The work of our hands

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.

19 thoughts on “The work of our hands

  1. Marian says:

    I love the blue you chose for the cabinets, Rita, as well as the fact that you chose to keep them—and then actually managed to do so despite the reality of what you were dealing with. When we moved into our current house (nearly 13 years ago, which makes this the longest we’ve ever lived in any house besides our childhood homes), we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into, and our plan to keep many of its features soon dissolved in the face of my anger and resentment. There was zero compassion from me for the previous owners, sad to say, and the only thing I could think of was the need to obliterate all trace of them from the house. In hindsight we (I) made some really bad decisions, but it’s so hard to think straight when you’re overwhelmed.

    “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.” I love this. My husband always gets to this point quickly. I’d love to be more like him (and you!).

    • Rita says:

      I understand every word you’ve written here, Marian. I felt a lot of anger and resentment, though who and what it should be directed to felt like a moving target. Others in the family expressed a desire to keep some small things that belonged to the previous owner, but I wanted them all gone. We also had only a little idea of what we were getting into. Overwhelmed was probably my most consistent emotion through our time there, and it is really hard to think straight when you feel that way. Thank you for helping me feel understood. I hope you are in a better place with your home now. I remember you writing some about it years ago (I think home renovation is the vehicle through which most of us regularly here met). Do you feel at more peace with it all now?

      • Marian says:

        Yes, we met thanks to Cane’s stair measuring tool. 🙂

        My anger and resentment were also widespread: it was directed at the previous owners, who left the house in a state I never would have; the original builder, who made mistakes and didn’t fix them; the realtor and the home inspector, who should have seen the things I shortly discovered; my husband, who had moved us (yet again) and got to go off to his new job while I tried (and often failed) to manage the chaos of life with three kids while doing a whole-home renovation; and finally, the contractor and several tradesmen, for oh so many reasons. So yes, I understand completely about moving targets for anger and resentment!

        Do I feel more at peace with it all now? Yes and no. I mostly feel like the house is well and truly “ours,” although in some places (especially certain rooms in the basement) it still feels like it’s not—like I have to wash my hands after coming upstairs. (I suppose that sounds pretty bizarre.) The thing that I don’t think I’ll ever really be at peace with is the fact that for me this house is linked with a lost opportunity. Just before moving, I was (maybe, just maybe) on the brink of something, but then we moved, and the house was more than we bargained for, and I had no choice but to set that thing aside. I tell myself that on the whole the move was the best thing for all of us—and that it was likely that I wouldn’t have succeeded with the thing I was working on even if we hadn’t moved—but I think this will always be a bit of a sore spot with me.

        As to keeping some small things from the previous owner—oh my gosh, no. No, no, no. I think this relates to your comment to Kari about energy remaining in a place. I’m also skeptical of there being *actual* energy left in a place—or with objects belonging to a particular person— but I do know places or objects can be powerful reminders that can immediately send us back in time or reeling with emotion. I think if you’re trying to make a house a home, the last thing you need are reminders of the previous tenant, and I’m so glad you insisted on getting rid of those things.

        • Rita says:

          That whole situation just sounds so tough, Marian. Just a move with small children would be challenge enough, without the added difficulty of home renovation and giving up something important to you. I can understand why it might still impact your feelings today. “What if”s can be so hard to live with.

          Also, I really appreciated your “no, no, no”! I did not so much insist on removing things as much as I just threw them out rather impulsively one day. We do still have a photograph of the previous owner (which is here in our Portland house, in an envelope), and a small key holder that we used to store keys. I’m OK with those things. The booze, not so much.

  2. Kari says:

    Oh, Rita, I love the kitchen. It’s beautiful now.

    I imagine you must have felt all of the anger and trauma of the previous resident while working inside that house. Long after people die, energy remains inside homes. I don’t need to tell you this because you already know. The difference between the first and last pictures is incredible. You showered love on that house.

    We throw people into war and call them heroes for killing other people for the sake of our country. I have a feeling that man hated himself far more than he hated others, but he would never admit it in his lifetime. Being trapped in that house for the majority of the summer with all of that energy is a lot, friend. I hope you’re taking care of yourself now that you’re back home. 😘

    • Rita says:

      Thank you, Kari. The kitchen isn’t nearly done; the only goal for it this summer was to get the cabinets to a usable state. But I do think it’s well on its way. I have high hopes for it going forward. 🙂

      I appreciate your words about the owner and energy even more than the kitchen compliment. The idea of energy remaining in a place is one I want to be skeptical of, but I felt bad feelings in a lot of places we traveled through this summer. (That town in Wyoming where the horrible state prison had been! It gave me a terrible feeling and I felt compelled to get out even before I knew anything of its history.) It was hard to be in the house all day every day, especially the first few weeks. We all started to feel better once we got to the place where we were building things back, rather than tearing them out. (I was marking time in how many days had passed since I’d had a meltdown. The day I reached a week was a turning point.) I really appreciate your words about the impact of military service. So many things I’d like to say about it that fall in the category of “not really my story to tell.” But, yes.

  3. Karen Prigodich says:

    I know you’re not a religious person, but I’ve always found it interesting that the Bible describes Jesus as retaining his scars after his resurrection. (Seen in the story where he tells his disciple Thomas to touch his scars and put his hand where the spear had pierced his side as evidence that he had been resurrected after the crucifixion.) The book of Revelation also describes a vision of Jesus in heaven “looking like a lamb that had been slain,” implying that his scars were still visible even in heaven.

    Whether you take this as religious myth or gospel, I think it’s an interesting perspective–that scars bear witness to the suffering of our past, but they also provide evidence of new life. The scars aren’t washed away as if the suffering never happened, but instead become a testament to the redemption of that suffering.

    • Rita says:

      I think anyone can appreciate this without being religious, and I really appreciate you sharing this perspective with me. Not so much for thinking about the cabinets, but some of the other damaged things I saw in my time there. The older I get, the more I appreciate evidence of life.

  4. Kate says:

    This struck home for me in a way I don’t really know how to write about. Let’s just say I cried on Sunday reading this for you, for the previous owner, for the owner’s daughter and I had to sit a bit before I came back to comment.

    I’m glad that you’re showing this home some much needed love and rehabbing things and not just renovating, even though I’m sure at times that means far more headaches. And like Kari, I do think things and people and places carry energy. I also believe energy can stick and can also be cleansed (in this I’m quite unapologetically woo and certain) and I have no doubt that in all the cleaning (the drastic difference in those drawer bottoms!) you created space for the energy you want and will some day feel in this other home of yours.

    I know what it is like to live in a place that doesn’t feel as naturally home as HOME, but I’m sending wishes that you’ll come to be able to really love both places as home – different and challenging as that may be. XOXO.

    • Rita says:

      Thank you for your kind words and for the good energy you’re sending our way. I love that you unapologetically woo. You now have me thinking of what we might do to put some good energy into the house. The rehabbing is certainly helping. It made such a difference in how I felt in the house once we got drywall up over all the termite-eaten shiplap boards. But I think maybe we need to do something even more intentional. Let me know if you have any great ideas in this realm.

      I hope the piece hit you in a way that was good, even if it didn’t feel so good.

  5. Laura Millsaps says:

    One of the most repeated pieces of advice I got from my mother and aunties was “clean it before you decide what to do with it.” In our throw-away, buy-more-stuff culture, we even throw things away when they’re not even broken, just dirty (though I realize that was not the issue here). And in that sense, I’ve rescued more than just a few things that I was otherwise going to toss, just with a thorough laundering or scrubbing. But the bigger picture of that advice was that often, cleaning whatever-it-was was the only choice they had, because they were not going to get to buy new things, or cover up someone else’s with hard living with carpet and paint. That cleaning had, like you wrote, a cost. I remember extended family members running themselve ragged scrubbing flood-damaged or half-abandoned homes to make them livable, because it was the only choice. I guess it’s because of this family history that I have difficulty appreciating new furniture and other home items that come artificially rustic or aged. The act of rehabilitation so often left behind scars, not only on the rehabilitated, but on the rehabilitators too. The distinction we make between character and damage are fine ones, with things and with humans. I love that this piece of writing had the courage to walk that painful line.

    • Rita says:

      This really struck me: “The distinction we make between character and damage are fine ones, with things and with humans.” I need to think about that for a bit. (I feel as if I’m not done with this particular piece of writing.)

      What you say about your aunts and why and how some of us keep things made me think of my own parents. They still have and use things in their house that they had when I was growing up. Maybe there were folks back then who got rid of things because styles and fashion changed, but it sure wasn’t us. More and more, I’m trying to be more like my mom in this, keeping things if they are still good, even if I’m not in love with them any more. I almost never go into thrift shops any more, because it’s hard to stomach all the discarded things that were desired things only a short time ago. Like you, I especially dislike things made to look artificially aged. I think I’d just like us all to be more real about a lot of things.

  6. Leilani says:

    All the feels I can’t put into words. Beautiful and poignant. Honesty that speaks to my bones. There is something healing you shining light on how rehabilitation doesn’t end in rainbows. I bet this one bear of a post to write–translating all those complexities into paragraphs that had me nodding my head. Beautiful. Yes.

  7. Ally Bean says:

    I love this post, you’ve expressed the weirdness that comes when you feel out of step with the sense of place that others take for granted. I’ve been in that situation too. Uneasy, but also comfortable with certain aspects. A strange juxtaposition of rational thought and heartfelt feelings. I agree with you that “our homes reflect how we live” and that learning can be uncomfortable. You’ve done a wonderful job with those kitchen cabinets. They are pretty and functional and ooze homey charm. Well done.

    • Rita says:

      Thanks, Ally. It was weird. I kept thinking, How can people live here? And, People really live here and isn’t that weird? And, Isn’t it weird that the people who live here don’t think it’s weird to live here? And, These thoughts of mine are weird and ridiculous. But also, how can people live here?

      I agree that the cabinets are now pretty and homey (and I like that! I really do!), but I don’t know how to make them more functional. I’m telling myself that they will be functional enough.

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