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Throughout almost all my adult life, I had a recurring dream, which varied in content but always involved a large Victorian house with both a front and a back staircase.
The dream’s details moved back and forth from realism to fantasy. Sometimes it was just an empty place I happened to be in, but frequently, I would be wandering happily through endless rooms, like Alice when she dropped down that rabbit hole.
I don’t remember exactly when these dreams began, but it was likely in my mid-20s, after I bought my first home with my first husband in a crumbling neighbourhood in downtown Toronto. It was all we could afford and, much to my parents’ dismay, we wanted to live in a neighbourhood that was different from the bland subdivision of cookie-cutter houses on treeless streets where I’d grown up.
The house was charmless. A brick semi-detached with a postage-stamp yard, it had warped pine floors, a bricked-up fireplace and small windows that didn’t let in much sunlight. The neighbourhood, however, was dotted with solid-boned, large Victorian houses that were mostly run down and divided into low-rent rooms or flats.
I would wander the streets, gazing at these aged beauties with gingerbread trim and fantasize about the stories they held from their glory days. That was likely the impetus for the two-staircase dream house that emerged in my sleeping hours.
My next house, with my second husband, was larger and lighter. It was also semi-detached and was in the same neighbourhood, which was now inhabited by young professionals dressing up the houses one by one – ripping off front porches, creating open-concept main floors and exposing the painted bricks.
We renovated in the spirit of the times, though still in a way that made the house comfortable and inviting for friends and family. My children grew up there. It was a wonderful house and I loved it. Yet it was not the house that I was secretly dreaming about as I watched those heritage Victorians being taken over by wealthy real-estate agents and semi-famous people.
My third house was in the Bay Area in California. My husband had obtained work there, and with great excitement I took early retirement and embarked with him on a new journey and a search for an empty-nesters’ home.
Steven Hughes for The Globe and Mail
This was before the hedge fund fiasco and houses were difficult to find and more expensive than the tripled-in-value home we had sold in the now-upscale neighbourhood In Toronto. Yet we managed to find a house high on a hill with a coveted three-bridge view of the Bay. It was really just a box with huge windows, but it was literally a house in the clouds. Watching the vista changing minute by minute out to the Golden Gate, I almost felt I’d made it to heaven.
I was still dreaming of my secret house, though, and felt somehow stripped and adrift in that too-light box made – yes, Mr. Seeger – “of ticky tacky” with little substance. My musings on that house turned out to be a metaphor for my 25-year-plus marriage, which ended there.
I took myself back to work and winters and the solid abodes of Toronto.
At first, newly single and on the cusp of becoming a senior, I lived in a shiny downtown condominium way up high, overlooking Yonge Street. I thought it would be ideal. It had indoor parking, a pool and a gym, and steps to every kind of shopping one could want or need.
Yet, my house dream kept returning to me. I slept badly when sirens, endless honking, the screeching of tires and the screaming of drunks echoed through the canyons of the city. I found the long elevator ride up depressing and I felt misplaced, like a singular old land bird mistakenly stuck in a cliffside dwelling among soaring young sea hawks.
In my next search for a home, I had no idea what I might find on my halved assets. My agent took me to a number of co-ops and condos.
As it happens, a rare apartment-turned-condo in a smallish, low-rise, Victorian-era building came on the market. We visited it, and once inside I immediately experienced déjà vu: a warm and familiar comfort.
There was no gingerbread trim, but there were panels and moulding, paned and stained-glass windows, a working fireplace with original mantle and a sunroom looking out to a large garden shaded by 100-year-old oaks.
The building also had a story, a rich and intriguing legend and lore attached to it. When my agent and I descended stairs and wandered through the huge, unfinished, dungeon-like basement with many rooms-cum-storage-lockers and nooks and crannies that went on forever, we finally came to a second staircase leading the way back up.
I recognized it instantly.
I am a now a bona fide senior and grateful grandmother, and I have been in my home for over a decade. I haven’t had my recurring house dream since I moved here. I am on the ground floor.