The Farm House Journal

Volume 4: It's The Old Army Game

Chapter 4: The Long Road Back


After the denouement of the contractor’s saga, I returned to the task of digging myself out of the hole I was in. Once it became obvious that the contractor had taken the coward’s way out, I added the remainder of their work to my list, and that light I was heading for became fainter.

The going was slow, for I was still achy and lacking in stamina, and my mind was still foggy. A good day was one in which I managed to get something done, no matter how trivial, beyond the basic chores. But I kept on slugging through good days and bad, and soon I found I was stringing more and more good days together, with the bad days becoming gradually less torturous.

Lydia had been her cheerful, brave self all the time I was ill, and I was happy finally to be giving her back her free time, so after she was done taking care of me, Mom and the pets, she had some time to do some sewing and knitting and all the other girl stuff she likes to do.

Roger on stairsIn the meantime, the pets had settled in nicely, and were thriving in their new digs. With over 2800 square feet of territory now available to them, they had little trouble coming to a comfortable accommodation on their own, although there was a bit of a fracas at first when Roger tried to claim the entire basement as his territory. This was an unfortunate choice on his part, because that is where we feed the cats, and where their litter box is. He’d post himself at the top of the basement stairs and stay there all day. At first, we thought he was protecting the litter box from Travis, who has an unhealthy fascination with it, but eventually we realized that he was contriving to protect it from Evangeline as well. We deposed our subterranean Stalin forthwith, and that pretty much ended the kitty contretemps.

Travis with Pluto PlatterNellie moped around for a while, at least in part because she was rather annoyed by Travis, whom she clearly considered to be a thoroughly unsuitable replacement for Lucky. With time, happily, she got used to the new place and the new dog, and by the time April rolled around she was quite happy, if still somewhat sedentary. As for Travis, he was in his element the moment we moved here. In April he was just entering his adolescence, and already he had grown into a fine figure of a hound, true to breed in every respect.

Travis in flightHe had also become a perpetual motion machine, pure kinetic energy from sunup to sundown and then some. It was quite entertaining to stand at the kitchen window in the morning and watch him gallop like a colt on his long, slender legs at full speed, first to the back of the property, then up to the south gate, then around to the north gate, then to the back again, then up to the door to see how breakfast was coming along—all in the space of twenty seconds or so.

Of course, Travis barked his authoritative hound’s bark at everything that moved, and we feared that the neighborhood would consider him a distinct annoyance. We had forgotten that everybody loves a puppy. Unbeknownst to us, the neighborhood had fallen in love with Travis immediately, and he was already well-known by name. We learned this the first time he dug under the fence and got out. One of the neighborhood children came to the door and announced, “Travis is out! Come get him!” We ran out to see Travis inside a loose perimeter of children calling, “Travis, Travis! Here, boy!” How the heck did they all know his name when, because of my illness having made us shut-ins, hardly anyone knew ours?

Travis was quite a handful, as all young hounds are. He needed a lot of attention and firm guidance, the kind only I, in loco patris, could give him. Unfortunately, his training had been long delayed by my illness, so we had a great deal of catching up to do. I began by simply playing with him, hoping to tire him out. Instead, he tired me out, which was just as well. I needed the exercise more than he did.

Dry-laid padThroughout the spring my energy and stamina improved, until by the beginning of summer I was ready for more strenuous work. I still had the old brain fog, but I could feel it beginning to lift. In the span of a few weeks, I installed a dry-laid pad for the barbecue, set up a pole for the platform feeder, and planted a little test garden to get a feel for growing conditions in Pasadena. Then, the mercury hit triple digits and stayed there, so I shifted my focus to the packing up of the Doll House. It’s always at least ten degrees cooler in Culver City than it is in Pasadena in the summer, so the heat was more bearable there.

Most of what we left behind in Culver City when we moved was still there. Lydia and I had lived in the Doll House for over a decade, and we’re both packrats, so the house was literally filled to the rafters, densely. I’d drive over in the morning, pack up a load of stuff, bring it home, and pile it up in the garage. After a few weeks of this, the garage would get full and the stuff would back up into the house, so I’d have to re-pack and re-stack everything to make room for more stuff. After a few months of this, the Farm House was starting to fill up, but the Doll House didn’t seem to be getting much emptier. Eventually I ran out of room here, and my moving project ground to a halt.

Then came the fall, and with it the nice fall weather. One fine Saturday morning in mid-September, I awoke feeling as if I’d just wakened from a long, shadowy dream. The brain fog was gone, suddenly and completely. I looked around our bedroom, and noticed how dark it was, even though I could see through the window that the sky was a deep unbroken blue. Lydia came in with my coffee—I hadn’t gotten up before her since November—and I looked at her and said, “We put the bedroom on the wrong side of the house.”

Old bedroomBack when we were formulating our plans, it seemed natural to choose the largest upstairs room with the most windows for our bedroom, but we failed to consider that the windows in that room face west. This means that very little sunlight enters that room even on the sunniest of mornings, making it very hard to wake up. On the other hand, the room is thoroughly flooded with light in the late afternoon, making it hard to observe our custom of taking a short nap before dinner. In addition, we found we had considerably more space in there than we needed; with all the many rooms in the house serving specific needs, we were only in the bedroom for sleep, so we didn’t need much more in there than a bed and a dresser. At the same time, the sewing/computer room was so crowded that we could hardly move around in there, and with east-facing windows it was dark as a cave in the afternoon, when we were often in there working.

Now that I once again had use of my full ration of marbles, the solution was obvious: switch the two rooms. As I discussed these thoughts with Lydia, she became very excited, and agreed enthusiastically. I got the feeling that the idea had long ago occurred to her, but she hadn’t mentioned it because she was afraid of blowing my addled mind.

Before we made the room switch, I painted both rooms, and did the preliminary cleaning of the woodwork in the new bedroom, which still bears the original finish. To do this, I used a homebrew recipe gleaned from the pages of Old-House Journal: equal parts boiled linseed oil, gum turpentine and white vinegar. It works far better than any commercial cleaner, is completely harmless to any wood finish, and smells pretty good too (it should be used with good ventilation or breathing protection all the same, because it is a bit rough on the sinuses). It removes all the dirt that can safely be removed from finished wood without risk to the finish, and is thus an excellent first step in any wood restoration, even if the restoration involves only a good waxing or polishing afterwards. I have also found it an excellent first step in restoring old iron hardware; it removes all the surface rust and dirt, and helps to loosen up moving parts. It baffles science! Note well: the vinegar curdles the oil after a few days, so only make up enough for present needs.

Once the rooms were ready, Lydia and I moved the bedroom set upstairs. Much of our furniture is still cheap knockdown stuff held over from our single days, but the bedroom set is Real Furniture. Real Furniture tends to be heavy, and it generally does not disassemble, so getting the bedroom set up the steep, narrow, long Farm House staircase taxed our physical and engineering abilities to their limits. We could get the pieces up to the landing with no trouble, but getting them around the bend and up to the top proved to be for us a hair’s breadth short of impossible.

I am Evangeline.At one point, Lydia and I each had our heads deep in opposite corners of the huge chest of drawers; it was the only way we could get the thing up and over the banister. Lydia was on the landing, and I was on the stairs above her. It was a truly perilous situation; one ill-timed twitch of a neck muscle, one misplaced step, and Lydia, I, the chest, and most of the banister would have gone crashing down the steps and into the opposite wall. Acutely aware of the situation in its fullness, we stood there motionless for a half-minute calculating carefully our next step. The dogs looked on tensely just out of range, gravely concerned about this hazard to the orderly execution of their next mealtime. Roger sat offstage in the kitchen, on the chance that any impact would be great enough to jar open the door to the refrigerator and spill its contents onto the ground, while Evangeline sat with quiet determination and rising annoyance right in the line of fire at the foot of the stairs. She doesn’t like anything coming between her and her man.

At length, we began to move forward gingerly. Just at that moment, Evangeline shot up the stairs like Teddy Roosevelt charging up San Juan Hill, moving with feline precision right between Lydia’s feet and within an inch of mine. The brief glimpse of Jesus gave us an extra shot of adrenaline, and we got the chest, and bits of wall, up the rest of the way with amazing speed.

The bed, headboard and chest of drawers fit our new bedroom perfectly, leaving just enough room to get around easily. It’s bright and cheery in the morning, and a cozy little cave the rest of the time. It’s perfect.

BooHallowe’en rolled around again, marking our fifty-first week in the Farm House. I found it very reassuring to see the procession of sweet and polite little boys and girls dressed in more or less the same costumes we wore when we were children. As happened the previous year, the parents all paid their respects, complimenting us on the job we were doing. We greatly appreciated their graciousness and patience, because we had done very little work that they could see over the preceding year.

The real joy of the evening, however, was Nellie’s behavior. She sat up front, her leash hanging unneeded from her collar, and acted as a good will ambassador, accepting the affection of all the little children with gentleness and dignity. This was rather unlike Nellie—but just like Lucky. Remarkably, Nellie was standing Lucky’s watch: a fine, loyal tribute to a departed friend. Don’t tell me dogs don’t have souls.

Still, Nellie was still Nellie: towards the end of the evening, a group of big high school kids in jeans and T-shirts carrying pillowcases turned up our path, looking for a little free candy. Noticing their size and lack of costume, Nellie stood up and growled softly at them. Those kids turned right around and continued up the street. No matter what, Nellie never neglects her own watch.

O TannenbaumFilled with joy and relief at having finally weathered the storm, we soon turned our attention to the coming holiday season, and resolved to put other considerations aside and have a proper Christmas with all the trimmings. So we cleaned the house, tided up the yard, and got out all the decorations. We put up the biggest tree we could fit, and loaded it up with all the lights, ornaments, and goodies it could hold. We loaded up the playlist with our vast collection of Christmas songs, and watched all our favorite Christmas movies.

LuminariasAs the big day approached, we participated in our block’s Christmas tradition, the Noche de las Luminarias (Night of the Luminarias). A luminaria, at least hereabouts, is a small paper bag with a little sand in the bottom for ballast in which is placed a lit votive candle. A full description of the luminaria tradition would take too long to describe here, but at its heart, the placing of luminaria along the path leading to one’s front door signifies the hope that the lights will guide the spirit of the Christ child to the home. There are various open houses, and the neighborhood folks are encouraged to walk along the block enjoying the displays and stopping at the open houses for a bit of Christmas cheer. We were enthusiastic participants, although my Boy Scout training prohibited my leaving several dozen open flames unattended, so we stayed put.

NativityIt was a memorable Christmas. We saw lots of old friends, some whom we hadn’t seen in years. On Christmas Eve eve, my brother Erle and his wife-to-be Cindy came over for dinner. That was the first meal we had in our dining room, believe it or not, and with the good food and good company, it is one we’ll always remember fondly.

WhoopeeWe spent a quiet Christmas Day at home, but the next day we went to a party thrown for an old college friend in town for a visit. I recovered from that just in time for the big finale of the season, a New Year’s Eve party at the Mt. Washington home of one of Lydia’s co-workers. We all toasted in the New Year while watching a fireworks display from the patio. It was quite a festive, convivial ending to a grueling, lonely year.