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Personal Essays

A New, Old House

It’s true: You can never go home again. Watching a construction team renovate the house you grew up in, and understanding why your parents wanted a new place to live.

The summer after I graduated from high school I lived at my parents’ house and watched a small team of construction workers knock a wall out of our living room.

After 20 years’ combined erosion from a dog, two sons, another dog, and two cats (one of which had a persistent bladder infection), after two decades of us all running into walls and tacking up posters and tearing them down, my parents’ house was in desperate need of remodeling. Sections of the carpet were worn away, hidden by area rugs—the combovers for threadbare carpet.

Certain features of the house were admittedly out of date. Our carpet, once the thick, golden shag of my childhood, had long since become the drab, impossible-to-vacuum embarrassment of my adolescence. The living room, dark, cramped and wood-paneled, might have made Mike Brady smile in 1973, but now it only pissed off my mother.

And so they wrote down some ideas, drew up some plans, and hired a contractor. I asked my mother if they were doing all this because I was leaving.

“Yes. And you’re going to help us do it, you better believe.”

 

* * *


Before any major construction, however, there was a great deal of work to do. A lot of tasks that were “easy enough for us to do” were ones my father decided we would take care of ourselves. “Better than paying a bunch of guys who know how to do something, trained guys, to do something that everybody knows how to do. Now grab that edge of carpet and pull.”

With the furniture moved out of my room, everything looked so different. My posters and bed and desk had been hiding the truth from me for years: I’d been living in a sty.

“What’s this sour smell in the corner,” I asked.

My mother, bending down to yank up a corner of shag, called over her shoulder, “I’m sure it’s just flakes of old, rotting skin. Yours probably. And maybe some dog urine.”

I winced.

“Well now you know why I told you not to let the dog sleep in here.”

We piled the remains of the carpet in the center of the room, and rolled up the center like a rug. The carpet pad had been reduced to yellow dust. (“The guy who built the house said it would last 20 years. Looks like he was right!” my dad proudly noted.) We swept it up and continued through to the next room, and the next, ripping, tearing, and sweeping.

That night I slept on the couch in the living room, above a concrete floor. The next morning I had to open the store—I was bagging groceries at a local supermarket for the summer—so I woke up early and got dressed. My mother met me in the driveway to drive me to work.

After my shift I called her because I needed to get a ride back to the house. She answered the phone, but I could barely hear her for all the shouting and sawing and commotion going on back at the house.

“I need a ride!” I yelled.

“What’d you say? Jesus Christ I’ve gotta get out of here.”

(click)

She showed up at the store with a stack of fabric samples from a couple of weeks before, when she and my father had visited a furniture store downtown. I hadn’t been asked along, since my ideas for decorating weren’t respected; a couple of years before when I suggested forgoing the light cover in my room, so the light bulb could stay exposed and very cool-looking, my mother laughed, saying, “Oh, that’ll look real nice. Very Havana ‘52. Take the cover off all you want when you’re in there, but it better be back on every time I see it.”

So I had good reason to wonder why she was packing the swatches. I asked where we were going.

“Paint store. We’re going to look at some chips.”

“Why am I coming?”

“You ever carry cans of paint? They’re heavy. You’ll see what I mean.”

Once we arrived at the paint store we paced slowly up and down an aisle of a thousand cards of paint chips, the ones that each show five different shades of virtually the same hue, though each with a different—and wholly imaginative—name.

“Oh, I like this one,” she said.

I looked at the card she was holding. “Which?”

“This one,” she said, pointing to the final chip on the card. “Dusty Rose.”

“Sure, why not.” I didn’t want to make this last any longer than it had to.

“Hmm,” she said, “Sounds like a hooker.”

“Heh. Or maybe hooker perfume.”

“Or a Willie Nelson biopic.”

Back up through “Chantilly Lace,” to “Honeysuckle,” past “Peach Surprise,” and even all the way up to “Wild Melon” we pored through each of those cards, exchanging commentary on their slutty names or just saying them aloud and chuckling.

Before we got too out of hand she settled on Eggshell, which we both agreed looked awfully nice and sounded respectable.

 

* * *


Aside from the wreckage wrought by me, my brother, and the family pets, my mother was a big reason why they were remodeling the house: She wanted a new fireplace. Ours was both difficult to light and irretrievably stuck in an early ‘70s aesthetic with its rough-hewn brick ledge and ornate carved mantel. She wanted something with a glass front. And that had some of those gas logs. An austere, simple, modern fireplace.

Once work started on the living room, however, the foreman told the carpenter to start building something new based on an idea he’d had—something that would really spice up the fireplace my parents had already designed. His plans showed that it would now stick out further into the room and, based on the rough sketch he’d done, appeared to feature some ornate woodwork as well. My father stepped in to tell him this wasn’t what they’d originally planned on, so thanks but no thanks.

“Oh, but this’ll be so much better, you’ll see.”

“But it’s not what we want…”

“If you don’t like it, we don’t have to keep it!”

“But it’s going to cost…”

“Don’t worry! I’ll make it up to you!”

And so my father called the owner of the construction company, who was the foreman’s dad, and explained his concern. The owner came by the house, and, as owner and father, addressed the foreman as both foreman and son. He worked through the situation not by explicating my father’s complaint or shaming him, but by treating his son’s authority as foreman with respect. The two of them eventually came to an agreement that the original plan really was the superior one, and, as they explained it to my dad, it was because of fission, or heat loss, or something.

That evening after dinner my father explained to my mother and me how impressed he was with the way the owner handled the conflict so everyone came away feeling like a winner.

My mother lit a cigarette and exhaled. “Well, he’s lucky he didn’t cut one piece of wood. or I would’ve beat him senseless with it.”

The next day the carpenter approached my father with a new idea for installing a tiny trapdoor around the corner from the fireplace which would make turning on the gas a lot easier.

He directed him to my mother, who agreed the tiny alteration had enough merit to get on-the-spot approval.

 

* * *


The man laying tile in the master bathroom was two weeks behind schedule, and every day he inched further behind. The foreman agreed to give my parents a reduction in price, so they actually weren’t too dismayed by the lateness. “And you’ll be happy with the results,” the foreman promised. “He’s a genius.”

One afternoon my mom suggested I go “watch the master tile layer at work.” By a decade or more he was the oldest member of the crew, and there he was, hunched on his knees above a huge number of grey tiles, all arranged in neat, precise stacks.

“Hey. How’s it goin’?” I asked.

He peered at me through the space between the brim of his baseball cap and his glasses. “Fine, fine,” he replied. “You come to check on me?”

“I dunno. Sure.”

“Well…” he thought, “Jobs like this take as long as they take. Best not to rush.”

I glanced into the shower. Maybe three quarters of the stall was still bare, awaiting its tile.

“So how long do jobs like this usually take?”

“‘Usually?’ Oh, you can never tell.”

“Well, do you need any help?”

“Do you know how to cut tile?”

I looked down at the stacks of tiles and noticed the tile saw next to them. Then I noticed where many of the original tiles where still intact, many others where cut into smaller squares, rectangles, and L-shaped bits—all of varying size, and too many to count.

I went back to the kitchen to report to my mother.

“Well how long did he say it would take?”

“Longer.”

 

* * *


Unlike the bathroom tile, though, the new carpeting was laid down in only a few hours. One morning an army of workers I’d never seen before entered through the backdoor, bolts of sand-colored pile (“Sahara Mist”) slung over their arms. They went to work straight away, dropping those rolls and unfurling their contents, slicing away selvedge, and smoothing out the remains with grace and speed.

Thanks to the new bay windows and the lighter carpet, the once-dank living room was filled with sunlight and warmth. I stared for a while and quietly said, “This looks amazing.”

The foreman, from the next room over, said, “Thanks! Looks great, right?!”

 

* * *


The first time I came home from college was two months after the final touches on the renovations were completed. “You’ve gotta see it! It’s starting to get lived in around here!” my dad glowed over the phone.

And, sure enough, the first time I walked in the door I could see that the remodeled house wasn’t just an attempt to fix the old one from the wear and tear of child rearing. They’d waited 20 years to build their dream house. They just decided to start with the one they already had.

Plus they got a new roof, but you don’t really notice those kinds of things.
 

biopic

Andrew Womack is a founding editor of The Morning News. He is always working on the next installment of the Albums of the Year series at TMN. More by Andrew Womack