Rehabilitation: “the action of restoring something that has been damaged to its former condition.”
Apparently, there is a difference between a house that is a fixer-upper and one that needs rehab. In our Louisiana house, we have replaced the roof, the HVAC, the electrical panel, and the entire plumbing system. We took out a wall and completely gutted the bathroom before building a new one. We will touch every wall, ceiling, and floor before we are done.
Guess which kind of house ours is?
In the five weeks that Cane, his brothers, his mother, and I worked on the house this summer, the kitchen cabinets were my primary project. We decided to keep and paint them, rather than replace them, a decision I was not certain about.
If you didn’t look closely–as we didn’t when first looking at the house–the cabinets didn’t seem that bad. (See photo above.) But as Cane’s mother and I started prepping to paint, we found years of built-up grease and dirt inside them, on them, and around them. Under the refrigerator and dishwasher, we found mounds of mouse poop. Yes, mounds.
Here’s the interior of one drawer after cleaning, and another one before:
The cleaning alone took more than a week with both of us working all day long on nothing else.
How can someone have lived in a place like this? I kept wondering. I’ve long believed that our homes reflect how we live, and it was hard to imagine a good life being lived here.
We knew from our realtor that the previous occupant of the house was an Army Special Forces officer. Over the summer we learned from neighbors that he likely had hoarding and alcohol disorders.
“I went into the house once,” a man across the street said. “I never went back again. I did not want to be in there.”
We bought the house from his daughter; he was estranged from her for years because he would not accept her same-sex partner. She has long lived in another state. He lived alone and died after a prolonged illness. He was divorced. Thinking about the man who had lived in the deteriorating house, who graduated from high school the same year my dad did, who likely served in Vietnam and perhaps in other dubious and difficult campaigns, I felt an uncomfortable mix of compassion, anger, and sorrow. It was clear from the stories and the state of the house that he was a person both damaged and damaging.
As the kitchen project dragged on through days sweltering from climate change, a failing HVAC unit, and air ducts damaged by rodents, I began to feel mired in dysfunction. It was a feeling that often followed me out of the house and into the community, where I saw so many churches, so many flags, and so many people living hard lives marked by poverty and a different kind of racism than any I’d previously encountered. In the beginning, I entertained thoughts of somehow healing something by healing the house, but as the days passed that idea began to seem, at best, a naive conceit. (At worst, an ignorant and arrogant one.) Anger–about so many things–became my dominant emotion, and I found it harder and harder to feel compassion for the person who had lived within the house’s walls. I understood all the reasons I should, but what I felt more was a desire to eradicate, not heal. I wanted nothing of the person and circumstances that permeated the house to remain.
(But what would eradication mean? To remove all traces of him, we’d have to tear the whole thing down. And what would that mean?)
“If we were flipping this house, keeping these cabinets wouldn’t even be a question,” I said more than once in our first week. The labor costs of rehab would have made new cabinets the more economical choice, but we weren’t flipping the house, and, although my labor was not without cost, it was free.
“They aren’t even very functional,” I complained. The corners of the cabinets, accessible only by narrow doors, are full of space that can’t be reached. The fixed shelves in the uppers don’t allow for the storage of any tall items; a bottle of olive oil we bought didn’t fit upright in any of them.
“But these cabinets tell the story of the house,” Cane would counter. And he’s right; they do. The kitchen was expanded and renovated in the 1950’s when the house was moved from a neighboring town by the parents of the man who lived here. The primary bedroom was added then, too. “We’re preserving part of the house’s history. And besides, they’re in good structural shape and we can’t really afford all new ones,” Cane said. He was not wrong.
So, as I spent hours that turned into days scrubbing and sanding old plywood, I thought long and hard about how I like to talk about saving and mending things rather than throwing them out. I thought about all the times I’ve groaned watching HGTV shows in which designers take crowbars to vintage cabinets full of historical character. I thought about all the costs of our throw-away culture. At some point, I stopped thinking or talking about replacing the cabinets (I was too far in, and our money was going too fast on other things) and tried to embrace in them what seemed worth saving.
It took the better part of five weeks to clean, sand (before priming and then between each coat of primer and paint), prime (two coats, to keep stains from bleeding through the paint), and paint (3 coats) those cabinets. As I worked, I had to make decisions about how much rehabilitation to attempt. To restore the cabinets to their original condition would have taken more time than we had. I’d have had to go home with the cabinets unfinished, and I was damned if I was going to leave knowing that this project would be waiting for me upon my return next spring.
“It’s patina,” I began saying about the gouges I didn’t fill and the once-sharp edges rounded by layers of paint that remained rounded as I covered them with yet another layer. “Good enough is good enough,” I told myself.
I came to understand that, even if I had all the time in the world, true restoration might not have been possible. Some scars in the wood ran too deep. I began to wonder if anyone or anything can be truly rehabbed, returned to its former condition, or if they should be. The scars are part of the house’s history, and I can’t think of any situation in which scrubbing history clean is a good idea. I wondered what is lost and what is gained when we try to rehabilitate, and when we don’t. How often, I wondered, when we attempt rehabilitation, are we actually hoping to reach some state of being that is even better than an original one?
We were told more than once that the man who last lived in our house reconciled with his daughter before he died. It was a fact offered as some kind of redemption story, or as evidence that he was OK, at least in the end. It was offered as contrast to the physical evidence in the house of the kind of life he lived. “He reached out to her at the end,” more than one person said, as a way of excusing his actions toward his daughter. “You know, he was a conservative military guy,” they said, as a way of excusing him.
Sure, I thought as I threw out the bottle of Jägermeister and the religious medals we’d found in one of the cabinets, on a day when I was far more interested in eradication than repair, he reached out to his daughter when he was dying. When he needed her.
I don’t know if the thought was a fair one or a cruel one. Maybe it was both.
We finished the cabinets the day before I had to leave. They are now clean, inside and out, with fresh paint and shiny, new hardware. The drawers no longer stick, because I sanded the sides of them down and rubbed the slides with wax. Soap and paint will never solve the problem of the wasted space, and if you look closely at them, you can see all the things that some would call flaws and others would call patina, the evidence of their long history and humble beginnings. Some elements of the cabinets cannot be rehabbed away.
I want to tell you that I came to love them, and the house, and the place the house is in. I want to tell you that I now believe the rehabbed cabinets are better than anything we might have bought new. I want the cabinets to be a clean, easy metaphor about damage and restoration–of objects, of homes, of people, and of our country with its complicated and too-often brutal history. The honest truth, though, is that I’m not sure about them, and since nothing about rehabilitation is ever easy or clean, metaphors for it probably shouldn’t be, either.
I suppose the value of the rehabbed cabinets depends upon what you value.
The cabinets and the house stand in a region that has been home to Cane’s family since the 1700’s. Everything foreign to me there is deeply familiar to him, and he is as comfortable among the markers of rural south Louisiana as I am among northwest Washington’s old firs, big water, reticent people, liberal values, and cold salt air.
As I worked and lived through Louisiana’s long, hot summer, I came to realize that the place that is a certain kind of home for my husband–a place we call “home” even if we have lived somewhere else for decades longer than we ever lived there–is a complex one I will never fully know, understand, or belong in. It’s a place he and I will never be able to inhabit in the same way. I wondered over and over again if we’d made and were making the right choices–with the cabinets, with taking on a house that needed rehab, with making an investment in a part of the country that troubles and challenges me in so many ways, with our plan to live the end of our lives divided between his original home and mine.
Eventually I wondered what other questions might better serve me, because no matter which line of thought I followed to answer the questions I had, they all took me back to this:
None of the reasons for our choices (love, family, longing of several kinds) have changed. I know that if we could remake them, even knowing what we know now that we didn’t before this summer, we wouldn’t change any of the big ones. We’d still buy the house, we’d still spend our summer rehabbing it, and we’d still keep the cabinets.
What’s done is done, and perhaps the only question that really matters–about anything–is how to continue moving forward in the best way from where we are, hoping and working for what is or can be good.
This post has been several weeks in the making. I’m not sure of how much I got it right, and I think the ending it still in progress, but it conveys something of my current understanding of what I experienced this summer. I read a gorgeous essay about Louisiana this past week: Wyatt Williams’s “Lucinda Williams and the Idea of Louisiana.” I want to offer it here as a counterpoint to what I’ve written. In it, I recognize much of the Louisiana I got to see that is not represented in my words above. My words, which can only tell my experience from my perspective, can’t convey what the place is to those who have lived their lives there.
Louisiana is a mystery to me. It feels like a puzzle I will never know enough to solve or adequately describe. I suppose any place is to someone from outside of it, if you scratch even just a little bit below the surface of its food, language, and tourist attractions. Our weeks there were challenging and hard for me in so many ways: physically, intellectually, emotionally, socially. I loved having extended time with Cane’s family, with whom I felt moments of true joy and ease, but disorientation and disequilibrium were far more common. I remember telling my students more than once that learning is often uncomfortable and can even be painful. I learned a lot in our time there. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to develop a fuller understanding of my husband and his family, of our country and its people, and of what it means to love.