It was the coldest winter in New England in over 100 years, and we were framing my house in the snow.
For over 30 days straight the wind chill was below zero, and most mornings my younger brother, Jeb, and I and our friend, Jim, would spend over an hour just shoveling off the job site so we could set up our cutting station, oil and load our nail guns, and light the propane heater to get the compressor warm enough to run. Most days I'd have to chisel off the decks just so we could snap a line for the toe plates of walls. I grew a beard to keep my face warm.
Why not wait till spring?
Because I'd bought these 2 acres of land over three years earlier, and it had taken us that long to get all the necessary permits in place; because for the past nine years my wife and I had been raising our three children in a vinyl-sided half-house that was small and dark and cluttered with toys and the secondhand furniture we owned; because since my birth 43 years earlier I'd lived in over two dozen rented houses and apartments, had always had a landlord, some threatening my single mother with eviction, some threatening me, and now—for the very first time—I had money in the bank, a lot of it, all from a novel I'd written over four years in my parked car; and because, well, I just couldn't wait.
At first there was the desire to get the whole project started and done with. Like most writers, for years I'd been hoping for a time when I could give my entire day to writing and reading. Now, after over 20 years of daily labor, I could finally do just that. My agent kept calling to ask why I wasn't hiring somebody to build my house. "Don't you want to write another novel?" I did, of course. But for the kind of house we wanted to build—an in-law apartment for my wife's aging parents, a bedroom for each of our children and one for us—it would just be too expensive to hire a builder when I had the skills to do it myself.
I estimated I could cut costs in half, an accurate estimate it turned out, but part of me didn't want to do it at all; wasn't a house just another material object anyway? Did we really need to own one? Did anybody?
But this ambivalence began to dissipate the week after our permits were approved. It was a cold Sunday in November, the sky gray, the air heavy with future snow. Two days earlier my foundation contractor had poured our footings, and he told me they'd cure better if I kept them warm. So that morning I drove to a local farm in my pickup and bought a dozen hay bales, drove to my wooded lot, tossed them off, then used a pitch fork to spread hay over concrete, my concrete poured in the shape of my house, on my land.
It took us over two years. Every day I'd pull up to the site at 7 a.m., the smells of sawdust and pine pitch in the air, those lovely naked 2-by-6 walls standing plumb, square and level, and I'd buckle on my leather carpentry apron of tools and work alongside my brother and my friend, and later, with a new carpenter I'd hired, too. That spring the snows melted, but it brought some of the heaviest rains in 50 years, and we hung massive tarps to work under. By early that summer, the four of us were roofing my house during a heat wave.
When it came time to cover the exterior walls with cedar shingles, my wife, Fontaine, a modern dancer who used to make a living upholstering furniture, spent two months nailing up over half of them while I did the rest. I hired my 67-year-old mother to paint the corner boards, the soffits and fascia, the window and door casings. While my wife had a fear of heights, my mother had none. There were electricians and plumbers on the job now, and every hour or so I'd pause in my work and glance up to see my mother standing on the scaffolding 40 feet in the air, squinting in the sun as she brushed paint onto the trim of my house. I remembered the doctor we rented a house from when I was 12, a tall man with thick glasses who stood at our door in his coat and tie and asked that our mother leave and take us four kids to live in the projects. I remembered all the scrappy places we'd lived in over the years that somebody else owned. Painting my big, new, homemade house, my mother looked so happy, and it made me happy seeing that.
The truth is, except for those moments of unspeakable grace holding our three newborn children, I've never been happier than when I was building for us this house. One late afternoon, a cold rain starting to fall, I stood on a plank outside my daughter's second-story bedroom, trying to finish the shingles around her window. The sun was down and the plank was getting slippery, and a small voice inside me said to quit now and head home. But I no longer felt that where we lived was home, and as I fit a shingle into place up against my daughter's window, this motion felt like something else, though I did not at first know what it was. Then I did; it was just like pulling the covers up to my daughter's chin right after she fell asleep. It was like doing that with her two brothers, too. It was like closing their bedroom door and tiptoeing down the hall. It was like locking the front and back doors and checking the windows and turning off the lights; it was like holding them as babies and wanting my arms to be a shelter for them and never wanting to let go.—Andre Dubus III is the author of five books, including "House of Sand and Fog," "The Garden of Last Days" and his memoir, "Townie." He lives in Massachusetts with his wife, Fontaine, a modern dancer, and their three children.
A version of this article appeared January 25, 2013, on page M12 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: A Labor of Love and Lumber.