Sunday, March 21, 2010

Late March snow.

We've been watching a heavy, wet snow fall outside all this Sunday morning.

"It'll turn to rain after 10 a.m.," they said.  Ha.

Six inches or more and still coming down.

"It was spring, but now it's winter again!" said Gracie.

Quite bizarre for us Southerners!

Encounter with the Grave

Boy, that sounds dramatic.

A couple of weeks ago, my family journeyed down to the Ponca area to hike Lost Valley and meet up with our family.  Cousins trooped through the woods together, but because of a mild foot injury, I was pretty sure that a long hike over uneven terrain would prove painful for me.  I backed out of the hike and explored the valley a bit instead.

First, a stop at the Elk Center in Ponca, where I found the Ernsts' book on Arkansas hikes for kids and an Audubon stuffed animal replica of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker (my favorite) with an authentic call that sounds when you press its back.  Yay!

Next, I drove through the valley, stopped for a bit to watch the elk herds and take a few (bad, long-distance) photos, then drove into the Boxley Valley Baptist church to get a better look at their historic building.  I'd read in Michael Dougherty's blog that restoration was badly needed, and boy is that ever the case.  It was a little heartbreaking to see the decay of one of Arkansas' historic landmarks.  If a restoration drive starts up, I think I'd like to help.

I decided to wander through the little graveyard at the church before I returned to Lost Valley to meet the crew.  I love old cemeteries.  People's stories fascinate me, and strolling through rows of old tombstones always gives me amazing glimpses of so many past lives (and ways of life).  I can't quite explain why, but I find it somehow centering.

So, I'm wandering through the tombstones, noting various family names from the area, when I spot one from a couple of rows away that literally sends a little jolt through me.  "PERME," reads a large and fairly recent stone.  Several around it say Perme as well.  I approach, and confirm what I can hardly believe:  I've stumbled upon the graves of Elizabeth and Joe Perme, the second owners of our home.

I only have a sketch of the Permes in my head, gleaned from what their daughters told us as we bought the house:  Joe was a World War II veteran, a Navy carpenter who was practical, resourceful, and perhaps a bit muleheaded.  He worked for the Buffalo River National Park, I believe as a maintenance supervisor.  Our home is full of his creative enhancements:  he added closets, shelves, workbenches, shelves, kitchen cabinets.  He also notched out a beam so that he wouldn't bash his head, added a chin-up bar in the basement, curved the corner of the bottom basement step so that you couldn't bruise your shin on it as you carry laundry up and down.  He once took advantage of his wife's absence to cut a hole in our kitchen/dining room wall so that he could reach through to get the phone-- although the doorway's only about six inches to the left of the hole. (His wife, they say, was livid.)  I think of him fondly as I move through our house, seeing how much love and time he obviously poured into it.

Elizabeth was his wartime wife, a German woman who was a tidy housekeeper.  Her stove, an old gas Kenmore from the 1960s or so, was in meticulous condition when we moved in (sadly, we are messier cooks then she).  They were thrifty people.  Their carpet was over 40 years old; their bathroom sink had been cracked on its installation in the 1980s and was never replaced, but still holds water perfectly due to their patching.  I know that they lost their only son while living here; he was killed in a motorcycle accident in Ponca, going to visit his newly married twin sister.  I've found a little ceramic baseball mitt and an old plastic squirtgun in the basement, and thought of the pain they must have experienced together in this house.

My affection for them (and the Wilsons, the house's first owners) is rather ardent.  So finding their resting place was a bit like seeing a ghost, or a flash of deja vu... a bit spooky, a bit startling.

After I got past my surprise, I took a moment and thanked them for their house, the love they had for it and for their family, and how much I feel blessed to be living in their home of over 40 years.

It was a lovely conclusion to my little solo excursion.  

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Why an old house?

 This is a repost of an entry I made in my Rootsome blog a while back.  I'm moving it over here as I try to separate family/personal stuff from house stuff, creating one home for each type of writing.

Why do I want to live in an old house? People ask that sometimes (or imply it with their eyes, as they see our somewhat chaotic life as we work to restore and update this home that we've chosen). I thought I'd take a little time and list some of my favorite details about this place. (I'd hoped to make it to 100, but I just don't have the stamina tonight.)

In absolutely no particular order.

1. I love the aesthetics of older rooms. Wood floors, big mullioned windows, higher ceilings. There's something peaceful about their spaces.
2. I love living WITHOUT homeowners' associations, because I'm an untidy yard person. Nobody's going to sniff at me if I leave my hose lying out in the side yard. If there's a bag of egg cartons on the front porch swing waiting to go to church (for a member's neighbor who sells eggs), nobody will be horrified. I do not have to water or weed my "lawn" or spray it with chemicals to keep the neighbors from being terrified of its dandelions. There is freedom in that for me.
3. We live on a steep hillside, but my backyard has a perfect garden-sized terrace built into it, because everyone used to grow their own vegetables. All I had to do was kill a little "grass" (see #2) and plant.
4. Our view. This was one of the first houses in the area, and we gaze over valleys in three directions. It's not a grand vista, but it's charming to have a little elbow room around us.
5. Our walls. Solid wood, 1" thick, where drywall would be in a modern house. Beat that for sound and weather insulation.
6. Our hooks and nails. Wherever I find a need to hang a robe, a cleaning brush, a picture, a plant... there's almost always a nail or hook already there to fill the need. And not just a boring modern robe hook, but a lovely patina'd wire one, full of character, or a chrome Art Deco model, sleek and striking. Makes me grin.
7. The flowers. The original owner was a hardware store owner, his wife a dedicated gardener. Come spring, our yard erupts with hundreds of pink hyacinths, daffodils, and some truly giant ancient shrubbery-- lilacs, a pink dogwood, and a giant fuschia azalea. It's gorgeous and fragrant, fodder for some truly amazing bouquets.
8. Mr. Perme's modifications. The second owner of the house was a WWII carpenter, and when something was in his way, he cheerfully altered it. The bottom stair to the basement, positioned to bang your shin terribly, has been rounded and sanded to avoid just that. A low ceiling beam in the porch's crawlspace has a notch cut out of it-- just tall enough, I imagine, for Mr. Perme to move through the space without cracking his head. Two closets were added upstairs (absolutely vital for modern life). A giant bookshelf was built in the dining room. The basement is full of wooden shelving, benches, worktables. I think Mr. Perme regularly as I move through the house-- we would never have time or attention to add all this ourselves.
9. The backyard's circular flower bed, ringed with a low wall of stones and cement, that I plan to someday make very useful (strawberries) or very beautiful (flowers).
10. Over an acre and a half.
11. The wild purple flowers that bloom in the thicket's shrubs on the side lot in the spring. I don't know what they are, but they're beautiful.
12. A neighbor who gardens and hangs out clothes on a clothesline and loves their old house like we love ours.
13. An enclosed back porch that makes a perfect playroom; the kids can play there, or bring their toys into the living areas, just a few feet from where I am in the living room or kitchen.
14. Old windows with wavy glass that we can easily repair ourselves. We've already repaired (okay, my husband has skillfully repaired) at least half a dozen of the old sashes, and the windows go from being impossibly heavy to lift to being able to raise and lower them with just a few fingers. We can replace broken glass, even repair rotten wood in the frames, easily, without having to replace entire windows. Incredibly sustainable. (Yes, they leak some heat and cold. It's worth it.)
15. The "E.P." childishly painted in a pseudo-stained glass "work of art" in the upper panes of Evelyn Perme's old bedroom. It's hidden by a valance, and I'm not sure I'll ever want it removed. It tells a story.
16. The smallest windows in the house are on the west and east sides, to shield the house from the freezing old and blazing sun. The largest windows are on the south side, to bring in light and heat in the winter, and light without heat in the summer. Every bedroom but one has windows on two walls, which makes arranging furniture a challenge but lets in wonderful breezes and air when the windows are opened. Double-hung windows will let cool air in the lower openings while letting hot air flow out the upper openings. Wonderful "green" design from 90 years ago.
17. Because of all this thoughtful design, and the fact that our living space is all downstairs and our bedrooms all upstairs, we've learned that the house is entirely livable 95% of the time without any heat or a/c on the upper floor. Enough heat rises in the winter to keep us cool, but not cold (as is good for health and good sleep); enough night air can be drawn in through the upstairs windows with fans in the summer to keep us cool enough to sleep. It's amazing, but I see no need to invest big bucks to install ductwork and a climate control system. 5% of the year, we're uncomfortable. That's a tiny amount.
18. The "J.O. Wilson, March 7, 1920" written in the concrete of the garden retaining wall. The original owner, leaving his mark. (The house was four years old by then; I think the date represents the day the concrete was poured...?)
19. The low stone wall on the south side of the house, lined with hundreds of iris plants that erupt in bloom twice a year.
20. The double-drainboard cast iron sink on its metal cabinet in the kitchen.
21. A cool basement for keeping potatoes and onions and such. (We're trying to grow our own this year and will need a place to store them.)
22. Wiring and plumbing that's simple and straightforward, and made of higher-quality materials than can now be bought at any normal price.
23. Insulation board that Mr. Perme has crammed into every imaginable crack and orifice of the basement and back porch. I'm sure it's part of why our utility bills are so reasonable-- but he was obviously obsessed.
24. The pull chains on the bare-bulb fixtures in the original closets upstairs, which turn on and off with such a smooth, flawless motion after 90 years. (I compare these to one modern one we have-- it's cheap, flimsy plastic and has to be pulled so hard that I'm afraid I'm going to break it each time I need to use it.)
25. The medicine cabinet oddly installed on the back porch, which has never been a bathroom. What on earth did they need to store there?
26. Woodwork that's heavy, thick, and elegant, on every window and baseboard and doorframe of the house.
27. The "pass-through" hole in the wall between the kitchen and the dining room, created by Mr. Perme when he got sick of bringing the telephone from one room to another via the doorway. (According to their daughter Evelyn, Mrs. Perme was NOT home when he knocked a hole in her kitchen wall, and she was NOT pleased when she returned.)
28. Mail delivered to the mailbox on our porch railing, rather than in a box out on the street.
29. A big front porch swing.
30. Big, big, big oak trees surrounding the house-- but not overhanging it. I especially appreciate the shade and privacy they provide in the summer.
31. A hook by the front door that's just right for a holiday wreath, and little cup hooks installed all along the front porch that hold a string of Christmas lights perfectly.
32. Our little one-car garage, made of local stone with the original tin tile roof still intact. (Now, I do wish we still had a door on that garage, but I guess one can't have everything...)
33. Gutters that feed directly into underground drains that dump rainwater far away from the house.
34. Concrete borders built on either side of narrow beds flanking the sidewalk leading to our front door: a perfect planting bed for hostas.
35. Old windows, hinges, window locks, panes of wavy glass, light fixtures, etc, all carefully preserved in the basement and shed.
36. A heavy old metal window fan, a gift from the Permes when we bought the house, that is strong enough to pull cool air in from every window upstairs on summer nights.
37. An old wood-handled flathead screwdriver, fished out of a window, that somehow works better for the old screws in our hardware and doorknobs.
38. Layers of linoleum and contact paper in the kitchen cabinet that tells the story of decades of decor changes. I'd never remove those.
39. Sweet pea vines that spring up, wild and crazy, and cover areas of the yard with blooms and fragrance in the summer. They're messy, but I can't bring myself to remove them yet.
40. Old glass storm windows on the playroom windows, that multiply the wavy-paned effect and make the room swim with light.
41. Rabbits that live in the thicket on the side lot and occasionally appear in our yard, nibbling clover. (I may change my mind about those rabbits now that we're trying to grow vegetables...)
42. Marbles dug up when we planted the hostas in the front yard: evidence of children playing on the sidewalk, long ago.
43. Oak floors downstairs, which refinished beautifully.
44. Original pine floors upstairs with lovely gaps between the boards because of their age. (Most of those floors are carpeted now for the childraising years, but someday, we'll refinish the rest of them too.)
45. A beautiful staircase with original dark wood on the railing and newel posts. I love how the finish on the posts is worn by the hundreds of hands that have rubbed against them as their owners traveled up and down the stairs.
46. Stairs that are markedly shallower than standard stair sizes today-- making them easier for little feet (and someday, old joints) to maneuver.
47. Funky old chrome handles on the kitchen cabinets.
48. Pocket doors on the living room and pantry doorways that still slide perfectly after all this time.
49. Old clown wallpaper on the back porch playroom's walls. I'll have to replace this soon, as it's getting fragile and discolored, but I love that it was obviously a child's place long ago, just as it is now.
50. A big, deep old cast iron tub in the bathroom, perfect for soaking.
51. A chimney that runs up the center of the house, with the perfect vent spot for a woodstove in the dining room already there. (Should we ever decide to invest in that.)
52. Flocks of bird visitors to our little feeders.
53. A front porch that's broad and deep enough for chairs and even a dining table, with broad concrete railings perfect for sitting on as well.
54. The beautiful original wallpaper still showing in my closet, and the unpainted original dark wood still visible on the trim inside the closets upstairs. Someday we WILL refinish the doors at least, to show off a bit of that beautiful wood that's underneath the paint.
55. Sturdy wooden ceilings that allowed my husband to hang my HEAVY choice of a dining room light fixture without ripping out ceilings to install additional bracing in the proper spot.
56. Soundproofing by the solid wooden doors and walls. So total, it's hard to hear my children crying from another room if their doors are closed. (Bad thing now, good thing in a few years!)
57. Windows that let in sunlight all day long, creating pools of warmth for my little old dog who loves to sleep in them. You can always find her on the east side of the house in the morning, the south in the afternoon...
58. The heavy cotton curtains decorated with Egyptians that are hanging over the utility shelving on the back porch. I wonder if they've been there since the US's Egyptian fad in the 1920s.
59. The little bars of soap I keep finding stashed in odd corners, even years after we moved in. Mrs. Perme's idea of air fresheners, I imagine... we find another one occasionally, like magic, even though we've certainly been over every inch of every closet already.
60. The giant glass bottle with pump sprayer that we found in the garage. It's perfect for spraying liquid fertilizer, and I love how it looks sitting on the old shelf in there.
61. The hilarious-but-very-useful utility shutoff valves that have been installed into the beautiful (but leaky) original exposed plumbing in our shower. It's very handy to be able to shut off the shower flow without adjusting the temperature knobs, but more than that, I love the sheer fuction-over-form ugliness of it: practical Mr. Perme strikes again, I'm sure.
62. The currently unused water cistern below the kitchen windows. It's dry and covered with concrete pavers and a birdbath right now, but should I ever get brave enough to fashion myself a rainwater catchment system, I have the perfect vessel right there to hold it.
63. A pole I just discovered this month near the garden. It probably used to support a clothesline, but will be perfect for me to mount a tall pole with my future bat house on it. (Bats eat thousands of mosquitoes every night, and that is probably my least favorite thing about this house... we are hounded by mosquitoes every evening here.

Whew, what a list. I'm sure no one is still reading at this point, and that's okay. It was lovely for my state of mind to write all this out. I'm feeling very blessed.

...those are also #27-90 of my gratitude items, because I've been grateful for each and every one of these old-house quirks as we've lived our lives in this home for the past two-plus years.

Thanks, J.O. and Mrs Wilson. Thanks, Perme family. You've prepared a lovely home for my family.

We are happy here.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Garden beginnings

Last spring about this time, I was busily trying to build us a small kitchen garden out behind the house.

As the same of the blog indicates, we live on a hill-- a rather steep, rocky hill.  Ruth Wilson, the original lady of the house, was a prolific gardener, and we have a number of things to thank her for-- mature flowering shrubs, a giant sprawling dogwood in the center of the backyard, and several gorgeous lilacs, for example.  But my favorite isn't these... it's the fact that she had some low concrete walls installed so that there is a garden-able spot just off the back (kitchen) door.

Because her husband J.O. inscribed and dated it, I even know how long it's been there:  90 years.
J.O. Wilson 3-7-1920
Thanks, Ruth.

Last year, I marked off a 4x16 spot near the southern edge of the flat area and created our little garden.  Some copper plumbing pipes created a trellis.  A roll of wire fencing created the first of several compost and leaf bins, and some compost, vermiculite, and grass clippings amended the soil via mulch.
This is the third garden I've built.  Ironically, we've always moved after one season in each of my gardens... so I've never had the chance to monitor and adjust, to try something different in the same spot the next year.  This will be the first year for that!

I'm pleased with the site, with the earthworms that have showed up to reside in the garden, and with the cottagey look.  I love that I can access half the garden via a low retaining wall-- so easy to pick low lettuces and such from there!  (Accessing the other side is more difficult because of the trellis, but I can live with that.)
However, due to an abundance of rain and a lack of sun, I'm not really sure how great of a spot this is.  My tomatoes barely sputtered along last year, and other hot-weather veggies never really came into their own.  We're trying again this summer and seeing how it goes.  If the giant oaks nearby do shade the garden too much for a good veggie harvest, we'll take down the trellis and make it into an herb area, and create ourselves a veggie garden in a sunnier spot.  (That will require a retaining wall on a slope, though-- I'm really hoping that our current garden will produce this year.)

I do want to take a soil sample into our county extension service for an analysis, to see if there's anything I need to add.  I hear that our area's soil is almost always short of magnesium, for example.  Whatever it needs must be added this year, so that we can give the garden every chance to succeed here.

Here's to more sun, a little less rain, and a greater harvest this year!  (I'll post on this year's garden soon, but wanted to get these pictures from last year shared before I dive into recording the 2010 efforts.)