We'd lived in our first house since our oldest son was 2 and before our youngest was born. Over the years we'd refinished floors, replaced cracked tile, and strung lights across the backyard. But there was no changing the square footage, and as our sons grew, the place began to feel cramped. The four of us battled over one shower. I fell down the basement stairs carrying laundry because the steps were so crowded with shoes and jackets. Whenever my in-laws visited, we squeezed cheek by jowl into the living room. In the morning, I'd find my father-in-law's toothbrush French-kissing mine in the medicine cabinet. It was agreed: We needed a bigger home.

That February, we found one with walk-in closets, an updated kitchen, and three bathrooms, each private enough to guarantee I'd never again listen to an overnight guest move his bowels while I sipped my coffee. We made an offer. It was accepted. The terms were agreeable. All we had to do was sell our house.

For months we invited strangers to peek in our closets and cupboards. We shook hands with young couples on the cusp of childbearing, and I pointed out the other kids on the street, the long driveway where I'd taught the boys to ride a bike. More than once we heard a buyer whisper, "This could be the one."

But the offers didn't come. We lowered the price, and still no one was interested. By June, we'd paid for an inspection on the new place and visited the school the boys would attend, ignoring the fact that not a soul had shown up for our last two open houses. On July 1, we had no choice but to let our offer expire. Another family swooped in and bought the house I'd foolishly thought of as ours.

That August, we went to Ireland. A friend had offered us a month in his family's County Clare cottage, an old farmhouse on the peninsula. It was my sons' first time abroad. Six months earlier, I'd been certain our buying and selling would have concluded long before the trip. Now it felt like a retreat from our failures.

The house was even tinier than ours, a single main room and two small bedrooms. Donkeys grazed in the garden along the side windows, eyeballing us while we dressed or read, belting out guttural brays that crescendoed into full-throated hee-haws. We laughed every time we heard them, and we heard them a lot.

One windy day we boarded a ferry bound for the Aran Islands, off the western coast. The boat looked broad and sturdy in the harbor, but once it reached the open sea, the pleasure cruise became a spewfest. A family nearby bent forward in unison and vomited into the plastic barf bags the crew had handed out. A little girl clutched her father's neck and wailed, "Make it stop! Make it stop!"

I turned to check on the boys, seated behind me. Their hands were in the air, grins on their faces. And it hit me: The house I'd yearned for wasn't necessary. There were things in life far more enduring than a house or the stuff houses contain. Exhibit A: my sons whooping and hollering as we motored toward a stunning place they'd never seen before.

The McGlynns in Ireland, 2013

That day my wife and I decided to stay in our house and indulge our lust for the world. We wanted our boys to see adventure as a lifelong value rather than a diversion reserved for the newly graduated or the retired. Our house might be small, but our lives—with careful budgeting and a little gumption—could be big.

From top: The McGlynns in Madrid in 2016; Michigan, 2014; and Gibraltar, 2016.

Since Ireland, we've walked the length of Manhattan and hiked the Rock of Gibraltar and swum in the Caribbean Sea at dusk on Christmas Eve. We've done it on the cheap, holing up in hostels. We've eaten winkles and dillisk, morcilla smothered in peppers, octopus grilled next to the water where it was caught. The boys, now 12 and 10, have stopped asking when we're going to move. Now they just want to know where we're going next.

David McGlynn is the author of, most recently, the memoir A Door in the Ocean.


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