On a recent weekend, I was out at the upper back reaches of the Pond doing my annual editing of the wisteria. There is a neighborhood road up there , it's a pretty walk so we get lots of joggers and dog walkers and strollers coming by. On this particular day I saw an elderly lady coming down the way, moving slowly and a mite stiffly. As she came closer I realized she was not strolling by, but purposefully headed my way. I straightened up from my tasks in order to greet and chat in the typical Southern way.
She approached with a smile and straightforwardly asked,
" Are you the lady who fixes up the inside of peoples homes"?
"yes'm, I have that pleasure and sometimes the outside too " a responded with a smile.
" I need help"
" What kind of help"?
" I can't stand being in my house."
I paused and took a good look. Droopy shoulders, slightly stooped posture, fidgity hands, anxious eyes. No comment on the needs of the house, the comments were about self.
" Do you know why"? I queried.
There was a pause, a bowed head, a big sigh before making the effort to lift her chin off her chest and in little more than a whisper say,
"It makes me cry".
I put the pruners down, shucked off the gloves and said,
" I expect we better go see what we can do about that"
We chatted on the stroll to her house and she perked up a bit, maybe hoped a bit.
As we came up her driveway her husband approached to introduce himself then said,
"Aren't you the lady down the street with that loud hound'?
We chatted a bit about the Hound's rescue story then his wife and I moved on into the house.
The house is an unattractive 70's ranch with a choppy floorplan, original finishes, low ceilings ,
minimal windows and entirely too much cheap, old dark paneling. I did wonder how this house came to be in our area where most of the houses are architectural gems on acreage lots with mature trees and vast lawns. The house is gloomy, not just because of the minimal window space but this "L" shaped structure is oriented North-South so there is no direct light and very little "borrowed" light. The morning light is blocked by an addition on the back side of the "L" and by a 2 car detached garage.The afternoon sun does not brighten anything because there are no windows on this side of the house. One might call it "unattractive" from the exterior but it is definitely more than "unattractive" on the inside. It is grim. We made our way from room to room and in each room she apologized for how awful things looked. Every space was clean, neat, orderly, a bit spare but every room sported the smells of either furniture polish or pinesol.
Once we circled around to the Kitchen she offered sweet tea and a cookie, which I accepted because I wanted to observe how she functioned in the space. It is also an unattractive and
akward space. 70's floral wallpaper, painted in place skewed cabinetry, poor quality aging appliances, chipped laminate countertops, drab linoleum floors, no light from the small high window above the sink. There is a poorly constructed "breakfast bar" that was added at some point to the otherwise galley style Kitchen. There is no knee space at this bar and it projects too far into the circulation zone for normal function. To get to the refrigerator she must slide around the bar to a far wall where the appliance stands three quarters of the way over the only other window in the space. The house was clearly built as cheaply as possible and subsequent owners have not improved things.
We made our way to the Breakfast Room which looks to be a poor quality enclosure of a former
screened porch. Lots of that cheap paneling, but real wood floors and a window on one wall. I learned over the tea and cookie that she had never liked the house, had "begged" her husband to not buy it but had nonetheless been there for twenty years. What, I wondered, made this the year of the tears? So I asked what made this year different?
She has had a terrible year. One of her sons, father of four, died in a car wreck on the way home from a retreat the entire family had attended. They had actually passed his smoldering car on the interstate without realizing ... On the way out of the memorial service for her child, she missed a step , fell hard and broke an elbow. She was sent to the hospital in an ambulance while the rest of the family escorted their loss to the cemetary. A week after getting the all clear from the elbow repair she was tripped by a running child in the grocery store and broke a hip. That injury required hip replacement surgery, physical therapy and a lot of time indoors to grieve.
Poor thing. Somewhere in there friends and family began to realize she was not " getting on with life" and urged her to get out more, do more, focus on other things.
Her husband, she explained was very disappointed with her. He is a retired preacher and has admonished her severely for her inability to accept God's will. Her grief, he had declared, is the result of her willfulness against God. He does not understand how a God loving man , who has spent his entire life in the service of the Lord could at this stage of his life, be burdened with a wife who refuses to accept it is God's priviledge to call home any of his children he wants without the permission of their mortal mothers. She went on to explain her preaching man had repeatedly mentioned her need to read about Abraham being willing to sacrifice his child and that might help her with her "slippage". ( I thought God spared Abraham's child from sacrifice but then I'm not a preacher).
About 6 months after the funeral, friends called and insisted they get out a bit and would come by Saturday morning and take them for brunch at a favorite eatery. They agreed to meet, but would transport themselves because of other plans. Mrs. was still using a cane from the hip replacement so her spouse went to bring the car around by the door to save her the trip. Somehow, it is unclear what exactly happened, but the reality is he ran over her. That horror shattered her other leg, not the one with the hip replacement, a few ribs, a collarbone and her jaw. So once she got out of the hospital, it was back to sitting in the house of gloom . Where her spirits took a steep decline.
Her daughters in law pitched in and regulary covered her "duties" and consoled her husband for the trauma he was enduring. The DILs embarked on a rescue mission and determined to cheer her up by painting her living room . It is now the color of newly dead people. That godawful shade of puce no sane person would ever choose. It looks bad on it's own but looks really horrid next to the adjacent red on red striped wallpaper in the Dining Room. She thanked the DIL's and cried.
A horrible year indeed.
But we made a priority list and I made encouraging statements about how lots of things could be done to improve her home without it costing a fortune. I did get around to asking if she and her Mr. had talked about fixin' things and did they have a budget. Oh yes, they had and the number they felt comfortable with was twenty thousand. Great! Everything we had talked about could not be accomplished with that budget but we surely could open up some spaces, take down wallpapers, replace old flooring, add some lighting and revise the Kitchen but not replace appliances or cabinetry. Maybe the DIL's and grown grandchildren could provide volunteer labor for things like wallpaper removal and painting to preserve funds for other applications. I would design the rennovation plans and fetch a contractor for estimates. I made no mention of my normal fees for services. There was no need as I knew this would be a gift.
Her husband was waiting for me at the end of his driveway. He wanted to make sure I understood he was the head of household and all family decisions rightfully belong to him.
I nodded my understanding, not trusting myself to speak and mosied on home.
So yesterday, I went to meet with them about the plans and check their schedules for a good time to have the contractor come take a looksee. I realized straight away that something was amiss. Preacherman was in his pulpit modality and his wife was slumped and quiet. In this business, you learn how to navigate the divides between spouses. So I made my presentation to him, not her and approached it from the standpoint of investment and resale, trotted out supportive statistics and did my best to admire all his observations and commetaries. On the rare occasion when she had comments to make they were met with a stern look from him and a , " Now Mother, you don't understand these things so it's best if you just stay quiet". We played a round of twenty questions. I'd certainly taken his measure in the driveway that first day and new there would be difficulties. I came armed with data to confirm all my statements and recommendations. I was oh so careful about my body language and facial expressions. If there was even the slightest chance she could have some respite from the gloom, I wanted her to have it. Of course, I could have walked away from the onset. I could have called and made scheduling excuses or just have been a no show. But her first comment, "I need help", echoed in my head, and in my heart and I was bringing to the table all I had to offer on that front.
It wasn't a bad meeting. Towards the end of the meeting, after we had established an appointment for the builder to come evaluate and estimate he mentioned things had changed a bit since my first visit to their home. He cleared his throat and produced what I am sure is his most authoratative pulpit voice to state that one of his grandsons had approached him about wanting to build or buy his first house and was, as is proper, seeking financial assistance from his grandad to get his "start". After a pause, I told him I was not sure I was understanding the significance of his statement. He smiled at me and tapped the table top with a pointed finger then said, " A man has a duty to provide so I am commanded by God to see to the needs of my grandson, a fine young man, before I give in to the foolish desires of this old woman".
I held his gaze for a long silent moment before looking across the table to his wife. She sat perfectly still, really expressionless as massive quantities of tears flowed down her cheeks.
Even if I were a biblical scholar armed with chapter and verse I knew it would not have been possible to effect his thinking. It was a struggle to control my response to that comment, but I did finally reach over and pat his hand while saying, " I think we all struggle with balancing our many needs and commitments. I am sure a man like you will do everything you can to meet the needs of all your family in the short term and the long term. The truly blessed thing about family homes is they nurture all of the family. Those who live here and those who gather here for
family events. Your family is writing it's history here weekly as well as on celebration days like, Father's day or backyard Easter egg hunts, or fourth of July bar-b-ques with fireworks. So what you do now positively benefits all your family while you are still here to enjoy them and guide them. As the family patriarch, I know you can understand investing in your family home now will ultimately help you secure the opportunity to help all your grandchildren in the future."
I carefully did not mention his wife. I deliberately did not look at his wife. He was processing my commentary and before he could speak I asked, " How many grandsons do you have"? They have 5 grandsons, 2 granddaughters. I then said, " My goodness, are you so blessed you can make this same gift to all 7 grandchildren? I am impressed with your generosity!"
"Well no, we can't do this for all our grandchildren", he stated.
"Oh"? I responded, " What will you say to the next one who needs his start?"
A bit of hemming , hawing and throat clearing then he stood signaling the conclusion of our meeting and said, " Let me know when you get that contractor visit scheduled".
I fled to the Pond.
I barely made it inside the back door before I started screaming about effing cruelty masquerading as "godliness" and how no amount of improvements in the structure would make improvements in that over righteous horror of a man. I detest men who refer to their wives as "Mother" as if their only purpose in life was to be the oven for their seed. I so loathe a man who will speak of his wife in her presence as if she were the wallpaper. I am ill with sadness for a woman who has spent her life in service to this man and his congregations and now, at age 80, is consigned to sit in that horror house she "begged" him to not make her live in and endure his sanctimonious judgement of her grief while mocking her needs.
Please, there are a lot of smart people on this blog, have any of you any recommendations to offer? I am not sure I can see past my rage. I know it is a very, very long shot but I really want this woman to have some respite from the gloom if not from the tyranny in her life. Surely someone has advice on how to deal with this dreadful mindset? I know how to improve her house. I am a designer, not a shrink so I don't really understand how to navigate around him.