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large eccentric house

Sara was, and still is, one of the coolest people I have ever met. Our friendship began when she slipped a forbidden piece of paper to me during one of the most boring assemblies of our middle school years. “What’s your name?” And just like that, a friendship was born, one of those very good ones that stands the test of time.

Within hours Sara had given me her address. These were in the days before the internet, and so becoming old-fashioned pen pals was the way to go. We wrote back and forth to each other all that summer, and when I walked into my high school science class on the first day of my freshman year, there she was — her blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail and her smile lighting up her eyes. “I saved a seat for you!”

A few weeks later, I went to her house for a sleepover. The moment we pulled into the big curved driveway, my jaw dropped.

The millionaire’s house

“This is your place?” I asked, incredulous. It was easily the largest home in the area, three stories standing tall over the rest of the town, an unattainable place that had to be the home of millionaires. By the time we reached the garage, I was completely in awe, staring up at the dormer windows and tall chimneys. We pulled into one of the five bays in the garage and from there, walked along a wide corridor until we emerged into the family room.

When I expressed my surprise again, she smiled at me. “It’s not about money,” she said. “We really don’t have much money. It’s all about necessity.”

And within an hour, I realized exactly what she meant.

That big, gorgeous house was built to handle the kids in that big family — all fourteen of them. That’s right. Fourteen. And that was in addition to the many cousins, grandparents, extended family members and even friends who found refuge there from time to time. Those big dormer windows let light stream into the massive bedrooms, most of which had at least two beds. There were two family rooms, each one filled to the brim with trunks full of toys, books and board games. The kitchen was the largest I had ever seen, with no fewer than three refrigerators, each loaded with food. There were three chest freezers too, down in the basement, where assorted sports gear and outdoors equipment was stored in a state of hurried disarray.

“We built it ourselves”

But what truly got my attention was the dining room. The long room caught the afternoon light through floor-to-ceiling windows. The table stretched for an eternity, with mismatched but comfortable chairs lining each side. It was a room meant for Thanksgiving dinner, every single day.

“How did you find a house like this?” I asked Sara as I ran my hands over the smooth surface of the table.

“We built it ourselves,” she said, not without a note of pride.

“You built it?”

“My mother is a construction manager,” she said, shrugging. “My brother is in construction. We all just learned as we went along.”

Little quirks

Sure enough, Sara pointed out a few things that told me it was true. There was the door that wasn’t quite level, and the spot where the drywall didn’t quite cover the back of a linen closet. There was the window with the extra-wide casing, because someone had cut the hole all wrong when the walls went up. There was that one creaky stair that nobody could figure out how to fix, and there was the garage door that wouldn’t open — again, nobody could figure out why.

That was my first of many days spent in that wonder of that big, beautiful house. I learned the little quirks of the rooms, which pitcher in the fridge held the best cherry punch, and how to avoid that creaky stair when Sara and I sneaked in a little past curfew. When I was seventeen, I spent two weeks there, wielding a hammer as another addition went up — this one a sunroom, a little gift for a Momma who had poured her life into her kids and now just wanted a place to sit down among her houseplants and rest.

It’s not money — it’s love

Today the kids are all grown up, but that big rambling house is still the biggest thing in town. The usual rumors still fly — that millionaires live there, and that ghosts might be in the attic. But the truth of the matter is even better: That the house was built over time, with love and care. There are houses built with money, and then there are houses built with love. Sara and her wonderful family taught me that it is always best to live in the latter.

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Shannon Dauphin Lee

Shannon Dauphin Lee is a journalist and occasional novelist with a serious weakness for real estate. When she's not writing, she and her husband are taking road trips to explore covered bridges, little wineries and quaint bed-and-breakfast inns in their beloved Pennsylvania.