My husband and I had a habit of adopting strays, from the straggly kitten mewing outside our textile-mill apartment in Wickford, R.I., to the waterlogged sailboat down the road with the faded “For Sale’’ sign on its splintered gunwale. So he wasn’t surprised when, in spring 1993, I drove him past my latest find: a decrepit 1920s cottage in Potowomut.
Most Rhode Islanders know Potowomut, a peninsula near East Greenwich, for the greenery of Goddard Memorial State Park. In the summer, families stream in with picnics, Frisbees, bocce, dogs, and children. The neighborhood beyond is lined with tidy houses and quiet beaches. The rickety Cape Cod looked out of place, with its weedy lot, faded shingles, and cracked windows. Inside, ragged holes gaped in doors and walls. The house had been foreclosed on, then abandoned for more than a year when the bank failed. But its melancholy history made me love it more — “The house needs us!’’ I told my husband — and brought its price within our meager budget.
We were lucky. The federal 203K loan for first-time home buyers allowed us to borrow funds for the house and reconstruction. We found a general contractor who was willing to deal with the paperwork, low payout, and our sweat equity — perhaps because he lived two blocks away. We appreciated John Bucci for his laid-back and practical demeanor. But what we learned from him was not just the local pronunciation of terms like loam (“loom’’), but the ability to surmount obstacles posed by the house’s structural quirks. John would worry through a problem aloud until we thought there was no path forward — we’d have to leave the shower controls outside the shower (as we found them) due to lack of space. “Unless…,’’ he’d muse, and we’d know he had found a creative solution to satisfy the town’s inspector, his own craftsman’s conscience, and our dwindling funds.
The house proved to be full of delights. Lilacs, bleeding hearts, forsythia, and hydrangea glorified the yard in spring. Italian tiles peeked out from under the existing hearth; clerestory windows offered magical views of the stars; a crystal “icicle’’ (a percolator stopper?) surfaced in the dirt and soon glittered on our Christmas tree. We lived in the little pine-lined house like a boat. We nestled drawers and shelves in every cranny, lined a lofty gallery with my books, and hid a cedar chest under the window seat where I’d sit with my old dog and new baby and look out at the garden.
The little house attracted lore like a ship gathers barnacles: One owner had brought a horse into the kitchen. She roofed the house bare-breasted. Another cached loot in its walls (we took the house down to its studs but didn’t find a penny). Myth or fact? We didn’t care; we scavenged for tales like beachcombers on a shingle littered with sea glass. The neighbors were its secret treasure, from a genial pigeon-trainer to a 10-year-old who’d stop his bike to carry my groceries to celebrity strongman Tracy King, who died a hero in the Station nightclub fire.
John rebuilt the timbers of this ramshackle house, but we renovated its sad history by filling its corners with our own adventures. Buoyed by love, work, and stories, its flotsam structure became a storybook home: a generative, enchanted vessel that set us on our course.
Meegan Kennedy Hanson divides her time between Maine and Tallahassee, where she teaches at Florida State University. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org 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. Subscribe to our free real estate newsletter at pages.email.bostonglobe.com/AddressSignUp.