In Tennessee, surrounded by the Great Smoky Mountains and old friends, I could walk my daughters to school. I rarely locked my doors. My monthly mortgage payment was under $900. It didn't concern me that there was no good sushi or that you heard "Rocky Top" roughly a dozen times a week. Knoxville felt like home.
Upstate New York felt like Jupiter. Cold, remote, and full of people who eyed me with misgiving when I smiled at them at the gas station. It wasn't that they were unfriendly, per se. Just socially economical. More often than not it was freezing outside. Body heat was not to be wasted on frivolous fraternization. It didn't help that I was a stranger in town, a suspected "citiot"—the local term for folks who escaped the city after making their dirty fortunes and proceeded to muck up the upstate arcadia by raising property values beyond what locals could afford and demanding organic arugula at the neighborhood deli. When I took pains to explain that I was not a citiot at all but a transplanted Southerner, the remoteness turned into disdain.
"You ever had a real winter?"
"Well, you will now."
No wonder I began spending more and more time inside my farmhouse.
It was on one of those many long, gray days that I decided if I was to be stuck in my field of nightmares—I could not leave the state with my daughters until my separation agreement was finalized, a process that in New York takes about as long as evolution—I was going to make the place spectacular. I would install a bathroom with a vintage claw-foot tub large enough for my 5'10" frame and a stand-up shower lined with subway tile. I would replace the decaying kitchen countertops with brilliant marble. I would regrade the creek bed so it flowed with an ear-pleasing trickle. I would chuck out every leaky toilet. I would hang chair rail. I would revamp every inch of the house and land, decorating it in my style, and in the end, force myself to fall in love.
Living in the house of divorce is never easy. With any divorce, even one years overdue, there's a hollowness that follows, an unbidden emotional accounting that occurs. Here's the couch where he told me he never liked my sister. Here's the toothbrush he used to leave on the sink. Here's the kitchen where he baked me the best bread I've ever tasted. Here's the bed where we tried to bury our emotional problems in a tide of physicality. I was tired of living in the museum of my marital failure. The goal was simple. I intended to rip out everything tired and broken and replace it with something pretty that worked.
I started with paint. Tasteful neutrals were covered by lemon yellows and enamelware blues and pinks. Lots of pink. On the guest tub. On the girls' floor. In the formerly beige master bedroom.
"Aren't you worried that you'll never get another date?" my friend Connie warned of the Mee-Maw makeover. "Your house is starting to look like a B&B. An AARP B&B."
I was too busy sewing chenille pillow covers to answer her.