ABOVE Writer Mary Pols and Gryff relax in the fancier of the two living rooms in her 19th-century Brunswick home.
TEXT BY MARY POLS
PHOTOGRAPHED BY TARA RICE
I am not a rich woman, but I have two living rooms. My 1875 Brunswick house is that big. The front living room used to be a lawyer’s parlor, its better floors (warm bird’s-eye maple) speaking to its past as his impressing-clients area. The other one houses the television and PlayStation. We refer to it as the family room, even though there are just two of us, my son and me, plus a large goldendoodle and a skinny orange-and-white cat.
Our house’s size, about 3,200 square feet, relative to the size of our family elicits surprise, and sometimes even consternation, from visitors. They stand under the parlor or dining-room’s 10-foot-tall ceiling and ask, with pointed concern, how I heat the place. I’ve met a number of locals who considered and rejected the house during the year-plus it was on the market. “It was too big for us,” a mother of two told me. “I didn’t know how I’d keep it clean.”
I fell for this house too fast for that thought to enter my mind. Instead, I focused on its south-facing light and how it has two staircases. Projecting our future, I imagined my little boy, then seven, coming in late and climbing the back staircase when he was a teenager (a play I’m expecting any day now). I overlooked the weirdness of the three entrances into the upstairs bath for the seductive invitation of the clawfoot tub.
I remember my Realtor sighing as he put his shoes back on in the hopelessly outdated kitchen after our second walk-through. He could tell I was mentally placing furniture in every room. The house would be a lot of work, he said, and recommended that I bid 40 percent below the asking price. But I knew the place was worth more than that, at least to me. My monthly rent on an 800-square-foot apartment in California was almost exactly what my mortgage would be on this rambling New Englander. Being a movie critic for Time meant flexibility; I just needed to be close enough to a major city to catch a few critics’ screenings a week. So what if I had to commute twice a week to Boston? I would be back in my hometown, with family and good schools and twice the house I could have had in the outskirts of Boston. I took the leap.
When the moving van arrived from California, it was uncanny how well our furniture fit, as if I’d been shopping for this house all along. I felt immediately at home. True, that likely had something to do with being less than a mile from the house I grew up in, where my brother was raising his own family, and even closer to my sister, who lives on my street. Whatever the reason, I felt safe, a sleep-soundly kind of safe.
"Our house’s size, relative to the size of our family, elicits surprise, and sometimes even consternation, from visitors. They stand under the dining room or parlor’s 10-foot-tall ceiling and ask, with pointed concern, how I heat the place."
Soon I was plotting all the things I would do for the house, in return for the opportunity it was giving me to stretch out and settle. I took down wallpaper and painted walls; insulated the attic; built raised vegetable beds; and planted raspberries and fruit trees. But big infrastructure investments have been postponed. A few years into home ownership, I got laid off and had to take a job with a lower salary. That’s when people started suggesting I take in a boarder. “A nice Bowdoin student,” they’d say. “Who can babysit.” When you’re a single mother, people want to help, mostly with suggestions you’ve already run the numbers on, thanks to your constantly whirring internal calculator. Instead of letting a stranger move in with us, I started Airbnbing the house a few weekends a year, usually to nice Bowdoin parents.
Plenty of things have gone wrong. The clawfoot tub dropped through the floor. The boiler cracked, maybe under the strain of trying to reach every room. The back deck fell off. (Silver lining: It was ugly and the steps that replaced it left more room for flowers.) And deferred maintenance — peeling paint on aging shingles, a front porch that needs shoring up, a regularly root-filled sewer pipe — portends more headaches to come.
ABOVE Lilacs, daylilies, irises, nasturtiums, and zinnias fill in the backyard where a deck used to be. The house has plenty of room for the author’s many books; the striations in a $15 flea-market painting inspired her to color-code these stacks on the upstairs landing.
Once, when financial pressure was mounting, I thought about selling. But I’ve held on to both the house and my love of its graciousness, from the way the bay window in the front living room cradles a Christmas tree to the way no party I throw ever feels too big. The pandemic stripped us of visitors, but deepened my appreciation of my space: I never felt trapped, and if I got bored, I either moved myself or some furniture around.
But some people still think I should let the house go, that I am overburdening myself with its size. “Here’s what you do,” my friend Jim told me during a walk last spring, as we talked about the crazy real-estate boom that has spread up the coast from Portland. “Sell that place and get yourself a condo. Downsize.” I tried not to be ornery as I rejected his idea. Sure, I could sell my house for twice what I paid for it. But like most Mainers in this era, I’d then face an urgent question: Where would I go?
The other question is, who would I be? In 2010, I had no clear idea of what I wanted my house to look like. But I knew what I wanted it to feel like: a place where my whole family could gather comfortably for a holiday meal; where the guest room can be occupied all summer and no one feels crowded; where the fruit seasons flow from strawberries to blueberries to raspberries to peaches, and there’s always enough for the neighbors.
My house is all that and more. Mostly because there is room for me and the self I have come to know better here. I walk through the rooms and there are my flea-market treasures; the wall colors I mulled over for months; and the light fixtures I learned how to hardwire. There is the shower tile I laid during a snowy winter and the mid-century maple bed I dreamed about for a decade and could finally afford. In every room, I see signs of resilience and abundance and a future still to come.
Mary Pols has been back in her native Maine for 11 years. After a long career in journalism, she joined the staff at Bates College, in 2019. She reviews books regularly for People and the New York Times. Her memoir, Accidentally on Purpose, was published in 2008 and turned into a CBS sitcom starring Jenna Elfman. If it had run more than a year, she would have definitely remodeled her kitchen by now. She recently completed her first novel.