The House Was Not Her Home

Author: Joseph Lewis Heil ’59

Many years ago, while working as a general contractor, I built a home on a spacious, suburban lot for a wealthy married couple who, throughout the process, proved difficult. They thought the same of me.

A creek flowed near the house. From its bank the land was heavily wooded all the way to the rear property line where survey flags still fluttered. We often saw deer come from those woods to nibble on the neighbor’s flowers. 

One summer afternoon I met with my clients regarding several issues. The house had just been drywalled. They were pointing out, rather unpleasantly, some less-than-perfect workmanship, as homeowners are eager to do, while I was checking and noting those details, as builders certainly should do. During our stroll from room to room we discovered a hummingbird hovering and trapped against the vaulted ceiling of the kitchen. Neither husband nor wife showed the slightest interest in the little bird’s plight. The bird just couldn’t figure out how to fly down to an open window and freedom, and I feared she might die of exhaustion.

After the couple left, I returned to the kitchen to find the hummingbird still struggling at the high ceiling. I grabbed a long-handled broom and raised it too quickly, frightening her away. Again I lifted it, offering it more slowly, but again the bird flitted away on fragile wings.

Time after time, I inched the broom closer as the bird got used to the nearness of the rounded, wooden handle. She hadn’t rested since I first noticed her, for she had nothing to rest upon. The broom provided a post of repose, and at last she accepted it. Slowly, I lowered her toward the open window. Halfway there, she became frightened and flew back up against the high, hard barrier. We played this sad little game at least a dozen times, every effort bringing the bird a bit closer to freedom.

She hesitated a moment, never turning to acknowledge her rescuer, and then, flying joyfully along the half-loops of an imaginary catenary, darted toward home.

Finally, the dainty creature decided to trust me. She perched on the handle perfectly still. For a moment I didn’t move the broom. When I did — slowly and smoothly — I was sure she knew she needn’t be frightened anymore. I lowered her all the way to the window, then passed her through the opening to the outside air. The bird turned toward the bright, sunlit woods whence she must have come, and a light breeze blew upon her tiny face. She hesitated a moment, never turning to acknowledge her rescuer, and then, flying joyfully along the half-loops of an imaginary catenary, darted toward home.  

Days later, as finish carpenters installed shelves in her large walk-in closet, the wife foolishly bragged about the 300 pairs of shoes that would soon sit there. Eyes rolled. Carpenters work hard; after family essentials, few dollars remain for such gross excess. And no sooner had the maple floors been sanded and sealed than the husband invited their two German shepherds into the house to run around. Of course we then had to fix several dozen toenail scratches. The man never admitted his thoughtlessness or paid the repair order. When construction was complete, he also decided not to pay the last construction draw of $27,000, even though the architect signed off on the checklist and praised the quality of our workmanship. I had to sue, but I only got 18, as my attorney got her nine.

A Scottish proverb counsels, “Fools build houses; wise men live in them.” Building large custom homes is not a fool’s enterprise. It is, however, complex, serious and slow. Most of my clients were understanding and cooperative. Some even became friends. Still, a builder by contract has rights. I once had to remind clients that their new house was not yet a home. “It’s a construction site,” I warned. They resented that until the wife tumbled off the unfinished wooden deck. Fortunately, she was more embarrassed than bruised.

Scottish wisdom eventually won out. On the southern shore of a lovely little lake, my wife and I remodeled a rather ordinary house into our dream home. She was the best client I ever had. I quit the building business and retired to live in the house I’d built and become a writer. To this day I am charmed by the hummingbirds that flit and hover about our gardens and flowering trees. Perhaps, years ago, I encountered one of their ancestors.

Joseph Lewis Heil is the author of two novels:  The War Less Civil and Judas in Jerusalem. He resides in suburban Milwaukee.