January 28, 2010

Sometimes Things Change...Really Change...Forever

Perhaps I spoke too soon in quoting the French phrase in my last post about things changing yet staying the same.  Sometimes they change...and it's really big change...and they don't stay the same...ever. 

When I began this blog in earnest, it was this house, this place where I grew up and to which I returned five years ago when my mother's health began to fail, that was the focal point.  It was with wildly mixed emotions that I came back here.  I'd left this house, for good I thought, a few decades ago, at the age of 22, never expecting, or necessarily wanting, to return here to live.  I was more than ready to go, eager to strike out on my on and create a nest for myself. 

Although my mother was quite sad about my leaving the family home and her loving care, I was moving only about 10 minutes away, to my first home of my own.  I lived there in that cute 2 bedroom Cape for 13 years, until the call of the countryside, where I spent a good deal of my time, had become so compelling, that I sold the first little house and bought my first house in the country, about 25 miles away.  I loved that house - a prim, side-hall colonial with 3 bedrooms upstairs and lots of interior shutters on the windows - in a picture-postcard, little historic hamlet.  It was a perfect first country home and I stayed there for seven more years.

I loved living in the country.  It was only about a half-hour from town, from my parents and work, so I was never far away or out of touch, and I commuted daily for another decade or so.  During that time, I began to crave just a bit more privacy and a bit more of the countryside to myself, so I sold the first country house and moved to a small farm.  Very small, comparatively, only about 3 acres, but it had a charming 3-bedroom house tucked down a quiet lane off a dead end, with a long driveway lined by mature old maples, surrounded by woods and fields and the two other neighbors no closer than shouting distance, at most.  Best of all, it had a huge (seriously huge) old barn and small adjacent fenced paddock.  Finally, once the stalls were rebuilt and the fences repaired, I could bring my horse home, and, eventually, I did.  It was the culmination of a life-long dream.  For me, it truly was heaven.

I was supremely happy, if periodically challenged, at the farm - something was always breaking.  Such is the way with old houses and old fences, but the horses (mine and a friend's), the kitties that I brought there or that were born there, and I were all content there.  It was one of the most wonderful times of my life.  But, as I said earlier, sometimes things change.  Of course, things always change, with predictable inevitability, as time passes.

About 15 years ago, my dad had died at 81 after a long, sad battle with Alzheimer's disease.  My mom, who had cared for him at home entirely by herself (her preference - she never wanted anyone else involved) at home, was 11 years younger than Dad.  She always had unfathomable depths of courage, strength and stoicism.  You'd swear there was pioneer or Puritan blood in her somewhere.  She also was the personification of the phrase "quiet dignity."  Incredible stuff to witness, but sometimes you're too close to see or perceive it as it's happening until you have the perspective of time.  So she was on her own here for another eight years after dad died.  But, as I said, sometimes things change and they don't stay the same.

 About six years ago, it was becoming apparent, as mom approached 80, that she wasn't as physically strong, or healthy, as she had been.  We talked about her moving out to the country with me, since, by then, I had stopped commuting into town and was at the farm.  She seemed open to the idea for a while, but when push came to shove, she finally confessed she didn't want leave her home.  It had been built by my parents and she had lived here for all of its nearly 50 years of existence.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, she always said it was my dad's house, but, really, it was her house.  Now, when faced with the prospect of leaving it, she realized she couldn't abide the idea that someone else - a stranger - would be living in her house.  That, for her, was unthinkable.  This place was her safety and her security.  As with many decisions she made, I didn't fully comprehend at first, but eventually I came to understand. 

So I made the hard decision to sell the farm, lease a barn nearby with my friend so our horses could remain as stable- and pasture-mates, pack up 15 years of my country life and move back to the city to be with mom.  I knew as I had watched her gradually decline over the years that I probably wouldn't have that many left with her.  There were no other family members left in the area and my mom and I were very close.  If I had to give up a lifestyle that I enjoyed for a few years in order to help her preserve the one that she had worked all of her life to create and maintain, well then, of course, I would.

Fortunately, the real estate market was still strong in 2004 and the farm was such an appealing property, I accepted an attractive offer for it 10 days after I put it on the market.  That was a huge relief.  The even better news is that I've remained in touch with the very nice woman who bought it, who renovated the house exquisitely beautifully (something I wasn't yet able to do, but had hoped to), so we socialize periodically.  That means I get to visit my former home occasionally, genuinely admire the transformation the place has experienced, and smile with enormous satisfaction (and just a little relief) whenever I'm there.  Sometimes you don't want to go back to your former homes and sometimes you do.  That's one I always enjoy entering.

So I moved back into town to live with Mom - the house was plenty big enough for the two of us, and while the adjustment to the city noises was jarring for me for a few months, I eventually settled in, the kitties - shocked at not being allowed out - eventually settled in, as well.  She would never say anything, but I knew Mom wasn't well, so they were precious months - just over two years - that I spent here with her before she died.  After she became so weak and finally admitted she was in great pain, she agreed to go to hospital, where she remained for two weeks.  There the diagnosis of a terminal illness that I had long suspected was confirmed, but she and I soon made the decision to skip any extraordinary or invasive treatment or a nursing facility, and I brought her back home. 

Mom knew, having lost her sister almost a decade earlier to the same intrusive illness she suffered, that the available treatments were neither curative nor palliative and, for her, they not worth the inescapable discomfort.  She knew she was dying and conventional medicine did not offer sufficient quality of life and she didn't want any part of the healthcare system's dictates that assuredly would have robbed her of the quiet dignity and privacy that she spent most of her life cultivating.  I, too, knew well that it was her right to decide and that, above all, her home was where she wanted to be.  There - here - she could slip slowly and quietly away in the place that had always been her sanctuary, without any intrusions from the rest of the world.

I also knew, having cared for many large and small animals - patients that cannot speak - for most of my adult life, that I certainly could do what was necessary to care for one frail mother on my own here at home, and there was no question that's what I would do.  One day, one of the visiting hospice nurses who stopped by to check on Mom even asked me if I was a nurse.  She told me she inquired because she was impressed with my calmness and capabiliity.  She said most people can't deal with caring 24/7 for a loved one who is bedridden and dying.  It just seemed to me that you simply do what needs to be done.  It's been entrenched in me for decades that it's not an option to abdicate caretaking responsibility for one's pets, so it wasn't a huge stretch to do the same with people I love.  It was then that I finally understood so clearly why it was so important for Mom to care for my dad here at home, on her own terms, when he was ill and failing.  I was gratified and relieved that I was able to do that for her, too, so she could die quietly, just as he did in her care, at the one place that had been so special to her for so many years.

All of those inevitable life events and changes brought me to today and a decision I'd been mulling for a few years since my mom died a few years ago.  I've been here on my own for a few years and had become fairly comfortable again here in my childhood home.  I fill any space I'm in, and this one has been no different. 

While I could easily stay here, the reality is that it's far more house than either I need or want going forward.  While I'm not anywhere near old enough to claim Social Security, I'm no spring chicken either.  I've shlepped heavy water buckets twice daily through two feet of snow when the hydrant in the barn froze through the winter.  The bigger a house is, the more there is to do to take care of it.  Houses are like people, the older they get, the more you need to do to keep them humming.  I have felt increasingly that I want to lighten the load, downsize even more, and finally head toward a more temperate climate, especially in winter.  I know I can deal with two feet of snow, or whatever a house of this age and size throws at me, but I just don't want  to.  Been there, done that, and I have other things I'd rather do with my time and money, although I won't suggest I'll never lift another paintbrush or screwdriver, or indulge my passion for design or decorating again.  I just don't want to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of a house or its issues.  It has to be manageable for me now, and a decade from now.  This wonderful sturdy, mid-century modern ranch that has only ever been home to my family, is now at the point where it needs more attention than I want to invest in any house, and while I have filled its spaces, it is a place that always was designed for more than one person.  I need to be free of it and to free it to house warmly another family for its next half-century.  I'll just keep with me the good memories of having grown up and lived here, as I have with my previous three homes.

So, it is with more mixed emotions that I'm preparing the family homestead to be sold.  Earmarking furnishings and household items that were purchased by my parents - my mom, mostly - either to be stored or sold or donated or tossed.  The painting work I've been planning ultimately will not be for me to enjoy, but to prepare the house for sale instead.  It's always the way.  Everytime I tackle a kitchen-related project, I end up selling the whole house, so maybe I'll re-do the kitchen in my next house right away so I can enjoy it a while longer.  Either way, I'll chronicle the work and the progress, since we've come this far together.  When it's all done, it'll be a way of taking a virtual piece of this place, that has been so special to me and to my parents, with me always. 

As for where I'm going, well, I have a destination firmly in mind and a plan to get there, but it's a process, so I'd rather let that play out over time.  Suffice it to say it's a good bit warmer there and less harsh in winter than the frosty Northeast, and there are horses there, because it would be unthinkable for me to live in a place where they, and the countryside that surrounds them, weren't nearby.  In the meantime, the kitties and I will be heading back, temporarily, to the countryside nearby that I love for a little while until we make the "big" move later in the Spring.  It seems appropriate to move during the season of new beginnings. These next few months will be my next big life adventure, for sure.  Wait and see.

Sometimes things do change..and they don't stay the same...ever.  The reasons for thoses changes can be good or bad, or sometimes a little of both.  Whatever the reasons, it's the one thing about life that doesn't change.

January 13, 2010

The More Things Change...

The French have a wonderful expression, "plus ca change, plus ca fait rien" which translates to "the more things change, the more nothing happens" (or, figuratively, "...the more they stay the same").   (Sorry I'm missing the accent marks, but they're not copying from the source...oh, well.)  I am reminded of it because I was out over the weekend running errands and decided to finally use a gift card to a local True Value hardware store that I'd been given for Christmas...several years ago!  I knew I would use it on paint, but wasn't sure at the time what I would be painting.  Now I know.

So I stopped in at the hardware store that sells my favorite Benjamin Moore paints in search of the perfect "greyge" - that wonderful combination of grey and beige - a light taupe - that I've loved since I painted the living room that color in my first house, 30+ years ago.  I'd seen the color in a magazine spread - Glamour or Mademoiselle, I can't remember which - paired with fabrics in a strong rust color and I loved the way it gave a warm, cozy and calming ambience to a tiny New York City apartment bedroom.  I still have the page from that magazine in my files.  The color worked for me then, and it still does.

I found just the right color for my first living room (painted by former occupants a dusty rose pink at the time - yikes!) in the collection made by Pittsburgh Paints.  It was called "Deep Twilight."  I loved it in that living room for years.  I could change the colors of the upholstered furnishings, drapes and rugs, but they always worked with that wonderful wall color.  I still love it - just dark enough to be a statement, but not so dark that it is overpowering, but I hadn't used it since for an interior space.  The styles and rooms of my two subsequent homes made color statements that were already well established when I arrived and I was not so invested in remaking their spaces.

Eventually, however, about 10 years ago, I needed to repaint the exterior of my small, traditional farmhouse in the country.  Its stark white clapboards, while brilliant and classic in their day (early 1800s), had been repainted (and perhaps even replaced), but the years had taken their toll and they had become a shadow (a sort of dusty, dingy shadow) of their former crisp, white selves.  With matching white (well, dirty white) trim, there was nothing notable about the house's appearance or architecture - it all blended together, obscuring the special features that distinguished the mouldings around the doors, windows, rooflines and porch from the siding.  That's when I decided the white clapboards had to give way to my favorite warm and toasty taupe and I'd refresh the trim with a warmer tone of ivory.

Off I went to the paint store with my old taupe paint chip in hand to find a Benjamin Moore color that was as close as I could get to that wonderful "Deep Twilight."  I found it in one of Moore's "America's Colors," a warm tone called "Berkshire Beige" (code number AC-2 - click on the link at the color name to check it out).  It seemed appropriate enough as the house was just a few miles from the border where the Berkshire mountains of Massachusetts were located - I liked the reference to the region nearby.  So,  up it went on the siding and - voila! - the house became more inviting and the newly painted bright white trim details suddenly popped out, defining more clearly the house's cheerful Colonial roots and its subsequent folk Victorian embellishments.  It was a resounding success.

Ironically, the style trends of the 1970s have, in some ways, re-emerged in the past decade or so. Neutral tones - what I'll call the "Pottery Barn palette" - again serve as pleasing backgrounds with strong accent colors now favored, whether black, navy, a rusty barn red or rich pastels, etc.  So I thought I'd go check out the latest in the contemporary color palettes over the past weekend to see if I could find a rich, new greyge/taupe hue to use to renew the kitchen walls of the midcentury modern ranch that has been my home for the past five years and my family's home for more than 50 years.  The old, dingy aqua - the only color this heart of the home has ever known that was so trendy in its day - finally has to GO!  Seriously.

I perused the choices - dozens of them - and pulled sample chips from the racks and scrutinized them.  When I'd finally narrowed the options, I stepped over to the rack with the aforementioned "America's Colors" and re-examined my old favorite, Berkshire Beige.  I held it next to the other chips and, don't you know, when it was all said and done, I went with Berkshire Beige yet again!  Nothing else is quite like it.  Other deeper taupe choices would have been too dark in this room that only gets sunlight from the east in the morning, and lighter tones just weren't colorful enough and wouldn't set off the light, natural maple wood that is hidden beneath the age/smoke/grease-darkened finish of the cabinets.  (Their restoration/rejuvenation is another major project I'll be tackling in the near future as well, after I paint the walls.)

I haven't started painting the kitchen yet, but, yes, I'll take some photos of the "before" stage before I do, so you can see the transformation.  I have no time frame in mind, though, and work and other imperatives take priority at the moment, but now that I finally have the color decided and the paint in hand, it won't be too long before I break out the dropcloths, rollers, and brushes, so stay tuned.

"Plus ca change...."

January 2, 2010

More Musings on Plaid: An "Aha" Moment

You know how sometimes you make choices - in this case, aesthetic choices - because something appeals to you visually?  Well, I just had a light bulb, "aha" moment about the new plaid background on my blog.  I chose it originally because it was bright and cheerful, but, actually, I was hoping I'd find a more traditional tartan...you know, something with navy blue, a bit of deep red, hunter green, etc., because I love those jewel tones woven together to create a handsome plaid pattern. 

It occurs to me that I choose those deep, rich tones in many areas of my life and have done that for years. When I think of plaid I think of wool and warmth, of traditional homes and cozy firesides, stone walls and pine paneling...all that good stuff that speaks of hearth and home.  They are the colors of "tradition" - plaids going back centuries - often found in the historic 18th- and 19th-century homes found throughout the countryside of the Northeast, and they also are prevalent in the world of horses where I have "lived" emotionally since I was a child, when I first began to ride, and literally through much of my adult life lived in or spent in the country.  There are traditional plaids often seen on horse blankets, riding vests, and other forms of  horse stuff, or "equestriana" as I call it, that have always "spoken" to me visually.  They represent a very real sort of comfort and happiness for me.

So when I came across this particular blog background plaid, I embraced it, in part, because it was the only one offered *free* on the Designer Blogs site.   It combines tones from nature - sun and sky, grass and earth, spices and fruits - and  it seemed to be suitably cheerful for my blog page.  Then, just a few minutes ago, I had one of those wonderful, "aha" moments.  I realized that the colors of this particular plaid reflect the tones that defined my house since it was built.  I know this because I grew up here as a child. 

My parents had this red brick ranch house built in the late 1950s - it's shown, snow-covered in the image on my header - and my dad worked closely with the architect to create a creative but functional design for his young family.  My mom always said this was my father's house since she was too busy with two young children - I was 4, my brother was 5 - to focus too intently on much of its structural design.  Indeed, it has a semi-open interior plan with a soaring, 14-foot cathedral ceiling over the living and dining rooms and a hallway illuminated by clerestory windows above the open stairway to the finished basement.  There also are certain features - especially the huge, three-flue chimney clad in a decorative, light beige brick that defines and distinguishes the living and dining rooms that is suspiciously reminiscent of the turrets of a castle.  It's definitely very male..."A man's home is..."...yup, Mom, you got that right. 

Still, a childhood friend of my mom's told me a few years ago that even when she was a child, my mom dreamed of having a house with lots of "built-ins" and, indeed, she got them in the design of this house.  There are modest built-in blonde, natural maple bookshelves and wall cabinets in mine and my brother's former bedrooms (now guest rooms and/or my sewing room), built-in closets, and a built-in laundry (behind doors in the kitchen - my mom wanted no part of schlepping clothing and bedding up and down stairs).

My mom lived here for nearly 50 years, so while she always asserted it was Dad's house, it was, and still is, for me, really my mom's house in many ways.  After the house was built, she made more of the aesthetic choices, especially in its furnishings and paint colors.   My mom had a fairly clear sense of her personal style - she preferred clean lines - not too much make up and jewelry that was elegant in its simplicity.  She chose simple furniture pieces that weren't necessarily Danish Modern, but echoed its classic lines, which suited the design of the house perfectly.  She also was not a "stuff" person - she didn't want to have a lot of "things" cluttering up the rooms as decorative items, only an occasional pottery dish on a buffet or end table.  Even though she was an artist earlier in her life, there were few prints or paintings adorning the walls, except, of course, occasional small works of "art" that we created in school, but they usually were displayed in the kitchen.  Mom preferred to let the design of the house, its clean, uninterrupted walls, be the stongest visual feature.  She was of Irish and German descent, but one might suggest she had a very keen Scandinavian design sensibility.  (I also know she was practical.  She knew well that more "stuff" sitting around on walls and tables meant more cleaning and dusting - not something she wanted to increase if it could be avoided.)  Still, like most of us, she clearly was influenced by the finishes in the house and they informed her color choices for drapes, upholstery and paint.

That's where this blog background plaid comes in.  Much of the house reflects the use of natural materials -
there are paneled, tongue-and-groove partition walls in a grainy wood that has a warm, pale beige tone.  There are natural slate floors with smokey blue, aqua and green, charcoal grey, toffee and plum.  The kitchen cabinets are a light blonde maple and all of the hardware on doors and drawers, and on all of the door knobs and hinges throughout the house are a copper tone - pretty trendy stuff for its day.  Clearly, the colors inherent in this house are very much like those in the blog background plaid!  The plaid emphasizes the darker and medium earth tones, with the blues, greens and cream as accents, whereas the house tends toward the lighter tones with the darker hues as accents.

As I contemplated the warm hues of this plaid - here comes the "aha" moment - I realized that it could serve as the basis for reinvigorating the color palette here in the house.  I need to bringing things a bit more up to date and into the new millenium, but at the same time preserve the essential elements - the simple, elegant bones - of the house.  It's a midcentury modern ranch that just needs some freshening up, a careful makeover, but not too much "make-up."  It needs an infusion of new life, and I need to add a fair bit of my own style, which is a blend of traditional with modern.  I have already done that to some extent, but I have wrestled with how to address the kitchen color, especially, since it is still sporting its very tired pale aqua blue, circa 1969, I think.  The aqua color clearly needs to go (sooo 1960s), but I have been reluctant to make a firm color choice because it needs to be the right one for the space and for the house.  I want the room color to be warm and calm and also complement the wood cabinetry (which will be addressed eventually, as well), and the adjacent space - a former screened porch, now enclosed sun room (with the same slate floors as in the foyer, hallway and dining room, natural red brick side walls, a natural wood door and window trim surrounded by pseudo-wood paneling that also likely will be painted) that is an extension of the kitchen's dining area and leads directly to the back yard.

Now I'm sure the colors of that blog background and how they reflect the tones already found in the house probably are the subliminal reason that I was drawn to this particular plaid.  They're the same colors, but re-ordered and presented a bright new way...de-emphasizing but not abandoning the blue, green and beige pastels and bumping up the rich earth tones - cinnamon, ochre, plum, taupe - aha! 

Now I finally have a much better sense of how to proceed, which colors to include and where to use them...and, if they were still with us, I think both Mom and Dad would approve.