Once we had the basic comforts – that is, heat and intact windows – the wallpaper demanded attention. At least in my mind. Every room but the bathroom and kitchen was papered in different shades of the same paper, a pastel with white and metallic dribbles. Even in the Age of Aquarius, an era not known for good taste, this wallpaper was hideous. No, I don’t have pictures, and you should be grateful.
I decided to paint the walls while Georgie and Eric napped. They weren’t quite two and still taking long afternoon naps. We were broke but paint was cheap. The hardware store a couple blocks away sold paint. I was ready to go. The boys and I walked to the store, and they helped me select chips to take home and show Daddy.
I told clerk about the ugly wallpaper, soon to be buried under fresh paint.
“You’d better remove that paper first. Otherwise it’s likely to peel. Then you’re in trouble.” He shook his head. “Cover it with paint and you’ll have to sand it off.”
“You’ll probably want to rent a steamer.” He showed me one, essentially a twenty-pound foot-square steam iron, and told me how to proceed.
What was supposed to be a simple project actually involved six-steps. 1. Scratch the surface of the paper with a wire brush, which he was happy to sell me. 2. Hold the steamer close to but not up against the wall until the paper is thoroughly damp. 3. After a few minutes, scrape off the soggy paper with a spatula or similar tool. 4. Scrub off ALL the goopy old wallpaper glue. 5. Sand and smooth the wall as needed. 6. Finally, apply paint.
No way I was doing this myself. I scratched the walls and waited for the weekend. George, who was anxious to get to work re-screening the back porch, agreed to help me instead.
Saturday morning we settled the twins in the sun porch, which had become a large play pen, and started in the living room. George got the heavy lifting. He wielded the steamer, a heavy hissing beast that I couldn’t hold up for more than a few minutes. I scraped off the paper, slowly and carefully so that my spatula didn’t gouge holes in the plaster, and scrubbed off the glue.
We were a team, and we improved as we went along. By Sunday night the downstairs and the stairwell had lovely bare walls. The stairwell had been particularly challenging. One side was open to the living room, but to reach the top of the other, George had to balance on a ladder, not easy to do while holding the steamer. Still, Team Dusenbury prevailed and with no injuries.
Our success with downstairs left us tired but triumphant – and optimistic. I could paint downstairs during the week. Removing the wallpaper from upstairs, three bedrooms and a hall with no ceilings over eight feet, would be a snap. Or not.
The next weekend, we learned that the upstairs wallpaper had been serving a dual purpose. Not only was it “decorative” it was also holding the walls together. There had been leaks under windows and in the exterior walls. The water had softened the plaster, and our steamer finished the job. Great hunks of plaster came off with the wallpaper, revealing the underlying lathe and horsehair.
I pulled long strands from the mess on the floor and held them against my upper lip like a mustache.
George was not amused.
“Would you rather I cried?” I felt like crying. I was the one who had insisted upon removing the wallpaper. Maybe we could have just painted over it, and none of this would have happened.
“Let’s take a break,” he said. “Go downstairs and admire your newly painted walls. Then I’ll go to the hardware store and get some patching plaster.”