a journal of...

A journal among friends...
art, words, home, people and places

Wednesday, May 5, 2021


 For a few weeks now, I've been waking up a good hour before my usual time.  I don't know why, or how to kick the habit.  I've tried just staying in bed, eyes closed; I've tried slipping out quietly for a cup of water and going back to bed til light begins to show between the blinds...no help.  Instead, I give in and get up and get going on the project of the day.  This week, after the arrival of the rest of my belongings from storage (oh, the too many things I'd forgotten I had!), mornings have found me moving furniture, room by room.

At first it seemed overwhelming.  The removal men tried to help, at least placing the bulkiest in their appropriate places, upstairs and down.  The smaller pieces, though, I told them to leave for me to arrange when a sane moment descended.  They cluttered the middle of each room.  I have been working since then toward a reasonable order, twisting and turning things one room at a time.

Last Saturday, by five-thirty or so, I began attacking the kitchen...torn walls still awaiting tile, new flooring not yet arrived, recently abandoned and neatly labeled paint cans piled here and there, flecks of sawdust in new drawers and cupboards, etc.  It seemed impossible, which is admittedly not my usual reaction where space is concerned.  But I needed a kitchen, so I picked up a damp rag and plowed on, or in.  

I was hard at it, cutting shelf liners but seeming to get nowhere, when, around eight, a face appeared at the back door, announcing, "Nana!  Come on!  We're going strawberry picking!"

Talk about a brain-stopper.  "Oh, Alexander," I said, "I can't go now...I'm trying to get through this kitchen...look at the mess!  You go and have fun."

"It looks fine to me," said the boy coming through the door.  "Besides, it's Saturday!  Saturday is for playing."

Was it he or the universe speaking?  No matter...I hope I know a life message when I hear one.

"Okay," I told him.  "Just let me get my shoes on."

And off we went, strawberry picking at Waller Family Farms a few miles away.  In the truck, Alexander was excited.  "We did this last year, and the year before and the year before that!"  My mood was lifting by the minute.

It's good we got there as early as we did; the lot for parking, a field hard-trenched with tractor tracks, had already attracted a crowd of families eager to get out and do something on a nice Saturday morning. (Apparently, they heard the same message I did, or else they didn't need to...)  The cheerful greeter pointed us to the next open register, where his mother or aunt noted that we had brought back our baskets from last year.  Joseph wanted eggs, too, so she put a dozen aside, saying "I'll keep these here, because I think we might be running out."

The fields stretched long and wide before us, but most people, for some reason, were farther off.  Alexander went straight to the one he wanted, a few rows in, and began to give me lessons.  "Now, don't pick the ones with holes in them...there might be a bug."  And "look for the big ones!" 

We took parallel rows.  The sun, warming quickly, drew the pungent scent of berries as we plucked them, eating a few along the way. "Leave some for the people coming," Joseph told him, "let's move up a little.  Look!  there are lots more here." 

There was little chance anyone would run out of pickings.  Strawberries were ripening in clumps all along the rows.  Our gallon baskets were quickly filled.  More people, mostly with children, were pouring through, and back at the parking field it looked like a timid version of a free-for-all SUV derby.  We waited for one car to move, blocked by another blocking the exit, and a third not sure what it was doing.  In between people walked, children darted, car doors slammed shut or flew open.

On the way home, we thought of all the things we could make with our gallons of strawberries:  strawberry piestrawberry shortcake, strawberry muffins, strawberry jam to put in jam thumbprints, strawberry shakes, strawberries with cream, strawberry and pecan salad...

My gallon, by the way, is half empty already, just from nibbling a few at a time over these last days.  Tonight the boys are coming over for dinner...guess what's on the menu for dessert?

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

A cup of tea, a cup of coffee: a progress report

 Good morning.  My sister Mary Ellen is visiting this week, cheerfully and helpfully living with me in what is basically a reconstruction site.

Here we are working inside on various projects, she with her coffee, I with my tea, while Alexis and his helper saw through roots to dig in the trees around back.

Meanwhile, we await the painter and whoever else shows up...electrician, maybe the plumber, maybe the carpenter, though the last two mentioned their return visits might be later in the week.  It's life around here, always with a full driveway of trucks.

But you will be glad to hear we now have a kitchen sink, faucet, and, best of all, water running!  So far we had mostly been picnicking, washing up whatever isn't disposable in the bathroom sink. The backsplash man, Ben, is on vacation this week, but we can dream...

 Don't feel too sorry for us, though.  On Monday afternoon, my brother Charles and sister-in-law Susan drove up from Cary with my nephew Chet, who has been cooking for me for a few weeks now while all this renovation is going on.

Though he hasn't been a professional cook, his interest in making delicious recipes, finding and trying new foods and spices, has been a great boon for me and Mary Ellen, too.  In fact, when he arrived with his box of this week's specials, the wild mushroom and walnut pate and the beet hummus didn't make it into the frig before crackers came out and people began to dig in.  "Wow!" and "Amazing!" were the sounds between eating.

Both Chet and I are enjoying the adventure of his cooking.  Along with the above treats were roasted cauliflower, a kale, cranberry and nut salad, a delicate white Sable fish with a tahini sauce on the side (we decided the fish was just right without the sauce; the tahini made its own way on the table as a salad dressing or dip), turmeric and carrot rice, and a light cheese flan with carmelized topping that Mary Ellen, Joseph and I were equally possessive of.  Last week, the hit of the menu was butternut squash enchiladas, which, I am almost ashamed to tell you, I did not share with anyone.

But about the house progress:

1) the ceilings are smooth and bright now, and the walls of all the rooms except the kitchen are painted; today, Keith is continuing trimwork.

2) the kitchen countertops, which went in last week, thanks to Josh and his crew, were missing a sink, because, opening the box, we found it cracked...ugh.  Of course, no running water.  (We now know all the things you need a kitchen sink for.)  But as of yesterday afternoon, plumbing is in and only the dishwasher has yet to be further tinkered with.

3) carpentry by the master Chuck has produced beautiful beginnings to a new pantry, a new cabinet with pull-out drawers and a lovely butcherblock top made of the remnants of another job.

4) the porch is almost its old self...rocking chairs usable, extraneous furniture down to a few bookshelves...just in time to enjoy our fine spring weather.

5) a bonus came when the old kitchen counter was removed.  As Daniel and Jose were about to carry it away, it suddenly occurred to me that I could use part of it as a new cabinet top in the living room; I asked, and it was done then and there.  (See photo above:  the glass enclosure to its right, by the way, my brother Charles designed and put in when the first reno took place seven years ago.)

6) outdoors, yard paths are completed, and my next project will be a slightly expanded patio, as soon as  I figure out which material will best support a table and chairs...it isn't gravel and flagstone, I guess, and no concrete, please.

Next, come a lot of small electrical fixes, including a doorbell that, I hope, will work...I'm getting deafer by the day...a new outdoor faucet to water more easily the ever-expanding front garden, the kitchen painted and floor put in, and the porch and landing repainted and stained.

So...so far, so good.  There has been only one day, ironically April 15, when things suddenly began to deconstruct ...that cracked sink, the internet company's interference (for no reason), a major leak requiring no running water at all for a day, and several other snafus.  But the next day we went back to repairing the setbacks and on the progress went.

I'm going out to check on the tree planting now.  My irises are opened, the herb garden is flourishing, and Joseph's lettuce is shouldering up into real leaves.

Be well, all.  Enjoy spring and all its fixings.

Monday, April 12, 2021

A ghost story

 Waking up too early lately, the dark still cushioning me against rising and shining (not to mention getting to work on the house and garden), this morning I lay there waiting for light.  I have been reading The Ghost Variations, 100 very short stories about the way spirits inhabit our world and we theirs.  It's been fun, but at the moment I wasn't in the mood to read, even to pass the time.

There is a quirkiness about the way the author, Kevin Brockmeier, turns the tables on the stereotypical ideas we have of ghost.  No mediums (so far), no white sheets with big Halloween cut-outs for eyes, no knocking on the floor to drive you mad.  Instead, he invents a normalcy that puts spirits and the living in almost interchangeable situations, giving thoughts and feelings and sometimes hilarious perplexities to the non-living (though really, these stories often defy that nomen).  My favorite is the spirit with a terrible sense of direction, lost at every turning and unable to find a single person willing to set her on the right path.

This too-early morning, thinking of the story I had read before sleep last night, I picked up a pen and a few scraps of paper I keep on the night table to jot notes for the next day, and began a ghost story of my own.  I thought I'd share what I've got so far...

It's called...

Time, Gentleman, Time

As if he were a stranger entering a house he's not sure he recognizes, Peter shifts his way from room to room, hugging the wall, mostly.  He's looking for something he can't remember, but knows is there.  That's the way he was his last year...walking around a corner, deliberate and purposeful, his object a sure thing, then suddenly the point of his destination vanished.

When he was finally gone himself, he wondered whether all the things he had forgotten were not entirely erased, but still existed, waiting on some plane he hadn't reached yet.  Finding himself at this place he thought he remembered (even if it was the wrong address), perhaps he could make peace with the insubstantiation of his existence.  The irony of that conundrum wasn't lost on him.

Nothing about the rooms struck him as significant.  There must have been furniture, or pictures on the wall...photographs, even...but such images escaped him.  Toward the back of the house there were voices, so he shifted toward them, though for an instant...he didn't know why...he was tempted to turn down the darkened hall toward the bedroom.

In the dining room now...he seems to know it by instinct...he stops for a moment, then moves into the kitchen.  Here he feels both comfortable and anxious.  His lower extremities begin to ache, but as if from far away, as if he were feeling someone else's. 

The voices are louder from here...he can hear laughter and a small child splashing and giggling.  A man he once might have known, he thinks, is shouting, cheering her on.

Some sharp edge of a memory cuts him...there is a woman with them, her voice...he knows it.  A smell of barbecue on a grill is brought to him by a shift of wind, and close behind it the scent of the cream his mother slathered over him before they walked through the sand down to the water, her hand pulling him little by little toward the low fringe of waves.  She, too, laughs.

Is this where he is, then, way back there again?  No. Not her.  But someone closer.

Closer than he wants to be.  He is too close, he feels, to something he is not ready for.  He stays where he is, in the shadows, watching without really seeing how all this is happening.  

He's new at this state of being, anyone else could tell him; it's confusing, seeing life go on without him.


By the time I wrote this, it was nearly seven, and the day could get on.  Meanwhile, you can have some fun and see what you can make of it, see where the story can go from here.  I've got to go plant some arum lilies.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

In Progress

morning reflections

Well, work is getting done!  The downstairs is a mess of old wood exposed, new wood hammered, ceiling scrapes, dangling and redirected electrical wires, furniture piled on porch and under wraps, kitchen things and books tucked into closets.

new furniture for the porch

kitchen opened up

Here is my dining table for the duration:

All the workers I contacted months ago are showing up and doing good, sometimes brilliant, work, ie., the master carpenter and his master electrician friend, who both think in whole-picture perspectives, and the painter who actually knows how paint is made, changes over time, and shows on different planes. 

Keith explaining the science of paint

Painting will begin in the living room with my firm and firmly final decision, Benjamin Moore's "Persimmon".  I'd tried the Sherwin Williams variety of that color first, but it reminded me of the salmon loaf they served me two hours after Joseph's birth (what is it about the choices hospital dieticians make?). I found the bedrooms-baths color, too, "White Rain", a gentle hint of blue-gray.  For months, I had hemmed and hawed over whether they would match each other, until the other day, making up the bed with the new coverlet I had sewn back on stay-in winter nights, I looked down and saw them happily coexisting in the fabric. Ah.

Since my last renovation seven years ago (I call it Part I of III), when my brother and nephew did most of the redoing, I hadn't collected the necessary roster of experts, and all my relatives who can do such things are now busy redoing their own places.

But a friend recommended the carpenter,  Chuck, who had done a superb job on his bookcases and cabinets, as I saw for myself.  When Chuck came to look over what needed to be done, he nodded sagely at my long list and said he could do most of that. That was over a month ago, before I could move back in, but he put me on his schedule and showed up the first day as I was unloading boxes and bags from my car.

Since then, he's been keeping me apprised of every turn and change, to which I inevitably reply,  Go to it. He brought in his painter, Keith, a friend of his from childhood, who reminisced with him about skateboarding down our hill.  Though Keith groaned at the idea, he  scraped all my ceilings, agreeing they needed it.  Just expect surprises, Keith counseled (sure enough, he was right...as I write, I can hear him struggling with one).  Chuck also called in another friend, electrician Joe, who cut a swath from his overloaded schedule so that the work on the pocket door to the bathroom wouldn't be held up.  (Certain people get priority, he nodded to me; I was glad to be, at least indirectly, on the receiving end of that association). 

Missing my brother Charles, I had searched online for a tile installer and found one whose written reviews included two people I knew.  Ben turned out to be a young fellow with a new baby who, for safety, asked that the house be clean and clear before he came to measure and advise, and who in turn recommended his friend, five-star stone-installer, Josh, who guided me through a bewildering collection of options for countertops.  Josh then sent his plumber, Mr. Ivy, who came when called and now I don't have to brush my teeth in the shower anymore.  Professional nepotism?  Maybe, but it works for me.

The best part is watching and listening as I traverse ever-changing paths through the rooms; they labor and talk and sing comfortably around each other...I find it a cheerful and cheering scene, knowing that, like art, all the mess is creating a new life for the house.

Yesterday so many people showed up...carpenter, painter, plumber, dishwasher deliverer, and electrician...that I decided to get out of their way and continue work on a new gravel-flagstone path in among the ivy tangles behind the house. 

Later this week, two helpers will show up to plant a few new trees in the back yard.  The ground is too contemptuous for me to dig, composed entirely of clay entwined with large tree roots and embedded in rocks the size of stairsteps...in fact, that's what Joseph dug up in the front yard to build two sets of stairs on the slope.

stepping stones, or what I'm grounded on

And speaking of the front slope, I'd best get out there and water the garden.  We have had much rain in recent weeks, but suddenly this week everything is bone dry.  So I am off to the garden center to pick up extra hose and attachments.

That's what we have been up to here...how about you?

Saturday, March 20, 2021



What have I been doing all this time?  You may wonder...and so may I.  Packing to move?  Not yet.  Fixing up the house to get back into?  Not yet.  Joseph has been working hard at his end of the move, so, while the engine of my anticipation is racing, I am exercising it outdoors.  Besides taking great pleasure in this season's gorgeous crop of daffodils, I'm planning new gardens, cleaning up the yard (Alexander and Louis' battalion having been deployed to the camp next door), ordering plants for a back border, and mulching. 

invading fort...

...newly deployed

Last summer and fall, Joseph spent months turning my problematic slope into a beautifully designed rock garden.  He and Alexander dug up the rocks themselves (I probably told you about it then) and Joseph placed them and planted around them parcel by parcel. 

Joseph's rock garden last fall

But the last two months' rains have washed our native orange clay to the surface, making for slippery, uneven slopes here and there.  Perfect for building army forts, and camouflaging against the enemy, but not much for growing.  So, once I had a clear field, it was time to replenish, lay down nourishment and comfort, and hold down my ground.

Meanwhile, I hadn't noticed how the pandemic enclosures this last year had rendered me so inactive, physically.  I walk outdoors almost every day, of course, 40 minutes at least, often an hour, but being in a small apartment and leaving the gardening at the house to (the more talented, frankly) Joseph, I wondered whether my body would be up to the task of hauling and digging and spreading mulch as I had done in years past.  Creaks and groans in knees, a disfigured hand...what did that say about a change of life force...was it time to let someone else do it?

What erased that question was the estimate I received from a well-recommended garden helper.  I won't shock you with the exact figure, but I figured that doing it myself would save enough for three new kitchen appliances...and not small ones, either.  So I got on the phone to Brockwell's and ordered a truckload to be delivered.  There was no longer any question whether I'd once more pick up shovel and rake and get to work myself.  

The nice office manager at Brockwell's made sure I was buying enough to justify the delivery charge (a drop in the bucket), but delivery was better than borrowing someone's pickup and going back twice for more.  To avoid delays, she advised me to get on their waitlist. "That way the driver can just call you when he finds extra time between deliveries, and even if you are not home, you can put a bucket to mark where you want it dumped and leave a check under the mat."

To my amazement, the load showed up the same afternoon.  A generous three yards of double shredded hardwood piled nearly as high as the window sills was mine to work with.  And work I did.  Over three days, at 2-3 hours at a time, I stuck pitchfork after pitchfork into the steaming hulk, loaded wheelbarrowfuls to truck to the far and near corners of the front yard, first raking mounds of leaves out of their nests in shrubbery and rock borders.

Frankly, the effort...my effort...amazed me. Initially, I reckoned that I'd be able to work an hour or so til my heretofore crumbling body complained, but miraculously it had sprung into Spring mode...it didn't make a peep. 

 In a few hours the whole lower slope was finished.  From the first dig into that pile, I recognized the familiar strength real physical work draws out.  When later I returned to the apartment I was sure I'd need a good dose of ibuprophen, or something stronger, before bedtime, but all I really felt was exhilaration.  I was tired, but in the way one feels after a bracing game or run (don't be fooled:  I haven't run in at least four decades, but you understand the analogy, I'm sure).  I couldn't wait for the next day to begin again.

center front, spring, mulched

Though day one had been a balmy 70 degrees F, day two was cloudy, considerably cooler and dampening with the mist of a small rain.  No problem for me:  over a few hours the mulch pile diminished even further.

lesser celandine

My prolific gardening neighbor Laurie Thorp had dug me up some of her lesser celandine, which, though invasive enough to cover a whole yard in no time, would at least anchor the steepest, most resistent part of the slope.  I planted those right away while the air was wet.  Neighbor after neighbor stopped by to cheer me on (a few wondered where the soldiers had gone).  Yesterday morning, day three, colder still and bracing, I headed back to do what was left.  After the day's dig and spread, I walked around that slope, picking up last leaves, raking here and there, happy (as I hope the garden will be) not only at the way it looked, but at the way I felt...lifted and cleansed of old infirmities.

back mess of ivy

Now it's time to get to the back yard, where acres of ivy complicate everything.  On Monday, one of the university boys will come to help me tackle the mess and ready the ground for the new trees that arrive on Tuesday; my hands, while they can lift, haul, carry, rake and plant, can't dig large wells well. On Wednesday, plant; on Thursday, who knows what I will turn to?  Oh, right...bluestone pebbles down for a path to a small flagstone patio (I'd better get an order in for those).  

I'm up for anything these days, thanks in no small part to the effort called forth by Spring.

Here, though, is the highlight of our move so far:  last night, on the other side of the driveway, we celebrated Joseph, born into daffodil season all those years ago, just before the first day of Spring, with a birthday dinner in his new kitchen.  Though he's not moved in yet, we sat enjoying the space and admiring the view out the windows, blessing candles, bread, and being together.  

Spring has always been for me a resurgence of body and spirit...and new life.  
This year it radiates inside and out.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

How I love a project!

This morning I went to Lowe's, a first venture since last March into a store with a parking lot more than 10 cars occupied.  What possessed me?  Well, I've had my two vaccine shots, for one thing; I, as usual, armored myself in mask and gloves, for another; and for a third...the most exciting...I have a Project!  

the horror

My husband, poor thing, used to cringe when he sensed that air of redoing descend on me.  "You always need a project," he would moan, knowing that the next months (or even the next trip to Oden's Country Store) would bring dreaded change underfoot.  It's a good thing he can't see the upheaval planned for this spring...probably dragged into part of the summer, as things go.   

he's moved on

My house, inhabited for the last two years by my two best men, their two cats, a sometime lizard and its accompanying crickets, and before them by my dear, well-aged aunt and uncle, needs some renovation before I can make it mine again.  Seven years ago, when I bought it, I'd had to have a go it, as its 27-year history was a rental to students, mostly.  Fortunately I had my talented and inventive brother Charles and nephew Joe to work on a lot of it, building cabinets, putting in a new shower, tiling, painting, helping with appliances, etc.  Along the way, I had the porch added and fixed this and that as needed.

the porch that changed everything

This time, however, aside from the normal seven-year itch to repaint and repair, this remodel looks toward the future.  Enough people have passed through as guests and co-residents in those years to show me what a functional (and appealing) space I have to work toward, so that for the next decades, if necessary, it will serve what I am and what I am to become. 

Botticelli Red


As I go through each room, in mind or in actuality, I first appraise it for use and then for comfort...which includes ease of mind and eye.  I am one for whom the space she inhabits is as much as possible an extension of the psyche, though truthfully I am pretty capable of making a space do.  I'm not one for glamour, particularly, nor for the vast square footage popular in bedrooms, kitchens and (I have never figured out why) laundry rooms.  What I need is enough room for me and for whoever chooses to drop in and live for a while. (For instance, this time my upstairs, though formerly my lair, will now become what my sisters call their "snow bird apartment".  My studio, downstairs now, will be big enough for a wide open work table in the middle.  And the doorway between the bathroom and bedroom will be wide enough for a wheelchair, if it comes to that.)  

windows that don't leak

storm door that actually keeps out the storm

Although work won't begin until April, the past weeks have found me almost deliriously busy collecting workpeople and materials, choosing paint and countertops and sinks and windows.  (Today, at Lowe's, it was a quick pickup of faucets.)  Stone and tile installers, plumbers and electricians, painters and carpenters...my address book is filling with their phone numbers, and my hopes riding along with them.

a pantry I can see things in

shelves I can reach

And that's only for inside the house.  I've also been collecting visions of landscapes to try later on, especially in the back yard. Over the year, Joseph has worked miracles of hard labor to transform the front slope, with help from Alexander to dig up all those rocks, and they have given me a wonderful topography to work with.  

Joseph's front slope

Of course, Alexander and his friend Louie need to be convinced that, as they move next door, they will have to take with them their complex system of brick, stone and wood forts, built over months for hours at a time each and now ranged over half the top of the front yard.  On the afternoons I sit at the house, listening and watching their project, I can only admire the industry and creativity they display.  Their ingenuity, invention, narrative and cinematic geniuses have brought all they have to bear on it (and also on most of my daffodils).  So moving the fort to a new location, even only fifty or so linear yards away, is not, I will tell you, a happy prospect for them.  They are, in fact, preparing for war...against me and my gardening plans.

But gardens I will have, for whenever my energies turn to the outdoors.  

not a fountain but a dream of one

garden path instead of ivy tangle

For right now, I am gratefully pulled out of the pandemic and its quieter demeanor, as well as its endlessly altering landscape, by planning for what's to come.  My blood is racing, my head sparking with ideas and practicalities, estimates, budgets and timelines.  I carry around a ruler and a fattening notebook of possibilities.

Not that I am expecting the impossible...renovation, whether physical or spiritual, is never trouble-free. And you know the old, tried-and-true saying about plans... our old 1890 house Down East was enough proof that opening up a wall, or even a light switch plate, was opening Pandora's box.

Still, you remember what was left in that box once that unfortunate girl finally got it shut...Hope.  It is nice to have a project again, to begin with ideals, at least some of which are bound to come true.