When Life Hands You Mildew

For a while, what is now our dining room was our daughter’s playroom. It was painted in fun colors. The walls were a light blue, the ceiling was purple, and we stenciled undersea looking flowers all over the walls. Everything was great until the one day we left the window open and an unexpected rain storm popped up.

The wend blew enough that quite a bit of water came in through the window. We cleaned it up when we got home from work, careful to dry the floor and wall right beneath the window. Once we did, it was impossible to tell it had been soaked and we thought the problem was over. We thought.

A month or so went by and we noticed some small black spots form on the wall under the window.

“What is it and what are we going to do about it?” Chrisie asked.

“It’s no big deal,” I said, “It’s just a little mildew from when the wall got wet back in that rainstorm when we left the window open.”

“But we dried it!”

“Yes, but sheet rock is coated with paper. If the water got behind the paint, it could have soaked into it and given the mildew a chance to grow.”

“So what are we going to do about it?”

“I’ll clean it off later. A mild bleach solution will take care of it.”

We didn’t have any bleach on hand so it was a few more days before I tackled it. I got the chance on a weeknight after Autumn went to bed. I mixed up the bleach solution and carried it in to the play room. I took a paper towel, dipped it in the solution, and gently rubbed it on the mildew. At least, that’s what I would have done had an entire section of the wall not flexed and caved when I touched it. I pressed a little harder and my finger easily punched through the wall.

I knew this was very bad news and tested around the soft spot for more signs of weakness. The wall felt spongy in about a two foot area just below the window, but more solid the further out I went.

“Honey,” I called out, “Um, you need to see this.”

“What?” she asked as she came in the room.

I showed her the bad section of wall.

“That’s not good,” she said.

“No, it’s not. I’m going to have to cut the drywall back to where it’s good and replace it. Hopefully it won’t be a big deal, but I’d rather wait until Saturday when I have more time.”

I wanted to wait because we live in an older home that had been built on to at least twice before we got it and whoever built it had interesting ideas on sound construction techniques. When I redid our kitchen, I discovered that only one of the walls had insulation and it only went half way up.

“Yeah, you’d better wait,” she agreed.

On Saturday morning, I felt confident it wouldn’t take long. I made short work of removing a section of drywall below the window. I quickly lost confidence and realize we were in big trouble. Even though it had been weeks since the last rain, the insulation (which I was honestly astonished to find) was soaking wet as were the two wood studs I exposed when I removed the wall. I found the same as I pulled off more of the wall. The insulations was wringing wet and the studs were drenched with large splotches of mildew.

I went to find Chrisie. “There’s good new and bad news,” I told her.

“Give me the bad news.”

“I think I’m going to have to take the whole wall down.”


“I think I have to take the whole wall down.”


“We’ve got a serious problem and I can’t assess the damage without removing all the sheet rock.”

“So what’s the good news?”

“We’ll know how well insulated it is.” She didn’t agree that was good.

I spent the morning removing the rest of the sheet rock. It looked as if a leak started somewhere around the window, but the water invaded most of the wall. The amount of mildew was horrifying. I pulled out and bagged all the now wet and useless insulation and threw it out. Then I took a pump sprayer and filled it with straight bleach. I used it to thoroughly coat the exposed framing. When it dried I did it again. And again. After three passes I was satisfied that now mildew remained. I took out the window, re-installed it, and carefully calked around it. After the caulk cured, I took the water hose and sprayed it outside for several minutes to make sure it didn’t leak. It didn’t (mainly because the leak wasn’t in the window as I found out later, it was much higher up. Fortunately, I found and fixed it before too much more damage was done).

I spent the rest of the day putting up drywall. I mudded and taped the joints over the next couple of days, carefully sanding it smooth so the seams would be invisible after painting. Then came a problem. I didn’t want to match years old paint and I didn’t want the color shift to be noticeable. I eventually had an inspired idea. I wouldn’t even attempt to match the color.

I went out and bought magnetic paint and chalkboard paint. I used the magnetic paint on the bottom half of the wall and the chalkboard paint on the entire wall. When I finished, the whole wall was more play area for our daughter. It also got all those alphabet letters off my fridge, which was glorious all by itself. The chalkboard wall was a fantastic addition to the room and Autumn loved it. It was a great space for play, but it soon became something more.

We had some friends over one night and during the evening I pondered how much I enjoyed their company and what a good memory I would have of the night. Then an idea formed. A silly, crazy, wonderful idea.

“Hey,” I said, “You guys need to sign our wall.”


“You need to sign our wall. Like a guest book, only better, ’cause it’s a wall!

“You want us to sign your wall. On purpose.” They looked at me with an expression that, well, that I actually get quite a bit.

“Yeah, the big chalkboard wall in Autumn’s play room. It’ll be great.”

They signed it and a tradition was born.

Now whenever anyone comes over, we ask them to sign the wall. More names get erased as Autumn grows taller, but a lot of them are still there. Often, I stop a read the names, sayings, doodles, and scribbling people leave us. A record of good memories rubbed in chalk, at once permanent and ephemeral.

Life handed us mildew and we created something magnificent.

© Leighton Brown and Stories Now Told, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from Leighton Brown is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Leighton Brown and Stories Now Told with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. For more information, please see the Copyright page.

About leighton

I could be considered a true Renaissance Man after having a long and storied (seriously, people actually tell stories about it) college experience and varied careers. I am also a shameless self-promoter (who did you think was writing this anyway?) who is prone to flights of fancy, an abundance of passion on any given subject, ,obsessive behavior, spontaneous storytelling (whether anyone listens or not), and making parenthetical references. I would also be thrilled if I heard someone use the word "raconteur" to describe me.
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