My First Home: Fixer-upper broken heart

My First Home
. —Robin Heighway-Bury for the Boston Globe

It wasn’t a tiny house, but at 1,000 square feet, the home on Massachusetts Avenue in South Portland, Maine, was snug. It housed our family of five — and for a while eight, after an apartment fire brought my Irish grandparents and uncle to live with us. With one bathroom, there was no fireplace or dining room, and we had to pull the table out from the wall to sit down for meals. Before dinner, my father would ask if anyone needed the milk. Once he sat down, we couldn’t open the refrigerator.

The Cape Cod was in a subdivision optimistically named Sunset Park, the site of a former pig farm. Built quickly for returning GIs and their families in the 1940s, the small identical houses sat side by side in straight rows. They had wet cellars and little insulation to make it through long Maine winters. My parents, a maintenance worker and a nurse, focused on the fenced-in backyard, perfect for summer birthday parties. The wide streets were ideal for learning to ride bicycles. A VA loan helped them buy the fixer-upper with a small down payment. Homeownership was a precious luxury none of my grandparents had enjoyed, and I grew up feeling proud that my parents had been resourceful enough to snag their piece of the American dream. I felt lucky to live there, surrounded by woods in a neighborhood loaded with other children my age.

As I grew older, I became more aware of the house’s shortcomings. I began to resent the quick showers and felt annoyance that our furnace often stopped working on cold nights. My parents’ stories of having grown up in cramped apartments lacking showers no longer brought the desired result of blessing counting. I began to muse over the seemingly haphazard geographic reference points used to name the streets. Our street ran parallel to New York and Pennsylvania and was intersected by Concord and Delaware. I wondered whether the builder named the streets for places that held personal special meaning or whether it was a task completed quickly, with an air of indifference.

I brought friends home and occasionally saw the modest house through their eyes. I voiced my annoyance, as only teenagers can, to patient parents. I envied my friends who lived in the split-level ranches of nearby Country Gardens, a 1970s development that seemed modern in comparison. When I finished college, I moved to the big city and didn’t look back — or so I thought.

When the time came to move my aging parents closer to me in Boston, we prepared to sell the house. I felt shocked by the depth of my sadness. We admired the powerful furnace my father finally bought after finishing the last college tuition payment; the HVAC contractor said it was strong enough to heat a large apartment building. We smiled at the fresh paint and tidy yard filled with my mother’s flowers and my dad’s tomato plants. I now could see how perfect this house had always been.

By this time I was working as a real estate attorney. I had handled hundreds of house closings and was surprised at how difficult it was to say goodbye to my own. Today, the closings that bring me the most satisfaction are the ones with first-time home buyers, choosing little Cape houses on flat streets in older subdivisions, wondering how the builder chose the names.

Kelly Bonnevie, a real estate attorney in Newton, is still too sad to drive by her childhood home. Send comments and a 550-word essay on your first home to Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue. Subscribe to our free real estate newsletter — our weekly digest on buying, selling, and design — at