The following essay was published this week in the Pacific Sun, a weekly newspaper in Marin County, California, under the title "Saved by Sea Legs".
The Road to Beautiful
The realtor’s listing I held in my hand was stamped "TD" in red letters, for "Tear Down". Before snapping the blurry photo, the seller hadn’t even bothered to haul out the rusty bikes melting into the fence, or to cut the waist-high weeds. I looked up at the house in front of me. Same bikes, same weeds, but beyond them was a deep yard with twin plum trees and rose bushes framing a house that didn’t look like it needed tearing down, but building up. From the day we signed the final papers to buy our house, we have been under construction. That was six years ago.
In that time, my husband has single-handedly raised the roofline, installed thirty-foot beams, and remodeled our kitchen, living room, bedrooms, bathroom and in-law unit, with its kitchen, living room, bedroom, bathroom and closet. He has built an outdoor dining area and art room, and dragged a children’s playhouse from the street into our yard with ropes, like a strongman hero of myth. Last week, he rebuilt the exterior landing, adding a double-locked gate and reinforced stairs. We are still married. We now have two daughters under four years old. This isn’t supposed to work.
It’s all the talk at the coffee shop and the playground: home remodeling dooms relationships. To understand why, let me give you a scenario: you and your mate are embarking on a journey to a new country. You must agree on how much to spend, and how to spend it. The exchange rate is appalling. You must also agree that however long t he journey becomes, you will bear the atmosphere of this country with grace and humor. The country is very loud--professional grade earmuffs loud. The country is messy, and smelly. At times, there is no running water and no toilet facilities in this country. This country is the Republic of Home Remodeling. Many couples don’t get out alive.
I can think of two reasons why our journey has gone so smoothly. First, because of my husband’s incredible capacity to design and build anything, our remodeling has been contractor-free. That means that we have not had to turn over a large sum of hard-earned or dearly borrowed money to a virtual stranger, in exchange for the service of making a huge mess in our home. Many times, the mess is bigger than anticipated, and costs more than anticipated, and takes longer than anticipated. This is not the fault of the contractor, always, but it’s also not a bottle of wine and dozen red roses. It does nothing good for the relationship. If you have children, the stress experience d in this or any other situation can be roundly doubled. For two children, triple it, and so forth.
The second reason we’ve survived our remodeling so well is luck: I was raised on a 12x24 foot wooden houseboat on Richardson Bay in Sausalito. The living space consisted of one small room, which served as kitchen and dining and living room. A wooden ladder in the center of the room led up to two sleeping lofts, one for my brother and I, and one for my parents. We had no toilet or shower (it was a short walk to the ones on land), no hot water and no phone. But we had everything we needed--even a skiff to row out into the bay on late summer evenings when the water was glassy. When the water wasn’t glassy, the winter storms slammed one boat into another, each impact threatening to punch the hole that would sink us. We eventually were sunk. After neighbors helped us tie off our leaning, waterlogged home, my brother and I squeezed through the small square kitchen window to stand, knee deep in water, in our house for the last time. Growing up in a tiny boat perched on the surface of the bay, subject to the whims of weather and the inevitable effects of water on wood, has made my remodeling journey more of an exotic adventure, and less of a forced march. The boat made me flexible (no shower? no problem), adaptable (lights out? candles on), tolerant (better knee deep in weeds than in water), and grateful (despite its problems, the house will never sink).
I never expected a house--so much space, so many doorknobs and floorboards and blades of grass to call my own. My husband isn’t bothered by the construction because he can see it finished in his mind, and he can make it finished with his hands. I’m not bothered by it because the house continually amazes me with its luxury—the luxury of being on solid ground. I’m willing to step over powercords, put in my earplugs and continue living in this foreign land. I am amazed at how much we have, and how much we have made of it, by hand, bit by bit, and hand in hand.
We have not arrived back from our journey to the Republic of Remodeling, but we will someday. Wish you were here.