We’d been married for six months when the phone rang in The Boston Globe return room, where I worked. It was a bank. By lottery, we’d been picked for a federally backed loan with a low interest rate. The limitations were the cost of the house and our income.
So we found a former cottage, a two-bed, one-bath in Wenham located at the end of a single-lane dirt road in a wooded area near a pond that had been converted into a year-round residence. Before moving in, we painted the interior and gutted the bathroom. This included using a vice grip in dim lighting to remove the toilet seat. On my knees twisting the bolts, I began to think about other projects to come. This was my invitation to do-it-yourselfness, something I would be wrestling with for the next few years.
Right before we moved in, we gave my mother-in-law a tour. She walked into the kitchen with her mouth open, smart enough not to overreact. “It’s O.K.!’’ she piped in a positive tone, knowing there was a lot of work ahead.
The cost of heating the house was a priority. To make it better, we installed new windows, added a hearth, a chimney, and a wood stove to offset the price of oil. To do this, we refinanced and ended up doing so multiple times to afford other improvements. Wall Street gave borrowers like us a name, “serial refinancers,’’ but it helped us add on two rooms, a couple of porches, and pave the driveway.
The house was sided with black shingles that we replaced with clapboard, painting them yellow and the trim white. It looked good surrounded by the pine, spruce, and other evergreens. It’s gratifying to paint your own house after doing the work on many others for someone else.
After our son was born, we added a basketball hoop. We lived in a habitat surrounded by flying squirrels, mice, raccoon, and deer. I told friends we never saw a coyote because our son had taken up the drums. The washing machine was rerouted to a room off the kitchen next to the dryer, which created a seasonal crapshoot. Even with insulation, the washer’s pipes froze unless it was a mild winter.
But the house looked cozy, especially when surrounded by snow with constant tufts of gray smoke coming from the chimney. Other seasons provided their individual beauty, but there were some testy moments. One November during high winds, a 100-foot pine crushed a car, missing my wife by about eight seconds.
We’d lived there for 32 years and through the crazy winter of 2015. Our son had moved to Boston, so my back felt the strain from splitting wood and shoveling. It was someone else’s turn now, so we found a renter and semi-retired to Florida. Six months later, we got a call saying our house was on fire and was a total loss.
Thinking back, there are a variety of emotions. The fatigue involved funding home improvements I didn’t know how to do was a reality, but the exuberance felt from finishing a project step by step using my own hands helped us grow.
Our first home, an absolute fix-me-up, gave us the chance to find ourselves.
Ben Klemer is an elementary reading specialist living in Jacksonville, Fla. Send comments and a 550-word essay on your first home to Address@globe.com. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.