Photo illustration by Mark Douet/Stone
Everything I needed to know about my marriage I learned by wallpapering with my husband. Romantic weekend getaways are wonderful and marriage seminars and books are helpful, but I dare any married couple to try wallpapering together—that'll show you what your marriage is really made of. Twenty years ago Tom and I had just moved into our first house, an older city bungalow with a lot of "character." It wasn't a dream house, but it wasn't a nightmare either. With a little work, we knew it would be destined for greatness.
On a beautiful Saturday morning in September, we decided to create a work of art out of our living room. We had picked a miniprint wallpaper made of sturdy vinyl—to hide any cracks in the walls—just right for our classic, aged, character-ridden living room. After breakfast we dressed in our new painters' overalls and set up a table in the middle of the room. Then Tom began the serious work of assembling his tools: plumb line, chalk, ruler, T-square, razor knife, scissors, powdered wallpaper paste, water, stirrer, bucket, sponge, rags, brushes, and roller. By 10:30, two hours into the job, we were ready to hang some wallpaper.
Tom took on the manly job of measuring, marking, and dropping the plumb line. Since I had had considerable experience making peanut butter sandwiches, I was given the job of wallpaper paste spreader. Our house had elegant nine-foot ceilings, so it took awhile for me to cover the entire first wallpaper strip with paste. I hadn't figured that the strip would be longer than our worktable. As I neared the end of the strip, the other end began to curl up on itself, getting paste on the front side of the paper—as well as on the carpeting. No matter, we had taken the saleslady's advice and purchased that funny-looking natural sponge for clean up. Tom took a few minutes to line the floor under the table with newspapers, as I finished the first strip. All was going well—except that now the newspapers protecting the floor were sticking to the wallpaper.
By lunchtime, I had one strip thoroughly pasted and ready to hang. I struggled to pick up one end; I had no idea that it would be so heavy. It took both of us to drag it off the table. Tom grabbed the top end and, holding it close to his body, climbed the ladder. I stood next to the ladder, feeding him the rest of the strip, with the front side of the heavy wallpaper draped over my head. Tom positioned it appropriately on the wall, pressed it down, and we decided to break for lunch.
At this point, we realized that the job was going to take a little longer than planned. To stop his goal-directed self from getting upset by this, my husband decided to lighten the mood. When we were dating, he had always liked it when my hair got messy and curly from the humidity. Now he laughed and ran his hands through my pasty hair. And there was something weirdly romantic about the sticky kisses that followed. But then I spotted the drooping strip of wallpaper. It looked like a baggy-faced basset hound, with the paper bulging, rippling, and sagging like wrinkled skin.
"Catch it before it falls!" I shouted. We flung ourselves against the wall, saving our work. We edged it upward until it was nearly back in place. "Too much paste!" said Tom. The saleslady had told us to use the stiff brush to make the paper adhere to the wall, so he began the rescue effort. Using the foot-long brush, Tom smoothed the wallpaper flat in broad strokes. Paste kept oozing out from the edges, and I kept using the sponge to wipe it up. It seemed an hour until the paper was finally smooth.
That weekend we got three strips in place. By late October, five weeks into the project, we had finished only one wall. By November, we felt as if we had been wallpapering for an eternity. Is this what they do all day in hell?
Drudgery awaited us every Saturday. We missed going out with our friends. We had turned down a young couples fall retreat, where we had looked forward to good fellowship, hiking, volleyball, and lounging around the lodge. We realized how we longed for simple weekend pleasures like concerts, sporting events, and taking our daughter to the zoo. When people asked us about our weekend plans, we groaned and complained. Then they just stopped asking. Our friends became more and more distant as we saw our social life wither and die.
Tom and I found it hard not to glare at each other when we thought of another weekend of wallpapering. We began watching late-night TV on Fridays because we dreaded the inevitable Saturday morning task. Then, we'd put off wallpapering until 2:00 p.m. Saturday. The project grew in length. The end of our labor seemed painfully out of reach.
One Friday night I lay awake thinking of strategies for finishing the project. Maybe we could leave the room half-papered and paint the remaining walls for a paint-and-paper decorating scheme. Maybe we could just pull off the strips we had pasted and paint the whole thing. Whose idea was it to wallpaper anyway? I was beginning to think maybe I didn't even like the pattern anymore.
Next morning, I proposed the idea to Tom. "How about if we can the whole thing? Just paint the walls. No more pasting, no more cooped-up Saturdays. Freedom!"
"How about we go out to breakfast." He suggested.
"But what about getting the walls done? I want this settled! Finished! Done! If we can't do it, maybe we need professional help!" I was surprised by the angry tears welling in my eyes. At that point, Tom mocked, "You need professional help!" I became enraged. I knew the kind of professional help he was thinking about. But he was right. We had gotten to the point where we'd better do something soon before we needed a professional marriage counselor's help.
"Okay. Let's eat out. We've got to talk about this." Our daughter went to grandma's, and we went to breakfast. Over eggs and toast, we agreed on two things: we both wanted to complete the task and to enjoy the process. So far, we hadn't been doing too well on either one. On our way home, we bought a new album by one of our favorite Christian singers. That afternoon, we invited our friends, Bill and Monica, to come for coffee, hear the album, and see our partially finished walls. They encouraged us, prayed with us, and congratulated us on our progress. Like Nehemiah restoring the walls surrounding Jerusalem, Tom had taken on a monumental task, Bill said.
On the following Saturdays, I began calling Tom "my Nehemiah." Then he would climb the ladder and, with mock seriousness, announce to the family, "I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down: why should the work cease, whilst I leave it, and come down to you?" I admired his new dedication. As we resumed our wallpapering task, we kept the new album playing, singing and brushing paste in time to the music. The work seemed to go faster now. When we finished a strip, we celebrated, dancing around the living room together, laughing and smearing paste on each other. We were beginning to enjoy the process.
Christmas arrived, and we finished the wall. It only took us four months. To celebrate, we had a huge holiday brunch that year with the extended family. The wall was done. We did it.
Most of all, during those days Tom and I had accomplished something together that would outlast the wall. Our marriage had permanently bonded. Like many marriages, our wallpapering had started out as an adventure but had become drudgery. But by learning to talk things through, to be patient, and to work as a team, we found that the fun and enjoyment returned.
Wallpapering had taught us to celebrate the process as well as the completion. And we became as glued to each other as that wall and paper, ready for whatever really big challenges were ahead.
Sharon is a freelance writer who worked for Christianity Today International. Sharon and her husband have enjoyed God's gift of their marriage for 28 years. They are blessed with two daughters, a son-in-law and two grandsons and enjoy being active members of Elbethel Christian Center in Elk Grove Village, Illinois.
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