Sunday, December 29, 2013

An Open Christmas Letter about Kitchens

Usually, I enclose with my Christmas cards a letter that is intended to be a parody of that humble literary form, the family newsletter.  Nothing humble about that literary form, other than its standing in literature, where it huddles in the cold and rain, shoulder to shoulder with the obscure blog.  And since I am an obscure blogger, faithfully indulging my every rumination, this year's holiday round robin seemed redundant.

So let's talk about kitchens.  I'm on my third.

The first kitchen, a square room big enough to include a high-chair, (Josh was a baby), small table and four chairs was in Middleborough, Mass.

The house was built in 1906, and, like most grand homes of the period, the kitchen was not a room in which the owners were intended to spend time.  A call button on the floor in the dining room testified to this:  with it, the lady of the house could summon the maid or butler with an imperceptible shift of her foot.

[Believe it or not, the image above is "Smedley Maid Illustration, 1906".  What is it about 1906?!*]

Of course, by the time Phil and I bought 35 Peirce St., (e before i, yes), if there was a maid and butler in residence, they were vestigial spirits whose presence was manifest only in the form of imagined comments and the occasionally overheard footfall on the steps to their former rooms on the third floor.

"What are you doing?" the maid asked.

"Painting the kitchen."

"I can see that.  What I mean is, why?  And why aren't you painting it white?"

"I am painting it because it is my kitchen to paint.  And I am painting it Tuscan Vista because I want it to feel like an Italian kitchen."

I could plainly see the maid cover her mouth to keep from laughing.

"What on earth are you doing, now?"

"I am scratching at the second layer of paint to give it transparency and to create the illusion of antiquity."

The maid was doubled over, trying not to pee herself.  Finally, she straightened up and walked right through the wall that I had been scratching and sponging and tearing at with artistic intent.

We pulled up the dirty old yellow 1970's linoleum floor and Phil laid down slate tiles in an artful pattern.

The butler's ghost stood framed in the doorway, watching.

"You neglected to put an appropriate amount of that chemical on the slate to keep the grout from sticking on the surface," he said.

But Phil couldn't hear him.

"You're being a little too liberal, young man, with that grout."

But Phil couldn't hear him.

As a result, Phil spent many hours of back-breaking labor scraping off the excess grout with a wire brush.

In the end, the kitchen was a mishmash of cherry cabinetry, tile counter tops, slate floors, Tuscan vistas, New England lace curtains, and whatever appliances and furniture had either come with the house or been donated to us by relatives.

We had managed to spend more than we should have on discrete elements, yet the room never had any aesthetic focus.  The maid giggled every time she passed through.  The butler shook his head and tsk-tsked.

We liked it.

Second kitchen.  Different house, different state, but built in the same year: 1906.  Oregon, Wisconsin.

This house was not nearly as grand as Middleborough, but it had handsome arts-and-crafts woodwork--in the form of oak pillars, headers, paneling, and a beveled mirror on the coat closet door--typical of the Victorian and slightly post-Victorian homes in that neighborhood.  It was as if everyone in that day had hired the same tradesman to do the woodwork in their homes.  

Again, the kitchen was barely an afterthought.  Long and thin, due to the traffic patterns it was limited to being half a galley kitchen.  There could only be appliances, sink, or counter space on one of its two long sides, and both short sides were points of entry or egress.

There was a built-in cabinet in the dining room that backed up to the other long side of the kitchen.  It protruded into the kitchen about half a foot and had been covered up with wainscoting.  I thought, at one time, it was probably a smarter design; the drawers may have been accessible from both the dining room and the kitchen, for convenience.  But in our time, there was nothing useful about the arrangement from the perspective of the kitchen.

The ghost of the tradesman who had installed the cabinet and all of the handsome woodwork in town sometimes glared at me from across the room, like he knew what I was thinking.

"You're not thinking about taking down that built-in with the stained-glass doors that I built, are you?"

"No," I said, for the first few years we lived there.  "We love your cabinet.  We love the stained-glass doors.  Don't worry."

But when my dad passed away in 2009, I needed something to think about other than the fact that my dad had passed away, (a fact which took up enormous amounts of time and energy and emotional reserves to grasp); and a very wonderful awful idea then occurred to me.

"You're not," said the tradesman.

"I am.  There's no way around it.  Can you suggest a way?  I see none."

That cabinet had to go.

And go it did.  And with it, that wicked wainscoted wall that en-robed it.  It was replaced by a peninsula, which inserted itself into the middle of things, cleared its throat, and said, Dammit, I am a kitchen!  A kitchen, I tell you!  Take notice!

We spent too much money on that kitchen.  We could have done without soap stone.  We could have done without nearly-commercial grade appliances (which nevertheless required constant maintenance of an overpriced warranty plan to cover their inevitable and expensive failures; a plan which fell millimeters short of being called what it was: protection money).  We could have done without stainless steel, farmer's sinks and subway tiles.

But we couldn't have done without the designer who came up with the plan--that brilliant, wonderful, awful plan--which exploded that skinny kitchen and blew it right into the living room--so that I could watch television and talk to humans while preparing the roast beast.

We could have spent a lot less.  Our elbows were cold on the stone counter.  But we enjoyed it, nonetheless.  To hell with ghost carpenters.

Kitchen number three.  This is a small country kitchen on our lovely old farm with eighties cabinetry and a nineties counter that bridges to the family room without actually letting you pass through.  You may pass through food, but there's no way to get into or out of the kitchen except to walk the long way around and enter via the dining room.  You may look at the family room from the kitchen, but you may not enter it except as a projectile flying over the counter.

In exchange, we have a half bath off the family room.  It's a devil's bargain.

The more serious problem with  the kitchen was the general sense that it was the lowest-priority room for the previous owners, and perhaps for the owners before them and before them going back 100 years.

The original house is about 100 years old, but it is dwarfed and engulfed by more recent additions.  I suspect that the original house was no more than 800 square feet, and we are now 3,000.  If there are any ghosts, they are truly lost souls, passing through walls they did not remember being there before.

And so we have no idea how old the kitchen is, but we know that there was only one layer of wall paper, with little tears here and there at the seams.  The paper was never bad, it was always beige and drab.  The view out the window compensated for a multitude of sins and seems to have sent all previous occupants off into reveries such that they let things go on the opaque surfaces and focused their attention exclusively out the window.

But it bothered me.  The overall beige country kitchen thing began to wear on my nerves.

At first, I simply installed a charming oak harvest table that had been in someone else's family for generations. (Sometimes I gaze upon that table and drift off into someone else's childhood memories.)

But the table, like me, couldn't overcome the aesthetic sink hole that was our kitchen, where I spent so much of my time, looking out the window onto gorgeous vistas like a prairie dog peeking out of a hole.

Have you read THE YELLOW WALLPAPER by Charlotte Perkins?

That paper had to go.

And so I spent a week or more soaking and peeling and pulling off every inch of that paper until there were only two square inches of it left, intentionally, behind the stove, as a reminder.

Did I mention that the Formica counter was the color of gray?

And the cupboards below were so much worse than the cupboards above.  There were places where the wood was just contact paper that you could peel like an orange.

I painted those cabinets.  I painted them pea soup green.  It was two days before I realized, after someone pointed it out, that they were the same color as my cabinets in my previous house, the one with the soapstone counters.  I painted one coat and a second and a third and even a fourth coat.  And then I purchased hardware, but it was wrong, so I went back and returned it and brought home the right hardware.

The result was trans-formative.  There is purple in the kitchen, now, and red.  Somehow, you don't even notice that the formica counter is gray.

We removed an over-sized floor-to-ceiling cabinet that contained only a broom and a dust pan.

We removed a refrigerator that did not fit into its cubby, but instead jutted out into the kitchen an additional four inches like a big drooling slumped-over fellow in the seat next to you in economy class. We just happened to have another refrigerator in the basement, one size smaller.  It fits perfectly into its chair and reads alertly from its Kindle without attempting conversation.

[Beth Remmes, a devoted reader, asked me to insert before and after pictures, so I did.]

We did not need to ship a giant slab of stone from Brazil to Wisconsin to have cold elbows.

We will remove two layers of linoleum from the floor, but we will replace it with...beautiful, red, yellow-flecked, commercial-grade... linoleum!   I am incredibly psyched.  It's going to be gorgeous, and, at $100, it's going to be genius!

So that's it.  I spent money on paint and brushes and linoleum.  And hardware.   I went to the hardware store every day for about two weeks, so I'm sure I spent a couple hundred, easy.  But it's done.  We didn't have to take out a loan.

Phil and Josh (less so Josh) and the oak harvest table and I love it.  We sit together and look out the window, and I think, You're lovely, table, too; and the table says, I am redolent in memories, but this is a particularly good one.

Merry Christmas!

* In Wisconsin, I bought a Kranich and Bach on Craigslist just like this one.  Built in 1906.  Spooky.

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