I love this old house.
I mean, in truth it is not even old. It just feels that way, like a sweater. A favorite warm sweater. A rather stretched out, ever so slightly faded sweater, with snags and a couple of loose threads, and that one spot that’s getting pretty worn. The one you might keep in the back of your closet forever, even after it gets so you can’t possibly wear it anywhere but at home.
We’ve lived here for eight years now. Long enough to have gotten the hell over the puppy love stage. And, in fact, long enough to have forgotten when exactly it was that we’d done so. Long enough to have found the warts, and the idiosyncrasies. Long enough to have changed our individual and collective minds about which are which. Several times. Long enough to have tried this, that, and the other thing to work with the idiosyncrasies and cover up the warts.
Long enough to know in our bones that we love the house’s bones, and its roots. But long enough also to know that with us and it as we each of us were, we were headed straight for the land of irreconcilable differences. And so we decided to put on an addition. And, you know, change a few little things inside while we were at it. Like all the little things. And a couple of big ones too.
What happens when you start a reno project—by which, of course, I mean when you really start it, when all the drawings are finished and all the plans are filed with the city, and all the permits issue—what happens when you start is that you open up walls. And ceilings, here and there, and sometimes floors too.
Additions are easy, relatively-speaking. By which I mean straight-forward—you are building a new thing where no part of your house had previously been. So if you want to put a door riiiiiight there, you can put that door riiiiight there, in that exact spot. It’s not like you’re going to suddenly discover that spot to be a highly contested piece of real estate, with, say, a gas line supplying your furnace laying a claim to it under the well-established legal doctrine of “it’s gonna cost ya a pretty penny to have me moved.”
There are fewer surprises with additions. Not none, but fewer. With renovations on the other hand, with renovations sometimes it feels like there’s nothing but surprises. With renovations you get to a place where you stop expecting your existing walls to not contain a random water line or to be the same distance from each other at the floor level and half way to the ceiling. Because so few don’t and even fewer are.
And then there is a phase where time slows down. People come to work on the house—plumbers, electricians, HVAC guys, the main crew. They’re all in and out, though not every day. The work is slow and thoroughly unglamorous. Watching the changes happen, sloooooowly, oh so sloooooowly, you learn a lot about how a house is put together, you learn to notice small changes, and to appreciate how much careful, professional work goes into making those changes happen.
And the whole time you are living with the open walls and random holes in the ceiling, and sometimes in the floor too. Which can make it feel like you will always be living with the open walls and random holes in the ceiling. And so, living with and through all that, I think about stuff. I think about feeling exposed. About what a fault is and who gets to decide. I think about what it looks like when we have scars, and about who could tell that we have them still even after we’ve laid a thick layer of plaster over them.
I think about what it means to really know a thing. Or a person. About whether knowing something or someone that deeply necessarily means acceptance. We loved this house before we started taking it apart, and we thought we understood it. And then we opened it up and learned so much more. For one, we found a cased opening where the perpendicular wall was set nearly an inch deeper on one side than the other, and we found out why. It was so cleverly disguised we never noticed. There is a flat wall there now—our contractor got rid of the casing and shimmied the skinnier side. It looks streamlined and purposeful now, like it was always meant to be that way. But from now on I just might think of that wall (and the drain pipe that requires it to be thicker) any time I get that well-meaning and cheerful “so how many children do you have?”
There is so much under the surface. So much. One doesn’t have to have buried a kid to know that. For me though these last months have been a reminder that this bit of wisdom applies to most everyone and most everything. I’ve also been reminded about how difficult it is to be in whatever moment we’re in, how much we crave forward progress.
I think about that phrase, forward progress, and about all its siblings and cousins—phrases like getting there, as in now we are and benchmarks, as in are we hitting them. Our projects need these. Our school papers, and closet reorganizations, and big work projects. And yes, our renos. So I think about what a project is. And I think about how our culture messages everything as a project. And about how grief is not a project. About how mine hasn’t been. About how forward progress is bunk. Because while I can—most days—talk about A without breaking down, there are days when the thought of not knowing, not ever getting to know, who he would’ve been makes me cry in line at the coffeeshop.
There is a stage, too, when things suddenly speed up. You are used to those open walls, and then one day they’re no longer open. Blueboard is up. Then plaster. Moldings start to show up, and flooring goes down. And you begin to see that it will be over.
And so now I wonder what it will feel like when it is done, when I have a kitchen again, when there is space where I can be by myself. And I wonder whether I will ever feel the way the happy people on the HGTV shows do when they see their finished houses. Seeing the tile I’ve agonized over beginning to be installed and looking good has been exciting. But I think I am more likely to land on content and accomplished than on giddy. We’ve been through a lot together, this house and us. We’ve seen each other with our walls open. I may never puppy love it again, but I think I will always remember everything that lies beneath the plaster.
What objects in your life speak to you? What are you thinking about?