Home Alone

July 24, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, essayist Anne Taylor Fleming considers the renovation of her house.

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: This might look like a sweet suburban cottage but do not be deceived. Inside it is a construction zone, a destruction zone, a war zone. A small kitchen renovation has escalated–that’s the appropriate war vernacular–into a full tilt reclamation: new floors, a new paint job, new appliances. After all, you can’t put your old junk back. And every new expenditure, every new decision, over every little item, big or small, from drawer pulls to refrigerators, is an occasion for two pretty happy, long-married people to find within themselves reservoirs of opinion and obstinacy to insult each other’s priorities and personalities, taste levels, irritability levels, and income levels.

I ask myself why, what’s all this about. Okay. Money. We’re spending entirely too much money, and that’s scary. But we’re also scared that it won’t out swell after all the turmoil, and that we will somehow violate the karma of this little wooden house, which has stood on this spot since 1924, one of the oldest houses in our Brentwood neighborhood. It was here, long before the O. J. tour buses started crawling through the streets; before Marilyn Monroe killed herself, just around the corner, before Jane Fonda was growing up in this nearby house, and before the Kennedy brothers, Jack and Bobby, frolicked on this nearby beach.

It has survived presidents and earthquakes, and been a plucky little witness to the ferocious urbanizing and mansionizing that has taken place around it as Los Angeles has lurched towards the end of the millennium. Add to its memory our own. I came here as a new bride in 1972. This house holds every single marital memory I have: endless, boisterous meals. My four now adult stepsons, towheaded surfer boys who bounced off the walls in adolescence, our first dog there; I find myself talking to the contractor and looking right through him, out the window, over there, back where we had our best water fights, our biggest barbecue.

The present proves illusive, the decisions so rankled over suddenly seem so trivial, overpoweringly material, and completely immaterial. This being overwhelmed by past fragments of your life happens, I’m convinced, to many of us renovators. We argue about drawer pulls and plasterers’ bills with present tense intensity, all the while looking over our shoulders.

This is compounded, of course, by the decision of what to throw away. I haven’t used this carafe, for example, in 20 years. It was for jug wine when we were young and much poorer. It made the cheap stuff look so elegant, I thought. Do I still keep it? And what of this china deviled-egg plate, a wedding present used maybe a half a dozen times? Or this pig and fish platter so un-us but bestowed with such pleasure by one of my husband’s sons. Every drawer and cupboard can do this if you let it. Some days I do; some days I don’t. During renovations you see your house for what it is, how basically fragile, how temporary. And you realize that you and it have been partners in a conceit of permanency.

You’re just a passerby, putting your stamp on it one more time. And you know full well that when you move on, someone will come along and just knock it down and put up something much more grand. But, meanwhile, we give it a major facelift, delighting almost in the pitched battles over draw pulls that keep us oblivious to what will no doubt happen on that future day.

I’m Anne Taylor Fleming.