A couple of weeks ago, I had one of the single most rewarding days of my life: More satisfying than even when I decided there was just no point in ever again frying a grilled cheese sandwich in anything but butter.
Here’s what I did: I brought 58 cans of paint from the dirt floor in my basement here in Lincoln, Vermont to the hazardous waste bay of the transfer station in Middlebury. Yup, 58 cans. Most were gallons. The vast majority had a two or three-inch block of solid paint at the bottom, though in some cases the block wasn’t in the can at all: The cans were so badly rusted that when I picked them up by the handles, they lifted like empty cylinders, leaving the metal bottom and a two or three-inch disk of rock-hard paint on the floor.
This was satisfying on a variety of levels. First, it was a cardiovascular workout: I went and up down the basement stairs 29 times. Second, I was increasing the value of my house by transforming my basement from a superfund cleanup site – imagine the Love Canal, but less picturesque – into a merely claustrophobic and moldy playground for my family’s six cats. Third, I had freed up a lot of space. Make no mistake: 58 rusting, decaying, and completely worthless cans of paint have the same footprint as an SUV. Finally, it was among the least expensive home improvement projects on which I have ever embarked: The cost of disposing of 58 scary cans of paint? Three bucks and change. Not kidding.
But here is what interested me most: This two-and-a-half hour chore (counting my time in the car) was an archeological dig into the quarter-century or so my family has lived in Vermont. Each can was a memory of a moment in our lives in this house and what a bedroom or clapboards might once have looked like. There was the Barbie pink we painted the bathroom outside our daughter’s bedroom, when she was a little girl and viewed Barbie as the ultimate arbiter of good taste. There were the four different shades of exterior yellow that once graced four different exterior walls of our house. (Yes, it took us a few years before we managed to have all four sides matching.) There was the cerulean blue that we used to paint the ceiling of the screened porch, and, of course, there was a veritable color wheel of oranges and reds and creams and denims and ebb tides and toast.
I could recall a moment from almost each weekend over the years when my wife and I might have been first opening one of those cans: There we are painting the bedroom that would become our daughter’s nursery. (Our daughter is now a 19-year-old sophomore at NYU.) There I am painting the rec room that had once been an unheated, unfinished shell on the second floor. There is my wife in a paint-splattered blue jean work shirt, a roller in her hand, as she works in the living room; there she is in the den, meticulously finishing the trim with a slim brush in her fingers. And, of course, I found the cans with the last of the paint from a variety of different incarnations of the kitchen.
We were both younger then. It takes a good, long while for a family of three to smear enough paint inside and outside a house to amass 58 cans in the basement. I don’t know how many cans that means we finished over the years and disposed of long ago, but it must be at least three or four times that many. (Note to self: Buy stock in Sherwin-Williams.)
The truth is, as rewarding as the chore was, it also left me a little wistful. Watching paint dry is, according to the sarcastic among us, not an especially interesting way to pass the time. But the dried paint in all of those tins? It reminded me of just how much time has really passed.
(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on February 24, 2013. The paperback of Chris’s novel, “The Sandcastle Girls,” arrives on April 15.)