My mother was a housemaid; my father, a carpenter. They modeled a sense of economy and stoicism that I am certain could rival any member of their generation, those individuals we now call the Greatest Generation.
Much of my life has been spent trying to live up to their example, but in the past five months I have felt that I failed them time and again. Perhaps most galling, my failures were not provoked by global economic collapse, a world war, survival in the Jim Crow South or the deaths of mythic leaders. They were the product of a home remodeling project.
Purchased as-is in Sacramento in February 2013, my 1937 Tudor came with outdated wiring, scant insulation, damaged plaster, a nearly 30-year-old heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system, and a kitchen that one of my cousins described as “a passageway to the back door.” By the end of last year, I was financially able to undertake updates I had dreamed of since the day I made my initial offer.
In late May, friends helped me pack and store my first-floor furniture and artwork, in preparation for an electrical rewiring. Once they left, I felt the emptiness of the denuded space. A few days later, the electrician, Daniel Maeder, began drilling holes the size of saucers to guide new wiring behind my walls.
On June 28, after finishing up, he offered to have a drywall contractor come and fill them, but I told him I would wait because the HVAC contractor would be drilling more holes for insulation. They could fill them all at once. OK, Daniel texted me, if the holes aren’t driving you crazy.
“They are,” I texted back. “How did you know? Do they drive every homeowner nuts? … All I can think is, ‘Gosh, I live in a real dump!’ ”
Stoicism had been nurtured into me from the day I was born, the ninth of 10 children, one of only two girls, in a small town in Texas that had yet to desegregate its public schools. As a child, when I cried over a challenge, my mother would address me with mild shock: “Girl, what is wrong with you?”
The question was not meant to invite mother-daughter sharing. She was waiting to see a lightning bolt of realization on my face as I opened my mouth to describe the problem but then swallowed it as I saw the reproof in her face. In the history of black people in America, little girls who looked like me had endured and overcome much worse than what I was about to tell her.
Those holes annoyed me, but I assured Daniel that I would cope until August: “Please don’t make me go any longer. I’ll start weeping when I come home. Well, inside I will weep, but outside, you’ll never know.”
Less than two weeks later, on July 8, I was sobbing in a corner of the second-floor landing of The Sacramento Bee building. I was facing a column deadline, but that alone would not have given rise to such an emotional thunderstorm. I partially blamed the saucer-sized pockmarks in my walls. They were tiny black holes in the desolate universe of my first floor, slowly draining my psyche.
But there were other factors: My niece, Jennifer Hutcheson, had arrived from Wichita, Kan., the previous day to pick up her eldest son from a ballet camp in San Francisco. Her short stay in Sacramento was planned at the last minute, and she had her other two children in tow. I couldn’t say no to her request, despite the state of my home.
I hadn’t seen Jennifer in 20-plus years and so I had never met her children. The evening of July 7, I was staring into all their faces, seeing my parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents. The Hutchesons’ voices and laughter swelled, echoed and filled my vacant first floor. Jennifer’s youngest asked me: “Aunt Cathie, may I take a bath in your jetted tub?”
“Sure, sweetie,” I said. I hurried to the guest bathroom, filled the tub, and pressed the button to fire the jets. Nothing happened.
“It looks like the tub hasn’t been rewired yet,” I said, looking into my great-nephew’s crestfallen face. The next morning at about 7 a.m., I shot off a text to Daniel, pleading for him to come that day and fix the tub.
At about 10 a.m. that same day, I got an unexpected call from another relative, my maternal first cousin Yolanda Kesee. The guardian of her great-nephew, Kevon, she informed me that his biological mother had died in a head-on collision in Southern California. The two of them were heading to Hemet to attend the funeral. Her question: Could they come up and see me?
Our mothers are sisters, and through our fathers, we share a more distant bond that I find no less meaningful: We are descendants of the Downeys of Austin County, a slave family whose Texas roots date back to before statehood. I told her the condition of my house, and she said: “Cuz, you act like we are coming to see your house. We are coming to see you.”
We made plans. I hung up the phone and checked for messages from Daniel, and seeing none, I walked over to a co-worker’s desk, asked her to walk with me to the landing, and there I described the unsettling confluence of events. I had lived in my home for three years, and my family had waited until I had torn it apart before planning visits. What kind of hospitality could I offer them?
The tears, as they began to flow, caught me by surprise, and I began to both laugh and cry over my reactions. My co-worker comforted me. She reassured me. She encouraged me.
As I recovered, I felt ashamed: What was wrong with me? How would my late parents, Jim and Louella Anderson, and our slave and pioneer ancestors judge that sort of weakness? Why was I splitting in half over a small stumbling block after standing unbent in the face of actual calamities in my life?
I returned to my desk, finished my column and headed to San Francisco for my great-nephew’s showcase. The next day, we went to the State Fair. I snapped a photo of my niece’s 18-year-old daughter soaring overhead on the giant swing, the definition of exuberant, carefree youth.
Two days before the Hutchesons arrived, I had ordered knobs and pulls for my kitchen cabinets. Moorish in appearance, they were made of glass but encased by a silver overlay. My frugal inner child had chided me for buying those extravagant, pretty things for the outrageous sum of $1,554.56.
She produced a Super 8 reel of my mother asking me: “Girl, are they made of gold?” And, she kept rewinding and repeating it. So, on July 12, when Build.com sent a note informing me that the manufacturer no longer produced the handles, I felt for the first time since my mother died in April 2015 that she was censuring me from the grave.
My parents’ lives had centered around saving money. My mother cooked virtually every meal in a sweltering kitchen with unvarnished cabinets and a worn linoleum floor. Fruit trees shaded our home but also provided ingredients for pies, jams and other treats. My father planted and tended a vegetable garden every year. My mother preserved or froze much of what we didn’t eat right away. We raised and slaughtered chickens.
Yet here I was, spending freely on cabinet pulls, a Sub-Zero refrigerator, a Wolf range top and custom cabinets. For weeks, I was unable to look at alternative knobs and pulls. On Aug. 18, with cabinets scheduled to arrive a week later, I ceded the task to an interior designer who provided options without price tags.
The morning of Aug. 25, the cabinetry was offloaded into my driveway. It gleamed white in the sun, and late in the afternoon, my site supervisor, Brian Russell, called to tease me about how much I was going to love it.
The molecules in my body were vibrating at what I’m sure was an unearthly rate when I walked into my home and was greeted with the potent scent of fresh wood. I leaned against the wall of the entryway as another Super 8 reel fired up in my mind: my father cutting wood on his table saw and later hugging me to a work jacket fragrant with sawdust.
I fumbled for my cellphone. My eyes watered, but I managed to find my sister Rose’s name and pressed the call button. She picked up, and I perched on the only piece of furniture on the first floor, a sofa draped in dusty plastic sheets.
I explained what had happened. We talked about our father, our mother, our memories. She said she was surprised I didn’t have daily reminders of Daddy, and my mouth fell slightly ajar as it hit me that, indeed, I had been reminded of him in dozens of small ways long before the smell of sawdust had assailed me that evening.
Lost in that thought, I had to ask her to repeat her last question. She said: “Did you say you got your cabinets today?”
I flew to my feet, ran to the kitchen, flipped on the light, and marveled aloud. We said a hasty goodbye as I explored: Opening a cabinet door, I saw the mixer lift that would make it a snap to hoist a 25-pound appliance to counter height. I pressed a hidden door on the laundry cabinet, and it popped open to reveal a mounted ironing board. I tested drawers to see whether they would close as softly as promised.
I felt like a kid at Christmas in that moment, but overall, the remodel disrupted my life in hundreds of small ways. Not until my paternal aunt, Norris Mae Scranton, died in mid-September did I begin to understand what the stress of it had unearthed in me. Her daughter asked me to come home and speak at the funeral, to capture her mother’s essence as I had done for my parents at their services.
Our family had lost a number of stalwart, colorful old soldiers like her in the past decade. They worked eight to 10 hours but came home and astounded wayward children by detailing the day’s infractions. We later learned that they were members of a league of village spies, hoping to curb youthful high jinks before their children faced harsher punishment from the police. Their seeming omniscience, along with biting lectures and a propensity for delivering memorable hidings, inspired respect.
They used bygone language and witticisms that made you laugh until your sides hurt: Your first car wasn’t an old heap, for instance. It was “a struggle buggy.” People today underscore their points with quotes from movies or rock songs, but the elders of my family quoted Scripture. They reveled in simple pleasures: a county fair, a summer barbecue, a tent revival, a Veterans Day parade.
Long before my heart was ready, I boarded a plane back to Sacramento. I arrived home to discover a problem with replicating the texture of the plaster walls in my nearly 80-year-old home. One drywall specialist tried but failed. The general contractor found a second who knew the technique and left a sample patch for inspection.
I flipped on the lights, studied it and realized that his best effort did not approach the artistry of the original plasterer. My phone rang. It was the general contractor, asking how I felt about the sample.
I told him that I was feeling claustrophobic, as though the walls meant to protect and shelter me were actually coming in on me. I was wallowing in the loss of the generation of people who had nurtured and uplifted a little girl from the wrong side of the tracks in Sealy, Texas, and now my home’s very walls were providing a manifest example of something precious that my generation was losing along with them.
The idea that I couldn’t replicate that texture was bad enough, I told him, but what was worse was that I hadn’t fully appreciated its uniqueness and the sensory pleasure I had taken from it until I had to surrender it. I needed the weekend to contemplate what I would do.
We hung up. I ran my hands over the wall, feeling the grit of plaster dust. I leaned my forehead to the wall and wept.
As I prepared for a party to celebrate the end of my house project, I understood why therapists rate remodels among the most stressful events in life. In creating a space where I felt comfortable, I made choices that my parents would have rejected.
I felt alienated from my past until the day my goddaughter walked into the finished kitchen, turned around and said: “So, Thanksgiving is at your place, right?”
It dawned on me then that I had created a space where family and friends would want to gather, and indeed as others have seen the space, they have voiced a desire to come over and cook. My parents would have embraced that simple pleasure, so I produced a Super 8 reel of them and played it in my head at my Oct. 30 party.