Sandra Justice Hall December 16, 2019
Once upon a time, at the age of 61, we decided to adopt.
This was not a delayed mid-life crisis, but it was a decision to adopt a
new hometown and to downsize. We were pursuing another dream—to
live on the water. In 2006, we purchased a modest ranch home on Lake
Ontario in the town of Huron, NY. We enjoyed it as a getaway for three
years, but the constant upkeep of two homes became too much. Gradually,
we decided to sell our beloved Victorian home and move full time to the
In 2008 and 2009, we completed several projects to improve the
resale value of our home. We refinished the last of the bedroom floors, had
rooms painted, updated lighting, and tiled the upstairs bathroom. (I am an
avid watcher of HGTV). We began seriously sorting through the basement,
the attic and the second floor of the garage/barn. We had raised two
children here and had planned to live in this home forever. We were, after
all, only the third owners of a 130-year-old historic home. There were 27
years of stuff hidden away in this Victorian.
In Dec. 2009, we decided to list the house. We figured with this
economy and the fact we were trying to sell an old Victorian; the house
would not sell for 3-4 years. Wrong! It sold in three weeks!
We were very emotionally invested in our Victorian house. It is the
house I always wanted. When we moved in, our son was 6, our daughter
was 3, so, essentially, it is the only home they remember. The house had
good bones, but every year of our 27 years there, we made one or more
major improvements per year. And, we quickly learned, that an estimate
for work in an old home would cost 50% more, because there were always
After our projects were finished, we realized we were tired of the
upkeep. My husband and I both have health issues and something as
simple as washing the windows outside required two men and a step
ladder. I could no longer drag in a ladder to take down and wash the lace
curtains. It became apparent to us that, instead of owning the house, the
house was owning us.
During the two and a half months from agreeing to a purchase price
to actually depositing ourselves in our new home, I realized something I
wish I had learned earlier—Memories are moveable. We had a wonderful
time raising our children in our old home, celebrating birthdays, holidays,
and graduations. We still own these memories!
As I write this in July 2010, the boxes are mostly unpacked, and I
have time to reflect. I hear the gurgle of waves lapping the shore and the
screech of gulls. Occasionally, a bald eagle swoops into the lake to fish, a
hummingbird graces my window box, and wild turkeys cackle and strut
past my deck. I will not pretend that the weeks of intense packing,
deciding what to sell and what to take were easy, but I do wish to share
some of our experience.
The process of deciding what to sell and what to give away and what
to take was, at first, anxiety laden. Because the ranch was much smaller,
and mostly furnished already, there was little we could take. Surprisingly,
the process of deciding what to do with stuff got easier. It helped, that our
daughter had a large apartment an hour away, and she wanted the dining
room set and a bedroom set. I even gave her my china, silver, and crystal—
wedding gifts I thought I’d never part with. I did not give her everything,
but I did not have room for fancy china, and I was tired of setting a fancy
table. I have a nice set of stainless-steel flatware that serves nicely for all
occasions and goes into the dishwasher.
Our realtor reminded me of a consignment shop that would sell items
the buyer did not want. The shop even came and picked up the items—one
less thing to worry about! Do not dwell on the amount you get for each
item. Typically, the seller gets 50% of the sale. It was worth it to us to
have the items picked up and I deposited the money received into an
account to purchase items needed for the lake house.
I gave some items to friends. What I did not expect was that the
process of giving things away, recycling them, or donating them got easier.
As a retired English teacher, I was sure I could never part with any of my
forty-five years of books. But I knew I had to. A colleague helped me sort
them, sold some for me, and donated boxes of books to the local library.
I created piles for friends. When I actually started to unpack the boxes of
books I brought, I still had to give more away. A new neighbor, an avid reader,
now gets books from me that I am sure she will like. All I ask, is that she pass
them on to another friend.
I did buy one of those electronic books before we moved–I was
intrigued by the concept of storing many books in the space of one. I don’t
mind reading on this electronic marvel and, since I belong to two book
clubs and a writing group, Kindle fits the space.
Since we knew the home we were moving to, it was fairly easy to
reimagine certain furniture pieces we wanted to keep in the new space. We
found that the stuff we were determined to keep was not necessarily the
most “valuable.” My “hope chest” is a rough (almost primitive) piece of
pine my husband’s grandfather had in his attic. Each side is constructed of
a solid board of pine. It has a patched bullet hole in the top. (We told the
kids a tall tale about the bullet hole). It is the first piece of furniture we
ever refinished. It now makes a window seat looking out over the lake.
Near the chest/window seat, we brought our first kitchen table and chairs.
It is solid oak and the chairs are still sturdy. My mother-in-law had been
using it in the basement to fold laundry. My husband-to-be and his brother
had carved their initials into the top. Days before our wedding, we were
still hand sanding, staining and varnishing that table.
Without question, we brought Great-Grandma Stanton’s marble top
table, and I am using her worn library table to hold my computer. I always
wanted a writing desk that looks out on the water.
We also brought the antique dry sink I used as a changing table for
both of my kids. It was then covered with seven layers of paint and had
been dug out of my in-law’s attic. However, it may be a valuable antique as
it has mahogany trim and black tear drop handles, but it is its emotional
value that carries the weight with me.
On a high shelf in my kitchen sits an old, rococo china clock that has
been in my father’s family for more than a century. It was sitting in my
dad’s basement forever. I had clock works put in and it sat proudly on our
mantle in our Victorian for fifteen years. It may look odd in my simple
kitchen now, but every hour it faithfully chimes reassurance.
It is comforting to see and hear these familiar things in their new
setting. And, as they say, life is more relaxed at the lake. This simple
house does not own us, although I my write my name in the
dust occasionally to remind myself that we do own it!
This essay was originally entered into a Real Simple Life Lessons contest. It was not published.
The contest topic was to write about how your perspective on a life event has changed you.
Positive, constructive feedback is welcome. Please, no inappropriate language.
The rain was drumming on our metal roof, as it had been for
days that June of 1972. I fell asleep to the loud splat of
raindrops—weaving the sounds into a dream only a twenty-three-
year-old might dream. “Life was unfolding as it should. I was starting
a teaching job in the fall, my husband would begin his third year of
teaching, we would buy a house, and maybe, just maybe, we’d have
children. . . . .”
Suddenly, a shrill ring interrupted my dream. My husband,
Harry, had already leapt out of bed to grab the phone.
“Okay, Ben,” I heard him say.
Face down in my pillow, I mumbled, “What did my dad want?”
“He wants us to know they would be staying with the Dowlings’
on the hill during this rainstorm.”
“What about your parents?”
“I am sure they are all right. I think your dad is overreacting.”
The next day, a Friday, the heavy rain continued. That evening
at an end-of-the-school year party, a friend rushed up to ask us if our
parents were safe. Puzzled, I said, “As far as I know. Why?”
She blurted out, “The Corning area is flooded! Everyone has
We knew nothing about the flooding and frantically tried to
reach Harry’s parents by phone. We continued to try to call on
Saturday. All roads into Corning were closed, so we could not get
there. We waited.
Sunday, around noon, I received a collect call from my father.
With a crack in his voice, he said: “Listen, Honey. We need a place
to live for a while.”
Roles were reversed in an instant! Instead of relying on my
parents, they now needed me.
I could not talk; my throat tightened. I collapsed into tears and
handed the phone to Harry. My family agreed to wait in Geneva, NY
and we would meet them. Harry would drive on to Corning to try to
find his parents.
On the drive to Geneva, we tried to guess where Harry’s
parents might be. As he drove, I did some thinking: “I may be almost
24 and married, but that does not make me a grown-up.”
Naïvely, I believed, “Life should be fair.” What is fair about our
parents having to start over in their late forties? I know my parents
had worked hard to decorate their home. And, now, their two oldest
were through college and on their own. There was briefly— for both
sets of parents– the teasing promise of less financial stress.
We met my parents and my little sister at a hotel near the NYS
Thruway. We hugged and cried when we found each other. Harry
headed south to Corning and we drove on to Sodus.
My father stopped for gas. He warned all of us not to say we
were from Corning. When the attendant came around to collect for
the gas, he leaned in and said, “You folks from Corning?” No one
said anything, but, from the back seat, I saw my proud father’s head
hanging down staring at the steering wheel.
He said slowly, “Yes. How did you know?”
The man said kindly, “It says ‘Jim Fuller Chevrolet, Corning,
New York’ on your muddy trunk.”
My father gave half a laugh and told him a little about the
At about 7:00 p.m., Harry called to say he had found his
parents in Beaver Dams staying with his cousin.
That evening, there would be five people crowded into our
mobile home. Under the best of circumstances, this can be difficult.
My mother, a nervous person anyway, was agitated by the gas smell
emitted from our gas stove. Since my parents were sleeping only a
few feet from the stove, we turned the gas off outside so she (and
we) could have some peace. When it came to showers, there was
only enough hot water for two people in a sequence. My Skini-Mini
washer worked overtime washing our clothes and the muddy items
that were salvaged.
We waited for Harry to return with more details. He said that his
parents had not evacuated until the water was surging down Perry
Avenue. Emergency crews routed them to a nearby elementary
school on a hill. On Saturday, they were able to drive north to Beaver
After a few days, people were allowed back into Corning. My
parents’ house at the end of Corning Boulevard sat askew on its lot; it
had been knocked off its foundation. It was uninhabitable. A crooked,
muddy watermark at the ceiling of the first floor indicated the height of
the water. One of the first things we looked for, and expected to be
shattered, was the prized Steuben crystal bowl that always sat
proudly on the dining table. Oddly enough, it was intact! The cherry
table had gradually floated with the rise of the water, and, as the
water receded, the crystal stayed in its place!
Mud streaked everything and a cloying, damp smell choked the
air. The sweet smell of a river mixed with the dank, moldy smell of a
basement and the stink of sewage. Gnats buzzed around our faces
as we worked.
All of my parents’ possessions on the first floor, as well as items
they had carried up from the basement family room now lay on the
mud-caked lawn where they had been dragged. The soft gold wool
carpet was streaked with mud. The cherry dining room set was
warped. Only a year before, our wedding gifts had been proudly
displayed on this table. The house, with its mortgage still
outstanding, was condemned.
Things were about the same at my in-laws. Their carport had
dislodged and floated up against the house.
My father-in-law, a tough ex-Marine who served on Iwo Jima
usually told anyone who asked him how he was, “‘Never had it so
good!” However, those words did not pass his lips this time.
Like my parents’ yard, the lawn was cluttered with chairs, a
sofa, and tables from the first floor. The living room walls were
bulging from the soaked cellulose insulation and the pressure was
exposing the old lathe and plaster. My father-in-law and husband had
to pry several Steuben bowls that had suctioned themselves to the
ceiling. Like my mother’s crystal, my mother-in-law, Rose’s Steuben
heirlooms had floated gently up and down with the water but were
Just one month before, Harry, his twin brother Bill, his wife,
Lynne, and I had hosted a 25 th wedding anniversary for them. Now
the silver gifts were caked with mud and corroded. We washed them
several times in buckets on the slimy back porch and tried to hide the
corrosion from Rose.
My husband divided his time between helping my parents and
helping his. My brother came to help, so now there were six of us in
our tiny home. At night, they would come dragging in, dirty and tired.
The trip alone involved two hours one way, then there was the
physical and emotionally draining work of sorting through belongings,
standing in line for water, to talk to the bank, the insurance agent, etc.
We met them at our door with cold beers ready and a hearty meal,
and Dad would bring Mom some semi-washed treasure he had
After about a month, my family miraculously found a house to
rent. HUD moved a mobile home onto the driveway of my in-law’s
property. Life began to have some resemblance to normal.
My parents bought another home, and my sister started ninth
grade. Our old home, the one I had left as a bride, was bulldozed. My
in-laws renovated their home.
Along the way, I realized some losses of my own. We no
longer had any family pictures. Those Kodachrome images are
gone. No graduation pictures, no prom pictures. I learned that my
wedding dress had landed in the dumpster as well. No one had even
asked me about it. I cried and said, “It could have been cleaned!”
But immediately after I said that, I realized that I had lost very little in
But the muddy watermark still remains on our souls. Whenever
there were several days of rain, my mother-in-law would cry. Four
years after the flood, she had a heart attack. My father died, way too
soon, of heart attacks. I am certain the flood was a factor. People
who experienced Hurricane Agnes mark time by saying “Before the
flood” or “After the flood” and the choice of preposition holds much
That naïve twenty-three-year-old now knows that life is not
always fair. Bad things do happen to good people. Condemned
homes can still hold a mortgage.
Surely, my life and my loved one’s lives changed dramatically as that
angry Chemung River roared over its banks. My dream of life
unfolding “as it should” was interrupted, but many blessings have
been granted. I recently came across this quote by Isaac Singer: “Life
is God’s novel. Let him write it.”
Welcome, everyone to my site. I chose gazebo gatherings for my website because I had the privilege to walk by Mark Twain’s study when I was teaching at Elmira College. For me, the gazebo is a perfect place to write and gather with friends.