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Special Section Spring Home & Garden Archives The Altamont Enterprise, April 26, 2012

Home sweet homes
From a hand-built Cape in Albany to a modern high-rise in Africa
Ellen Zunon learned from and grew with each of her many homes
By Ellen Zunon

I grew up in a house built by my father: a shingled Cape Cod on a wooded street in Albany. Under the guidance of my grandfather, a master carpenter, Dad and his brothers-in-law, Jake, Jim, and Dominic, built the house in view of the one Grandpa had built a generation earlier. Their carpentry skills were learned hands-on, on hewn two-by-fours, Sheetrock, and shingles.

No tears were shed during the construction project, but there was plenty of sweat and even some blood. Years later, Dad would point to the area on the bedroom ceiling where blood had spattered when he whacked his thumb with a hammer.

I spent the first 21 years of my life in that house, and in it I learned the value of a job well done and the importance of family and community. Two sets of cousins lived on the same street, all three houses in view of our grandparents’ home.

In building the house, Dad learned to be a skilled craftsman as well. He did not use painter’s tape, but the lines along the white baseboards and molding were never blurred.

When it came time to repaint, he was so particular about his handiwork that he would not let my sister and me paint our own room until we were well into our teens. No painter’s tape was allowed; I don’t think Dad had ever heard of the stuff. Patience and a steady hand were what counted.


When I began graduate school, I moved out into a series of student apartments. The one I remember most clearly was on Central Avenue in downtown Albany, over an auto-parts store and next to a gay bar.

I had two roommates: an art student and a nursing student. The monthly rent was $125. (Hey, it was the 1970s!). Split three ways, my share was $41.67, plus one-third of the utility and phone bills.

Living there was a little like sharing a home with Neil Simon’s Odd Couple: a neatnik and a clutterbug. The art student was a free spirit who didn’t do much housework, so the nurse and I did our best to keep the place presentable.

It was my first experience of sharing living quarters with someone to whom I was not related, and there were lessons to be learned there: how to get along with others, how to negotiate sharing household tasks, how to make ends meet on a shoestring budget. This last entailed consuming large quantities of pizza and pasta.

When I finished graduate school and got my first real job, I got a studio in the Knickerbocker Apartments in Center Square, in view of the Corning Tower. Ah — independence at last!

Here I would have to make ends meet on my own; the entire $125 monthly rent was mine to pay, along with the phone and electric bills. I learned frugality, with an occasional splurge at a fancy restaurant to keep life interesting.

My studio was on the top floor of the building, constructed as a brewery in the 1850s, converted into apartments on the eve of Prohibition.

The view from my window was a mash-up of 19th- and 20th-century landscapes: cobblestoned street, with the sleek marble flanks of the Empire State Plaza at the end of the block. It was a historical neighborhood in another way as well. In 1931, Gangster Legs Diamond had met his end in a rooming house around the corner.

I grew to love having my own space: a large living room with an alcove where the bed rolled out of a recess in the wall (called a Knickerbocker bed), a bathroom with footed bathtub, a kitchenette, walk-in closet (the closet was bigger than the kitchen), and a large bay window. Dad helped me stain and finish a drop-leaf dining table that I placed near the bay window.

A new culture

When I married five years later, I moved to my husband’s native country, Côte d’Ivoire, on the west coast of Africa. In a city of 2.5 million people, we lived in a brand-new high rise with elevators that didn’t always work. Luckily, our apartment was on the fourth floor; I felt sorry for those who lived on the ninth.

We installed custom-made window screens in the living room and bedrooms as a precaution against malaria mosquitoes. We bought decorative planters for the balcony, where we planted crimson hibiscus.

From the balcony, we had a view of the lagoon enclosing the city, and at night we could see the twinkling lights of the business district on the other side of town, with its cluster of small skyscrapers.

Our modern surroundings were in contrast with the colonial-style houses in the former capital a few miles from our neighborhood. Sometimes on Sunday afternoons we would drive there to stroll in the botanical gardens, with their towering oil palms and cool groves of Chinese bamboo.

This apartment was the dwelling where I raised my children, walking them to school past a small outdoor market where vendors sold fruit, vegetables, and flowers. At dusk, women came from the nearby village, balancing baskets of steamed grated manioc on their heads — such a regular activity that our daughter’s first comprehensible utterance was an imitation of their chanted phrase, “attiéké chaud.”

When I purchased a rattan rocking chair to rock our daughter to sleep, the vendor also carried it home for me balanced on his head.

Living in this environment, I learned to adapt to a foreign culture, and not to make value judgments about people’s behavior or attitudes simply because they were different from my own. Although I missed my own extended family at times, my idea of family and community expanded to include my husband’s many relatives and the diverse range of people residing in that large cosmopolitan city.

I also learned not to take electricity and running water for granted. We had access to both, but there were frequent power outages and when there was no electricity, there was no power to pump water up to the fourth floor.

Back home again

When we returned to the United States from Côte d’Ivoire 17 years later, we moved into an apartment complex in Guilderland with white walls inside and out. Its best feature — aside from the gleaming microwave and dishwasher, which we did not have overseas — was a wide window seat where I could sit and watch the sunset flash gold and purple tones over the Helderberg escarpment.

What did I learn in that residence? As it was our goal to own our own home someday, I learned to weigh our expenditures carefully in order to save toward that end.

This included learning about unit pricing in the supermarket, instead of bargaining for the waxed and polished produce displayed so attractively in the fresh fruit aisle of my local grocery store.

After living in the apartment complex for a couple of years, we were able to make a small down payment on a modest home on a tree-lined street in the suburbs. As one of my colleagues has called it, this is a “GI Joe house,” built in the mid-1950s for the families of returning World War II veterans. Its architecture is not so different from that of the house in which I grew up.

The house stands on land that was once part of the Pine Bush, so our corner lot often attracts nocturnal visitors from the nearby woods, as evidenced by the motion-sensitive light at the back corner of the house flashing on at night.

Instead of a view of the lagoon or the escarpment, from our upstairs window I can see the mauve sunset through a row of pine trees flanking the road.

Planting perennials in the sandy soil, my trowel often clunks against roots of pine and oak. I would not be surprised to encounter an ancient arrowhead when digging, as one turned up across the street a few years ago.

Purchasing this home was my first experience applying for a mortgage, and so living here is teaching me the perseverance of chipping away at a mortgage month by month.

After so many years of apartment dwelling, I have also had to learn a few simple carpentry skills — wielding a hammer, paintbrush, and screwdriver, first clumsily then confidently.

Dad is no longer here to guide my efforts, but he taught me a lot about doing things right. I think he would forgive me for using painter’s tape.

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