I am one tile short of a full bathroom. Which is very different from being a few bricks shy of a load. But the first is driving me towards the second.
I live in a house that was built in 1958. It is kind of average for its age and location, having been through a fairly major remodel or two, but with other features being largely untouched. One of those areas is a small bathroom.
This bathroom has all the normal things a small bathroom does, including a shower with a glass door. And having been built to a pretty decent standard, every vertical wall surface up to about chest-high is covered with ceramic tile.
Ceramic tile in 1958 was a very different thing from ceramic tile today. Now there are somewhere between nine and ten million choices of shape, size, composition and color. Back then the variety was in color. Did I say variety? I meant VARIETY.
I grew up in a house of about that age, and our bath was tiled in yellow. I have seen green, pink, blue, turquoise and some other colors too, all in four inch squares. The people who made decor choices for my house must have been pretty conservative because they chose beige tiles, with some brown speckles in them. Which, as I think about it, is probably how they have managed to survive to the ripe old age of sixty. Pink or turquoise would have been ripped out by about 1974.
There was one odd thing, the built-in towel racks were turquoise. Mrs. JPC wanted them gone, an opinion that was not an unreasonable one given that nothing else in the room was that color. And so one day I set to work. Those towel holders were ceramic pieces embedded in the tilework, and it would be necessary to remove the tiling around them in order to get access and be able to patch the holes they would leave behind.
I had dealt with this tile once before, when replacing the green sink. It may have once been turquoise, but it was certainly not by the time we moved in. It never matched the towel holders. A white sink replaced it, and necessitated the removal of a few squares of my beige tile, so I had pieces to fill the holes of the soon-to-be-ex-towel holders.
Everything came off nicely, as I was (in the words of Elmer Fudd) vewwwy, vewwwy keawful. The turquoise pieces came out, holes in the plaster (yes, plaster) were patched, and everything started going back together. The job was going fabulously and it was clear that nobody would ever know that towel bars had ever been in those walls.
Each piece was carefully cleaned of decades-old grout and set aside, ready for re-installation. Which went completely out drama. Until I came to the last piece. Which was nowhere to be found. And it was not, of course, one of the four inch squares of which I had some extras. No, it was the “bullnose” edge piece.
My children were fairly young at the time. Everyone denied it, but I still harbor suspicions that one of them quite innocently picked up a piece to look at it – right before dropping it on the floor, cleverly hiding the broken pieces outside in the trash. If Dad can’t find the pieces it never happened, right? At least that’s the way I remember it working in my own youth.
Surely, I thought, it would be possible to buy a piece or two of matching tile. Yeahhh. I took a piece to a nearby tile distributor (that has since closed). The jocular fellow with a beard knew exactly what it was when I showed it to him. “National Tile” he said. “Oatmeal”. “They’ve been out of business for a long time.” They had a few stray pieces here and there, but nothing of this particular color.
I later heard of a place in another city, an old-time ceramic tile distributor which had been at the same location since the 1920’s and which was reputed to have at least a little bit of absolutely everything. Absolutely everything minus one, as it turns out. For something that had once seemed so common as to be the default generic tile in every motel room, gas station or restaurant I went into as a kid, this stuff had joined The Unicorn Club.
Perhaps, I thought, an ad in a neighborhood newsletter will find someone getting ready to remodel an old bath. I got one response. It was close – a similar style in a lighter off-white color. So nope.
OK, I thought, there is an architectural salvage place downtown. Apparently the people into architectural salvage lose interest in pretty much everything after the 1940. So there would be no tile pieces from the late 1950’s.
I read somewhere that younger people are not into restoration of old spaces, but into gutting and complete remodels into areas that look like generic HGTV showspaces. I can’t help but think that in about 20 years everyone will be rolling their eyes at the awful dated styles and sad about what was destroyed, sort of like I look at classic old homes that got heavy remodels around 1971. Or maybe not.
So here I am with a missing tile. It is behind a door, at least. I am sure some of you would recommend re-edging with a different color. Or just tearing it all out and doing a new HGTV-worthy bathroom. But that seems such a waste to me, because I have this perfectly fine tiled bathroom. I just need one itty bitty little piece and the German Farmer who occasionally occupies my brain says that tearing out several hundred perfectly good tiles because you are missing one is just wrong.
And so here I sit. For much longer than I like to admit, becoming acclimated to something that I would never put up with if I were just moving into the place. But I continue to put up with it because of my unshakable certitude that one day I am going to find that piece. You probably didn’t realize that there was such a thing as an oatmeal holy grail. But now you do.