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Why the Bathroom Walls are Lumpy

Unpublished, May 1998]

Come on in! Just have a seat on the sofa, and my husband will be in in a minute with some coffee. Where’s the bathroom? Ah, better have a seat first. I need to explain something. I should tell you why the walls are lumpy.

Last summer I was looking at that paneling—well, actually, I guess it really began back when we bought the house, a few years ago—no, to tell the truth—

It all started when I was about six, and built a fort of sofa cushions on the living room floor. I can still recall the thrilling rush of pride I felt in there, snug in my domain. Boldly situated (as a realty ad would say) with a commanding view of the TV, it also blocked my little sister’s view of that screen, producing wails that enhanced my satisfaction. In that cubic yard of down-stuffed upholstery I first discovered the joy of home ownership. This must be how Scarlett felt about Tara, though instead of red earth I had lima bean-colored sculptured carpet.

But a dozen years later, when I got my first apartment, I discovered that making someplace home is not so easy. I could put up a Bob Dylan poster, or sew gingham curtains, or set out Museum of Modern Art coasters, as my tastes changed. But I could never really snuggle in, like I could behind the sofa cushions. You’re always a guest in a rental home. The ghostly chiding owner floats nearby, ready to veto red-enamel windowsills or a skylight chopped into the bathroom ceiling. In a rental place you dwell on the surface of your home, like a bubble floating in a glass of milk.

Gary and I had been married several years before we bought our first home. We sat in the realtor’s car in a New Orleans suburb, looking at a house that appeared to be assembled on the popular architectural principle, "First take two big garage doors…" Well, there wasn’t much we could change about the structure. But we could make it our own in other ways.

For example, we changed the shutters from black to brown. Okay, maybe that wasn’t so daring. We replaced the green carpet with blue, though, which felt like a burst of idiosyncracy at the time. Slowly, sadly, we realized we still weren’t free to personalize the home. Not a landlord, but a new phantom lurked among us, this one beaming in from the future. Every time one of us came up with a novel renovation idea, the other would say, "How will this affect the resale value of the house?"

These hypothetical future buyers controlled every decision we made. No dramatic changes in wallpaper or flooring; the next buyer may not like it. Better to live with the standard light fixtures than replace them with something more jazzy. Every time we drove a nail in the plasterboard, an inner voice murmured reprovingly, "You’re going to have to fill this someday, you know." Never mind that at the time I had no plans of moving out; how would I ever induce another family to move in?

We lived scrupulously in our yellow home, and succeeded in finding another buyer when the time came, a few years later. We bought a home again, made many safe, taste-free improvements, and sold it four years later for exactly the same price. This discouraging process was repeated several times.

At last we arrived at life’s turning point, where it looks like we may never have to move again. We could finally buy a home and make it ours. I imagined sofa cushions thirty feet high, leaning together on a half-acre lot of real sculptured carpet.

Instead, we found something almost as good: a 1927 center-hall colonial in mint condition. We painted white walls a medium blue, and the red brick fireplace white, and to heck with what the next owner thinks. We built in shelves for a couple of thousand books, though all the next owner may have to fill them with is a collection of porcelain owls. We buried backyard wires and put up a basketball hoop, chopped shrubs, planted roses, and painted the basement stairs red.

But the real breakthrough was: we left the bathroom walls lumpy.

The one strange thing about this house was the very cheap paneling in the downstairs powder room. Nice blue wallpaper above and a nice white tile floor below, but in the middle was tacky blond press-wood paneling. One day last summer I went in to diminish the offense by painting it.

But as I began I spotted through a crack a glimpse of honest white plaster. Could the original wall be restored? I seized a span of paneling and, with some huffing and puffing, pulled it free. The plaster looked fine, except for a sizeable crater where glue had been smeared to the panel’s back. Around the four walls I went, pulling off the old stuff, rewarded each time with a vision of clean white plaster. Sure, there were holes I would have to patch, but couldn’t any do-it-yourselfer do that?

Maybe not. Several days of applying wet plaster resulted in wall formations that suggested living creatures trapped under wet sheets.

"I actually like how it looks, honey," Gary said. "With the blue wallpaper and molding, and the uneven white walls below, it has kind of a Greek-island effect."

"But that doesn’t make sense," I said. "You can’t have a Greek island bathroom in Baltimore. I’m going to sand it smooth."

Easier said than done. Standing and leaning on the electric sander was exhausting, and though it rattled my fillings it just gradually shifted plaster lumps to the side. There must be a secret to this, but I don’t know what it is.

"It’s just not coming out smooth," I told my husband. "I don’t know what to do."

"Don’t worry about it," he said. "It only has to please us."

And that was true. There was no more phantom buyer. So I left the walls lumpy. I painted them flat white, as if they were the whitewashed walls of a Greek island home. The sun plays on the white tile floor and casts light up onto the blue above. It’s our little Mediterranean retreat, except it has a toilet in the middle. It might look silly, it might look incompetent, but it’s ours.

So that’s why the walls are lumpy. Hmm? —Oh. Sorry. Through the kitchen, then left.

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