Finding a House That Fits Is About More Than Just Size

Going from a suburban Versailles to a cabin in the woods was just what I needed to find home.
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 YES! Illustration by Grace O'Neill

I was sitting at a crowded New York café when my friend Anne put my life into perspective. She and her husband had just completed their search for a new home and had brought a singular sense of responsibility to the process. “We don’t need anything big,” she said. “It was just good stewardship to find a house that fit us.”

They were settling into a small college town and needed a place that would hold their books, provide space to be together and apart, and become a gathering place for students and faculty. The result was a two-up, two-down Civil War-era structure that seemed the very definition of home.

In contrast, my partner and I shared a house that sprawled across 4,000 square feet in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. It contained two living rooms, a pair of bedrooms with private baths, and a master suite that included a dressing area the size of a New York studio apartment. We made blank, contemporary spaces livable with oak trim, rich colors, and landscape paintings that evoked my Northern California roots. None of it muffled the echoes in the hallway.

Anne’s words stung. I’d already been mildly embarrassed by the size of my home, but I’d never felt guilty about it. Suddenly it had all the qualities of a suburban Versailles. Returning from my New York visit, I entered the house and stopped at its central crossroads, where a long hallway meets a two-story vestibule and blood-red staircase. Two thoughts hit me: 1) I am a very bad steward, and 2) this is not, in fact, home.

The painful truth is that Eric and I had recently left a perfect house, a Cape Cod-style cottage with two tiny bedrooms and a narrow stair to a livable attic. We squeezed past each other in the hall and bumped butts in the kitchen, always aware of each other’s presence, always touching as we moved through the day.

The decision to move to Versailles was a domestic catch-22. The house had been designed and inhabited by one of Eric’s early mentors, the architect who transformed a bumper-plating garage into the suburban theater that put Eric on the map. When he died, we got first dibs on the place. I knew if we didn’t take it, Eric would always regret it. I also knew that the house had been created for a husband, wife, and two aging mothers-in-law. It was designed to provide privacy and distance, not to bring people together.

Happily, we had a retreat that offered all the things the new house lacked. Tucked among the mountains of West Virginia, it gave us a periodic escape from friends, colleagues, critics, and hangers-on. We played Scrabble, which I won, and gin rummy, which Eric did, and we enjoyed hammock-swinging days of reading and napping.

I named the cabin Wolf House after the home that Jack London built in the Sonoma hills, not far from where I grew up. London’s mansion of stone and redwood burned to the ground just before he moved in—nature’s revenge on a best-selling author’s hubris—but ours was so small that hubris wasn’t a problem.

The house is just one room, 20 feet by 20 feet, surrounded by 11 acres of forest. A tight spiral staircase leads to matched sleeping lofts that look out on oaks and elms, and beyond to a view that is endless, and endlessly changing. It’s an efficient, livable space easily heated by a single wood-burning stove—the exact opposite of the interlocking expanse of rooms that greeted us each time we returned to the suburbs.

As Eric’s growing success carried him to theaters in New York and London, Wolf House shifted from a romantic getaway to a writer’s retreat. In summer, deadlines met, I dozed on the deck, the trees in constant motion above me. In winter, I stretched on the couch, reading or watching the fire. Leaving became increasingly difficult. It took a death in the family, though, to wake me to the reality of my situation.

The home my parents chose for retirement reflected their values exactly. Shadowed by redwoods on the lower slopes of the California Sierras, it’s a funky sequence of rooms added haphazardly by previous owners, all of it spilling into a central, firelit living room. In the summer, I arrived to find Mom on the deck, iced tea at hand and an Anthony Trollope novel in her lap. Her grandchildren—my sister’s daughters—slept in rooms lined with the books we’d known as children: Terhune’s "Lad: A Dog," Stevenson’s "Treasure Island," and the long-forgotten adventures of Richard Halliburton, whom my mother had idolized in her own childhood.

Mom battled cancer for eight years in that house, passing through remission and recurrence three times. At the onset of her last illness, she and my father moved into a senior community below the snow line, and my sister and I walked the minefield of deciding who got the great-grandparents’ oak icebox and who got the piano. We were together when Mom breathed her last, in the bedroom of a prefabricated home on a cul-de-sac in a gated community.

The summer of her death was a busy one. Eric joined us in California for a few days and was there, quiet and supportive, as we spread Mom’s ashes in a meadow high in the mountains. He left quickly though, to oversee a repertory season of Sondheim musicals. I followed close behind to begin rehearsals for a new play and, at the end of August, throw a party for Eric’s 40th birthday. Stephen Sondheim and Frank Rich roamed the halls of Versailles. Hoots and hollers rang out from family and friends. Toasts were made. And I began to look for something that would make me feel at home again.

I began to look for something that would make me feel at home again.

I cried on the steps of our blood-red staircase when I learned that I’d been accepted to the graduate program at St. John’s College in Annapolis, just an hour from Washington. My mother would have understood better than anyone the draw of a program based entirely in the reading of “great books.” Seated at heavy wood tables near dormant fireplaces, I soon joined with my peers to learn math from Euclid, science from Darwin, philosophy from Aristotle, religion from St. Paul, and poetry from Shakespeare.

While my studies drew me into a thoughtful, quiet life, Eric’s career arced forward on a heady mix of agents, producers, and gala openings. Most of our conversations now took place by phone, usually during my evening drive home from Annapolis. When I declared that I was ditching a freelance job writing for a Disney theme park so I could concentrate on school, there was a long silence—then the suggestion that I keep the gig and quit St. John’s.

A week before my final departure from Versailles, a friend and I loaded a rental van with my belongings and drove them to West Virginia. A van is all it took. Living at Wolf House would be like living on a ship, everything in its place and no room for superfluities. A week later, I made my official and final getaway. In the passenger seat of my Geo Metro sat the companion of my future years, a shelter mutt named Rocket.

A Husky-Lab mix with the diamond-shaped face of a wolf, Rocket is white from stem to stern, and known variously as Rocket, Rocketman, Whack-Job, and Bad Dog. Days before, he had watched one of his masters depart for a preemptive vacation in Mexico. Now, as that newly tanned ex-partner circled over Dulles, the Rocketman and I hurried west, into a blizzard.

I had studied enough spiritual texts at St. John’s to recognize the mythic quality of our adventure. To begin our new life, we scaled icy mountains and forded frozen streams—literally. At the dirt road that carried us the final few miles, the drifts rose halfway to our windows, but we fishtailed forward. Snowbound for three days, we sat and watched the fire.

My life was now bound by oaks and elms that were themselves home to deer and snakes and the occasional black bear. I experienced the slow evolution of a season—or of a day. The valley below and the mountains beyond rolled through wintry shades of gray and blue. The morning came when a songbird appeared, his yellow chest puffing with the exertion of the migration north. A few days later there were two of them. Then three.

The vegetation made the same halting approach. The red bud came and went, the mountain laurel peaked and faded back to green. Every morning Rocket and I walked a two-mile loop of dirt road, wading through the washouts that followed heavy rains. We became accustomed to the black dog that attacked as we rounded the curve, and we waved to its mistress and her grandchild as they drove down the hill to meet the school bus.

Financial demands soon drew me away from the reflective work begun at St. John’s and from the peace of Wolf House. Scripting a series of PBS documentaries submerged me in the lives of Van Gogh and Cassatt, but a constant influx of bills meant that I was also back to writing dialogue for Mickey, Minnie, and the gang. The need for integrity-based, steady income was increasingly apparent.

My thoughts turned, with annoyance, to my mother. She seldom dictated our behavior but gently guided my sister and me to our own discoveries. There was just one piece of advice that she annually proclaimed. She believed that I should be a teacher and insisted that I would be a good one. I bridled every time she said it. “I’m a writer,” I insisted.

My sole interview was at a Washington, D.C., charter school serving low-income neighborhoods. In late July they had lost two of their English teachers and were desperate. A few weeks later, Rocket and I moved into a sunken, oak-paneled apartment in John Philip Sousa’s birthplace. The windows were level with the brick sidewalk. The bedroom was barely wide enough for a standard mattress, and the living room just able to accommodate an office nook and tiny kitchen. But there were built-in bookshelves, wall space for the California landscapes I’d retained, and a bathroom of 1930s yellow and black tile.

Over the next few years, Rocket and I made it to Wolf House most weekends, with teachers occasionally joining us to sit on the deck and argue literature and politics. Our trips became less frequent, though, when I devoted my Sunday mornings to a Unitarian Universalist church, where a chance meeting led to yet another beginning.

I experienced the slow evolution of a season—or of a day.

As I draft these final paragraphs, Rocket, now 13, lies curled in the winter sun. My partner Gary sits at his desk in the attic three floors above but will soon descend so that we can stroll to our neighborhood lunch spot. My time is split in thirds: I teach, I write, and I’m home every day at 3:30 when my stepson Isaac steps off the bus. We do his homework together at the kitchen counter.

Our row house has the original wood floors from 1911, sanded thin. We’ve got a small backyard, space for our books and pictures, room to be together and apart. There’s a stain in the ceiling of the master bedroom that needs to be addressed, and it will soon become untenable for three men to share a bathroom, but the landscapes blend well with Gary’s more contemporary tastes, and my great-grandparents’ icebox has its place of honor.

On Friday afternoon, Rocket pricks his ears as I retrieve my green backpack from the closet. By the time I throw in a stack of books and a change of underwear, he’s whining at the front door. Outside, he leaps into the back of our family-safe Subaru, then sleeps the length of I-66, waking only when I signal for the exit that will take us west, into the hills. On the final few miles of dirt road, he starts to bark.