Monthly Archives: February 2014

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It is the first day at my new job and I am introduced to the bearded, mountain-built man down in the mail room. We shake hands. And then he bellows: “Girl! Whatcha been doing? Hard labor? You need to moisturize those hands!”

Well, I say. Actually, yes, I have been doing hard labor. I run a tentative finger across the rainbow of calluses and remember that, strangely enough, in the past their softness has been complimented.

“Gloves,” he says, “nobody ever wants to believe they need gloves. They’ll save you.” And he’s back to sorting mail (gloveless).

Things we have done since moving to Dayton: dug up a mountain of dirt and rebuilt a foundation; replaced 3/4 of a house’s structural support, you know, just the stuff that holds a building up; jacked a house up 4.5 inches; rebuilt a room, including the roof (and minus, thankfully, the foundation); stripped three or more layers of wallpaper from every wall in every room and sometimes from the ceilings, and then took down many of those same walls and ceilings entirely; yanked fake brick panels off a house’s exterior, patched countless holes, and then power-washed and primed and painted 160 year old siding; rewired electric and hung new lights; redid plumbing and set new tile. Among other things.

Things we did before moving to Dayton: lay floors. Which we have finally circled back to in our new life, the downstairs unit ready for a new surface. I daydream about how easy it will be, now that we are so experienced and so much stronger and grown men quake at my calluses.

Surprise! Like all things in old houses, it is not easy. In our last house we had to level the concrete before we lay the boards. Here we must cut out a portion of the floor so we can sister new beams to the rotting joists, which are causing the floor to slope. We are also trying desperately to shim 130 year old subfloors.

But the real problem is us, rough-handed us, who have managed to thicken our skins literally without becoming stoic at all. The soundtrack of the last few weeks is something like: (exasperated noise) light fixtures! (exasperated noise) painting ceilings! (exasperated noise) mounting microwaves! And now it becomes Umfghhh floors! After nine months of working relentlessly, on sometimes epic tasks, we are still vulnerable to everyday impositions. In other words: we are kind of whiny.

It’s a serious design defect. Our hands have acquired immunity to work, but our minds have not. I want to find my coworker and tell him he has it all wrong, Gloves are a cheap fix; it’s calluses, those killers of feeling, that save us. Instead I tell myself that we must be very lucky people with very lovely lives to be surprised each day by how hard things are. That a mind that can still feel annoyance and difficulty can also still feel hope. And then a board won’t lock into place and all I can think is: umfghhh floors!

We are mostly through the floors now, though. Here they are in the living/dining area, not yet cleaned up, but in place:

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And here is Godiva wishing we would finish the job in the hallway:

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And then finding a way to stop us:

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The other day we stood in the kitchen of our downstairs unit (on the new floors) and I spun in a circle and took in the painted kitchen cabinets and the new light fixtures and I turned to Kyle and said, “We are almost done!” Not thinking of the ¾ of the house that still remains, or the whole other house waiting silently, where we periodically sweep out the snow.

“Almost done,” he agreed.

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It’s two weeks ago, a Friday after 5 pm, and a bird is trapped beneath the roof of our house. Black wings flap frantically, leaving smudges of blood on the white cornice. Kyle points the bird out to me, but he doesn’t want to save it. Or maybe he just doesn’t believe it can be done.

But I believe in saving birds. As a child I watched my father hurl himself across the road to rescue a broken-winged crow from an oncoming truck. It lived in a yellow bucket in the backyard till it could fly again, my sister and I fattening it on worms, and I still remember that moment of unlikely takeoff when it spun itself off the branch we held and went free.

Kyle watches while I call neighbors and wild animal control. Call and then call again. When a wildlife rescuer (or exterminator, he is what his customers need) finally comes out, the bird is gone. Our rescuer says we won’t see the bird again; birds don’t return to places that hurt them. Birds, at least, learn their lessons.

But the man is wrong. The next day Godiva and Kyle find the bird lying in the snow with a broken wing and mangled leg. So as we renovate the downstairs unit the bird sits in a box, feasting on peanut butter and berries and mealworms. Inexplicably, the starling (one-legged, one-winged, one-eyed) has enough strength in her to make her way out of the box several times, enough verve to find her way downstairs into the basement, enough moxie to find her way into a hole in the bedroom floor.

A friend says to me (jokingly, I think): Don’t you feel bad about disrupting the cycle of life? But I am unrepentant.

Unlike birds, we have not learned to avoid bad places. Kyle spends a week tiling the downstairs shower in the New House with lovely new subway tile. We dream about having one finished room, one beautiful room, in the midst of the chaos in our two homes.

But when he is done, it’s wrong. Old houses are wonky. Young men are colorblind. We can live with our mistakes or we can do the hard work of starting over.

I want us to be people who do things right. But we are exhausted. We are nine months into renovating and I just started a new job (well, two, technically) and Kyle will be gone for two months come March. So we leave it.

And then, two weeks in, the bird dies without warning. That’s when I cry (while operating power tools, of course). “Kyle,” I say, “aren’t you a little bit jealous that I can cry like this? You know, like, that I know my emotions so well?”

He says, not unkindly, that he kind of just thinks I’m crazy.

We keep working, doing our best to make ugly things pretty. Our bathroom, almost finished, now looks like this:
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We get it, House. Nothing as we expect it. And still, somehow, it will be okay. Remember, it looked like this:
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And I’ve made some old hollow core doors go from looking like this:

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To this:
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To this:

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The cage we bought for the bird just before it died sits by the window, empty. Neither of us move it. Kyle asks me if I want to get a bird, or a hamster, or something. And while, yes, I totally would have kept that bird and cuddled it! But only because I had to! the truth is I never wanted a bird and I don’t want one now. What I wanted was to see the bird fly free.