Even I had to laugh when the smoke alarm went off. I was crouched to the ground of the hallway outside the kids’ rooms gently smashing hamburgers against the twin heated serrated panels of a hand-me-down George Foreman grill. My knee tendons were ready to burst through the skin, my feet cramped from the weight of my contorted body, yet I was determined to serve something resembling a home-cooked meal to my family – even if none of us could get too excited about the results. While I tried to figure out how you tell when the meat is cooked through while it’s hidden from view in the opaque appliance, meanwhile jostling the paper plates and plastic utensils that we’d be using in lieu of serviceware that doesn’t flop over under weight, I heard the insistent high-pitched EHHH EHHH EHHH of the hardwired alarm – and then the urgent ringing of the telephone, which of course was the security company checking in on us.
I chuckled, but I was faking. I was on Day Four of a major home renovation that included ripping out the kitchen, and I was – choose your cliché: at wit’s end, coming apart at the seams, unglued. I was so tense that neither wine nor Ativan made a difference. I ordered yoga DVDs and tried bizarre “positions” with names like downward dog paired with breathing exercises. I was so tense that it physically hurt to live in my body.
Objectively, I overreacted. People have real problems: long-term unemployment, sick children, life-threatening illnesses, no home at all. If I were unlucky enough to be among that population, surely a kitchen renovation wouldn’t faze me a bit.
But I’m happy and healthy in general, and aware that I’m lucky to be getting a new kitchen with wood floors in other rooms of my lovely home. As you learn in therapy, though, you feel what you feel.
Why was I – and why am I now, as I embark on Week 3 – such a horrific mess? Some of the reasons are obvious: My house is torn to pieces, with the kitchen completely empty, the living and dining rooms unusable and the family room furniture squished to one end. Crews of large men stomp into my house five days a week and treat it harshly – tearing out sinks, removing tiles with roaring vibrating machines, blowing drywall dust into the air.
It’s the missing kitchen that’s getting to me. I don’t cook every day, and I often prepare simple meals when I do turn on the stove or oven. I enter the kitchen several times over the course of my waking hours, though. I put ultra-filtered sink water into a teapot, place it on the stove, reach up for a mug, step left for a teabag, and five minutes later have a piping hot cup of English Breakfast. I grab a slice of hearty whole grain bread self-baked in my bread machine, add on a slice or two of Muenster, stick it in the toaster oven and have a decent breakfast. I pluck an apple from the three-tiered produce holder that has long stood conveniently in the center of my island, or maybe a banana from the banana tree that has for 14 years held a few bright yellow Chiquitas at the far right end of the counter.
Now my home has no heart. To make my morning tea, I have to dig out one of the two mugs that are not packed away; they’re usually on the sink of the guest bathroom, where I rinsed them out. I fill one with bathroom water, dig out a teabag from my stuffed office-turned-pantry, then kneel on the floor of the day, depending on where the day’s construction allows my microwave oven to reside, to heat the brew to lukewarm with the press of a button labeled “beverage.” I won’t bother you with the unappetizing details of solid food.
They say the kitchen is the heart of the home. Back in the days when I wrote parenting articles, a therapist told me that all children should have access to a toy kitchen at home. Since that room is such a central part of their world, toy versions are often where they work out their emotional issues.
Maybe a fake kitchen would do it for me at this point. I could pull up a bridge chair and read the morning newspaper while I drink my unsatisfying tea and try to swallow some pieced-together semblance of a meal.
My ordeal will end in another two weeks, but the lesson learned will stick with me. The kitchen is, to me, an essential part of my everyday world, more than I could have imagined. Take my patio, haul away my car, burn my – I was going to say my bedroom, but that’s taking the idea too far. But never again do I want to go a month without all my food and cooking and serving gear in one intimate room. Apparently that simple arrangement – refrigerator, stove, oven, counters, pantry, plates, utensils – is the foundation of what I consider home. That, my husband, and my kids.
Maybe I’ll set up a cot in there when the work is done. I may not want to leave for awhile.