Fighting Formica

by Isabelle Hutchings, Cornell University, April 22, 2008

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The summer I turned nine, my mother began house-hunting. Or at least she liked to call it house hunting. The phrase always made me think of her in prehistoric times, cloaked in animal furs and stalking through the jungle in hot pursuit of a fleet-footed four-bedroom. In reality though, with a shoestring budget as her only weapon, dream homes were hard to catch. Instead of animal furs, she dressed in power-suits wrestled from the closet of her former home after the recent collapse of my parents’ marriage. Thus outfitted, my mother would pile me and my sister, Juli, into the old blue pickup and truck around town to see what was new on the market four or five days a week. During our exhaustive and exhausting search, we toured everything from one bedroom apartments to eight bedroom McMansions, the latter, of course, far out of our price range.

“I just want to see what else is out there,” my mother would say, sounding more like a noncommittal girlfriend than a home buyer.

Finally, just before summer and the hospitality of friends who had offered up spare rooms came to an end, my mother made her purchase. It was a tiny one-story house that my father snidely, but not inaccurately, referred to as “the trailer.” The size of the house wasn’t what got to my mother, though, despite the fact that a person sitting in the bathroom couldn’t close the door without a smart rap on the knees. Nor was it the bits of cotton-candy-pink insulation peeking out from between the mock-wood wall paneling. She didn’t even mind the childproof locks on the cabinets, an alleged safety feature that made it impossible for everyone, young and old alike, to open a single closet or cupboard without enlisting the assistance of a screwdriver.

“What good’s a house without a few quirks?” my mother would demand, fondly stuffing fistfuls of insulation back into the wall.

I could think of a few quirks I would have been better off without (a dishwasher that didn’t spout suds like projectile vomit), but I didn’t challenge her. Since their slightly mothball-scented reinstatement, Juli and I had quickly learned no to contradict a woman wearing power-suits.

Of all the so-called quirks in the house, the only one my mother simply could not tolerate was the sunshine-yellow surfacing. She blamed the presence of the all-purpose laminate sold under the brand name Formica on the former owners, a salt-and-pepper pair selling out in favor of milder Floridian winters and a full service condo (with, incidentally, a functioning dishwasher).

“I’m no spring, summer, or fall chicken now,” Mr. Oast explained, examining his gnarled hands with a woeful sigh during the going away party, “and it’s just getting too hard to keep up the repairs around here.”

“We sure are going to miss this Formica, though,” his wife added, thumping the bright yellow countertop affectionately.

Unfortunately for us, there was no missing the plasticky material covering every plane in the house from kitchen countertops to bedroom flooring. With his flannel-covered chest puffed out so proudly it would put a peacock to shame, Mr. Oast boasted that his very own grandfather had co-founded the Ohio-based company which serendipitously discovered the substitute “for mica.” In addition to carrying on the family legacy by sharing the action-packed adventure of its invention, the Oast family had clearly made the most of their free lifetime supply. Even the bathroom tub bore a protective yellow coating.

“It’s like we struck gold,” beamed Mr. Oast, stroking an ostrich shaped Formica cutout on the sign that declared the hilly thirteen acres surrounding the house “OastRidge.”

“Well, it sure is something,” said my mother with the strained, frozen expression of an over-injected Botox patient.

By the time the sale finalized about a month later, she had completely transformed into a self-proclaimed “Foe-mica.” The new ambition to destroy the surfacing easily surpassed her once-burning desire to outlaw golf-carts, billboards, and bad grammar. Power-suits were swapped for the more practical, and nearly as stylish, coveralls and soon all three of us were spending Saturday afternoons tearing into the resilient surfacing with the delight of children ripping open presents on Christmas morning.
Before long, we devised a sort of reverse assembly line approach to our attack. My mother would start, using hammers and nails to crack the shiny surface of the Formica. Next, I swooped in with a chisel-like implement to lift shards from the fissure site, exposing the dark, often moldy spaces below. Finally, Juli would collect and discard the heavy pieces.

This system served us admirably until Waste Removal Services arrived on the scene, staunchly refusing to remove the Formica-filled trash receptacles arranged expectantly at the end of our driveway. Not to be thwarted, my mother carted all twelve bins to the local dump where she was informed that a costly business license was required to deposit such quantities.

“Well at least I mean business,” I remember her grumbling as we squished back into the Formica-cluttered cab of the truck.

And so, the Formica remained in our house, slowly increasing from piles to hills to mountains. Soon, we couldn’t walk across the living room without scaling a slippery yellow cliff. But still we continued to work, developing oozing blisters inflicted by the handles of our tools and perpetual backaches from the heavy lifting. Faced with spasming muscles, broken hammers, mutinous troops, and backlogged refuse, my mother was finally forced into a temporary retreat. Juli and I were withdrawn and arrangements were made to bring in the Special Forces: construction workers.
In the interval, we were left to fend for ourselves in the ruins of the Formican empire. Now, not only was the remaining surfacing its ever-blinding yellow, but the mountainous piles had begun to flake and crumble into smaller pieces, leaving a gritty residue. No matter how hard we scrubbed, mopped, and scraped, a thick layer of coarse, granular powder cloaked the house.

“You could use a few Hoovers, or at least some feather dusters,” a friend commented, running a dismayed finger through the substantial layer of dust-like coating that had collected on his backpack during a single afternoon in our foyer.

My sister and I preferred to think of Formica’s counter attack as an extended beach vacation. We pretended that the surfacing’s sparkly color and new gritty texture was sand. Our toys went for weekend getaways on the golden shores of the kitchen sink and, in the event of an untimely squall, occasionally found themselves marooned on deserted islands in what was left of the bathroom.

Just as actual ocean-goers discover stowaway sand in unusual crannies like earlobes and bathing suit bottoms, our “sand” began to turn up in odd spots. It snuck into our pockets, pans, and peanut butter jars. On a particularly unnerving occasion, Juli became convinced that the whole family had been stricken with lice: Formica particles in our hair. Many nights I would snuggle into bed only to leap out again moments later shaking grit from between the sheets. The dusty material traveled with us, too. In school, my exasperated teacher accused me of negligent book care when I opened my history text to a cascade of yellow particles.

“Books should never, ever be left outside on the dirty ground,” she scolded, deaf to my insistence that I had studied only in my bedroom.

In total, it was eight weeks, thirteen carpenters, and a dump-truck full of Formica before we finally had our completed, grit-free new house. My mother was ready to rip out every last inch but in a bout of compassion for the Oasts and their legacy, Juli and I convinced her to leave one small corner in the mudroom. On the wall above, we scotch-taped a glossy postcard-sized photo of a Floridian palm tree against a backdrop of shining blue seas. Next to the swaying palm fronds, we superimposed our own drawing of an ostrich with its head buried firmly in the Formican sand.

We have lived in the house for almost ten years, now, and my mother has transformed it completely. In spite of my skeptical father and our tsk-ing neighbors, she has single-handedly knocked down walls, added bathrooms, and constructed an open patio complete with its own steaming hot tub. Friends are quick to assure her that the changes are timeless and tasteful, but sometimes I wonder what will happen when it’s my mother’s turn to migrate south. I can imagine a young couple walking arm-in-arm behind her as they tour the house, the husband’s startled expression as he catches sight of the radiant purple walls in my mother’s room or the wife’s raised eyebrows when she comes upon the entire wall devoted to Juli’s nearly-life-sized portrait of our mother standing by an oak tree.

“Well,” the husband might say, giving the rooms a cursory scan, “it sure is something.”

With that, he’ll breeze out through the kitchen, clattering the door behind him. But perhaps the young woman will pause for a moment to peer into the portrait. Perhaps she will see a flicker, a movement, as if my mother’s image is not merely standing, but striding across her canvas jungle, power-suit and all, armed only with a shoestring budget and a battle plan.

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