Extra Pulp: Bless This House

Columnist Laura Anders Lee finds that the journey toward a home sweet home has its share of sour moments.

My husband, Bryan, and I have lived in 10 places together—from our first tiny rental house as newlyweds to a spacious home for our family of four. Moving is one of life’s biggest stressors, and when I look back at all the different houses and home improvement projects, I wonder how we survived it all.

In our 20's, we renovated our first house in Nashville, Tennessee. The real estate market was hot, and if something in our price range seemed too good to be true, it’s because it was. The “unique master suite” in the affordable bungalow was actually a carpeted garage with an exposed toilet in the corner and a hot tub by the bed. Instead, we bought another house that hadn’t been updated in decades. The washer and dryer sat on the linoleum floor in the middle of the kitchen—which provided convenient surface space for preparing dinner. When someone flushed upstairs, they had to run downstairs to turn the faucet on, or else hear the most god-awful sound come through the galvanized pipes.

We moved to Florida and bought a historic Victorian cottage, but it desperately needed a master bathroom and closet. The house didn’t have any hallways, and every room opened to at least two others. Our master bedroom had a total of five exits. I lay in bed imagining old Scooby-Doo episodes with Shaggy, Fred, Daphne and Velma chasing one another through all five doors.

Most recently we updated a 1970's ranch. We crammed an overwhelming amount of work into four weeks. We’d spent the summer living in a cramped condo with two energetic sons and longed for our new house with a yard—and we certainly didn’t want to keep paying rent and a mortgage. The Saturday before move-in day, as a hurricane was lurking a little too close for comfort, we stopped by the house to check on progress.

In one of my favorite movies, Under the Tuscan Sun, the homeowner renovates a historic villa in Tuscany and cooks amazing food for her workers. I envisioned myself as Diane Lane, but instead of an Italian feast, I brought armloads of Latin American food to celebrate the end of the project.

But when we entered the house, it was a disaster. Our brick floors, which were supposed to have been re-stained, were a muddy mess. One of the crew members was spraying the floor with a power washer, shooting orange-colored water up the freshly painted walls.

I dropped the food on the counter, tears welling up in my eyes. After spewing a string of ugly words at Bryan (as if it were his fault), I ran outside and hid behind a garden wall, trying to regain my composure.

All the pressures of the past weeks had compounded, then finally erupted into sobs. So many things had gone wrong—our brick floors, mold we discovered in the bathroom and garage. A miscommunication from my English to my contractor’s Spanish to the granite vendor’s Mandarin led to an irreversible mistake in our countertop. Our wine cooler arrived with a dent and could not be returned.

I tortured myself with what if’s. What if we can’t move in on time? What if the hurricane is a direct hit? What if we deplete our savings? What if we made all the wrong decisions? I buried my face in my hands.

After a while I looked up to see my next-door neighbor gardening, with a clear view of my hiding spot. She waved, and I waved back, mortified, before heading inside. The doorbell rang a few minutes later, and there she was. She told me she and her husband had built their house, it was chaotic and stressful, and she understood completely. She promised to bring wine and pizza when we moved in. Dana helped me realize the problems that seem so monumental are really just minor hiccups, that the endless decisions over knobs and tile and finishes are not life-and-death.

I hugged Bryan and my contractor, and we set out the food. Over skirt steak, empanadas and guacamole, I thanked everyone in broken Spanish for our casa bonita. The guys stripped our floors down to a rustic natural, which we love, and a few days later, we moved in on time—the hurricane bypassing us.

In the evenings, Bryan and I like to gather around our new bar, complete with its dented wine cooler and slightly flawed counter. The quirks mark our journey and remind me there’s no such thing as a perfect house. In a happy home, it’s the people inside that matter—and a little wine doesn’t hurt.

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