Last night after a 12-hour day of learning how to put down flooring then putting down flooring I tacked down some baseboard on a single wall so that I could at least narrow my vision a little and see the end of the project, which has consumed a big chunk of November.
Everyone had to deal with their own lockdown stuff in some way or another. In our family, it took the form of not having a ton of space by the time we’d flipped a few rooms into offices.
My first swing at it involved building a cover for our tiny patio. That gave us a space to spill out onto and opened up the possibility of having guests over. We spent election night in 2020 out under that cover with our intentional family and a propane heater.
My second swing at it was to turn our garage into a movie theater (“the Coviplex”). We could have people over, open the garage door, roll out the propane heaters and have movie nights. Ben’s godmothers agreed to sit through the Marvel movies through Avengers: End Game.
Me: I’m surprised you were up for that. I mean, it’s just, like Extruded Cultural Product.
Kathleen: Well, yeah. It is. It’s still fun.
It’s sort of strange to look at both those projects now. I can remember the energy that went into them, from figuring out how to do things like build a patio cover to coding standards to how to do drywall. One aspect of my ADHD is hyperfocus, and it was on full display. I didn’t think of what I was up to as “a little DIY project,” I thought of it as a sort of folk engineering. I wasn’t interested in simply building a thing, I wanted to build it in such a way that I could also take it down in a day. I spent a lot of hours just watching and rewatching videos and reading tutorials.
Meanwhile, Ben was upstairs being a teenager. He liked the patio cover for sure – it was separate from the other living areas and we all fell into treating it like a shared resource, not a shared space. You could go sit outside and stare up through the cover at the towering pine in the yard nextdoor and listen to birds in silence. But the theater didn’t really land with him. It was a little too shared.
One day he came down and said he just didn’t have enough room. Our house is sort of weird to the extent that, from the curb, it looks like a plain old two-story home. The lot it was built on, however, is closer in size to the slivers you see “tall-and-skinnies” built on … it’s just turned 90 degrees because it is built across the width of a former back yard, not the depth of a subdivided lot. So Ben’s room is sort of shallow and wide. By the time his desk, stereo stand, and bed figured in, he had a tiny patch to stand on.
His take was to figure out some kind of rearrangement, but we talked it through and there wasn’t much to do with it. It was sort of like a sliding-square puzzle. In the end, there was only so much square footage and not a lot to optimize with.
So I mentioned the idea of a loft. He didn’t like it at first: He’d had a skinny Ikea one when he was much younger and it didn’t add a lot of utility. So I showed him pictures of the kinds of lofts that turn up in dorms, where you get a full bed, better floorspace, and construction meant for an adult body. We back-and-forthed on some general design ideas, and I finally found one that he liked.
It felt good to do the project: I’d learned a lot about basic household carpentry over the previous year building the other two projects, and felt comfortable taking a basic plan and improvising on it to suit his space. One design thing that was important to me was to make it feel utterly solid, so I built it to fit exactly so, and bolted it in so that when he climbed the stairs or leaned against a post, it simply did not move.
That gave him more space, and also subdivided the room so that he had a place to hang out and watch t.v. or play with his Switch, and his desk area. It was pretty comforting to sit down in the living room or in the garage movie theater and hear him playing music and dancing because he had room.
But the thing about all of this is that it was a holding action. He still couldn’t see his friends. We’d ultimately only reclaimed about 24 square feet. My half of a 2-up army barracks room had felt more spacious. The context was still out there.
So it made some sense when Ben decided he was ready to move out after high school. The actual chain of events was a little abrupt, but I remember that same restlessness and readiness to move, and in my case it wasn’t informed by two years of relative lockdown.
One thing that didn’t work for me, as a teenager, was that my parents actually moved out of state just after I graduated from high school. I stayed back for the summer so I could earn some money before starting college. The first time I spent the night “at home” after going to college, it was as a guest in my parents' home – my brother and sister had rooms, but I didn’t have a room there. It was profoundly dislocating.
Ben told us he felt like he’d outgrown the loft, and that in some ways it was a reminder of things that were hard for him. I completely got that, and my first impulse was to simply remove it and just somehow reclaim the space … he was moving out, after all. But I remembered that feeling of sleeping in a guest room in my parents' house, so I asked him what he’d like: Did he still want to have a room of his own in our home, even if he was moving out? What should it look like? Could I take the loft out? I asked about everything, because wherever we are and whatever house we’re living in, wherever he spends most of his time and however much time he spends in our house, we are some kind of home.
I did ask him to clean the room out and pack as much as possible of what he wasn’t taking with him. He made an effort, but was more focused on moving on to his adventure. We spent October aware that his room needed some work to get it into a place where we could even work on it. The loft needed to come out, things he’d left behind needed to be packed. The loft had created its own share of issues to be addressed. In October I was also trying to wind down a job in one of those situations where I felt more responsibility to individuals than I did the organization, so the month was spent pointedly not going in that room or thinking too much about taking the loft down. I was worried I’d biased in favor of sturdiness and solidity over deconstructability. I gritted my teeth and stuck to my plan to have the room ready by Thanksgiving, but not starting until November 1st.
The loft teardown went pretty well in the end. I’d expected I’d need a second set of hands and was braced to get a few bumps on the head and some muscle strain. As it was, it took a few hours on a Saturday afternoon on my own. No bumps on the head. There were a few stripped screws, but easy enough to drill them out.
Over the past several weeks, as I’ve worked away, I’ve sent Ben little teaser photos: The loft in the process of being disassembled, the room stripped of carpet and molding, the first coat of paint, the first test run of flooring. Each time it’s a little bittersweet and a little tentative. Part of stepping back and letting him leave the nest meant putting ourselves on a budget for his time and attention. I love texting in a way I never did before because we can have small moments of connection without the weight of letters or phone calls.
The deconstruction photos weren’t great for him. A partially deconstructed loft looks a lot like a partially constructed one. I don’t think he liked the reminder of the periods where I was absorbed with making space. Like I said, it was a good thing to do, but it wasn’t happening for a good reason. The context cannot be set completely aside.
He has warmed up as things have progressed, and it felt good when the implicit finally became explicit after I sent him a picture of the room stripped to the plywood floor:
“I actually really love this because it is scrubbing away the the past in the most literal sense.”