The Farm House Journal

Volume 4: It's The Old Army Game

Chapter 1: The Home Stretch

Spring is ended

The spring of 2005 was uncommonly clear and hot in Pasadena. I recall this distinctly because I spent that season finishing the kitchen cabinets. Once I began the varnishing, I had to keep the windows and doors shut to keep the dust down, and just at that time the outside temperatures climbed into the nineties and stayed there. The experience left an indelible mark on my memory, and no doubt on my lungs as well.

Lucky and NellieThen, on the last day of spring, our dog Lucky, World’s Wonder Dog, the CEO of our Pet Division, passed away peacefully in his sleep. It was a perfect spring day in Culver City, sunny and temperate, and when I bid him goodbye that morning, he was dozing happily on his favorite spot in the soft Doll House grass. When Lydia came home for lunch a few hours later, he was gone. He lived to the age of fifteen, a good long life for a big dog, but to us a heartbreakingly short one.

Lucky and Frankie with LydiaSomeday I will relate to you the full story of Lucky’s life, for a remarkable life it was. A great dog like Lucky deserves to have his story told. For now, however, let it suffice for me to say that he was a noble creature, spirited, fun-loving and brave; he would never allow himself to be bullied or cowed by an aggressor, but he was infinitely patient and gentle with any creature weaker than he. Children universally loved him, with his big, soft, kind brown eyes. As with all great dogs, he felt a strong calling to serve.

Lucky and NellieHe always managed to be right where he was most needed, and was never happier than when the whole pack was together. He loved to ride in the car, and when we went anywhere he'd always want to come along, sitting right up next to us on the floor between the seats. He didn't care where we were going, just as long as we were together.

World's Wonder DogAs youth passed into middle age, he took on an air of quiet dignity that grew ever more profound throughout the rest of his days, but he never lost touch with his inner puppy. He was a strong yet unassuming daily presence in the lives of us all. He was a truly gentle soul.

Ripples in the stream

Evangeline and her guyMy plan all along had been to finish a substantial amount of the interior restoration before we moved in, so that afterwards the remaining work could be done with minimal disruption to family routine. Lucky’s passing changed all that. For one thing, his sudden absence threw the surviving Pet Division into complete disarray. The girls missed him most: Nellie grieved in her silent dogly way, sniffing all over the place for her pal and curling up in his favorite spots. Evangeline the cat spent most of the time looking out upon the back yard where she had last seen him, patiently awaiting his return. Lucky was her guy, her big brave protector, so she let nothing but the necessities of life keep her from her vigil. We found these reactions wrenchingly poignant.

There were other, more practical ramifications to our recent loss. The above description of Lucky’s character was not mere poetic eulogizing; it was the plain truth. He truly was a strong presence among our pets, a true Knight Templar who defended the weak against the strong. Nellie, Evangeline and our other cat Roger all have very strong personalities, but of course their physical capabilities differ greatly; as gentle and unassuming as he was to all, still Lucky had the strength of character to enforce the peace by keeping these strong personalities in check and neutralizing the physical differences with his own dominant strength. We hardly ever saw this presence in action, but its absence was immediately and distressingly apparent.

Roger is a huge Maine Coon (the first indigenous American breed of cat, so named because of a fanciful early belief that it was a cross between a cat and a raccoon) who came to us from a pet rescue organization soon after my father passed away in late 2003. He was up for adoption at a pet store where we were shopping. Way across that huge store, his huge soulful pain-filled eyes met my own and called me over. He was put on my lap, and immediately he curled up and went to sleep. I was a goner.

Chillin' with my peepsRoger had been brutally ill-used, and his little spirit was terribly damaged when he came to us. He spent the first three months holed up in his litter box upstairs, and then for the next year oscillated between complete passivity and rude aggressiveness. With time and Lucky’s gentle but firm guidance, Roger learned to moderate his behavior, and he and Evangeline arrived at a stable division of territory: Roger got my lap and the front room, the kitchen was neutral territory, and Evangeline got the rest.

The battle linesWith Lucky gone, all bets were off, and a full-blown turf war ensued. Roger had superior size and strength, but Evangeline evened the odds with her indomitable spirit, imperial demeanor and lethal scent glands. Things quickly became unpleasant as Evangeline methodically marked the perimeter of what she considered her territory, which was most of the first floor. We had to feed them at far ends of the kitchen, and supervise the proceedings assiduously. Nellie did her best to enforce peace, but unfortunately had learned little of Lucky’s methods; judging Roger to be the aggressor and Evangeline in need of protection, she joined in the battle, snapping at Roger alarmingly and chasing him through the house. Pretty soon she began to lord it over both the cats.

With my being absent from home ten to fourteen hours a day working at the Farm House, it fell to Lydia to deal with all these travails, and with the desperate neediness all the pets began to display. When I returned home at night, the pets fell upon me as if I were Sergeant York returning home after World War I, and I’d have to spend several hours judiciously giving each of them equal but separate time.

These tender daily reunions, the wrenching daily leave-takings, and my growing concern for Lydia’s increased burdens at home all served to heighten a growing distress over the bifurcation of my life at the time. While the need for my presence at home grew increasingly pressing, so grew my sense of urgency to hurry up and finish my work at the Farm House, which necessitated spending more and more time away from home. Moreover, my hours at the Farm House had become quite lonely and isolated. The contractor’s work was quickly winding down, and with his crew increasingly occupied with a big new project a hundred miles up the coast, I would spend whole weeks at a time working in a big empty house with no direct human contact. If I hadn’t had Lydia on the other end of the cell phone, I would have gone nuts. As it was, I took to having whole conversations with myself just to break the silence.

On top of all these concerns was the most crucial consideration: Mom’s happiness. With all the practical daily concerns of getting the restoration done, I had lost sight of our most pressing motivation to move to a bigger house: to provide a friendlier environment for Mom.

Mom’s overall health was excellent, but she had suffered a slight stroke a few years back that had markedly limited her mobility. She could get around with a stroller, but there was no room for her to maneuver in the Doll House, with its narrow doorways and two-foot-wide central hall. The Farm House, with its uniformly wide doorways and huge veranda, would provide Mom with complete freedom of motion on the ground floor, and we designed the renovation plan specifically to give her maximum independence. It was she who stood to benefit the most from the move.

It had become acutely obvious that my original moving plan was causing graver disruptions to the family routine than it was crafted to avoid. Clearly, our family needed a return to stability, and an increase in territory. We needed to move on to our new life in Pasadena sooner, not later.

With this realization, my target date for the move shifted from “when I’m good and ready” to “as soon as possible.” I reorganized my to-do list accordingly.

A mishap, and a miracle

This boot is made for hobblin'I began to work frantically to get the house minimally inhabitable while keeping my work days down to eight hours so that I’d be home at a regular, reasonable hour. One day I ran late, and as I was rushing out of the Farm House to get home, I took the corner at the bottom of the stairs too tightly, and for a brief moment the sole of my right foot went parallel to the leg. Memo to myself: remind the contractor to hurry up and put in those blasted front handrails.

I managed to make it home all right, but that would be the last of my driving for a while. I had sprained my ankle but good, with torn ligaments and everything. When the orthopedist said I’d be in that huge black Velcro boot for six weeks and have limited mobility for up to six months, I knew that my one and only job for the time being was to get that hobble off of me as soon as possible. Lydia had sprained her ankle once, and she knew the importance of proper therapy to a full recovery. She made sure I followed the doctor’s instructions scrupulously, applying cold compresses morning and night, and making me stay off my feet as much as possible. Not that I was completely worthless during this time; my being around all the time kept all quiet on the western front.

Lydia’s ministrations and plain old clean living did wonders: I was out of that boot in four weeks. The ankle was a bit weak, but it was fully healed and free of pain. The orthopedist termed it a miracle, but I wasn’t sure whether he was referring to the speed of my recovery or the fact that one of his patients actually followed his instructions. In any event, it certainly was the answer to my prayer: I was back to full speed at the Farm House having missed only a month, not two as I had feared.

The plot thickens

Take that, Bob Vila!It took me about six weeks to finish the kitchen and adjacent hallway. It took that long because the work was a bit involved. I had to strip the insides of the windows and exterior doors of the coat of primer I applied back in March of ‘04, when we still planned to paint the kitchen woodwork white. I also had to board up the doorway neatly and securely so that I could paint the outside of the exterior doors while I was staining and varnishing the inside. There were naturally a lot of nail holes to patch in the casings and baseboards before I stained and varnished them, and it took some trial and error before I was able to tint the putty so that it would appear the same color as the wood after finishing. Once I did this, I had to take great care in filling the holes and sanding the putty flush, because redwood is a soft wood, and it is very easy to sand little divots in it that are not obvious until the varnish is on.

But all went well, and the rooms looked great. All that remained on my list was the painting of the bathroom and rear entry, the finishing of the doors to the bathroom and basement, and the etching and sealing of the basement floor. We were on track to be in the Farm House just in time for Christmas.

Having learned the wisdom of taking a day off once in a while, I celebrated the completion of the kitchen by doing just that. In the evening, I took Lydia over to see her new kitchen. We were sickened to discover that we had been violated. Malefactor or malefactors unknown had broken a pane in one of the rear windows and made off with my nice big Shop-Vac and a fairly expensive air purifier which I had left running to help eliminate the remaining vapors from the varnish and paint. We deduced that at least one of the perpetrators had been a child, in part because a piece of machinery weighing about fifty pounds had been moved a few feet and then set down, as if it had proved too heavy to carry.

OooooohOf course such an event is always deeply upsetting to the victims, but the matter was of especially grave concern to us because with our vulnerability thus revealed, the risk of a repeat performance was great as long as the house stood unoccupied. In an instant, my target date for the move had gone from “as soon as possible” to “now.”

But “now” was unfortunately not yet possible. I still had the walls of the new bathroom to paint, and the basement floor to seal. As a practical matter, these tasks had to be done before we moved in. Lydia and I could use the upstairs bathroom, but Mom couldn’t, and the acid used in the etching of the basement floor would flood the kitchen and bathroom above with noxious fumes as I worked.

Thus, after I replaced the broken windowpane, I started to paint the bathroom. I thought this would take two days at most, because all I had to do was paint the top third of the walls and the ceiling. Unfortunately, the paint I’d been using all along had been reformulated to meet ever-tightening local air quality regulations since I’d last bought some, so whereas before the paint had flowed out and leveled itself effortlessly, now I found it drying in the roller before I could get it rolled out. What a disaster! I ended up having to sand off the first coat and start over, this time adding the maximum amount of Penetrol to get the paint to come off the roller reasonably well. Of course, I must admit that with a roller I’m mediocre at best. My specialty is the brush.

Enter Travis

TravisJust at that time, we received an e-mail message from the American Black and Tan Coonhound Club Rescue informing us that our application had been accepted, and that our puppy was ready for the journey out west.

Seven years earlier, after our magnificent German shepherd Nicky had passed away, Lucky grieved so profoundly that he went into a rapid physical and mental decline. Getting Nellie saved him, and in fact gave him a second youth. We weren’t about to let the same thing happen to Nellie, so as soon as we could bear to think about it, we started to think about getting her a little protégé. We knew we needed to get a puppy, because we needed to be sure our new dog would be properly acculturated to cats in the household. Getting a young puppy would help assure this, but still we had to take some care in selecting a type of dog bred to be comfortable as part of a pack.

Lucky was half Husky and half hound, and since hounds are by definition good pack dogs, we decided to get a hound as a tribute to Lucky’s memory. We also hoped that a hound would reflect some of Lucky’s fine qualities. Of all the hounds, the Coonhound was the best fit for us, based upon behavioral and breeding characteristics. The breed is called “coonhound” because it is bred to track and “tree” (chase up a tree) raccoons, possums and other small game. That’s not why we chose a coonhound, but it did indicate strongly that our new dog would feel right at home on the Farm House grounds.

This is a substitute for the picture Charter just won't uploadOur puppy’s pregnant mother Patience was rescued from a Louisiana shelter by a Rottweiler rescue group by an employee who mis-identified her breed (the two breeds have identical markings, but are otherwise quite different). The kind Rott people saved Patience nonetheless, conveying her all the way to the Coonhound rescue group in Alabama, where our puppy was born. Once he was old enough to travel, he was driven to Atlanta, Georgia for the flight here. At ten weeks old, our pup was already more well-traveled than we were.

There is a rescue group for each breed, and they do God’s work, saving countless dogs from an ignominious end. Consider this option the next time you want a dog of any age. You’ll be supporting a good cause, and getting a great purebred dog in the bargain.

We named our little bargain Travis. It’s a good, solid name for a Southerner, and it suggests a word often applied to Lydia as a little girl by her mother: travieso, meaning “mischievous” or “naughty.” Little did we know just how well that name would prove to fit him.

 Travis was accepted into the Pet Division immediately, and without controversy. Everybody loves a puppy.

Pasadena, here we come

Hallowe’en came, and while the house was still not quite ready for us to move in, still we felt it prudent to be at the Farm House for the festivities, to prevent any mischief and to introduce ourselves to the neighborhood. This was a marked break in tradition for us. We’d always spent the evening at the Delgadillo ancestral manse in Norwalk, for it gave Lydia’s mom a chance to visit with her old friends and neighbors. She and Lydia used to sit at the door with Lucky alongside and Nicky (and later Nellie) behind; after they got their treats and thanked Lydia, the children would all say, “Hi, Frances!” to Mom, pet Lucky, and ooh and aah at the big scary dog behind. It was always a very charming evening.

But our family’s future lay in Pasadena, and it was time to meet it. It was quite a chilly evening, so Mom sat in the warm living room while Lydia greeted the trick-or-treaters with Nellie alongside and I did my best to keep Travis from exploding with excitement. This was Nellie’s first Hallowe’en working public relations, so we were careful to keep her on a short leash, but she remained calm if a bit guarded, and she got her share of kind words, and even a few head pats from the bolder children. What we found surprising, and quite gratifying, was that after the children did their bit, their parents came up and thanked us for doing such a careful job restoring the house. There is a great deal of love in the neighborhood for the Farm House, and it was a needed balm for our frayed nerves to have some of it directed our way. We could not have wished for a kinder, more sincere welcome to the neighborhood.

Over the next week, I worked on the basement floor: a big, messy, smelly job. New concrete has a layer of sediment stuck weakly on top like a thin glaze which must be removed before applying a finish. One does this by applying muriatic (pool) acid, letting it sit for a bit, then scrubbing it with a stiff brush. The sediment layer becomes a fine sludge which must be vacuumed up. Then the floor is rinsed and vacuumed again. The really fun part is the white smoke that rises from the floor when the acid is applied, reminiscent of a Universal horror movie from the Thirties. It's alive! This is why I had to do it before we moved in. I made instructional videos of the process as I went along, and if I ever figure out how to put podcasts up, I’ll offer them as an audio-visual Restorer’s Corner.

After the floor was thoroughly etched, I applied a two-part polyurethane sealer from my go-to guys for such things, Abatron. As it turned out, I didn’t have enough of the stuff to get good coverage over the entire floor, But c’est le guerre. With the barbarians at the gate, that floor was as done as it was gonna get.

Safe!The next day, November 7, we packed up the family and the essentials and caravanned on up to Pasadena. That evening, once everyone was all settled in, Lydia and I walked over to a nearby restaurant to pick up dinner. On the way back, we came around the corner to look upon the Farm House from a short distance, all lit up and full of life, an ebullient presence in an otherwise dark and dormant block. Suddenly, the full significance of that day hit me: after many long dark decades of derelictitude, the Farm House was once again a functional home. Our home, with all our little family inside. We went in, had dinner, then sat down together in our new den, sparsely furnished as it was, and let it sink in: we did it!

But it was, after all, only the end of the beginning.

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Chapter 2, “Paying The Piper”