I am thrilled to share an original essay by my mother-in-law, Jane.
Jane and her husband George were lovingly supportive of our own decision to move into the Shoebox (and our decision to move out of it!) 😉 In recent years they planned and implemented their own strategic downsize, although as you’ll soon see, plans don’t always work out as hoped. I am so proud of them, and I know you’ll enjoy this view on intentionally living small in preparation for retirement.
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“We could buy Mother’s house,” George said.
Ten years before, we had built our Dream House, where we intended to live for the rest of our lives. Our spacious home included a study for George, a writing room for me, and plenty of room for the children and grandchildren we envisioned gathered like a Norman Rockwell painting. We even had a special “dog room” for our beloved greyhounds. We joked about leaving that house feet first. But plans change.
Our children spread out across the United States. Our grandchildren lived in different time zones. The Dream House seemed to grow nightmarishly bigger and bigger. It took over a full day to accomplish even a halfhearted cleaning of its 4800 square feet. The yard took hours to mow, and the flower gardens became such a burden we returned some to grass. As years passed, it dawned on us we faced another decade of large mortgage payments, after which we would continue to have hefty tax, homeowner’s insurance, and utility bills. Was this really our vision of retirement?
We began to ponder selling the Dream House and moving into an apartment. With a small rental payment, we could save money aggressively and pay cash for our final home, perhaps closer to one of our children. And now, here was this new possibility. George’s mother had died a few days before at the age of 102. Her 1500 square foot house—built in 1943 by the government as part of the war effort—was the home where George grew up.
“More space than an apartment,” I said. “We could fence the yard and not have to walk the dogs in the rain.”
“It’s a sweet house,” said George.
At first our families thought we were crazy. Then when we explained our plan, they were supportive, even if a little dubious.
We bought the house from the estate. Still filled with George’s parents’ furniture, it looked like a magazine cover from the 1970s. This is what I get, I thought, for those evenings I sat at her dinner table and imagined how I would remodel this place. We offered the contents of the house to family members, saved the few pieces we loved, and ended up donating most to charity so we could have the hardwood floors refinished, walls painted, and new windows installed. A realtor friend cautioned us not to over-renovate. We agreed we could live with the gold-tiled bathroom, the aqua-tiled bathroom, and the green kitchen. We laughed as we discovered George’s mother’s recipe for roach powder hiding between recipes for casseroles and marveled over the plastic bag containing a few used faucet washers and a meticulously detailed note written in 1978 by his father. Our Great Depression survivor parents knew how to maximize their resources.
Meanwhile, we put the Dream House on the market. We expected it would sell quickly, we would pay off the mortgage on the small house, and we would be mortgage free. I would be able to retire within three years. We christened our “new” home the Transition House and let our youngest son move into it so the house would be occupied and he could pay the utility bills.
In the first year the Dream House was on the market, it showed one time. Meanwhile, in the Transition House, the front bathroom tub faucet leaked. George replaced the faucet, but now he needed to repair the 1970s era gold tile. No problem. We had discovered a site online where we could order any kind of vintage tile. But then we learned the vintage tile company had gone out of business and liquidated their stock. That development was the incentive George needed to gut the entire bathroom. Months later, when he finished the project, the only original feature remaining was the window.
The Dream House still wasn’t selling. In God’s time, our friends and family reminded us when we expressed impatience. We changed realtors. During the second year, the Dream House showed around thirty times, but there were no offers. During each showing, waiting at the Transition House with our dogs, we bet each other cups of coffee over what the latest outrageous comments would be.
“’This house has no balconies,’” I said.
“’We have to have at least three garages,’” George countered.
In fact, some of the ridiculous comments sealed our belief that it was time for us to simplify our lives. We didn’t want to be like the people who were looking at our house. One couple rejected our home because they wanted four—FOUR!—en suite bathrooms.
As 2016 drew to a close, we caught our breath over the holidays. And then… the Dream House, after two years on the market, sold.
The downsizing would finally begin.
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Jane Sasser was born and raised in Fairview, North Carolina. Her poetry has appeared in The Atlanta Review, The North American Review, The Sun, The Lullwater Review, Appalachian Heritage, The National Forum, Sow’s Ear, and numerous other anthologies and publications. She is the author of two poetry chapbooks, Recollecting the Snow and Itinerant. An English teacher at Oak Ridge High School, she currently resides in Oak Ridge, TN, with her husband George and rescue greyhounds.
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