“Is your house done?” Everywhere I go, people ask me some variation of this question. Nobody actually wants the details of exploded plumbing, fire-hazard wiring, and unwelcome intruders of the fauna persuasion. I get that. Some of the things I’ve seen in the last year and a half left me scarred for life. Lately I’ve been thinking of just telling the short truth: I’m declaring the house done because I’m sick of thinking about it.
Oh wait… I just took my temperature and actually I am sick. (Chalk up one more year where my flu jab was a complete failure.) So instead of a new blog post, I hope you’ll forgive a (slightly updated) house/flu post from last year.
What’s your January superpower?
A cautionary tale (with whisky, astonishing quantities of used tissues, and a really disgusting Issue…)
I just wanted to check in with all of you and let you know why I dropped off the face of the earth. As I’ve mentioned
before, last year two years ago we bought a fixer-upper cottage on an island off the coast of Scotland. I agreed to the purchase on one condition: that we renovate the unheated conservatory/sunporch on the front of the house. I pictured my entire family, gathered together around the fire as we all enjoyed our first (okay, our second) holiday in our beautiful traditional island cottage. [NOTE: those who have already done house renovations, especially in rural Scotland, can just stop that sniggering right now. It’s so not attractive…] But right from the beginning there was a gap—think Grand Canyon—between my dream and my reality. I can’t say I wasn’t warned. Since moving to Glasgow, we’d heard plenty of tales of “small” repair or decorating jobs that went on for years. (!) Our new Island neighbors would suck in their cheeks and look away when I confidently predicted how long the initial work would take.
First, of course, we’d get the sunporch updated. Then I would spend a few intense weeks getting painting and basic repairs taken care of, add a bathroom on the same floor as the bedrooms, and we’d celebrate the holidays in our freshly-painted-but-otherwise-fabulously-traditional cottage. I even had a budget, one which represented a judicious investment from our savings, but would allow us to still plan for retirement years full of comfort, family, and travel to exotic places.
It’s been a year and six months, during much of which the dog and I lived on the unrenovated sunporch. (The unheated sunporch. In Scotland, which doesn’t promise actual sun after that one day in September.) Following estimates from painters and builders, we decided to tackle the most urgent tasks before starting the sunporch renovations.
We removed several hundred years of regrettable wallpaper and decorating decisions. We hauled out the fake-wood kitchen bits except for the charming vintage range cooker, and we had everything painted a nice plain white. That was the easy part. Too easy. We got cocky. Why should we just carpet the floors? Our traditional house obviously needed wood floors everywhere, except for the even-more-traditional parts that needed stone floors. [Curse you, Fired Earth Tiles, for putting your Glasgow showroom right where I would regularly pass your Imperial Slate display.] Off went an order to the floor guys, while I told my rapidly dwindling retirement savings that we wouldn’t need to do that much traveling when we retired because we’d be at home enjoying our wood and stone floors—and of course, the renovated sunporch which we were going to get started on. Soon.
Then the electrician showed me the existing wiring (by cutting open the walls and floors). It had apparently been installed when Queen Victoria sat the throne, and looked like handfulls of dead spiders. Really scary dead spiders. Okay, obviously that would have to be replaced, and our retirement budget would just need to adjust to allowing us to visit exotic restaurants instead of exotic lands. Or maybe we could just eat take-away meals on our renovated sunporch, which we would start on any day now.
That’s when the charming vintage range cooker (around which we had planned and installed a tasteful but affordable kitchen) broke. No problem, said the manufacturer. Even though it was many decades old, they had a company licensed to do repairs. No problem said the cheerful person at the repair company. Just send a big bunch of money and they would dispatch an engineer immediately. I sent the money—
three months ago six months ago okay, no repairs ever occurred. I’d be a lot more depressed about this, except we ran into a few other little things that have put off our move into the house with the tasteful kitchen built around the completely useless decorative object formerly known as the range cooker.
For example, we noticed that there was no heat in the bedrooms. That might have been fine for hardy Scots, but we are so non-hardy Americans. Off went an order to the plumbers, who installed many radiators, and miles of pipes to supply them. My budget now resembled a really annoyed honey-badger, snarling and gobbling more of our retirement savings. No problem, I assured the remaining savings. Who needs meals in exotic restaurants when we can sit on the wood floors in our nice warm house and eat beans? (Nobody was even mentioning sunporch renovations.)
Then the plumber told us that not only was it impossible to install a bathroom on the bedroom floor without having the toilet waste pipe go through the middle of the ground floor entry hall, but the family bathroom that did exist—at the far end of the house, down a half flight of stairs, and confusingly located right next to the guest bathroom—had an Issue.
The Issue, it turned out, is called a macerator. No, it isn’t the title of an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. It’s a toilet attachment they put in here in Scotland so they don’t have to run a toilet waste line through the downstairs hallway. When you flush, it sounds like a 747 engine preparing for takeoff. But that sound is actually preferable to when it doesn’t make a sound, which (we soon learned) was the sound it did not make the times it silently spewed several inches of liquidized poo back into the shower, the bath, the sink, and frequently, the floor.
“Don’t worry,” I assured the whimpering remains of our retirement savings after the honey-badger bathroom-repair budget was through with it. “We’ll just tape the loo closed and pretend it doesn’t exist. After all, we do have a teeny bathroom on the ground floor. Of course, that bathroom had a rolling door that broke when it was removed for painting and is awaiting the new door track which should be arriving any year now. Given the crowds of carpenters, painters, plumbers, and floor guys roaming the halls at any given time, going to the bathroom became an exciting adventure.
Finally, it was December and I had to face reality. We made a break for London, where the UMAG (Universe’s Most Adorable Grandbaby) shared smiles, first steps, and the chest-rot virus making the rounds at daycare. Then the Hub headed across the Atlantic for a round of conferences and I headed back to the fixer-upper armed with two rolls of vintage fifties wallpaper from eBay and a rapidly-developing sore throat.
And that’s when I remembered the Superpowers of January. [I’ll bet you were thinking “She mentioned superpowers in the title and then completely forgot about them. But I’m a professional writer—that was just foreshadowing.] Consider:
- The Hub’s January superpower is to somehow sense when to leave the country just before catastrophe strikes. Over the years, if a child went to the hospital, the Hub would be in Spain. If I had to pack and move houses in Illinois, he was in England. If I fell and knocked myself out while painting the kitchen in Virginia, he was in Italy. This time I was only starting to cough as his plane lifted off. But by the time he was halfway across the ocean, I was running a fever. Back in our Scottish Island house, I wandered around in a daze. (Said daze might or might not have had something to do with my mixing cold and flu meds with industrial-strength hot toddys). I stumbled around the house, wondering who had left the mountains of disgusting used tissues lying everywhere. Luckily, the dog maintained a firm grip on the essentials even though I was only occasionally with it. Now and then I would wonder why I was out in the garden in my pajamas, and notice her running around happily attending to doggie business. Or I would find myself in the kitchen filling her food bowl as I considered hazy memories of doing the same thing several times that day already while the dog burped happily.
- A miracle, but probably not a superpower: At one point I woke up from a wonderful dream in which the teeny loo was miraculously decorated with the gorgeous fifties-vintage wallpaper I’d been afraid to install because it was the old-fashioned kind that needed wallpaper paste. (Hey, I’ve seen that I Love Lucy episode. I know how that turns out…) Then I stumbled into the loo—an easy stumble care of its doorless state—and looked around. Somehow I actually HAD installed the wallpaper. Or else somebody had broken into my house and done a damn good job of installing it for me. Or wait…was one of the strips upside down? No, actually two were. Well, it was easy to redo those two bits. I’ll just always wonder how the rest of it was actually accomplished.
- The floor/carpenter/plumber/rest of people who were always around when I wanted to use the doorless loo also have a January superpower. Apparently they acquired the ability to bend the fabric of time and space to render them completely invisible and untraceable from mid-December to mid-January. So for the past weeks, the house has contained only the dog, the occasionally conscious me, piles of used hot toddy mugs, and disturbing mountains of snotty tissues and empty flu med containers. And whoever broke in and wallpapered the teeny loo.(List of suspects: invisible January superpowered-decorators, the dog, or me in a hot toddy-fueled fever daze. We’ll never know.)
- But I have a January superpower too. Even though I’m still running a temperature, and my chest makes a cheerful little whistling noise whenever I breathe in or out, and my ears are so stuffed up that I’ve resorted to lip reading as communication, I can banish pneumonia when my January superpower is invoked. All it took was one message from my daughter saying she needed some surgery and could I come out to be with her, and I. Was. Cured. Okay, maybe it took a day where I ran around the after-hours clinics in Glasgow until I found a doctor ready to prescribe industrial-strength antibiotics. Maybe I still can’t hear too well. Maybe the dog is the one with the flair for wallpaper installation despite her opposable thumbless state. Maybe I’m leaving behind a house with doorless loos. But I’m on a plane heading for New York because that’s what mothers do.
My January superpower? I’m a mom. What’s yours?
Updates: our loos have doors. I’ve moved in from the porch, we (usually) have heat, the cooker is brilliant, and the upstairs bathroom wallpaper all runs the same direction. Obviously, our work here is done and we can start thinking about renovating that sunporch, right? Only…what’s that dripping sound in the middle bedroom? Noooooo!