Dedicated to Jack Ozegovic, who says of Bud and me, "You guys seem to spend most of your lives sweeping up the wreckage."
Sounds like a six-month job."
-- Chris' boss, Alex
"I wouldn't do it."
-- Bud Virgo
"If I were their age it would be a great opportunity. I say, 'Go for it.'"
-- Dal Maxwell,retired savings and loan officer
"Henry did the same thing in Glen Echo. He says he'd never do it again."
-- Glenn Pierce
"You can do it, Chris, I'll help you."
-- Steve Serbin, builder
"I think I'll never visit them when they move in. I've worked so hard helping them; it's like a concentration camp."
"Boy, I never heard of such a deal! You'd better have it locked up tight legally. It could end up an awful mess with a lot of litigation."
-- An appraiser
Dec. 27, 1983
Early morning. I look in the mirror and my wrinkles have abated from what they were Dec. 1. I reflect on our life since my birthday celebration at F. Scott's, where it all began.
Feb. 18, 1983
After the birthday dinner at F. Scott's, we decided to have an after- dinner drink and a dance. Three people came in and sat down in the banquette next to us; they were on a real estate convention, visitors from California. Time passed and I asked one, "Have you ever heard of equity-sharing?" This broke open a floodgate of information about the wonderful tax benefits when you help your child buy a home.
When we left I said to my husband, Bud, "That's a wonderful idea. Not only would it help Julie and Chris, but it would be a great write-off for us."
The next time we saw our daughter and her husband, we mentioned that we might be willing to help them find a house. This was in early spring; we heard nothing more about it from them.
Julie calls. "Come to Taylortown (Maryland) in the evening to see an old bank." We drive for an hour and a half. Find a strange little town up near Frederick. We study the bank: small brick building with good windows, front door covered with broken glass, cans, papers and cigarette butts. Julie, Chris and the Realtor arrive and we go inside to an empty rectangle -- no plumbing, no electricity -- nothing. We go to the dirt basement, which is the eating place for cats -- little feathers all over and little dead creatures. Can't imagine there's room for a septic tank on the lot, which is probably why noth to finish the place. Go down the road to another prospective house: old log cabin on the side of a hill with dirt space under the house where more animals gather. Inside it's small, low- ceilinged and dirty -- evidence of more broken dreams. We go back to Gaithersburg and have a hamburger with Julie and Chris and talk about things.
Another call from Julie -- sounds like a really neat place, this one past Frederick, probably a good two hours from Bethesda. Find the house, a neat little place sitting on river-bottom land. Go in bathroom, floor all springy around toilet (as in "bouncy," not wet). Look in dirt basement -- messy -- pieces of awful linoleum over dirt. Looks as if they have had septic tank problems. Realtor says, "I have one more down the road to show, but it's a little hard to see it's so filled with junk. Try to overlook it." We come to a house that is a brick rectangle and looks as if I put it up after drinking a couple of beers. Bud refuses to go in. Three adults sit in the living room. "Want to see the basement?" the man says. He opens the door and the smell of cat urine is so strong it chokes. "No, thanks."
A Couple of Weeks Later
The phone rings about 7:30 a.m. "Mom, I think we've got a house. But you've got to hurry to my office so we can meet the Realtor at 9. It's in Washington Grove and hasn't gone on the computer." When I hear the location I am interested. Washington Grove is a historical spot, with lots of open spaces. After much maneuvering to meet the realtor and get the key, we are ready to inspect this "find." The house is the center one of a group of three. Years ago these places were tents at a Methodist church camp, and they gradually were turned into more permanent dwellings by replacing the tents with two-by-fours and enclosing them for summer cottages. The house itself is a Victorian cottage, very narrow, with a high-pitched gable roof trimmed in gingerbread. You enter in the living room, and there is a large bedroom to the left. A short hall connects the living room to the kitchen. Off the hall is a bath to the left and a small bedroom to the right. Behind the kitchen is a "Florida room" where you enter from the drive. There is no land on either side of the house -- it is very close to the neighbors. The front abuts a park, and the back has a small yard with an oil tank up against the house.
Coincidentally, Bud and I had been to Washington Grove before and had walked around, seen these houses and said to ourselves, "What a job to fix!" And now here Julie and I are, a year later, entering one. First of all, there is evidence of little and big creatures living in the house -- feathers and droppings, pulled-out insulation for making nests or for burrowing into the walls. The kitchen is a shambles except for the stove and refrigerator, both nearly new. I say, "Oh, boy, would I ever love to clean those up." The former residents have left their belongings: drooping, broken, nonfitting venetian blinds; dreadful molding; overstuffed maroon furniture; and draperies hanging askew. The floor tilts 15 degrees in some places. And the place smells.
Julie and Chris had discussed the place the night before and decided they wanted it. We return to the office to put in an offer. The real estate agent says Chris and Julie should go for it on their own; forget the parents.
Problem number one: Find a company willing to loan money on the house. One lender offers a balloon- type mortgage, which can be remortgaged in three years or less because "rates will be going down." Julie and Chris say "no way." Julie says she'll do her own searching. She finds a lender who will consider financing the house if it can be made "mortgageable," that is, if it can pass an appraiser's inspection. This would mean that Julie and Chris would have to improve and repair the house at their expense -- with no guarantee that their work and money would pay off in the end. They come over to discuss whether they ought to go ahead with it. We talk and talk; they go from downtrodden to eager. They decide to go ahead, and they sign papers, get a key and have the electricity turned on. The asking price of the house is just under $40,000. The appraiser lists the things that must be done: raise the floors to level, get a termite certificate, fix the foundation, put on screens, paint the trim and also make sure all systems operate. In addition, redo kitchen and bathroom floors, and put down carpeting or refinish floors. The list looked short. Ho, ho.
A friend loans the kids some books about house construction. I never should have looked into them. "You should raise the house only 1/16-inch a day. Some carpenters say you can go as much as 1/2 inch a day in an old house because an old house is more forgiving." Chris comes over and I point out these things. The date is set for the first raising: Oct. 29 Finishing date: Dec. 30. Julie and Chris spend the week before cleaning out the crawl space, where huge amounts of trash have been left. There must be room to bring in jacks, supports, beams, concrete, concrete blocks. They learn that the house has had two fires, making the crawl space greasy and black. The burned beams are charred but still sturdy; it's the termites and powder beatles that have done the worst damage.
The weekend comes to put the floor-raising jacks in place; the plumb line is dropped from the eaves and measures 31/2 inches from the siding. If the line moves out, it means the house may spring apart. But Chris and his two builder-buddies raise the floor two inches!
Julie and Chris spend every evening and far into the night in the crawl space digging holes for concrete footings. I am the only person who is short enough to stand up at one end of the crawl space. That makes it about five feet high; at the end opposite where I can stand, it is literally a crawl space. One must go by belly.
Beams have to be brought in. They are 25 feet long, so it takes two 2-by- 10s, nailed together, to make one beam. Imagine, if you will, draggings size board under the house through one small opening while you're bent over.
During the week I go out after work and start to clean the stove and refrigerator. Julie begins to paint, but first she is determined to strip whatever she can reach.
"Julie, do you think you really have to strip it?" I ask.
"It's got to be done right," she retorts. "Don't you want us to get this house?"
Nov. 5 & 6, 1983
We go out to work and I take along the coffee maker, to heat water, and a cooker of hot soup; the weather is cold and blustery. Our job is to work on the windows, which are in awful shape -- crooked, broken, dirty with big gaps between the sills through which the wind whistles. There is a heater plugged in the living room. Bud begins to reglaze some panes and we pull out nails where the plastic storm windows have been attached to the boards around the windows. Each year the old plastic evidently was ripped off, and, when the cold weather came, new plastic was put up with a complete disregard for the right nail or fastener: apple crate nails, concrete nails, staples, tacks, headless nails. What a hard job getting them out. It takes a lot of time. The one job I enjoy is ripping the paneling off in the small bedroom, and carting it to the junk heap. It is disgusting, cheap stuff. Chris and his buddies are working under the house. We finally get too tired for more work and go home at dusk while Chris and Julie work on. Things now look worse: the ripping out is being done; the construction doesn't show.
Nov. 26 & 27, 1983
The house has been raised as far as possible. Julie has made the back of the house look much better. The miracle is the number of friends who are donating time to the project. Now that the house is lifted, it is time to do the foundation. Joe, Chris' friend the mason, comes and does a wonderful job. Finally something is done that makes the house really look better.
We continue to pull nails, haul trash outside, sweep, straighten and find lost tools. The weather is holding out so Julie is doing a wonderful job transforming the looks, even painting over the ugly asphalt shingles with a putty color. The roof leaks so badly that when you stand in the bathroom you can look up and see the sky. Some former owner cut right through a supporting beam when the bathroom was added to the house. The roof sags; the bathroom is a disaster area. During the week Chris and his boss, Chip, do a superb plumbing job. There is now running water, a connected nonworking washer, a flushing toilet.
Dec. 3 & 4, 1983
Bud and I drag loaded buckets of debris all day, which we dump in the wheelbarrow and lug up a ramp, slippery with mud, onto the dump truck. Chris says we moved a ton and a half or two tons of building scraps. We feel proud. Chris takes down the temporary supports; his beams take over and the house doesn't budge a centimeter.
Sunday I spend the day filling in nail holes all over the place, inside and out, using wood filler. How can there be so many holes? The termite inspector is to come Dec. 9 to treat the house and decide if enough damaged wood has been removed -- the first crucial inspection. What if he says more beams have to be taken out?
Dec. 17 & 18, 1983
Chris is knocking out bad walls, wood and paneling; nothished. There are stacks of dry wall, trim, insulating pipes, wires, underlayment everywhere. Julie still is painting outside, and the weather's cool but not too bad. The outside looks vastly improved. Chris is putting up the storm windows, which he does with great ease. The foundations are all stuccoed and the windows have new trim around them, which tends to improve their squareness.
Dec. 20, 1983
The final week for helpers. The phone rings at 7:30 a.m. "Mom, Chris' car broke down on 270 and Montrose Road. You and Penny are going out, aren't you? I can't leave work so if you see him on the road will you give him a ride?" My friend Penny and I take off, and when we pass the place he's supposed to be, he's not there. We go on and right near the house we see him coming out of the carpet store driving a friend's car. We go over to the house. Chris says he won't sleep; there's too much to do. He sets Penny and me up with jobs and we work hard hauling rubbish, straightening, piling boards up neatly, finding special nails in great boxes of nails swept up from the floors of other jobs. Chris' car is abandoned, waiting for a tow. Penny and I leave Chris doing dry wall at about 3 p.m. Julie, in the meantime, has chosen carpet and brings it to the house late in the afternoon. "How did you get it here, Julie?" "Drove in the GTO with the top down." (It's very cold.)
Dec. 21, 1983
I walk into the house and find it very warm. The furnace is working. Julie is doing inside painting. My friend Isabel and I start to work. I clean the kitchen cabinets. Chris has fixed up the dreadful mess in the bathroom so that, even if the roof leaks, at least the mess is covered over by new waterproof dry wall around the shower. Chris and a friend have spent two nights removing old floor covering, which left many nails sticking up. I am given the job of sinking the nails; I think I do well. Isabel and I go home. The weather is cold.
The phone rings at 4:20. Chris asks me to go get an electric carpet iron at the rental store. He wants to use it for the evening's work and will come by and pick it up at 5:30. I go to the shop up the street and pick up the iron.
Linda and Tom, our neighbors, come over for a drink around 6. No Chris yet. I figure he will come around 6:30. Finally, at 7:30 he and a buddy come in complaining an ice storm has suddenly hit. Outside is like an ice-skating rink. They leave for the house. "Be careful; be careful." When Tom and Linda leave at 8:30 they have to go out the back door -- the front steps are too icy. The phone begins to ring. "Hi, Mom. Where's Chris?" says Julie.
"Chris left here at 7:30. Call me when he gets there. No, better yet. If he hasn't come by 11, call us." Bud and I watch TV. Eleven comes, no call, so Chris must have made it. We go to bed.
Dec. 22, 1983
The phone rings at 7:30 a.m. "Hi, Mom. It's me. Everybody finally left at 3:30 this morning when it got warmer. We did a lot of work. The appraiser will be at the house today."
Dec. 23, 1983
The phone rings at 8:30 am. "Hi, Mrs. Virgo, it's Bob Caster (the Realtor). The appraiser went by the house yesterday and all he did was take pictures from the outside. But it looks good and everything will go if they get the floors down by Tuesday for the final walk-through. We think the house looks great." I hang up and cry.
Dec. 24, 1983
The carpeting is installed. Chris works on the underlayment for the ack room and the kitchen. He and Julie are very tired.
They say to hell with any work this day. They come for Christmas dinner late in the afternoon carrying a small puppy they found abandoned and scratching at the door of an empty church. The wind- chill factor is 26 below. The pup would not have lasted long if they hadn't rescued her. Chris is so tired he can hardly hold up his head and isn't his usual hungry self. Before they go home, Bud says, "Oh, you guys have so much to do -- leave the puppy for the night."
Dec. 26, 1983
Chris and Julie work all night on the floor and cleaning things for the appraiser. Chris asks me to meet the appraiser on Tuesday. He must go to work.
Dec. 27, 1983
The phone rings at 8:30 a.m. "Hi, Mrs. Virgo, it's Bob Caster again. The appraiser says he wants nobody in the house with him. He wants no pressure from anyone. So don't go out to the house."
I have a flat feelingall this work and over $4,000 spent in renovations and it's going to either pass or be a horrible letdown, and a messy situa- tion to resolve. More work, another loan search -- who has the energy left? The closing is set for the next day unless the appraiser creates a problem.
Dec. 28, 1983
The phone rings at 8:30. "Hi, Mrs. Virgo, it's Bob Caster. I doubt if the closing can take place today -- the roads are a sheet of ice and the messenger has to go way down to Annandale from Silver Spring and be back by 2 p.m. and the traffic is all backed up. I just can't imagine it can take place."
I go outside; it's awful.
The phone rings again, "Hi, Mrs. Virgo, it's Bob Caster. The papers were all moved from Annandale yesterday. The appraiser says the house is fine -- it's all set for 2 p.m."
Julie and Chris arrive at our house at 1:20. Chris gets his only suit out of our closet. I look out the window. I scream, "Chris, the car's on fire."
It's pouring white smoke from the hood, the front, the sides. "Naw, that's just the exhaust. That's what happens when you try to do an economy job on the exhaust system."
He leaves the house and I trail after to say goodbye to Julie and wish them good luck. They go off down the street trailing a cloud of smoke.
Later that night Julie calls and says, "Well, we made it. It's all settled; we've signed the papers. Everything was all right except for a misspelling on an insurance paper."
We meet them at their house. It is tidy, warm and -- with the carpeting down and the kitchen and back room floors covered -- looks great. We sit in the living room on a sheet of foam rubber padding while we drink champagne and eat pumpkin bread. Through the front window I see the park with a Christmas tree alight. We go off to a restaurant for supper. They stay in their new home. They are tired. We still have the puppy. Her name is Fanny.