My parents used to say that situations or people could drive them to distraction. I imagined this so-called distraction as some giant black hole they teetered on the edge of, some abyss they were free-falling into. I think I finally know what it means and I have to say my initial perceptions were close to accurate.
You see, I survived a kitchen renovation last summer that unquestionably drove me to distraction. In fact, it drove me to a number of distractions. To wit, it has taken me 6 months to be able to talk about it.
The distractions I was driven to were, for the most part, good ones, some even healthy. I began doing things I’d long thought about, but never got around to—like needlepointing, walking in my neighborhood instead of at the gym, starting a small business venture, and writing for pleasure not just work, all as ways of NOT thinking about the fact that I had no kitchen. Now it’s time to think about what happened while I wasn’t thinking about it…
We kept the footprint of the kitchen, so technically it was a renovation rather than a remodel. But to call it a renovation grossly underestimates the true magnitude of the enterprise, which felt far more acute and intense in its impact. Renovation implies a sense of change that is too vague, too modest in scope, and far too low-key. Let me be frank, it was a behemoth of a process and not for the faint of heart.
My husband has a significant skill set regarding home improvement and car repair. I have watched him install hardwood floors in the living room and dining room, tile floors in the bathroom and laundry room, and singlehandedly drop a transmission into a car using a pulley tied to an oak tree. He has repaired and replaced portions of this house from roof to basement and all levels in between. This man has some serious know-how and our house is brimming with his sweat equity.
But nothing could have prepared us for the enormity of this undertaking except, maybe, someone telling us all the things I am about to tell you. Nah, we wouldn’t have had the ears to hear such a message—it’s like a dog whistle that way—and unfortunately you really don’t get it until you are in medias res and praying wildly for the deus ex machina.
We now fondly refer to it as the kitchen renovation from hell, but surely that’s redundant. What kitchen remodel isn’t? The space is too precious, too critical to a family’s existence. It’s called the heart of the home for a reason. Because it is.
Intellectually, I knew all of this going into the project. I steeled myself, made notes, collected brochures, strategized ways around using the kitchen, budgeted for eating out, compiled a list of cheap places to obtain food, but none of it shielded me from the complete and utter despair I felt at not having a kitchen after a while. And I’m not even a very good cook.
Despite these complaints, there was the enormous pay-off of a beautiful, fully functional kitchen and some fascinating lessons to boot. For instance, apparently there is a phenomenon known as “Renovate-Separate,” whereby the kitchen remodel culminates in the divorce of the homeowners. This I learned of from an industry insider when our kitchen was nearly finished. Otherwise, I might have believed it and mistook my life for one that was actually falling apart.
However, I’d like to suggest a number of other similar phenomena I observed firsthand, like “Renovate-Alienate.” Not surprisingly, we definitely drove each other crazy. My husband would dive in and stay with any given element of the process for hours, days, weeks. He opened with tugging at the layers of linoleum gripping the floor, attempting to rip it up with every available plying instrument, which unexpectedly spewed fine white powder-like particles, presumably not too toxic, into the air and onto every surface in our home.
His closing act was texturing the bathroom wall—as a last resort, all the while vehemently cursing the builder who saw fit to superglue the original wallpaper to the sheetrock. Throughout the summer and beyond, my job was to keep the rest of our life running as if having no kitchen ceiling, floor, cabinets, or appliances was inconsequential. No small feat, I assure you.
Here is some other advice worth sharing:
Pick things out well in advance before you commit to the actual remodel—paint, cabinets, hardware, appliances. If you still like your decisions a year after you originally made them: Hooray! You are good to go. I did ask our contact person if we took longer than anyone else to give her the go-ahead on the project. She said another couple took a whole year, beating us by 2 months. I admire their unrelenting caution.
Think about it a lot. Let it consume your every waking moment because this will serve as a precursor of what’s to come. No window sill lock or grout color is too small to obsess over. You will live with these choices for a very long time, unless, like me, you plan to saw the kitchen off the side of the house and take it with you when you move.
This one’s a killer. Take 3-inch square samples of tile, cabinet, countertop, and paint and hold them up to every square inch of your existing kitchen at every possible angle during every kind of light emitted through your windows and light fixtures and on different days in order to capture all nuances of ambient light. This will help ensure that the extremely expensive decisions you eventually make based on 3-inch samples will indeed yield a room that looks exactly like the one in your head.
Hold your child’s graduation party the day before you begin, so you can let everyone see the “before” kitchen and describe in detail all of your grand plans. Added benefit: no need to clean because you are going to rip it out the next day anyway. Later, when momentum wanes, you can phone each guest to buoy up your flagging spirits, grouse, complain, weep, moan, scream, etc.
We didn’t see this one coming. Lines plumbed for gas stove: check. New tile floor set and grouted: check. Gas stove installed and working: check. Microwave to replace the original microwave purchased and installed: check. Oops—why does it throw a breaker every time we make popcorn? Oh yeah, during the fifteen years we turned a blind eye to the 1980s country motif dominating the kitchen, technologic advances were ramping up the amps needed to sustain a new microwave. Our old one ran on far less because the outlet was meant to operate a range hood rather than a microwave. Until the proper wiring could be installed, we turned off all of the lights downstairs to make popcorn. Would have been nice to know before the tile went down.
Keep every receipt for every doorknob and installation in a folder to be yanked out at a moment’s notice. You will have forgotten most of what you decided when you initiated the project by the time of delivery, “I’m positive we opted for the Autumn Blush glaze on the Roman Manor cabinetry with scroll flourishes and recessed cathedral door panels but no exposed hinges.” Invariably, something will need to be returned; with any luck it won’t be an installation as it was in our case. And don’t sign any documents until a team of keen legal minds has perused them and written accompanying briefs.
It was, in the end, a family project. Each of us pitched in, at least several times against our will and better judgment. We sank time and energy and talent into this project, none of us more than my husband who perversely reveled in all of the unexpected physics crises that emerged: the pantry door opening that was larger than the new door frame; a piece of cabinet filler left over with nowhere to go; the liquid substance used to level the subfloor that seeped from the ceiling in the basement like a California mudslide. Nothing that a little elbow grease and a few dozen shims couldn’t solve.
I am still in awe of the folks whose expertise we heavily relied on to complete the project from a generous neighbor who is a professional carpenter to the woman who designed it flawlessly down to the millimeter to the man who meticulously measured for the countertops, wielding a laser level like a light saber.
I saw the movie Julie and Julia with friends when it first came out on the eve of the end of this project. I was surprised to learn that Julia Child had not been born with a silver mortar and pestle in her hand, that she learned cooking the hard way. Inspired by the stories in the movie, I also felt emboldened by the generous counter space and gas stove that now defined my kitchen.
I bought a couple of inexpensive, basic cookbooks at Costco and decided I could have my own adventures in cooking. So far so good on that front: everything has been entirely edible; most of it delicious, at least to my crude palate; and I am eating closer to the Michael Pollan food principles I’ve been reading the past couple of years.
We officially christened the kitchen by hosting our very first Thanksgiving at our home, baking a superbly moist turkey in record time in the new oven, though not quite in sync with the rest of the dishes served that day.
In the following weeks, the kitchen was the splendid site of much holiday baking, cooking, and, of course, eating and hanging out. Perhaps the best compliment we received was when my teenage son got his first glimpse of the half-bath near the kitchen and commented, “Wow! This looks like other people’s bathrooms.”
But there was no more novel or comforting moment than when the four of us sat down at the kitchen table to eat dinner as a family for the first time since the renovation began. I looked around at what our blood, sweat, and tears had wrought: a room that looked like it could appear in a picture in one of the magazines I had studied in the many years I dreamed of having a new kitchen.
There is also nothing as liberating as striding through a hardware store, completely stress-free and without the burden of having to make a decision any more complicated than which snow shovel to buy: metal or plastic? And I am still left with all of the great hobbies I took up while the kitchen was down.
Truth be known, this blog began as a sanity-saving measure during the arduous process. My family appears nonplussed by my pithy musings, but I press on and remain undeterred by their seeming disinterest, a little strategy I cultivated sometime last summer.