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James R. Stout

The Christmas Remodel

            In October of 1975 my parents decided to have some major remodeling done to our house. The existing kitchen was tiny, but typical for a house built in the 1950’s. There had been some remodeling done several years before when my aunt and uncle owned the house. Originally, the kitchen had a door leading to a breezeway between the house and the garage. They enclosed the breezeway and made it into a dining room and small den. When my parents decided to remodel the kitchen, they also decided to remodel the existing dining room and living area that had been the breezeway. Today we would call what they did as an “open concept” design. It would greatly expand the kitchen by incorporating the old dining area as the kitchen. The living area would become a new dining area. The old living room that bordered the kitchen and small living area or den would now all be a combined area. It was an ambitious project. I might add that we had added on a huge den in 1971. So, the old small living area wasn’t needed.

            My parents had already arranged for the remodeling to be done via a sub-contractor through Montgomery Wards. Work began the first week of October and was supposed to be finished in 3-4 weeks. I’ll get to that in a minute. But first I want to tell you about something in the old kitchen. In that old kitchen there was a small pantry, really just two large cabinets, that bordered the door opening into the living room. On one of the door-opening casings were several pencil marks. These pencil lines marked my height through the years from 11-18. It was very common in those days for homes to have something like this. The lines marked my growth in height from about 4’10” to 6’1”. The date of each line was written in pencil beside the lines. Over the years remarks about how much I had grown were made by my parents and visitors. I must tell you that I was very proud of each new line that marked my increasing height. It all started in the spring of 1967 and my mother made the first pencil mark using a ruler. I had to look up to her because at that point in time I was about 6 or 7 inches shorter than her. By the time the last one was made she was looking up to me by about 6 or 7 inches!

            Before I continue with the fate of that door-casing, I want to take a minute to point something out. For those of us who lived in one house for many years in the same neighborhood we developed many friendships that lasted for years. It wasn’t unusual to have friends whose heights versus mine would ebb and flow through the years. In early 1968 I was in 6th grade. We had a 6-week period that was dedicated to learning square dancing instead of our regular gym class. The first day of that period we were assigned a partner of the opposite sex. My partner was someone that I had met the past summer during a summer science program. I was a head shorter than her. She was probably about 5’6” tall while I was about 5’1”. We had a fun time though for the entire 6 weeks. She became a friend and over the next few years I would see her at school and later she took a job at a cafeteria where our family ate at often. By that time, we were about the same height. But in one year between 14-15 I grew an astonishing 8” in height. Suddenly, I was taller than many of the friends that I had previously been shorter than. It drove my parents crazy too. I was outgrowing new clothes within a month. Shoes were a particular problem. With greater height I gained larger feet. Not huge mind you, but larger. Our senior year rolled around and this old dance partner and I had English class together. I had recently broken-up with my long-time girlfriend (boy is that a longer store not for now) and I asked Diana out on a date. We dated off and on for several months, but it was not meant to be.

            Now, back to that door-casing. When I was dating Diana, she came over to the house quite often. On one of her visits she noticed the pencil marks and dates. I pointed to one and told her that was my height when we square danced 7 years before. We both had a good laugh over that. The remodeling of the kitchen began with the demolition of things that wouldn’t be needed. That door-casing was one of those things. None of us thought to save the door-casing or the part of it with the pencil marks. It just didn’t cross our minds at the time. Well, as these things go sometimes, the remodeling wasn’t anywhere near finished in 3-4 weeks as promised. We went about two weeks without a kitchen sink. It was driving my mother to her limit. A meeting was called with the sub-contractor and Dad pretty much read the riot act. We were promised it would be done by Thanksgiving. That had been Mom’s goal. She wanted to host the Thanksgiving feast with extended family. I probably don’t need to tell you, but it wasn’t finished in time for Thanksgiving. Christmas became the do or die goal.

            A side note now. In 1967 Mom and Dad bought the house for $12,000. It had originally been built for $8,000 about 9 years earlier. They lived there until 1979 and sold the house for $53,000. Of course, there had been a lot of improvements made over those years. I recently learned that the house is up for sale. I went online to look at pictures of the house. My goodness gracious the current owner did what you might expect from a “Fixer Upper” episode. It has been completely remodeled inside including the old huge den transformed into a new master bedroom and additional master bath, and quite a bit of improvements to the exterior as well. That kitchen has been remodeled again and the interior pretty much gutted and transformed into a showplace. The asking price is $340,000!  

Back to the Christmas of 1975 and the remodeling done then. Thankfully, the job was done by December 15, 1975. I must admit that it looked great and was a vast improvement over the way it had been. The big Christmas get-together was planned with aunts and uncles and cousins and so forth. It was a great Christmas. Mom was so proud of her new kitchen. A new refrigerator, new oven, new dishwasher, 4 times the previous counter space, a pass-through that allowed a person working in the kitchen to be a part of the conversations in the living room, and all new flooring as well as new paint. It was the kitchen that Mom had dreamed of having. The Christmas get-together was on Christmas Eve and a great time was had by all. There were lots of oohs and aahs over the remodel. I could be wrong, but I think it was probably my mother’s favorite Christmas. She had all of her kids and their significant others, her sister and brother-in-law with cousins, and her mother all together. I might add that it would still be several years before I wasn’t at one of the “kids” tables. The new dining room table would sit 8 people. Those 8 would be Mom, Dad, Aunt Velma, Uncle Victor, Grandma, and my oldest sister and her husband. Two card tables were set up in the den for me, my girlfriend (later my wife), my other sister and her husband, and three cousins. We were all OK with being at the kid’s table though. We got to watch “White Christmas” on Television while eating turkey and dressing and all the trimmings. As I write this it occurs to me that in some ways growing in height when I was a child and comparing with friends was like a competition of sorts. The competition stopped being in our height when we got grown, nonetheless there was competition. I remember going to my high school 10-year reunion and it seemed everyone was bragging on their latest job promotion, the purchase of a house, a new sportscar, and such things as these. Even now there’s a subtle competition. But it’s a friendly competition. At my recent 45th reunion for the Class of ’74 from Spring Branch High School, we bragged on our grandkids (with plenty of pictures!) and perhaps who’s ailments were worse. Remembering that house as it was then and how life was at the time reminds me of all that has changed in my old neighborhood. Where K-mart used to be is now some apartments. The Gerland’s Supermarket has been long gone for years and hardly any of the businesses and restaurants from my youth exist today. Yet when you drive down the street that our house was on there are other houses that haven’t been altered. Perhaps new coats of paint here and there, but for the most part they look the same. The old is mixed with the new. It’s like one of those old “add-a-scene” picture books that had several transparent pages. With each page things were added, but the things from the initial page are still there. Life has been superimposed over and over again with changes made, but some things left alone.

            I look at pictures taken the night of that Christmas Eve in 1975 and I see happy faces, and everyone seems so young. Even my parents look young to me now. After all, I’m 18 years older than my mother was that night! The sad fact is that 6 of those loved ones that were there for Christmas Eve have passed away. This Christmas, as you hurry about and prepare a feast, wrap presents, and do all the things associated with Christmas, take a few moments to look at your loved ones. Tell them how happy you are to be with them. Tell them you love them. One day you may be looking at a picture and remembering this Christmas the way I do that Christmas of 1975. Make sure your loved ones know how much they truly are loved. I can’t think of a better Christmas present.

Christmas Eve 1975 - My three cousins and two sisters with me.


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