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Winter Smiles

It was a beautifully invigorating morning as we drove up to our new home.  We smiled at each other in anticipation of our new lives on the East Coast.  The house looked pristine as the sun twinkled off the frost-covered roof.  The kids burst out of the red rental station wagon screaming and yelling with excitement...


Tanya (my seven-year-old) was yelling at us from the front steps, "How come the stairs have those funny boards on them?"  A jolt of fear ran through me.  Sure enough, as we peered through the window we could see that the carpet had been ripped off the stairs leaving only the thorny wooden strips that normally hold the carpet in place.  Large black stains spread from each rusting nail like oil stains on a garage floor.  I looked at Tanya and said, "There's been a little flooding.”  These are the exact words used by my realtor during a telephone conversation I had in California during a going away party.  I tried to put a positive tone to my sinking emotions.  “They probably just took the carpet out to let it dry."   Karen opened her mouth, but found no words.


Heather (my five-year-old) was in the bushes below the porch steps looking through the basement window at the room that was to become my office.  "How come there's paper hanging from all the walls?"  A throbbing jolt shot through my graying temples.  ...Not only was the wallpaper peeling off the walls in great sheets, but also the ceiling was sagging like a pregnant hippo.  The red shag carpet was missing.  Karen peered through the window but was silent.


We walked around to the back of the house and found Misty (my six-year-old) pointing through the sliding glass doors.  The floor of the dining area was partially exposed as the Grey Poupon colored shag carpet had been rolled back exposing the, once smooth, hardwood floor.  The severe washboard effect was dramatized by the deep shadows cast by the angle of the morning sun. Karen looked at her watch and said, "We have an appointment with the realtor."  She didn't smile.

Our furniture would arrive in two days!  Where would we put it if we didn't buy the house?  Actually, where would we put it if we did buy the house?  There obviously had been more than just "a little flooding.”  In fact, we later found out that every pipe in the house had burst producing high-pressure geysers everywhere.  The neighbors originally thought that the water was melting snow from an earlier storm.  After three days, however, the snow had melted, but the river flowed on.


We walked into the realtor's office fuming and were greeted by a very nice young man who told us that our realtor was attending a meeting in New York.  A look of flabbergasted wonderment spread across our faces, but he proceeded undaunted.  "I will be handling the signing of the final papers on your new house," he said cheerfully.  We were truly speechless.  We couldn't very well explode all over this nice fellow, who seemed like a lamb innocently expecting to go out and play (but not with a pack of rabid wolves).  We were discovering levels of self-control that transcended all prior experience.  Like two balloons, filled beyond the exploding point, we stood frozen, eyes bulging, afraid to say anything, wondering how to relieve the pressure.  "Let me introduce you to the previous owner of your new house," beamed the young realtor.


We were suddenly facing a short round pig-faced woman who was wearing a leopard skin coat that reached from what should have been her neck to her spotted toes below.  Her head was covered with a carpetbag made from scraps cut from the same poor leopard’s hide.  Her demeanor was aggressive and accusatory as if we were the ones who hadn’t paid the electric bill at her abandoned house.


The three kids were stuck in the waiting room.  The dog was in its crate in the car.  The cat had disappeared back at the house, but that’s another story.


it wasn't until 4:30 PM before we left the conference cage with signed papers and house keys.  We had negotiated what we thought was a fair settlement.  Of course, we had not really been inside the house to see the extent of the actual disaster.  Naiveté blended with the desire to believe that "all is well" often blinds one to factual reality.  On the other hand, optimism, for whatever reason, frees one to focus on solutions rather than problems.  Pessimism causes inertia; optimism overcomes it.  We piled into the station wagon with renewed hope, accompanied by smiles of relief.


Our plan was to sleep on the floor of our new house that night, but we changed our minds the instant the front door swung open.  Our noses were assaulted by the sopping remains of a four inch shag carpet that housed 10 years of dehydrated droppings from Mrs. Leopard Skin, the Previous Owner's little darlings (eleven cats and five poodles).  Once again, we had selectively forgotten, or chosen to ignore, an obvious fact.  There had been that faint smell of a kennel lurking in the background the day we bought the house. Admittedly, we only spent about twenty minutes in the house before buying it because it was the eleventh hour of the single day we had been in Virginia to buy a house, but in fact, it was the smell that enabled us to afford such a nice place.  Our memory of the realtor's words settled in our stomachs, "Cleaning the carpet will take care of the smell."  Well, five days of soaking had turned that smell into a living, breathing cesspool.  Three minutes was all we could take to tour our newly purchased cat and dog house.  Even the kids didn't feel much like dinner after that.  We checked into a cheap motel and tried to escape into sleep.  The kids fell asleep as soon their three heads hit the pillows of their double bed.  Karen and I looked at them and then at each other.  We smiled through our tears and held each other until we finally drifted off to sleep.


At 4 AM, I found myself sipping coffee in an all night diner, writing in my journal.  "How could I have done this to my family?" I was consumed with the guilt of having destroyed the lives of those I loved most.  ...I was outraged at my own inconceivable gullibility and with the inescapable impotence of this grotesque nightmare.  I walked back to the motel, my own bitterness far exceeding the chill of that cold, bleak morning.


Karen never fails to amaze me with her resilience.  I found her sitting on the bed listing the action steps needed to prepare the house for the arrival of our furniture.  "It'll be here tomorrow morning at 8 AM," she said.  There she was, dealing with the problems, identifying the solutions, and constructing an action plan, while I had been brooding over my own failures.  Thoughts are a preview of the future.  They are so powerful that they eventually, materialize as part of reality.  Karen's thoughts were positive and constructive, while mine had less value than a Grey Poupon shag.  The contrast between the thoughts she was choosing to think and the nauseating quicksand into which I had chosen to sink, jarred me. She is such a reminder that the type of people with whom we spend our time has a tremendous affect on our lives.  My brooding only compounded our problems.  Our situation was a reality; our future could take two paths. Karen's was clearly the happier choice.


Our first priority was to get the carpets out of the house.  We left the doors and windows wide open as we ripped and sliced and yanked on the sopping shag carpet.  Slowly, piece by wretched piece, we dragged the oozing mess and its mushy brown pad down the stairs, through the storage room and into the garage.  Despite the freezing temperature of that gray morning, we found ourselves sweating profusely.  It's amazing how hard and fast one works when one can't breathe!  By noon, the rippling hardwood floors were bare, except for scores of round pet memories and the ugly black stains caused by thousands of rusting staples...



Our moods were high despite our exhaustion as we slipped into bed that night.  I fell asleep with only a hint of concern about the dropping temperature and the increasing clouds that lurked ominously overhead while we drove back to the motel.


I had never seen an ice storm before.  I found it absolutely fascinating.  Every tree, every branch, every blade of grass was like a fairyland.  Unfortunately, the driveway was like a skating rink, and since our new house sat on a slight hill, when the movers arrived they could not walk up the driveway, let alone move any furniture.  To make matters worse, the storm raged on.  We stood around wondering what to do about the ice, smelling the remains of the noxious carpets, when I said, "Why not carpet the driveway?"  The movers looked at each other blankly and followed me down the stairs.  Within ten minutes we had completely covered the full length of the driveway from the garage to the street.  The wet, steaming carpet stuck to the ice like a tongue to a metal post.  Rolling out the carpet for our guests set the tone for a very unique moving day.  This particular pair of movers had never moved a family from a lovely house in sunny California to a disaster zone in the middle of a blizzard.



We worked on the house non-stop for three days.  On the forth day, however, I had an appointment in Philadelphia.  I was in desperate need of a shower, so I removed the boxes that had been stored in the shower and was soon clean for the first time in days.  I kissed Karen good-bye and left her smiling at the front door.  When I returned home that night, she was no longer smiling.  "I spent half the day mopping up water in the basement," she said sourly.  "It is dry now, so I don't know where it came from."  The puzzle was solved the next morning.  I got up, showered, and was on my way out the door to the Library of Congress when I heard "Not again!"  Karen's voice was wailing from the basement, "You are NOT leaving me alone with another flood today!"  That afternoon the plumber was back chipping the tile out of the shower and punching holes in the wall to find and fix the mystery pipe.


Things were uneventful during the next three or four weeks.  ...The house smelled of fresh paint and new carpets.  The last vestiges of our disastrous beginning disappeared and we sat by the fire smiling at our good fortune.  "It would have taken us years to save enough money to make all the changes to the house that have happened in the last month!"  We laughed, oblivious to the minus 12 degree temperature outside.


The sub-zero cold spell broke the next day when the sky filled with very heavy black clouds.  Our California excitement was pulsating in expectation of our first real snowstorm on the East Coast.  We were not disappointed.  The following morning we awoke to twenty-seven inches of snow.  I hadn't met most of my neighbors yet, but found that shoveling snow was a very social activity.  "We will be stuck here for at least 3 days," they said.  "We are outside the city limits here, so it usually takes that long to get the plows out to us."  We were snowed-in!  How exciting!  We were all smiles until I noticed the six feet deep drifts of heavy wet snow on our roof.


Images of the roof collapsing and tons of melting snow flooding our newly restored house shot through my mind.  It was a sunny day and the neighbors thought I was crazy, but four hours later I stood bare-chested on the crest of my snowless rooftop triumphantly having avoided yet another disaster.  I trudged around to the front of the house carrying my ladder and thinking about whether I was being too paranoid imagining a jinx on our house, when a loud thud came from inside.  I dropped the ladder and ran to the front door.  Water was gushing everywhere, soaking into our new carpets and freshly stained and polished hardwood floors.  "Noooo!" I howled, which brought Karen running.  "Noooo!" she wailed.  I had no idea where the shut-off valve was, but my guess was the storage room.  After moving a wall of boxes and an old refrigerator, I eventually found it.  When I emerged, Karen was already mopping up the water on the landing.  I joined her with every towel I could find.  Twenty minutes later, we had done the best we could and were in each other's arms, once again consoling each other.  Then Misty said, "How come the toilet worked for Tanya, but not for me?"


Three days passed before the plumber could get through the snowbound streets to repair yet another broken pipe, so we got to know our neighbors (and their plumbing) quite well.  All the houses on the street had gas lanterns in the front yards and the neighborhood turned the street into the best sleigh-riding hill I've ever seen.  We decided not to waste any more time or energy worrying about disasters and plunged down the hill smiling, laughing, and cheering.  We celebrated being alive and being in love, and from that night on that ill-fated house finally became our home.

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