At the beginning of the year, I thought I would really plunge into working on the design of the new house, but suddenly I came down with a severe case of the dreads. One problem was church which was becoming very difficult for me to go to on Sundays. I was uncomfortable while I was there, and took a full day or two to recover my spirits afterward. Many people were saying goodbye even though I hadn’t left yet. Some people had said goodbye to me already for the third and fourth time.
Then too, I felt I had come to a standstill with the house design and felt locked up with worry. The money in particular was worrying me and I could tell it was worrying Harry as well who is my “canary” on such matters. Harry is planning to work on at his job in Houston until his retirement in the spring.
I had been looking for a place to live in Monterey so that I could oversee the construction. The latter was beginning to sound like a bad joke to me, particularly after our washer dryer suddenly died. We set out to replace it: first consulting Consumer Reports, then out shopping for deals at the local stores. We thought we ought to buy something that would fit in the new house as well. When the new machine arrived and after I had thanked the installation crew and waved them merrily on their way, I put a load in. The machine immediately got so loud, the dog began to cringe. As I was sure it was about to explode, I ran to close the laundry room door, only to find I could not because I hadn’t measured correctly! At least I still had the number of the guys who installed it and they came right back to remove a shipping belt they had inadvertently left in the machine, which hummed quietly when they restarted it, and after they jammed it into the corner so I could shut the door. My future as a construction overseer was definitely in question.
At a party over the holidays I had met my friend from church, Laura Michaelides, an interior designer, and we agreed that we would meet for lunch in the new year and talk about my building project. So we did. Our friendship at church has deepened especially since our younger daughter worked for Laura’s firm, Four Square Design Studio. Her firm has grown significantly since then and Laura now has a staff of two, and a new office in a building she renovated in an inner-city Houston neighborhood that she is working to have declared a historic district. I had secretly been wishing to hire her for months, researching work chronicled on her website where her design talents are well demonstrated. I finally convinced Harry that hiring the professionals we need to help us is well worth the extra cost.
When Laura and I met for lunch at a local eatery, we sat outside on a beautifully warm, breezy day, and munched our salmon salads. I had brought along plans to give to her and was able to explain that I could not get the living room arranged in the way I wanted. I recounted that my most recent furniture shopping exercise had not gone particularly well. I incline toward room stores where you buy a whole suite of furniture (that’s pronounced suit in Texas), and the matter is finished. Except of course if you discover flaws as I had a couple of weeks after delivery of the last suite I had purchased, whereupon the store informed me the repair would not be covered under the extra warranty I had purchased. I explained to Laura that my solution to this had been to shop via catalogue at one of the more expensive furniture stores on the planet with outlets only in New York, Paris and Miami. She took one look at the house plans and said the mega scale of furniture in that store would never fit in the room, my measuring skills once again were clearly lacking.
She said that she had encountered house designs that were nearly impossible to furnish and that we should begin with a description of the look and feel and functions that Harry and I were trying to achieve in the house design. At last I had something I could do. She said she could help me layout a critical path for moving forward with the plans. That was also a great relief since I could feel the days ticking by and I had counted up and realized I had only four months left until my move out date. Time to get busy.
She also made sense of the difficulties my friend Karen was having rehabilitating her kitchen in Phoenix–even after she had employed an architect to draw up the plans. Karen described how every day the contractor would arrive at her door with choices she needed to make that day. Then she would run off to the store. On the day we last talked it had been to select a kitchen sink and faucet, but when she got to the store there were a thousand sinks ranging in price from $99 to $999, and she had no basis for making a decision. Perhaps it was not such a crazy idea to work with a designer in Houston when we are building a house half a continent away. I could keep busy in the months before I moved working with Harry to make selections here in Houston where there are infinitely more stores to choose from and where we could shop together for materials, fixtures, etc.
I explained to Laura that I had a problem with the great room on the second floor and until I had it settled I could hardly think about other design issues. Perhaps the problem was that I had a picture in my mind of how I wanted it to work, and I just could not see how to make it happen. I knew it was a small house yet I wanted to be able to fit 10 people in the living room. As the plans stood, we might be able to squeeze in only six. Laura said that she had an idea about how she might make this possible. She recommended that we carve this off as a first design job for her and see if she could help with this and she was very excited to begin. So she set to work, and we arranged that in a couple of weeks Harry and I would meet in her office.
When we arrived two weeks later for our first meeting, I knew the instant I saw the plans that it was right. For me it was what I had in mind all the while. This is not a criticism of our architect’s drawings, but Laura’s expertise is in furnishings and at this point Terry, our architect, was very busy with structural engineers, heating engineers, filing building plans with the City and other matters to get us ready for construction. A few weeks later Terry saw the plans and announced that he liked them as well and said he thought reorienting the kitchen was an improvement. Originally the kitchen had been immediately on the right as you came up the stairs. It opened on to the living room in a u-shape set in the back corner of the room with one counter arm between it and the dining room. Laura’s idea was to turn the kitchen 90 degrees so that instead of opening on to the living room, it opened on to the dining room.
This had a most important impact on the living room. The partition between the living room and the kitchen created a backdrop against which she had designed built-in sectional sofas that together make two sides of a rectangle with fully ten linear feet for sitting bones. This would be enough to accommodate five people easily, and six with a squeeze. In addition she also planned two chairs facing the couch, one of which would be in the corner of the room with the best view. It would be a signature chair, capable or rotating 360 degrees so you could turn and look out at the bay. We could also bring in two more chairs from the dining room to accommodate up to ten people.
Then one weekend, shortly thereafter, I had a breakthrough at church. It was a Saturday chock full of church activities. I decided instead to just lay on the couch and read. I stayed there most of the morning, dozing fitfully, but I stayed gripping the upholstery at times to steady my nerves. As I stayed there all afternoon I began to plot missing church the next morning, which I did. And on the following Monday I felt surprisingly light-headed, nearly festive. When I described this chain of events to one of my friends from church, she said to me that the probable cause was that I had begun to separate in my mind from the church, as a means of preparing for the changes ahead. It was so obvious! Why hadn’t I seen it?
What is ahead for me once I move? In my adult life I have lived in Houston longer than anywhere, and now, as I prepare to leave, to start a new life, I wonder if I will make such close friends, or hole up instead in my new home like a hermit crab, just listening to the sound of the surf.
In a church community there are always new people coming, old members leaving and some people you have always known changing right before your eyes–if you let them. I’ll count myself in this latter category and say I am in transition; into what or whom I do not know. I will be some facsimile of my present self, but also different, launched on a new chapter of my life. I am not trying to be something I am not, but perhaps to let out parts of me that have not yet had a chance to bloom. I don’t think I have multiple personalities, I just feel, like Mary Poppins, the winds of change are in the air. I have only glimpses of a new life; I think of myself exploring the tide pools. I can see myself at the construction site but overseeing it in a way that is better described as appreciative inquiry, a skill we learned at church. I will take my church skills and memories with me and perhaps, with a little distance, a new appreciation of them, and a willingness to start again at the church in Monterey.