I Was Scared to Put Down Roots—Until My Family's Dream Home Came Along
A real estate commitment phobe, Joanne Ramos was happy to rent in case the next thing came along. Then the perfect listing did.
FOR MANY YEARS, my husband dreamed of owning a house in the countryside for weekend getaways. He’s from North Carolina, and I grew up in Wisconsin—and while we both love living in New York City, we often long for the renewal of the outdoors. Over the decade and a half of our marriage, my husband and I have rented an assortment of temporary refuges in rural New York and Connecticut: houses next to lakes, cabins in the woods, modern constructions of cement and glass, and a plum-colored Victorian that smelled of cat litter and incense.
Every so often, over the years, my husband has approached me, trying to mask his excitement: “I found a house for sale in our budget and—”
Before he could continue, my jaws would clench, a visceral reaction to the thought of homeownership, which seemed so overwhelmingly... permanent. I liked renting: It was low-stakes and low-commitment.
I’ve always felt physically untethered. I was born in the Philippines, and my family moved to Wisconsin when I was 6. And while I spent the rest of my childhood there, in a small city on the coast of Lake Michigan, I always knew I would leave. My parents raised me, as many immigrant parents raise their children, to “make it” in the world—wherever that would take me. They encouraged me to apply to an Ivy League university out east, even though it meant they’d have to shovel deep into their savings and I’d take on debt. They cheered my moves to New York City and Boston and London for various jobs, even as my successes guaranteed I’d make a life far from them.
So when my husband announced, several years ago, that he’d found “our” house, I was characteristically resistant. And then I saw it.
The house was a farmhouse built in the early 1800s and composed of a warren of rooms, with one working shower—a far cry from our modern, loftlike apartment in Manhattan. The 99-year-old matriarch who had lived in the home for over 60 years had passed away, and the grounds were overrun with brambles and wayward bushes the size of trees.
I’m not someone who gets excited about decorating, much less big home-improvement projects. But the house resonated with me. I liked that it was sweet, rather than grand. I was drawn to its quirks. The low ceilings that would have been a nonstarter for me in the city seemed cozy in the country; the ladder built into the wall that led to the bat-filled attic was oddly perfect, lined with leather-bound books.
Above all, there was a warmth to the place. An almost palpable sense that it had been loved and filled with love.
Over the weeks, images of the house kept popping up in my head: The towering sugar maple tree that cried out for a rope swing. The sagging shelves in the study that would be perfect for our excess books. The way the slope of the land seemed to hold that old house in its embrace. And though I remained terrified about the permanence of owning, I was also, tentatively, open to it.
Around this time, I joined my first book club. One of our initial reads was a wonderful memoir by the photographer Sally Mann, called Hold Still ($13; amazon.com). I was struck by Mann’s descriptions of her family farm in Virginia. Its landscape, and the river that wound through it, were characters in the book, every bit as important as the narrator herself. I remarked to my book group that a physical place had never had that sort of hold on me. In answer, one by one, the women in the group spoke about the places that they loved, and that were lodged inside of them.
I rode the subway home that night wondering why I’d never felt an attachment of this kind, if that was why I’d always felt so boxed in by the idea of owning a house. Was it because I was an immigrant, the child of parents who broke with their homeland for a better life? Was it because I was raised, as immigrant children often are, to aim high and move on to bigger and better things? Did it matter?
WITH SOME TREPIDATION, at least on my part,we bought the house. We learned from our broker that the late owner’s granddaughter—who’d spent her childhood summers there—was sad about its sale, even as she knew it was the right decision. I wrote her an email. In it, I said it was clear the house had been loved for many years, and I promised our family would love it too. I invited her to visit anytime she was on the East Coast, attaching a picture of our children swinging monkeylike from one of the trees in the yard.
We began an email correspondence. On move-in day, my family found a stack of faded snapshots on a table downstairs—of the barn when horses still whinnied in its stalls, of the house before trees encroached upon it. Alongside the stack was a handwritten note from the granddaughter addressed to my children. She wrote that her late father, an important conservationist, first fell in love with nature while roaming the fields and forests around the property as a kid. She hoped my children would pass many good hours in those same fields and forests.
Through our correspondence, I started to feel a sense of continuity between her family and ours, a circle that encompassed us both. And so my husband and I kept some things unchanged. The desk at which I write and the crystal glasses we use at meals are hand-me-downs, props shared across generations and two families. The books we brought from the city sit alongside battered tomes that have lived in the house for over half a century. In a recent email exchange, the granddaughter told me she was putting the finishing touches on a book she made for my children, comprising pictures of and stories about the property over the years.
Slowly, we started to make the place our own. There’s new furniture in many of the rooms and new paint on the walls. There’s a dad-and-kid-constructed American Ninja Warrior–style jungle gym in the shed that once housed farm machinery. As a family, we rebuilt a fallen stone wall near the forest—an imperfect job that is exactly right because of its imperfections.
THE FIRST TIME I STAYED in the house by myself was half a year after we bought it. A friend was supposed to join me for a “writing retreat” but had to cancel at the last minute. The house wasn’t yet home, despite the imprints we’d made on it, and the city dweller in me was anxious. There were so many easily breached ground-floor windows! The nearest neighbors were half a mile away! I jumped at every clank of the old heater and creak of the shifting house, uneasy within its walls.
The solitude did the trick, though. I got more writing done in two isolated days than I would have in eight days in the city. I returned the following week and many other weeks that late fall and early winter. Over time, I stopped noticing the house’s groans and grunts. I started venturing outside for walks, first within a stone’s throw of the house, soon farther a field. I came to know the land—where it rose to a wide clearing with pretty views, where a half-frozen creek petered out into swamp.
Life got busy. I was overwhelmed by a big deadline and antsy for the quiet of the country, but for weeks, my and the kids’ schedules kept me in the city. Finally, I managed to arrange a sneak visit. I fled New York like someone uncaged.
When I arrived at the house, it was late afternoon. I left my overnight bag in the car and immediately walked to the large feld where, some mornings, we spy a family of deer or wild turkeys. The ground under my feet was frozen, the Catskills purplish behind the trees’ bare branches.
I love this place, I realized. I feel part of this place.
When I first told my mother about the house, I joked that I was attempting a return to childhood. The area did remind me of Wisconsin—the scattered dairy farms, the open fields and open sky. And yet I never hankered for Wisconsin the way I did for this house and this land.
Part of it, I think, is a function of time. Growing up in Wisconsin, I was young and hungry: a straight, quivering arrow aimed somewhere “better.” Now, in my 40s, I’m still hungry to learn and grow, but the idea that moving up in the world means constant motion has lost its resonance. In fact, I’ve begun to sense that, maybe, it’s in the loops of life—its deepening circles, and not the forward thrust of “progress”—that fulfillment lies.
I don’t think finding a physical place to love is necessary to live a full life. I believe it’s possible to ground yourself in different geographies, defined by the people you love or a life’s passion. Yet the feeling that descended on me that day in the field and in many days since—peace, but more than that; belonging—is grounding in a way that is difficult to describe. I suppose it’s the feeling of homecoming.
Joanne Ramos’s debut novel, The Farm ($18; amazon.com), will be published May 7. She previously worked in finance and as a staff writer for the Economist. She lives in New York City with her family.