Survivors of home renovations love to share war stories. Standing around the grill at neighborhood barbecues, they tell harrowing tales of contractors who disappear for months midway through a job. They one-up each other with accounts of disastrous construction mishaps. The final costs of their projects are always more than they expected — “figure on double,” they always say to the brave soul considering such an undertaking.
Rachel Simon could easily hold her own among these veterans. Her just-released book, “Building a Home With My Husband: A Journey Through the Renovation of Love,” details the process — some of it horrific — of turning the Wilmington row house she shares with her architect husband (“the husbitect,” she calls him) into a comfortable, light-filled, sustainable home. But the book, from which Simon will read on Monday, June 15, at Barnes & Noble in Princeton Marketfair, is as much about a renovation of the spirit as a rebuilding of walls and opening up of rooms. As Simon tells it, the project changed her life. Tearing down walls and clearing out cartons of mementos forced her, a sentimentalist from a troubled family, to come to grips with unresolved relationships while at the same time clarifying her purpose in life.
This is the same Rachel Simon who wrote “Riding the Bus With My Sister,” an account of her journeys with her developmentally disabled sister. The book became a national bestseller and a Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie starring Andie MacDowell and Rosie O’Donnell (U.S. 1 April 27, 2005). Longtime Barnes & Noble patrons may remember Simon from her years as the community relations manager for the store, from 1995 to 1998. The store figures prominently in “Building a Home With My Husband,” and it is no accident that her old stomping ground is her first stop on the promotional tour.
“That was the site of my healing when my husband and I broke up for six years (before their marriage), she says. “I was very ambitious and often ran three events in one night. It was great. Some people would come every night as sort of their place of solace. They would talk to me, and it helped me feel my own life had meaning.”
It is that search for purpose that forms a running theme throughout the book. By the end of the drawn out process, Simon has not only found her true home. She has discovered what she was meant to do: Listen to others and tell their stories.
“I am still the same person I was, but I am no longer as concerned about figuring out a single great purpose for my life,” she writes at the end of the book. “But that’s not because I got distracted by the renovation. It’s because my life, I now understand, finds its purpose day by day: as I sing songs with friends, talk with movers, care for my sisters, wave to my neighbors, share moments with strangers, struggle with my mother, comfort my husband, listen to builders, laugh with my father, remember those I’ll never know who shared my house, stand in the glow of lighthouses with kindred spirits who are renovating their own lives — and learn, sometimes belatedly, sometimes immediately, stories about them all. I know this is not as grandiose as running a country or finding a cure for cancer. But it’s still a purpose. It’s a love of others, and doing all I can to feel that we are not, in our deepest selves, alone.”
Finally marrying after their 19-year, on-again-off-again courtship, Simon and her husband, Hal, set up housekeeping in his bare-bones, tiny Wilmington row house. The house is historic and had a certain charm, but Simon wasn’t sure it was worth renovating. Hal’s love for the house and enthusiasm at the prospect of designing his own project won her over.
Almost immediately, the project became an emotional journey for Simon. Unhappy childhood memories began to surface as she began to get rid of some treasured possessions in preparation for the renovation. Simon’s father, a teacher, and her mother, a teacher and librarian, had divorced when she and her siblings were young. Her mother’s resulting depression took a huge toll on her children.
“I had these periods of grief during the process,” Simon recalls in a phone interview from the airy study Hal created for her. “The packing and demolition certainly brought up grief. I ended up speaking to a therapist who actually specializes in renovation. She’s fabulous. She originally came to it from being a grief counselor and had experience with disabilities, and that ties in with my life. What she said was that this process is intense for everyone. What else in life is like it? It goes on and on, there are all these different phases, you’re going at it with another person. The only thing we could come up with that compares is pregnancy. That’s different of course, and stands in a unique category. But people don’t acknowledge how intense this is.”
At first, Simon tried to keep her emotional turmoil under wraps. “I kept feeling like a freak,” she says. “This is my husband’s business. He doesn’t go through this. And people I know who have done renovations, what little they would say would amount to the kind of things you would expect — disputes over the faucet features or the money hassles. But I also knew from my husband that disasters can occur. So I knew that was a possibility. I was extremely apprehensive but I thought it would be about money and disaster and keeping the relationship together.”
While writing about her experiences was nothing new to Simon, she did not entertain the thought of turning the renovation saga into a book until an encounter with a friend. “I had just finished the packing, almost,” she says. “A friend who was in the foreign service came to Washington, and I took the train down to meet him for lunch. Sitting on the train, I thought, what can I write? Let’s just try some fiction. But what I ended up writing was the chapter that is about packing up. It was kind of shocking, the way it came out in these two separate threads: The outer world of the packing and the inner world of what it was doing to me, the idea of lost friendships. I got to the last line of what I thought was a stand-alone essay as the train pulled into Union Station.”
Simon read the essay to her friend. He burst into tears. She began to think that maybe she was onto something. “A day or two later, we did the (temporary) move from the house into the rental house. The whole moving day experience, people also don’t write about. It’s huge. You’re waiting for things to happen. My friend said, ‘Why don’t you just start writing about the renovation as it goes along?’”
What became the book is meticulously constructed and, Simon says, pared down. “I’m very selective of what I say. It’s a book and I’ve crafted it. It’s not like a blog.” To Simon, the internal story is the real story of the process. “I articulated to myself how much in my life I had gone through, broken relationships and what I had done or could do to repair them,” she says. “I realized that I had been acquiring a box of tools throughout my life and I was looking in the box and seeing this is what I need, remembering how to use them.”
Spending time with the contractor and others involved in the project, Simon talked to them about how much time they spent watching people go through emotional turmoil as the result of a project. “I saw all these metaphors to relationships, and I started realizing that the language we use to talk about relationships is construction language — ‘building up a wall,’ or ‘we’re wired differently’ — it’s all there in the language.”
Simon and her husband experienced the usual delays and frustrations as the project began. Finding a contractor, getting zoning approval, agreeing on a price — these were the expected stumbling blocks. What the couple was not prepared for was a major disaster that I won’t give away here, one that would rival any renovation war story. Hal, her Rock of Gibraltar, finally lost his cool.
‘Tensions really started between us because he was so worn down by the whole thing by then,” Simon says. “He had a full-time job the same time he was running this job. We totally blew up at each other. But because of that, I actually came to this really wonderful new understanding of commitment and love. Even though it was awful, it ended up as something I’ll take through the rest of my life.”
After what seemed like endless roadblocks, the house was finally made livable again and the couple moved back in. “This is a tiny little row house. It’s not a House Beautiful cover,” Simon says. “But it’s just right for us. It looks nicer. There is a lot of green, a lot of sustainability. It’s good on the budget and the conscience. Because of the demolition, there is more light. There are fewer rooms, but it’s more spacious. The project opened up the house and personalized it for us.”
Many people presume that the success of “Riding the Bus with My Sister” made Simon rich. She laughs. “Ha! There are so many misconceptions about everything in life, and one is that a movie being made out of your book makes you rich. This was not a Hollywood feature film, it was a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie. After the government took its cut and everything else, I made what a bus driver makes in a year and a half. We had to take out a home equity loan to do the project. Hal still drives his Prius and I have my ’95 Tercel.”
Simon has advice for people embarking on a renovation project. “If one person takes charge and the other kind of moves into the background, that’s good,” she says. “Hal’s the expert and I deferred to that. But he also would listen to me. Listening and respecting each other are the most important things. Nothing is worth the anger. And enter it like any major life transition. Expect some serious stuff. You’re going to leave a part of your life behind and have feelings and go through the process of acquiring. Expect it to be emotional, but you don’t need to take it out on each other.”
What really helped in Simon’s case is that Hal, the husbitect, was prepared for many of the potential pitfalls. “He knew stuff happens,” she says. “He would talk me off the anger ledge.”
Author Event, Barnes & Noble, MarketFair, West Windsor. Monday, June 15, noon. Rachel Simon, author of “Building a Home with My Husband: A Journey Through the Renovation of Love.” 609-716-1570 or www.bn.com.