Sheetrock Made Me A Woman

SOME women have a sense of domesticity the moment their chubby fists grasp their first toy pan. Not me. My mother did her best to instruct me in the domestic arts, but the skills stayed packed away in my Lane chest - a yellowing, unused trousseau.The world of work was what I wanted and what I got, first as an actress, then a journalist. So, at a point in life when a friend was piecing quilts for her second child, I still could not remember to take out the chicken from the freezer in the morning. It didn't help that I read "The Feminine Mystique" at the tender age of 12, absorbing it all without an adult's baleen to strain chaff from wheat. My view of cooking, cleaning, and decorating became fixed at that age. For years after, I glared at that world through the narrowed eyes of a 1960s teenage feminist. Houses, I believed, had the power to mesmerize one into hours of repetitive tasks that would never be done, during which one's life work would ebb away, drop by drop. I knew that if I gave in, it would never let me be content to just vacuum and wash floors; then I'd have to wash the walls, then scrub the contact paper, then I wouldn't be able to sleep until the back of the refrigerator was done... . As a creative person, I had what I felt was a moral obligation to resist the thrall. All that changed when I bought a condo. A tenement was more like it; a run-down place in a blue-collar section of Cambridge, Mass., with peeling plaster, whistling windows, and a kitchen circa 1937. I expected to feel differently as a homeowner - weighted down and fearful. But oddly enough, what kept me awake at night wasn't figuring out how I was going to pay the mortgage. It was the artistic responsibility for this little dwelling. It demanded immediate and extensive renovation and thrust all sorts of choices upon me. I had formed no concepts about how I used space, what kind of lighting I wanted, even if I preferred modern or traditional. I was meeting the day of reckoning for all those years of skidding through life never noticing the color of the wallpaper. During that Calcutta-like summer of 1988, the hardest part was telling the workmen what to do next. The carpenter would ask whether I wanted a marble or a wooden threshold on the shower curb. The electrician wanted to know whether the wall switches in the bedro om should turn on the ceiling fan or the light or both. At first, I'd just choose something, anything, crisply, so they wouldn't be able to write me off as a "typical woman." I'd never change my mind. I also didn't want to ask for too much help or pay for anything I thought I could do myself. I got through that summer in a state of barely controlled terror. One time the tension got so bad my sister-in-law took one look at me, drove me to a lake in the country and threw me in. The jolt of cold water worked. After that, I decided it was my house, and I'd change my mind when I darn well pleased. To my surprise, the workers went along with it. No sighs of disgust, no rolled eyes, no whispers behind my back. They just said, "Fine, you're the boss." I discovered that most of my instinctive decisions turned out all right. The ones that didn't, like the too-thick grout in the bathroom, well ... anything can be fixed. It was the best growing I ever did. In all ways. I had no idea, when I started this, how many different threatening male worlds buying a condo would involve interacting with. On the face of it, each one seemed filled with men who would lie, cheat, or think I was stupid. Real estate? All sharks. Banking? Crooks. But after calling up bank after bank with the list of questions my more-experienced male friends had given me, the mist surrounding concepts like variable rates, negative amortization, and private mortgage insurance gradually cleared. In the end, I had two lenders desperately wanting my business. Both deals were equally good; I chose the less aggressive salesman. And I could hear respect in their voices as they realized they were dealing with an "armed" woman. I'm grateful for the help that all these men gave me. More than practical advice, they gave me the quiet support that assumed I could do it. I felt husbanded and fathered all the way home. And my perception of workmen as being big lugs changed radically one day as my carpenter and I discussed literature through our dust masks while we crowbarred huge hunks of plaster from the ceiling. Over the summer, I felt new strength forming as I skirted, then entered, the world of wallboard and sawdust that men inhabit so sturdily. No longer am I cowed by the local home improvement store teeming with dusty men in denim who know what they want. I've learned I'm not so great with power tools, but that troweling gobs of thick, white, joint compound on the seams of the wallboard is not only fun in a mud-pie kind of way, but also requires something approaching an artistic sensibility. But probably the best thing this crucible has done has been to forge in me a new vision of home. I never looked at any of my previous dwellings thinking, "How do I want people to feel when they come in? How can I choose furniture and furnaces, paint and plumbing, that will reflect the serenity, nourishment, and comfort that I want to establish here?" A friend once told me the apartment I'd lived in for five years always looked as if I had just moved in. That didn't faze me then; it would today. It's almost finished now. I have new walls, new kitchen, new bath. With the help of a designer, I changed the pantry adjoining the kitchen to a book nook off the living room. The floors, which once were a dull brown, now gleam. The world sends out a lot of signals. I used to snap as fast as cadets at reveille to the work-oriented ones; deadlines, press passes, and merit increases. Now, through the din, the soft chimes of home penetrate. I painted the bedroom walls peach, the woodwork white, and I am still looking all over for the right lace curtains. Somehow, in this new setting, it's easier to remember to take the chicken out of the freezer, even without writing notes. And I'm as proud of the fact that I always have the right ingredients to whip up a meal for friends as I am of the kitchen floor I laid myself. It took learning what the world considers men's skills to really appreciate the ones ascribed to women. A home needs both. So do I.

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