Merced Life

New adventures in old re-modeling

Twenty-six years ago, when my husband Matt and I married, we visited Matt’s college friend’s home in Geyserville, a small community along the Russian River. It was a lovely home, located in a neighborhood of towering pines and winding roads, where the houses were close enough to each other to suggest coziness but far enough apart to maintain a sense of privacy. And the homes! They were upscale cabins, really—vacation houses for the wealthy, except these homes were lived in year-round.

Matt’s friend Lizzie, along with her husband Joe, owned such a home, but the inside required more space, and so she and Joe decided to add a second floor. The second floor would contain their dream master suite and a separate study, both rooms featuring picture windows overlooking the front of the street and the backyard, which was forested. They hired an architect to draw a plan. Then they hired a contractor.

In the late summer of 1992, when we first saw their home, the top floor was unfinished, even though the remodel had started in the spring of 1991. Lizzie and Rob were in the middle of a lawsuit, trying to recover money from a contractor who had skipped town after damaging the home’s structure, making further work impossible. There was a gaping hole where the roof should have been. The house leaned slightly to the left. Lizzie and Joe were out of money.

But over the years, we lost touch with Lizzie and Joe, and the story of their disastrous remodel faded in our memories. Eleven years later, Matt and I decided to remodel our home, too. The story of Lizzie’s remodel from Hell came back to us, and so we opted for a one-story solution to adding space. We had a very talented contractor, with the added bonus that he had enough ties to the community that he could not skip town if he tried, but the remodel still took nine months, and for a few of those months the walls at the front of our house were missing, replaced with tarp. If anyone wanted to rob us while we were away, or murder us in our sleep, all he needed to do was lift the tarp and walk right in. For the duration of the remodel, we cooked on a Coleman propane stove in the laundry room, which also included a toilet. Our refrigerator was in the living room. For nine months, we woke up most mornings to the sound of banging hammers and miter saws. Our sons, three and seven at the time, took to riding their bikes around the house, fashioning their own track between rooms that were devoid of flooring and furniture. “How much longer will it take?” we asked our contractor every few days, starting around the seventh month. “About two weeks,” was his standard answer.

So, though we loved the results, we determined to never again remodel a home while living in it.

Fifteen years later, we have changed our minds. We’ve sold our old, perfect home in Atwater, and bought a new, imperfect home in Merced. The house is by no means really new, though—it was built in 1968. When we purchased the home, it had stained carpets, an avocado-colored sink, an oven the size of a child’s Easy Bake, and discolored wallpaper that was peeling off the walls.

“I love this house!” I told our realtor on our first viewing.

Now, we are once again living in a construction zone. We are playing musical furniture, relocating beds and dressers from one room to the next while laying new flooring. Our 65-inch television, the one that goes in the family room, is in our youngest son Everett’s bedroom, one of the smallest rooms in the home. Our bookshelf is in the entryway. Our refrigerator is in the garage. The doors to a bedroom closet, set atop yet another bookshelf, are clogging up the passageway between the front door and the back of the house.

Today, I received a call from a nice young man at Citibank, who informed me that I was late on a bill. This did not surprise me in the least, since my mail is scattered throughout the house—some on a hallway table, some on a table near the front door, some on a dining table that I cannot reach because a bed is in the way. And even if I could reach the dining table, I’m not sure I could find the mail amidst the paintings, linens, vases, and dishes piled on its surface.

Last night, as we sat in our family room amongst piles of random towels, blankets, dog collars, books, and shoes, and tried to watch television, I mentioned to my husband that I seem to have embraced the disorder. I now leave empty pizza cartons on the couch, half-finished glasses of iced tea on bathroom counters, dirty socks on the dining table (which we cannot currently use for dining, anyway).

“There’s a kind of freedom in not caring,” I said. “I think this must be how Everett feels about the mess in his room.”

Still, when people stop by to see how we’re progressing with the remodel, or when workers come over to fix something, I feel compelled to apologize for the condition of the house.

“We don’t usually live like this,” I tell them. “Usually, we’re pretty neat.”

“That’s okay,” and AC repairman told me recently. “It’s a beautiful house.”

“It’s a disaster zone,” I remarked, surveying the destruction. But I also remembered that we have a roof, and I’m fairly certain that our house is not leaning to one side. “But thanks. I think it’s beautiful, too,” I said, and then I kicked aside a stack of papers topped by pillow cases and led him to the furnace.

Brigitte Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.