When I was 11 years old, the frame house we lived in was moved via big rig to the pasture near us. My mom had designed a new brick home; builders constructed it where our house had formerly stood.
Every day we’d walk over to check out the process: the grading of the land, digging and laying of plumbing, pouring the concrete slab, the breathtaking rapidity of the framing going up. Katie and I walked through the “hallways” to get to what would one day become our bedrooms. We stood in them and pretended the walls were already in place then yelled back and forth, “come over to my room!” Watching the house being built was incredibly exciting.
When construction was completed, the first things moved to the house were my boxes of books. I hand-carried them inside.
I was nearly a teenager and we’d finally have air conditioning. The old house had had a huge attic fan (not very effective in Texas heat) and box fans scattered here and there.
The new house had central heating. Our old house had been so cold in winters that one morning we woke to discover the water in the toilet had frozen.
Long after I left home — about the time I moved to California from Dallas in 1988 — my parents designed and built another house about three miles up the road. Dad had owned the land for some years. In 1978, ten years before the house was built, we planted two rows of twenty live oaks. They form a lane that leads to my parents’ front yard.
Mary Lee Bartlett, a local artist, hand-carved a huge oak mantel with an eagle holding acorns above a banner that reads “Oak Alley” — the name my parents gave to their house.
I’ve always wanted to build my own home. I’ve made many sketch drawings. I look at land all the time, but it’s expensive in Sonoma County.
I wrestle with myself — is the very real financial burden worth it? What advantages would accrue from this creative project? It would be such a pleasure to design every detail to conform to our current life. Working with our budgetary constraints sounds like a challenge rather than a burden. My parents taught me how to stretch a dollar… but the time commitment and mental focus are substantial. What would I have to give up? Back and forth it goes — pros and cons, the list making…
We don’t want to retire and still have a big mortgage but I don’t want to teach until I’m 70 either. Clearly, sacrifices are necessary. Are we ready and willing to make them?
Middle age is a paradox: the range of choices gets larger and larger and yet I have a finite amount of time to devote to them. It feels as if my choices are simultaneously diminishing.
My days pass quickly. My friend Marty — and my dad, too — tell me time passes even faster as I get older. I believe them; it’s already happening.
Multiple studies of the psychology of elderly people show that regret is greater for undone things. People list postponed travel plans, classes they didn’t take, experiences they put off until they realized they were too old, too sick or too weak for them.
I remember Bill telling me about a visit to his Aunt Dot in Massachusetts some years ago. He was always close to her. She was 91 or 92 years old, in poor health and would soon pass away. She said, “It’s all passed so fast.”
Conventional wisdom says it’s never too late. And maybe this is true if you need to forgive someone or ask for forgiveness. Maybe it’s true if you need to fulfill the serenity prayer and accept the things you cannot change. But there is a huge range of possibilities where this doesn’t apply and it can become too late. The window of opportunity is closing — I feel it.
I hope the words of that wonderful poet Langston Hughes (though on another subject) don’t hold true for this house: a dream deferred is a dream denied.