The house is back in the family!

My house

“Saturday Morning Coffee” by Scott Sullivan

When I sold my old house in 2003 I asked the buyer to let me know, should he ever find himself contemplating a move. That was 15 years ago.

Last December my mother came for a weekend visit. On Saturday afternoon we were browsing at The Book Corner, my favorite bookstore downtown, when I happened to run into the man who’d bought my house. “Would you like to buy your house back?” he asked, explaining that he was going to move in with his partner and sell the place.

We scheduled a visit for early the following week.

On the drive over I called one of my best friends, aware that she was hoping to move into town. It was the spur of the moment on a weekday; I didn’t expect to reach her, let alone that she would actually be available. But she was. She drove over and looked at the house with my husband and me.

There was virtually no chance that my husband and I would be able to buy the place. We’ve been in downsizing mode the past few years and have no plans to move (despite my ongoing love affair with my old home). I just had to see it, though, because…well, you never know.

To cut a long story short, my friend decided to buy the house.* I went to the closing with her, amazed at how beautifully things came together.

But back the cart up a moment. On the day before the closing I found an obituary in the paper with a name that seemed familiar; it was the daughter-in-law of the woman from whom I’d bought the house. She and her husband had walked me through after the closing in 1995, sharing stories about its history. Even though the visitation was on a weekday, I wanted to go to the funeral home to meet other members of the family, hoping to maintain some sort of connection. Ruby’s funeral service was due to begin at 1, so I planned to go a bit earlier. I called my friend to ask the time of her closing.

1 p.m.

I knew no one at the funeral home, so I just walked up to one of the first strangers I saw and asked if there were any family members, explaining the reason for my presence. “She needs to meet Lois,” said someone nearby. Not only did Lois turn out to be the daughter of the house’s original owners; she’d been born in the bedroom behind the kitchen.

All in all, it was a happy experience of things coming full circle. I’ll be building her a lovely gate for the back yard as a housewarming gift. You can follow the design and learn how to build your own in upcoming posts from me at the Popular Woodworking blog.

*No, I’m not jealous. I’m happy for her and for the house.


Of possible interest

With thanks to the London Review of Books:

This is fascinating, at least to one who admires the women cited and has been a reader of Kenneth Clark.

Psst, want a good time?

Subscribe to Megan Fitzpatrick’s blog, Rude Mechanicals Press, where you can read a blow-by-blow account of Megan’s adventures in restoring her Cincinnati home.

Megan, editor and content director at Popular Woodworking Magazine, is a former journalist with a master’s degree in English literature. A.B.D.* in early modern drama (and apparently happy to stay that way), she’s one of the wittiest wordsmiths you’re likely to find on the subject of old-house restoration.

*all but dissertation

Approved by the Practical Woman

The Modern Housekeeper’s Page, 1908, by courtesy of Lost Art Press

Lost Art Press


Women are now “Doing Over” Their Own Furniture

Whether the fad for collecting old pieces of mahogany furniture—most of it being in unpresentable condition—is responsible for the new direction given to woman’s energies, or whether it is merely an effort to invade a hitherto little known field of work—one in which the majority of the sex is interested, however—the fact has become known that furniture restoring and renovating are added to the list of accomplishments approved by the practical woman.

She may be a housewife or she may be living in tiny quarters by herself, but if there is room anywhere for the few tools required in the simpler lines of cabinet work, she spends an hour or more now and then in improving the appearance of her Heppelwhite desk or polishing a candle stand until its value is increased, while its charm is more than doubled.

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Mark Twain on home

I will never forget the opening words of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.


No answer.


No answer.”

When I read them at the age of eight, in one of the Heritage Club books my parents had subscribed to in an effort to encourage their daughters’ interest in literature, I was perplexed by the spoken-word form. I recall that I read far enough to learn that the missing boy was, or would become, involved with whitewashing a fence, but I can’t say I read much further into the story–an admission I’m duly embarrassed to make.

At high-school in England we didn’t read American literature, which I hope goes some small way toward explaining my lack of familiarity with Mark Twain’s writing. Instead, we read works by British writers short stories by Katherine Mansfield, novels by Vita Sackville-West, and poetry by Sir John Betjeman and Wilfred Owen. (I will never forget Owen’s account of death by mustard gas in “Dulce et Decorum Est.” It should be required reading for all 14-year-olds, especially in countries whose leaders all too often find it expedient to glorify war.)

So I was thrilled to read the following missive from Martha Kipcak, who attended my talk at Milwaukee’s Lynden Sculpture Garden in October 2013.*

Dear Bronze and Will,

thank you so much for bringing Nancy Hiller to town and then making it possible for me, and others, to attend the lovely event at Lynden.

Although I haven’t had the good fortune to be a homeowner in my life (with the exception of a short 15 months during a brief marriage), I have gained rich satisfaction as a homemaker all my adult life.

Many years ago, I crossed paths with a letter Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) had written to his friend Joe Twichell on January 19, 1897. The previous August, while Clemens was traveling abroad, his beloved 24-year-old daughter Susy died from meningitis at their home in Hartford, Connecticut. Clemens and his wife Livy were devastated. Joe Twichell was a dear and trusted friend who Clemens wrote to share his grief and reflections of Susy’s death. I was thinking about this letter while listening to Nancy describe her love of Home.
This is an excerpt taken from the middle of the letter.
“Ah well, Susy died at home. She had that privilege. Her dying eyes rested upon nothing that was strange to them, but only things which they had known and loved always and which had made her young years glad.  And she had you and Sue and Katy and John and Ellen. This was happy fortune.  I am thankful that it was vouchsafed to her. If she had died in another house — well, I think I could not have borne that.  To us, our house was not unsentient matter.  It had a heart and a soul and eyes to see us with approvals and solicitudes and deep sympathies.  It was of us and we were in its confidence and lived in its grace and in the peace of its benediction.  We never came home from an absence that its face did not light up and speak out its eloquent welcome.  And we could not enter it unmoved.  And could we now, oh how, in spirit we should enter it unshod.”
Peace and love to both of you,
The Heritage Club books are still with us (mostly with me, perhaps because I can build bookcases), though their pages are mildewed and many of their spines were ravaged by hungry cockroaches during the years the books spent in the non-air-conditioned dining room of our home in humid South Florida. I will have to dig out that edition of Tom Sawyer (with allergy medicine in hand) and acquaint myself with the writings of this man. Thank you, Martha.

Clemans, a.k.a. Twain









Martha Kipcak with eyewear from Bronze Optical, Milwaukee

Martha Kipcak with eyewear from Bronze Optical, Milwaukee

*The note was forwarded to me by Will Fellows, one of the sponsors of this speakers’ series, and is reproduced here with Martha’s permission.

Visit to the Mil

This week’s trip to Milwaukee was short but full of wonders.

First stop: a pilgrimage to my dear friend Katie’s childhood home to reconnect with her parents and the lucky Otis.


Otis and his parental units

Next came an evening at the Lynden Sculpture Garden with a well attended presentation on A Home of Her Own followed by a book signing. The event was sponsored by Bronze Optical, Lynden, Milwaukee Reads, and Historic Milwaukee, Inc.. Thanks to all, and especially to Margy Stratton, Polly Morris, and my hosts, Will Fellows and Bronze, for putting this event together.

On Thursday morning I gave a finishing techniques workshop at Lynden, where this set of instructions, complete with injunction to use the Golden Rule, was posted on the wall:

Sign at Lynden

Remember, keep your hands to your slef!

I was delighted to have a chance to visit Bronze Optical before driving back to Bloomington.

Will and Bronze

Will and Bronze in the gorgeous front room at Bronze Optical. After seeing the loving care with which these two fixed up and furnished their place of business, and having heard them discuss their approach to fitting clients with just the right eyewear, I must confess that I am fantasizing about a long-distance consultation.

Stay posted for details of Will’s talk in Bloomington in May 2014!

Amazing grape, how sweet thy taste

grape in May

The vine in May

While checking the progress of this summer’s grapes, I recalled a pie from last summer. I had posted a photo of my grape vines on facebook and Rolf Maxa, a member of the Rochester Woodworkers, asked whether I was going to make grape pie. I had never heard of grape pie (though I have seen it on plenty of diner menus since then), so Rolf sent me a recipe.

The first step was to peel the grapes, or as the recipe says, “slip” their pulp out of its skin. I did this by squeezing each grape between my fingers and extracting the pale whitish-green fruit.

grape peeling

The pulp gets cooked, then strained; I strained out the seeds using the same food mill I use for persimmons.

grape processing

This process produced a lot of juice.

Next came the crust, with its 18 Tablespoons of butter.

(No wonder the pie was so delicious!)

grape pie crust making

The pie emerged from the oven in tantalizing, buttery glory.

grape pie finished

We served the pie warm with freshly whipped cream.

grape pie

It was even better the next day, eaten cold: intensely grapey.

grape in winter

The vine takes a well-earned rest each winter.


Interview with limestone sculptor Amy Brier

Indiana Public Media produced a video segment on artist Amy Brier as part of its Weekly Special series.

Well worth three minutes to watch!

I’m Betting on the Old

Old sink, new taps

Old sink, new taps

Today I finally had a chance to replace the faucets on the bathroom sink. The old faucets came attached to the basin; I paid about $25 for the well-used ensemble. When both faucets developed leaks, I fixed the cold one by taking the whole thing apart and replacing a rubber washer. But I couldn’t fix the hot tap, since one of its parts had been too badly mangled by someone who got to it before I did.

I bought a new set made under the comforting brand name “Kingston Brass” (tagline: The Tradition of Fine Brass). The instruction leaflet, with such gems as

“PROBLEM: Faucet is dirty. CAUSE: Caused by stubborn water spot” 


“PROBLEM: Handles works backward. CAUSE: Handle install backward,” 

did not inspire confidence.

New and old

New and old

Still, I had removed the hot water faucet some time ago and needed to make the sink usable again, so I proceeded with the installation. Everything went smoothly until I tightened the new plastic nut under the first faucet, replaced the water supply line, and turned it on. The nut would not hold the faucet in place on the irregularly shaped surface of the vintage sink. I took it apart again and installed the new faucet using the old nut and its conical, serrated washer. That did the trick.

The old washer and nut versus the new plastic nut

The old washer, left (I have never seen a washer quite this grand) and its nut, center, versus the new plastic nut, right.

I repeated the steps on the cold faucet and completed the installation.

I will be amazed if this set lasts ten years. The old set lasted more than fifty. I’m keeping the old parts; maybe I can find someone who has the expertise and equipment necessary to drill out the mangled screw and retap the threads inside the valve.

Daisy Garton’s farm

Daisy Garton with her Uncle John, reproduced from the website

Daisy Garton with her Uncle John, reproduced from the website

Daisy Hinkle Garton loved her home so much that she was determined to ensure its preservation as a house museum after her death. Once in the countryside, Daisy’s farmstead–a Queen Anne house, neighbored by a second house and outbuildings on several acres–is uniquely visible and easy to visit, since Bloomington has expanded around it in every direction.

Daisy left her home to Bloomington Restorations, Inc., a nonprofit foundation for historic preservation in Monroe County that now calls the farmstead home.

A lovely, short film about the Hinkle-Garton Farmstead has recently been produced by Michael Johnson.

Photographs of the farmstead also appear in a forthcoming volume  of essays on historic preservation that includes a piece co-authored by  longtime Bloomington Restorations board member Donald Granbois and Executive Director Steve Wyatt.