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Extreme Makeover (Self-Improvement Edition)

Home improvement projects are tough enough for someone who doesn’t know what she’s doing. But self-improvement projects are a different story.

Self-improvement helped Karen help Gordon

Gordon worked his crowbar between the base molding and the wall in the upstairs bedroom of our beach house.

He gave it a jerk and the baseboard popped loose. He moved on to the next piece of molding. He was like a machine.

It wasn’t yet 8:00 a.m.—the first morning of a four-day job installing oak laminate floor in two bedrooms and a hallway—and already my husband was sweating. And he seemed to be enjoying it.

I’d just made my way upstairs after downing my second cup of tea. Actually I’d been jarred from my reverie by Gordon hollering for me to bring him the vacuum.

Now I was sitting on the floor, adjusting my knee pads, watching baseboards pile up around the room. Gordon scowled at me. What was that about? He didn’t even need the vacuum yet. And there wasn’t anything for me to do.…

“Take these down to the van so we can haul them to the dump,” he said, thrusting an armload of baseboards at me. Now he’s telling me what to do?
Last year Gordon and a buddy had laid a laminate floor downstairs. But the buddy wasn’t available for this job, so I’d been dumb enough to volunteer.

I gathered up the remaining pieces of wood and headed downstairs. If his buddy were here, Gordon wouldn’t be ordering him around, I stewed.

Had we really been married for 35 years? We are so different!

Gordon is a model of efficiency. He even walks quickly, making me tell him to slow down when I can’t keep up. He leaves before 6:00 a.m. to get to work—an operations manager with the phone company. Even there he gets paid to keep things running. Sometimes when I look into his eyes I see fingers snapping. C’mon, let’s keep it moving.

Me? I’m a writer. I work from home on my own schedule. Sometimes I sit at my desk with my eyes closed and let time drift by, thinking, contemplating, imagining.

Occasionally—like when we were raising our three sons—our differences complemented each other. He’d play with the boys till he tired them out and then I’d read to them. Other times, like this remodeling project, Gordon could seem overbearing. Why did he have to be in such a hurry? And so…industrious?

A few years ago I’d even begun a daily prayer, hoping God might show me a way to bridge our differences. Help me to love, honor and respect Gordon and help us to understand each other. I had the love, honor and respect part down pretty well. Now if we could only figure out the understanding thing.

I went back upstairs, forcing myself to jog the last few steps. Gordon had another job waiting. “Help me roll up the carpet,” he said. I tried. The carpet wouldn’t budge. He pulled a blade from his tool belt and slashed the carpet into two sections, one smaller than the other. I still couldn’t lift it.

Gordon didn’t speak. He picked up the rolls of carpet, one under each arm, and marched downstairs with them, almost triumphantly. I sat on the floor, my back against the wall and my legs stretched out in front of me, giving my knees a rest. I might have let my eyes close for a second because next thing I knew Gordon was standing in the doorway staring at me.

“What?” I said defensively.

“Honey, I know there are things you can’t do,” he said. “But while I’m doing those things, maybe you could look around and find something else to do.”

“I’m doing the best I can,” I snapped. “I’m just not as strong as you.” I was about to let him have it when I noticed his shirt, damp with sweat, his hair matted down. I could hear him catching his breath. He was really working hard. I buttoned my mouth into a frown and swallowed the rest of what I had to say.

Gordon began attacking the carpet tack strips with the crowbar. I got up, pressing the palm of my hand against the subflooring. My hand ground into
a thick layer of…sand! It had sifted down through the carpet over the years.

That’s why Gordon had wanted the vacuum. I preferred a broom and dustpan, and went to the kitchen to get my tools. Soon I was busy sweeping half a beach into a pile. It was quiet, satisfying work, almost contemplative compared to what Gordon was doing. Maybe there was something I could do on my own and even do in my own way. Maybe even enjoy it.

At exactly 11:30 a.m. Gordon said, “Time for lunch.” We made sandwiches and ate them on the deck, the silence broken only by the occasional “Pass the chips.” Gordon seemed lost in thought, like he was calculating something.

I was leisurely crunching on a chip when Gordon said, “Time to start laying the floor.” He picked up two boxes of flooring and started up the stairs. I tried to pick up a box. No way. I followed empty-handed.

Gordon put the boxes on the far end of the room then went down for more. I opened the boxes and tore off the plastic, then sat down and read the directions. Gordon doesn’t always take the time to read directions, or need them. But I’ll read just about anything.

The instructions said to mix boards from several boxes in case there were color differences. That made sense. I started piling planks from alternating boxes on the floor so they’d be within easy reach. Gordon came up with the other boxes, looked at my work and nodded approvingly. I couldn’t help but smile back.

Gordon showed me how the planks had a tongue on one side and groove on the other, how you bent the plank back and clicked it into the channel then pushed it down so it locked in place. We worked together, me holding one end steady and Gordon jiggling the other.

I saw how the planks started out with a big crack separating them, but with some work they were smooth and tight—like they were one. I looked at my husband and suddenly I wanted to kiss his brow.

We fell into a good rhythm and the afternoon sped along. By 7:00 p.m. the front bedroom was about three-fourths done. It looked great. I felt a swell of pride. Gordon fished a limp piece of paper out of his pocket, unfolded it and announced, “I think we can quit for the night. This will put us right on schedule.”

“Schedule?” I said.

Gordon nodded. “I was worried because I’m not as good at this as my buddy. I wasn’t sure I could do it in four days without him. So I made this timetable.”

“Oh,” I said meekly. It never dawned on me he might be working from a plan. I thought it was his mania for efficiency. Gordon raised his arm and wiped sweat from his face, his biceps glistening. He looked good, strong and handsome with his tool belt hung across his hips, like a tall, lean gunslinger.

But there was something else. I recalled how he’d known what to do each step of the way and how much I’d learned from him. I thought about that prayer I said for our marriage. I’d asked to understand my husband.

My prayer had been answered in an unexpected way: a home-improvement project turned into a self-improvement one. I gave Gordon a hug. “Hey, handsome. You’re one strong dude. Where’d you learn to lay flooring like that? I’m impressed.”

Gordon draped his arm around my shoulders and said, “Thanks. I couldn’t have done it without my partner.”

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