30 May, 2009

Family Reunion in Sioux City, Iowa

Road Trip: Day 2

I have one brother, no sisters. It's very hard for me to imagine what it must be like to grow up in a large family. I never had to share my room or fight for my parents' attention. Unfortunately, with only one sibling, when you're on the outs it's almost like being an only child. Nobody left to form an alliance with.

Ted is one of four children, and his dad Bob one of seven. This made for a very large clan gathering in Sioux City, Iowa.

Ted's sister Sarah and her husband Bill. Each branch of the family had a different color shirt, which really helped me figure out how everyone was related.

Ted's other sister, Betsy, an expert at multitasking.

The Calhoun Reunion was like most clan gatherings. We ate, we played silly games, we ate some more. Did I mention that we ate?

The Afternoon Cheese Course.

There was some imbibing of beer and spirits, too.

The Mint Julep Table. A little chilly for them, but they were oh so good!
(I nabbed this photo from Cousin Sandy, who is in the pale blue shirt across the table from me.)

After the gathering ended, after the campgrounds were tidied and the mountains of leftover food packed away, the diehards met in Bob (Ted's dad) and Rachel's room for some more drinking, storytelling, and yes, a little bit of singing.

Now that I'm home, I need to track down a few of the old family recipes, especially the one for banana bread. Dee-licious!

The best damn banana bread, period.

Ted's Grandma's Banana Bread
(Courtesy of Cousin Jeanne)

1 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter (margarine)
1 teas sour milk
1 teas. soda
2 eggs
2 cups flour
pinch salt
2 or three bananas mashed
1/2 cup nuts

Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour

Note from Jeanne: I usually double this. For the sour milk I put a little vinegar in the sweet milk and then add the soda.

For Frosting:

1 - 2lb. bag of powdered sugar
1 - pinch of salt
1/4 stick of butter or margarine
a little drop of milk

At right: Grandma Polly Calhoun

29 May, 2009

Historic Galena (Illinois), a Family Reunion, and the Barn Quilts of Iowa

Road Trip: Day One

It was a mutual love of travel that brought me and Ted together. We met through one of those online dating sites. Wanna see my profile pic from back then?

Heh heh. I know, I know. Devil horns, a four-foot clip on pony tail, and black mini skirt were just asking for weirdos to respond (even when it's obviously a Halloween costume). And they did, in droves. But amongst the kooks, I received a very sweet reply from a guy with an awful lot in common with me. And the rest, as they say, is history. You really can find True Love this way.

Anyway, our obsession with travel took us on vacations three, four times a year and we'd stay away weeks at a time. But for many reasons, including the fact that The Box House sucks up nearly every spare moment and dime we have, it's actually been several years since we've gone anywhere. And for two travel bugs, that can really leech away the spirit.

So we said the heck with this rut, and we took a mini trip to South Dakota, via a family reunion in Iowa. We're home now, but because one post cannot adequately convey everything we saw, I'll be stretching it out all this week.

The reunion was in Sioux City, Iowa, near where Ted's dad grew up. I went to college in Iowa, but somehow never made it out to the western part of the state much. We decided to take a route straight across the state along U.S. Route 20. According to Google Maps, it would take 20 minutes or so longer than the Interstate, but through several towns neither one of us had been through.

Because we were wildly trying to finish up with client work before we left, we didn't sleep at all before loading up the car and taking off. We're both pretty good about sleeping in the car, so figured we could catch some shuteye along the way. Besides, the tollroads around Chicago are pretty dead at 4:00 a.m. and we could zip along.

Our first stop to stretch our legs was in Galena, Illinois. As we pulled into town, it suddenly struck me how ridiculous it was that I'd never been here before. It's less than three hours from our house, with something like 85% of the buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. For old house junkies like us, it was like a little slice of heaven. My jaw nearly dropped when Ted jostled me awake and I saw the great brick house of Ulysses S. Grant, civil war general and president of the United States.

Gorgeous! Although I may have been even more impressed by the gigantic hostas growing on the hill below the house. A whole mini forest of them! This is how I want our yard to look.

At eight in the morning, there really wasn't anything open, but we took a walk up and down the main drag anyway.

Here's another view that someone took for Wikipedia:

All in all, it's a very cool town. Too bad we weren't visiting during this conference, however:

UFOs and golf. Gotta love it.

It's about a nine-hour drive from Chicago to Sioux City; we tried to make as few stops as possible, but some things could not be skipped over:

Ted's a Calhoun, and we were heading to a Calhoun reunion, so this photo op in Calhoun County was necessary.

And this just cracked us up, a whole yard full of vintage washing machines like the one we're using as a planter.

But the most interesting bit of the drive was through Sac County, home of the Barn Quilts.

Can't believe I never heard of these before, with my mom being a quilter and all.

There's an extensive Web site, so if you're a quilt fan, it's worth a look. All the barn quilts are done up in bright colors and are on barns or corncribs that are at least 50 years old.

We pulled into Sioux City early enough that we thought we'd be able to take a nap before the festivities began--no such luck. There were already scores of Calhouns roaming the halls of the hotel, so we freshened up just a bit and headed downstairs for the first night of socializing. It was great to reconnect with folks we hadn't seen in a while, and I was lucky enough to chat with one of Ted's aunts and learn more about the family history. She had put together a book about the family, and I look forward to borrowing a copy from Ted's dad. I go goofy over family history stuff.

Finally got to go to bed at nine o'clock, perhaps the earliest I've voluntarily gone to bed in years! But by that point, we had been up for 36 hours or so.

25 May, 2009

Backyard Floral Explosion!

I have been pretty busy the past few days. Trying to catch up on everyday cleaning, ugh and of course painting the unit upstairs getting ready for our new tenants coming in June. But it's been a nice holiday weekend Maggie and I decided to spend some time outside. The Bridal Veil bushes, actually in our neighbors yard, are in full bloom. The way they hang over the fence adds a lot to our yard's beauty as well. In fact I think we get the better benefit since the bushes try to follow the sun, actually growing over the fence more than in their own yard. It's a little overcast today, expecting rain, I thought I better get the pictures now before the storm brings all the blossoms down. There are a lot of these bushes in Evanston, seems like every other house, in our neighborhood has them, some quite tall too. Just beautiful, the way they look like lace. Too bad they don't last long, usually a good rain brings them down before having a chance to turn brown.

The Vampire Gargoyle actually came from our other house. It sat in the yard for many years, sitting at the back of the yard, under the trees, watching the house,protecting us from evil spirits. Once the Hostas, around him, fill out he will be peeking over their tops like he did before!

Not sure if Joanne mentioned the washing machine before but it's going strong with plants this year. This was also at our other house, Joanne and Ted brought it "home" when they picked up the BBQ grill. Actually looks better than it ever did in the past. I could never get anything to grow in it before. I think maybe too much shade. But now it has vines reaching for the sun, thanks to an added trellis. One of Maggie's favorite spots, in the yard, is in the sand pit just in front of the machine. She usually lays down, spreading out in the warm sunshine. Not today, too cool and no sun!

Better get back to the painting

Box Mom

20 May, 2009

More than We Can Chew, and an Homage to Dad

Oh dear, oh dear, what made us think that we could paint, install new lights, and rewire the upstairs unit by June 1st--when we have a family reunion in Iowa to go to between now and then? Arrrrggghhhh...

In the meantime, we've achieved almost nothing on our own unit in recent months. Our kitchen still has three different kinds of beat up cabinets, our dining room and living room sport "test" patches of paint colors, and you still need to use the bucket in the bathroom to dump extra water down the toilet to encourage it to flush everything away. (And I apologize now to Ted's parents, who will be visiting us in a few weeks; the toilet is not on the short list of things to do.)

But, we did manage to find a good spot for this:

My Uncle Russ, my father's older brother, is an artist. Last Christmas I commissioned him to paint a portrait of Dad, who died five years ago this summer. (Hard to believe it's already been that long.) I was a little nervous asking him, unsure how hard the task would be emotionally, not to mention technically. But he was very gracious and agreed.

It was also hard to pick a photo to base the painting on, because my dad HATED his picture being taken. Photos of him smiling are as scarce as hen's teeth; I have photo albums filled with pics of him ducking behind other people, turning away at the last second, hiding behind his finger--his middle finger. This photo was one of our favorites; he was happy, laughing, and enjoying some good playtime with Jakob, his first grandchild. It's how we like to remember him.

Thanks, Uncle Russ! You captured Dad's smile beautifully!

Project Linus

As you know, I went to the Chicago Quilt Festival 2009 at the Rosemont Convention Center a few weeks ago. I forgot to mention Project Linus. It's a program where volunteer groups from all over the country provide loving, warm quilts and knit blankets to children in need. Children who have been traumatized by whatever means, seriously ill and in need of a warm hug and comfort. There are over 100 chapters all over the country that have made more than 3 million blankets/quilts to date.

There was a large booth at the quilt show set up by Project Linus where people could sit down and work on a block, or more, that would be stitched into quilts. The blocks were pre-cut and fabric crayons were available for participants to draw any picture or write words of comfort. Once these blocks were finished they were hung on the walls for all to see.

Additional information for Project Linus can be found at www.projectlinus.org or just Google Project Linus.

Like I mentioned, they accept knit blankets as well as quilts in baby size up to, I believe, a large lap or twin.

Box Mom

Goodbye To Our Tenants

Like Joanne mentioned a few days ago, our tenants upstairs moved out. It was nice having them here, so quiet we hardly knew when they were home. Of course, before they left I had to make them a quilt...it was a housewarming for their new place.

So goodbye Geoff, Jennifer, and Jonas. (And thanks for letting us post the picture!)

Some of the blocks for this quilt came from a block swap--sort of like a Christmas Cookie Swap--I did with one of my online quilting groups a few years ago. I added more blocks to finish the quilt to the size I wanted. It has a gingham backing and was machine quilted on my long-arm in an allover meander pattern.

Many years ago, when I worked at JoAnn Fabrics, one of my customers, an elderly quilter, told me "You must add a label to every quilt you make, so future generations know it was you who made it!" So, bowing to a sweet woman who helped inspire my path to quilting, I added this label.

So long Geoff, Jen...and Jonas. Keep in touch and do let us know how you're coming along with your "new" 120-year-old house.


18 May, 2009

Rental Apartment Renovation

Well, today was kinda bittersweet as we said good-bye to our super awesome upstairs tenants. At the same time, I'm kinda excited to get to work on the unit. First task--painting.

11 May, 2009

And in This Corner, Weighing in at 15 Pounds...

Was it only last December that the desk chair could hold two kittens, with plenty of room to spare?

Here's Seamus today. He's 15 pounds and still growing.

I knew Maine Coons were "Gentle Giants," but it wasn't until they started eating us out of house and home that I realized just what that meant. I practically need a weight belt to lift them. Carry both at once? Fuggedaboutit.

09 May, 2009

What -- There's Already a Garden Path There?

I took these pictures of the backyard shortly after we moved in. They're from March 2008. By default, because we had so many other projects to work on, we let the garden do its own thing so we could see whatever perennials there might already be. Big mistake. While there were a few clumps of lilies and such, what we ended up with was a riot of weeds. It was a losing battle, and by summer's end, everything was overgrown. Unfortunately, I don't think I have any pictures of it at that stage, but trust me, it was not for the weak kneed. All sorts of varmints seemed to thrive back there, from skunks to possums to rabbits.

The previous owners had a swing set, so the only real thing I did last year was remove about 15 bags of sand and mulch left behind. (I'd like to draw your attention to the pretty water stain on the garage--that's what happens when folks don't clean the gutter, so let that be a lesson to ya. We discovered it packed with mud and growing trees.)

There were about a dozen or so weed trees growing next to and through the chain link fence.

Some of them were 15 or so years old based on the number of rings. I'm always amazed at how quickly weed trees can take hold. It's something you totally have to stay on top of, or you'll find yourself twisted in awkward angles as you try to maneuver pruning shears between the chain links.

There were more weed trees behind the garage. It was impossible to walk through. It took a couple of days of hacking away at it to remove it all.

A huge, overgrown lilac stood in one corner of the backyard. It didn't produce much in the way of lilacs last year. So this year, Ted and I tag-teamed its removal. Two other weed trees were growing through it, each with massive root balls. It was an all-afternoon effort to remove them. When we stepped back, we realized just how clearly we could now see into the neighbor's yard, and made the decision to replace the tree as soon as possible.

In the last two weeks, Mom and I made great strides in civilizing the yard. We created flower beds on two sides of the yard, alongside the house and along the chain link fence we share with the neighbors. Okay, one of the clematis vines we did chuck into the ground last year, and there is a patch of iris from the previous owners, but everything else is new. The hostas we divided from other parts of the yard and moved here. I love getting "free" plants. For edging, we used the railroad ties that once marked off the play area.

We planted a forsythia in the corner where the lilac stood, and scattered more perennials below it: Jacob's ladder and hostas in front (with a few caladiums for color) and lilies of the valley behind. The forsythia's not blooming anymore, but trust me, it was gorgeous when it did. I'm really going to look forward to this next spring.

The lilies of the valley we liberated from the narrow passage between our house and the neighbors'. We discovered literally thousands of them growing there last year. The picture below I took today; you can see the lilies just starting to fill in. Other wildflowers will appear later in the year. We'll continue to let this grow wild until we can figure out what to do with the space. It's not visible from the street. I like the idea of maybe doing some kind of secret garden, but I'm not sure if the effort is worth it.

We planted more perennials along the chain link fence--a few viney things and hostas. I do love my hostas--they're idiot proof, and take so little maintenance. The bird bath was at my mom's other house. The birds 'round here are fearless, and will splash in it a few feet from where I'm working.

Here is perhaps my favorite "new" feature. I picked up this antique washing machine at an estate sale a number of years ago. I think it was five bucks. Mom fought me on bringing it to the new house because she didn't think the yard had room, but look at what she's done with it. I think it's gorgeous with the ivy hanging down and the the clematis growing up the trellis. More cottage garden and less white-trashy than we feared.

This afternoon's project was supposed to be to add a few limestone stepping stones at the entrance to the back yard. A simple project that shouldn't take more than an hour or so. But noooo. I thrust the shovel into the dirt, and heard a loud "chink" as I hit stone. About three inches down, I found the remains of what appears to be a pathway. Far enough below the surface that the previous owners--who were here for forty years--probably didn't know about it.

So now we're wondering how far it goes. It seems to be constructed from a hodgepodge of components, some limestone, some concrete. It's heading off in the general direction of the garage doors, a straight diagonal line across the yard. I'll dig up a bit more tomorrow to get a better idea of just how extensive it might be. But it would explain the mysterious blocks of limestone we've uncovered in other parts of the yard.

08 May, 2009

Icebox Access Panel from the Enclosed Porch

Because Karen Ann was curious about our iceboxes, here are the pics. The panels are at the backside of the iceboxes, which are built into the walls in the pantry on each floor, adjacent to the back porches.

Back in the 20s/30s when people had ice delivered every few days the iceman would just open the back panel, put in the ice and leave, all without disturbing the family.

My great-grandmother had one in her kitchen but the iceman needed to come into the house for the deliveries.

Our iceboxes themselves are in great condition with the exception of the panels being painted shut years ago, a sad battleship grey. They look like several layers of paint from over the years. Future project, when we get as far as working on the porches, will be to strip the backside of the iceboxes and open these panels again. Not that we expect ice delivery anymore but it would be a neat authentic touch. Our icebox is now being used for additional storage space in the pantry. Good place for wine. :)

Box Mom

What Do You Mean They Have a Pit Bull?

A friend of ours, who lives in our old building, called this afternoon. "Um, guys," he says, "I don't know if you're aware of this, but your tenants now have two large pit bulls; one of them peed off the balcony onto the decks below. And I think there are new people living there, too."

Great. It's the kind of call every landlord just loves to get. We decided to swing by and check things out. Turns out that yes, there were two American Staffordshire Terriers staying there--two beautiful, big, friendly dogs. However, the lease says we must approve pets first. Additionally, we have a pet deposit and a size limit on dogs. Hardwood floors and two very large dogs don't mix. We have one medium-size dog and hardwood floors, so we are all-too-aware of what kind of damage they can do. So, as much as we love big galumphing dogs, we really can't let them stay.

We're not confrontational people by nature, but I think the unplanned meeting went well; the tenants are nice and promised to get the dogs out by the weekend. The extra people are just temporary guests. But one of the three tenants does want to move out, so we'll be dealing with sublessors soon, a new experience for us.

Overall, the landlord gig feels like a drag today. We still haven't found tenants for the unit upstairs from us, although everyone who has come through really likes it. Just when we think we have an application, someone's plans change. Oops, it's the wrong school; it's a longer commute to work than they thought; they can't afford it after all; one of the roommates isn't ready to move yet; etc. But at least we're getting the impression that it's priced right.

Please keep your fingers crossed, everyone, that we'll find new tenants for upstairs soon. And if any of you landlord types have dealt with a sublease before, I'd love to hear your feedback.

06 May, 2009

So Long, Big Green, We Hardly Knew Ye

We killed it. Well, we may not have wielded the chainsaws, but we signed the death warrant when we faxed the contract back to the landscaping company.

The trunk of the tree was less than a foot away from the foundation, and the whole bulk of it pitched at a crazy angle.

We knew when we moved here last year that we would be taking it out. The roots had already cracked the sidewalk, and probably contributed to the large crack on the porch slab:

We didn't want to risk any further damage to the foundation. Keeping an 85-year-old building structurally sound is difficult enough. This particular corner of the basement seems to have a bit of a moisture problem; there was a lot of efflorescence on the brick walls.

Still, it weighs heavy on the heart to take out such a large tree. Not counting the parkway trees, it's the biggest one we had on the lot. It was a favorite roosting spot for mourning doves, who would gather in the late evening.

The kittens spent large parts of their afternoon watching the activy 'round the bird feeders, just inches from their noses.

Were we to keep the tree, I would have tried to find a way to discourage the daily visits of the red-headed woodpecker. But I enjoyed the brief encounters.

The landscapers came early this morning, and in less than two hours, all traces of the tree were gone.

The house looms so much larger now. And the porch I'm not overly fond of stands out like a sore thumb. We need to figure out a way to minimize the mass of it with something decorative.

While they were here, we had the landscapers take out several other trees as well, including a forsythia way past its prime, with a weed tree growing through the middle of it.

Yep, that's actually two trees in the picture. The landscapers made quick work of these, too.

There were other casualties this day. There was, apparently, a robin's nest in the tree. We found the eggs knocked to the ground, carelessly crushed beneath the boots of the workers. Mom wrapped up the tiny, half-formed birds and took them away. It was sad to see the mother robin hopping along the trunk of the downed tree, searching for her nest. For much of the afternoon, she sat in one of the parkway trees, staring at the house, staring at the empty spot where the tree used to be. Staring at me whenever I looked out the window to check on her. But I haven't seen her since the thunderstorms started up this afternoon.

Without these trees, The Box House looks so much boxier now. We'll replace them with others, set away from the house at a safe distance. But it will be a while before they reach any sort of great height. What we need now is a really fast grower.