How My House Became My Enemy: A Divorced Woman’s Cautionary Tale

I’m not exactly “handy” around the house. In fact, I’m the opposite of handy (“awkward,” according to the thesaurus).

So, because my husband actually seemed to enjoy the chores and responsibilities that come with home ownership, I was happy to let him handle it all. I now realize this was neither fair nor wise, but since he never complained, I didn’t make waves. I had a good thing going. Then one day, 17 years after we traded life in the Big Apple for the suburban world of little league and carpools, he left.

I found myself alone in a 3-bedroom house in suburban New Jersey, surrounded by the artifacts of 30 years of a family’s life. No surprise: I was ill-equipped to cope. Who would have guessed that my beloved, charming old house would turn against me so viciously?

Here are a few of the factors that caused my “home sweet home” to morph into my arch enemy:

  • The Lawn. I had never mowed a lawn in my life. After my husband left, I dealt with the lawn by simply ignoring it. (I had other things to tend, like my broken heart). Then one day, I noticed the stark contrast between my front lawn (which sent the message, “A crazy recluse lives here”) and the perfectly manicured lawns lining both sides of my well-kept, suburban street. I reached out to my neighbor, Julie. Would her son like to make a few bucks mowing my lawn? Sure thing. Then, one day, in an out-of-character DIY moment, I asked Julie if she would teach me how to use the lawn mower. She patiently showed me how to fill the mower with gas (eew, I had to touch gasoline?!), how to start it up, and how to empty the clippings bag. I was pretty intimidated, but I followed her expert instructions. By the time I was done, I felt like I’d spent 3 hours on the stair master. But I did it. I took a picture of my handiwork and proudly texted it to my son, who was probably as shocked as he was impressed. (Then I had a margarita). You wouldn’t think mowing the lawn would lead to such a feeling of empowerment, but it did! Baby steps, baby steps.
  • The Water Valve in the Garage. I decided to water the flowers. Easy, right? I had actually done this before (OK, not recently). I headed into the garage to turn on the water. I couldn’t get the valve to turn, so I gamely ventured down to the basement in search of some kind of tool to help. It took a while, but I located the tool box. First try: a pliers. I succeeded in breaking off part of the valve handle, leaving it dangerously jagged to the touch. Second try: a wrench. Nada. Third try: a really big wrench. This time I managed to severely pinch the skin on the palm of my right hand. It quickly became swollen and blue, with bleeding under the skin, and incredibly painful. At this point, there was nothing to do but cry. And then cry some more. Quick fix: I filled a watering can (multiple times) at the kitchen sink. Eventually, Julie, my mentor, schooled me in valve-turning lore: “lefty/loosey, tighty righty.” She seemed incredulous that this knowledge had somehow escaped me all these years. I couldn’t turn on the water valve because I had been turning it the wrong way. Doh!
  • Computer/Tech Issues. As a writer, I know how to use a computer. What I don’t know is how to fix a computer. The laptop stopped networking with the desktop. The Chrome browser disappeared. The systems care icon wore a frowny face. The printer refused to print. Emboldened by my lawn conquest, I confidently Googled “how to fix a printer.” I ran diagnostic tests and learned how to remove and clean the print heads with rubbing alcohol. “I’m amazing,” I told myself. “I fixed the printer.” (Too bad the printer wasn’t similarly impressed; it persisted in printing out only blank pages). Although I had dramatically vowed to myself that I would rather die than ask my husband for help, when he emailed me to say that he would be in town to pick up his bike, I casually mentioned the printer issue. I was gratified when he couldn’t fix it either. He immediately purchased a new printer and installed it. And I was grateful. (Sometimes you have to swallow your pride).

I want to be clear: for my cluelessness, I have only myself to blame. I had become unforgivably lazy over the years. My husband had been willing to handle the upkeep of the house and lawn, along with our tech devices, and I was more than willing to let him.

And that’s how I, a former Publicity Director for Ms. Magazine and a lifelong feminist, ended up helpless when her man left. Humiliating. Embarrassing. Painful. And my own damn fault.

It hasn’t been easy, but over time, with determination and outside assistance, I have survived (and hopefully, learned from) these and other residential assaults. (Don’t even get me started about the robotic vacuum that has a personal vendetta against me). I still don’t know a lot more than I do know.

But I am a willing student.

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