First-Time Fatherhood After 50: From Pad to Playpen

I lived in a New Mexico hippie town and slept in a funky former church, but then love and parenthood entered the picture and things got complicated

It was an absurdly romantic, impractical notion that was perfect for my vision of perennial bachelorhood. Buy a 110-year-old, dilapidated adobe church in a remote New Mexico village populated by artists, outlaws and hippies. Install wood stoves for heat and ambience and get a big satellite dish to insure year round sports reception. Refinish the claw foot bathtub in the semi-detached greenhouse for long evenings of contemplation and the oak flooring in the main room for the occasional debauched dance party. Build high walls around the property to discourage casual visits and place wrought iron bed on the former altar to encourage other kinds of visits.

Uncork the wine. Turn up the volume. Kick off shoes. Leave the seat up. Bachelorize.

That was fifteen years ago. I was pretty much past the early expiration date for fatherhood. Then, two years back, I met Emily. We got together at the saddest points in each of our lives. And, miraculously, something amazing grew out of it.

Even when she moved in, the style of living didn't change much at first. Emily took over the guesthouse for her writing studio so the bachelor vibe of the church remained largely unchanged. It was kind of a dual bachelor/bachelorette house. We had matching, peeling Adirondack chairs for taking in the long sunsets and found the claw foot tub was big enough for two.

Emily was as content as I with the lack of dependable heat, absence of air conditioning, ancient, rattling windows that only slowed down the wind and dust, stinky water from the sulfurous town well and a tiny ramshackle kitchen that was like a welcome mat for infestation. Living in an isolated, former coal town in the mountains (population: 300, give or take) is something very far removed from convenient. We didn't care. A couple trips per week to Santa Fe for groceries and a movie was all the city stimuli we required.

And then came the call just after Labor Day. I was reporting a story in Fargo and Emily rang me after a visit to the doctor. It was confirmed: In six months we were going to have a household visitor. Her name would be Charlotte Mabel Elliott Black. And she'd be staying at least 18 years.

My blind happiness gave way to creeping panic. Clearly, certain accommodations needed to be made.

I made frenzied, unreadable lists on that plane ride home. There were lists of water filters, new dishwashers, washing machines, dryers, sinks, wall heaters. There were cribs, a changing table and silk taffeta onesie evening wear. There were practical things and insane things. Some items on my illegible inventory exposed my neophyte status. Turns out Gustav Stickley never designed a high chair, which is a pity.

Within days of arriving home, Emily and I had The Talk: Was Madrid, New Mexico, our beloved former ghost town, the right place to raise our child? I'm old enough to remember New York's Alphabet City in the early '80s, long before the billion dollar co-ops took over. Madrid is sort of a rural New Mexico version. We have a fire department, but no police—actually, no authority of any kind. Anyone who tries to impose order is roundly ridiculed. On summer weekends the town is the destination of choice for hundreds of motorcyclists, and road house rock pumps out of the Mine Shaft Tavern until daybreak. On the other hand, I've never lived among a higher concentration of artistically and intellectually gifted individuals. A Rhode Island School of Design grad just designed my new kitchen, a Harvard guy dug the foundation and an Auburn man is going to wire it. Charlotte will have plenty of opportunity to be challenged and engaged. And this is a beautiful place.

Madrid, we decided, would work.

We estimated we had half a year to de-bachelorize the church and turn it into a gigantic, family-friendly playpen. Luckily, we'd started the process of re-financing the previous May with the dream of building a lap pool. I optimistically figured the toughest part of this process would be getting used to pink.

Thus, we embarked on a project we like to call Mr. Blandings Deconstructs His Dream House. Emily tempered my frenetic enthusiasm by pointing out priorities. Since Charlotte would be arriving mid-winter, and our home is at an elevation of 6600 feet, we agreed I should probably focus on keeping the baby warm. True, I had several big wood stoves that could keep the place toasty as long as I continuously fed them like I was a stoker on the QEII. Too bad they also had a tendency to spew ash in the air, evoking an erupting Mt. St. Helens and smelling just as bad. Not good for baby's lungs, Emily advised tactfully.

This baby business was getting complicated.

The heating issue was daunting. One hundred years ago the church had a big coal-burning boiler in the basement. A couple surviving hunks of rusted metal were now used as yard art. The good news was that there was ample space to create a central heating system. The bad news was that I realized it was pointless to invest in such a system without first replacing all the windows—nine foot tall custom-made church windows. I'd also have to insulate above the 19-foot ceiling, sixty by thirty feet of it. That lap pool now seemed as likely as replacing my ancient Volvo with a Tesla.

We figured we'd start work in the fall before all the leaves were off the trees.

The bank did not approve the re-financing until it was nearly Christmas.

Still, we weren't yet in full panic mode. No, full panic mode hit two months later when we still hadn't found contractors with acceptable bids for the windows and heat.

Emily was less than three weeks to her scheduled C-section when a local contractor finally submitted a workable bid. Everything had to be ordered. They thought the windows and parts for the forced air system would come in the week of March 3rd. Charlotte was arriving on the 10th.

I liked Pete, the heating guy, except I wasn't really sure what he was doing down in the basement. There were periodic sounds of activity followed by hour-long silences. The basement became an impenetrable mass of serpentine ducting and Rube Goldberg mechanical parts. It wasn't possible to fully descend the stairs, so sometimes we'd walk down a couple steps, peer into the gloom, and ask Pete if he needed anything. His disembodied voice, soft but intense, drifted disembodied out of the dark corners. No, he was good, he assured us. Not much longer now.

Miraculously, the windows and insulation went right on schedule, but on Saturday the 8th, the heating system seemed no further along than the day Pete started.

That afternoon, Emily's water broke and we raced to the hospital in Albuquerque. Charlotte came a bit early, at 11:20 that night. We were two days in the hospital and then, because there was still no heat at home, camped out at a hotel. Then at a friend's house near Santa Fe. A week after leaving for the hospital, Emily and Charlotte demanded to come home.

I stood over Pete's shoulder. I tried not to be too pushy. He'd recently beat a badass biker to a pulp and I try to be respectful of that kind of decisiveness. Finally, at 7:10pm, he threw the switches. Warm air filled the church for the first time since about 1939. To my horror, Pete walked the perimeter of the interior muttering, "I can't believe it worked!"

At 7:35, Emily, Charlotte and Mary Ellen, Emily's mother, entered, their arms laden with the massive detritus accompanying a newborn. It was the proverbial parade of pink.