Renovation amnesia


When we saw this Grande Dame of a house it was love at first sight. Three stories, original woodwork, pocket doors, soaring ceilings, a front and back staircase! Such charm!

I knew what I was getting into in that way that mountain climbers think “oh this hike will be fun and we should be home by dark” only to fall into a crevasse and end up in a movie of the week when they have to gnaw their own arm off after a week to gain freedom.

I was smitten with the idea of “character” and “charm.” I thought the renovation would take five years. We are here 16 years now and I still have a set of sawhorses in the hallway.


Despite all the work in renovating every single room, the exterior, yard, and barn, we do love this house.

Old house living isn’t just a roof over your head and (creaky) floor under your feet. It’s a lifestyle. It’s living history.

My children have been traipsed through more museums than I care to count. If they appear jaded when viewing the homes of generations past it is only because they are thinking “yeah so what? We have one of those.”

My daughter, at 6, once said post-tour, “I didn’t know a maid’s stair was such a big deal. Can we give tours, too?”

I had to break it to her that no one was paying $8 a head to see where we store our extra soccer balls and paper recycle bin.

It is also the only way we could afford a house like this. I make no (good) bones about the fact that the only way we could afford this property was to purchase a house that was nearly in pieces and put it back together like a particularly ambitious craft project.

In truth, the bank still owns it, of course. They are just kind enough to let us live here and make all necessary repairs. Judging from the pile of receipts in my purse in the past three weeks, we have made a combined total of 24 trips to various hardware and home suppliers.

We have purchased 5 gallons of paint (three of which were actually the correct color) and 108 linear feet of quarter round, chair rail, crown molding and a trim I can describe only as “the one that’s like a corner turned inside out, with a little line added to make it look cute.”

No one understands my vision

We (by this I mean Mr. Wonderful) installed 110 square feet of ceramic tile in a vintage pattern guaranteed to make your eyes cross after cutting it for hours.

You know you have crossed into renovation madness when your reaction to a spouse’s cutting injury is to first blurt out “don’t bleed on the tile!”

Through it all, we are availed of a variety of modern power tools (the better with which to bleed on the tile). We enjoy the nail gun and power saws and variety of things designed to make our renovation easier.


Imaging that when the house was built it was all done by hand is illuminating. Granted, despite waxing rhapsodic about the quality of workmanship “back then” we do find some surprises.

Opening up one wall, we found that when our home was built someone, in what was perhaps an apprentice nailing attempt, had managed a neat row of nails each narrowly missing the stud. It warmed my heart to realize that even 100-plus years ago someone with my exact same skill set was here.

Much like the birth of the children themselves, the renovation of an old home requires a certain amount of stamina, a tolerance for pain and an amnesia that sets in almost as soon as you have delivered the finished product. I firmly believe that if you actually recalled the blood, sweat, tears and sheer agony, you would never go through it more than once.

This is true whether it’s birthing a baby — or gutting a bathroom to the studs.


As we near the completion of this bathroom, Mr. Wonderful felt the need to mention that our other bathroom could really use some attention. The toilet is loose, he says, and he’d like to open it up and see what’s going on under that floor.

I thought back to three weeks of evenings, weekends, and all-day work sessions, living in squalor among the construction chaos and the grime, time and sheer expense of renovating. Then I thought of the clean, tight, and frankly gorgeous, finished room that made it all worthwhile.

Turning to him, I said the only thing I could say, “Not even if that toilet falls into the basement.”

I don’t have quite enough amnesia … yet.


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