Friday, December 30, 2011

2011 in Review

Today, I get to look back at the incredible driven-ness of the past year, and remember every challenge we met and pulled through, and puff my chest for the last time. And then, I get to tear the page off and look forward again. Refreshed. Balanced.

2011 was not a year of balance. It was a year of springing out of bed at a quarter to seven on summer Saturdays and hauling implements of destruction around the yard, of creaking out of bed on autumn Sundays with an internal refrain of must... finish... house.... must... get ready... for Christmas... It was also a year of so many blog posts here trumpeting our accomplishments with a frankly obnoxious We! Are! This! Awesome! tone. We are this awesome. I've proved it now, and can rest.

The laurels have been laid, and it is time to relax. This winter, I plan on savoring the home we've worked so hard to make here. I plan to spend quality time with the fireplace, and make lots of soup in the kitchen. I'm eagerly awaiting the green leafy BOO YAH of seeing the asparagus and the raspberries and the fruit trees unfurl and begin to thrive. If I feel like it, maybe I'll paint some cabinets or sew a quilt for snuggling by the fire. I'll make some progress on my flower wall.

2011 was a blank slate, a void to be filled, a house full of blank walls. We have hung things and made things and done things and given the house our life to hold. The scramble is over. Home has been established. Home is here. 

Here's to the peace and satisfaction and balance of home. I hope you all have a wonderful New Year's!

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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

It was Christmas


I had pretty amazing Christmases, growing up. We lived three hours north of our entire extended family, in the snowy wilds of rural upstate. On Christmas eve, cars would pull into the driveway. Dad would go pick grandma up at the bus stop. The house would fill with relatives I didn't see often enough, and presents, and enticing cooking smells. I became a sugared-up whirling dervish, spoiled and scooped up by aunts and grandparents. The huge back room of our house turned sweltering from the roaring fire my dad laid in the hearth; I ran around the dining table half-naked. My mother was a frazzled blur of efficiency and wonderful food, always with a turkey baster in one hand. She didn't just host Christmas, she ran a three-day, three-night bed-and-breakfast, complete with presents, Santa, and--oh right!-- my birthday thrown in for good measure.

It was always perfect. The food, the abundance, the presents, the house full of family appreciating a reprieve from city life. The bar was seriously high as I started thinking about hosting my first Christmas this year.

This time, the family would be coming to me. We're a little smaller now, even, than we were then. I invited my friend Alexis and her fiance to balance out the age dynamic, and because I love them, and because they are family. I planned Christmas eve dinner and Christmas morning brunch, and got the house together. I made beds and collected blankets.

Something about spending the night. It was an essential element. Sharing a meal is happy and fun and enjoyable, but somehow, sharing shelter is even more meaningful. It's kinship. It's feeling like-- being able to pretend-- that you're all part of the same village, the same tribe, even just for one night. The same people. Does that make sense? I don't know. That's how it felt, after we tottered home from caroling and meeting Santa at the park-- a Gilbertsville tradition-- and had wine and dessert and more wine, and basked by the fire. 

Everyone thanked me, in the end, for good food and warm beds. But I'm really the lucky one. Here's my family, delighted, eager and willing to make a tradition out of Christmas in Gilbertsville. The biggest, most meaningful gift of all.

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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Yup, we're ready

I hope you are, too.

Happy holidays! 

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Monday, December 19, 2011

Behind the scenes

We came home from running errands yesterday morning to find Patrick's dad working on our house.

You know how some people wish for elves to take care of difficult or unpleasant jobs in their lives? Well, we don't need elves, because we have Patrick's dad. Have I mentioned that he's a saint?

First he spent a couple months installing new banisters and railing in our stairwell. Now we come home and he's installed our antique reclaimed mantle in the Great Room.

It had been sitting in our garage all summer, poor thing. It seems unreal that we purchased it back in April, when it seemed logical to expect we'd be able to install it in a month or so. Ha.

Not sure if you remember, but this has been our plan all along for this room. We had a terrific brick fireplace in our Binghamton house (with a gas insert-- so easy!) and became quite fond of spending howling cold January evenings sitting before it with a bit 'o wine. This house was fireplace-free, but it did have a fine empty expanse of wall in the Great Room that seemed ready to accept one...

About midsummer, I measured and taped off a ghostly outline of where I hoped the fireplace would someday live... flanked by custom bookshelves on order from my dad. (My dad is also a saint.)

After we came home Sunday, Patrick and his dad strode about purposefully, wielding industrial adhesive and mega-clamps, while I dithered about in the background, periodically wringing my hands (watch the floor!) and dancing celebratory jigs. 

Patrick went off to rehearsal in the evening, and I sat on the couch and smiled gleefully. It just looks so freaking cool. I gave our baby a bath (she was mighty sooty) and then I lit the insert (no faux-logs yet, but they're coming soon).


Of course there are still a dozen little trimming-out and finishing-up steps before it's truly done... and, of course, a wide mantle shelf to sit on top, which we didn't want to set in place until after the glue was dry on the uprights. But the big tricky stuff is out of the way, and when my family comes on Saturday they can sit on the couch in front of the fire, and that is amazing. 

Here's a view of the new light fixture we have overhead, which I mentioned on Friday. 

Really coming along. 

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Friday, December 16, 2011

Spruced up

I can't believe I'm about to say this, but: I'm finally beginning to feel satisfied and contented in this house. Things are shaping up. In the past two months, we've gotten a dishwasher, installed new light fixtures, received new railings in our stairwell, bought a big shelf for my office, and painted and spruced up the downstairs bathroom. We have a nice ceiling fan in our bedroom instead of an ugly gold boob light. The net result of all this is I no longer walk into a room and cringe inwardly. All summer, it was, Oh, this'll be nice after... or, just wait until I hang/install/buy this...thing... I'll no longer be cringing.

It's far from done, of course, but so many of the big-ticket cringe items are off the list now. It's a beautiful thing. A liberating, beautiful thing. It's feeling like home.

The new light fixtures were the biggest thing. Every day, I'd walk into our front room and look around, and feel content with things... until I looked up. The whole downstairs came with cheap dated-looking ceiling fans, which I plan to refinish and install in our upstairs (because ceiling fans make more sense in bedrooms, anyway, right?) but to replace them downstairs I wanted something nice. I eventually ended up at Rejuvenation, justifying the order I placed by agreeing it would be my birthday present to myself, from myself, this year.

I have a habit of justifying expensive purchases that way. Anyone else?

The good news is, both fixtures are in, and I love them. Love love love. The one in the great room is bigger than the one shown above, with four lights dangling from a curvy oil-rubbed-bronze canopy. It's almost exactly like the fixtures we had in our Binghamton house, except those were actually from the 20s, and these are reproductions.  

The downstairs bathroom, too, has seen big upgrades.

The paint really helped, (remember before?) and then I went and added curtains, a funky Venetian blind, a new set of towel bars etc, and (luxury of luxuries!) a new toilet seat. Oo la la, right? Hey, it's the little things.

(Pardon the missing switch plate. Apparently some things are still too little to be dealt with in time for photographs.)

This room was so dingy when we moved in, and now there's nice new towels hanging from brushed chrome towel bars, and funky new curtains (I sewed em, natch) and a sleek oil-rubbed-bronze curtain rod... everything is suddenly feeling very put-together. Surprisingly put-together. 

Well now. I think the house just might be ready for Christmas. How do you like that.

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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

O, Christmas Tree

Thursday evening, I sat down with a box of ornaments and a box of tissues.

Last month, I had received, via my mother, a box of my grandpa's old glass Christmas ornaments. Sitting down with that box of his brought him back to me the way nothing else really has.

My grandpa went after life with both hands. He patented a sort of explosive, near-gagging laugh that showed  the fillings glinting in his back molars. He carved the turkey every year: there is a category of photograph of him, carving knife in hand, face red from Chianti and the roaring fire, about to cut into the bird. I'm pretty sure there's one for each year we had Christmas at my parents' house, 1986 to 1997.

The other category of photograph is pictures of him holding me. He reliably wears an expression that most people reserve for the dessert case. I'm going to eat this thing, this beautiful, delectable granddaughter of mine, it says. He loved me fiercely. For my first eleven years, I was his only grandchild.

He had an eye for art, and he knew and understood and practiced beauty in a way most men I've met shy away from. He took me flower picking when I was a girl, carefully selecting and arranging the stems in his hand as we went along, holding each one at arms' length before choosing its place in the bundle. In my mother's childhood, he was a giver of colored pencils and paper tablets, an art director and critic as her talents for sketching and painting emerged.

There is so much of him, I realize, in how mom talks with me about my writing. About how she's always been there, giving me paper for book-making (when I was younger) and attending poetry competitions, and now, reading rough copy and offering comments.

These ornaments shone on the tree throughout my mom's and uncle's childhood. She remembers each individual one, sometimes even where he bought it and where it hung. A Christmas tree is a deeply personal thing, a tree laden with memories and charms for the things we wish for and love and remember best. Sitting there in its glow last week, I felt a little piece of family history had come to stay with me for keeps

.I wasn't alive yet when he purchased these, but I know how it went: holding each one at arms' length standing in the department store aisle, imagining its place on the tree before making his selection. 

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Wednesday, December 7, 2011


This corner was made for a Christmas tree. Seriously, when I walked into this room for the first time, I thought, Christmas tree there. 

We haven't decorated it yet-- Patrick claimed November 30th was too early for husband participation-- and besides which, I need to buy more garland. Tomorrow night the ornaments will come out en masse. 

Something about that first Christmas in a new house. I'm ordinarily pretty into merry-making, but this year has brought seasonal spirit to new heights. I drove over hill and dale to collect the Christmas tree, which I found on Craigslist. I went to JoAnn Fabrics and Michael's and spent hours, hours, looping yards of garland over my arm like a female Clark Griswold. 

I'm going back again tomorrow. I'm worried.

I told my mother-in-law that hosting Christmas gives women a special kind of mental illness. This I said to a woman who hosts a lavish Christmas day dinner in her house where quaint snow villages and caroler figurines occupy every horizontal surface. Strangely, she didn't seem offended.

I think I understand it, now. I'm beginning to long for snow villages and caroler figurines of my own.

If I somehow find the time to squeeze in a craft project before the actual day, I might make toilet tube owls. Or a light bulb hot air balloon. Or a single, perfect, glittered snow house.

Sigh. What holiday preparations are underway at your house?

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Monday, December 5, 2011


Pearle L. Strain
October 6, 1919 - November 30, 2011
The best part was, almost the whole family was there. For someone who devoted her entire life to her kids and grandkids, it was about as perfect as a passing can be. 

About a week before Thanksgiving, she stopped eating. As simple as that, it seemed she was letting us all know, enough. So the family came and gathered. We sat in her living room. We slept by her bed. We helped her to be comfortable. We ate pumpkin pie in her kitchen. As best we could, we helped her transition. We helped each other transition.

Though I've been a part of this family for six years, going through this journey with Patrick's parents and aunts has brought them closer in a way I didn't expect. Experiences like this change people. Empathy deepens. Understandings emerge where they never existed before. For a week we waited and watched. 

I was standing in the room with her two daughters when she slipped, peaceful as fog, from one side to the other. It was honestly beautiful-- a release she'd been wanting for some time, I think. Patrick's parents came just minutes after. Patrick came, too, from work. We all stood around with tears glittering on our faces, shocked in spite of ourselves.

Later in the day, we gathered in her sunroom to open a bottle (perhaps two) and share stories. We talked about Thanksgivings and Christmases, and the year she single-handedly drained a bottle of Bailey's before coming over for dinner. We joked about her tongue, which had loosened considerably in old age. We lovingly retold some acutely embarrassing stories of when that tongue had been unleashed in public places, complete with pitch-perfect imitations. Patrick's dad and his sisters shared stories, some near-legend quality, from their childhood: The Great Chicken Massacre. Shooting Groundhogs from the Attic. 

I'm pretty sure she was right there with us all the while, listening and laughing along.

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