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Painting the Walls, Removing the Past

May 23, 1999|SANDY BANKS

For a week now, we've been walking on dropcloths, stepping over paint cans, maneuvering around mounds of furniture piled in the middle of every room.

Our home is getting a make-over . . . and it's harder work than I imagined, this house-painting project.

Not back-breaking, because I'm not the one wielding the rollers and brushes, hauling the paint and climbing the ladders.

But heartbreaking, as sentimental signs of our past disappear beneath the fresh paint that's starting to cover our walls.


It was intended to lift our spirits, give us a fresh start, brighten up our humble abode.

So why, when I look at my beautifully rendered "cottage white" walls, do I get an aching feeling in my chest that has nothing to do with the sharp smell of paint or the high cost of home improvement?

Some things, I knew, would be hard to part with . . . like the lines we'd drawn on our bedroom wall charting each child's growth from year to year.

And other things I couldn't wait to lose . . . like the ancient, garish wallpaper that covered our downstairs hall.

But I hadn't counted on the emotional wallop one simple act would deliver--hadn't realized how hard it would be to take down years' worth of my children's artwork, which had covered nearly every wall.

It had been too long since the house was painted. I realized this at the pantry door as I tried to peel off those crackly strips of yellowed cellophane tape that were holding my 14-year-old's artwork in place . . . artwork she made in first grade.

There was a stick-figure self-portrait, drawn when she must have imagined herself a blond; a collage of tiny crepe-paper flowers, with giant leaves and crooked stems; a painting of a house with a little girl and a pony . . . or maybe that's a boy and a dog.

Every spot on the pantry door had been filled with their pictures, poems and school awards . . . not masterpieces, maybe, but the earnest efforts of three young girls.

We wallpapered the kitchen years ago, but the artwork--fading and fingerprint-smudged even then--stayed.

"No need to paint the door," I'd reasoned. Their father--just as tender toward their artistic endeavors--agreed.

But this house painter has no soft spot for my children. His own kids are only 6 and 3; he has not yet faced the artwork brigade, does not yet know how it can pluck your heartstrings, reshape your decorating plans.

I realize how homely our house must have looked to him, with its hodgepodge of art projects taped to the walls of every room.

Where other families have Matisse prints and Degas lithographs, we had construction-paper bunnies, an American flag made of tissue-paper balls, a collage of fish cut from gift-wrap scraps.

How to explain to him my fondness for the parade of hand-drawn dinosaurs marching across the wall near my kitchen ceiling, where he thought crown moldings should be?

How to hold him off while I carefully disassemble my bedroom gallery, where decorated spelling lists and pages from coloring books might just as well be Van Goghs signed by the artist, for all they mean to me:

"To my mom. From your girl. Love, Brittany."

"For the best mom, with XXX and OOO. Alyssa."

"I love you, Mommy. Your friend, Danielle."


They took their places one by one over the years--toted home in backpacks by small, proud children; mounted on the wall by doting parents, who never noticed that their house was being overwhelmed.

And they became part of our interior landscape, unnoticed except by strangers . . . in much the same way the bushes we planted years ago now blend into our frontyard.

I could put them back up, over the clean white paint. But somehow I don't think I will. It's our history from years gone by. These walls are for history yet to be made.

Sandy Banks' column is published on Sundays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is

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