Day 48: Childhood Toy

Taking part in the Ann Dee Ellis 8-Minute Memoir Writing Challenge. This is Day Forty-Eight.

I’m still embarrassed by the red flannel cap I wore that Christmas. Do you have anything from your long-ago past that still makes your cheeks sting with chagrin? I don’t know how old I was, maybe ten? But I’d read Little Women and was enamored of the fashions and traditions of the idealized past, and I had started trying to sleep in flannel nightgown and sleeping cap–the kind you would see in Coca-Cola ads depicting sleepy-eyed children and Santa Claus. Nevermind that I lived in California, and a flannel nightgown and cap were not only absurd on their own, but particularly so when “winter” meant cooling to 72 degree December days.

I was a weird kid. Dreamy. Lost in my books. My books were my world, and I wanted to live there. So sometimes I tried. I wish it had stopped with that ridiculous lace-trimmed flannel cap, but it didn’t. I tried to make a corset from wire-hangers and duct tape after I read Gone with the Wind. I tried to dry plums in the sun on top of the chicken coop after I found Steinbeck. I imagined myself Fern, lecturing my father and his friends on the morality of killing a pig to eat.

So that Christmas, in my red flannel while the rest of my family was comfortable in shorts, I opened the last big package. It was a pair of roller skates. They were beautiful white leather with smooth nylon wheels that whispered on hidden ball-bearings, and giant purple pom-poms covered the un-marred toes. I gazed into the box, so happy, imagining myself gliding over the fresh patio my dad had poured in the backyard.

Then I remembered the stupid hat, and tore it off. One couldn’t wear a Victorian sleeping cap and possess the finest roller-skates on the west coast. Worlds collided, and modernity won.

I was a weird kid. But I roller skated the wheels off of those suckers, and I’ve never worn a sleeping cap again.


Procrastination Renovation

Or: How to Avoid Doing What You Should Be Doing


So in an effort to both avoid Writing the Next Book and Other Things, I got a wild hair to do some major home improvement. Thankfully, my family is game and goes along with most of my wild hairs, albeit not always with the same vision that grips me.

It started simple enough. I’ve lived in this house for several years now, and as with almost everyone, there were changes I wanted to make. I’ve done a lot of them, but apparently not as many as I thought. It started with replacing the curly-que door levers (pocket-killer and headphone rippers-out) with regular old doorknobs. Not a big job, and I found a great deal on knobs.

Then I decided a few of the light fixtures needed to go (they were never my taste, and didn’t remotely fit with the mid-Atlantic architecture of the house.) I also found some great deals on light, and can make second-hand things shine like new. I’m comfortable with electrical work, so I did all of this myself. When I pulled down the ceiling fixtures, I found old junction boxes that were only held in with one screw, so I found a YouTube video and replaced them all. It wasn’t hard, and with the breaker off, you really can’t hurt yourself.

So that was good, and I felt happy with the upgrades and safety changes.

Then it was time to use more of the house. Our house is as much house as I ever want—not a fan of giant McMansions in the suburbs, this house is a moderate size for an American  home, and certainly big enough for a family of six plus a dog. But it does require that we are smart about our spaces and use it wisely. We don’t have the luxury (or want it, really) of having a room or two set aside that doesn’t get used. No formal living room or dining room, just rooms that the entire family can functionally use. That required some rethinking.

The basement is 1/3 of our house. We’re lucky in that it’s a walk-out daylight basement and opens to our fenced backyard. But it was poorly designed, with choppy flooring, asymmetrical built-ins that jutted into the living space, and literally zero wall space unclaimed in an already awkwardly L-shaped room. Time to demo, boys!


It only took one Saturday, but we ripped out everything down to the badly marred drywall. Bean and Jon both really like demo, and Jeff was with me on the vision that was coalescing for the room.


Once everything was removed, it was time to learn to drywall. At first I thought about hiring someone to do it, but it just didn’t look that hard–and our budget is super tight. I turned to YouTube again to learn how to tape and mud, and I got to work. (Two thoughts: It’s not necessarily hard, but it’s a LOT of work, and if you take it on, expect it to take twice as long, and expect your arms, shoulders and neck to pay a heavy price. It’s serious physical work.)

I’m sure my patches aren’t perfect and my tape joints would make a drywall professional roll their eyes, but it wasn’t bad, and a little texture covers a multitude of imperfections.

Then I painted. A little bit about paint. A) paint is expensive, and B) if you have an eye for color, I’ve got a hack for you… All major hardware stores have a rack of “mis-tints” or paints that didn’t come out the color the customer desired. The store sets them aside, and marks them down significantly. Its not unusual to find a $45/gallon of paint marked down to $5. Check those racks. If you find a color you like, score! If they don’t have a color you like, you can mix your own! Grab a can or two of neutral colors, get a clean bucket and start mixing. Use a light-ish base, and add some brown, green, yellow, whatever… most colors when mixed will make a taupe-brown-grey color. If the color isn’t right or feels too muddy, add white!  Doing this, you can get a couple of gallons of a super neutral tone in a high quality paint that would have cost $100 for less than $20. My *entire* house is painted this way, by the way. Every room. (The only downside is that you can’t order more.)


This is the grey color I mixed with mis-tints from Lowes. Cost: $18. And it was their premium paint with primer built-in. You just have to be cool with imperfection. Can you see my drywall tape? Nope!

Then I scored a major deal at Lowes with some clearance flooring. Again, if you go in with an open mind regarding colors and style, you can really do well. I know a lot of people get freaked out by big decisions, but if you stay in a neutral family of colors, I promise it will look good when you’re done. You can mis-match a lot of stuff, as my own home proves…

We installed this ourselves. Floating floor is easier than drywall, honestly. Find a YouTube video, and recruit your family to help.


Meanwhile, Tiberius was terrified off all the chaos and noise, and spent the week hovering on the stairs, too afraid to come all the way down.

I found this chandelier meant for a castle at Costco marked down to $59. I bought it, came home and installed it, wanted to love it, and then got up at midnight (literally, I couldn’t sleep in a castle) and took it all down and packed it back in the box. My husband is a very patient man, and did sleep through my Castle phase. Now there isn’t a light in the dining room. But I’ll find something second-hand. It can wait.

So I enlisted the help of my teenagers (have I mentioned that teenagers are awesome? I feel like I have.) and we decided to move the boys to the new basement palace. It didn’t take long for them to think they were done:


Insert narrator’s voice: They were not.

What actually happened, instead of the man-cave they imagined was the creation of a new bedroom suite for the boys in the basement, and the girls getting their own rooms (and bathroom!) upstairs.


The boys’ game and living area.


Jeffrey’s space.


Bean’s space.


The dog finally screwed up the courage to come downstairs and promptly staked out Tiberius’ space.


Abby’s room…


…and Kelsey’s.

A word about decorating, because I have a lot of friends who are intimidated and who ask me for help…

First… Decorating doesn’t have to be expensive. Keep in mind my paint hack, and my willingness to look for sales, second-hand and shop garage and thrift stores. I realize this takes time, and not everyone has a lot of time, but a Saturday at a flea market or a thrift store can yield great results. I know it’s been said a lot, but look at the bones of things. A second-hand lamp that’s well-made can be re-wired with a $5 kit from the hardware store and can be spray painted. A solid chair can be recovered, painted, or stained. Nearly every single item you see in these photos of my home was found second-hand. Don’t buy junk particle board, look for solid wood, solid construction; you can tell when you hold something, when you touch it, if it’s good.

Abby’s bed is a thrift store find. Solid maple. I sanded and painted it. It’s lasted her more than a decade now. Bean’s bed is from IKEA, but found on Craigslist. Kelsey’s bed is vintage heavy-as-hell iron, also found on Craigslist. Every bookcase in my house is from from a garage sale. The dressers were hand-me-downs, the coffee table from a yard sale (it’s been pained three different colors over the years, but it’s solid!) The china cabinet was my grandmother’s, the TV cabinet and our sofas are hand-me-downs from Jon’s brother. My piano came from a garage sale. The yellow chairs in the basement, from my favorite thrift store. The rug is from the clearance bin at Home Depot. I painted the artwork on the wall (maybe you can’t do that, but maybe you can creatively frame a poster, or ask a friend to help, or hang a vintage table cloth on the wall… think outside the box!) Even the curtains are second hand. Really folks, it just takes a little faith to take some risk, and a tiny bit of creativity.

Oh. And one more thing. Forget matching things. FORGET IT. I mean it. Literally nothing in my house matches. None of the wood is the same color or species, none of the upholstery matches.  Do you notice? Nope. Why? Because it doesn’t matter. Matchy-matchy makes your home look like a store or a hotel. Give it up. Find things you love. Marry them together, and your home will shine.


Oh, I almost forgot… it all started with painting the porch ceiling (mixed that paint by hand, too.)