The following spring she moved outdoors. She cleared the chaos of overgrowth, trucking the debris to a composting facility on the outskirts of town. Determined to give the house the perfectly flat front lawn she had pictured as the ideal complement to its architectural starkness, she began to dig, removing the excess soil a spadeful at a time with a handheld shovel and smoothing the surface with a rake. The massive earthworks took place in a very proper part of town, in full view of every passing pedestrian, cyclist, and driver. She heard that several neighbors disapproved of the project -- which, she acknowledged, had turned her front yard into something resembling a war zone -- but she continued, unabashed. There was no alternative.
The Sisyphean task took two seasons. To make it psychologically manageable, she counted the loads of soil as she shoveled them into the wheelbarrow and removed them to other parts of her property. There were thirty-eight barrowsful altogether. Once she had meticulously raked the flattened ground, she sowed her grass seed.
Martha abandoned herself completely to the garden. From the earliest warm spring day through the last autumn frost, she spent every available moment working the soil. Often she would realize she had gone all day without food; she would run into the house, covered with mud, to eat something over the kitchen sink before returning to her rake or shovel. Dripping with sweat, her cheeks flushed bright red, hair pushed back from her forehead with a muddy palm, she remembered what it was to be happy.
The flat sward sprouted and turned green. She dug out a perfectly rectangular border, amended the soil with yards of gravel for drainage, and planted her lavender hedge. In a side garden she added perennials for color -- peonies, columbines, and giant allium. By the front door she planted apricot roses in a bed of chartreuse Creeping Jenny and masses of lilac foxgloves interspersed with purple sage. At the end of a long, hot day she would sit outdoors and look through the windows to the lighted rooms inside. The house was so much more than real estate. When she gave to the house, it responded -- primarily in terms of stability. And as a single, newly tenured faculty member resolved to succeed on her own terms, she found her home's stability profoundly supportive. She had borne the loss of her relationship, but she could not imagine losing her home, as well.
"It wasn't a house anymore," she says. "It was a companion. It was the house and Elizabeth, and my truck. Those were the dependables. I would leave for the day and then come back, and there would be Elizabeth, in a very strong, stable old house. Walking in was an embrace. It was sanity, stability, comfort, embrace."
Friends speculate that Martha will move on once her projects are complete, but she is no renovation junkie. The process itself has many satisfactions, but her greatest reward comes from the sense that she is giving to the house. It's an ongoing reciprocal relationship. The house supported her through trying times. She feels honored to return that care, and honored to enjoy the results.
This post is excerpted from "A Home Of Her Own" by Nancy Hiller with photographs by Kendall Reeves.