The Blue House
My last year of teaching in North Carolina was a difficult one. My marriage was crumbling, I was applying for positions at larger universities to give me more of a career challenge…everything felt out of kilter, chaotic. I knew that I had to stay positive and keep moving forward. The status-quo was not an option for my emotional well-being.
Things began to look up when I was offered the clarinet positions at both North Dakota State University and the University of Alabama at Birmingham in the same week. It was a difficult choice- NDSU was a more well-developed program, and the people were wonderful to me. However, I felt a strong pull to Birmingham. I grew up in the South (okay, Florida…not really ‘The South’), my mom and one of my brothers were in Tampa, and I liked the challenge of building the younger program at UAB. Decision made.
My soon-to-be ex-husband was not happy with my choice, and insisted that I rent an apartment rather than buy a house (control issues, anyone?). In the past, I always acquiesced, did anything to keep the peace, but something was blooming inside of me. I felt a strong determination to follow my heart, and there was no stopping me.
I began to search on-line for homes in Birmingham, looking for something I had always wanted, but never was able to have- an old home with lots of character. There were a few must-haves on my list; hard-wood floors, a claw foot tub, a fireplace, and a location close to school so that I could get home to check on my two dogs. Scrolling through the list of houses, one immediately caught my eye, “Historic home built in 1920, hardwood floors, great city views!” It worked within my small budget, and was literally two minutes from my office door. I felt something guttural when I looked at the picture of this blue house overlooking Birmingham, as if it held the key to my new life.
My husband and I legally separated, and he accepted a position at a university in Arizona. We spoke of getting back together someday, but I knew in my heart it wasn’t to be. Too many hurts inflicted on both sides, different life goals…we had grown too far apart to bridge the gap, and it was time to move on. I never regretted anything, knowing that from the ashes of great sorrow, great things can happen.
I travelled to Birmingham with a dear friend, who has always been like a second mother to me. We met with a realtor, a distinctively southern gentleman by the name of Johnny Walker (I am not kidding). He was deeply religious, and determined to make sure that “this nice young lady” didn’t move into a bad part of town. Well, the home I wanted was smack dab in the middle of what he considered the bad part of town, Southside Birmingham. It was a neighborhood full of historic homes, many of which had not aged gracefully over the years. The people of Southside were eclectic; university professors, artists, crackheads, you name it…and it felt like the perfect fit to me.
Mr. Walker agreed to take us to see the the house, but assured me that he had many other homes in much better locations to show me. As his car pulled up the steep street and rounded the corner, there was my dream home. It had been designed to fit a small pie-shaped piece of property at the corner where two streets converged. It looked like a bedraggled dollhouse with a shaggy yard…it was perfect. My friend was concerned, as she saw the crack in the support wall, saw the rotting wood in the gazebo. She told me later that she was thinking, “okay, maybe the inside of the house will be terrible and she’ll hate it.” Not to be. We opened the door and saw gleaming hardwoods, a fireplace, large picture windows with amazing views of the city, and the most beautiful claw foot tub I had ever seen. Turn off the oven, I was done.
We walked into the dining room and saw some paperwork on the table from an engineering company. Uh-oh. The realtor seemed gleeful when he told me that there were serious structural issues, that I really needed to move on and find a safer house. When we got to the hotel that evening, my friend tried to comfort me, but I began chanting “Blue House! Blue House!” while bouncing on my bed (immature, I know, but it felt really good at the time). I was a woman on a mission, and I didn’t care if I slid down the hill with it- I was going to own what had now been officially dubbed, Blue House.
Mr. Walker took me to see twenty more nondescript homes in “safe” neighborhoods. I went along to be polite, but I hated every minute of it and wanted to get busy making an offer on Blue House. Finally, the realtor relented, the offer was made and accepted, with the bank making me promise to fix the foundation issues post haste. No problem there, as I really didn’t want to slide down the hill. My soon-to-be-officially-ex husband was furious. He came to see the house and hated everything about it, hated Birmingham, hated my new job choice. I was in heaven, though, feeling my wings begin to unfurl from the tightly cramped place they had hidden, dormant for all these years.
After closing on the house, I checked out of the hotel with my two dogs and drove to my new home. I unlocked the door and let the dogs run in on the gleaming hardwood floors that were now mine. We’re home, boys…we’re home. I worked like a demon, cleaning, decorating with my wonderful antiques that had been in storage, working to reclaim the small yard and gardens. I had the foundation fixed, dreamed of re-doing the June Cleaver kitchen and turning the giant attic space into one kick-butt master bedroom suite. I felt at peace, strong, focused. In bringing back the old house, I healed myself.
I threw myself into my new teaching position, made wonderful new friends, became a part of the community…and I met Dan. Dan was the Facilities Manager at the university’s performing arts center. He was kind, gentle, funny, my other half. Dan had just renovated his beautiful condo, and it was pristine. He had a cat, a pool, lived in a great neighborhood. By this time I had three dogs (my old dog, Guinness, Murphy, that I adopted to keep Guinness company, and my big Doberman Bailey, that I adopted when Blue House was broken into by a petty thief. It seems crazy when I think of it now, but at the time it made perfect sense…
Dan and I fell in love, got engaged, and pondered our living arrangements. We dreamed about the improvements we could make to Blue House so that it worked for us. I had always told friends that I would be in Blue House forever, that they’d have to carry me out on a stretcher, but something had shifted in my heart. Home would be where Dan was, wherever that was. His condo was too small for our new family, and Blue House still had so many issues…expensive issues. Dan understood and resonated with my love of historic homes and we both loved our funky old neighborhood. We decided to be open and look around.
As fate would have it, there was a house for sale at the other end of my street. Also built in 1920, this beautiful old house was bigger, had even more beautiful views, more yard for the dogs, two garages (unheard of in Southside), a guest house, and sat high on the hill. We walked through the home in silence, seeing the possibilities, falling in love.
We have lived in Chez Gainey for ten very happy years now, bringing the home back to her former glory together, OUR home. I will always love my Blue House, but I see it now as a symbol. A symbol of my strength and determination to be independent, free. I am a different person now, one who is much more confident, and not afraid anymore to speak up. I chose happiness…and my favorite color has always been blue.