Our House: Life on the compound, or why I’ve chosen to live very, very close to my extended family

Catherine Baab-Muguira’s house backs right up to her brother’s. And she likes her little compound just fine.

Photo by: mamamusings

Last night, my neighbor and I got through a bottle of pinot. Then we found we were still thirsty, so we opened a bottle of Cava and I made us a Kir Royale each. I’d bought the Crème de Cassis a few days before, especially, understanding the celebratory impulse would arise. This morning, I found her husband’s shirt in my kitchen.

No, I’m not gearing up to share some really sordid tale. Instead, what you’re about to read is wholesome, G-rated. Or maybe R-rated, but only in the sense of how very Richmond it is.

Like every great real-estate adventure story, this one starts with an out-of-date car registration. My husband, Chris, and I had been living in Australia for a few years, and when we arrived back home last January, the first thing we wanted to do was camp inside Applebee’s and eat all the mozzarella cheese sticks. The last thing we wanted to do was stand in line at the DMV.

It was a bleak time. Not because we were unhappy to be back–because there were so many adult tasks to tssk off the list: Re-register the damn car, see everyone we hadn’t seen in two years, keep up with work, find a place to live. I stumbled through the first few weeks. My sleep schedule had gone to hell, and I stayed up late watching HGTV to catch up on those episodes of “House Hunters International” I’d missed while we were living internationally.

One afternoon in February we had an appointment to meet our realtor for a showing in Stratford Hills, but didn’t have the means to get there. I rang my younger brother Luke, a college student who lived in the area, to ask for a ride, promising Mexican food in exchange. The real estate business would not take long, I said.

Which turned out to be true. An hour later, I got my first glimpse of the house we’d end up buying. You got it–the house directly behind Luke’s. Post-Stratford Hills showing and pre-fajitas, we stopped by his place.

“Hey, that one right there is for sale,” Chris said, just before we turned into Luke’s cul-de-sac. So Luke tapped the brakes, and Chris leapt out to grab a flyer out of the little box.

As soon as he left the car, I knew he’d made up his mind. I could feel the change in the force, the disturbance. Still in the car, I sat psyching myself up for the fight. I’d have to talk him out of this. Wouldn’t it be totally crazy to buy the house right behind my brother’s? That would be like living on a compound! We hadn’t even been planning to look in Luke’s neighborhood–a pleasant ’80s-ish suburb just off Midlothian on Southside, unpretentious, diverse, and shady in the leafy sense.
The house was a foreclosure that got flipped by a cable guy/handyman and a dentist. Between the modest neighborhood and the fact that there were no grade-A contractors involved, the price was low while the place was adorable: New siding and windows, new hardwood floors, new appliances. It wasn’t even listed yet on the MLS. At 1,500 square feet, it was just as much space as we needed. Perfect for us. (Also, lovely neighbors.)

Of course this took me weeks to see properly. I am perverse and dumb. Sometimes when I can’t sleep, Chris, who has a foot in height and a hundred pounds on me, will throw one tree trunk-like leg over me so that I have to quit tossing and turning. Eventually I will fall asleep. Likewise, the things in my life that have brought me the most happiness have often been things I resisted until they overcame my defenses and I had to settle in, so that later I was surprised by the joy they brought me, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis.

At the time, I had more experience missing the people that I love than I did living next door to them. Luke was stationed in a dicey province in Afghanistan between 2011 and 2012, and I can still remember the sensation of looking up from my desk at work and wondering how I would manage to leave under my own power if I got the call that something had happened to him. Then Luke got home, thankfully unscathed, but then after a long, horrible bout with cancer, Chris’s mom died. Moving 10,000 miles away seemed to offer the change of scenery we needed, as well as being a good career move.

No life-phase lasts forever, though. Our drives and anxieties shift, taking on new forms. Toward the end of our two years away, I began to long for stability–the maturity it represents, which I felt myself lacking–the way a 12-year-old girl longs for breasts. It came half from my genes, half from my conscious mind.

Far wiser and more mature despite being nine years younger, Luke and his wife Nicole welcomed us to their ‘hood with a fudge pie from Ukrop’s. We began to know all the benefits of living twenty yards from them, like the ability to borrow kitchen utensils at a moment’s notice. At first, this required jumping the backyard fence; then, two weeks in, Luke took down that section of the fence and put in a walkway with slate steps. Most nights we have dinner together, decompressing from the day with chats and burgers on the deck, ours or theirs.

Other benefits: Only one of us needs to subscribe to HBO. Furniture assembly goes faster with more adults around. So do bathroom remodels. The four of us help and receive help, without any of the hassle involved in living in an actual compound or polygamous cult. Also: If you leave for your meeting but find you have forgotten to email yourself your PowerPoint deck, well, your neighbor can just go break into your house and send it along.

Reader, I love it. The whole thing is a bit like that criminally underrated and little-known Beach Boys’ song “Disney Girls.” (“And the warmth I missed/and for the things I wished/it’s all coming true.”) The highest hopes we can have for our circumstances is that they help us to become kinder, more decent, less lonely. For the first time since childhood, I can reach my brother via walkie-talkie.

Soon there may be other voices on the line. My youngest brother Matt is home from school for the summer, and spends a lot of time over here, learning about original Nintendo games from Chris and eating the s’mores dip that Nicole makes.

Oh, yeah… And my parents? They think they like the neighborhood too. They drove by the other day and grabbed a flyer from a house with a For Sale sign out front.

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Catherine Baab-Muguira

Catherine Baab was born in South Carolina, but grew up in Richmond, which explains a lot. She sometimes blogs about her escapist nautical fantasies at shegoestosea.blogspot.com.

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