2. Turning the Key
It began with an indescribable odor, one of dust, and dogs, and age. Years before while working in Switzerland as an au pair for an OCD boss, I adopted the habit of keeping a spotless home. The Betty Crocker Estate would prove to be my ultimate challenge.
Benjamin had subtlety tried to warn me about what we were walking into. He had spent the first night at the house alone, which was actually several days after we closed escrow. Due to unforeseeable circumstances, we didn’t have access to the house on the day it should have been ours. Instead, we were on the property — in the barn to be exact — running our first antique show on computer equipment dating back to 2002.
Over the past 17 years, the antique shows boasted monthly themes, ranging from “Leprechaun Farmhouse” for St Patrick’s weekend to “Love in Paris” for Valentine’s Day. As a man of minimalism and sleek design, Benjamin really wanted to move away from themes, while I felt they did, in fact, give customer’s something special to look forward to each month.
We decided to give themes a three-month trial and examine the books after the first quarter. For that first show, I had very little bandwidth to create something unique, so I told the vendors we’d simply be running with “Time to Bloom.” Benjamin and I spent $100 on plants, which we staged into vignettes with pots, rakes, baskets, bird cages, and anything remotely related to gardening. It was a simple idea, but seemed to fit the bill at the time.
In hindsight, the show was a complete disaster. The computers froze, the printer ran out of ink, the credit card machine malfunctioned, and we had a line of customers—increasingly growing impatient— outside the door. No one trained me on the system. Meanwhile, Benjamin had to be at work since his being at the barn would set us back a significant day rate.
I turned to the one person who knew the existing business better than anyone else — Belinda. For several years she had worked behind the scenes, setting up the antique shows and working as a personal assistant for the previous owners. In the midst of escrow, she asked if she would have an ongoing position with us at Brick n Barn.
Neither Benjamin nor I had ever had a “personal assistant”, nor did we think we needed one. We now realize we can’t live without Belinda. Sacrificial to a fault, she is the type of person who would die for you. Despite the obstacles and mountains that have stood in her way, her heart has remained open to the hope that there might just be a tunnel shining light on the other side. When she can’t see that light, she’ll push through the darkness for you, and for those dearest to her soul.
On that first day, Belinda was torn between two worlds, helping me behind the register, while running into the house to help her previous boss pack so we could move into the property. Chaos was an understatement.
Word had spread that the previous owner was moving, so loyal patrons assumed this might be their last chance to get their hands on inventory. Benjamin entered the scene the following day, and got a glimpse of how hectic it really was. We did our best to smile, and act calm and confident, but inside we realized we were in over our heads.
Benjamin was still nursing a broken elbow and cracked ribs from his motorcycle accident, plus his torn ligaments meant he couldn’t even shake hands with our new customers. The show ended, the last car left, and I broke into tears, both mentally and physically exhausted from all the weight we carried on our shoulders.
Since we still didn’t have access to our new home, that night we returned to Vista with a pile of receipts from the show. We balanced the books, only to discover that $400 in cash was missing; plus one of our staff accidently charged a customer $1.62 instead of $162.00. Fortunately we caught the error.
I was able to track down the customer by email only because she had signed up for our Brick n Barn subscription list.
With heartfelt compassion, the customer eventually returned my email and allowed us to charge her credit card for the difference. Little did she know that her single act of kindness restored my hope in humanity and comfort in the community we would soon call home.
Still, the weight we carried was far from light. When we finally received the keys to our new home, I had two pending articles due in the next 24 hours for Escape Magazine (Harrah’s Resort in-room hotel publication). Despite the fact we ordered Internet service, new sales software, and computers for the shop, nothing was set up by the time we moved into our home. This, of course added more to my mental load, as I tried to meet deadlines without Internet.
My parents suggested I spend the night at their house in San Marcos while Benjamin settled into our new home. That evening, Benjamin and I both got nearly zero sleep, but for very different reasons. I sent off my two articles at 4:00 AM; Benjamin finally fell asleep at 4:00 AM, not because of work, but because of what he described as “the sound of something the size of a raccoon rolling around a bowling ball in our attic.” He left it at that. Oh, if only it was just that, life would have been so much easier.
That next morning I packed up my computer, with our two dogs in tow, and headed over to the Betty Crocker Estate. In the famous kitchen — where Betty Crocker once hosted her radio cooking shows — stood Benjamin, hand outstretched holding a glass of wine.
Around us was a forest of boxes, each one begging to be unpacked but having no place to settle. Unlike modern homes, this 150 year old house didn’t have storage. Back in the day, homes such as these had armoires for storage and closets, which of course we didn’t have. In fact, our 1950’s farmhouse in Vista, less than half the size of our new home, had nearly double the space to tuck away our belongings.
Grabbing the glass of wine, I asked Benjamin how his first night in the house had been, other than the mysterious bowling-ball-animal ritual. He told me there were a few unforeseen issues, that hadn’t popped up on the 50-page inspection report.
We knew we had a ton of work ahead of us, especially since the report came back with an estimated repair list totaling $80,000–$100,000. Because we so desperately wanted the Betty Crocker Estate, warts and all, we accepted the challenge with the intention to tackle about 70% of the repairs ourselves.
What we didn’t foresee was the mass rodent infestation that had taken the property hostage. Of course our dogs loved it, seeing every nook and cranny as a hunting ground. They buried their noses into fireplaces, cracks, corners, and anywhere a mouse or rat could possibly hide.
As Benjamin stood there, glass held high, he smiled and said, “Let’s toast, to our new home.” I was in sort of a daze, overwhelmed by what sat on our life trajectory.
Behind us, our dogs Chucho and Lola were pawing at a box next to the fridge. It was an odd looking box that was cut to simply “cover” pipes protruding from the ground.
My eyes scanned the grime across the kitchen, the massive cracks running up the side of the walls, the exposed wires across the floor, and now our dogs on the verge of battling something that surely wasn’t invited into our home.
Reaching down, Benjamin pulled back the box cover to expose a silo of dog food.
“What the heck is that?” I asked, staring at the pile of Kibbles, stacked into a box that had no access point other than the wall to which it was attached.
Then it dawned on us, that mice — or heaven forbid rats — had been stealing dog food from the previous owner’s dog bowls and storing it for a rainy day. How ironic that the mice had plenty of storage, while we had none.
Dropping my head onto Benjamin’s chest, I half laughed and half cried. Expecting him to say something encouraging and wise, instead he muttered the words, “I know. I know.”
Next story on "Channeling Betty" coming soon.