Travel plans for the week sort of fell apart, so instead of sitting at the airport with book in hand, waiting for a flight, I ended up at the crash pad, back to the normal routine. After making the three and a half hour drive from home, I was a bit tired while I unpacked. I remember removing a pair of bright orange earplugs from my briefcase and putting them on the coffee table while I went to bring in my computer case.
When I came back, one of them was missing
Uh, huh, I think I found it.
Yup, looks like someone snagged it and spit it out
I'd been peeling wallpaper for most of the morning, sweat dripping down my forehead, lighting on my tongue, tasting of the essence of me, salt and earth.
At first, the movements were enjoyable, the evening light coming in not as dimness, but bright as silver, the sun streaming through it, as if a sieve. For a while I enjoyed the repeated motions, as I scraped the paper from old walls, free of obligations but to this task, its unique sight and unique smell, reminiscent of old books in an ancient library. After about an hour, shaving never quite vertical pieces of paper from walls that steadfastly hold on to it, as if it was all that was supporting it's very structure, I was regretting not only my decision to tackle this job by myself, but to own a home at all.
A beer would be good, I thought to myself. It would cool me off a bit while I take a rest. After another half hour of labor, a second cold beer was warranted. At that point it became not so much a task but a philosophical discourse with not just the house, but myself, seeing into the violated walls, not just a simple task of unpainted wood and sweat, but the very existences of mortality and the doom of mere flesh.
When I started thinking about a third beer, I realized that philosophy would soon give way to either poems rhyming with Nantucket or off key sea shanties and I realized I either needed
(a) a break
(c) a professional.
I called it quits for the night and went and got a long shower.
It was the bathroom in my last house. My current house also has wallpaper, but it's of the textured, solid colored type, that from a few feet away looks like the paint that's in the other rooms and is in a condition it can stay up for another 2-3 years while the kitchen and more structural projects are completed. It's a soothing color, a cool green resting place, that spot to where I always circle back to, like a wheel, hubbed in that place that can't be placed on a map, but steadfastly exists.
THAT wallpaper, on that long ago day, however, was what happened when someone had a three martini lunch and then let their Mother in Law pick out the wallpaper. It could only be described as "Olive Garden" meets "Rocky Horror Picture Show", with flowering trellis's, bright flowers and grapes that looked as if they were bleeding O Positive.
And it covered the entire kitchen. We won't mention the foot tall cherubs that wound their way around the entire border of the master bed and bath.
The house was on a big pond, a wall of windows, corn fields behind that, yet close enough to shops of a small town that if Dad wanted to walk to the store for a six pack and some cheese he could. For with a diagnosis of late stage cancer in my Stepmother just before I bought it, he had mentioned moving in with me when she was gone. For him, I could deal with the wallpaper in the bedroom, kitchen and bath.
No one told me how hard wallpaper was to remove though. I tried the usual methods, spray on "easy wallpaperremover" which was about as effective as Congress just before recess. I tried sheer force and heat. In sheer desperation I resorted to swearing in Swedish (my Grandfather was a Swedish lumberjack, it's in the genes) But mostly it just took moisture and a tool sharper than muscle or wit. By the time I was halfway through the task, the wallpaper was Tokyo and I was Godzilla.
Sometimes when we start something we have no idea what it is going to entail.
I'm not naturally "Miss Home Improvement", but it never stopped me. There is a photo of my Dad and I that I still have. I'm probably 3 or 4 years old, in my little coveralls and painters cap "helping" my Dad paint the house. I honestly had more paint on me than the house. He didn't criticize though, letting me learn. For the last few years, Big Bro and I did most of the house upkeep for him, since that day I came home and found Dad on a ladder, with the leaf blower, trying to blow leaves out of the gutters. You think, as your parents age, that one day you'll have to take away the car keys, NOT the ones to the storage shed.
The serious stuff (rewiring/chimney) Dad pays for professionals, the little stuff I do now that Big Bro is gone. There are bars to hold on to in both bathrooms to help in around the toilet and shower. There's a railing off the front porch, painted to match the trim, so he has something to balance on as he goes down two steps to water the plants. There's new linoleum tiles in the kitchen, and those 1970's orange beaded "drapes" Mom put up in the laundry room and one bath were replaced with some beautiful lace curtains found at a thrift store.
I've also found homes with family members or Amvets for some of the clutter that made it difficult for him to navigate in the dark. A few small but good chairs that were never used, decorative tables, all found a place. That men's suit rack, you know those waist high contraptions that sit in a bedroom, holding your good clothes all neatly (as if you don't own a closet). Well, after bumping into that while getting up in the middle of the night while in the one bedroom with A.C. while Dad was in the hospital recently, I thought for a moment there'd been a home invasion by a well dressed midget, and almost put a round of .45 through it. THAT got tossed.
But I enjoyed all of it, even the back breaking work. Perhaps I'm odd in this thought, but like some automobiles, I feel that an old house is like a living thing, in how you care for it, react to it, trust it or hate it, simply accept it or love it. I occasionally come across one in late hours of the night that has burned to the ground with the force of fates conflagration and in my tired brain I wonder if it knew, like some centurion whose mind has gone; did you know what has happened to you, do you even know you have died?
The time and relationships with such things have served a purpose. I've done things I didn't think I was clever or strong enough to do. I learned some things one should NOT do A bench vice works much better than your knees and a Bush Hog can do many outdoor heavy tasks, with perhaps not the ease of explosives, but with better odds of the police not showing up.
I've also learned about planning, about having supplies on hand, how to work as a team, and how to put one's ego aside and simply ask for help. Anything of value takes work and upkeep. That includes you. Sometimes you can do it on your own, sometimes you need the help of your friends.
Looking around now, I see so much done so very much still to do. In the shop are so many tools, the cold brilliance of cutting edges, the precision of measurements, small and large objects that are more use than ornamentation. They are spread out across the work surfaces, so diverse, yet somehow connected, that when the eye catches upon them, the mind sees an impression of action, of motion, still there in memory.
Up above are the journals, the books of instruction, in woodworking, in gunsmithing, in plumbing, many of them old, written when this house was still new, the basic skills still valued, even if the supplies have changed. I love reading of the small advances back then in what now would be considered commonplace. With them, are some books of leisure reading, should I wish to just sit down in a chair here while something rests in wait of the next step.
The books, all so old, and so varied, like individuals for all are bound differently, all have weathered time in their own way. One is bright white and gold like the vestments of a Priest who on Sunday morning dons his finery and puts all of his burden onto a table to be consumed by the fire. Others are plain, dark black covers, lined up in a row as if in a funeral procession, quietly waiting there in the darkness to be necessary. Then there are the newer ones, one bright green, another the color or a penny, as open as children, just asking to be picked up and gently held like small treasure.
Upon another shelf at home is a small collection of bones. Sometimes all I find are bones, laid bare to the elements, or burned clean. With the right temperature all things will burn, yet bone itself stubbornly resists all but the hottest of fires. Even when all the carbon is burned from it, bone will still retain it's shape. An insubstantial ghost of itself, it crumbles easily, the last bastion of the person's being transformed into ash. Yet in that ash remain large pieces, calcined and with the consistency of pumice, yet when held in the hand, almost seeming to posses a trace of warmth from within their core, as if still alive.
Some days I will pick one up and gently touch it, as I have a hundred of times before, endlessly fascinated.. I have studied bones untouched by anything but time. I have studied bones in fragments, co mingled with hundreds of others, burned and broken and laid bare to the elements. Still, I am always fascinated by the strength of that which is unfleshed. They are what lies at the center of us, not the heart, but that part of us that is the last thing to ever be dissolved, even if cut or disassembled or burned. It is the hardest, strongest most unwavering part of us, that which supports us, the last piece of us that remains of this earth, when everything else is lost. It's the surviving remnant of all that was dear to us.
But even the strongest of bone can be broken under the fragility of human flesh, as fate resolves us of all integrity, leaving us as wrenched asunder of all that was, smells of cooling flesh and salty tears, illusions of ice and rain and fire, detached and secret, yet oh so familiar. With these moments we pick ourselves up, and begin to rebuild.
So here in this space are the tools so that a hundred year old house can maintain its strength as my soul regains mine. For I've learned, that your relationship with an old house is not much different than your relationship with people. It was standing there long before you came along, and if you leave, it will still be standing, either better or worse for knowing you. It has existed before, perhaps, you drew breath, and may well exist after you are gone, long after those things which reflect in mirrored surfaces, cease to be, and are replaced.
You can curse at it, words as hard as friction, make demands upon its form, strike blows of physical violence against it as you attempt to pull some order out of superficial chaos. But whatever you do to it, the supports, the things that hold it together, even if hidden, will remain.
It's easy to forget that behind the whitewash and paint, that which has been updated for the times, lies symmetrical brick and old wood beams, things that hold fast what time attempts to change. But sometimes you remember, sometimes catch a small glimpse of it, the delicate and ineffacable mark of its retrospection in one of its windows, those shiny surfaces from which the world is viewed.
It cares not that you have a piece of paper that says you possess it, or if you are just renting. It is as it was designed to be, and though you can effect the outward form, or perhaps even the function, it is as it was designed, by the grand architect. The American Indians believed that even the inanimate has a spirit, for although something may be made by man, it was made with materials provided by God, and therefore is sacred. Sitting in this old house, looking through the light of the stained glass windows, I can believe. For there is sacred space in that which we keep, which we hold deer, even the intimate, our responsibilities awakened in that solemn recognition.
If you are fortunate, treating it with care, overlooking its defects, you can share either briefly or for a lifetime, this point in space with such things. When that time is over, you will find, that short of the rending of the earth itself, its foundation remains, even as it outwardly changes, much like yourself. For behind the paint and the polish, lies still, steadfast bones from which one's house is built.
This is my extra homemade shop lamp. Look, it DOES say "electric perk".
The 36 hours I had off before heading out again was spent at home, food from the freezer and supplies on hand, some yard and shop work, and time with Abby and Partner and some long chats with my Dad on the phone before I leave again.
A day off has to start with a homemade breakfast, not something out of a box or a bag.
After cleaning up, it was time for the yard work. The Purple Conefloweris not only a pretty plant, but they are dried and kept as medical items in the bug out stash.
Then to the garage to to bump (ow!) and grind alongside the stripper.
The finished product.
once looked like this.
Left on a local curb with trash, the particleboard top was trashed. But the legs and lower shelf? Solid hardwood and only lightly scratched. $40 at the home improvement store for wood for a new top and a little elbow grease and we had a table that would cost hundreds in a store.
Time for lunch. Pineapple glazed ham sliced thin with baby Swiss, on thinly sliced oatmeal bread, then grilled and served with some sliced apples and carrot sticks. Then back to the garage.
Miss Madeline - theTR6, is happy the temperatures are warmer.
But for now, Abby needs some playtime and a walk to say hi to the neighborhood dogs.
You want a piece of me?
Once we were home, a few last minute projects.
The glass was once a large light fixture at a local business, built in the 20's or 30's. Partner got it from the owner for $10, and built the base fixture out of pieces and parts in the Batshop It's about 2 feet across at the base of the glass and will look really cool (well, it will once the ceiling is finished out) with the kitchen upgrade that's a summer/fall project (though I will miss the contact paper covered kitchen upgrade of the 1930's (not).
This is the general plan. The kitchen itself is very tiny so using the space wisely is essential. Light yellow walls (my favorite color and will look good with my Swedish decorative items). White cupboards. The antique washboard sink will be on the parallel wall to the right (which will be a total re-plumbing of the kitchen but will give me a huge surface to the left of it on which to work). The look will be antique, but other than the sink and the fixtures, everything will be new. The counter may be hardwood, I'm doing some research on that as far as wear and keeping it sanitized.
It's been a busy day, time to get out some adult beverages and start the barbecue.
This is going to be a very cheap dinner. The chicken "pinwheels" (legs and thighs) were picked up at a locally owned (not a chain) grocers, two bulk packages for the price of one. Add in some veggies purchased in bulk and frozen, steamed rice (also bulk purchase) and some sauce made "from scratch" (no extra charge for chicken puns) with items on hand and dinner was on the table for less than a dollar per serving.
Sweet but not too much and slightly spicy, it was wonderful brushed on the chicken after it had cooked about 15 minutes. The recipe makes a little more than cup, just enough to glaze a family sized batch of chicken or beef.
After brushing one side, the chicken was flipped, brushed with more sauce and covered up to finish grilling to 165 degrees F.
The efforts today were worth it, the house and the yard, taken care of, nothing to do now but relex and enjoy a good supper.
We ended up eating this with our fingers, to get every last succulent bite.
I had a chance to fly home for one night this last week, to get some sleep and fresh clothes, the upcoming schedule sort of in limbo. Before my flight, I had a good breakfast of scrambled eggs, sausage and an orange at the hotel, but figured I'd best get a snack to take on the plane, as low blood sugar and long flights don't mix. So I picked up some beef jerky. Most airport beef jerky is pretty lousy (being made up of diced and smoked unclaimed luggage), but this stuff was quite good and after a little nibble mid-flight, I tucked it into my soft-sided briefcase.
I have to say though, it was good to come home to a house with lights on, and someone waiting for me. Before I got Barkley I remember too well, the years of coming home to an empty house, something I'd just grown used to. It was as if loneliness were a callous and complete condition of living which seems forever fixed, only to melt before a pair of brown eyes and a wagging tail, that capricious and faithful spirit that forever waits.
I had gotten spoiled before this last assignment though. I've only had to take one overnight trip since we got Abby, Partner watching her at home while I was gone. But I DID bring her a new toy when I returned that time.
This time, there was more than one night away and no toy, just one tired dog Mom, even though Abby snooted my bag as if expecting something to come out of it.
No one was up late. Abby collecting her beloved stuffed toys and one by one carrying them to her bed in my office, while she then sleeps on the futon from which she can look down the hallway to where the bedroom is.
Early the next morning, not long after dawn, I wake to an unusual noise. I can sleep through trains all night long, but if there is a sound in the house that isn't normal, I'm awake in a nanosecond. The sound was odd, there in the dim stillness of the house, almost as if Abby was eating something. It wasn't Abby crunching on a piece of kibble left in her bowl. It almost had a plastic sound. Then it stopped. Partner got up to investigate. I heard a laugh and was told to come look.
She'd snagged the puffy bag of beef jerky out of my briefcase. She didn't try and gnaw it open, thinking perhaps it was just a really tasty smelling toy.
I was just keeping your bed warm until you came back.
Thanks for the new toy Mom. It didn't squeak at all but it smells like cow!
I thought, as I put water on to boil for tea, that my time at home may sometimes be short, but it is never boring.
I will be out of pocket for the next day or two, for work, but have some posts saved to come up over the weekend. For tonight, just sit back and read this, and take it to heart. None of us know when illness or disaster will strike, or how. But we do know, there are ways we can ease the burden for others.
There is one word which may serve as a rule of practice for all one's life - reciprocity.
They were in the kitchen, Pepper, my dog from childhood, asleep on a rug in the living room. Mom was drying the last of the dishes while Dad sipped at a cup of coffee as he helped, talking that talk of parents that for kids is equally without interest and yet comforting. It's not what they are talking about or who (though our ears are always perked up for words like "inoculation" "liver and onions" and "parent-teacher"). It was simply that steady hum that is life continuing as we know it. It was where Big Bro and I could play on the floor with our small cars and legos under the sheltering shadow of much taller people, listening to their voices without hearing, not knowing that they would give their lives for us, but perhaps sensing it somehow.
Evenings were pretty much always the same, after dinner, we kids would clear the table, Dad would help Mom get things ready to wash and then they'd chat and laugh while the chores were done and we had a little quiet playtime or finished a homework assignment. It was simply an evening at home, the routine of chores, the tick of the clock, the sound of the chime that indicated bedtime, as if the clock cleared its throat like a parent's not so subtle reminder. All of these simple actions being part of the the foundation of family that helped us to hold and protect each other.
Then the phone rang. "It's the hospital", Mom says, but no one looks anxious. For it is a call for my Dad, who has a fairly rare blood type, of which some is needed. He washes up, kisses my Mom and leaves. He doesn't talk much about it, but over a course of a life, there were many such calls, and pins he proudly wore that showed how many gallons of blood from his veins that found their way to someone in need. Later, when his medications were such he couldn't donate, he volunteered to be a driver for the local blood bank, collecting the blood they packed in special coolers at this rural gathering point and driving it into the city an hour or so away in his own car to be delivered to the hospital. He got some sort of small stipend for it, enough to cover gas and a meal, but that was all. But that's not why he did it.
It was giving up something of himself, something we all have to give.
I'd like to say I took up the cause but I did not. As kid I thought about being a medical doctor. I loved science; had no problems dissecting Mr. Toad (though the teacher did NOT buy in on the slightly eaten, glossy lemon drop placed in the abdominal cavity as a "new organ!"). Then came the day I actually had to stick a classmate's finger with a sterilized need in a junior high science class. Couldn't do it. I could NOT stick a sharp object into a living thing. I couldn't watch someone else do it. Yet, a lifetime later, I'm reading the barbaric language of injury and affronts, the sights of which would sear the eyeballs of the naive and I regularly work up close and personal with the empty forms of those who have departed this mortal plane, often with violence.
But I still hate needles in living flesh of any kind, and adulthood didn't cure my fear of that. I hate shots. I'd had enough of them to go visit strange places where the local insects might carry me off. Then I was not able to donate for some time as I'd visited such places. As for blood, well, I'd seen way too much of it spilled and I sort of wanted to keep all of mine.
It was just something I knew I should do, but couldn't get past my fear. I recognized that sort of thinking in women I knew that expressed interest in learning to shoot for self defense but said they were "afraid", not afraid of the firearm actually, but the unknown. Like my fear of needles, they create a sort space around their fear, a "blasted heath" like that in Shakespeare's Macbeth, where nothing lives but toads, hot brass and ghostly warnings. It takes a life changing event, or perhaps just someone you trust, to get you past that zone to face your fear, where you often find yourself embracing it.
For me it was some folks I trusted with my back, some Marines I worked with. They'd been stateside long enough they could donate blood again and asked me to go with them. I thought about it. I could check all the boxes "no" on the form regarding participating in Naked Twister in Calcutta and it was years since I'd consumed fried Guinea Pig in Peru (OK, probably not disqualifying but it should be). I've been dissed by a CF700 engine, been shot at, eaten battered rodent, had my underwear stolen out of a tent in Africa (don't ask) and been around sploody things that could turn me into a flesh and bone hula skirt. But I was afraid of needles.
It didn't help that one of the biggest of my posse, a large wall of muscle on legs with a buzz cut, damn near fainted at the start of the procedure. He said later it didn't hurt, but when the needle went in he went all Tactical Raggedy Andy on us.
But everyone else was fine and he was right, it didn't really hurt, and after they would give me cookies AND juice. As always I was treated with the utmost of warmth and care and genuinely thanked. I've got O positive blood. Folks like me can only receive O blood, where other blood types have more options. So if it's in short supply someone is going to have a bad day. So I go back, three or four times a year.
Not everyone can donate, a few (though not many) healthy individuals, can have reactions to it that make them briefly very dizzy and sick. Others have disqualifying conditions, medications or exposure to people and places that have put them at risk to donate for now. The screening you get with your little mini physical prior to donating will make it quite clear if you can donate or not now, and even if you can't, you will be thanked for trying and sent on your way with a smile and some cookies.
But I urge you, if you have not donated, consider it. With the increased numbers of complex treatment such as
chemotherapy, organ transplants and heart surgeries, which
require large amounts of blood, supplies can get dangerously low. They may have to fetch 120 units of blood for one liver transplant.
I don't even look away now on the days that bag fills up with that pint. To my eyes, it's not blood in the sense of bloodshed, of loss. It's simply the shape of a need being met, filling the bag with a movement like warm molasses, flowing out of my body into that vessel, til it lays full and motionless, a compelling shape, completely without life, yet profoundly full of it.
Somewhere soon, there will be another form, a parent, spouse, daughter, brother, laying in the shadow of a hospital room, listening to the comforting talk of their family around them, without hearing the words. They wait for that gift of healing. Fighting for that chance to receive it. Even the most egregiously injured fight, veins coursing with the blood that remains, from which they ARE, and without which, emptied of all but dark sleep, they are NOT.
Any of us could, one day, need blood. We think that as we go about our routine lives that we'll be safe. We take our vitamins, drive cars with air bags, and don't have an attack of selective Tourettes with the guy with 12 skull and dagger tattoos and the chainsaw that decided he wanted one of our trees for firewood. But we're not. Safety, viewed as such, is a lie. The things that we think are safe just those things that we've repeated so many times, so many days, over and over again that the sharp margins have worn away and there's nothing in the conduct of them that says "you know, just because I've done this a hundred times doesn't mean I won't die doing it today."
You may one day be that person in that hospital that needs blood. So think about it and make that call, bloodmobiles can visit even the smallest of communities and a quick search engine query can find your nearest donation facility.
In my wallet is my Blood Donor Card, showing my O positive status should I need to be a recipient. Like my Concealed Carry Card, it's something I bear, not as a burden, but as a way I can protect a life, one small action at a time.