Posts filed under 'Home'

Home – Studio

Beyond the jungle of damp, suspended laundry lies one of the great hidden treasures of this house. We call it the studio because it is destined to be a workshop for the ceramicist in the family. But for much of the time it serves as a storage room, filled with boxes, unused furniture, art that is not allowed to adorn the walls of the rest of the house, and piles of wood waiting to be chopped into kindling. The room has a fairly normal size and shape, but what makes it truly spectacular is its untapped potential to become a self-sufficient mini-apartment – complete with all of the privacy, ingresses and egresses such a space promises.

First of all, it has its own door to the outside – a potential private entry! – if it wasn’t covered over and otherwise blocked by furniture and boxes. This door leads out onto the back porch, which has a personality all of its own. More spacious than the side porch, more private than the front porch, the back porch starts at the end of the driveway, runs past the back door, and then continues along the side of the house, ending at the private door into the studio. The porch houses a giant grey wood box, and an old hand pump that we use sometimes to draw water up from a well. But, like the studio itself, it has so much potential. I imagine a flower garden growing up around the edges, and concrete that is smooth and swept clean. A little chair and table, a little book, and a little cup of tea…

Then, there’s the secret small chamber connected to the studio. It has a mysterious provenance – all empty walls and strange plumbing apertures – and is used first as a kiln room, and later, as a satellite kitchen fitted out with a small electric range and oven (which I believe we must keep far away from the wood burning stove so that the latter will not feel betrayed by the modernity of the former). Nevertheless, and in spite of these alternate uses, the chamber is just the right size for a private en suite bathroom.

Finally, the room itself is bursting with character. There’s a small rectangular box set into one wall that would make a perfect secret reading nook and we like to hide here when we are brave enough to sneak into the studio. There are a couple of lovely windows that let in southern and western light, a wide view of the back yard, a hand-crafted desk that’s built in against one wall, and plenty of room for a bed and a dresser. The one disadvantage is that the studio has no insulation whatsoever, and is far removed from the heat of the two wood burning stoves. When it’s cold outside, we can see our breath inside and – like the sun porch – when winter comes the studio should only be entered by people who are properly suited up in coats, gloves, and scarves. Nevertheless, I think it is one of the best rooms in the house and the one I wish most was mine.

Add comment August 22nd, 2010

Home – Downstairs Bathroom

For those who dare to leap over the hole in the floor – executing a sharp left turn in mid-air – the next stop is the downstairs bathroom. Unlike most of the other rooms in the house, it actually has a door which is pale green on one side, off-white on the other, and has a curved wooden handle and a hook-and-eye lock which we are not supposed to use. The lock is, in fact, always on the verge of falling out as a result of children beating on one side of the door, while a recalcitrant door-locker refuses to open the door and give up the promise of privacy.

A beautiful sink set into a hand-made wooden cabinet stands in the corner, and since the plumbing is never hooked up, it remains preternaturally beautiful forever. Over the toilet, which only works part of the time due to the repeated flushing of unflushable objects, hangs a giant cracked mirror that is penetrated by flakes of grey and silver.

The end of the small room is held down by a short but deep claw-footed bathtub that has been encased in a wooden box. There is a crack in the wood that leads to some dark, impenetrable place, and many groggy early mornings are spent staring into the mystery wondering what might be hidden in its depths. When we are appropriately small, four of us can fit in the bathtub at once, rendering bath time a highly amusing affair with the potential for efficiency interrupted by the potential for airborne soap, bath toys and the smallest of the children. The wall above the bathtub is a palimpsest of all the wallpapers that have ever adorned the room – solid in some places, but peeled away in others to reveal a historical cross-section of changing designs descending finally to bare cement. The bathtub, too, has delicate plumbing and often stops working. Sometimes we plug the drain and bring buckets of heated water in from the cook stove in the kitchen, then ladle them back out afterwards. The labor involved generally compels multiple children to use the same bathwater, and we are fierce in competing for our placement in the queue.

This is the room where our hair is cut. For the girls, this is also the room where we are given our permanents – sitting for hours on the lid of the toilet while miniature curlers are applied to our heads, then again in the bathtub while the chemicals marinate under our plastic caps, emerging later with our heads full of glorious curly hair.

This is also the room where, temporarily, we install a 1950’s washing machine – the kind that has a wringer attached to the back of the basin. Squeezing out the wet laundry piece by piece is so much fun, I am convinced that it makes up for the time it takes to manually fill and drain the tub.

This is also the room where the bottom part of a particularly wide and deep-set built-in shelf has been converted into a cat cage. We keep various cats here over the years as the breeding of purebred Himalayans wanders into and then out of our family culture. The cat cage is a particularly contentious subject as no one wants to clean it. My first pet lived here for a time, until she escaped from the cage and through a hole in the floor – emerging days later so weak that we could do nothing to save her.

This is also the room where many important conversations of either a disciplinary, or soul-searching nature occur – child leaning against the doorframe, talking with a parent who is preparing for the day, or for bed, or placing wet laundry on hangers.

When we have guests, all of the objects on both sets of shelves – the cat cage shelf, and a more conventional floor-to-ceiling shelf laden with bathroom necessities – are arranged into straight lines, and pretty curtains transform them into lace covered cabinets.

Add comment August 22nd, 2010

Home – Kitchen

A large window in the ceiling connects the kitchen to the sky. Whenever it rains, which happens a lot, the window leaks and we bring out a special collection of bowls, pots and buckets to collect the water. They create obstacles when running through the house, and are more often than not upended by flying feet or paws that create micro-floods and track damp footprints throughout the house. But having rain inside lends the kitchen an exotic, woodsy feel; also, it means that some of us might get to go up on the roof to assist with repairs.

Down below, the room is composed entirely of hand-constructed wood work. Wide, pale, unfinished planks line the floor; dark stained wood makes up the countertops and cabinets and off-sets the punched metal plates that form the cabinet doors; and a two-toned combination of woods play off each other in the bread-baking table – dark everywhere except for the kneading surface which is nearly as pale as whole wheat dough. A corner cabinet in between two doorways houses antique pitchers, basins, and kerosene lamps up top, while below, sheaves of mysterious papers, including sheet music for a flute, occupy the closed triangular cupboard.

A wide porcelain sink is one of many centers of activity, and the rest of the room orients itself around the basin and faucet: dishes and silverware to the left, cleaning supplies below, cooking tools and utensils to the right. The wood-burning cook stove is just behind, with its pie warmer, water reservoir, and fire-resistant brick wall filled with iron implements, dried bundles of herbs, and occasionally – where a nail has fallen out of the mortar leaving a conveniently placed hole – sticks of burning incense which leave small, fragrant piles of ash on the floor. Off to the right of the sink there’s a dark corridor that leads to doors that go to the downstairs bathroom and the studio, and along the way, passes a wheat grinder that’s been clamped to the counter, an antique coffee grinder that’s been nailed to the wall, the refrigerator, and floor to ceiling built-in shelves for spices, pieces of slate, and glass gallon jars filled with flour. Another set of shelves made from an ashen-grey wood house a variety of odds and ends related to this intersection of kitchen, bathroom and studio. One very long shelf hugs the ceiling above the studio door and serves as a convenient, if precarious, place to hang wet laundry. Anyone who tries to enter the studio will have to travel through the laundry to open the door, and will inevitably bring a shower of damp clothing and pointy hangers down upon his or her head.

Over time, the woodsiness, humidity, and population density bring the kitchen closer and closer to its natural state. A hole eventually eats its way through the wooden countertop, exposing the silverware drawer below. After one too many children flushes toys, shoes, and other non-flushables down the toilet in the adjacent bathroom, the plumbing in the sink eventually stops working. We plug the drain, wash dishes using two dark blue plastic buckets, and leave them to drip and dry on the counter with the hole. When the hot water heater also breaks, we heat water for the dishes on the cook stove. Another hole is worn into the floor by a child who loves to run, but refuses to do it anywhere but up and down the length of the kitchen. The floorboards detach themselves from the beams below and leave a gaping hole just the size of a running shoe. One misstep and the ill-placed foot will go crashing through into the dark below. This does not, however, deter the runner who gradually softens much of the surrounding wood as the years pass.

Once, when I am small and sick and sleeping in my parents’ bedroom, I am allowed to take a bath in a galvanized metal tub right below the skylight, and right next to the wood burning stove – a delight that I am convinced cannot be surpassed. Another time, some years later, I realize that the smell of wood smoke, bacon and eggs on the cook stove (or if we are especially lucky, blueberry pancakes made from hand-ground buckwheat), sunlight from the skylight, and music from the record player in the living room are the few, but essential elements necessary to the creation of a Saturday morning.

Add comment August 22nd, 2010

Home – The Sun Porch

One of the best things about the downstairs is that it’s endless. A left turn at the bottom of the stairs leads to the living room, which opens onto the dining room, which is adjacent to the kitchen, which abuts the parental bedchamber which returns traffic – cleverly – back onto the hallway with the stairs. If, of course, we are allowed to sprint through the last bedroom which we aren’t, unless the occupants are away. Being able to run in a circle around the inside of a house is dream come true. What could be better than one endless sprint that takes you everywhere and back again? It’s like defying linear time – wasn’t I just here? How is it possible to be back where I started without having once turned around? And it definitely makes it easier to catch, or get away from, one’s siblings.

There are only two known ways to cut straight across the loop. First, there’s the square-shaped tunnel from the living room to the furnace room; then, there’s the inside of the library bench where a small storage cube under the seat once opened onto the very same furnace room. Either shortcut permits a further disruption of time and space – turning the circle into a Gordian knot. Deploying either elevates the art of running in circles to a whole new level; one is able to reverse direction without even turning around. The shortcuts provide an overwhelming tactical advantage and not surprisingly, both are only marginally accessible – the former so small that only the cats can use it, the latter so small that it is inevitably outgrown, even by the nimble.

Trajectories beyond the circular do, however, exist. On the far side of the dining room, past the bay window and to the right of the pot bellied wood stove, is a door to the sun porch, which is neither a porch, nor particularly sunny. It’s laid out like a kitchen, with a long counter against the back wall, and is filled with shelves that house green ware and slip and molds – all the tools necessary for the ceramicist in the family, who later switched to porcelain, then to polymer clay. Also housed on these shelves are slightly uncanny miniature body parts; heads, arms, legs; wee hands and dimpled feet; cloth torsos with stuffing coming out of the arm and leg holes. The ceramics go to a kiln to be fired on the other side of the house, but sometimes the bits made out of polymer clay lie waiting, arrayed in neat rows on a cookie sheet, ready to be baked in the oven. Hundreds of glass eyes look out from opaque plastic boxes; hair gathered in plastic bags, or hanging in lank strips, awaits application. Skeins of wool, antique lace, and doll magazines fill the shelves. Sometimes an antique christening dress, transparent from age, wafts in the breeze from a hanger hooked onto a shelf.

This is where we stack the folding chairs when we aren’t using them at the dining room table. There’s also an ironing board, as this is where we iron clothes, and briefly, a washer and dryer. In the winter we hang a thick sheet of plastic over the door to keep the heat from the pot bellied stove in the dining room, effectively turning the sun porch into a frigid, uninhabitable place that I imagine to be somewhat like the dark side of the moon: familiar yet foreign; accessible only to those willing to suit up. But during long summer days, I sit on the washing machine and read aloud from one of my books, while ceramic seams are scraped from the sides of tiny faces.

Two windows look out onto the north yard, and the door that leads to the back porch stands open, or at least partially ajar, much of the time and has never, ever been locked.

Add comment February 20th, 2010

Home - Summoned from the Pantry

The pantry and the back pantry are located underneath the stairs, tucked away just off the edge of the kitchen. The pantry is a fairly self-evident kind of space; long, narrow, lined with shelves from floor to ceiling. The shelves themselves hold a variety of mysteries, from hand-ground whole-wheat flour and home-made granola in glass gallon jars to decaying cardboard boxes filled with ancient, tarnished silverware that we are never allowed to use. This is also where we tend to stash the bounty that our grandmother sends home with us every Sunday: endless packages of disposable plastic plates and paper towels, jumbo sized jars of pickles and olives. A tall vertical cross-section of a tree trunk is nailed up against the far wall. That’s where we measure our heights, all seven of us, a couple of times a year – or anytime we feel like we have something to prove and can do it best through documenting a growth spurt. I have learned that the floor slopes downhill before it touches the wall under the tree trunk; that makes it okay to stand on my toes just a little bit when my height is being measured. Just to compensate.

The back pantry is next to the pantry, and occupies the slanting space directly under the stairs. This is where we keep the wood box, filled with moderately-sized pieces of wood – bigger than kindling, smaller than logs – that are appropriate for the wood burning cook stove in the kitchen. We keep newspapers here too, for dark early mornings when the stove is cold, and building a fire requires something immediately combustible. There are no shelves on the walls of the back pantry; instead, the walls are made of thin pieces of wood with a kind of cement squeezing in between the strips. The cement came out in irregularly sized swaths and globs, and dried a hundred years or so ago in eddies and swells. It’s tempting to find the swollen bits and pick them off… but ultimately unsatisfying, as they never grow back and the patches of wall that have already been picked clean look sad and barren. Also, there are strange hair-like threads embedded in the cement that frighten me. Cement that crumbles and falls to the floor is one thing; cement that ought to fall but instead dangles by a thread is unnatural.

The cook stove that we use for meal preparation and for heating the kitchen is just outside of the pantry. It’s backed up against a wall that’s been covered top to bottom in brick, to insulate the wall from the heat. Big, thick iron nails were pounded into the mortar between the bricks when it was still wet, and now they serve as hooks for all of the utensils one needs to maintain a wood-burning cook stove: a shovel, a poker, a small tool for lifting the circular burners that separate the fire from the cook.

Whenever someone with authority (and upper-body strength) desires to summon a child from the upper reaches of the upstairs bedrooms, the most effective method of communication can be found here – in the area between the cook stove and the back pantry. The poker, a two foot long iron rod, must first be disengaged from its nail hook, and then applied – with gusto – to the underside of the eleventh stair. Whack! Whack! Whack! Nothing wins the attention of the residents of the second story as quickly, and as unforgivingly, as a poker pounding against uninsulated wooden stairs.

And nothing causes near-death fright like accidentally standing on top of the eleventh stair when someone with authority (and upper-body strength) unknowing applies the poker to the underside of the same stair.

Add comment September 29th, 2009

Home - Dining Room

The dining room is the second most treacherous room to navigate when running in a circle around the first floor. (The most treacherous is the parental bedchamber, but the obstacles there have to do with complicated permissions, rather than physical hurdles.)

The sheetrock ceiling and narrow strips of wood on the floor are reminders that it’s a work in progress, mid-way through a planned renovation. A dramatic triangle-shaped bay window offsets the side door and provides a perfect tiny seat with a great view of the driveway, and all the trees in the side yard. The centerpiece of the room is a big round wooden table that is, perhaps, the last place that we all ate together at the same dining table. We don’t like to interrupt its clean lines with chairs, so we keep them folded up in the sun porch. The table started out a dark brown, and the cracks between the planks were filled with the mysteries of the ages: glue that had split, creating cracks that curved and shivered like mini-ravines cutting through rock. Later the table went back to its natural wood color on top, and became blue on the bottom. More light, but less mystery.

When entering the dining room from the living room, there’s a narrow transition bordered on the left by a library bench. A small wooden seat forms the base of the bench, and in the center is a little wooden square on hinges that opens to reveal a perfect cube of storage, or a perfect hiding space before one is unfortunate enough to outgrow its confines. Towering above the bench are ceiling-height shelves that hold a magnificent collection of unreadable grown-up books. They are unreadable because of their adult content (The Clan of the Cave Bear), because of their age (the encyclopedia that we keep for sentimental value and for pressing flowers, but which is riddled with historical and scientific inaccuracies), and because of positioning (some are wedged in so tightly that to disrupt the delicate physics would cause a catastrophic avalanche of paper and dust; they might never even find the kid buried underneath. One is advised to run on tiptoes past the library bench, lest the tremors caused by pounding feet dislodge one of the piles.

To the right, opposite the library bench, is a telephone table which is actually an antique dresser. It looks simple enough, but telephone cords sometimes become unruly – especially when the phone has recently been transported into the living room in search of more comfortable seating – and sometimes crisscross the floor like subversive snakes, just waiting to coil around unwary feet.

Past the transition, one enters the dining room proper. There’s a dog that lives on a chain to the right, near the side door, but she is almost always good natured, and the challenge has mostly to do with trying to avoid frightening her. More imposing than the dog is the antique hutch, over to the left, which is filled with antique dishes. They’re covered with large purple grapes that you can actually feel on the surface of the glass, and match a set of dark green glass goblets that look like they came out of a medieval fairy tale. We get to use them sometimes at Christmas, but the rest of the year they stay in the hutch and rattle ominously whenever someone runs past. They make sounds that are downright crunchy if one miscalculates the corner and accidentally runs into the hutch. Fortunately, the giant pickle crock on one side (more hiding space), and a woodpile on the other, act as buffers

The final obstacle is the potbellied wood burning stove in the far corner. Unlike the library shelf, or the hutch, we are unlikely to do any damage to the potbellied stove if we run into it. And, during late spring, summer, and early fall the stove is unused and so we can run into it all we like. But it’s risky to allow the fear of direct contact between skin and cast iron to erode, because for the other six months of the year, it provides the only heat in the house and is, thus, a blazing hot inferno. It’s best to give it a wide berth.

Add comment January 18th, 2009

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