Enjoying the Renovating Process

Our family is renovating a nineteenth-century home. Demolition and construction occur weekly, if not daily. My husband devotes every Saturday and some weekday evenings to improving the home. I’m grateful he is a skilled builder, who grew up helping his dad construct their beautiful chalet-style home in Vermont.

My construction skills are non-existent. I can swing a hammer, but I’m as likely to hit my fingernail as the actual nail. When we first bought the house, I did some painting alongside my husband, but after the birth of my son, I adopted a more supportive role.

Over four years of renovations have taught my husband and I to enjoy remodeling and to appreciate each other’s roles. Before we could enjoy the process, we had to adjust our habits and expectations. For example, I no longer expect to have a perfect suburban home, and my husband has learned how to work alongside a family.

Also, our division of chores is more traditional than modern: I do the majority of housekeeping so my husband can focus on construction. I don’t require him to clean the toilets, because I recognize that he works very hard elsewhere.

Here are a few other lessons we learned while rebuilding:  

1. Be flexible. Anything can happen in home renovation. A rotting floor lurking under the toilet can transform a simple paint job into a major overhaul. Don’t panic. Address each problem as it comes, and trust that the rest will be done in time. 

2. Have work-zones and work-free areas. Whenever we begin a new project, we spend a few days rearranging the house so that it is still a comfortable place to live. We need space to be a family, to relax, and not to be surrounded by tools.

3. Be patient. Every project will take longer — much longer — when done by an amateur than a professional. A homeowner may have the same skills and expertise as a professional contractor, but he is not likely to have 40 hours a week to devote to the job. Don’t expect big projects to be completed over a weekend.

4. Enjoy the process. Renovating can be enjoyable. I love flipping through design magazines and imagining how we can incorporate various ideas into our home. I dream in colors, fabrics and tile patterns.

To my surprise, I discovered construction process can be as interesting as designing a home. From helping my husband, I have gained a much deeper appreciation for building and design.

Renovation gives us an opportunity to be archaeologists and learn about the history of our home. We can see how one room was divided and later joined with another. We have found an old hearth under layers of flooring, matchboxes tucked into walls, and toy cars lost decades ago.

5. Celebrate your successes. We enjoy hosting a parties to mark a project’s completion (or near completion). Renovating a home can seem like an endless chore. If you don’t mark your progress, you can easily become discouraged.

6. Define your project and set goals. Be realistic in your goals, but also be diligent in completing each project.

7. Set realistic budgets. I think it is wise to budget at least 20% more for a project than you initially expect it to cost.

7. Take breaks. Home renovating is a way of life, but don’t let be your only life. Make time for family and fun, and remember the house will always be with you.  

8. Know when to call in the professionals. There are very few projects my husband cannot do; however, even he has hired contractors to cut down trees, replace our roof and tape our dry wall. He could do many of these things himself, but the professional contractors may do them quicker, better, or cheaper. You should probably call a professional if you don’t have the expertise to do a job or if doing the job will take longer than it is worth.

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Room for One

We recently moved out of half of our house to make way for renovations. The guest room, where our baby slept, and the master bedrooms are being gutted to make way for a new master bath.

As a result, our five bedroom house has been reduced to three bedrooms, one of which is rented to a family friend. We moved into our oldest son’s room, and he happily sleeps in a newly completed room next door. Initially, we intended both of our boys, age 3 and 1, to share a room. Since they moved in together, our little boys have started playing together sometime between 5 and 5:30 a.m.  It would be adorable if it weren’t so early. After a week of predawn giggling, we realized the boys had to be separated.

Where should we sleep the baby? He could take afternoon nap in the bathroom, but we don’t want to brush our teeth around a sleeping baby at night.

My ever-resourceful husband solved our dilemma by designing a canopy for my son’s bed. He built a simple wooden frame wide enough to fit around the crib and then stapled some fabric around it to block light. We used some scrap fabric from my husband’s work, but I imagine that old bed sheets and tablecloths would work as well. We set up the min-room in the hallway, which is, fortunately, very wide.

Our littlest one seems to be adjusting to his mini-room well. (At this moment, he is napping peacefully.) However, this arrangement has not yet improved our sleep: This morning, we found two little boys talking in the hallway crib at 5:30 a.m.


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My Un-diet

Happy New Year! Are you starting a diet this January?

I don’t diet. I dislike the idea of cutting out any food group, unless its absolutely necessary. I prefer to focus on adding new, healthy foods into our meals. If I eat more nourishing, healthy foods, then I crave junk food less.

Instead of avoiding food, I eat an inclusive diet. I want to expand my food horizons and consume new types of food. Three years ago, I began sampling vegetables that my mother never cooked. I discovered that turnips were wonderful mashed with potatoes. I liked beets – a vegetable I hated as a child – when they were roasted and doused in olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Swiss chard has become a staple on my table, especially since I find it easier to grow than any other vegetable.

My desire to expand my food repertoire has increased since I started reading Eating on the Wild Side by Jo Robinson. Each chapter in this well-researched book features a short history of popular vegetables — often explaining how our modern vegetable lost its wild nutrients. Our supermarket vegetables sound dull compared to the spicy, tangy, colorful wild varieties.

I appreciate Ms. Robinson’s straightforward approach to eating. She doesn’t send her readers into the forests to harvest their own wild vegetables (although its not discouraged). Instead, she teaches her readers to find the most nutritious produce available at the grocery store and farm market.  A list of the most nourishing varieties of produce can be found at the end of each chapter. Ms. Robinson also provides information on storing and preparing produce in order to reap the most benefits.

Some of Ms. Robinson’s findings are surprising and helpful, especially for busy moms. I was thrilled to learn that canned artichoke hearts and tomato puree are among some of the healthiest food in the grocery store! These long-storing foods will help stretch out my visits to the grocery store.

The most nutrient-dense vegetables are the brightest varieties of the brightest vegetables. At the produce stand, I plan to fill my basket with yellow cauliflower and purple carrots, if I can find them. Since, Ms. Robinson includes the variety names of the healthiest vegetables, I plan to have Eating on the Wild Side open when I order my garden seeds this spring.

I found this book to be a great way to add new foods to my menu and improving on the produce my meals already featured. If you read it, let me know what you think.

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Humbling Cheesecake

Our bellies bulged from the scrumptious Christmas supper my mother had prepared. Gift wrap was scattered across the floor like autumn leaves. Presents had been exchanged, thank you’s said, and only one thing was left to complete this joyous Noel: dessert.

I carefully placed the ginger cheesecake I prepared onto the cake plate. Its pure white top was smoother than freshly lain snow. Home-baked gingerbread cookies shaped as squirrels rimmed the edge of the cake like a crown. I was proud of my creation. The cake was beautiful, and I was confident that it would taste wonderful.  The family eagerly gathered at the table for a spicy sweet ending to our evening.

One bite of the cake disappointed me. Where was the ginger flavor? After the second bite, I wondered if I actually liked cheesecake. This tasted like whipped cream cheese. Salty whipped cream cheese.

The guests at the table ate in complete silence — not the silence of blissful chewing but an uncomfortably polite quiet. My stepfather sweetly managed to praise the cake’s smoothness. At least one plate of cake remained uneaten, and no one asked for seconds.

Later I realized that I neglected to add sugar. How I missed that crucial ingredient I’ll never know. Could I have forgotten it when I was interrupted to nurse the baby or was I distracted by a toddler-sized train being driven through my kitchen?  Regardless, the cake was thoroughly disappointing – more so because I was so pleased with myself. My time and ingredients resulted in something more appropriate for a bagel — or garbage pail –than a dessert plate.

My husband rescued the cheesecake. At his suggestion, we dose our cake with syrup. Maple syrup penetrated the slices, delivering the missing sweetness and making the cheesecake much more edible than it was Christmas Day.

I suppose there are a few morals to glean from this debacle.

1. Pride goeth before a fall, or taste the cake before you brag about it.

2. Mise en place. This French phrase, which is translated “everything in its place,” is quoted by just about even spectacular chef or baker including Julia Child and Cake Bible author Rose Levy Beranbaum. If I had mise en place, my counters would have been clear, my ingredients measured prior to baking, and the recipe thoroughly read. Sugar would certainly have been included in the cake.

3. Maple syrup can solve almost any problem. My Vermont family is right, maple sugar is one of the most amazing foods.

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A Very Homemade Christmas

For the past two years, my childhood Christmas ornaments have languished in our attic, rather than being displayed on a tree. The first year, I had no for a Christmas tree, because we spent each Christmas Eve at my mother’s. I did absolute no decorating the following year because we were in the midst of gutting our kitchen.

I loved staying at my mother’s house. Christmas morning, I woke up in my childhood bed and could pretend I was ten, eager to see the magic that occurred Christmas Eve. When I came downstairs, presents were stacked under a sparkly evergreen, but I didn’t have to wrangle with lights and sweep up pine needles. After opening our gifts, I would eat a breakfast I didn’t prepare from dishes I didn’t need to wash. This Christmas, I realized that it was too much to ask my mother if my clan of four could invade her home for the night. We needed to begin our own Christmas traditions.

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Christmas isn’t quite Christmas without the tree, so Isaac set out to find the cheapest one available. He and Oliver hiked through the woods and over the gully behind my house hoping to bring home a free ornament-worthy tree. The only evergreens he saw were simply too tall and too bushy. He considered cutting the tops off the trees or substituting a holly bush for the traditional pine. Instead, we purchased a very ordinary tree at Home Depot.

Once the tree was set and the lights strung, we hung my ornaments. Immediately I realized that instead of having ornaments and no tree, we had too much tree for our ornaments. We also lack a proper tree topper or a garland, so there simply is too much green in that evergreen.

Isaac turned one of my favorite ornaments — the Star of Bethlehem — into a topper with a wire tie from the bread bag. He carefully positioned some lights around it so that it glows.

I made a few ornaments by dehydrating orange slices. They are a translucent gold and quite charming. I will probably make them again next year. I also constructed a simple garland by cutting stars out of leftover wrapping paper. I’m not showing it because it’s a little more homemade looking than I like. Next year, we might string popcorn and cranberries instead. Perhaps we’ll have an edible tree!

I spent the majority of my energy sewing stockings. This is our first year celebrating Christmas at home, and no one but Oliver owns a stocking. (I made Oliver’s stocking last year.) I dread shopping with a toddler and a newborn, so I decided to make stockings instead.

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I drew my pattern a paper bag. When I showed my first pattern to my husband, his face fell. “It’s not big enough,” he said.

His favorite holiday stocking was a pillowcase his parents stuffed with goodies. I didn’t blame him. I wanted enough space for extra chocolate in my stocking. So, I redrew the pattern twice as large.

I found some suitable fabric among my scraps. Blue and brown may not be traditional Christmas colors, but that’s what was available. The pocket on Isaac’s stocking was stolen from one of Oliver’s shirts. (Sorry, Oliver!) To keep this mamma sane, I decided to make Ethan’s stocking next  year. He’ll never know, unless you tell him.

I’m eager to enjoy the holiday with my dear little people and my favorite man. I hope you also have a wonderful Christmas and a joyful New Year!


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Isaac’s “Baby”

Now that I introduced you to our newborn, I think you should meet Isaac’s baby. It was conceived months ago and arrived in November, weeks after Ethan’s birth.

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Here it is! Isn’t the natural gas boiler precious?

Isaac began installing the boiler during his week of paternity leave. The following week, he woke up at 5 a.m. every morning striving to finish the task. After two long weeks of labor, he was finally ready to fire the boiler. At 11:00 pm Saturday night he flicked the switch that should have brought warmth to our home. Nothing.

Isaac diagnosed the problem hours later.  The gas control valve would not open.  A disappointed man crept into a cold bed in a cold room at 2 a.m. that night.

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The next day, we invited some friends over for supper after church. One of them owned a heating and air conditioning business. After dinner, Isaac explained to him the situation and showed him the boiler. Our friend picked up a wrench and tapped on the gas valve. Immediately the boiler fired and hot water began pumping through our radiators, warming the house.

Perhaps that is the difference between a professional and a skilled amateur. My husband’s installation was almost flawless — he just didn’t know where to hit the darn thing to make it work.

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Here’s Oliver’s solutions to the holes daddy made for a new radiator. He gleefully tattles on his father when Daddy makes a mess in the midst of construction. Holes, in particular, intrigue and perturb my neat-freak of a toddler. I do wish he noticed his messy room as much as his dad’s constructive messes.

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My Growth Chart

For two years, I have longed for some way of charting my children’s growth beyond the traditional method of scribbling on a wall or door frame. We are loathe to write on a freshly painted wall or record our children’s growth on a wall that will soon be repainted or replaced.

I harnessed my anxious energy from the double threat of imminent childbirth and hurricane Sandy to make my own growth chart. It was another peacock project — nice but non-essential — and thus perfect for late term pregnancy.

While rain from Sandy transformed our lawn into a kiddie swimming pool, my husband and I dug through our pile of wood scraps until we found a slab approximately 5 feet long and 6 inches wide. We trimmed its crooked edges and briefly sanded it. (I wish we had sanded it a little smoother.)

I painted the board white, using primer and paint we had leftover from our renovations. Then I used a pencil to mark each inch and foot and traced over them using a black Sharpie marker.

Rather than decorate the chart with large numbers, I marked each foot with simply drawn cartoons of various vehicles I thought my boys would love.

When the storm subsided, we assessed our outcome. I was still pregnant, the electricity still worked, our basement was mostly dry … and I had a cool, free growth chart to hang on our walls. We did very well.

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