Emily and I recently had one of our two garages torn down (for the sake of more garden) and replaced the hole in our house with a magnificent bay window. The immediate consequences of this project is a house full of dust and a tremendous amount of painting. In my every spare minute I’m sanding and priming. And in my dreams beyond the high rafters the drywall is bare and unreachable, the task of covering it overwhelming. Some part inside me needs painting, too.
Most days I live in my house unthinkingly, but when I’m deep in a home improvement project I grow acutely aware of how the walls I live within aren’t just random; they reveal and shape my interior, and will do so for every soul who ever lives here. How this is so is a mystery. I remember an article by Maya Angelou in an architectural magazine in which she blamed her first two divorces on the structures of the houses they lived in. When I bought my first house, the previous owner had decorated the kitchen with quirky black zigzags and painted the claw-foot tub’s toenails red. His boldness inspired me to paint a mandala on the front porch—a creative act I’d never have done otherwise given my decoratively conservative upbringing.
That house was 640 square feet. The postage-stamp back yard had a tremendous clothesline system, poles cemented into the ground, ten lines taut to the house, which always made me wonder how many people had once crammed into that tiny space. I hung my clothes because what else would I do with all that line? And years later in a different house I still hang my clothes, the ghosts of that large family still guiding my actions.
Before leaving that tiny bungalow I painted a blessing on a beam in a dark corner of the basement where no one would see it, and I like to imagine it sending well-wishes through the furnace ducts and floorboards for generations to come. The primer I’m slapping on in our renovated kitchen isn’t nearly as profound but surely it does similar work. A tended home tends in return. This paint will welcome. Our new windows will bring the back yard and all its sunlight into the kitchen. The house will invite the same from us—a warm welcome, open hearts. And so this work moves in and beyond us.
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew