Thursday, December 14, 2017

It Takes a Herd

I live on a busy intersection in Baltimore County, Maryland, at the northeast corner of a four-way stop that sees commuters from the next county stream past on their journey toward Baltimore every morning and bumper-to-bumper back toward their homes every evening (although during the day it's quiet and peaceful here). For almost all of the 17 years I’ve owned this house, I’ve dressed the corner of my two-acre lot, which faces all this vehicular traffic, in seasonal d├ęcor to mark autumn, Halloween and Christmas. In early fall I arrange straw bales on the grass and plant a seven-foot scarecrow behind them. I set out a variety of pumpkins and gourds and squashes, along with a collection of feather-covered Styrofoam crows and roosters. No one in all these years has even so much as smashed a pumpkin.

A few days before Halloween, I add lighted skulls to my autumnal display, giving the arrangement a more macabre tone. I hang a “floating” ghoul on my front porch, whose solar-powered lantern flickers at night, set a smoldering cauldron of shrunken apple heads on a table by the front door and, of course, carve a jaunty jack-o-lantern or two. After Halloween I put the scary decorations away and leave the fall display up at my corner for all to enjoy through Thanksgiving weekend.

In early December, I stash the squash in my cellar for winter stews, and set out a pair of animated, lighted deer. It’s a buck and a doe that I’ve had for years, almost life size, sturdy and of very good quality, with motorized heads that turn left to right (the buck, as if to gaze at the commuters) and up and down (the doe, as if nibbling at a straw bale). Over the years I’ve received several cards from people so moved by my simple displays that they felt compelled to leave notes in my mailbox to tell me how the arrays lift their spirits. One day a family even stopped to ask if they could pose their children between the deer for their annual Christmas card photograph. I was delighted and offered to take the picture for them.

So I was understandably horrified to look out my bedroom window last weekend to find that the lighted buck was missing from my Christmas display.  He had been there that morning. I ran some errands in the middle of the day and hadn't noticed he was gone until my automatic timer turned on the lights in late afternoon,and I could see only one deer at the corner. The thieves had stopped their car alongside the road and grabbed my buck in the middle of the day on a Saturday afternoon!  They hadn't realized that he was plugged in, apparently, since I found his extension cord at the edge of the road.  They had tried to steal the doe, too, but her metal anchors apparently held more tightly to the ground than the buck's. The scoundrels managed only to break her motorized neck and tangle her lights as they drove off with my stag.

I was distraught. Who would do such a thing during this, the merriest of seasons?  Who would stoop so low as to rob my daily drivers-by of their bucolic winter scene?  The officer who took a police report the next day said he believed the evil deed was carried out by drug addicts who wrongly assumed the deer was made of copper, which could be sold on the black market for quite a bit of money. He theorized that as soon as the thieves realized the deer was made of cheap metal, they would just throw him in the woods someplace.

So I put up a sign. A very large sign. I propped it up next to the doe with her broken neck and mangled lights. It said: "To whoever stole my buck, please return him."  My morale was shattered. I was heartbroken that someone would spirit away a possession whose sole purpose on my corner was to bring joy to others. I was "done" with Christmas. I didn't care if I put up another single decoration. I couldn't imagine feeling any sort of Christmas joy.

Within minutes a woman pulled into my driveway.  "How much is the deer?" she asked. "Oh, no", I explained. "I'm not selling the doe. I just want the stolen one returned. "No", she persisted.  "How much was the deer that was stolen?"  This kind stranger was offering to pay to replace my missing buck!  She explained that she drives past my house every day and her children have derived much enjoyment from my seasonal decorations over the years. I was so moved by her kind gesture. I explained that I had searched the internet high and low but a replacement buck of the size and quality of the one I lost no longer seemed to be available. I asked her simply to be on the lookout for my stolen deer, perhaps tossed into the woods nearby or dumped by the side of the road. She promised to be vigilant, and tell her neighbors, too.

The next evening, there was a knock at my door. A young woman in her 20s stood on my front porch. She said her name was Kat. She explained that she and her dad live right up the road from me. They had seen my sign and wanted to do something nice to restore my Christmas spirit.  Her father, a rather handy man with an axe, it seemed, had chiseled a deer for me by hand from logs he had lying around. At that moment the man emerged from his pickup truck with an adorable buck, smaller in stature than my stolen one, but much greater in charm. Kat had fashioned antlers from branches fastened with tiny green and gold bows all around, and had hung from one branch a red glass ornament that said "Merry Christmas from the Mansfields". I invited them in and we chatted for a few minutes. "My adorable new deer is going to need a name!", I exclaimed. I asked the dad what his name was, and he said his name was Dave but all his friends call him "Spike".  Spike!!  It was a perfect name for my new reindeer. I gave Spike a place of prominence on my front porch and posted his picture on Facebook for all my friends to see. What a lovely thing for these neighbors to do for me, a complete stranger to them. My faith in humanity was quickly being restored.

Two more days passed. I would be taking down the sign the following weekend, as I felt the chances of ever getting my stag back were quickly fading. Then, just after dark on Wednesday, my doorbell rang. This time there was a man at my door with two giant boxes at his feet. "I drive by your house every day" he said, "and my employees wanted to do something nice to cheer you up after your loss."  They had pooled their money and sent the man, Chris Cook, owner with his wife, Stephanie, of a small wiring company in the next town, to Home Depot to purchase a replacement deer for me. In addition to the deer, he had purchased a trio of lighted gift boxes to add to my display. I was stunned. The new deer was gorgeous, animated just like my buck had been, and every bit as big. What a thoughtful, gracious thing to do for a complete stranger!  He helped me carry the boxes inside and I asked him to express my profound gratitude to his employees. Now my display would be even better than it was before! I would have lighted gift boxes to set beside the deer, a tribute to my joy at receiving such lovely and unexpected gifts from strangers.

No sooner had the man departed than I noticed a smaller box perched on my front porch railing. Had Mr. Cook left a third package behind?  I picked it up and brought it inside.  It was a smaller, lighted deer. Taped to the box was a handwritten note. The donor wanted to create a teachable moment for her children, so she took them to the store to pick out a replacement deer for me. Her note expressed concern that the little white deer did not at all match the large brown doe on my lawn. But I was ecstatic. The little deer would be a perfect "fawn" for my new deer "family". Now I had a whole herd of deer!  My spirit was full, my faith in humanity completely restored.

This weekend I set my newly assembled deer family out at the corner of my property. I wrapped a new set of lights around the doe and reassembled her broken neck. I set up the brightly colored gift boxes next to the straw bales. I made a new sign. It said "Thank you, everyone!"  For these are no longer the gifts of a few isolated strangers. They are gestures of kindness from an entire community. They represent, for me at least, a village that is watching over me, even as I go about my business completely unaware. These are now "community deer". My seasonal display is no longer just the machination of a single woman trying to brighten the spirits of daily commuters as they pass by my yard on their way to work.  It is a demonstration of what happens when human beings care about the feelings of other human beings. I am truly heartened by the good will I've experienced over the past few days. I am deeply moved by the generosity of total strangers. It's going to be a good Christmas.

Monday, October 16, 2017

OkToblerfest 2017

When the mid-Atlantic air turns crisp and my feet rustle leaves as I walk across the yard, my thoughts turn to... my paternal cousins. For it is autumn, when Germanic countries throughout western Europe host festivals to commemorate the harvest of an ingredient key to the brewing of beer.  I don't really care about the beer or the hops used to make it, but I do like the way my cousin Claudia's husband, Phil, shifted the emphasis of Germany's traditional Oktoberfest celebration toward my Swiss family several years ago when he suggested that, with the addition of a single letter, my surname could be incorporated into a cool moniker for my annual gathering of east coast Tobler cousins. And so my annual OkToblerfest was christened.

I never know exactly how many cousins will attend my OkToblerfest in any given year. Tobler family members have come in years past from as far west as California, Wisconsin and Kentucky and as far north as Pennsylvania,  New Jersey and New York.  But the Washington DC suburbs is where two of my cousins reside with their husbands and school-age children, which makes their annual excursion to my farmhouse in Baltimore County just an hour's drive through mostly picturesque countryside.  So I can almost always count on the attendance of these Toblers even if the more remote relatives can't always make it.
I designed the invitations and stamped
envelopes with a hot wax seal

I prepared my invitations a month in advance, as I do every year. These are homemade invitations, on actual paper, slipped into an actual envelope, and then sealed with hot wax which is stamped with our family initial. Wouldn't you love to get an invitation like that? But how often does it happen?  I'm guessing hardly ever. I love how the receipt of a mailed invitation becomes a special experience in its own right while also portending an unforgettable experience yet to come.

This year, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania couldn't attend, so there were just 12 around my OkToblerfest dinner table on Saturday night.  I'd been terribly busy these last few weeks and had not yet decided on a main dish when Claudia's husband came up with another helpful suggestion: "have you considered making Rouladen?" Truth is I had never heard of Rouladen. My mother prided herself on having a vast collection of sometimes exotic, always elegant gourmet dishes in her repertoire, but for some reason Rouladen had never been among them. I Googled Rouladen. It sounded intriguing.  But despite various recipes on the internet suggesting Rouladen would be "easy to make", it looked quite complicated and time consuming to me.  Nevertheless, any beef recipe that incorporates mustard and pickle into the mix had to be good. And it could be made well ahead of time. My interest was piqued.
I always decorate the front of my farmhouse in seasonal decor

I emailed my best friend from high school in California, Becky. Her mother-in-law is an excellent cook who specializes in authentic dishes of her native Germany. Perhaps Gretel had a recipe for Rouladen that I could trust more than an internet version. But alas, Gretel was traveling far from home, visiting the hot-air balloon festival in New Mexico. And besides, Becky said, Gretel never wrote her recipes down. She always cooked from memory and taste, adding a dash of this and a smidgen of that.  I needed something a bit more concrete to go by.

So then I emailed a dear friend here in Baltimore, Mary. Did her husband Klaus have a recipe for Rouladen? By the time Mary replied to tell me that Klaus never wrote anything down, either, I had searched the internet far and wide and had printed out two recipes for Rouladen that struck my fancy. I would take the main ingredients and instructions from the first one and incorporate ingredients for the accompanying gravy from the second.
My OkToblerfest menu featured Swiss dishes

I also planned to prepare two salads that intrigued me recently. I've been staying away from corn and its high sugar, high starch content, but September 22nd's edition of the Baltimore Sun's Sunday Parade magazine held an intriguing autumn recipe that immediately caught my attention: Alex Guarnaschelli, judge on Food Network’s Chopped, offered a "candied corn" salad, said to evoke the autumnal flavors of caramel and corn. Wouldn't my cousins' children love something like that? I made the candied corn salad a few weeks before my big event, and sure enough, it was fabulous, so it went on the menu. Another salad came to me on February 23rd by way of the Los Angeles Times. An article about how good turmeric is for one's health sparked my curiosity because increasing my turmeric intake has helped immensely with my psoriasis over the past few years. I made the turmeric salad for my friend, Jan, at her Easter celebration in March and have been making the recipe steadily since then. It's marvelous -- and the presentation is beautiful!

For dessert I decided to bake my mother's traditional persimmon pudding. Served warm, with a drizzle of thick cream, the cool-weather dessert would offer rustic coziness in Maryland's autumn chill. We would be dining alfresco, after all, as I have no room in my small dining room to seat twelve people.
Everyone got to take a menu home with them as a memento
 of the evening.

Cousins Christine, daughter of my late Uncle John, and Claudia, granddaughter of my late Uncle Oscar, offered to bring sides. Claudia, who is eschewing meat, offered to bring an onion tart and a spinach quiche, both of which sounded divine. Christine offered to make homemade spaetzle, luscious egg noodles sauteed in butter, and rotkohl, a divine red cabbage dish cooked with cloves and brown sugar. My menu was complete.

Although it's always a spin on a roulette wheel whether there will be rain on the day I choose for my party, last year was the very first year that I had to host my OkToblerfest dinner indoors because rain actually occurred on the day of my gathering. Most years, the weather has been crisp, brisk and beautiful for dining outside on my lawn. This year the forecast predicted rain clear up to the day before my party.  That was fine -- we sorely needed the moisture. But it meant I wouldn't be able to set anything up until the day of the party -- a definite cause for anxiety on my part, since I hate to wait until the last minute to do anything.
A beef cutlet is slathered with stoneground mustard, sprinkled
with dill pickle, sliced onion and bacon, then rolled up and
tied with twine. Repeat 24 times for a crowd of twelve!

The week of my party I got busy with food prep. One of the most appealing attributes of the Rouladen recipe is that it can be made well ahead of time and then just heated up before dinner. So on Thursday after work, I went to work spreading stoneground mustard across 24 thin cutlets of flank steak, topping them with bacon, sliced onion and dill pickle, and then rolling the cutlets up and tying them with cooking twine. After I browned the Rouladen in a skillet, I softened diced carrots, celery and onion in butter over low heat and nestled my beef rolls into the mirepoix inside a large dutch oven. I covered everything with red wine and beef broth and let the Rouladen braise on the stovetop for two hours over low heat.
Mirepoix, added as the Rouladen braises for several hours in
beef broth and red wine, form a luscious gravy
to pour over the beef rolls and sop up with hearty bread

When the Rouladen were falling-apart tender, I transferred them to a serving dish, carefully removed the strings from each, and then pureed the mirepoix-wine-broth in my food processor. That's what had intrigued me so much about the "gravy" part of the second Rouladen recipe I found. By using the pureed vegetables to thicken the sauce, I didn't need to add any cornstarch or cream or flour. My gravy had a lovely texture and an intense, provocative flavor without too many added calories. I'll be incorporating that little secret into future gravies!

Next I shucked kernels from ten ears of fresh corn and sauteed them in a bit of brown sugar and butter until almost all the liquid had evaporated. I made a vinaigrette of lemon juice and balsamic vinegar and stashed corn and dressing in the fridge separately to await last minute assembly with fresh arugula on the day of the party.  The carrot-turmeric salad would also benefit from being made ahead of time, so I peeled and blanched two pounds of multicolored carrots sliced into coins and combined them with shredded red cabbage, chick peas, Bulgar wheat, parsley, scallions and crumbled feta. A heady dressing of lemon juice, toasted cumin seeds, ground turmeric, minced garlic and a little olive oil combined to impart their piquant flavor to the salad over the next 24 hours.

Everyone got into carving faces into Granny Smith apples
I then sliced thin rounds of navel and blood oranges, lemons, tangerines and limes, and simmered sugar and cinnamon sticks to make a concentrated cinnamon simple syrup for a festive anjou-champagne punch I would serve my guests upon their arrival. I chilled the sparkling cider I would offer to the children.

Finally, I peeled 30 granny smith apples and let them rest in a bath of water, salt and lemon juice overnight to help them retain their greenness while I set out potato peelers, serrated knives and printed instructions for carving faces into apple heads. I decorated gift bags for each child into which they could stash their carved apples for the journey home, where the contorted faces could be dried into shrunken apple heads in a slow oven. I created a pretty menu of all the items we'd be enjoying at dinner and printed one for each guest, rolled them into cylinders and tied them with ribbon fastened with a sunflower clip.
An old wooden ping-pong table serves as a sturdy platform
for alfresco dinners in my yard 

On the day of the party, I pulled a heavy plastic tarp which had sheltered my patio chairs from the overnight rain and prepared to set the table, my favorite part of every party preparation. A heavy, old wooden ping-pong table, purchased 35 years ago for $10 from a junk dealer in Oakland, California, has been a mainstay through more than three decades of garden parties across the four states in which I've lived. Snugged up against a metal and glass patio table I bought on sale at Macy's ten years ago which happens to be the same height and width, I soon found I had plenty of room for seating up to twenty dinner guests. Add some plain brown, king-size bedsheets as tablecloths and, voila. My old wooden ping-pong table and its glass and metal counterpart combined to form a wide expanse of dining surface, ripe for embellishing with the accoutrements of the season. I could hardly wait to get started.
Transformed by plain brown bedsheets serving
as gigantic tablecloths, my patio tables became
one behemoth dining table fit for a crowd

A magazine article I'd happened upon last year featured Oriental bittersweet wrapped around white pumpkins. I loved the look. However, Oriental bittersweet is a terribly invasive plant which should never be purchased or planted in one's yard. Over the years I had (finally) successfully eradicated it from mine. With no Oriental bittersweet to be had on my two acres, I ventured to the craft stores for a reasonable facsimile. At JoAnn Fabrics, I found just what I wanted, a stylized version of the dreaded vine on bendable wire. With two shade structures erected over my table to hold rope lights and space heaters, I was ready to create my tablescape!

Burlap ribbon tied in festive bows around each chair created the perfect receptacle for stems of faux fall flowers stuck through the knots. I tossed walnuts and autumn leaves and other fall "scatter" across the broad expanse of tablecloth and positioned felt maple-leaf placemats from Pier One Imports at each place setting. Two straw squirrels that had belonged to my late sister formed the centerpiece, as small Swiss flags adorned ceramic pumpkin vases of fresh flowers to honor our family's heritage. Some pretty gourds and a few votive candles on mismatched saucers rounded out the motif. There was no need to be too precious.
White pumpkins wrapped in faux Oriental bittersweet and
fresh flowers adorned with Swiss flags formed the
 centerpiece of my tableau

Slits carved into twelve mini-pumpkins held place cards with each guest's name. Rustic twig flatware, a splurge several years ago from, Mikasa Mayfair patterned stoneware plates I've had since 1976, and amber glassware I've had at least that long rounded out my eclectic tablescape. Once the table was set, I headed back into the kitchen. It was time to make the persimmon pudding, warm the Rouladen and the gravy, bake the appetizers, plate up the salads and assemble the punch.  My guests would be arriving soon.

I climbed the stairs to my dressing room. What to wear?  I hadn't even thought about my attire until that moment, I'd been so busy with party preparations. It would be unseasonably warm that evening and I would be very active. I decided to defy typical October fashion and opt for cropped trousers from Boston Proper and a matching sleeveless Liz Claiborne top with fringed suede Limelite sandals from Rack Room Shoes. Rounding out my ensemble with olive and brown pearls at my wrist, neck and ears from my friend Jan's Fire & Ice jewelers, I donned an apron and returned to the kitchen to put the finishing touches on everything.
Straw squirrels that once adorned my late sister's dining table
now have a place of honor at mine

Once my cousins arrived I was joyfully swept up into the merry frivolity of family members reuniting after a long absence, along with youngsters reacquainting themselves with their now slightly older cousins as they scrambled across my yard in pursuit of soccer balls and Frisbees. Goodness, my 15-year-old second cousin Kinga Nagy is taller than I am!  When did that happen?

Happily, everyone got into the carving of apple heads as my guests helped themselves to chili-garlic-eggplant puffs, Mozzarella cups with pesto and roasted tomato, tortilla chips with homemade tomato salsa (the salsa a birthday gift from my neighbor's garden), and an assortment of cornichons, dolmades and stuffed olives.  We quaffed punch and cider, autumnal beers and other beverages as we caught up on each other's lives.
Tobler cousins gathered together for a wonderful autumn meal.
From left to right: Anya, Akos, Christine, Kristof, Christian,
Zsolt, me, Phil, Claudia, Riehen and Kinga

When it was time for dinner, wine was poured and we sat down to a feast of flavorful dishes. Christine's homemade dumplings were to die for, and I absolutely loved her red cabbage.  Claudia's onion tart and spinach quiche were outstanding, as was the sumptuous rye bread Zsolt brought from a local bakery.  My rouladen was a big hit, as were the salads, and the persimmon pudding was devoured completely.

After dinner, the twelve of us took seats around my firepit. Two years ago we'd exchanged ghost stories around the post-meal bonfire which had frightened the younger children.  This year those same children were the central storytellers, regaling us all with tales of mischief and mayhem as they toasted marshmallows and pressed them into S'mores.
After dinner we toasted marshmallows and told ghost stories
around a campfire in my meadow 

Another two hours we spent, engaging in lively discourse around the campfire and enjoying one another's company immensely. Finally it was time to pack up the children and turn the family automobiles toward home. As I put food and decor away after my guests had departed, cleaned up the kitchen and eventually sat down with a cup of hot tea before bed, I thought about why I love putting on these dinners so very much: it's the deep sense of inclusion I derive from being surrounded by beloved family members. I don't get to feel that sense of belonging very often, as my only brother and his family are far away in California.  I spend a lot of time alone in my life and that's fine.  But that makes being enveloped by the love and affection of cousins a precious commodity that I cherish as much for its enthusiasm as for its scarcity. Even if they weren't my cousins I would adore them all. But the fact that they are my family makes them extra-special.

"Cousins are the people who make life beautiful. These are my people. This is my tribe." ~ Unknown

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