Monday, September 11, 2017

The Ultimate Scratching Post

Is this wainscoting made of wallpaper? Stenciled paint?
No, it's carpet!
There is nothing better to distract from one's sorrows than a new home project. And what better home project to distract me from the unexpected death last week of one of my beloved cats than to complete the installation of a long awaited and much anticipated full-length feline scratching post.

I have long known that the best way to keep a cat from scratching my furniture is to have a scratching post in every room where I interact with my cats. Many pet lovers know that our feline friends are not sharpening their claws when they annihilate our upholstery. They are marking their territory, much as cats do in the wild when they rake the trunk of a tree with their claws to say: "This is my area!" In most households, your domestic lion is also declaring: "This is my area and my human!"

The wainscoting in the stairwell of my 1862-era farmhouse in Baltimore County, Maryland, was wallpapered when I bought the house in 2001. I liked the idea of wallpapered wainscoting but I hated the wallpaper I had inherited with the house, so in 2012 when I converted a spare bedroom into a walk-in closet/dressing room and found myself with leftover beadboard wallpaper, I re-papered the stairwell. It was gorgeous. I loved it.
The cats had ruined my beadboard wallpaper wainscoting

Trouble was, so did the cats. While they'd never bothered the old wallpaper wainscoting, upon installation of the new, all three suddenly decided that the stairwell was an ideal place for scratching with their claws. In no time they had reduced my new wallpaper to shreds. No amount of spray-on deterrent made any difference, so I resigned myself to having an ugly stairwell.

In said dressing room, I had taken a bit of carpet left over from covering the floor and framed it low on the wall as a custom scratching post for the cats in an effort to keep them from scratching the new beadboard wallpaper in that room. It worked!  So when I remodeled my master bath in 2015, I incorporated a built-in carpeted scratching wall at the end of my double-sink vanity in an effort to keep the cats from scratching a beautifully upholstered bench I put next to the tub. That worked, too! The cats LOVED their custom scratching areas. They left my new wallpaper and upholstery alone.
I stripped the ruined beadboard
wallpaper from the wainscoting in
anticipation of the new carpet
So when I began to tinker with the idea of re-covering the wainscoting in my stairwell, I was suddenly struck by an idea: what if I covered the entire length of the stairwell wainscoting in ... carpeting?!! I would select the same kind of carpeting I had used for my dressing room: a short durable pile of extremely high quality, densely knotted fiber. I noted that since installing the first carpeted scratching wall in my dressing room five years ago, that pile has shown no signs of wear despite seeing daily clawing by multiple cats.

Richard Crafton and his son,
Dustin, created a stencil of
the wainscoting using
plastic sheeting
Finally, this summer, I got around to calling my favorite carpet man, Richard Crafton of Time Machine Carpet Repair in Baltimore City. Could he get some more of that carpet from my closet remodel in 2012?  Could he give me an estimate for installing it in my stairwell?

Once he got over the shock of my wanting to install carpet vertically on the wall instead of on the stair treads as he had assumed, Richard was totally on board with the idea. He and his son, Dustin, took careful measurements of the narrow wall space. When he learned that the carpet I wanted was no longer available, Richard sent me samples of carpet patterns he thought I might like instead.  I picked one I thought would fit the era of the house -- and we were off to the races.

Richard and Dustin returned a few weeks later with a large sheet of plastic, the kind that rolls of carpet come shipped in. They laid the plastic along the stairwell and traced its shape with a marking pen, creating a full-size stencil. For this wasn't an ordinary stairwell; it was a hand hewn, curving staircase with a notched alcove halfway up the stairs in the middle of the curve. Getting the dimensions right would be challenging.
While the carpet warmed in the sun,
Richard and Dustin made their final
cuts using the stencil they had created

The next time I talked to Richard it was clear he'd spent a lot of time engineering my installation down to the smallest detail.  He knew exactly how he wanted to lay the pattern so it would flow up the stairs in a way that would be pleasing to the eye. He knew that multiple cats would be pulling on the carpet on a daily basis, so he devised extra layers of adhesive and fasteners to make sure the carpeting would stay in place once it was installed.  He calculated exactly where he wanted the seam to be laid so that it would be as invisible as possible.

The father-son team worked carefully
to install the wainscoting perfectly
Today my new stairwell wainscoting was installed.  Richard and Dustin unrolled the new carpet and spread it out in my driveway to coax it flat in the sun. While the carpet was relaxing its curl, the two men made their final measurements in the stairwell and began to apply their adhesives.

In no time at all, it seemed, they were calling me to come look at the finished project. It was stunningly beautiful. I am thrilled. And the cats? I haven't heard anyone trying their claws out on the new pile yet, but just give it a few days. I'm sure this stairwell-length scratching post will draw their attention in no time at all. And if they never apply their claws to my new wainscoting?  So much the better. It's a win-win either way.

I love how my stairwell looks now!
Bravo, Richard and Dustin, for a job well done. I am so happy with how my stairwell looks and thrilled that the new wainscoting  will be impervious to kitty claws for years to come.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

And Now We Are Three

My sweet Ember

As most of you know, I have shared my home and my heart with three cats for many years. The four of us have formed a happy little family with relatively few tiffs and lots of snuggles, purrs and playtime.

A few hours ago I held the newest addition to my little family, my precious Ember, a rescue kitty who came from a traumatic kittenhood six years ago to bask in the happiness and comfort of life with me and my other two four-legged fur balls, as the vet injected her with the drugs that would end her life.  Something happened to my precious charge over Labor Day weekend. On Saturday morning Ember was as playful and energetic as she'd ever been. By Monday evening she was hunched over, weak and listless.

I was at my vet's office first thing Tuesday morning when they opened the doors, but it was already too late for my little Ember. Bloodwork showed that Ember was suffering massive organ failure of her liver and kidneys -- and her blood sugar was off the charts. Spontaneous acute diabetic ketoacidosis was the diagnosis. But why?  The doctors speculated that she might have had some underlying disease that had gone undiagnosed, which had finally and acutely come to a head over the weekend, such as cancer, or perhaps she had eaten something toxic, although I've torn the house apart in search of what it might have been and haven't found anything suspicious.  I'll probably never know.
Ember returns home following
yet another surgery in 2012  

Ember was a burn victim, set on fire by a juvenile delinquent when she was just eleven weeks old. She endured a number of surgeries as a kitten, several after I agreed to foster her in my home. Ember was a fighter. She came through each surgery with remarkable stamina. She was a good patient, stoically riding to the vet without complaint each time she was subjected to the doctor's scalpel, as they tried on several occasions to stretch healthy skin over the raw burn wounds. Each time Ember endured her medical ordeals with grace. She always rallied.

When I officially adopted Ember in the Spring of 2012, I threw a party. Ember finally had a forever home.  When memories of her early trauma caused her to engage in compulsive licking, opening up wounds on her back that had previously healed, I designed a little shirt for her to wear which covered her back and prevented her from licking but didn't detract from her ability to run and jump and play with my other two cats. She wore the shirt for two years, until the compulsion to lick the old wounds finally left her.
Underfoot, top, could usually
be found curled up next to Ember

Elfie, left, and Ember share a shelf
in front of a window 
When I thought my elderly cat, Underfoot, would never be active again, Ember literally brought him back to life, engaging him in play every day. They could often be found curled up in their cats beds, side by side.  When my other rescue kitty, Elfie, needed a companion, Ember was always there for her. For the past six years, the four of us have been so happy together.

Upon my arrival at the vet yesterday, the staff drew blood and then pumped my little girl full of intravenous fluids and insulin. Dr. Brown said the organ failure was probably too massive for Ember to recover from, but he wanted to give her a few hours to see what happened.  When I called yesterday at 5:00 p.m. as instructed, Dr. Brown reported that Ember was ever so slightly more alert but still in grave condition. "Let's put off the decision to euthanize until tomorrow", he said. He got her blood sugar down to 295, but her liver was still terribly jaundiced. He wasn't sure she would live through the night.
Underfoot and Ember could frequently
be found "helping" me in my home

Ember was always my "official door greeter". It didn't matter that a human had set her ablaze when she was a kitten. When the doorbell rang, Ember was always first to see who was at the front door, always eager to meet a stranger, always ready to make a new friend.  She had lots of fans, and was even pictured in the Orioles pet calendar in September 2014.

My kinetic kitty was not afraid of fire, either, or at least she showed no concern for open flame. She curled up in front of my fireplace every night during the winter. By all accounts, she was as well-adjusted as any cat could be. She was happy and playful and full of energy.  Although she was considerably smaller than Underfoot and Elfie, she ate almost twice as much as they did, burning calories at a frenetic pace as she raced all over the house, playing with her toys, and with me, and with the other cats -- sometimes even with imaginary faeries visible only to her.
Ember loved to relax by the fire

When I called the on-duty vet first thing this morning to check on my patient, the doctor reported that Ember was not as alert as she had been after the first round of fluids and insulin yesterday. More insulin this morning did not produce any improvement. The vet said it was time. I had one last conversation with Dr. Brown and the decision was made.

Ember's favorite flying squirrels are
with her still
One of the most endearing traits of my beloved Ember was how she made sure there was always a toy to greet me when I came home after being away, even if I was gone for only a few minutes.  Of all the tiny stuffed mice, tiny hedgehogs, squeaky bird toys and assorted balls and bells tucked into the feline toy box in my dining room, Ember had three favorites; all were small furry flying squirrels. The toys were not alike, not even the same brand or color or fabric, so I don't know why she preferred those three, or why they all happened to be flying squirrels. But inevitably, when I came through the door into the kitchen from running an errand, there on the floor, sometimes grouped together, sometimes strung out in a line across the floor, would be one or two, sometimes all three of her flying squirrels.  Gifts I received from my sweet girl every day just for coming home!

I drove to the vet a little while ago and held my baby black kitty tenderly for one last time. She looked at me but she was too weak to raise her head. She couldn't purr. I laid her flying squirrels all around her and told the doctor to go ahead.  Ember blinked once -- and then she was gone.

Often my three kitties could be found curled up together --
never far from each other, never far from me
I am inconsolable at the moment, but I know that life must go on. While I am not one to dwell on the morose, especially in my stories, writing helps me deal with much of what life throws at me, and crafting this essay today has been especially cathartic. I hope you understand. My closest friends have reassured me that I gave Ember a loving home and a healthy, happy life for six wonderful years. I will lean on those kind words and good memories to lift me up for the next few days.  And I still have two other furry pocket lions to keep me company. I am simply a family of three now, instead of four.
“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened. ” Anatole France

Monday, September 4, 2017

Inaugural Hobby Room Hat Project!

Hats, so many hats. What do you do
with them all?
It was an inevitable challenge to designing a new walk-in closet in 2012 -- there would need to be a place to store (and display) all my hats. Not just my straw hats, but my grandma Hester's mink pillbox hat, my Scarlett O'Hara costume hat, decorated with feathers that once belonged to said grandmother, and an assortment of other interesting lids that all were taking up space in my tiny 1862 farmhouse in Baltimore County. Where to put all these hats?

For five years after my new closet was completed, the hat issue remained unresolved. My hat collection took up space in a spare bedroom, covering the tops of portable hanger racks and other awkward surfaces. When I converted that bedroom into a hobby/craft room this summer, said hats went into another room, stacked on the floor like so many floppy Legos. I began to ruminate about a design idea I had imagined for the hats all along. I wanted to hang them, virtually upside down, from the sloped ceiling in my dressing room. But the manner in which to accomplish that proved elusive.

The answer came when I had an epiphany one sleepless night several weeks ago -- a half-round sphere, affixed to the sloping upper-level wall/ceiling of my Lincoln-era farmhouse, would serve as a perfect perch for storing and displaying each hat in my walk-in closet. They'd be on display but out of my way. What if I created French cleats to hold wooden spheres to the inverted slopes? My hats would snug around the spheres and there they'd be, up on the ceiling, but within easy reach.
My new hobby room was perfect for
bringing this project to fruition
My initial iteration of the "hat project"

I drew a sketch -- my project ideas always start with a sketch. Mollies could hold the wooden spheres to the lath and plaster walls. I started searching the internet for prefabricated half-dome wooden spheres. But the mighty internet did not deliver images of half-round wooden spheres. Instead, images of Styrofoam balls filled my screen.

Okay, so Styrofoam could work -- and would be a heckuva lot lighter in weight than wood, but Styrofoam degrades and flakes off with time and wear. I'd have to cover the balls in fabric to prevent their degradation.  And I couldn't use mollies to secure Styrofoam to the wall. It would have to be... Velcro!  Really strong Velcro. And really strong glue to hold the Velcro.
 Stretching the jersey fabric over the
Styrofoam balls while the glue was
tacky  was a bit challenging, but the
result was just what I'd hoped for

A plan was beginning to take shape. I counted my hats and ordered a half-dozen eight-inch diameter Styrofoam balls from an internet site. I paid a visit to Jo-Ann's Crafts and purchased several yards of stretchy black jersey fabric. I called a Velcro supplier and spoke with a very nice man who calculated exactly how much hook (in black) and loop (in white) Velcro I would need to make 12 custom hat receptacles. When the Styrofoam balls arrived, I sawed each in half with my serrated CutCo bread knife. Now I had 12 half-spheres.

So this became the very first project in my newly finished hobby room.  I laid several thicknesses of newspaper over my large worktable. I tested spray adhesive on the Styrofoam balls to make sure they were compatible. I measured the circumference of each of my hats, and then cut the Styrofoam spheres to that size, marking each with a small photo of the hat it was destined to display.
I marked a spot on the sloped ceiling
where I envisioned each hat would go

I watched an internet video about how to create a puppet's head by smoothing fabric over a Styrofoam ball and then created a prototype with the first Styrofoam ball, the fabric and the spray adhesive. So far, so good. I glued black hook fabric to the back of the ball. I stood on a ladder and marked the place on the sloped ceiling where I imagined each hat would go, and then glued white loop fabric to the spot on the wall.

Finally, this morning, all the glue was dry and it was time to position each hat onto its corresponding dome. Success!  My hats now make a decorative statement in my dressing room, are out of my way and yet easy to access.  Even a hard hat, given to me by the roofers who hit me twice this summer with flying nails and debris as they flung old shingles from my roof, has a place of distinction on my dressing room ceiling.
And voila!  My hats are on display but
out of the way.

My inaugural hobby room project was a smashing success! I am certain there will be many more.

"A person carries off the hat. Hats are about emotion. It is all about how it makes you feel" ~ Philip Treacy

Friday, July 28, 2017

Summer Project -- My Hobby Room!

The HVAC crew removed the old
radiator from my soon-to-be hobby
 room as my handyman began
constructing base cabinets
I've learned over the years that when a contractor says: "this project will be completed in one week", the majority of the time such will not be the case. Indeed, the new hobby/guest room in my circa 1862 farmhouse in Baltimore County, Maryland, certainly was not completed in seven days. Instead, completion occurred on Monday of this week, 37 workdays after start of construction June 1.

Derek begins construction of the attic
recess into which my daybed will sit 
Now, I must admit that most of the delays were not the fault of the handyman I hired to do the job. Had he been able to work in utter peace without distraction from any other influence, he might, and it is a tentative "might", have been able to finish the job in two weeks. But like the novice general contractor that I am, I arranged for three major construction projects to take place at my home simultaneously this summer, all in the name of lessening the trauma of a lengthy disruption to our routine for me and my three kitties. "Get it all over in one fell swoop!" was my thinking.  After all, isn't that what major building contractors do?  They have electricians working alongside sheetrock hangers and finish carpenters all at the same time. Couldn't they all work together in harmony under (and on) my roof?  Uhm, no.

Derek's son, Jordan, 12, helped his dad
much of the time.
As my handyman, Derek Hahn of Hahn Home Improvements LLC, began construction pursuant to my carefully drawn sketches of how I imagined each wall in my new hobby room would look, the heating, air conditioning and ventilation (HVAC) company I had hired to replace all my old radiators with new, state-of-the-art ductless mini-split units throughout the ground floor, decided they would bore a hole (a big hole) in the ceiling of said hobby room, which would be their central access point for installation of my upstairs units.  At the same time, I hired an electrician to run wiring from a single outlet in the hobby room to the other three walls, and include a CAT-5 cable for hardwired internet access.

And then it was done! The "A-wall"
features shelving above with drawers
and cabinets below
"I'm very familiar with historic homes" the electrician said. "I will fish the wires through your antique joists so nothing will be damaged", he said.  So when I heard the sawsall buzzing away upstairs as I worked at my computer in my home office below, I naturally assumed it was Derek hard at work on my new hobby room. Or perhaps the HVAC crew enlarging the hole in the ceiling to make more room for the new heating and air conditioning system in the attic.  Uhm, no.

When I ventured upstairs to check on the progress, I was horrified to discover that the electrician had sawed and drilled his way through three walls' worth of 160-year-old lath and plaster, joists and framing in order to run the wiring from one side of the room to the other.  "Why didn't you fish the wires as you told me you would?" I practically screamed at him. "Oh, this was much easier" was his reply. Well, yes. Easier, to be sure, but not what had been promised (sigh). At the same time, the HVAC crew was busy heaving two several-hundred-pound units up into my attic, hoisting their 230-pound bodies up and down ladders at a furious pace, cracking delicate lath and plaster with practically every step. It's no wonder poor Derek the handyman didn't get a whole lot accomplished those first few weeks.
The "B-Wall" features a twin bed, the
length of which is recessed into the
attic of my front porch when not in use

Oh, and did I mention that I contracted with a roofing company to replace my entire roof during the same time period? I was hit in the head twice by pieces of nail-filled shingles flying though the air as the roofing crew dismantled the old roof, and so were a couple of the HVAC crew, who threatened, at one point, to pluck the roofers off the roof if they weren't more careful about where they threw their debris (sigh).

And so it went, for 37 days. Installation of the new heating and air conditioning units was completed first, but not without issues that still have not been resolved. The roof was finished second, and despite some unfortunate mishaps, such as the smashing of several of my landscaping plants just ahead of my annual summer potluck party for more than 100 friends and neighbors, and nails and debris strewn into practically every nook and cranny of my yard, the roof caused the least of my anguish over the course of these concomitant projects.
I fit my Singer Featherweight
sewing machine into a narrow
dormer and filled a rack with
spools of colorful thread that
had belonged to my
maternal grandmother

But now, at long last, the handyman has completed my new hobby room. He finished on Monday of this week. So I am here to present to you the fruits of my imagination and his labor. First of all, I wanted storage. So on the wall I designated as "Wall A", I requested a desk with drawers and cabinets below and shelves with pegboard above. "Wall B", which sported a low knee wall above which a frustrating sloped ceiling prevented any practical application, would feature a daybed and wide, deep drawers to hold tools, with my antique sewing machine fitting just so into a small dormer beside it.  "Wall C" would have another desk, more cabinets and drawers below and a cabinet and pegboard above, but this wall would also boast long horizontal dowels to hold rolls of wrapping paper and spools of ribbon.  And finally, "Wall D" would have a workbench-height counter with long flat drawers beneath to hold paper, tissue and wrapping remnants, while shallow cabinets above would store art supplies and paint.

To the right of the sewing machine, my
"C-Wall" boasts another desk and
dowels to hold wrapping paper,
ribbon and cellophane
As I perused the internet for imaginative implementations of daybed ideas in rooms with sloped walls, I came across a wondrous concept. A website in Oregon showed images of a full-sized mattress recessed into attic space behind a knee-wall. I called immediately for the drawings. "Oh, we don't have any drawings" came the response . "We just designed furniture for the room." (sigh). I showed the picture to my handyman. Could we do this?  Derek was game to try, for which I give him immeasurable credit. But when we bored into the knee wall to survey the framing there, it became evident that recessing anything into the attic space would be difficult.  My framing was supporting 12-foot long attic rafters on 16" centers which, in turn supported 900 pounds of roof apiece. Taking out a single horizontal load-bearing board would necessitate the installation of a steel I-beam to support the span -- an I-beam that would have to be special-ordered, and a plan that would have to be certified by an actual architect before construction could begin (sigh).

Because there would only be 15 inches to
spare at the end of my run of desk space,
Derek sawed my door in half and hinged it,
cleverly turning it into a bi-fold.
I resigned myself to plan B, which was to haul my decrepit old twin hide-a-bed back up the stairs and let it serve as a guest bed and couch in my new hobby room. Maybe I would recover it in a jaunty new fabric, I consoled myself.

Then Derek approached me with a novel idea.  The length of a twin bed might be 75 inches, he said, which was way too far a distance to span without an I-beam. But the width of a twin mattress was only 37 inches, and I happened to have forty inches between two of my joists (thanks to the hand-hewn nature of 1862 construction). What if I recessed the twin bed lengthwise into the attic space, so just the end of it stuck out into the room by day, sort of more like a "chair" rather than a daybed? I practically hugged him. It was innovative and imaginative and solved my problem beautifully,  But the attic space into which the twin mattress would be recessed wasn't very deep. The end of the bed would hit the slope of the attic only a few inches into the space.  Not to worry, Derek said. He proceeded to design a platform on which the mattress would rest which was divided into three separate, hinged sections. As the platform containing the mattress recessed back into the attic space on rollers, it would literally bend down into the attic, following the slope of the roof line.  Sheer genius, I thought. And it was!  My uncomfortable old hide-a-bed would keep its position out in my small guest cottage.
Every wall sports undercabinet
LED light strips with outlets
along their length. This chest
of drawers on the "D-Wall"
is flat and wide to
accommodate wrapping paper
and tissue of all sizes

Over the next several weeks the new hobby room came together beautifully, albeit in fits and starts. But now it is finally finished, and I was able to start moving my wrapping paper and art supplies into it this week. An acquaintance crafted for me a beautiful mattress cover for the day bed, with a backrest, bolsters and valances to match from fabric I found on sale at JoAnn Crafts. I found the oversized pencil and ruler wall art at  And now that the room is complete, I can't wait to start crafting in there!
"A woman with organizing skills can run a construction company without ever picking up a hammer and nail." ~Warren Farrell

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Summer Potluck

My invitation doesn't
change much from year
to year
Oh, how I relish summer get-togethers with family and neighbors and friends all gathered in someone's yard for food, fellowship and, if I'm lucky, swimming and fireworks, too!  Except I found I wasn't being invited to any such gatherings on a regular basis. So in 2009 or so, I decided to start hosting my own summer party. Since my immediate family is clear across the country in California, I decided to invite friends and neighbors who I wanted to get to know better for a summer garden party, and I threw in for good measure a cousin or two from both sides of my family who live near me in Maryland and Virginia.

I soon discovered that holding my party on the July Fourth holiday does not produce a very big turnout, as everyone has already committed to spending time with their own families. The key, it turned out, is to host the gathering the first Saturday after the Fourth of July. Everyone who isn't traveling on vacation is far more likely to be available, the fireworks are all half price at the stores, and people are still in the mood for a patriotic outdoor gala.

I decided to make it a potluck, with the intention of taking some of the intense preparation off my shoulders. Much as I love to host fancy dinner parties during the winter, this would be an opportunity for my guests to showcase their own family favorites to a wider audience. Of course, I would make something, but it had to be easy and keep well. I chose my favorite Maahs family chili, a beloved recipe handed down to me by the family of my first husband, Mike Maahs, more than forty years ago. Some might think of chili as more of a cold-weather staple, but I love this chili any time of year. And made with lean ground turkey, it hits all the right flavor notes without being too heavy for sultry summer weather.  I had sixty guests that first year -- and I've never looked back.

This year I emailed my invitation on June 8, exactly one month ahead of the date of the party. Those neighbors for whom I did not have email addresses, such as Ricky and Bonita, the new couple who moved in across the street a few months ago, got snail-mailed invitations.

The new roof, by Dream Home
 Remodeling, looked great once it was
finally completed
As the date for the party approached, I began to get nervous, not about the party, which I've been doing for almost a decade now, but because I had foolishly engaged contractors in June to undertake three major construction projects at my house all at the same time. Suddenly I was not at all confident that the new roof, the new heating and air-conditioning system, and the new hobby-craft-guest room I was having built in a spare bedroom, would be finished in time.  On top of that, I had a houseguest coming from Australia for a seven-day visit just a a couple of weeks before the party. If you've ever stayed with me, you know that I like to wine (and cocktail) and cook for and pamper my guests, which understandably takes a bit of effort on my part.

The crew chief, Lapaya, added
this  imaginative "conehead"
decoration to my smokehouse
roof. I love it!
Installation of the roofs (not just one roof but the roof on my main house, on my guest house, on my pool shed and on an ancient smokehouse at the back of my property about the size of an outhouse) were initially held up because of a rainy forecast (which never materialized) and then, when roof construction finally did get underway, it rained a little bit every day they were here (Murphy's law).   Originally scheduled for the middle of May, my roofs were finally completed on July 3, after my houseguest departed. I love, love, love my new roof (and the new skylights in my laundry room and the scalloped siding on the upstairs dormers that the contractor threw in to sweeten the deal) but getting through from start to finish without a meltdown was a challenge. They actually gave me a hardhat to wear after I was hit in the head twice by nail-filled shingles being flung with abandon as the workers dismantled the old roof.

The new HVAC system was also a challenge. I'd researched various alternatives for my ancient fuel-oil boiler system and hot-water radiators. I loved the radiators and their silent, comfortable heat, but they took up an enormous amount of space in every room of my small farmhouse. The fuel oil that powered them was expensive, and I also had the expense of an inefficient forced-air propane furnace in my guesthouse. In addition to fuel oil and propane, I paid electric bills for both systems and, with only two small window air-conditioners (one in my home office and one in my bedroom upstairs), I'd never had truly comfortable cool, conditioned air in my home the entire seventeen years I'd lived in Maryland.  It was time for a change.

John Bain and John Weckessser of
Advanced Heating and Cooling
install a ducted unit in my small
attic space
I'd looked into radiant flooring, a geo-thermal system in the ground, and high-velocity hot and cold air that could be retro-fitted through the holes left in my floors and ceilings after the radiator piping was removed. Eventually, I decided on all-electric high-tech ductless mini-splits for the main house and a super-efficient propane-fueled heat-pump and air conditioner for the guest house.  That ten-day project began on June 7, and took every bit of ten days and a little more. My radiators were removed, leaving big, wonderful spaces in every room of my house, and my boiler and a rusty old fuel-oil tank were liberated from my basement, leaving me quite a bit more space down there, as well.

This twin bed recesses into the attic
of my front porch roof
Derek Hahn and his son, Jordan,
of Hahn Home Improvements,
are working together
to build my new hobby room
And then there was the hobby room build-out. I designed a room full of cabinets to maximize storage, leaving space for a large worktable in the middle of the room. I configured a twin guest bed to pose as a small couch by day, with the length of it recessed through a knee-wall down into the attic space over my front porch. If my guest house is ever full (or if I eventually rent it out for extra income), I can simply tug on the end of a platform and the entire length of a twin bed magically pulls out of its attic alcove on rails into the middle of the hobby room!  I found a handyman in nearby Pennsylvania to build the room for me. He and his 12-year-old son have been working on the room since June 1st. Unfortunately, like my bathroom renovation in 2015, not a single line in this 1862 dwelling is straight, level, plumb or true, causing even the most patient of carpenters to have to take extra care with every step. The hobby room was not finished in time for my houseguest or my party -- and it still isn't finished. I keep telling myself "Man, it's going to be great when it's done!" But I digress.

In the angst-filled construction days leading up to my party I watched in wonder as the "yes" RSVPs began to mount. When the guests coming to my party topped 100 in number, I realized that over the years I'd created a summer party that people seem naturally drawn to. I discovered that others want a family-friendly place to enjoy good food and drink with friends and neighbors as much as I do!  I began to get really excited.
Tables adorned with red cloths and
patriotic flower and flag bouquets
grace the yard in anticipation
of my party

After work each night I busied myself with preparations. I made three kinds of sangria, a Greek-pasta salad, a carrot-turmeric salad, a blueberry-cucumber salad and a baked cashew-artichoke dip. I made my pot of chili and ordered small deli-trays of raw veggies, lunch meats, and sandwich roll-ups. I prepared the custard for my grandmother's old-fashioned homemade ice cream. Blackberry-sage would be this year's flavor. One neighbor smoked two entire pork briskets. Another made her famous lemon cake. A third brought me dozens of her wonderful deviled eggs. Still another made Jamaican barbecued jerk chicken with rice and peas.

On the day of the party, 121 people came to enjoy a perfect summer evening on my lawn. I was ecstatic to have such a wonderful turnout. The tables I'd set up as a "food court" on my patio groaned under the weight of all the delicious appetizers, salads, main dishes and desserts everyone contributed. The culinary imaginations of my guests knew no bounds. There were avocado pudding "boats" (avocado-infused chocolate pudding in hollowed-out avocado shells), bacon-and-caramelized onion mini-quiches, couscous-shrimp salad, and blueberry-strawberry "crustless" pie to name but a few of the offerings.
On my patio, a festive "food court" was
filled with the contributions of more
than a hundred friends and neighbors

More than twenty children splashed in my pool and tried their hands at badminton, horseshoes, Frisbee and soccer across my two acres. The mood was festive and the weather ideal.

As dusk approached, I lighted candles inside the house and tiki torches outside, creating a magical glow across the expanse of my little slice of paradise. When my old ice-cream maker gave up the ghost at the last minute, a neighbor rushed to my rescue and brought me hers.

Once darkness fell, torches and candles
gave the yard a romantic glow
And, finally, when it grew dark, I invited my guests to grab their chairs and migrate to my northern meadow, where a pair of talented pyro-technicians proceeded to wow the crowd with a nonstop twenty-minute display of professional-strength fireworks bursting right over our heads.

My cousin, Ian, and his wife,
Sharon, are from my mom's
side of the family. A cousin
and her family from my
father's side were there, too 
As I cleaned up my yard the next day I couldn't help but reflect on the goodwill that is engendered when friends and strangers come together to celebrate nothing more than enjoying each other's company on a warm summer's eve. Neighbors got to meet neighbors. New friendships and acquaintances were formed. Children frolicked in a welcoming and sociable environment. Sure, there was a "political" table engaged in heated debate and, as a brief cold front blew through, a single gust of wind that simultaneously knocked over everybody's drink.  But lively discourse and a sudden, mother nature-inspired surprise served only to underscore how well the wonderful diversity of our human race can play nicely together amid fireflies and candlelight.  That I had a hand in creating such a magical ambiance truly made my heart sing.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Easter At Jan's

A massive driftwood horse sculpture
adorns the garden at Jan's lovely home
The first dinner party to be held at the home of my dear friend since her husband of thirty years died in 2014 was to be a festive affair. Jan was finally ready to host a gathering for friends and family, and she asked me to help pull it all together. I was only too happy to oblige. I love entertaining at Jan's beautifully appointed home, whose dramatic dining room looks out, through an entire wall of glass, onto a lush, walled garden in the Roland Park section of Baltimore City.

A few weeks ago Jan came to dinner at my house so we could collaborate on an Easter menu, much like her late husband, Robert, and I used to do over more than a decade of holiday dinner-party planning. As Jan and I supped on beef brisket and spring asparagus in my dining room, we chose as our Easter entrĂ©es a leg of lamb, which I would prepare, and a spiral-cut ham, on which Jan would put the finishing touches. An herbed bleu-cheese terrine with spiced walnuts from my repertoire sounded like an enticing hors d'oeuvre, accompanied by classic deviled eggs, which Jan would make. Fancy mashed potatoes would add a luscious starch, and we'd round out the main course with a colorful carrot salad dressed in lemon-turmeric vinaigrette.

I got busy composing a pretty menu for Jan, printing several copies out on stiff card stock, which I rolled and tied with curling ribbon and adorned with fabric blossom hair-clips as party favors for her guests. Meanwhile, Jan ordered adorable marzipan bunny faces with which we would make place cards for each table setting.

Tiny marzipan bunnies added a fun
note to placecards
The day before Easter I got busy in my kitchen, first marinating a six-and-a-half pound leg of lamb by cutting slits all over the sirloin and tucking in slivers of fresh garlic, poking sprigs of rosemary from my garden deep into the meat, and then rubbing the whole leg with olive oil, salt and pepper. I sprinkled rosemary leaves over the roast and stuck it in the fridge to chill.

Next I whirled bleu cheese, cream cheese and goat cheese in a food processor with melted butter until the smooth mixture had taken on a pale blue-green tint from the Roquefort. I patted some of the cheese into the bottom of a vintage jello mold lined with plastic wrap and topped it with a layer of fresh herbs (minced parsley and chives) from my garden, followed by a coating of toasted, chopped walnuts spiced with cumin, cardamon and sugar. I kept layering cheese, herbs and nuts until the miniature bundt pan was full, then folded plastic wrap over the top and put it in the fridge to set.
The carrot salad was so colorful!

Next I set to work assembling a hearty salad of thinly-sliced, rainbow-hued carrots, shredded red cabbage, bulgar wheat, chickpeas, chopped parsley, crumbled feta and sliced scallions, which I tossed with a fragrant vinaigrette of lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, toasted cumin seeds, salt and ground turmeric. The deep purple of the raw cabbage, combined with the red, orange, white and yellow carrots, the pale garbanzo beans and bulgar, the white feta and the brilliant yellow dressing (from the turmeric) made for a gloriously colorful presentation -- confetti in a bowl!

I snapped this photo early in the day --
before Murphy's Law began to wreak
 havoc at Jan's party
On Sunday morning, I boiled Yukon gold potatoes, put them through a ricer and then whipped heavy cream into stiff peaks. Folded into the minced tubers with milk, butter, white pepper and salt, the whipped cream gave the potatoes a luxurious, silken consistency. I patted the potatoes into an oven-proof casserole, drizzled on some more butter and sprinkled shredded Parmesan over top. Baked for 25 minutes and then crisped and browned beneath my broiler, the dish looked like Heaven in a bowl.
I filled the depression in the middle of
the ring with daisies and mums

I turned out the terrine from its copper mold onto a platter lined with mustard greens and sprinkled herbs all around the cheese. In the middle of the ring I tucked spring-hued daisies and chrysanthemums provided by my favorite florist, Marty Giles. It made quite a beautiful display.

This fun jumpsuit kept me cool
and comfy all day
Jan wanted the occasion to be chic but very casual, so I opted for springy and oh-so-comfortable blue cotton overalls with a pretty patchwork placket from the Pyramid Collection, which I paired with a vintage white Tee I've owned since the 1970s and white gladiator sandals from Nine West.

I cut branches from flowering plum, cherry, dogwood and redbud trees, arranging them in a giant vase for Jan, and then loaded up the car for the 20-minute drive to her home. Jan's dear friend, Irit, visiting from New York City, was busy pulling weeds and planting flowers when I arrived just before 2:00 p.m. Jan's brother, Robbie, would arrive at 4:00 with his wife, Ging and their children, Jimmy, 12, and Lookpat, 20. Jan's longtime friend and my former husband, Jesse, proceeded to uncork and decant rare, vintage wines chosen from Jan's wine cellar earlier in the week.

The ham and the lamb were perfect,
thankfully unaffected by the
"poltergeists" of the day
I set to work plating the carrot salad, roasting the lamb in Jan's oven and setting out the bleu cheese terrine with crackers for noshing. Jan had not yet assembled the deviled eggs, so I got busy mashing cooked yolks into stoneground and Dijon mustards, mayonnaise, horseradish, salt, cayenne pepper, curry powder, dill weed and minced celery, chives and garlic, spooning the filling into each boiled egg half and topping it with a chive garnish, while Jan lit candles all over the house. We toasted our good fortune and close friendship with bellinis: slender flutes of chilled champagne topped with a splash of peach schnapps.
Deviled eggs, stuffed olives and tiny
pickled onions rounded out the
appetizer selection

At 4:00 o'clock the lamb came out of the oven to rest for 45 minutes, while the potatoes and ham went into the warming drawer to heat up. That's when things began to go south. We couldn't understand why Jan's gigantic standard poodle, Toby, was licking his lips and looking for all the world like he'd found Nirvana. Now I saw the reason why: a third of the potatoes were missing from the ceramic dish we'd left sitting on the kitchen counter. We carefully cleaned out the contaminated portion and vowed to keep quiet about the canine incursion.

We proceeded to taste the decanted wine, now that it had been given a chance to breathe.  It was a rare and valuable 1995 Chateau Monbousquet Saint-Emilion Grand Cru -- two bottles. Both had spoiled. They were undrinkable.

And Robby and Ging and the children were now late. Very late. We tried to reach Jan's brother by cellphone but he had not turned his phone on. We called his wife's cell phone but none of us speak Thai and, although she's been in the U.S. for twelve years, Ging's English is not good enough to understand over the phone. We had established that they were okay, but could not determine when they would arrive or even if they were still coming. Half of our dinner party was missing in action.

Jan (in green) and Irit poured water
for the dinner table
Jan and Jesse headed back down to the wine cellar. This time they went deeper, bringing back a 1995 Chateauneuf du Pape and an 1988 Chateau Simard Saint-Emilion Grand Cru. I didn't notice the bottles were two different kinds and inadvertently decanted them into the same pitcher -- an epic and embarrassing mistake which thankfully resulted in a surprisingly tasty blend. Still, I was mortified at my gaffe and could not be consoled.

Finally, at 6:00 p.m., we grew tired of waiting for the others, so the four of us sat down to eat. We served up the ham and the lamb, passed the salad and the (carefully trimmed) mashed potatoes, gave a cheery toast and had just taken our first bites when Robby and his entourage arrived.  Up once again from the table, we exchanged greetings and introductions (Irit had never met Jan's brother and his family) and then started to serve dinner to our newly seated guests.

Jan proved she was
every bit as good a host
as Robert had been 
By the time dessert was served, we were all having a jolly good time. Jan presented a beautiful confection from La Patisserie Poupon, a classic French bakery in Baltimore from which she had ordered a decadent coconut cake with lemon mousse and mango filling in the shape of an Easter egg. When the cake was sliced, the mango filling looked like a golden yolk. Paired with a fabulous dessert wine from Jan's cellar, the final serving of the meal was as sublime as the previous courses.
Every guest got to take a copy
of the menu home with them,
tied and secured with a
blossom hairclip

Murphy's Law dictates that "everything that can go wrong, will go wrong". That wasn't our experience, fortunately, for not everything went wrong, and the things that did go wrong were easily (and luckily) fixed. Perhaps Robert had been testing his widow's mettle from the great beyond. Maybe he was just having a little fun at our expense. Who's to say?

All I know is that Jan's first foray into entertaining since her husband's passing was a sweet success. We all had a merry time. And as we gently explained the history of Christianity and the meaning of Easter to the Buddhists at the table, I reflected upon what a wonderful world of inclusivity and acceptance I live in -- where even the most glaring oenophilic faux pas can be forgiven -- after another glass of wine.

“The chance of the bread falling with the buttered side down is directly proportional to the cost of the carpet.”  ~ Murphy's Law