All the Way Home
Building a Family in a Falling-Down House
Finding the perfect house is never easy. Rebuilding one from a crumbling pile—to say nothing of making it into a home—is even harder.
With their infant son in tow, David Giffels and his wife comb the environs of Akron, Ohio, in search of just the right house for their burgeoning family. Running through David's head the whole time are the lyrics of a Replacements song, ". . . Look me in the eye, then tell me that I'm satisfied," and it gives all the more purpose to their quest. But nothing seems right . . . until they spot a beautiful, decaying Gilded Age mansion. A former rubber industry executive's domain, the once grand residence lacks functional plumbing and electricity, leaks rain like a cartoon shack, and is infested with all manner of wildlife. But for a young man at a coming-of-age crossroads—"suspended between a perpetual youth and an inevitable adulthood"—the challenge is exactly the allure.
All the Way Home follows Giffels's funny, poignant, and confounding journey as he and his wife and a colorful collection of helpers turn a money pit into a house that will complete their family. Nothing could prepare them for a home restoration epic that includes evicting squatters (both four- and two-legged), battling an invading wisteria vine, hunting a ghost, and discovering thousands of dollars in hidden Depression-era cash. But the story's heart lies deeper, in an unexpected series of personal hardships that call into question what "home" really means, and what it means to grow up.
Written with the humor and insight of Bill Bryson and John Grogan, All the Way Home is the engaging tale of a young father's struggle to restore a house and find his way . . . without losing himself.
Title: All the Way Home
Author: David Giffels
lost in the supermarket
Main aisle, Home Improvement Superstore:
We are walking with such purpose down the wide fluorescence of the promenade that we are not really walking so much as we are marching, propelled by the triplet American cadences of conviction, desire, and retail curiosity.
We navigate by end-cap billboards.
Adhesives/Tarps/Caulk . . .
We lead with our jaws. Our torsos strain forward in a posture of domestic yearning, pulling us into a power walk.
Conduit/Connectors/PVC . . .
Our arms swing with the edgy reciprocation of a Sawzall, triggered low. We squint at thumb-smeared shopping lists with utilitarian dignity.
I always wonder what that next guy is here for, the one burning holes into the shelves with his gaze. I always wonder what problem he came here to solve and if he's here because he knows what he needs or because he hopes he will find it. I wonder if he ever stops to realize that he has prepared himself all his life for this moment, the moment in which the truth hits him with such clarity that he experiences the divinations of Meriwether Lewis:
He needs a toilet flange.
Not a wax ring. Not tape or putty. The problem is in the flange and he knows it now, oh he is so certain of this. He lay awake last night working through the possibilities of his problem and now he has arrived.
Faucets/Fixtures/Toilets . . .
Me, I'm still looking.
I came here for three things:
1. a can of expanding sealant, that magical stuff;
2. another three bags of mortar because this much I've learned: a single bag of mortar is a fool's errand; and
3. possibly a hinge.
The hinge is a lark. The hinge is a red herring. The hinge is an albatross. A wild goose. The hinge is to replace the one nearest the floor on the billiards room door, because most of the water damage there is down low and that hinge is rusted beyond reason and salvation. It's heavy and antique and I know I will not find one here. But I have to look.
Looking for something we don't think we'll find—this is an understanding we share here in the wilds of the superstore.
We are people afraid of what might happen if our lives became comfortable.
We are people who don't know nearly as much as we want the world to believe we know.
We are fathers. We are desperate to understand our place among people who desperately need us.
Our ambition is complicated.
We look at walls and fantasize about their insides.
We consider the influence of our hands upon our tools, and of our tools upon our hands.
We have opinions about sandpaper.
I've stopped now, between Lighting and Doors.
A hinge—is it "hardware" or "fastener"?
We do not ask. We seek and discover. We, in the aisles: we are seekers and discoverers. This is our frontier. This is what we have left.
For me, today, it's this billiards room door. Yeah. A billiards room. It's not what it sounds like. I am not Colonel Mustard. I am not the kind of guy who lives in a house with a billiards room. Well, I mean, I do live in a house with a billiards room. But I am not the kind of guy who relaxes by playing snooker. Because I am not the kind of guy who relaxes. The billiards room is just, well—it all just kind of happened.
It started innocently enough. It started in much the same way curiosity led me to poke into that basement wall, perhaps the only wall remaining in this mansion that I had not been inside. What's going on inside that wall, I wondered, so I hammered a hole and reached inside to find out. (We do these things on impulse at my house.) That's when I found the termites. After all this time and all this work, five years of nonstop restoration, just when I thought things were settling down, just when I thought I was ready to allow things to settle down . . .
I reached into the wall and put my thumb against the center beam, and the thumb sank into the wood—powder! nothing!—and I realized amid this shocking new information that I was standing directly below the piano in the foyer one floor above, and I was therefore in danger of dying a cartoon character's death, piano crashing through floor, which is something I do not want to do. More than anything else, I do not want to die a cartoon character's death.
I called my father, frantic. And my father, the structural engineer, came right over and looked inside the wall.
"Nothing holding this place up but memory."
This is what he said.
He laughed. I think he lives for days like this. He is an enabler. I am a provider. I provide him with that stuff that makes fathers what they are, which is mostly trouble that needs to be corrected.
Everything can be fixed, he said. (That's the problem.) We made a plan and I acted on that plan with furious purpose to save my house from falling down. Day after day, night after night, I ripped out the rot and braced it up and poured concrete, a hundred bags. I laid a brick floor (scavenged brick—always, everything, scavenged) and then, carefully, one by one, removed the sticks that hold up the center of the house and replaced each with a new one. Stout posts. Good as new. Better! Better than new! I knew exactly what I was doing, and I didn't have a clue.
Really, that wasn't the worst of it. The worst of it was the darkest secret of all: when I reached inside the wall and found the studs teeming with termites, the pulp consumed, leaving only the layers of grain, the leaves of a gutted text—I responded outwardly with horror but inwardly with glee!