A house is a place.

The first time my mother walked into our new house, right after we’d closed the deal but long before we started renovating, she said: Oh, Jennifer, what have you done.

It was going to be great, I assured her, and there was enough room for her to move in with us if she needed to, when she needed to. Though her cancer was terminal, her chemo protocol appeared to have halted disease progression.

It was going to be simple, I said. We were going to renovate the kitchen and move in. We’d do the rest bit by bit, a room at a time. (While raising small children….)

Plan A really did seem simple: Renovate the non-functioning (ugly, dirty, terrible) kitchen, install central air/heat, replace the roof, update the yard (fenced in, because we had little children and dogs), and then move in. Deal with the rest while living there, because the rest was a mostly matter of decorating. The upstairs bathrooms were all in working order — ugly, but usable.

It would be tight, and we’d have to be careful, but if we stayed on track Plan A would fit our budget and our timeline. And we would stay on track, because Bernard was going to run the construction job. Really, it was all easy-peasy.

Except, of course, that it wasn’t.

Plan A went out the window during kitchen demolition when we discovered the underlying problems.

Plan B, which did not fit any budget or timeline or dream, was far from simple: Remove all of the flooring and fixtures on west half the second floor (above the kitchen and back entry way) in order to repair/replace the structure that had failed under the weight of two cast iron tubs.

Could we have seen this in advance, in time to have a made a different decision? Maybe, but not likely. The only clue, in retrospect, was the decorative tile inlay around one of the tubs. We thought it was just another of the eccentric details, an artist’s meandering creativity.

In truth, the little tiles were put in place to cover the fact that the tub had dropped, because its weight was causing the support underneath to sag.

Tubs, toilets, tile — all had to come out. Radiators, too. Removing the fixtures meant removing the walls.

Since the floor boards on on the second floor were thin and damaged, all of the flooring would have to come out, not just the flooring in the affected half, because there was no way to tie in new with old.

While we were at it, the plumber and electrician advised, we should consider re-wiring and re-plumbing the entire house, not just the kitchen. “I know it’s not my money,” the plumber said, “but I have to tell you, it’s never going to be as easy as right now, with the structure open. In the long run, it will be a lot cheaper if you do it now.” The electrician added that completely re-plumbing and re-wiring would also reduce our homeowner’s insurance

The simple project would take twice as long and cost more than twice as much. My mother had been right, of course.

But she did not gloat. She wasn’t that kind of mother, and besides, she was dying and knew it.

Toward the end of the summer, we put the small, cozy, white clapboard house on the market, uncertain of how long it would take to sell and needing the cash to put toward Plan B.

It sold in less than a week, and the new owner wanted to close within 14 days.

So Bernard moved into the construction zone, sleeping on an air mattress, so he could work non-stop to get things done.

And the children and I moved in with my mother.

A house is a place. A family is a system.


Note: This post is part of a series about our renovation of a house built in 1905 that we bought in 2003 from the woman who lived in it for 91 years. The first post in this series is “Jackie’s House.”

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