A few years ago we decided to add some rooms to our too-modest home. There are five of us, and two bedrooms plus a half-finished half-storey upstairs was simply not enough, at least not for five open-space-lovin', elbow-room-needin', feelin'-like-the-Torrances-in-The-Shinin' Americans. We had one bathroom--plus a shower "area" in the basement--and a kitchen that, once the portable dishwasher was wheeled up to the sink, held no room for people; we couldn't even fully open the back door: the oven was in the way. All we needed was a little more room. That's what we said--and to our credit, we knew in our hearts those were famous last words.
This obviously takes us to Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948), in which Cary Grant splutters, stammers, and double-takes his way through what may be my favorite of his non-North-by-Northwest performances, perhaps even better than Bringing Up Baby (1938) or His Girl Friday (1940)--well, again, perhaps. Still, Jim Blandings has become a character I understand. I'm reminded of all those children-in-peril movies I watched after I'd stopped being a child myself but before I'd had some of my own. I was able to observe their troubles, even demises, with cool detachment: "The dingo ate your baby, eh? Tough break." But that all changed after our first in 1988. I couldn't even bear Dumbo's "Baby Mine" lullabye scene. And so it is with Mr. Blandings and his foundation-to-attic stupefactions, which extend even to his personal life, in which, maddened essentially by the sound of constant--and ineffectual--hammering, he suspects his wife (Myrna Loy) of having an affair with his friend/lawyer (Melvyn Douglas--and you may pause a moment to savor the thought of such a cast). I did not go so far as to suspect my wife of dalliances with the laborers, but I will admit that madness has its place in home improvement. And that place is right in your home. I envy those upwardly mobilized types who can actually vacate the premises while the job is in--dare I use the word?--progress. To be right there as the dust billows and the crunching and rending builds--while the builders do not build--as the new bathroom shrinks and the new wall cracks, as kitchen cabinets lie on their sides, drowsing in the slanting rays of yet another afternoon--many months more of afternoons than anyone dared even hint at--encourages a kind of inuring panic, a constant state of anxiety whose greatest danger is that you get used to it. You pass beyond the jitters and become the jitter yourself, resigned to a deep truth made metaphor by one's contractor: that life is process, not product, one dedicated to reducing you to irrational suspicions about things you know nothing about--joists, drywall-taping, circuit boxes--while keeping you equally irrational about The End.
But it does end. Watching the Blandings family, beaten but not bowed, finally take possession, I recognize their final, inevitably irrational--but necessary--turn: They love their house. So do we, ours. It's only been about three years, and already some things are falling apart, but our time with the builders seems a distant event, barely real, while the new kitchen allows us to float around like Food Network chefs and the extra bathroom prevents almost every emergency and the separate bedrooms nudge us toward a separate peace that doesn't passeth all understanding at all: We survived our dream house so that we could live in the one we have.
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