Story of a marriage: How to build a house

Team Levitas

Habitat House: Betsy Levitas, home buyer Derrick Jones, his daughter Yasmine, and Steve Levitas on the site of the house they are helping build in Durham. Courtesy Roxanne Hall

In the lush garden they planted together after their children grew up sits a small table where, weather permitting, Steve and Betsy Levitas end nearly every day. Drinks in hand, they talk, laugh and love, watching the sun set behind Steve’s head, the moon rise over Betsy’s. On occasion, Steve will rise to recite Betsy some poetry.

I knew a woman,” he begins, “lovely in her bones.”

She dons an elegant grin. The recitation of Theodore Roethke’s ode to a lover, I Knew a Woman, was one of the gifts Steve gave her last year when she turned 60.

When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;

Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:

The shapes a bright container can contain!

Between its lines and images pass a multitude of memories and experiences only they have lived and recognize. That is the power of poetry; also the power of 35 years of marriage.

The Levitases — Levitae, or Levitii, they sometimes joke — have had a great run at life. Always a good roof over our heads, Steve says. It’s been built upon the cornerstones of good health, meaningful work, children, and enduring love. Steve is an environmental lawyer with Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton, and Betsy, an independent development consultant who dedicated most of her career to public health, is a passionate supporter of the Triangle arts scene.

Their son, Jake, is 28, is an entrepreneur living in San Francisco, and daughter, Emily, 25, is a curriculum development specialist at an afterschool school program in Brooklyn.

The transition to empty-nesthood, both agree, was nearly seamless. Two years ago, they paid off the mortgage on their modern house near Umstead Park.

In a gesture generous and poetic, the couple decided to mark this year of milestones — their 35th wedding anniversary and Steve’s 60th birthday — with the creation of something else lasting and true. Reaching out to friends and family, the Levitases raised more than $50,000 to construct a house in Durham through Habitat for Humanity.

Many Saturday mornings this summer they’ve spent hammering, hauling, painting, and whatever else needs be done so that a single father and his daughter can have a permanent place to call home come fall.
They aren’t the first couple to mark a personal milestone this way, says Blake Strayhorn, the executive director of Durham’s Habitat for Humanity. Other couples and even groups of friends have honored loved ones and accomplishments by building homes.

In the Levitases’ case, the project was the culmination of much reflection. It also capped 47 years of careful work on another “home,” one that remains unfinished. That “home” is the relationship they inhabit. They say they have worked hard to actively learn how to be adults in a relationship. To handle gratitude, wield perspective, and most of all, to seek level ground, no matter how life might shift the earth beneath, or weather alter the skies above.

With time and careful use, the Levitases say these tools helped turn two people who loved each other – but were very different – into craftsmen.  For what else is a lasting marriage?

Yin and yang

Some plots of land, though wildly beautiful, take years to clear, and this was their lot. They have known each other since middle school in Atlanta, Ga., during the late ’60s.

They met in detention hall.

He was in eighth grade; she, ninth. It was his first time in trouble, but this place was not uncommon ground for Betsy Mills.

Steve and his friend were seated one table over. Coy words volleyed, turned sharp. Steve’s friend made a cutting remark about the dark-haired, blue-eyed girl.

“The first time I saw him was when he stood up for me,” says Betsy, who has a voice as deep, rich and dramatic as her now-white hair. (She puts it to musical use today as a longtime member of the Durham-based a cappella singing group Stella.)

“I mean, he literally stood up. It was like the knight in shining armor. Who is this kid who has fallen on his sword for me, against his friend?”

Tall and skinny, he surely resembled a human highlighter pen, wearing a lemon yellow shirt and matching socks.

Countless must be the times they have told this tale. Watching her tell it never gets old for him.

“I fell in love immediately,” he says. “That day.”

Even now, they are yin and yang, she says. Utterly different people with shared values and interests, but different dispositions. Going in the door, Steve wants to know what time they can leave a party. Betsy is the party. One view they share is that they don’t believe in fate, that there is one person out there on the planet, just for you.

Love is labor.

“It is so preposterous to me, the idea of meeting a life partner at age 13. It is kind of contrary to everything I think about the way the world works,” Steve says. “But I am so grateful for it.”

From that afternoon in detention hall on, Steve would look for Betsy in the hallways. “Holding hands with various hoodlum boyfriends,” he recalls.

Her father moved her to another school. Three long years later, Steve got a phone call from his future father-in-law.

“A sonorous baritone introduced himself as Jimmy Mills, calling to see if I could tutor his son in algebra.”

“I showed up that afternoon and was completely preoccupied with seeing Betsy,” he says. “She comes sweeping into the house…totally lit up the room, and I was gone, just gone.”

He tutored her brother for a year, striking up a friendship with Betsy, hoping she might discard her boyfriends. She did not. Finally, he quit tutoring and “fell into his first romance” with another girl, a friend of Betsy Mills.

On their second date they went to a party. Betsy Mills was on the sofa in the living room. Steve spent far too much time talking to the girl who was not his date. As they were leaving, Betsy suggested that, after taking her friend home, Steve might stop by.

After midnight he crossed the threshold. She ushered him to the sunroom.

All these years later, there is still wonder in his tone. “She swept me on to a wicker love seat and began kissing me passionately.”

Betsy laughs.

She was getting ready to leave for college in Colorado and had no intentions of being walled in to a relationship.

“So that was it,” Steve said.

Letters began. Betsy would write Steve about classes, concerns, boyfriends. Steve, a student at UNC Chapel Hill, wrote back. Whenever they were in Atlanta, they wound up together, passionate kisses on various couches.

This phase lasted seven years.

In 1978, avid skier Betsy was living with her French boyfriend in the French Alps, and Steve, who was was traveling Europe with a girlfriend, decided to visit them in Chamonix. A chef who had trained with Bill Neal of Crook’s Corner and La Residence while at UNC, Steve offered to cook dinner. He and Betsy walked to the market to pick up groceries.

Perhaps it was the stone bridge over the Arveyron River, the cold air beneath gas lamplights. There was a significant crossing over.

Betsy wondered, that night, what she was doing with the French boyfriend, when she really wanted to be with Steve.

The next morning she got up and headed for the slopes. Steve and his girlfriend left for Venice.

By September, they were both back in Atlanta. Within one week they were sweethearts, in eight, engaged.

“How dumb is it to get married to the boy next door if you never dated anyone else!?” she says. “I did my traveling.”

“I didn’t really expect that would ever happen,” Steve says, “but I never met anyone else that compared.

Living together

Altogether, they have lived in five houses, from walk-ups in a Portuguese neighborhood in Boston while Steve was in law school at Harvard, to bungalows in Charlotte and in Raleigh’s Oakwood neighborhood.

They never thought they’d live in a newly built house, but by the time Jake was in middle school, they needed more space. They found the neighborhood within walking distance  of Umstead Park on a wooded lot that feels like a peaceful treehouse and fell in love with it.

There were hard years. Being newly married and in law school, Steve remembers, was the biggest challenge. She remembers the struggle to find balance between career and children, the arguments over whose business-related travel was more important. The painful compromises.

But then, children come and go, she says. And you are a couple again, he says. Their relationship, they realized, is the real work of their lives.

The couple decided to host a concert to raise money for the Habitat House. It was held in Carrboro in March. Friends lined up to donate goods and cash. Betsy’s group Stella sang. WUNC radio host Frank Stasio emceed. They charged $50 a head and raised more than $30,000. The rest came quickly. By May they reached their goal. In June, they met the future owners of the house they planned to build and broke ground.

It is always an emotional day, says Blake Strayhorn.

This one was filled with what they call “Habimiracles.” Betsy found herself singing gospel songs with a group of foster children who knew the music already and happened to be cleaning up trash with their foster parent nearby. They gathered beneath a giant pecan tree over lunch. The construction supervisor turned out to be from Jamaica, a place dear to the Levitases. Derrick Jones, the future homeowner, had a tattoo of his mother’s name on his arm: Betsy.

In the dedication, Betsy Levitas said she hoped the Johnsons’ home would be filled with music.

Especially harmony.

The house construction goes on until September.

And for the Levitases, they hope, much, much longer.