We are in the middle of renovating our kitchen. I should be in heaven. I am in hell. I should be grateful that we are able to take on such an endeavor in this economy. Instead, I am questioning my marriage and the meaning of home and the symbolism of a kitchen for the well-spring of family life.
When I was growing up, my parents lost their large two-story colonial home in a very fancy neighborhood due to the economy, the oil crisis of the 1970’s (and probably some bad business decisions on my father’s part). We had to move into my father’s office building, called the Riverhouse, because we lost our house. It was built right on the banks of a river that flooded on a regular basis. As my family tried to hold itself together, we dreamed of renovating that place into something wonderful, with porches overlooking the river, almost like piers. Maybe even turning it into a restaurant. We dreamed of fixing the boarded up bathrooms, with stacks of Playboy magazines on the plywood which covered the bathtubs. None of that came to fruition.
And now, I am embarking with my husband on a renovation that is going to cost us a year of my full-time salary. We qualified for the loan, but I am scared shitless. I am having dreams of us, my husband and my son and the contractor, driving down the most dangerous interstate in our area, the one that my mentor was killed on, facing a multi-car pile up. Headed for disaster. I tell my husband, who is driving, to do his best. I hold my son’s hand. I am terrified as I see the semi’s and SUV’s collapse ahead of us in slow motion. It is not so bad to die.
We have ripped the kitchen and adjacent laundry room down to the studs. We thought we had a plan. Then, the contractor (who is a friend of a friend, the kind of guy we like to think of as a friend) says he’s had a dream, a vision, of how we should do it. Woke up at 3:00 to do a plan...and it’s 100% opposite of the final plan we gave him. That I rendered out in 5 feet scale sheets. Move the sink over here, and the laundry over there...We are still reeling and trying to make it fit in our minds.
We bought a second hand kitchen from a woman on the wealthy side of town. It’s only 10 years old. It’s the only way we would have ever been able to afford the second bath we need to accommodate a growing family. What if two of us get sick at the same time? It’s just practical, I think.
My husband and I have been arguing our guts out. He thinks I have betrayed him with the contractor. I think he has sold me out. We can’t agree on anything. It is worse than anything that I can possibly imagine about misplacement of doors and window and appliances. I am reminded of how deeply my husband fails to understand me, and I, in turn, him.
After my parents lost their money, and we all left that town, I would go back from time to time, to see the Riverhouse. Once, with a bad boyfriend, who was good at sex and nothing else, we broke in at night, into the abandoned place, just to look around. It was still very much the same. Floor to ceiling windows; my “writing porch,’ a strange little outcrop on one side, all cedar and split pane windows, stained from the multiple floods, but the same.
Then, later on, I took my husband to see it. There was obvious activity, someone was fixing it up, but good. I parked across the street, and gingerly walked toward it, to get a better look. Someone came out. He was Arab. Dark eyed and skinned and haired, and well dressed, well off. Something in me, the adventuresome part that so often gets me into trouble said, “Hello. I used to live here. Are you fixing up the place?” The gentleman walked over to me, with a heavy accent. “You, you used to live here?”
“Yes. A long time ago. In the 1980’s. It’s a very special place, this house.”
“Yes, yes,” he said, getting excited. “It’s very unusual.” And it was.
The story was it had started as a small house in the 1950’s. In the 1960’s, they had added on, not once, but twice, to accommodate a growing student population from the nearby university. My father had bought it once, then sold it, then bought it again in the 1970’s. It had not one floor, not two, but many...with winding staircases and skylights and rooms named for various functions, most of which were long gone.
“Can I come in and see it?” I asked the Arab man.
“You...you want to see inside?”
“Yes please. It would mean a lot to me. Where are you from?”
“Oh, yes. Persian, I know,” I said, because I did know a little bit about Persia at that time, and how proud a people they can be, and how beautiful their art. And I wasn't afraid that we might be soon going to war with them. Or that they might be Muslim. I think, perhaps, my lack of fear from him saying this helped him warm up to me.
“Okay. You can come in.”
He was probably the contractor. They were doing a total remodel. The rooms were in the same basic configuration, but gone was the 1970’s paneling. Everything was coated with a clean, white stucco. All the corners were smoothed, as if they were made of mud. Where the rancid carpet had been, there were smooth tile floors. Everything was beautiful and clean.
I pulled out my camera. “No, no pictures,” the foreman said.
“Yes, of course,” I said, sheepishly, putting the camera away. Knowing I would only be able to hold the picture in my mind made the walk through even more heavy and important than it was before.
I thanked the man profusely as I left, for letting me see what had become of the house. I told him how wonderful their renovation was, and how happy I was to see that the place was being taken care of. I was conflicted about warning him about how often the place flooded.
I had regular dreams when I lived there of all my things, my writing, floating down the cold, brown river.
My husband thought it was so strange, that they allowed us inside their renovation. And it was strange, really. I think that God allowed it.
And now we are here, in a house we’ve lived in 17 years, trying to make the kitchen and laundry and bath work. And it is hard. I don’t enjoy the process very much at all.
I am close to my mother’s age when she left the Riverhouse, gave up on our family to pursue her own path, a path that would never include homeownership. She haunts me, a spector I love and honor, but struggle not to emulate. I do not agree with her choices, although I love her still.
I think perhaps our new kitchen and laundry and bath will in the end be wonderful. Our contractor is very creative and resourceful and we should trust him more. But it is humbling to think of the price of home improvement. And the compromises we all make when embarking on a renovation. And how temporary all these living accommodations truly are in the long run And it won't matter which wall the oven is on. Or if we have 4 or 6 bottom cabinets.
I may end up dying in this home. In fact, I hope I will.