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Stories II

To leave home, find someone to leave behind

by Karin Winegar

A loving dissertation on one American woman’s quest to find a good, free, available house sitter. According to freelance writer, Karin Winegar, the existence of such people diminishes with the age of the home owner. ‘Not so!’ says the editor at MindMyHouse, ‘you just need to widen your search to an online database of enthusiastic house sitters’.

17 January 1999

UNLIKE my paternal grandfather, a central Iowa farmer whose herd of Holsteins required twice-daily milking and whose fence-busting Duroc and Poland (China) pigs, roving flocks of chickens, ducks and the odd border collie demanded he stay home, I am free, theoretically, to travel anywhere I can afford to go.

Grandpa never ventured farther than the National Barrow Show in Austin, Minn., a three-hour drive from his farm, or maybe the auction barn at Waverly, Iowa, for a horse sale. I have made it from Bali to Brazil to Istanbul and beyond, but escape is getting trickier.

My problem is the same as Grandpa’s: Here in St. Paul, there are not enough hands – not the daintier urban version, anyway – who will watch over my house while I’m gone. Hired hands, up until the 1950s, fetched the critters, did the milking, handled the vegetation – mowing, watering, weeding – fed the stock and the like. They were bachelors who sometimes roved a circuit.

Yet, as would-be urban travelers encumbered only by pets and plants, my husband and I face a housesitter search that is far more difficult than the journey itself and often impossible. Housesitting involves an intimate relationship, a vulnerable situation, where you trust that the person who is sitting will know the difference between the needs of the rose geranium and the jade plant, enjoy the view from the balcony and keep mum about the occasional cat hair in the butter dish. Friends or relatives are usually the best candidates.

Last winter, friends ventured to Italy with their 2-year-old daughter for a week, in which the ceiling of the bathroom in their rented villa caved in and forced them to hold an umbrella while using the toilet. And their toddler screamed on the plane all the way across the Atlantic: ‘I want to get off! Make it stop!’ But their Italy expedition did not compare with the expenditure of energy and strategizing it took to arrange for someone to live in their cottage just outside St. Paul and wrangle their dogs and cats and coordinate carpenters scheduled to fix things around the house.

Our household is simpler: The cats need company and a romp in the yard, the hibiscus tree requires daily watering, the beans, the pots of lavender, pansies and geraniums need someone to poke a fingertip into the soil and take appropriate action.

In April, we began scouring our phone lists for housesitter candidates for summer and fall: ‘Nope – she’s married now. Nope, he moved away’ became the refrain as we pored over our respective address books with growing panic, thinking of our nonrefundable, nontransferable tickets.

‘Nope, they have a baby now.’

‘No, she’s on tour.’

‘Not old enough.’

‘He’s allergic to cats. Nope.’

The accidental arrival of a truly irresistible adventure (last-minute discount cabins on a schooner race in Maine) had us desperately patching together housesitter agendas that resembled air traffic control schedules: one friend could sit the first three days/two nights while painters were at his house. Mom might be in town and could put in a few hours for two days and a night. A sister might be able to come over and check out things one morning, but who would fill in the interim two days?

A reliable housesitting friend – a florist by trade, an extra asset – recently got her own apartment and dog, which put her out of the running. She is unswayed by pleadings, offerings of wine, chocolate, unlimited cable movies, the use of the good china for entertaining her boyfriend and all the fresh raspberries she can pick from our garden.

One nocturnally employed friend (now also married and a cat owner himself, darn it) declined after deciding he couldn’t sleep in our bedroom because the sun would wake him too early.

Once, after a long weekend away, we returned to find that a relative who had promised to stay over had second thoughts – after we’d gone. The cats greeted us with parched, dazed expressions, shellshocked with loneliness. The aroma of rotten food billowed out of the fridge; assorted cat leavings had fossilized on carpets and wood floors; plants in death throes drooped about.

Pretravel anxiety is not diminished by such failures.

Then there was the weekend I returned to find that a sister left in charge had built a fire in the fireplace. Although she smelled smoke the next morning, she assumed it was just residue of the night before and went off to work. The neighbors called the fire station an hour later: the east wall of the house caught fire from gunk in the chimney, requiring the attentions of fire trucks, insurance claims adjusters and, later, a squad of smoke damage specialists to clean the reeking house top to cellar.

These housesitting problems are not the burden of Grandpa’s 600 acres, but they are a consequence of age and of the acquiring of property. After age 30, the selection of nomadic friends who can watch the house thins, and then vanishes.

I am now forced to keep an ear cocked for domestic bad/good news: floors being refinished means somebody may want to evade the fumes for a few days. At a particularly low moment, a recent tornado gave me perverse hope – maybe a friend whose house was damaged could housesit?

My husband recently pointed out that housesitting is now a paid profession, replete with a dozen or more listings under ‘sitting services’ in the Yellow Pages. I wouldn’t mind paying, but the thought of trusting our cats and garden to total strangers and the idea of strangers sleeping in our sheets gives me the creeps. To humor him, I checked the ads: eight were for sitters for children (on their premises); one was, startlingly, a Montessori school; three services would sit pets at their place or just drop by, and one was a companion service for senior citizens.

Lately, in seeking housesitters we’ve struck upon a set of prime candidates: actors and the newly divorced. Our favorite is both: he has the attractive combination of few possessions and being home all day. But already he has been discovered as a housesitter, and we’re sharing him with another traveling friend.

Odd conditions that work in our favor are the seemingly incongruous combination of proximity to a local boat club and the newly smitten. Our favorite female housesitter has a new beau in the neighborhood and a new single scull in the boathouse that is just a bike ride downhill from us. She washes the dishes, takes phone messages, folds laundry, adores the cats and gives us organic cabernet for Christmas.

She also has the kind of pluck needed in a hired hand or a housesitter when animals are involved: when a starling slipped through the open skylight and gave the cats the happiest two hours of their lives, she dealt with it. She rescued the bird, cleaned up the mess and sealed off the skylight.

We give her Godiva chocolates, unceasing praise and a chance to skip the 45-minute commute to work from her mother’s house in the suburbs.

We have plans for her stretching into the next millennium and, mindful of the acute national shortage of housesitters, will never disclose her name even under torture.

copyright Star Tribune 1999

Tags: house sitting |

Karin Winegar

About the author: Karin Winegar

Karin Winegar is a freelance writer from St. Paul, Minnesota (USA). Her work has appeared in the Star Tribune, Wall Street Journal and New York Times.