Elemental: Paint

Because we have nothing around here if not copious amounts of free time,* after that last post, I started imagining  a series about the elements.  Water, Earth, Air, Fire.**  Why?  God knows.  It seemed like it’d be an interesting exercise, poetic in its elegance, and I’m all about interesting but pointless exercises.

Life, however, had other plans for me, as it often does.  Besides, the elements  that shape the summer around here are more prosaic  ones. Instead of Water, Earth, Air, and Fire, we get things like — Water, Lemonade, Housepaint.

I’ve written about house-painting before.***  Here, and here, and here. Since we moved into this house nine years ago, we’ve  painted a room  a year.  The house was built in 1929; it has lots of rooms; at the rate we’re going, I’ll have not only received the letter AARP  sends   when one turns 50 before we’re done but may also be eligible for Social Security.

When the Girleens were younger, we painted during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve because The Husband and I were both home then and could trade off:  one watching the kids while the other painted.  For the past couple of years, though,  painting our annual room has been a summer ritual.

I can’t think of any better illustration that parents are crazy than this:  handed 72 hours sans children, what do we do?  We paint one of the absent childrens’ bedrooms. Our routine:  the one weekend of the year when both girls are occupied elsewhere, we paint like hell during the day, then knock off for dinner and a movie.  It works for us.  Since the movie this year was Star Trek into Darkness, I actually found the painting part of the weekend more enjoyable.****

Eighteen years of marriage!  The Husband spackles, he takes the roller to the walls.  He covers ground; he gets things done. Over time, my speciality’s become trim, baseboards in particular, from the Step 1 of (light) Scraping to the stressful interim of Oil-based primer, to that final coat of Linen White. Last week, I sat crosslegged on the  floor of Younger Girleen’s room,  expensive Purdy brush in hand, and set my shoulder to my contemplative work.

Years ago, my brother told me about a friend, perfectionist in nature, who bought a house built in the 1910s.  His desire?  To restore it to its former glory.  In service of that goal, he and my brother decided to go in together on some sort of magical paint removing equipment.  Maybe it used UV?  Lasers?  Prayer? Faith? Elbow grease?  The idea was that the two of them would trade off using this piece of equipment on their equally decrepit houses, since no one in their right mind would purchase such a piece of equipment on their own unless he was in the housepainting business.

A couple of years later, once I started examining  the trim in a house built around that same time, I asked him how the magic paint removal machine had worked out.  He didn’t know.  The friend, who got  first crack at using it,   had become a man possessed.  He was going to remove every single flake of paint from every single piece of trim inside every single room inside his house.  He still had possession of the shared piece of equipment; he might never turn it loose.  He may still  have it, today.

When I contemplate the woodwork in our house, I get this.  If I could ask the housepainters of Days of Yore a question, it might be this — was it absolutely necessary to slop on  paint  this way?  Was it really necessary to turn one’s back on drips until they hardened into history?  Was it really necessary to change trim color so often, and to  choose such bilious colors?

The baseboards in Younger Girleen’s bedroom have as many layers to them as geologic time.  I sat crosslegged in front of them.  I wanted the crisp sharp edges back, the lovely look of quarter-round coated only with a single coat of high-end glossy paint.

Not possible, alas.  I made do with the tools at hand, and if you squint, it works.  I’ve given it, I realize, a lick and a promise.  Someday, when we no longer own this house, some hired professional will shake his or her head over the job I’ve done, just as I shake my head over the job done by the painters before me.

But.   The hand that wields the paintbrush has gotten more confident over time.  The line of paint where baseboard meets wall is straighter. The hair I bundle back in a kerchief is as streaked with white hair as it was streaked with white paint the first year I painted a room (I was inexperienced, and messy).  My partner in this enterprise? He has been my comrade in similar exercises for nineteen years.

As we work, we talk.  About the kids, about an article one of us read, about where we started out and where we’ve ended up. We talk, we cover ground, we relax into the quiet, and the process.

* a falsehood, of course.

**Not about Earth, Wind and Fire, because, well, they were before my time.

*** The trackability of this might be this blog’s sole utility.

****  I have aged out of the demographic movies are made for, now that I no longer enjoy the sensation of having things fly in my face for 2+ hours or really enjoy narratives about as complex as watching fire ants pour out of an anthill that has been poked with a stick.


  1. the story about your brother (and i actually remembered you have a brother) reminds me of the time David Gamble & i spent weeks stripping paint off our outside trim with heat guns & noxious chemicals.i’ve never been the same since.

    1. Sitting down to paint baseboards always makes me remember just how many people I knew back in the Old Days who worked as housepainters. That line of work might’ve proved more useful to me in the long run than working in a vintage clothing store did.

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