Carmen Troesser grew up in the memorably named community of Frankenstein, Missouri (legend says the moniker comes from Gottfried Franken, who donated land for a church there in 1890). She was one of 30 some people in the farming town.
"I can drive down the road and tell you who lives in every house," she says. "There were 17 people in my class, and I was related to 11 of them." Troesser says it's the kind of place where no one moves in, and no one leaves—but she was different. When she discovered photography in college, she found a path that would lead her around the world, and then back again to a spot just 100 miles from where she started.
Her current home in St. Charles, Missouri, is just a two-hour drive from Frankenstein. The family lives in a stately, red-brick Victorian built in 1880. It's an architectural type that dots small towns and cities from Ohio to Kansas, and it will look familiar to legions of Midwesterners. But to this family, it's special and as much about spirit as shelter. "People say 'it's just a house,'" says Troesser. "But I've never, ever felt that way. It's more than that to me."
They followed a meandering route here. "I took photography as an elective at Missouri State University," she says. "When I discovered it, it felt like the thing I'd always been missing." She continued on to graduate school at University of Missouri in Springfield. "There were a lot of international students there, and in many classes I'd be the only one from Missouri," she says. "It opened my eyes to a lot of things, and I knew I wouldn't be in the state for long."
She landed a job as a photographer for the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, and met her future husband, a chef named Dave Derfel, on a chance assignment. Shortly after marrying, they left the state to travel in Europe. "We worried that if we didn't go, we would get rooted and never leave," she says. "We quit our jobs and traveled through France and Switzerland, working mostly for room and board."
Back in the states, she took a job with the Journal News in New York City. "I loved living there, for the most part. There were some days I hated it, and I felt I couldn't stand it one more minute, but it was good," she says. "When we started thinking about starting a family, we began seriously looking for a home back in Missouri. But then 9/11 happened, and everything changed."
In fact, Derfel had a job interview in St. Charles on September 12, 2001. Of course he missed it, and it was some time before the couple felt they could leave New York. "It's hard to explain," she says. "There was so much sadness, so much to do. We felt like we needed to stick it out."
Several years later, she was burned out, pregnant with a boy (Jacob, now 11), and on the cusp of adopting a little girl from Vietnam (Naomi, now 13). It was time to go home, and after a quick detour to Salt Lake City, the couple did just that, moving to St. Charles.
Landing their old, brick house felt like fate. "We had looked for a long time, and we had exhausted all of the listings on the market," she says. "We drove past this place and I said, 'That's my favorite house, that's where I want to live,' but there was no hint it was for sale." A few days later, her real estate agent called her to tell her about a new property on the market. She was shocked when she looked it up and found the very home she'd singled out. "It didn't even matter to me what the condition was like inside," she says. "This was the house I wanted."
Looking at it, she could picture a life there. "I'm a very visual person, and I've lived my life based on that. I could see this as the backdrop for my children's lives—I could look ahead and see what they would do here," she says. "Within weeks after we moved in, 10-month-old Jacob took his first steps across the living room. It was a lovely thing, made sweeter by the fact we'd been living in a Residence Inn."
Perhaps the charm took some of the sting out of the home improvements. "The same family had lived here for 20 years, a single woman who raised her kids in this house," Troesser says. "We took down some wallpaper, improved the plumbing, and removed lead paint." And, as in many old homes, things fall apart. "Once, while we were watching television, a large chunk of plaster just fell from the ceiling and crashed onto the floor," she remembers. "It was startling."
Add to the home-improvement and repair mix the facts that she was not working for the first time in her adult life and that she was dealing with two instant siblings who weren't getting along, and you have a potential recipe for disaster. "It was stressful for the first couple of years. I was getting used to it all," she says. But slowly and steadily, they began to build a home, with Troesser doing much of the work herself. "I have a bad case of 'I can do anything,'" she says. "Often I take on a home project that I think will take two days, and it lasts two weeks."
The floors, many of them half-painted, were sanded and stained. They painted the dark kitchen cabinets white. A green picket fence and an ivy-covered arbor were built in the front yard. Closets (a thing that our austere ancestors apparently didn't need) were added. A small bedroom became a bathroom that Troesser says seems "ridiculously" large. "We never had a big remodel plan, we just went slowly and dealt with things as we could," she says. "It took a lot of time and patience."
In the meantime, the kids grew, made their peace, and became close, and they went through a period of intensely disliking the house. "All of their friends live in shiny, new houses in the suburbs with big, open lawns that don't have violets and clovers growing everywhere in the grass," Troesser says. "My kids wanted to know why we didn't have a home like that, and it broke my heart a bit and I felt selfish."
Like many childhood phases, it passed. Troesser says: "Now, they both love it, and it's hard for them to imagine living anywhere else."
But with all the minor home repair headaches and incessant upkeep, can she?
"This house was never a burden. You have to understand that, where I grew up, a couple would buy a farm with a house on it and die there. It would then be in the family forever," she says. "This is not just a house to me. These kinds of homes need a caregiver, someone to love them. Even though I sometimes fail miserably at the task, I'm this home's caretaker It's my obsession."