The starter house on Vauxhall Street
A little house on Vauxhall Street in New London
was where we learned to be husband and wife
The place looked precisely like a first-grader's crayon sketch of a house.
A simple square box with an inverted V for the roof. A red door at the center between two windows on each side.
It was a white, one-bedroom, one-bath, one-story house on Vauxhall Street in New London. And in the summer of 1985, we emptied our bank accounts and paid $76,000 for it.
Like for many young couples, it was our down payment on a new and proud beginning. A lifetime milepost, it was an investment that over the stretch of nearly three decades now continues to pay important dividends.
After the closing, at which the previous owner chuckled mysteriously, we opened the champagne our real estate agent had given us. Joanie and I sat on the rug in our tiny, empty living room and raised paper cups to toast our future. The moment is captured in a fading photograph of us - so young and so happy - that sits framed now on my wife's dusty bedside table.
It was three months before our wedding, and slowly we filled the place with mostly secondhand furniture. Bedroom dressers from our parents' attics. A cheap, garish orange den set that we banished to the basement.
We had a 1950s-vintage freezer down there that could be safely opened only by the dish towel tied to its latch. Otherwise electric shock was administered.
My aunt donated her old washing machine, also an Eisenhower administration holdover. On my maiden voyage to the hardware store as a homeowner, the elderly brothers who ran the well-worn place instructed me on how to attach the thick black rubber drain hose to the thing. Their final admonition: "Whatever you do, don't cut it short.''
When I returned 20 minutes later, the ruined hose made plain my humiliation. The sibling proprietors turned to each other and said - I swear in derisive unison - "He cut it short.''
We splurged on a new living room set (Jordan's Furniture on Moody Street in Waltham). We carted home Joanie's stuff from her old apartment in Quincy. Friends bought us a lawn mower. It came in a box. I assembled it and then watched as a grease-stained handyman took it apart and, shaking his head, reassembled it correctly.
But slowly, we got the hang of things. We bought a gas grill and cooked out on summer nights. We played Wiffle ball in the long and narrow backyard that backed up to a car dealership. We hosted semiweekly dinner parties for friends and colleagues.
Joanie's sausage lasagna, I remember, was a big hit. So was the cooler of beer that I made sure was fully stocked. No one had to correct my technique with that chore.
When Hurricane Gloria bore down on Connecticut that fall, I was instructed by my employer, The Day, to be at work early to cover the monster storm. I got up at 5 a.m. and went to my embarrassingly sparse toolbox. WCBS radio in New York announced menacingly that the storm had made us its bull's-eye. I picked up a roll of masking tape to protect the picture window that was our first bedroom's finest feature. There was enough for only one half of the required "X'' to protect the glass. It would have to do.
That tiny home held our first Christmas tree. It hosted big parties for the yearly spectacular fireworks show over the Thames River. One year, those pyrotechnics were drowned out by a biblical deluge, and we raced home impossibly drenched and delighted.
Our neighbors gradually embraced us. When I decided to fertilize the lawn that first spring, my crotchety swamp Yankee neighbor yelled to me from across the tall thick hedges that divided our properties.
"What are you doing over there?'' he wanted to know.
"Fertilizing the grass,'' I told him, so proud.
"It's a weed, you damn fool! It'll grow by itself and you'll be cutting it all summer,'' he replied. Score one for the know-it-all neighbor.
But I didn't care.
We learned to be husband and wife beneath that simple roof.
I cooked supper for Joanie and had it waiting for her when she returned home after her long commute from Hartford. She watered the houseplants, made the curtains, and took charge of our slender finances that had always befuddled me.
One autumn afternoon, after I returned from a post-work tavern visit with my newspaper colleagues, there was a small plant on the counter. The note read: "Hi, Dad. See you in seven months.'' I told Joanie someone must have made an errant delivery. Clueless. Read it again, she said. Oh. Oh!
Before that baby was born, a telephone call came as Joanie was wrapping Christmas presents on that kitchen counter in New London. It was a job offer for me in California, the beginning of a journey that would eventually - and circuitously - lead us back home.
To a different home, where I have successfully applied lessons learned on the Connecticut shoreline a long time ago. Rely on the kindness of the handyman. Keep the beer cooler full. And pay attention when your wife sends you a message. It's probably important.
Thomas Farragher is the editor of the Boston Globe's Spotlight Team. Along with the Spotlight Team, he received the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for reporting on the child sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. This article first appeared in The Boston Globe on June 8. Tom can be reached at Thomas.Farragher@globe.com.
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