Living History

We’ve been in the 1880s house for a little over a year now, and have gotten to know her creaks and groans. We lost a housecleaner who felt a ghostly presence in the upstairs bedroom. I’ve found hundreds of pennies in the dirt and grounds, mementos perhaps of the previous owner, Penny, who passed away just as we were taking possession of the house. We have been visited by neighbors who have rejoiced at the resurrection of this old house, from its decrepitude to its new life as our home. And we have lived through a year in real seasons, with snow, heat, power outage, wildfire, and autumn colors. We love life in the mountains. Living *in* history has been well worth the loving effort of renovation.

Faded lady, 2019.
Front view of a Victorian house.
2021: Clean and pretty: The Moon and Stars says hello.

Epiphanies-R-Us

579300_10152390569614698_1755223128_n(This column first ran in July 2007, right before I became a Mrs. again.)

I drove up to the home county of Sonoma a few weeks ago to pick up one of our girls from a visit to her grandparents. I had some time to spare (shocking but true) and wanted some quality time with my parents, so I hung around for a while.

I picked some plums with my mom and she gave me some geranium and penstemon cuttings for the garden. I gave my parents their wedding invitation and I got to see the latest quilts that she was planning to show at the county fair. We talked and looked at pictures and made plans for later in the summer. After a while, and a glass of iced tea, it was time to go.

As we stood outside near the car, my mom looked at me and laughed a little laugh. “You’re me, you know,” she said.

Now I know plenty of other people who would bristle at such a statement if it were made to them, and plenty of times that I myself would have driven screaming away and never returned, but this time, finally, it is true. My mom raised five kids, and here I am, embarking on the next phase of my life, taking in two more to bring my total of children to five as well.

When I stood there with my bowlful of sweet Santa Rosa plums and my geranium cuttings and my packet of scraps for the next quilt I’m going to work on soon — har de har freaking har — there was a moment, I’m not going to lie, when I did want to scream. Just a little bit.

Because, you know, everyone wants to be themselves, not their mom, or dad, or elder siblings. No one wants to be the apple that doesn’t fall far from the tree, and no one wants to be “junior” anything. We all want to be special and a bit more advanced or evolved — to do better in our generation than our parents did, if that’s even possible anymore.

But how does one do it better? I simply can’t beat the 53-plus years of marriage that my parents have shared, with five healthy kids who all graduated college and made something of themselves. I may never get the 17 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren (including all the step-grandkids). Maybe our kids won’t even have babies.

My parents worked hard, played by the rules, did the right thing even when it wasn’t their personal choice or even what they could bear. They just did it anyway, for the sake of the kids or the family or the whole shebang, and here we are today: an agricultural water plant manager, an attorney and CEO, a financial analyst, a commercial construction manager and a writer, and our kids are coming up behind us, traveling the world and taking it by storm.

I learned a lot from my mother about how to feed a large family, and it wasn’t just “add more water to the soup.” She was a champion at filling our bellies in even the hardest of times. There were always bread and butter and vegetables and a main course on the table, and we learned our manners and how to say grace before meals, and took turns setting and clearing. We did our homework and got ourselves to school by foot or by bike or by bus, and none of us coasted; we all got jobs and did farm chores and learned to do the right thing, too, mostly.

Alack and alas, though, a daydreamer like me comes along and lives an uncharted life: Unexpected pregnancy in college! Scrimping along as a single mom! Married to a Catholic priest! Divorced! Writing a book about it! Single parenting again! Eek! May I just offer kudos to my parents for keeping the faith? I’m a peach now, but I was a prickly pear for a very long time.

Ah, well. What can I say? My mom says, “You’re me now.” Am I?

We spent the last weekend painting the kitchen what I call “olive,” but let’s be real here – it’s that classic ’70s paint color, avocado. Then I finished up the valance I was sewing, made from a novelty print featuring a cheerful vegetable motif, hung it up and we made ourselves some vodka tonics. The kids were scattered around the countryside but they’d all be back at the dinner table in a few days. We toasted our weekend’s work and got ready for the next week.

Dinner for seven? I am indeed my mother.

many changes instantly

Farewell, White House.

I used to work for MCI, one of the early long-distance companies, which came into its own after the breakup of the telephone monopoly. Sprint still exists, but MCI was bought up by someone else and is long gone. However, back in the day (this was about 1986), we workers of the early telemarketing plantations often received new edicts from above. So many that we said the company’s initials must stand for “Many Changes Instantly.”

So here we are, in MCI mode — many changes instantly. Three months ago I was enjoying a full house of offspring and a healthy husband, chickens, a lovely piano, 5 bedrooms and a lush garden, a clothesline, a compost heap and about seven different kinds of recycling and trash containers. Mr. Husband said that you needed a PhD to figure out what trash went where at our Big White House. Today, however, we’ve done a few backflips.

Mr. Husband had a pain in his back around Christmas that got worse very quickly and they eventually discovered two ruptured discs. With a quick change in employment and where the Boy is going to school next year, we decided we had better move sooner rather than in summer. Found an adorable 2-bedroom apartment in central Alameda and started packing. Our motto was “Everything must go!” With a full attic, a full garage and large yard, plus all those bedrooms, this was no small task. The chickens had to find a new home, as did the coop. The bales of straw. The tiki bar and all the decorations. The hammock. The piano. One of the three cats. Two of the daughters. Most of the holiday decorations. Our large dining table that seated 12. Dishes. Canning jars. At least two-thirds of my fabric and yarn stash. Everything must go. And off it went.

We rented a Dumpster, but put amazingly little into it. Instead, green-hearted gal that I am, I worked tirelessly to find homes for everything and everyone. We had a “free” garage sale, in which just about everything we had in the garage went out and was given freely. I donated to Goodwill, ThriftTown and Salvation Army countless times. Sold books, CDs, DVDs and albums. Sold anything relatively “antique” to a dealer in town. Donated books to the Friends of the Library. Gave tons of books and art/school supplies to local schools. Gave a single mom down on her luck just about everything she could want for setting up an apartment for herself and her daughter — dishes, furniture, clothes and more. Gave the piano to our neighbor with 6 children. We downsized our personal library by about 75 percent. Maybe more. Garden goodies went to several Freecyclers. Old blankets and towels went to the pet shelter. Empty boxes came from Freecycle and have since been given back to be used again.

Softball team to the rescue. Mr Husband crouching in pain,
with smart-aleck friend copying him.
(Self, center, which is where I should be.)

Through all this, we had one mishap after another. Daughter #4, just two days before moving out, had a Saturday night spill that fractured her elbow. The Boy got bonked in the head at school in PE, suffering a minor concussion. Right after that he got a horrendous cold. Mr. Husband couldn’t lift anything or even sit or stand without excruciating pain (but he moved things anyway. Stubborn as a burro!). I won’t even tell you how messed up my shoulder, neck and sciatica got. We were able to borrow a truck from a friend for a couple of weeks, which made short trips with boxes much easier. We corralled a dozen strong guys for the big moving day and it was over, I kid you not, in 2 hours. Had a few days of searching among the boxes, and then it was time for Mr. Husband’s surgery.

That was last week. He’s well, thank you, and improving daily. We take little walks and he starts physical therapy next week. Yay for modern medicine! We’re here in the new place (see photo of our living room below), with another 20 boxes or so to unpack, and a new more urban lifestyle to discover in our upstairs Victorian flat:  our Red House (since I like to name our houses).

How are things different?

1. No laundry line, at least so far. We have a plumbing problem with the washer and dryer that the landlord is going to fix. Some day. I went to the laundromat last week and hope I can get this resolved soon. Also bought an indoor clothesline but the critical bracket is missing so I have to return it. Grrr.

2. No compost or chickens to eat leftovers. That means I have thrown into the green waste can things which chickens would have eaten up — plate scrapings, cereal crumbs, stale bread. On the other hand, there are just 3 of us now, so there’s a lot less green waste overall. I wonder how bad it would be to feed the local ducks with old bread crusts?

New living room, with stuff still in
boxes and pictures awaiting a nail or two.

3. We have heat now, where we didn’t before, and that’s new and different for us. It’s delicious! But we’ll have to look at our usage and not overdo it. Not sure how insulated this (drafty) house is, for one thing, and then — well, global warming and all that.

4. Garden. There’s isn’t one here, but I have been paying attention to where the sun falls, and where it is always shady. I brought over several container plants (herbs) and there’s a lemon tree and a tangerine tree on the property. But how can I garden in a shady, compact way?

5. Shopping locally/walking everywhere: This will be possible, finally, with a small grocery store with sustainable meat and organic produce nearby. But I have hardly had a chance to walk around and see what’s what, what with surgery and moving and all. Looking forward to this greatly.

6. Living lightly. Not having to drive everywhere, not having to support such a large family, not having so much stuff — it’s all good. I expect to feel the impact of the move in our budget as well as in what we bring in/send out as trash. Life is different in a downtown apartment than in an outlying rambling house and yard.

It remains to be seen how green we can be here, and how can I/we make it ever more so. Keep me company while we figure it out, will you? (Oh, please, say yes!)

raising the roof

or, our fate is ceiled. More work at the Green House: look, we have a ceiling!

And then they (our dear friends Arturo and G) covered up that beautiful insulation with Sheetrock, and it looks like this (below), except with tape and mud over the seams; the ceiling awaits some love from a paint roller. Thanks very much to the efforts of Arturo and Guillermo, we are almost ready for — wait for it — prime time (painting joke there).
That’s on the inside of the house. On the outside, all is well. All our girls came up to visit and hang at the river last weekend, and here they are on the deck with Pa. (He’s the fourth Stooge, wearing his signature T-shirt.) This is the reason we wanted a place of our own — for family fun like this 🙂
 
However, they weren’t our only visitors. The neighborhood cat, Jax, thinks it’s his house, too. He has no qualms about coming in and sitting on the furniture. It is common neighborhood gossip that he is the father of our kitten. So — in that sense, he’s family.
In the past week or so we added more plants to the outside rock-lined flower beds — my mother gave me a bunch of strawberry plants, some yarrow and chives, and a tomato seedling had snuck into one of the pots. All were planted except the tomato, which needs a little more growing time in the pot if it is to survive in the wild. The only expense in the garden thus far has been the purchase of the eight lavender plants, at a cost of $20 (I couldn’t figure out how to get them for free). Patrick and I worked on creating steps from the road up into the “terraced garden” (euphemism for “rock pile,” so far). We dug and leveled and used discarded 2x4s to build the risers, with slices off a long piece of rebar we found behind the house. So far, it looks good; will post a photo next time.
I was looking at expenses, and we are below $1000 in materials and supplies — well below. Wood for beams, insulation, writing, nails and other hardware supplies, Sheetrock — not terribly expensive. Food for a work crew and eco-friendly paint are a little more costly than I expected. Labor, of course, costs the most, but since we’ve asked two friends to help, we don’t mind paying what they’re worth, and as a labor of love, these two fine gentlemen have gone far beyond what a random contractor would have. They are treating their handiwork as if it was their own home. Safety, fixing existing code violations, ensuring that the ceiling is water-tight and energy-efficient, talking to the roofer who didn’t want to do a certain task for us (so he did it!), etc. Can’t say enough about my two guys!
I must mention gloves here. I am a wearer of gloves — not for doing dishes (I rather like to play in the water), but for any kind of cleaning or other labor, I wear gloves. I also wear them on public transportation because I’m a little fussy about germs, but that’s another post. Anyhoo, as I was digging up rocks around the “terraced garden” (ahem), I dislodged not just one but three scorpions. They are about 2-3 inches long and look pretty nasty. At first they play dead, then they get mad and try to kill you. I scoop them into a jar and we carry them away and toss them into bushes and rocks away from our yard. They look like crawdads — too bad they aren’t edible. Alas, I think their bite is worse than their food value.
So that cemented it — our yard is a gloves-on affair. So — I wore holes in my gloves. Here’s my fix:

A good old ironing board, iron-on patches and 5 minutes of my time. I also sewed up the seams a little tighter, where they had been fraying. A $2 pair of cotton gloves will now last me another few months, if not longer. Don’t they look like something a clown would wear? Well, I’ll be your clown, and I won’t have to touch spiders or scorpions. For heavy rock work, I actually wear leather gloves, but these are for my basic gardening.

I am currently packing for an extended stay at our river cottage through mid-August — it’s Mr Husband’s annual vacation and we’re taking the Boy and his friend to hang out in the sun, water and rocks. No scorpions allowed. Fishing, floating, canoeing, and some hikes in the woods are on the agenda. For me, more wall-painting — because that’s fun for me 🙂 But also, lots of reading and puttering and daydreaming. I might even break out the poetry journal and do some writing.

When we get back to civilization (Alameda) again, we kick into high gear for back-to-school prep, plus one daughter is moving out and another moving in, and a foreign exchange student is set to arrive Aug. 22. So off we go. I look forward to a little calm and quiet before the crazy.

Peace out, homeys, until mid-August.

progress and purpose

We’ve been busy at the Green House these days, painting with my Freecycled paint, or paint I purchased at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore, which sells rescued building materials. I look forward to painting our living room walls some interesting shades of green/sage, but they’re still working on the ceiling. Here’s what the living room ceiling looks like ( <--) after repairing the damaged roof, removing a desperately leaking skylight, and adding beams and trusses where there were none. (That’s right — none.) But now there are many, just the right number, in fact, to keep this roof up and over our heads for another 50 years or so. Falling trees notwithstanding (heh heh).

The light bulb in the middle is actually going to be a ceiling fan, repurposed from the dining room where it had no business being, as there are windows and a nice door already. You can see a window and part of the door below in the dining area.

While I was waiting for the plumber to show up the other day, I primed the wooden panel and trim, aka wainscoting, in the dining area. I didn’t think I had time to do it. But the plumber was late, then actually did not show up at all. So I got the priming done, and am going to call a different plumber. I used an old sheet (Thrift Town, bought for a bed, but full of cigarette holes, yuk!) instead of plastic for a drop cloth, and have been taking good care of my paintbrush. In the past, I would use it, forget it, find it all dried out and ruined, throw it away, buy a new one, repeat, repeat…. Funny how taking care of one’s stuff actually works for the good of one’s wallet and one’s planet. Simply amazing, in fact.

When the guys are inside, hammering, sawing and making noise and mess, I tend to stay outside and work on the garden-that-will-be. The garden area is a rocky hillside, to wit:

Challenge: to create a terraced garden out of a desert-like patch of sloping, infertile ground. I started with a compost corner (at right) to make some good dirt. Food scraps, green weeds and grass, dead leaves, and the addition of some wormy compost from my big garden in Alameda will help. I have harvested rocks from under the deck and around the house to make the rock-lined flower beds in front. I planted sunflowers in front of the deck, not sure if they’ll come up this year or not. I will be planting lavender in the next week or so, because they are very hardy, don’t need a lot of water or TLC, and they’ll attract bees and hummingbirds and add a nice scent to our cottage garden-to-be.
That cement slab is just a boring cement slab, not the top of the cesspool, but very big and heavy, so we won’t demolish it (yet). We started to make a mosaic out of random pieces of marble that are lying around the neighborhood (someone’s leftovers from a remodel, or an art project, perhaps?). When we get the top covered in marble, we’ll affix it with some grout and call it art. I have a potted dwarf lemon tree in a tub that will be lovely in that spot, as soon as I can get it into the car (it needs 2 people to life it, ugh.)

Here’s the kitchen door from the deck. I plan to paint it bright red or perhaps green — something cheery and colorful that will really say “cottage!”

The deck is quickly becoming our favorite place in the world — lovely in the morning and gorgeous in the late afternoon. The Stellar’s jays come for peanuts, the tiki torches burn with citronella at night, and it’s a perfect place for morning coffee or evening glass of wine. The only time it’s unbearable in summer is about 2-5 pm, when the sun beats down without mercy. You just sit there and melt into sweaty goo. That’s when its time to go inside for a siesta or run some errands. Or go jump in the river.

Meanwhile, back on the Isle of Style, my garden is going crazy with green beans that are purple and tomatoes that won’t turn red yet. There are tons of them, so I feel like there’s a ticking tomato bomb about to go off back there. Tick. Tick. Boom. Then it will be salsa, bolognese sauce and Caprese salad time. Looking forward to it. Big time.

I have laundry on the line right now and it smells so sweet. Cats are loving the heat, and prove this by staying indoors. Chickens prove it by refusing to lay ANY eggs for several weeks, yet continuing to eat their stupid heads off. They also continue to poo everywhere. Is there justice here? I think not. However, we are eating baby beets and turnips for dinner tonight, and when the sun goes down I will bake some banana muffins with the black bananas that died on the counter while I was painting wainscoting 60 miles away. The fridge turned out a pack of frozen spinach and a packet of tortellini, so I think we’re set for dinner this evening.

I wonder if a glass of wine on the Island patio is as nice as a glass of wine on a country cottage deck? Luckily, we don’t have to choose. Amen, amen.