It was a big, hundred-year-old foursquare Edwardian on a corner lot with a broad, south-facing exposure near Gerrard and Main. I went home to look up the listing and do some late-night math. The house had been split up into three apartments, and the asking price was $850,000. I figured we would be able to make it work if we rented out the top two units and lived in the two-bedroom space on the main floor. I was excited enough to wake up my wife, Anna, then pregnant with our third child. Anna went back to bed. The next morning, we did the math together. If we sold our dark, narrow semi, which we bought in 2006 for $320,000, and if my father agreed to co-sign the much bigger, 35-year mortgage, this was definitely possible.
We saw the house that weekend. It was overcast and rainy out, and the inside was dark and dingy. The staircase that led to the second and third floors gave off a dungeon-with-flair vibe—the walls, carpet and ceiling were all the same sad shade of purple. We heard other people muttering while going through the house and realized they weren’t seeing what we were seeing. They could only see the purple and the holes in the walls and the beat-up doors. We made an offer the following Monday and closed the deal, at asking price, by the middle of April.
We took possession in July and found a young contractor, Ben Garson, right out of George Brown. He pulled out a textbook in a conversation about load-bearing walls before (safely and successfully) taking one down. It was a learning experience for all of us. Certain things had to be done right away to make the space fit for our growing family—some wiring had to be replaced, and the counters and kitchen sink required updating. We moved in in early August.
Over the next few years, we rented out the upstairs units to graduate students. Our fourth daughter arrived in 2012. A year later, we rented the third floor out to very young newlyweds, and another family with young children leased the second floor soon after. The children set up a jump-rope pulley system in the backyard, running between the second-floor balcony and first-floor patio—the productive industry of the six girls aged nine and younger living under the same old, peeling-shingle roof. A tin bucket swung up and down, filled with mud pies and secret notes and baby dolls. As the house’s occupancy grew, so did the need for a full-scale renovation.
The nails in the hardwood began popping up and tearing into the bottoms of little feet; the wall in the shower collapsed; rats came through the broken drywall and ate the bread we stored on top of the fridge; at least one rat died in the basement ceiling, the smell of which inspired one of our kids, then a toddler, to ask if someone was making bacon soup down there. Raccoons made their way into the garage and used it as a communal winter toilet; the side door stopped closing; the side door stopped opening; the door hinges came loose. Everything felt like it was coming loose. We needed a windshield scraper to get the ice off the inside of the bedroom windows on winter mornings, and at night we used couch cushions to barricade against the harsh draft that poured in through the gaps around the front door.
The house was running out of its century-long patience, and we were running out of space. Anna and I had met as PhD students in English literature—you could build a ladder nearly to heaven with our books, and they were absolutely everywhere, on and beside and under our beds, piled up on side tables and coffee tables, never mind the hundreds more stored in my office on campus and in my mother’s suburban closets. In other words, when we finally decided to renovate, we knew we wanted a library.
We met an architect, Heather Asquith, through a mutual friend. We called Ben, the young contractor who had helped us when we’d first moved in. We told our housemates and had a yard sale and a goodbye party. We called the bank, a lot. We planned an eight-month renovation with a $400,000 budget. On July 1, 2016, we moved out, into an apartment above a laundromat on nearby Queen East. Ben and his crew carted away 43 tonnes of broken-down old house before they began the renovation. Ben and I were equally proud of this number. It meant nothing to anyone else.
There were, of course, surprises: a midsummer work stoppage because years before, someone had cut support beams between the first and second floors; also asbestos and permit complications and budget overruns and delivery delays. Anna had creative differences with the electrician about the placement of lights and switches and outlets; Anna had creative differences with the carpenter about the mantel above the fireplace in the library; pretty much everyone had creative differences with me when I asked the heating guy to cost out a high-velocity air conditioning system. I liked saying “cost out.”
Amazingly, we moved back in in mid-March, only a couple of weeks later than scheduled. Our house was transformed, all 2,500 square feet of it, and at last, it was all and only ours. Yet it didn’t feel that way, even after seven years of dreaming and calculating and planning. I spent a weekend putting away all our books. Anna and I had martinis in the library late one night. It felt procedural—one more item on a list of things somehow involved with the renovation. We were tired of house stuff. We were just plain tired.
By late April I was text-sniping with Ben about some rocks—a couple of tonnes—left on the front lawn. Someone had over-ordered them. No one knew who, or for what. No one wanted to move them. So I did it.
We’d designated a mud patch in the backyard for a trampoline. But if we put the trampoline down in the mud, how long before it sunk and joined all those old rat bones? I spent a cold, bright spring day carting rocks from front to back in a wheelbarrow. More than sitting before the fireplace in the library, and certainly more than the $500,000 we ended up spending, and the perpetual signing of cheques and negotiations with the bank and with Ben; more, in fact, than anything else, this made me feel, even ache with the knowledge that I had done my part to make this house our home. I spread out those dull, beautiful rocks in a back corner of our new-old-new-old house, where my children and their children would someday take flight.
Randy Boyagoda is a novelist, professor of English and principal of St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto. His most recent book is Original Prin.