by Jim Tulloch


The following story is excerpted from the new 2015 edition of A Christmas Digest. The full story is in the Digest, available in the Power to Change Resource Centre.


It was a few days before Christmas and the house looked good. Our staircase, adorned with green cedar boughs and strands of crimson lights, guided guests to the living room – the newly renovated living room – where scented candles flickered in tinted glass holders. Bing Crosby crooned softly in the background. The place had never looked, smelled, or sounded better. On the sofa sat our renovator, Al and his wife Mary, drinking tea, snacking on Christmas baking, smiling and laughing as we swapped stories about our recent home renovation – the one that almost never ended.


Renovations and I are not a good pairing. I am weak in the ways of the hammer, skill saw and putty knife. But that mismatch was trumped by the needs of an aging house and a determined wife. Kim had a home improvement “idea” and needed to run it by someone who knew about such things. Through a mutual friend we were given the name of a semi-retired contractor who was willing to give us advice but had no interest in getting involved, which, as I reflect on it, was exactly my attitude.


Alvin (Al) Siemens came over, listened to Kim’s idea and asked some clarifying questions. He grabbed a scrap of paper and scratched out a rough sketch. Kim nodded her head. “That’s exactly what I want,” she said emphatically, then showed me the slip of paper. Now I’m no architect, or art critic for that matter, but I couldn’t quite see the vision that was unfolding. It didn’t matter. Al and Kim were obviously on the same wavelength and before I got to ask a silly question like, what is this, they were discussing budget.


“I could get a crew started on Monday,” I heard Al say. “I don’t know how much I will be involved though. We’ll need to go to City Hall and get a permit.”


“Good, Jim can go with you,” she offered.


“Since I don’t know how involved I can be, I’ll put him down as contractor,” he added, smiling at my bewildered expression.


The conversation was moving faster than I could process it.


“All right,” I said mustering up enthusiasm, but not knowing what I’d committed to. “Is there anything we can do this weekend to prepare for the crew?”


Al grabbed a hammer, smashed a hole through the wall and tore out a piece of drywall the shape of Alberta. Kim and I gasped. Al grinned.


“You don’t jump off the diving board and decide to go back,” he chuckled. “Rip this wall down.”


Our “reno” had begun.


True to his word, Al showed up Monday and off we drove to City Hall to get a building permit. My first official function as honorary contractor was to let Al do the talking and present the plan. As he explained to the agent the details of where and how the downstairs bathroom, heating, laundry room and bedroom would be rearranged, I had a timely epiphany: There was no way on earth I could pull off this reno without Al’s leadership. So my second official act as contractor was to make Al the contractor.


Most, if not all, renos comes with a caveat; once you start tearing things apart you discover more things wrong that need to be dealt with. Of course that in the fine print and newbie renovators like us never really believe it will happen.


The original plan was to reconfigure a downstairs bedroom, bathroom and laundry room. Before I knew it we were doing a second bedroom and buying a new furnace and hot water tank. The entire basement had to be rewired as well. But then came the plumbing. Old pipes needed to be replaced with new and leaks were discovered coming from the ceiling. Like an unstoppable lava flow, the reno soon enveloped the main bathroom and kitchen upstairs. We hadn’t planned on that.


“We have to do something about the plumbing,” said Al. “We need to replace the bathroom tub and the kitchen sink. You okay with that?”


I don’t know what came over me, renovation fever perhaps. I had a second epiphany: I could envision a new upstairs bathroom and kitchen. Plus, I had always wanted to knock out the wall separating the kitchen and the living room.


“Sure,” I replied, throwing budget concerns recklessly to the wind. “Let’s remodel the kitchen at the same time. But Al, can we take out this wall?”


Al grinned like he did the first day we met. It was clear to me now: the man loves demolition.


When remodeling the kitchen was added to the list, Al brought in a secret weapon, his wife Mary. Mary knew kitchens. She was a no-nonsense, straight shooter who wasn’t shy about expressing her opinion. With military flair she assessed the situation much like a general inspecting the troops before battle. In her direct manner, she briefed us on the strategic value of a peninsula counter. Kim could see the logic and immediately assented. She looked at me for confirmation. I said, “Sure” and almost saluted.


Days turned into weeks then months, and when the last mote of sawdust disappeared it was December and our renovation was complete. Downstairs now featured two new bedrooms, and a modern bathroom and laundry room thanks to Al’s ingenuity and ability to find space where none existed.


Upstairs – where no builder had gone before – was stunning. Removing the wall transformed the living room. And the kitchen with new cabinets, counters and backsplash, sparkled. With the added Christmas decor the place was infused with seasonal charm. It was something to celebrate. As we bade farewell to Al and Mary that evening, Kim and I thanked them over and over for the great work they had done.


I could never have guessed the events that would soon follow.


Read the rest of the story about Al’s faith in the face of difficult circumstances in the 2015 A Christmas Digest, available now from the Power to Change Resource Centre. Reprinted by permission.


The Renovator's Christmas quote - A Christmas Digest 2015