In 1995 my husband and I moved from New York City to the suburban house of our dreams because we couldn’t find—by which I mean couldn’t afford—outdoor space for our son that was more than a 2-by-2 square of concrete at the bottom of an air shaft that saw daylight only between the hours of 2 and 4 pm on Tuesdays. We also wanted good public schools within walking distance. Our intentions were benign . . . so how come we got punished by the gods?
To pay for the dream-house mortgage, we stretched ourselves so thin that, as a precaution, we asked a well-off friend to spot us $10,000 if in the next few years we had, say, a medical emergency. We couldn’t afford fancy renovations, but even limiting ourselves to necessities, we ended up with a long list: replacing the kitchen’s linoleum floor (so far gone that little JJ’s feet went black every time he crossed it); revamping the rotted-out porch floor; swapping the rusty 1920s kitchen cabinetry for nice, clean melamine. And more.
No matter how much we planned, there were moments of financial terror—such as when the painter called to say, “Um, the walls are falling down.” Incredulous, I got on the commuter train and went to see what he meant. Well, he meant the walls were falling down. Back in the 1920s, someone had fixed cracks in the plaster by gluing linen over them, then covering everything with stucco. Now the glue had lost its grip, and the linen was coming down in sheets. Our only choice was to replaster—ca-ching! Then the carpenter found termites and asbestos under the porch (special removal required: ca-ching!). And, oh yes, by this time I was pregnant again (ca-ching times 50). Until then, my husband and I had never fought, but now we sparred over every new leak in our financial boat. One more unanticipated expense and we’d be throwing each other overboard.
So that January, when a winter wind howled its way through the defunct exhaust fan in the kitchen ceiling, Jeff and I just shook our heads. Would we call the contractor yet again? No. Calmly Jeff unscrewed the grate over the fan, stuffed the hole with a paper plate and screwed the grate back on. By that time we—like Susan Gregory Thomas, whose essay about love amid home renovation is on page 60—had learned how fixing up a house can tear down a relationship. That’s why we left that paper plate in the ceiling until our marriage, and bank account, had recovered enough to withstand more renovations. Which only took 11 years.
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