Tuesday, May 15, 2007

This Old House

I've sometimes wondered how some families manage to keep everything together. They homeschool their children, run a family business, manage all the intricacies of modern life, and then they show up at all the homeschooling conferences looking like they have everything together. I'm sure you've seen them, they're the ones who have the booths at the shows with a bazillion books or other things for sale, their little cherubs are happily running the cash register, keeping the shelves full, or answering questions. I'm not condemning this in any way, in fact I'm in favor of it, I just wonder how they do it.

I've also thought that it would be cool to do this in my own family. Our family support comes primarily from my working outside the home, but, wouldn't it be great if I could bring that home and involve the rest of the family? Unfortunately, the field of electrical engineering doesn't lend itself very well to that sort of thing, so the family involvement would have to come from some other area.

We found that area a several months ago, in the form of a tired, 100-year-old house that was badly in need of some serious renovations. We decided to take this on as a family remodeling project. The boys are at the age where they can contribute to the project and it would provide a great opportunity for some life-skills learning.

We were grateful for the warmer weather in early January, because the place had no heat. The day after the heat was turned on, the weather turned decidedly colder. But now we could do interior work in relative warmth. We didn't have to protect the paint from freezing, and didn't have our heavy overcoats interfering with our motion.

Over the last several months, we have been spending several evenings a week, along with many Saturdays, working at this house. One of the first major tasks was patching and painting. Nearly everything needed painting, either because the existing paint was badly applied or because it was a weird color. None of us particularly enjoys painting, and David tends to wear a lot of it, but it's a task that needs to be done. This is one life-skill that the boys have had plenty of experience in, and they are always happy to move on to something else.

That "something else" has been a variety of tasks, including installing flooring, fixing plumbing, installing trim, changing light fixtures, refinishing hardwood floors, and a host of other things typical for an old house. It's been quite a challenge for me to keep four people busy doing productive tasks. Many times there's some training that goes along with it, and there are the invariable questions or problems that need to be addressed. These problems show up in a variety of ways, including a child standing beside me holding a broken section of pipe saying, "What do I do now?". Sometimes I just want to tell them, "Don't ask me, I'm making this all up as I go!" I have a new appreciation for a contractor trying to keep a crew busy.

Old houses tend to have a few surprises in store, and this one was no exception. One of those surprises showed up when we replaced a floor. After tearing up the old floor, including the subfloor, the boys discovered a trap door which led into a closet downstairs. They thought this was great fun; they could drop into the closet on the lower floor without using the stairs. We spent a while speculating on why there was a trap door buried under the floor.

Other surprises were not so benign. After sledge-hammering a hole in the basement floor to investigate a water leak, we discovered that the main water pipe into the house was made of lead, and needed to be replaced. Now instead of fixing a small section of pipe, we will be coordinating with the city with their lead abatement initiative and having part of the yard and the street torn up to replace the pipe. Maybe we'll get the water turned back on by next Christmas.

Surprises aside, it's been an overall positive experience. It has been encouraging to see the growth in the boys, from having to lead them through a task step by step, to just telling them to do a particular task, and having them come back a while later saying, "It's done." It's been a stretch for me as well.

We figured when this is all over that we will have a clothing-burning party. We'll throw all the paint-saturated work clothing we have been using into a bonfire and roast marshmallows. And then it's on to the next project.

You'll just have to stay tuned for that one.

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