Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Prologue: Kitchen Bitchin'

My kitchen’s seen better days—about 8,500 of them. Every day is worse than the last, even with the newish refrigerator.

Of 204 12-inch floor tiles, at least two dozen are cracked, chipped, or otherwise broken. A few sharp edges stick up. The teal laminate on the countertop, fabricated and installed by a friend as an early wedding gift in 1993, has pulled up from the plywood beneath it; it’s stained and discolored from years of draining dishes on a dish towel. (The dishtowels look even lovelier.) The porcelain Kohler sink, which cracked down to the iron about 15 years ago when a hot pot was placed in it, is rusted around the edge, and the faucet, repaired in June as a short-term solution, has been dripping steadily into the cabinet below it since October. (An old pot does its best to catch the water, and what it misses, a cookie sheet does its best to catch; the result is a rotting, water-stained base cabinet and some clumped Clorox.) The door to that cabinet has fallen off for the last time and sits by the trash can. The thin molding around the glass cabinets has been hammered back over the years to keep the glass from falling out; that repair lasts less long each time.

The stove, which was not new when we brought it here from our last house in 1993, came from Montgomery Ward, a department store that closed its doors for the last time in 2001. It was a good stove when we bought it. Now, the burners don’t light half the time, the grates and other metal pieces are rusty, the caps have fallen out of the handles (leaving sharp edges to catch on your clothing or skin), and, most important, cakes take longer to bake, banana bread is mushy inside, and my cookies puff up. The oven light hasn't worked in five years; the lightbulb is dangling from an inside corner of the oven. Just dangling. And even if it worked, you couldn't see in from all the grease on the window. (When the light did work, I used to scrape the glass with a razor blade.)

A year and a half ago, the dishwasher became irreparably broken. It’s a KitchenAid Custom by Hobart. Whirlpool bought out Hobart in 1986, which makes this no younger than 30 years old. (I think there’s year-old water in the bottom, but I’m afraid to look.) The microwave, from the ‘90s, makes plates scalding hot while keeping food frigid.

The furniture, nice hand-me-downs from my mom, hasn’t fared better. The kitchen chairs have lost their feet padding and scrape loudly across the tile. The screeching noise makes everyone’s nipples hard for 10 seconds. The artisan-etched glass tabletop sits on a small base of carved dolphins. It’s lovely, but if you lean on the table, the glass pops up.

The light over the sink hasn’t worked in a decade. One light in the track lighting needs to be nudged back on every day. The dimmer switch for the track worked for about a month. The ceiling fan is fine, if dirty, though you only notice that in the winter, when it's still.

I forgot to mention the paint above the back door, which has bubbled and peeled to the bare plaster. The door’s teal paint has been scratched white by anxious dog claws. When did we paint this room? Was it 2004?

It’s clear to everyone who visits what has been dubbed “the Miller Kitchen” for its mini-Sunday morning concerts posted to Facebook that we need a new kitchen. Yet not everyone in my house is on board with it. My husband would like to simply repair and replace a few things: the sink, the faucet, the broken floor tiles, the light over the sink. He suggests we put new doors on the 23-year-old Ikea particle board cabinets. We don't need a light on the stove, and we never use the dishwasher; it can just sit there. We could paint.

A new kitchen, he says, is “obscene.” By way of comparison, he says there’s a homeless family living under a tarp at the park. 

I get it. We're liberals. Extravagance isn't what we're about. And it's hard to see others suffer, regardless of why. But a new kitchen isn't a luxury—unless you are a person who can be perfectly happy with bookshelves made of plywood and cinder blocks. That's Marty.

In the early stages, I took him to a cabinet store. I showed him every cabinet and countertop I liked, but he didn't care; he spent the hour talking politics with the salesman, who completely ignored me, even when I had questions or needed assistance.

So I have mostly begun this renovation process alone. I shopped for floors and cabinets and interviewed contractors and electricians and plumbers. I met with the designers, selected a layout, and chose all the appliances and fixtures and hardware alone. And I did most of the prep work myself, too: I emptied all of the cabinets and drawers myself, throwing out the broken duplicates of junk, discarding ripped, coffee-browned dish towels, trashing foods with expiration dates from a previous decade, packing up old dishes and silverware for Goodwill, creating a space in the dining room to make coffee and heat up foods and spread condiments on sandwiches, all to the dismay of my family members, who want to know where the such-and-such is and how they will be able to feed themselves amid such chaos. Some of it is in jest, but it's a bitter jest.

I worry that his not being behind this renovation means he gets to complain in perpetuity about the choices I’ve made: the stove, for instance, which will not have a broiler because stoves don’t have those anymore, and that's my fault, because if we had just kept the 30-year-old relic with the dangling bulb.... Does it matter that I’ve selected a stove with a double oven, thinking of our needs as a family and my husband's needs as a broiler? I’ve met my own needs, too, choosing a slide-in stove so that we can avoid the drips down the sides, where our mouse becomes well fed. But the stove is yet another obscenity: $2,100.

My family will be able to complain about the new silverware, with raised dots that will irritate their fingers. What was wrong with the other stuff, gotten for free for spending money at the grocery store?

If the refrigerator experience is any indication, I'll be hearing about my by bad choices for a lifetime, especially since this will likely be my last kitchen remodel.

When we bought the fridge, I thought it would be more energy efficient to get the new kind, with the freezer on the bottom. Plus, I'd had back surgery, and always having to bend over to get fruit and vegetables was a hassle. Who uses the freezer that much?  My husband calls that a cadaver drawer. And true: it’s a heavy, unwieldy thing that has barely enough room for our Costco hauls of meat. But the only fridge that wasn’t like this or side-by-side was one $800 white refrigerator with a top freezer at the scratch-and-dent shop. I exaggerate, he tells me. 

They will be able to complain about the new chairs, whichever ones I get, because, although every chair that comes in the house is uncomfortable, the last one is always sorely missed for its superior cushioning or back support. The latest set, which came here under Marty's extreme protest and never quite fit under the table, are now beloved, though they were awful compared to the keyhole-back chairs.

The stainless sink, which promises not to break the glasses that tumble over occasionally, will be inferior to the rusty one. I can tell already that the faucet will be too tall and will splash water. The paint will be an ugly color, too dark, too light, too blue, too green (pick any two). The light fixtures will be silly, the bulbs too bright or not bright enough. The floor won’t be as easy to sweep as tile. The kitchen won't be as acoustically pleasing. The kitchen drawers will be configured poorly, will be less roomy, too deep, too shallow. We won't be able to put things exactly where they were. 

But the appliances and furniture and cabinets and flooring and paint color and fixtures will not be the problem at all. They’ll be gleaming and clean and glorious. The hallelujah chorus will sing to us from the kitchen even as we sleep above it. The tinkling of fairy dust will accompany our footfalls. Our royal hineys will feel pampered in the new throne-like seats. The kitchen will still allow us to sing, and the songs themselves might be just a little bit happier. The singer will be. 

The real problem is change. And I can understand that. I live with two people who dislike change of any kind, and I am always moving their cheese.

This kitchen renovation project will be the biggest cheese we have ever moved. How will I keep it from stinking? For the next six weeks, while the refrigerator is in the dining room and there’s a hole where the sink once was and the boxes are piled six high with plates and silverware and cookbooks and dish towels and the coffee maker is in the dining room beside the microwave and toaster and a cutting board and we are using disposables, how will I block out the grunts of inconvenience, which are sure to lead to a perpetual dissatisfaction with every kitchen decision, including how much salt was added to the split pea soup?

With that, I lug the last of the boxes—the one with the baking powder and rice flour—to the basement, the sting of eye daggers pricking my shoulders as I descend the stairs.


  1. "The screeching noise makes everyone’s nipples hard for 10 seconds" I think is my favorite line.

    Kitchen remodeling hell. I remember living through it as a teen. Ughhhh. But I loved picnics in the dusty living room, and the kitchen turned out great - daddy built all the furniture, and we got a brand new rollaway dishwasher with a "cutting board" top.
    I'll not worry about you as long as you keep writing like this.