When we first saw This Old McHenry House in December of 2004, she was covered in a dingy white vinyl siding. All of her still-visible trim work was sloppily painted a horrible dark pink. She wasn’t pretty. But I thought she had potential.
My suspicion was confirmed when we received a folder of paperwork at the closing in March 2005. In the folder was a picture of the house just after she was built in 1921.
There she was. In all her glory. Wide clapboard on the first story; narrow on the second. Craftsman details around her base and her middle, on each corner and window. I became obsessed. “That’s all gotta be under there,” I told the LOML. “We have to bring her back.”
I began to plot and plan.
Providentially, a Victorian-home-turned-attorney’s-office just around the corner from us had recently undergone a complete exterior transformation. So one day I suggested that we knock on their door and ask them who did their paint job. Maybe get a recommendation. Peter said that this whole project was my crazy idea and I would have to do the talking, but he agreed to walk with me over to the house.
As we approached, however, my heart sank. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed it before. The poor thing stood there, only a year in her new grey and purple paint, already cracking and peeling and pitiful.
“See? That’s what I’m afraid of,” Peter said. “I don’t want to have to re-paint our house every single year.”
I was momentarily deflated, but I am not so easily deterred. I redoubled my research—determined to find a better way. And poor Peter? He was simply swept along in my scheme.
Eventually, I located a company in Elgin, Illinois, that specializes in the exterior restoration of old homes. They couldn’t do the work for us. They were too far away and too expensive. But I e-mailed the owner for advice. She graciously wrote back with detailed instructions and a guarantee. “Follow these steps to a ‘T’ and your paint job will last seven years, maybe even ten.”
Here is what she told us to do:
1. Thoroughly scrape off all loose paint.
2. Sand every surface smooth with an orbital sander, feathering the edges.
3. Scrub the surface in a circular motion with a brush and a tablespoon of TSP dissolved in a gallon of water. Rinse with running water and allow to dry.
4. Fill nail holes ONLY with Flex-Tech Apoxy.
5. Prime ONLY with Muralo’s Ultimate X-200 Exterior Oil-Based Primer-2200 and allow to dry.
6. Paint with Benjamin Moore Premium paint, using ONLY a brush.
Finally then, in June of 2007, armed with this information, I was ready to make a move. First, I hired a contractor to pull the vinyl down. One Saturday morning, we awoke to the sound of the old siding being torn from the house. We live on a busy corner of town, so all day long people stopped and stared as This Old McHenry House was stripped bare.
By the end of the day, she stood completely exposed. Dirty. Bruised. And broken. Peter and I circled her, assessing the situation. Thankfully, much of the siding and trim was still in place, though one sizable section at the back of the house was rotted through. Pieces of trim had been carelessly yanked off to accommodate the vinyl. Additional woodwork near the roofline was falling apart.
Peter looked concerned. “Now what?” he asked. “Do you know what you’ve gotten us into?”
“We get to work, I guess,” I said. “There’s no turning back now.”
So for many long and exhausting weeks, we spent every available moment scraping and sanding and washing and filling and priming and painting. We started with the garage, then moved to the first story of the house. In early September—with winter looming—we interviewed a few paint contractors, looking for someone to help us get her done. One contractor promised to be the cheapest if we paid him in cash. Another promised to be the quickest because he had a young, energetic crew. But I didn’t want cheap or fast. I wanted a thorough and quality restoration. So I hired the only contractor who agreed to follow each and every one of the Sacred Six Steps.
Following the steps is important, right? And not just in home restoration. But in many areas of life. Cooking a meal. Writing a book. Constructing a toy.
And, of course, helping a human grow up.
Like most parents, I have studied various charts and lists that spell out the steps my children need to take in order to grow. Physically. Cognitively. Socially. The experts tell us, too, that the order of the steps is important. Baby needs to hold up his head before he sits. Creep or crawl before he walks. Run before he rides a bike. A school-age child must learn her numbers before she can add. Her letters before she can read. And so on. In his book Changes That Heal, Dr. Henry Cloud confirms this fact. “We must mature in one stage before we can go on to the next.”
But healthy development through each step or stage doesn’t just happen. Dr. Cloud says three essential ingredients are necessary. The first is Grace. An unearned and fully accepting relationship. The second is Truth. An accurate understanding of the way things really are. Combined, Grace and Truth form an authentic relationship which nurtures development. But this development must also be given the third essential ingredient. Good Time.
Dr. Cloud explains that when parents do their job well, when they speak Truth and ooze Grace, children complete developmental steps confidently and in Good Time. But when parents are absent or withdrawn, when they are abusive or too harsh, when they lack either Grace or Truth, some aspect of a child’s being is removed from Time. “It goes underground,” Cloud writes, “and does not change until it is called out into Good Time, into time affected by Grace and Truth.”
When Peter was about twelve years old, his dad brought home for him a second-hand bike. It needed some work, but Dad Worrall was handy like that. And in no time he had it up and running. Peter was thrilled.
One day, though, Peter brought the bike home with a flat. He very much wanted to learn from his dad, to be able to fix his own bike. So he convinced Dad Worrall to show him how to change the inner tube himself. Then—surprisingly—Dad Worrall let Peter give it a try. Peter struggled to follow the instructions though. And before too long, Dad Worrall stepped back in.
“Just let me do it, Mr. Engineer,” he said.
Dad Worrall used that nickname often from that point on. Even spread it around the family a bit—to cousins and uncles and aunts—the people Peter respected most. And it has stuck with Peter all of these years. That lack of Grace.
But mechanical projects weren’t the only thing that Dad Worrall took out of Peter’s hands. He was a “control freak” by his own admission. Filling out Peter’s forms. Holding onto Peter’s paperwork. Making Peter’s plans.
And a part of Peter—the part that might have gained confidence about household repairs and paperwork and plans—that part of him went underground.
Just a few months ago it peaked out from under a rock. Peter decided he should finally start the process of becoming an American citizen. He’s been putting it off for years. It involves paperwork.
So one afternoon he went online and found an application. He gave the website his credit card information when they asked for $200, then he spent a long and agonizing time filling out the forms. When he came to the end of the process, though, he realized that something was wrong. What he thought had been a legitimate government website wasn’t.
I was running errands while all of this was happening. So I arrived at home just in time to find him wide eyed, scared, self-loathing, and twelve.
The adult Peter did make some phone calls and get his money back. But twelve-year-old Peter is so powerful that he hasn’t revisited the process again.
I have a twelve-year-old self too. I’m guessing most of us do.
But while Peter’s twelve-year-old likes to retreat and avoid, mine likes to control. It makes sense. While responsibility was taken away from Peter as a child, it was thrust upon me. While twelve-year-old Peter is terrified of what might happen if he does step up, the twelve-year-old me is terrified of what might happen if I don’t.
You might call us a perfect match. The LOML and me.
Or perhaps a perfect storm.
Remember our big painting project? Here she is.
Certainly our twelve-year-old selves surfaced a lot that summer. They don’t always get along. But with a bit of Truth and a whole lot of Grace, we are slowly bringing these things back into Good Time.
In fact, a couple of weeks ago Mr. Engineer fixed our toilet. For the second time. And I didn’t say a word. He watched a video online. Made a trip to the hardware store. And successfully replaced a broken part.
He stepped forward.
I stepped back.
And lo and behold, we both grew up.
What parts of you went underground?
How have they been brought back into Good Time with Grace and Truth?