Moving into an old house that needs fixing is a challenge many people aren’t prepared to consider. I’ve heard this repeatedly from people who are both impressed and stunned by our choice.
We’ve just moved into our fifth old house as a married couple. We can see the big yard, friendly quiet neighbourhood, the structure’s amazing character features from 1913, and feel this was a good choice, if an expensive one. We’ve been married almost 25 years, too. We’ve become smart enough, as partners, to hire contractors to help us cope with the things that are far beyond what we can manage to do ourselves. So far, we’ve had fewer arguments this time around.
However, there are moments when I doubt my choices. This house has a lot of broken window panes. In some cases, someone just enclosed the window in a wall, so it sat there for perhaps 50 years, broken or not. When our contractors opened up one of the walls, well, all became clear. It was no wonder that plumbing pipes froze there in a Winnipeg winter – in a dark space with a broken window. Never mind triple-paned argon-filled glass, just closing some of the windows with regular, unbroken glass would have made a world of difference.
My husband took the first few windows to be repaired at a local hardware shop. When these came back, fixed properly and affordably, he carefully fitted them back in where they belonged. Then he watched a This Old House YouTube video to figure out how to get out still more of these broken beauties. Then, he described how he’d need my help to slide out the next large storm window.
I got anxious. This involved broken glass, fragile window frames, standing on a mudroom ledge (while he stood on a ladder outside) and December weather. Also, it involved cooperating with one’s spouse, which can sometimes be stressful, too! Luckily, the Winnipeg December weather was mild, right around freezing. I eased myself onto the ledge, over some stairs, and held onto the window exactly as instructed. I had some serious nerves.
To my surprise, the broken storm window, which had been partially concealed behind drywall for many years, slid right out. There was barely time to admire the buttery paint of the inside window, although we took a second to notice the old-fashioned curtain rod. Someone took the time to drywall in this entire window but left the curtain rod hooks still completely intact. Go figure.
When I climbed down, I was oddly proud. I hadn’t fallen off the ledge, we’d removed the window, and I’d gotten up close and personal with a really old part of my house that was still in good working order. Then I remembered to go wash my hands right away. I’d just been grasping with sweaty hands onto peeling lead paint on the window frames … but I digress.
We all need growth opportunities. Lots of people take on new extreme sports or complicated hobbies. Others learn new languages, develop new relationships or take journeys to new places. Perhaps because of the pandemic, or having younger kids, I have had small expectations of myself. I’m not taking any solo international vacations or racing fancy cars. Even so, I’ve had growth opportunities. Life offers them free of charge, when you least expect it, whether it’s house renovations, new professional or Jewish learning experiences or just wintertime in Manitoba.
I’m also several years into some Jewish learning, doing Daf Yomi, a page of Talmud a day, which takes more than seven years to complete. I’ll be the first to admit that, some days, I breathe a sigh of relief when I find that it is a very short page. (Nedarim-Vows, the current tractate, has a few of these!)
And, I’m experiencing this house renovation, complete with having a major plumbing overhaul done last weekend. This included not having a stack at all for a long afternoon. (The stack lets waste water leave your home. Without a working one, well, nobody flushes the toilet or runs a faucet. It was quite a wait.)
We currently have a completely gutted kitchen and might not have a finished kitchen again for quite awhile. Slow cooker meals and the kitchenette in the first floor powder room require forethought and improvisation. Again, maybe, seen optimistically, these, too, are chances for growth and learning.
Most of my experiences aren’t extreme. I’m not climbing Kilimanjaro, yet it was quite the adrenaline rush just standing on the ledge above the stairs, dealing with the broken window. It’s these moments that help keep us stimulated, challenged, changing and growing as people.
As a kid, I remember how hard it felt leaving for a Jewish summer sleep-away camp. It was exciting and terrifying, all at once. Big milestones in life – major birthdays or, say, hitting 25 years of marriage – can also be seen as colossal events. However, my daily life seems to be full of those moments that some see as inconsequential, until they become teaching moments.
I’m reminded of one squishy deep-snow spring day. I got my car stuck in our back lane parking spot. It was a goopy mess. If my four-wheel-drive SUV got stuck, well, anyone’s could. Alone with my twins, I had to manage to fix it. With their help, I got us out, using all the tricks my dad had taught me long ago, including my floor mats for traction, rocking the car back and forth, and more. My kids and I cheered, sweaty and covered in disgusting slush and completely late for whatever we’d set out to do, but we’d gotten the car out together.
We didn’t climb the highest peak. Far from it. We got ourselves out of a rutted, snowy prairie back lane in springtime. Judaism offers us a whole list of blessings to memorize and recite, and many of them are for small moments. When we eat bread, bless our kids on Shabbat, pray for rain, see a rainbow or just get up in the morning, we have a chance for a blessing. Yet, the moment we pause to reflect on what happened, maybe we realize that those growth moments – going to summer camp, buying and renovating an old house, one window at a time, or teaching kids important winter driving skills – weren’t quite so small after all.
Here’s to growth moments.… May yours in 2023 be meaningful and not too painful!
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.