Thanksgiving Surprise

Cabinet replacement, Phase I

On the Saturday morning before Thanksgiving, my partner, Mark, and his 12-year-old son left for their annual week with friends on the east coast. “Call me when you get there,” I shouted after them. “And have a wonderful time!”

Most Americans celebrate Thanksgiving with family and friends. For me, Thanksgiving week has become a chance to effect major household transformations without anyone around to object. It’s a somewhat risky habit, as the house belongs to Mark. In fact, he built it himself.

Since we’ve been together, I’ve longed to redo the kitchen. The existing cabinets had been custom made by a respected local shop, and Mark was quite proud of their craftsmanship. No doubt about it—those cabinets were beautifully constructed and finished. But the design? Oh-so generic. Full-overlay doors and drawers, partial-extension drawer slides, cheap contemporary hardware, standard recessed kicks. And while there were lots of cabinets, their design made shockingly inefficient use of the available space. Finding pots and pans required the skills of an amateur spelunker. The shallow storage over the fridge might just as well not have been there, considering its complete uselessness. The actual storage capacity of the 45-degree corner cabinets—upper and base—was far less than the cubic space the pair occupied. We could surely sell the cabinets and counter, which were in excellent shape and would give someone else decades of service.

This year, I would carry out Phase One of the stealth cabinet replacement. I would begin conservatively, removing just a single base and upper at the end of the run, so if Mark was completely against my plan, I could put them back.

To complement the house’s simple farmhouse architecture, I based my design on a cabinet I’d admired in a 1927 millwork catalog. I worked surreptitiously in my spare time over several weeks in the fall. While I was at it, I decided to make a much needed bookcase for the living room and change the living room paint color.

As soon as Mark and his son were safely en route to the airport, I began emptying shelves, removing cabinets, and pulling living room furniture away from the walls. I had planned my week meticulously, as there was much to accomplish.

Day One: Remove kitchen cabinetry. Replace with new cabinet. First coat on living room ceiling and walls. Remove living room baseboard on two walls to make space for built-in bookcase. Move bookcase from shop to house.

Things were going remarkably well on Day One when the phone rang in the late afternoon. “Nancy,” said the voice, “this is Amy, Mark’s sister. Did you remember we’re coming to stay tonight?”

Of course I hadn’t. When they arrived at 10:30 pm, I had beds made and clean towels ready. I apologized for the devastation—the kitchen table, buried under a mountain of dishes, family photographs, and assorted other contents from kitchen and living room cabinets, was anything but welcoming—and shepherded my guests to bed through the maze of displaced books and furniture.

As they drove away the following morning, I imagined one of them must be muttering, “Mark sure knows how to pick ‘em.”

Day Two: Second coat of paint. Attach bookcase, fit bookcase baseboard, top, and decorative trim. Cut living room baseboard to fit and nail in place. Final coat of finish on kitchen cabinet drawers.

Day Three (after work): Final coat of finish on bookcase shelves and kitchen cabinet shelves.

Day Four: Install bookcase shelves. Install kitchen cabinet drawers. Fit kitchen cabinet doors.

Day Four’s agenda also included grocery shopping, cleaning the living room and kitchen, and preparing dinner for a friend who would arrive at 7. In mid-afternoon, I started some brown rice on the stove and got to work marking out mortises on the new cabinet doors. I had sprung for a set of traditional butt hinges, which came with matching slotted-head screws.

With my 29 year-old Workmate set up on the back porch, I chiseled the mortises, screwed on the hinges, and hung the left door. I would fine-tune the fit once I had the other door in place.

Being right-handed, I have always found working on right-hinged doors a challenge. It’s tricky at the best of times to hold a door with your good hand while drilling and inserting screws with the other. On this occasion, the everyday awkwardness was compounded—first, by my position, balanced between a stepladder and counter, and second, by the slotted-head screws, which are finickier to install than phillips-heads, especially when using your “bad” hand. With the top screw part-way into its hole, and steadying the door with my right hand, I laid down the screwdriver and reached for the drill.

The first screw gave way, allowing the door to fall as I watched in horror. The door hit the edge of the stove, then bounced against the handle of the rice pot before clattering to the ground. The pot leapt off the stove, spilling its steaming contents like a turgid, pale-brown lava flow onto the beautifully varnished white oak floor. My first concern was for the door. Would it be broken? There was no way I could complete the Thanksgiving Surprise if I had to make a new one. And then there was the floor. Would it be gouged?

Thankfully, the floor had suffered barely a scratch, and the door was intact, a testament to its mortise and tenon construction. The pot, however, was totaled, and the dog got the rice.

The rest of the week went according to plan. The guys were scheduled to arrive home around midnight on Saturday. By early evening I had the freshly painted living room reassembled, the new bookcase filled, the house thoroughly cleaned, and the new kitchen cabinet stocked with its predecessors’ contents. Now my concern shifted from meeting my self-imposed deadline to the question of how my “improvements” would be received. Be rational, I told myself. On a scale of one to ten, how would you rank your concern that Mark might be seriously angry? It was unsettling to realize that I ranked this possibility as high as six.

Mark is not a control freak, I reminded myself, in an effort to avoid obsessing. Yes, he might be annoyed that I had substantially altered his kitchen and living room without permission. But I had a rejoinder at the ready. “Honey,” I’d protest, quoting a 1925 Hoosier Manufacturing Company ad, “the kitchen is the one room where a woman may have her way without consulting others.” (Never mind that he does most of the cooking.)

In the end, things were fine. He liked the living room color, no doubt relieved to have been spared the task of repainting the room himself. He agreed the bookcase was a good addition. As for the kitchen cupboard, he declared it beautiful, adding, “It makes the other cabinets look kind of stupid.” Music to my ears.

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