Soon after we married, my husband and I bought a bungalow in a small Northern California town. On weekends and vacations, we refinished its fir floors, stripped windows down to the wood, and painted the walls white, in stark Japanese style. In the fall that our marriage was over, I began, painfully, to make the space my own.
I didn’t know if I could ever be happy there. Every surface bore the imprint of both our hands. It was the place where we’d cooked together and made love together, and where I’d awoken alone, crying and shivering, unwilling to get up in the cold to light the woodstove he’d always lit for me.
A winter came and went. I couldn’t sleep. I felt as if I was sailing a small boat single-handed through heavy waves, simply hanging on.
Another winter came, and then finally a spring. I signed the property settlement, took out the leaky hot tub, had a garage sale, and got a housemate. I sold our tatami mats and threw out the torn Japanese paper blinds.
Fall came, and then another. I visited Italy and Greece, and when I returned, I painted the gray-stucco exterior the closest I could get, with Kelly-Moore Paints, to a Tuscan cream.
My housemate, who exchanged his work for some of the rent, fixed loose tiles in the bathroom, took out the woodstove, and put in easy, unromantic gas heat. I took out a peeling kitchen counter and replaced it with one the gray-green of olive leaves. I painted the living-room walls a glazed peach. I started haphazardly, with no idea where things would lead me. Before I knew it, there wasn’t a white wall left anywhere. The house became more feminine than I’d ever imagined myself to be.
To get out of the way of the work, I moved downstairs into a mother-in-law apartment that felt like a cave, and there I slept in the most beautiful bedroom I’d ever possessed, a place with huge, multipaned windows that opened onto the garden and welcomed the smell of jasmine at night, the footfalls of deer, and, in winter, the sound of the creek lapping at the end of the garden. The windowsills were low, and, at night, I could lie with my head almost out of the window, as if I were camping.
I loved it there. I decided to rent out the upstairs and move downstairs for good. I painted the window trim blue-black, the color of windows I’d seen in Greece, and sponged the white walls with an apricot paint muted with mocha. I brought back the carpenter to install picture molding and a white built-in bookcase with fine, delicate lines. I put my television in the closet.
In rebuilding the interior of that house I rebuilt myself, and I was surprised at the way it turned out. I let go of a larger space, theoretically more appropriate to a woman in midlife. But I was happier–and, it turned out, more solvent–living below it. After years of living ambivalently upstairs with my former husband, I was happy downstairs, and happy alone. I hung up watercolors I’d painted myself. I took up yoga and, in the mornings, took walks–alone, but far less lonely than I’d been as a married woman. I grilled my own steaks on a tiny Weber barbecue on the deck. I took salsa and swing dance classes. I had my own party on the Fourth of July. I ate what I wanted. I got up when I wanted. I drank in the solitude and silence.
I’d turned corners I’d never expected to turn. I hadn’t had a grand vision. I’d rebuilt my life without knowing where I was going, the way an oyster builds a pearl, a nautilus its shell. I look back: one minute, it seems, there I was lying alone in bed in the cold and moaning my husband’s name, and the next I was in terrific physical shape, blowing out the candles at my fiftieth birthday party in a sparkly black minidress.
In a salsa class I met a man. One summer, we rented a cabin together on Fallen Leaf Lake in the California Sierras. In the afternoons, he played guitar. In the early evenings, we took our plastic chairs down to a little dock and drank wine and ate eggplant spread on little toasts as we watched the sun set over the dappled water.
One morning, when he wanted to sleep in and I was antsy to rise, I left him to go kayaking alone, the long craft cutting a V into the mirrored skin of the silent lake. Afterward, I crept back into the warm bed and he took me in his arms and warmed my cold fingers and toes. It was then that I asked myself: Why are you depriving yourself?
I moved in with him. I had no idea what I was giving up. He’d lived in his house for a decade as a married man and for another as a divorced father. It was only a half-mile away from my place, but even the weather was different. The bones of his house were beautiful, with skylights and plenty of space, but it suffered from bachelor neglect, with a lava-rock fireplace and a stained, shag wall-to-wall in a mustard yellow. The place was redolent of routines I hadn’t watched but could sense. A wall of framed photographs on the upstairs landing chronicled his two boys at every stage of their lives, from diapers to high school graduation. His kitchen cabinets and drawers still held the odd, long-unused implement–a gravy separator, a flour sifter, a piecrust trimmer–left behind by his former wife.
How do you hollow out a space in someone else’s place, someone else’s life? I felt like a hermit crab, exposed, fragile, shell-less. We were folding together two lives, like shuffled decks, within a space and time that was his.
I found myself casting about for privacy within the rhythm and space formed by the life of another. For a while, I dropped my morning yoga to share sticky breakfast buns and the newspaper with him, under the fig tree in his garden. His college-age sons dropped in without warning and stayed for days, bringing friends. On far too many Sundays for my taste, Brian watched football. I gained weight. I got edgy.
If a life shared with another is to retain a shape of its own, one must sometimes say no: no to snuggling in the morning, to breakfast pastries, to the newspaper. I began rising at dawn, and early morning became my time, my house within the house.
I built it by repeating this ritual. Every morning, I’d creep downstairs at 6:00 and put on the kettle for a cup of green tea, resisting the urge to walk out to the driveway to pick up the newspaper. I’d take my tea upstairs into what was once his youngest son’s bedroom and sit at my desk, drinking in the silence, staring at the huge willow tree rising above a neighbor’s rooftop, and watching the sun crawl up the ridge.
Once upon a time, women’s lives shared the same recognizable shape. Together we marched through the decades, in matching ceremonial garments: from the frothy dresses of First Communion to black graduation gowns; from the white dresses of our own weddings to purple mother-of-the bride outfits; and finally into the black weeds of widowhood. Now, in random order, we put on and take off those garments and those roles.
How could I have known, when I so hopefully married, that in my early forties I’d cry tears like those of widowhood at about the same time a friend was having her first baby? That in my late forties, a friend would attend the birth of her first grandchild, while I went out on first dates and learned to practice discernment with men I’d met at hardware stores and salsa classes and through the internet? That eventually I’d find a love for which I had no template beyond knowing that guarding my solitude was as crucial to me as drinking in closeness?
In the four years Brian and I have lived together, his house has changed in ways I never expected, and so have we. Gone is the lava-rock fireplace and the shag carpeting. White crown molding with fine delicate lines now frames walls painted a creamy Italian yellow. My watercolors hang in our bedroom. A photograph of my brothers and another of my parents now share the wall with pictures of Brian’s sons. On my bulletin board are two photographs, one a touchstone of what I gave up, and another of what I gave it up for. The first shows the kitchen of my old house. There’s a vase of flowers on the olive-green countertop. Pewter handles shine on the cream-colored cabinets. A young teacher and her daughter enjoy them now. The second shows a sailboat anchored in dappled water, which is dark cobalt in the deeps and in the shallows, aquamarine. The boat is anchored by the jetty at Fallen Leaf Lake, where we ate toast and eggplant.
When I was living in my old falling-down house with its broken dreams and countertops, someone told me to fix it up and let God, in his own good time, throw me out. These photographs remind me that it was only after I’d fully inhabited that place and remade my own life that I could share it, however incompletely, with another human being.
Katy Butler, a former features editor and staff writer for Psychotherapy Networker, is the author of two award-winning books about aging and living meaningfully in life’s final quarter, especially in relation to modern medicine. Knocking on Heaven’s Door (2013) was a New York Times Bestseller and Notable Book of the Year. The Art of Dying Well (2019) is a road map —practical, medical, and spiritual —through the significant passages of life after 55. Katy’s groundbreaking work for the Networker was nominated for one National Magazine Award and contributed to several other NMA awards and nominations. Her writing has also appeared in the The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Tricycle: the Buddhist Quarterly, Scientific American, Best American Essays, and Best American Science Writing. Other honors include first-place awards from the National Association of Science Writers and the Association of Health Care Journalists; a “Best First Book” award; and a finalist nomination for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. She lives in northern California and loves to dance in the kitchen to Alexa with her husband Brian.