked about how it would be kind of empty with all the kids gone, and started thinking about fixing it up to sell in a year or two. She never saw that, but I have carried the plan through this year.

IMG_5506Tomorrow morning I will open up the bids and decide who gets to take over the place we loved, the place we lived half our lives together.  I hope they get up early and enjoy the extraordinary character of the light on the porch at sunrise, the mist rising over the swamp, the sunset reflecting on the clouds over the Pelham hills, the sight of thunderstorms rolling in from the relative safety of the porch. But mostly I hope they fill it with love and laughter again.

In over thirty years of engineering this is the project I am most proud of. A tool for love and laughter. I don’t think I ever worked on a design that served its purpose better.

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