Sunday, February 21, 2016

Getting to a Fresh Start in the Dining Room

A lot has been written about the demise of the traditional dining room, and how the space in new construction should be allotted to something else entirely. I know plenty of people who've turned their existing dining rooms into something else-- the family reading room, the home office, the craft room, the school work headquarters. I've even seen a house where the homeowners decided the dining room was way too tiny to be useable as one, and turned it into the dream walk-in pantry they always wanted.

That's all cool. I've seen some awesome alternative-to-dining-room spaces. But I've come to the conclusion I'm an old-fashioned girl. I want my dining room. As a dining room. That's even with a reasonably roomy eat-in kitchen.

Part of it is the size of our family. There's five here when Grant, my oldest attending college locally, is home for dinner, which is often. He almost always brings his girlfriend. That's six. Add extended family--my mother, my dad, my sister and her family, my boyfriend's four college-student-aged kids, cousins and friends-- extra dining space is not only needed, it's regularly needed.

That said, I still think dining rooms, even if they are meant to be used as dining rooms, need to be able accommodate the daily life of families. Social studies projects. Sewing machines. Tomato plants on the window sill. I'm not really about rigid definitions of space in a home, even if I want a room that functions primarily as a dining room.

From the front door, my 1939 colonial-style house flows from living room to dining room to kitchen at the rear of the house, so the dining room is a pass-through room. High profile. And it's got the goods to be a handsome space. These corner cupboards are the reason I bought the house.

I was less thrilled with the fleshy-pink beiges, 80s vinyl wallpaper, cracked ceiling and walls, and sloppy paint job of previous owners.

Since I moved into the house, I've suffered a lot of conflict over this room. It was only cosmetically ugly, rather than needing serious attention--plumbing, remodeling, electrical. So it wasn't a top priority in that sense. But I'd walk through it every day, and it depressed/irritated/shamed me that it was such an eyesore right where we lived, every day.

This year there's been some progress. What follows is a series of bad cell phone photos, but it gives you an idea where we've been in the last six or seven weeks.

The wallpaper was stripped down to the plaster.

The cracks were repaired and the room re-textured and primed:

The pediment trim at the top of the corner built-ins were taken off to make wall repair/painting easier to do. They'll come back when it's done.

We also removed a deep cornice wall that hung across the top of the dining room alcove to hide a downlight fixture. I didn't take a before photo and wish I had. But I don't think a photo would have captured how removing that made the room seem bigger and the ceiling higher and airier.

To the right is wiring for the doorbell, a vintage one I'm hoping to get operating again.

I'll be coming back to this in the coming weeks with some further progress. Paint will change the look of this dramatically, and I'm excited to have a room that lives up to its potential.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Houses are for New Beginnings

Houses are constructed for new beginnings. We inhabit them physically. But houses, the really special ones, end up inhabiting us as well. They stand for things in our heart.

I believe this house was special from the beginning, before I knew it existed, before I was born. It was a wedding present in 1939 from a carpenter father named Hans to his newly married daughter Ruth. It became the gift-box that held her marriage and family life with three sons.

A few families and owners and decades later, the house became mine. 

Part of the reason I named my blog 'On the Doorstep' is because it represented that moment when a symbolic door swings open on a new life. I'd already spent a blurred and unhappy year in a downtown flat in the post-divorce recovery phase. This house was the beginning of the better and happily ever-after.

That's the beautiful part of the story. The reality part was a little more complicated.

It was a lot of damned hard work. With not a whole lot of money to do it with. 

In the nearly five years I've lived here, we've made a lot of progress-- torn up carpet, cleaned and painted, repaired windows and doors. But the list was tremendously long and the longer I lived here, the more I realized this was a project of years, not months.

As I mentioned in my New Year's eve post, 2015 was a year with some progress, but more things stalled out than got done. I felt bad about that.

Every weekend I was coming home and facing a full docket of the usual single parent things: dirty laundry, dirty bathrooms, errands and grocery shopping. I had a kid with special education needs who was having a pretty rotten year through no fault of his own, and he needed fully involved parenting. And then there were my three other kids, who also needed their mom. I won't try to put a pretty spin on last year. It was exhausting and anxiety-ridden, I felt overwhelmed and resentful, and I survived more than I conquered.

But to make sure that I am not turning this into some sort of victim saga, I also had plenty of things these last five years I enjoy, like sharing family meals and baking and travel and photography and writing. They were things that I wasn't willing to give up just so every spare second of my week could be dedicated to progress on the house. I wanted it, but not so bad that I wanted to give up those other parts of my life.

After a few years at this, I was beginning to spend some long hours thinking about exactly what I was getting out of this experience. It was hard to admit that while I still loved the house as much, or perhaps even more, than I ever did, I wasn't much loving the work it entailed. I was mad at myself for getting sold on the fairy tale of old house dreams and not being up to challenge of the reality. I couldn't figure out how to be true to my love for this house and still have room in my life for everything that had to fit into it.

It wasn't as though I already had a lot of these skills. Every last thing seemed like it was a new learning experience, often with the prospect of purchasing new (and expensive) tools I didn't already have. In an old house where routine repairs often quickly become complicated, this wasn't just an occasional thing, it was every damn thing I tried to do.

I'm not actually sure at this point whether I discovered I wasn't really as interested in teaching myself DIY as I thought I was, or whether I was just too overwhelmed by the steepness of the learning curve to cope, or just had too many things on my plate as a single mom to take this on. Probably a little of all of them? Anyway, I was beginning to feel like a fraud and a failure.

And into this situation walked Tom, the man I started dating in October.

Tom is handy in many of the trades, and this house just so happens to need a lot of help in many of those trades. So being a both a guy handy in the trades and a profoundly good-hearted person, he offered his help.

And I balked. I was too territorial to accept.

That's totally not his fault.

I ended up picking the least emotionally fraught project I could think of to do while I sorted out the reasons why I sat down in the middle of the road on the idea of someone, an increasingly important someone, helping me.

So, we installed a garage entry door. It went well, regardless of my misgivings. 

In the meantime, I figured out the house had not only come to represent my new life, it also had come to represent my independence. I don't know when that happened, honestly. But it burned fierce in me for so long, I had equated being independent with being single.

That was the problem. Because, well, I'm not single anymore. I'm in the middle of "an experiment of we" for the foreseeable future.

I'm in the process of rethinking what independence means to me now-- being capable, open-hearted, resilient in a house full of people I care about-- and trying to leave behind what it no longer means--me, alone with this house, struggling. That rethinking is taking some time because, well, I'm me, and I think about that kind of stuff a lot. Considering the gifts of this relationship, I believe it's well worth doing.

Besides, it's just a new beginning. Again. Life is like that, isn't it? And this house has seen a few of them. I think it'll handle this one just fine.