Sunday, December 24, 2017

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas! Here are a few pictures of our "front hall," including the aluminum Christmas tree and the ornaments I hang in the front window. They always look so nice when the sun shines in!

Best wishes you for a joyful and blessed holiday!

Monday, December 18, 2017

Sue's Great Aunt Margaret

Now that you’ve seen the Christmas tree we associate with her, I’m going to share more information about the story of Aunt Margaret—whom I never personally met, by the way. But as I sit here in the evenings, enjoying her Christmas tree, I ponder her life and her connections to Sue, to her family, and by extension to me.

Berlin Heights, Ohio
, is a small town with a deep and fascinating history. And Sue’s great aunt Margaret seemed to be an interesting, intelligent woman. You want to read more, don’t you?

Margaret Armina Ferber Nottke, born in 1903, got her unusual middle name from her “Aunt Miney,” Armina Baumhart (pronounced with a long i: ar-MY-nuh). Aunt Armina was profoundly deaf. Sue says Aunt Margaret told her about how, when she was young, her Aunt Miney would come to visit and would sleep with Margaret, her namesake. When they were both nestled into the bed, with the covers pulled up and the lights out, they would “talk” by tracing letters on the palms of each other’s hands. (Isn’t that an interesting story?)

Here’s a portrait of Armina Baumhart.

Sue described Aunt Margaret as no-nonsense, direct, opinionated, and very smart. And although she was not extravagant, she recognized quality.

Let’s start this story at about the turn of the century.

Margaret was the baby of her family. Her father was Henry Ferber (seated) (Sue’s great-grandpa). Margaret had five brothers and sisters, including Sue’s grandpa, Nelson (standing in front of his father). Her sister Mabel Ferber (more on her below) is standing at far left. Margaret’s sitting on her mom’s knee.

The backdrop of that photo, by the way, is the side of the Ferber family homestead, a building still standing. Nelson would begin farming there in 1928, renting the land from his widowed mother at first. (Read on.) (Apologies for the poor quality of these images; I took snapshots of a framed photograph, so they’re skewed and blurry.)

Sue thinks Margaret was probably the only one of her siblings to go to college. (Ohio State—go Buckeyes!) Her higher education was cut short, however, when her dad (Henry Ferber) died in 1923, and she had to go home, back to Berlin Heights.

If you look at a map of Ohio, the northern edge forms a shallow U shape. About four miles inland from the very bottom of that U is Berlin Heights (pronounced BURR-lun). Here’s a picture of BHOH we took from a jet in 2006. At the top is Lake Erie/north. Ohio Route 61 runs down the middle of the image. There are two prominent east-west highways. The one toward the top, with the visible exit ramps where Route 61 bends, is Route 2; moving down, the other east-west highway is the Ohio Turnpike. Berlin Heights is the buildings and homes clustered on both sides of Route 61 just south of the turnpike.

Margaret’s story is closely connected with that of her brother Nelson (Sue’s grandpa). Nelson pursued farming, like his dad and grandfather. Nelson and his wife, Mabel (Sue’s grandma), rented the family farm in 1928, then bought it in 1929.

Here's a portrait of Mabel Ferber, Sue's grandmother, and Margaret Nottke's sister-in-law.

Are you ready for a sad story? In July of that year, 1929, the Ferber farm’s enormous barn caught fire and was destroyed (along with the horses in it). Sue’s aunt Nelly, the eldest of the couple’s three daughters, was the first to notice and sound the alarm, and she witnessed the entire thing. Absolutely devastating . . . but wait, it gets worse.

The decision was made to rebuild the barn—a majestic thing—at great expense, with huge 8 by 8 beams joined together with wooden pegs. It and the big old Ferber farmhouse are still standing, east of Berlin Heights, on the southwest corner of East Main (Rt. 17) and Wright Road (Rt. 138). You can just see it from the Ohio Turnpike.

. . . How many things might have turned out differently if they had not incurred this debt?

So Sue’s grandparents had the loan for rebuilding the barn as well as the mortgage. They couldn’t have picked a worse time to go into debt: Black Tuesday was October 29 of that year. Farmers all over America were devastated by the Great Depression, but it was extremely hard on this family. Mabel Ferber’s diary from 1932 is heartbreaking, in large part because she spent so little time writing about her feelings. She mainly wrote about all the hard work they did—and only occasionally commented on the hopelessness of their situation.

Though they toiled fiercely to bring crops from the soil and to produce livestock to sell, they found they rarely could sell for reasonable prices. After months of describing their hard work and accomplishments, on May 16, Mabel noted that a 255-pound calf had sold that day for $12.75, five cents a pound—by my calculations, that’s about a third of its value before the depression, and certainly not enough to cover the expenses of raising the calf. The usually stoic Mabel—in perhaps her most poignant statement in the entire diary—in three simple words expressed the utter despair of their situation: “Everything worth nothing.”

So, as the depression had deepened, the couple finally produced a son. Sue’s dad was born in February 1932. Though “Sonny” struggled to gain weight at first, he finally pulled through . . . But the family's challenges were overwhelming. That winter, they all kept getting colds, but they all kept working anyway. And then Mabel died in December of that year. (I told you her 1932 diary is a poignant read; you can’t read it without knowing that its writer was experiencing her last year of life.) By then, the foreclosure was already in process. By the end of that winter, Sue’s grandpa Ferber and his four children had left the farm. The man who had loaned him the money to rebuild the barn—a cousin, in fact—foreclosed on him in early 1933.

Aunt Margaret and Uncle Stub are mentioned a lot in Mabel Ferber’s diary. The family was close, and during the depression they were all pulling for each other. After Mabel’s death, the four children, including Sue’s father, an infant, didn’t have a clear place to live. Here's a photo from 1933, taken sometime after they'd lost the farm.

Their dad was focused on finding work. So in the first few years of his life, Sue’s dad, in particular, was cared for by a variety of relatives—on his mom’s and dad’s side.

For example, he was often cared for by his aunt Mabel and uncle Clarence Nottke, who had a mom-and-pop grocery store in Florence, on the southwest corner of the intersection of East Main (Rt. 17) and the Florence-Wakeman Road. That building’s still there, too. I guess it’s an apartment building now.

The names are confusing, aren’t they! Get this! Two brothers married two sisters: Great Uncle Stub Nottke and Great Uncle Clarence Nottke were brothers; and Great Aunt Margaret (Ferber) Nottke and Great Aunt Mabel (Ferber) Nottke were sisters! And there are two Mabels in this story, too: Sue’s grandpa’s sister Mabel (Ferber) Nottke, and his wife, Mabel (Johannsen) Ferber; also, there are two Nelsons: Sue’s grandpa Nelson Ferber, and Sue’s dad, also Nelson Ferber. (WHEW!) (Also, in case you’re not sure how to pronounce it, Nottke is pronounced NUT-kee.)

. . . Anyway, here’s a fun aside: So, Aunt Mabel and Uncle Clarence Nottke often cared for Sue’s dad when he was a little boy. They lived above their store in Florence. Sue’s dad remembers that when he would stay with them, they’d sometimes cut off a small wedge of cheese to eat as a snack before bedtime. . . . Sue wonders if even today—when the humidity’s just right—that building might still smell of cheese, milk, and dry goods.

Back to the story. Eventually, Margaret and Stub started caring for Nelson full-time, apparently when he was about three (or before he started school, anyway). They never had any children of their own.

This picture, by the way, was taken in front of Clarence and Mabel's store in Florence.

But Stub and Margaret didn’t officially adopt their nephew Nelson; and they didn’t let him forget who his real dad was. He never called them “mom” and “dad.” At holidays and in summers, he went to stay with other relatives.

Sue’s grandpa Ferber was forced into new work, first farming near Vermilion, later becoming a logger and lumber seller. He worked with a team of draft horses and a big wooden sled for hauling boles out of the woods.

He remarried rather soon after Mabel’s death, and no one seemed too fond of his second wife, Cora. I guess that was because she wasn’t warm to her husband’s family. And Grandpa Ferber himself had grown increasingly, um, crusty. He’d always been short-tempered, and the disasters he experienced certainly didn’t help his disposition.

So Sue’s dad grew up with his aunt Margaret and uncle Stub, and Sue and her sister and brother grew up with a great aunt and great uncle who were, more or less, their paternal “grandparents.” They were certainly emotionally closer to them than to their father’s own father.

What did the Nottkes do? Well, for about one year, they had a dry goods store at the center of Berlin Heights, on the northeast corner of Main and Lake streets, where the town’s U.S. Post Office is now. Maybe they did this with the encouragement of their siblings/in-laws, Clarence and Mabel, who had the store in nearby Florence. Anyway, they got out of that business; apparently they just didn't care for that kind of business.

So mainly, Uncle Stub worked for the Lake Shore Electric interurban railway line, which went through Berlin Heights through what is now the field behind Sue’s parents’ house. Stub must have been employed in some form of maintenance—either of the cars, the line, or the station. The interurban was a big deal in its time, offering people in small towns fast, convenient travel to Cleveland, Toledo, and Detroit. When the interurban declined and closed in 1938, Uncle Stub found other employment; Sue remembers him working for Ohio Edison—as a lineman, she thinks.

Here they are in 1956.

And Margaret worked, too. She worked for many years at the Berlin Fruit Box Company, which all the locals called “the box shop.” For more than 150 years, this basket factory was the town’s main industry. It started in 1854 making bushel, peck, and pint baskets, crates, ladders, and other items needed for harvesting and shipping apples and other fruit and vegetable crops.

The basket factory, at 51 Mechanic Street, was just up the road from the Nottkes’ home at 13 Mechanic Street.

In fact, “the box shop” continued, under sixth-generation ownership, as a small factory called “Samuel Patterson Baskets,” named for the company’s founder. They made extremely high quality, durable, “heirloom” baskets until just a few years ago, when they closed. (Sadly, they sold the awesome vintage lathe and cutting machines, so the business really is d-e-d dead.)

This was their lathe/veneer-making machine; Sue took the photo in November 2004 when we took a tour of the then-revitalized factory.

Although the basket factory is closed, the town of Berlin Heights still has its annual Basket Festival, with funnel cakes, a parade, and a “Basket Queen.”

The 2010 Basket Queen:

The famous Giant Basket in the center of town, and the sign inviting everyone to visit the first week in August:

The basket theme still fits, since the community has a thriving orchard-based economy, including Burnham Orchards, Quarry Hill Orchards, and AB Phillips & Sons Fruit Farm.

So as Uncle Stub worked at the interurban and at Ohio Edison, and Aunt Margaret wove together thin strips of wood and stapled them together into baskets for the region’s produce, Sue’s dad grew up kind of a latchkey kid.

Maybe to help make up for not being home all the time, Aunt Margaret was rather stern with her nephew, her young charge. Apparently she was a stickler for manners—sitting up straight, behaving appropriately at the dinner table, cleaning your plate, and so on. (For ever after, Sue’s dad, I guess, never did feel very comfortable at fancy places, where there were cloth dinner napkins and tablecloths!) Margaret wouldn’t tolerate shenanigans from Sue and her siblings, either. If they started misbehaving, she’d send them right home. But they loved her anyway.

So, now you know a little about Sue’s great aunt Margaret, who is forever remembered with this beautiful aluminum Christmas tree. If she was a little stern, if she was opinionated and direct, if she had a low tolerance for nonsense—you just have to remember what she went through, and what she witnessed.

One more fun fact about Aunt Margaret: a favorite treat for her was to eat a bowl of vanilla ice cream with soda crackers—she’d eat the crackers with the ice cream the way most people would have cookies with it. Crackers and ice cream! . . . Or, if she had them, she’d pair ice cream with cashews, for the same salty/sweet deliciousness. (You’re going to have to try it, now, aren’t you!)

Somehow this tidbit seems to encapsulate what I know of her personality. A kind of opulence amid an ingrained frugality. Taking mundane ingredients and making something unusual and pleasurable out of them. I can get behind that!

Cheers to the memory of Great Aunt Margaret Nottke!

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Aunt Margaret's Aluminum Christmas Tree

Greetings, and merry Christmas! I’ve already received one of my wishes: We put up Sue’s great aunt Margaret’s aluminum Christmas tree!

It hadn’t seen the light of day for several years—I can’t remember the last time we put it up. I bet it’s been fifteen years (I know we put it up one year soon after buying my grandma’s house). Like all old Christmas trees, it’s fragile.

And because the Weihnachtspyramide is such a big deal with my family (who live around here), and it “goes with” this house, it always gets priority. After all the cooking and baking, there’s never time left to put up the aluminum tree. And usually, we’re out of town at Christmas. . . . But we’re here this year, and I’ve put cookies on the back burner. (So to speak.)

(By the way, in this post I'm including pictures of the aluminum Christmas tree, its boxes, and its shiny ornaments, many of which are "new" but which we haven't seen since we last put it up, since they're in a box of "our" ornaments as opposed to my Grandma's boxes of ornaments.)

(See? MODERN! I'd totally forgotten about my purple fishie!)

But I’ve really missed Aunt Margaret’s tree!

Of course, there’s a story. And you want to hear it, right?

Aunt Margaret—Margaret Armina Ferber Nottke—was Sue’s great aunt, her dad’s father’s youngest sister. She was born September 23, 1903. She and her husband, William Hartman (“Stub”) Nottke, lived at 13 Mechanic Street in Berlin Heights, Ohio (where Sue’s sister, Lynn, and her family live today)—it’s just around the corner from Sue’s parents’ home.

To Sue and her siblings, “Aunt Margaret” was pretty much like a grandma, since she and “Uncle Stub” had been the primary guardians and parent-figures to Nelson Ferber, Sue’s dad. (More on that situation in my next post, if you’re interested.)

Because Margaret and Stub lived so close nearby, they could be close in many other ways, too. Here she is on the Ferber's side steps with Prince and Cinders.

So, back to the Christmas tree: Apparently, Sue’s mom and dad bought it in about 1964, when Sue was 7, Lynn 5, and Mark 2. I asked Sue where they got it, and she had to think. “I’m not sure! Maybe at the Giant Tiger? Or maybe at an appliance store. Or they could’ve bought it at a grocery store—grocery stores used to sell Christmas decorations like that. But probably they got it at a discount store . . . or Penney’s or Sears.”

And they got a super-duper box of shiny, lightweight ornaments at the same time—perfect for the tree. We still have that entire thing. I think only two ornaments are missing.

The ornaments have an unusual hook system.

And you can see why we really don't like to even touch these ornaments; they're so fragile.

So, we use mostly "modern" ornaments now:

Anyway, with such a delicate, fragile tree, one that can only hold lightweight, shiny, breakable ornaments, and whose branches can fall out if you merely brush against them . . . and with a mechanical spotlight spinner that went with it, and its fragile colored gels—this Christmas tree really wasn’t a good fit for a house with three young kids.

Can you imagine Sue’s mom trying to take care of three kids, make dinner, bake Christmas cookies, clean, AND tell the kids over and over not to touch the tree—?

At that point, Margaret and Stub weren’t putting up a Christmas tree (that Sue can remember, anyway), so Sue’s parents gave the tree to them. And that’s how it became “Aunt Margaret’s Christmas Tree.”

Sue says she always had it on her sunporch (which is now brother-in-law Gene’s TV room/library), just off of the living room. There was good morning light in there, with all the windows.

So if your de facto grandparents lived around the corner from you, you’d have some really sweet memories of their Christmas tree! And that’s how Sue and her brother and sister think of this tree: Aunt Margaret’s Christmas tree!

Their great uncle Stub died in early 1970s, but Margaret put the tree up every year until she went into a nursing home in the early 1980s. After Margaret’s death, Sue’s sister and brother-in-law bought Stub and Margaret’s home, which has put them in arm’s reach of Sue’s parents all these years. Their lucky daughter, Kaitlyn, got to grow up on the same block as her maternal grandparents!

Margaret had kept her Christmas tree and its ornaments in her attic. After she passed away, there was the inevitable process of “who wants what?” Apparently Lynn and Gene were wanting to clear out the attic. Sue wanted the tree, and I guess no one else expressed an interest, so it became hers.

Sue was living in St. Louis at the time. At this point, she can’t remember if her parents brought it to her on one of their visits, or if Sue herself drove it back after a visit to Ohio.

It’s a well-traveled tree! Sue remembers that once, in late 1980s, when she was working at Maritz in Fenton, the tree decorated the hallway of the South-Central Performance Improvement creative department. And she also displayed it in her house on 7542 Warner Avenue in Richmond Heights. I remember when she showed me a photo of it, soon after we met. Even in black and white, it looked spectacular.

So, when Sue joined me in Montana, the tree moved with her. Then, when we moved back to Missouri, the tree moved back with us. I know we set it up one of the years we lived in Columbia. (We were alternating: one year with a real tree, the next with the aluminum one.) Next, it made the trek from Como to Jeff City, where we put it up one of the first years we lived here, but then we either lacked the energy to put it up, or else we weren’t going to be here over Christmas, so why bother putting up TWO trees?

And between “squirrelly Early” (Earl was our hyper Russian blue) and Genji (then a rambunctious young puss-puss), it was just like the scenario at the Ferber household in the early sixties: we didn’t want to be constantly yelling at cats.

So, I got one of my Christmas wishes this year: We put up Aunt Margaret’s Christmas tree!

So far this year, to supplement the original spotlight spinner, we picked up one of those “shimmering effect” LED motion projectors, which people often use outdoors to beam groovy colors onto their homes. The original spotlight spinner is another nifty artifact from another time.

We’re being nice to the old spotlight by mostly using the new one on the tree, and it looks pretty nifty! We can “choose from 6 color options”! Red, red and green, blue, blue and red (which just looks pinkish to me), green, and green and blue (which makes me think of an aquarium). The gizmo even comes with a remote control, so I can sit in my chair and make it change colors.

Would Aunt Margaret’s like the new color projector? Who knows. . . . but I'd like to think she'd love it!

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Eclipse of 2017

One of the big themes this summer has been the eclipse, and preparations for our Michigan cousins to visit. The whole thing was kind of like New Year’s: All the preparation and anticipation; then the compression of time the closer we got to the event (the family visit and logistics) and finally the eclipse itself, which seemed to last about ten seconds, and then it was over—we were spewed out the other side of the event and into the vastness of the future, the rest of our lives, all the stuff we weren’t thinking about as we were focusing on the point of time that was the boundary.

I used the event of my brother’s and cousins’ visit as a catalyst for doing a great deal of straightening, cleaning, and fixing up of our place. It hasn’t looked this good in a long time. It’s still not a showplace, but it’s much, much improved. And the progress we’ve made on the house, I think, will motivate us to do more—to continue the trend. “An object in motion . . .”

I have to admit that the eclipse itself underwhelmed me somewhat—Annie Dillard’s masterful essay “Total Eclipse” had me psyched and ready for a spiritually, existentially, chronologically, anthropologically (etc., etc.) moving experience. But the silence of it, the gradual movement into darkness was more subtle than I’d expected. It looked a lot like an approaching thunderstorm, which is normal enough around here, especially with a line of puffy cumulous, as there was, along the northern horizon. It just looked like a thunderstorm on the way. Or passing us by on the north.

Sue and I opted to view the eclipse by ourselves, while the rest of the family viewed it from near my parents’ home in Columbia (in the parking lot of a Baptist church, where a nearby lawn-mowing man didn’t ever stop mowing the lawn to view the eclipse). Sue and I didn’t want to spend our precious few minutes of totality in a parking lot. We invited the others to join us at our spot, but none of them felt confident there wouldn’t be horrible traffic between Columbia and our soybean field—and who wants to see an eclipse from a traffic jam?

I felt strongly that because it’s a natural event, I wanted to be in nature. I didn’t want to be with the hordes at the state capitol, or the crowds at Columbia’s official viewing party. Ugh! Later, we watched the NASA broadcast that had shown the Jeff City capitol area, and they actually had people blowing AIR HORNS to signal the beginning and end of totality. Godawful ~~~AIR HORNS!~~~ I’m soooooooo glad I wasn’t there.

Weeks before the eclipse, Sue and I had scouted out a little “numbered” county road (479) just southwest of the tiny town of Mokane. It was almost right on the center line of totality. This little road is a straight line between MO 94 and a Conservation Department access point (the Mokane Access) on the Missouri River. It’s in the broad, flat river bottoms, with wide-open sky, and except for a strip of forested land along the river, soybean fields all around.

On the morning of August 21, 2017, the great eclipse-viewing day, we packed our stuff into Sue’s truck: lawn chairs, our patio umbrella, and an ice chest full of beverages and comestibles. And we set out for our spot. We expected to see a lot of crazy traffic, but that wasn’t ever the case, before or after.

We got there super early, which was fine, because we spent time just enjoying the anticipation and taking pictures of insects and things. Of course! Like this peacock fly and straight-lanced meadow katydid.

We were a little worried about a pretty persistent layer of gauzy clouds that would seem to be in the wrong part of the sky during totality, but those clouds pretty much cleared up just in time, and what was left of them created cool, moody atmospheric effects all around the sky. (St. Joseph, to our northwest, was screwed, however, with thick clouds.)

The silvery light before totality was pretty interesting, and it might be what I will remember the most. Since we were parked on a (limestone) gravel road through soybean fields, the contrasty lighting was especially pronounced, since the shadows cast by the broad leaflets of soybeans already look kind of sharp, and the plants nearby were coated with white dust from the gravel road.

We got a good view of the sunset/twilight effect on the horizon, with yellow, salmon, pink hues all around us. It kept getting more and more interesting! We kept saying: Wow . . . look at that!

From a line of trees off to the south, close to the river, a colony of scissors-grinder cicadas, which usually only chorus in the evening, sang when it got dark: wheee-ooo, wheee-ooo, wheee-oooooo . . .

Using solar sunglasses, we didn’t see the diamond-ring effect or Bailey’s beads before totality; the last edge of the sun just seemed to “wink out” in the glasses—when we removed the glasses, all that could be seen was just the darkness of the moon and the corona. . . . And a really interestingly blue sky, a color that doesn’t show up in any of the photos people took.

Instead of looking like something . . . dynamic, or tremendous, the eclipsed sun mainly just looked weird, like a new kind of star, a black moon, or a small cloud, or a balloon. A tiny round hole in the sky that hadn’t been there before. Knowing it would only last a few minutes, we looked around and tried to notice as much stuff as possible. We kept spinning around and pointing: “WOW! Look at THAT! . . . Oh, WOW, look at THIS!” We saw some pink prominences. And although we got something like 2 minutes and 40 seconds of totality, it seemingly lasted about ten seconds.

We did see the diamond-ring effect as it left totality, then everything started happening in reverse, and we watched the shadow drift away from us toward Kentucky.

My camera and video recorder, with their automatic light metering, didn’t capture the true changes in the amount of light. They kept compensating for the darkness, and lightening the images. I’ll have to remember that in 2024.

We were not the only people on our little gravel road—there were about fifteen other vehicles, which all arrived after we’d settled in. Some of the cars that drove by were hauling boats, heading to the MDC river access, to no doubt see the eclipse from the water. (That’d be sweet, eh?) Of the viewers parked along the road, we saw license plates from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, and Ontario. Some of these folks packed up and took off as soon as totality was over; others took longer to leave. We stayed the longest.

The other cars were pretty far away from us, but most of the people seemed to have some sort of setup like ours: a patio umbrella, a few chairs, an ice chest.

My photographic capabilities are quite limited, and so is my knowledge. I did venture to take one picture of the sun, once it was getting close to totality (I could tell because I was using my protective eclipse-viewing glasses). The sun, of course, was all blown out in the photo, but the lens flare, below it, replicated the crescent shape of the sun, rather like a pinhole camera. Anyway, I thought it was cool.

I didn’t spend any time trying to take photos during the eclipse; I only took pictures beforehand of the place, our setup, the road, the horizon, the soybeans, the insects. Then, a few minutes before totality, I started my video camera (on a tripod, aimed at the northwest horizon) and just let it run and record what we were saying. I’d share it with you, but it’s nearly 530 MB and I don’t know how to upload it without completely destroying the quality of sound and image. I guess I need to upload it to YouTube, then embed it here. (Sheesh, so much work.)

But anyway, we fiddled with our cameras, video, tripods so much during the hours before the eclipse that we didn’t have our picnic before, but after. So while the other cars were departing, we broke out our little fruit, wine, and cheese party.

Everyone had been warned that there could be some serious traffic before, during, and after the eclipse, so we weren’t interested in getting involved in it. As it turned out, the crowds were seemingly minimal except at major highway interchanges and bridges.

I have real sympathy for our local restaurateurs, who were told by festival planners and city officials to expect lots and lots of business . . . and it was a big fizzle. The restaurants had stocked up on foodstuffs, then, for many of them: hardly a customer. True, the motels were all completely booked months ago, but apparently not many people ate out. It might have been that the locals were scared away from the town center by the warnings of possible traffic.

But who can blame anyone for such guesses being wrong? This kind of event has never happened before in the United States, and there were hundreds and thousands of places where people could go to see it, ranging from big, organized city festivals, to nearly anyone’s backyard, to our lonely sea of soybeans along the Missouri River.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Progress At Home

In past months, we’ve been focusing on improving the house, inside and out. This is spurred, as it so often is, by impending visits! We have family coming to Missouri to see the total eclipse this week!

We don’t tend to have houseguests very much—in large part because our house is such a “work in progress.” After living in it for sixteen years, you’d think we’d have gotten it into fair shape, but we do have a few explanations. Okay, excuses.

First, it’s a big house, and it’s easy to keep the public parts rather presentable by using other parts for storage. (Don’t criticize, unless your garage or attic is perfectly clean! By the way, we don’t have an attic, and closet space is minimal by today’s standards.)

Second, we had a good amount of expenses when we first bought the house. Electric upgrades, new roof, repaint the exterior, and more; plus the mortgage payments. That put us into a pattern of working days and nights to keep ahead financially, which left us little energy for patching walls, picking out wallpaper, painting, putting down new flooring. We even fell behind on basic electrical fixes and weeding/landscaping. Having half our front yard infested with hedge bindweed is enough to take the wind out of any gardener’s sails.

And I suppose some people would consider it a crippled work ethic, but we actually do take time for both “big” vacations as well as plenty of small ones—day trips, afternoon excursions, going to dine in another city just for the change of scenery. (As you can tell from this blog.) This is a fundamental choice of ours: yes, our house is generally not very presentable at any given moment—but we intend not to go to our graves, or to hit retirement, without having had lives that balance work and play, output and input, labor and fun.

But we’ve been making up for some of those sins in the past few months. A cool spring, Roundup, and generous use of mulch helped with the landscaping scenario. Some parts are still rather unsightly, but it looks a lot better than last year. I pitted that fast-growing, colorful sweet potato vine–stuff against the hedge bindweed, and it actually seems to be working. Hah!!

Late May:

Middle August:

(I’m still making the rounds of the yard every few weeks with the Roundup, though. I don’t like the idea of herbicides, but I’m sick and tired of pulling weeds manually. And bindweed is like a cancer of the lawn . . . once it has a toehold, has “metastasized,” I doubt you can ever completely get rid of it; instead, just keep it in remission. Make it “feel unwelcome.”)

Mulch hides a multitude of sins.

Our backyard's been looking so good (and the weather's been so mild this summer), we've actually been sitting on the patio and enjoying breakfast or, um, happy hour after work, and feeling that "life is good."

Indoors, we’ve been cleaning and straightening and polishing. Replacing blinds and curtains. Finally putting privacy window film and curtains on our basement windows! Getting rid of stuff. Making guest rooms look like they’re ready for guests!

I’ve patched and primered some of the walls on the third floor (which are made of Celotex, or “Beaverboard,” the 1930 fiberboard equivalent of drywall, with ancient wallpaper over it)—part of what will be a bigger ongoing project, but at least the worst places now look decent.

I called the plumber, who fixed the bathroom sink’s cold-water faucet so that it doesn’t shriek when you turn on the tap, and he replaced the toilet innards (once again) so that it isn’t running and hissing all the time.

I called an electrician, who did three-quarters of a day’s worth of small fix-its that I won’t touch in our old house. Here are some of the tasks that we’ve been wanting to have done, in most cases, for years:

  • Fix the three-way wall switches for the wall-sconce light on the third-floor staircase (a switch at the base, a switch at the top, and a switch on the sconce itself).
  • Check antique sconce in bathroom that flickers when you wiggle the bulb a little.
  • Replace iffy wall switches in the front hall, and the dining room (including an elderly 1970s rheostat that had started turning itself off for no apparent reason).
  • In the kitchen, completely replace the overhead light fixture in the room, and replace the incandescent pull-string fixture over the sink, and repair the pull-string on the small florescent fixture over the sink (which I’d been turning on and off by twirling the florescent tub in its fixture).
  • Replace the light fixture over our front doors.
  • Install a florescent fixture right above our workbench, and added an electrical outlet there, too.

Some of these have been “on my list” for years! It’s amazing how you can get accustomed to life in a hovel. But don’t judge—there’s something in your life that you aren’t paying attention to, too, I’ll betcha.

Of course, I know that our guests would not expect, ask, or wish us to go to any “trouble” about hosting them—but that is not the point, really. We’ve simply been using their visit as a motivation to do many of the kinds of things we’ve wanted to do for a LONG, LONG time. A deadline. An impetus.

And so, from the top . . .

The third-floor sitting area and space for guest to sleep is now actually a place where someone could comfortably sit or sleep. (It’s really nice up there, so high above the street, and with such good breezes.)

And my office is looking much less cluttered than usual.

The second-floor front hall, living room, and dining room are looking respectable again—but these are our “public” rooms, so they usually don’t need a lot of work, besides dusting and vacuuming.

The second-floor sunporch is once again a pleasant place to sit (when it’s not super hot).

The downstairs front bedroom, which in winter turns into a veritable greenhouse of potted plants, is once again habitable by humans (and quite comfortable, I might add).

Sue’s office, in the downstairs living room, is a lot tidier, and we’ve gotten new pinch-pleat sheers and had the drapes dry-cleaned. It’s an amazing improvement. Of course, now this doubles as Lois's apartment, so we're keeping the sheers tucked back away from her needle-like claws. (Wish us luck!)

As mentioned above, the back yard is inviting again, and the front yard is not given over to bindweed and other nightmares this year.

I suppose it's kind of lame that we make our house not be shameful, for once, and then take pictures of it before it gets bombed-out looking again. And there is of course much more we should do—we have 20 rooms in our house, if you count the basement, the bathrooms, and the sunporches. All the rooms are smallish by today’s standards, but they all need something—painting, wallpapering, a new rug—something. But we’ve added appreciably to the “public” portions of the house, and raised our self-esteem in the process.

So there you are—I’m not showing you any “before” pictures, but trust me, these are some major improvements.

Bring on the guests!