Renovation Blues

At first, it always sounds like a good idea.  We’ll replace the old bathroom floor, which was installed so poorly that the tiles were starting to pop up, with a new one that we actually like.  We’ll fix the mantel on the fireplace in our living room, and while we’re at it, let’s fix the broken water spigot on the side of the house that leaks every time we turn the hose on and replace that broken closet door in the basement, too.  We’ll just call our handyman, and he’ll take care of everything!  Nothing could be easier.

Then comes the morning when the handyman shows up with his tools and equipment and gets to work.  Soon every flat surface in the house is covered with a fine layer of grey dust, and my front bedroom has been converted a storage room for the toilet and vanity, as well as a shop vac and various other equipment I don’t even recognize.  Stacks of new tiles and bags of grout are piled in the back bedroom, and our garage is converted into a temporary workshop, complete with a wet saw and sawhorses for working on the doors.

I’m used to having the house mostly to myself during the day, but renovations mean sharing my house with someone who spends his days smashing tiles, cutting copper pipes and ripping mantels out of the wall, as noisily as possible.  He gives me frequent updates of his progress, usually when I’m trying to write a blog post or rushing out the door because I’m late for an appointment.  And at the end of each day, I spend at least an hour cleaning up the dust and dirt that were created from that day’s work.

I find myself beginning to think that we should have just done the work ourselves, until I remember all those times before we could afford to hire someone and we actually did the work ourselves.  I remember how much fun it was to help my husband carry 22 sheets of drywall from the backyard to the basement because a storm was coming.  I remember the time I wallpapered my son’s bedroom, only to have all the wallpaper fall off the next day.  Mostly, I remember the time I helped my husband take down a dying tree in our back yard.  He tied a rope around the upper trunk of the tree, gave it to me and told me to pull hard when he told me to.  Then he went to work on the base of the tree with a chainsaw.  After a few minutes, he yelled “pull,” so I did.  And looked up to see that the tree was falling straight at me.  I did the only sensible thing:  dropped the rope and ran.  Later I checked with our insurance agent just to make sure my husband hadn’t taken out an extra life insurance policy on me.

IMG_1331Eventually, the work is done, and our handyman packs up all his tools and leaves.  He’s actually a very nice man, and very good at his job, but I’m still glad that he won’t be back next week.  I love our new fireplace mantel, and the bathroom floor looks even better than I thought it would.  We have new closet doors in the basement that open and close easily, and I can now turn on the hose without getting sprayed by a jet of water  from the spigot handle.  And sadly, I know it won’t be very long until I find myself thinking, maybe we could ask our handyman to get rid of that popcorn ceiling in the upstairs office, and maybe it’s time to finally put that dormer window in the master bedroom….

Pass It On

Recently, I spent a Saturday afternoon at my daughter’s house, helping her paint one of her bedrooms.  I’m one of those rare people who actually likes to paint, so I didn’t mind spending a beautiful weekend afternoon up on a ladder, doing the edging.  Even better, my mother stopped by and offered to pitch in as well by painting some of the trim.  So there we were, three generations of family working together to give a room in my daughter’s house a much-needed sprucing up.  For me, it felt like one of those family bonding moments when the older members of the family get to pass along some of their knowledge and experience to the younger members.  (Which is an increasingly rare thing in theses days of ever-changing technology where the young are usually the ones who teach the old.)

Milentz houseI remember when my husband and I bought our first house and how hard we struggled to turn a very run down “fixer-upper” into a livable home.  We couldn’t have done it without the help of friends and family who loaned us tools (and showed us how to use them), and helped clean up years worth of dirt and grime.  We had a good friend who showed my husband how to build walls, while others helped him assemble our own kitchen cabinets.  I remember clearly how my mother helped me in our overgrown yard, pointing out that the “weeds” I was about to pull were actually just flowers that needed some pruning.  My aunt gave us money to buy kitchen curtains, and my brother-in-law even offered to install a wood-burning stove for us to help with heating costs.  All that support made the process seem so much less overwhelming.

And now that my own son and daughter have bought houses of their own, both of which were fixer-uppers (we never buy anything else in our family), it’s our turn to help.  I paint, do yard work and clean, my husband brings over his tools and shows them how to use them while he’s working on a project, and in the process, we help teach our kids what they need to know to fix up and properly maintain their houses.  Frankly, it feels good to pass along some of the skills, support and knowledge that was given to us.

It’s not that our kids (and their husband and fiancé) couldn’t do it themselves, they most certainly could.  They’re young, hard-working and smart, and what they don’t already know, they’ll figure out.  But I know our help means that they are learning much more quickly, and I believe that they appreciate the support of their family with this important milestone in their lives.  These are the acts that solidify our family bonds, that remind us that we don’t actually have to face every challenge on our own, and that demonstrate the importance of working together to help the people we love.

Sometimes fixing up houses is about so much more than just creating a nice place to live.  Sometimes its also about building memories, strengthening family connections and passing on the best of who we are to the next generation.  It’s amazing what you can accomplish with a paintbrush and a power drill.

What Did You Say?

DSC00076Right after we bought our house, my husband and I discussed the remodeling that needed to be done first:  paint the magenta bedroom a nicer color, replace the leaky windows, install new kitchen counters and a deeper sink, etc.  And I distinctly remember hearing him say that he planned to take down the doorway and wall that enclosed the stairs to the second story. We didn’t want to have to open a door to go upstairs, and thought that an open staircase would look very nice.  The next day, my parents and I were trying to carry our mattresses upstairs, and we couldn’t fit the box springs through the doorway.  I said, “No problem, we’re going to take this wall out anyway,” and got a crowbar and knocked a big hole above the doorway so that the box springs fit through.  Honestly, I was proud of myself for fixing the problem on my own, without my husband’s help.

But it turns out that while I thought he meant “We’re going to take that doorway out right away,” what he actually meant was, “Someday we’re going to take that doorway out.”  So he was more than a little surprised to come home from work that night and find a huge, gaping hole above the doorway.  Not happy, but definitely surprised.

I also remember when my son was in kindergarten and had to get to school especially early one morning.  In an effort to save time, I asked him to lay out his clothes the night before, so we wouldn’t have to go through the ritual of deciding what he was going to wear (he had strong opinions about that when he was young) in the morning.  When I went in his room that night, I saw that he did indeed have his clothes “laid out.”  His t-shirt was spread carefully on the floor, and his jeans were placed just below them, with the shirt overlapping about an inch or so.  Sticking out from the bottom of each jean leg was a single sock, and when I looked underneath the top of the jeans, sure enough, there was a pair of underwear.  I thought I had told him simply to select his outfit for the next morning, he thought I wanted him to arrange his clothes exactly as if he was wearing them.

The older I get, the more I realize that there is often a big difference between what one person means to say and what another person actually hears.  It might be because different people assign different meanings to words, or it might be because we all tend to filter what we hear through our own, unique perspective.  I really don’t know.  But I strongly suspect that a lot of the hurt feelings and conflict we experience in our life stems from simple misunderstandings about what exactly we mean when we communicate with each other.

For my part, I’m trying to remember to make more of an effort to make myself as clear as I possibly can when I speak to others, and to take the extra time to make sure I truly understand what others mean when they speak to me, even by asking silly-sounding questions when necessary.  It isn’t always easy, and I’m certainly not always successful, but I do think it’s worth the time and effort.  I know my husband wishes I had done that all those years ago, before I started swinging away with my trusty crowbar.  Because we didn’t open up that staircase for another ten years, and plaster walls are a real hassle to patch.

The Middle Age Perspective

Milentz houseI still remember the first party my husband and I threw in the first house we ever bought.  Since the house was a complete dump inside, we spent several months working on it before we felt comfortable having a house-warming party.  We knew that most of our friends and family thought we were nuts to buy the house in the first place, and we looked forward to showing everyone how nicely we had fixed it up.  The final touch was the new carpeting we were putting in the living and dining rooms, scheduled to be installed the afternoon before the party.  I wasn’t happy with that timeline, but the installer had promised me it would be done in one afternoon, and being young and naive, I believed him.

Naturally, the installers arrived late and didn’t finish that afternoon, which meant they had to come back the morning of our party to finish the job.  I was panicked, sure we’d never get our furniture moved back in and everything ready on time, and I would miss the chance to show people that it hadn’t been a mistake to buy such a dumpy house.  Thinking about it now, I’m embarrassed at how much I cared what our friends thought of our house, and how anxious I was to get their approval of our choice.

Fast forward to last Thursday, when my brother-in-law and his family were in town and were coming to our house for dinner.  That same day we had a handyman scheduled to replace the kitchen sink faucet, an HVAC guy coming by to check the slow leak from our furnace hose, and the dishwasher decided it was a good time for a break down.  An hour before everyone was supposed to arrive, we learned that the furnace hose was not leaking, but the hot water heater was.  A lot.  What had been a few drops of water suddenly grew into a steady stream flowing across the basement floor, and the box fan we had running to keep the floor dry was right in the middle of it.

Naturally, I was flustered (I find it hard to think about more than one thing at a time), but I certainly didn’t panic, and it never occurred to me to either cancel the dinner or move it to a nearby restaurant. I knew the important thing was just to spend time with family we don’t get to see nearly as often as we’d like to, and there was no need to try to impress them.  It was just about having dinner with people who are important to us, and so what if everything didn’t go as smoothly as I had hoped?  We had a great time, and watching my 26-year old son playing Barbie dolls with my niece’s 3-year old daughter made the evening memorable all by itself.

Middle age hasn’t erased all my faults (not by a long shot), but it has helped me feel much more comfortable with who I am, faults and all.  I used to spend so much emotional energy trying to make sure everyone approved of me and my choices, but thankfully, I seem to have outgrown that self-destructive habit. Which just goes to show that there really are some advantages to growing older….

Middle Age Selectivity

Every once in a while, usually after schlepping up and down the two flights of stairs between our master bedroom and our basement while doing laundry, I think seriously about moving to single-level house.  Moving to a house with a small yard also sounds like a good idea after I’ve spent an afternoon raking leaves or pulling weeds in our large yard.  Sometimes I browse the realtor websites, and I’ve even checked out a few Sunday afternoon open houses.  So far, though, I haven’t seen a single house that has tempted me to actually buy it.

back of houseAnd that’s a huge change for me, since my husband and I have a history of buying, and moving into, houses that could best be described as “fixer-uppers.” (We usually referred to them as dumps.)  Basically, if we found a house that we could afford in an area we wanted to live in, we just figured we could turn the house into what we wanted with a “little bit of work.”  When we bought our first fixer-upper, we didn’t have any particular rehabbing skills, but we did have a strong desire to become home owners, lots of youthful energy and that special kind of optimism that comes only with complete and total cluelessness. We weren’t put off by kitchens with no cabinets, living rooms with orange carpeting, bathrooms with blue toilets or peach-colored tile, basements that leaked each time it rained, or even a dining room with “I love you Mary” painted in huge letters across the wall.

Luckily, we had friends who did have rehabbing skills and were more than generous with their time and expertise.  We spent a lot of time in hardware stores; my husband learned to hang drywall and lay flooring, and I learned that I was a good painter but a bit dangerous with a sledge hammer.  We found a few good handymen to do the work that was truly beyond us.  And we learned to shrug it off when we would tell people which house we had just bought and they responded with, “That house? Seriously?  Is it too late to get out of the contract?”

So I was surprised to realize that I’ve become so picky when it comes to even thinking about buying our next house.  For the first time, I seem to be looking for the perfect house.  These days I’m put off by ugly fireplaces, a master bathroom that’s too small, basement stairs that are too steep…things I probably wouldn’t even have noticed before.  And if I had noticed, I would have simply assumed that it was something we could fix. Where I used to look at fixer-uppers and see only potential, now I just see work, and lots of it.

I guess I no longer have the desire to deal with a rehabbing another house, even if we hired someone else to do it.  I like to think that I’m just burned out after all those years of constantly working on our houses, or that I’ve become more selective in my middle age.  But between you and me, I think the truth is that this particular middle-aged woman is just plain too old to want to fix up another house.