Journalcalling #15 – Remodeling a home and a marriage

Journalcalling   •   July 15, 2021

As the two of us stood in my yard, I pointed out the crumbling brick stairs that led to a lower tier of grass. “I can fix those,” he said. That same weekend, I watched as he dug out the cinder blocks and lugged in new ones and then mortared new bricks on top of them. Wow, just like that, new stairs. This guy might be a keeper.

Both divorced and in our 40s, neither of us were sure we wanted a long-term relationship. After flirting and laughing together on a 3-day charity bike ride, Peter and I were now commuter dating — traveling  100 miles each way on weekends between my home in southern Maine and his in Shrewsbury, Mass.

At a friend’s house, I admired the exposed ceiling beams. “You like that? We can do that,” he said. He soon hoisted a crowbar and pulled down the ugly ceiling panels in my living room, sending blinding clouds of dust and debri crashing to the floor. Together we cleaned up the mess, packing it into large contractor bags, and then celebrated the funky new look.

It was infectious. Next, we peeled off the embossed wallpaper I had never liked. Underneath it were stains and holes, so we bought large buckets of joint compound and frosted the walls a soft white. He seemed to know how to do everything.

We had animated discussions about what my little house, perched at the edge of a wide river, might look like someday. Built in the 1940s, I had assumed I could hold up the loose walls by continuing to add layers of paint. Peter loved my optimism.

After we dated for two years, we took the plunge and he moved in with me and my two teenage sons. The recession of 2006 had hit, and he had to close the kitchen and bathroom remodeling company he had owned for seven years. He had a thick, glossy portfolio showing the inspired rooms he and his crew had created in the Worcester and Boston areas, and suddenly he had to go work for someone else.

We realized too late that it was not an opportune time for him to also start sharing a small home with a mother and her sons. The storms soon blew in. He proclaimed the boys were “overmothered”, and a defensive mama bear roared. There were arguments over the cap not being replaced on the toothpaste, my sons not shoveling the driveway in time for me to get out to work and their refusal to mow the lawn in a coordinated manner with a bag on.

Hard feelings would be soothed, and we had fun hosting family holidays, hiking exhilarating trails in the White Mountains, cheering on our children at their soccer, hockey and lacrosse games and carrying flowers to Peter’s two daughters at their dance recitals. Early on, we took our blended family — his four children and my two — on a weekend ski trip where they seemed to bond instantly.

A few years passed and my sons went on to college and then moved out for good with an appreciation and respect for the man who had become their stepdad. His mixture of fatherly toughness, humor and generosity — especially moving in a TV with cable soon after he arrived — had endeared them.

Once the boys were gone, Peter tore out their bedrooms and built a new staircase to a spacious bedroom loft for us. For the next 10 years, we would remodel our 1200-square foot home in fits and starts and live there through it all —  erecting plastic partitions to try to seal off the rest of the house from the relentless dust that flew as we pulled down walls and ceilings and yanked up floors. Along the way, we created two transition kitchens and lived in rooms with exposed insulation for many months at a time.

Neither of us had the real money needed for this kind of overhaul. When Peter told me what he knew it would all cost, I laughed my nervous laugh. We started with a small inheritance my uncle had left me and replaced the sagging shingled roof with a metal one then moved on to fix the leaking block foundation.

Construction would stop when we ran out of money or it was time to pay off our maxxed-out Home Depot card. We would then haul the furniture back in from a storage trailer we kept in the driveway. I covered the plywood floors with carpets and decorated the rooms as if they had walls — with photos, holiday decorations and lots of plants and candles.

I married my handsome general contractor in our backyard four years after meeting him. We would spend our days tearing down and rebuilding both the house and our relationship, room by room, wondering if it would ever really come together.

With 5 marriages between us — three for him and two for me — we carried baggage that would erupt in struggles we weren’t always sure how to solve. Sometimes, I wondered if the remodel would be abandoned, unfinished with studs for walls and plastic doorways, or if we would build a beautiful home and then not be able to live in it together.

Peter had been through it before, and he had the same fears. We went to counseling and kept talking, knowing we wanted this but not always sure how to have it. It seemed helpful that we had married and eventually reached our 60s — with a smattering of hard-won wisdom and the knowledge that we certainly did not want to start over holding us together.

I had never seen a man work so hard. A life-long entrepreneur, he lasted less than a year selling kitchens for someone else, then gave up the construction business entirely to reinvent himself as a safety trainer. During the week, he put all of his energy into taking courses and growing his new company, and on weekends, he clasped a worn leather tool belt around his hips, plugged in his Sawzall and made ear-splitting noise.

We became masters at flipping rooms. During one of our kitchen transitions, I painted the back hall a grey orange and bought a colorful rug to create a charming dining area for two among a row of metal storm windows. At that time, the kitchen stove, refrigerator and one foot of counter space was squished into a nearby galley. “It was a little like camping,” a friend said. Cramped as it was at times, we never stopped having company.

One year, instead of putting up our regular holiday tree at Christmas, I planted three small evergreens in pretty ceramic pots and placed our gifts around the front door which had been removed and propped up in the living room. Painted bright purple, and now strung with lights, it was a nostalgic piece for me — the entrance to a home I had bought myself for a new life with my sons. The remodel meant it could no longer be a real door on the front of  the house, but Peter rehung it out there, expertly framing it as a faux door. It looks convincing.

For a short time, we had an open pit looking into the basement where the living room and kitchen floors once were. We lived mostly upstairs then. Our family and friends got used to these various iterations, and seemed to enjoy subsequent visits to see the progress we had made.

They marveled at my patience. Somehow, I thought of it as an adventure. I sometimes doubted there would be a brand new kitchen and a relocated bathroom to replace the original that had been tacked on to the back of the house blocking the river from view.

Things sometimes happened suddenly without discussion. I came home once and found Peter had ripped out the kitchen cabinets and placed all of the contents on the floor of the living room. Our only living space was filled with stacks of plates, pots and pans, small appliances and boxes of food. There was nowhere to put any of it.

No matter how messy and difficult it became, the mantra we adopted was: “you can’t get in the way of progress.” I loaded most of the kitchen stuff into bins and carted them to the trailer.

I had become a first class gopher and fairly proficient at holding 2x4s in place and reading a level and breathing through the strain of lifting the mighty joists that supported the whole house. Peter always recognized my work at the end of the day, insisting it was hugely important especially at clean up time. That was when his back and knees would ache and the arthritis would stab his soon-to-be replaced shoulder.

It never stopped him. Before the frost would roll in, it would be time to stucco a section of the exterior. Together, we had ripped off areas of the vinyl siding and carefully removed asbestos shingles. After reframing the walls, Peter rolled up rubber matting and chicken wire to keep the stucco in place. He erected scaffolding to hold himself and our sons safely as they lugged up pails and smoothed on the new light gray exterior.

On another day, I walked into the house lugging bags of groceries and cried. Peter had opened up the back wall and there it was — the river view. Would we really have a kitchen overlooking the water where the sun set each night? The plans he had drawn said so.

We were soon visiting kitchen cabinet and tile stores and a favorite granite place he knew from years in the business. With his preference for clean lines and a contemporary look and my bent toward a traditional style, I anticipated a painful selection process.

I was stunned how fast we picked out materials together. I liked the laminate finishes he pointed out, and we mixed in a section of painted cabinets for me. We chose our countertops and quartz for the island in less than 30 minutes, and easily agreed on tile patterns for the walls, including one that featured my favorite blues and greens. This marriage might work after all.

When we were stuck at home together during the pandemic, we got along surprisingly well, and we kept building. Huge boxes arrived with our cabinets and I watched him return to his old specialty, slicing open box after box and sketching a map with dimensions on the wall. With a friend, he mounted and screwed together two walls of cabinets and an island with drawers that opened and closed with a touch. He carefully positioned thick shelves over the sink to hold our bowls, mugs and glasses. I was gleefully in charge of cardboard removal.

Peter hustled to have the counters and appliances installed and juggled plumber and electrician visits to make sure we could move in to our new kitchen in time for my birthday in the Spring. For our first meal, we lit candles on the shiny island and sat there grinning and giddy.

In the yard, I had kept building gardens so our house, in whatever condition, would be surrounded by beauty. The brilliant orange poppies, ruffled peonies and blue irises had partially obscured the sheathing boards that had covered the house for months at a time, and now the colors popped against the gray stucco. With long casement windows and the stucco finish, our old cottage-style cape resembles a tiny European villa.

Peter put lanterns on granite posts to softly light the flowered pathway that leads to our home — this sacred space we imagined and built together, room by room. We had to pick through and repair and discard a lot of our stuff, and we finally live in a pretty place with strong footing.