In Which I Get a New Kitchen and Learn an Old Lesson
After years of research, the kitchen remodel goes almost, but not quite, as planned.
Today my 12-year-old told me he liked our old kitchen better, because it had a peninsula that stuck out into the middle of the room, and he could pretend it was a bar. I’m sure he meant a “Smoothie Bar.”
This is undoubtedly not the last thing I’ll say about my kitchen remodel, since it’s seared into my consciousness like childbirth, or like the time there was a stir-fried caterpillar in my lo mein. Well, somewhere between those two.
I waited seven years (there’s something Biblical about that, isn’t there?) and labored long and hard on the transformation of a nearly nonfunctional 1968 kitchen, with a traffic pattern that resembled a serpentine line at an amusement park ride (with a Smoothie Bar!), into a room that is both functional and attractive enough to appear in a realtor’s calendar. It is true, perhaps, that I didn’t fully appreciate the old kitchen’s Special Features the way my son apparently did, for instance the white, faux brick floor tiles laid in a herringbone pattern which the kids enjoyed peeling up, one by one; the “coppertone” cast iron sink in which I dropped and broke the wedding crystal; and the gargantuan, perpetually buzzing, box fluorescent light that provided a comfortable home for an astounding variety of insect life.
I put careful (read: obsessive) thought into the redesign plan and each individual purchase, from the new stove down to the cabinet knobs. When the cabinet designer told me I couldn’t do something, as in “You can’t have a 36” range in this room, it will look stupid” (he was full of similarly helpful remarks), my response was, “We can make it work.” Because I was less concerned that the kitchen would look stupid than that it would “cook stupid.”
Of course, I expected things to go wrong, like the day I came home to find all the light-switch plates had been installed…crooked…and there was flexible ducting installed for the stove vent (fire! hazard!). And, the stove itself, which turned out to be a lemon…twice. We had to move the island out of the way in order to replace that stove, which weighed over 400 lbs. Did I mention we did this twice?
But finally, after years of planning, and luckily, only a couple months of cooking on a hot plate and hosing off the dishes outside, it was almost done. The last element remaining was the tile backsplash. I had a very specific idea about what I wanted there, once I made up my mind about it, which took only six months, 14 showroom visits, and 2,000 tile samples…and the contractor very patiently holding a gun to my head…at which time I let him move onto his next job and instead hired an independent tile installer… Which may or may not have turned out to be a fateful decision.
For the space directly above the stove, I ordered a piece from an artist who uses local clay and plants to make a one-of-a-kind design. She pressed a Japanese maple branch into the clay, so you could see the imprint of the branch extended over the twelve 4x4 tiles. Because the tiles are handmade, and the color outcome isn’t easily controlled, I had to be comfortable with some variation. We waited six weeks, but the first attempt didn’t fire properly, so we waited another six weeks for the process to be repeated. When the tiles finally arrived from the artist, the installer came over to take a look and discuss layout and grout color. Yes, I used to be able to discuss grout color. I used to know the difference between ivory, vanilla and bone. Thank goodness I’ve core-dumped that knowledge to make room for other important information, like the difference between Grey Goose and Ketel One. For my Adult “Smoothie Bar.”
When the installer came, we unwrapped each tile carefully, and laid them all out on the counter like a puzzle, trying different ways of lining up the irregular, handmade tiles against the simpler tiles that would surround them. And then the installer turned to look at the blank wall, and in doing so, he knocked one of the artist’s tiles to the floor.
It broke in half.
Boy, did he feel bad. But I felt worse. I had two choices: Go back to the artist and ask her to redo the entire design—because variation would make it impossible to replace just one tile—or, live with it the way it was and hope the installer could minimize the crack that would run through this tile in what was essentially the focal point of the room.
I decided to go ahead and install the tile as is. We considered filling the crack with grout, and then decided that would look worse. Every day, I see this crack in its central place in my kitchen. I thought at first that no one else would notice it, but then a friend who was about to start her own remodel came to see mine. The first thing she said? “Hey! Is that a crack??”
On the other hand, most casual visitors don’t notice—or they’re too polite to mention it. I suppose it could be frustrating and annoying, since after all that time and effort and planning, pretty much everything else in the room is exactly the way I wanted it.
But instead it just reminds me of what I already knew: Nothing’s perfect.