Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas Letter

There is a debate that comes up at this time of year over whether or not to compose and send an annual family year-in-review letter in one's Christmas cards.  For us, it is a tradition that we started when we first were married 30+ years ago, to help faraway friends and extended family keep up with our antics.  We tried one year to discontinue the letter, thinking that, perhaps, recipients would perceive news of our travels and accomplishments as boastful ... more than one card recipient that year was disappointed not to have a letter, thought that we had accidentally forgotten to include the letter in their card, and assured us that our letter was never one of THOSE letters that we dread receiving.

As proof, I offer you a slightly modified version of our letter this year ... with pixilated faces, names removed, and a few of the facts sanitized to protect the innocent.


"The main theme of 2014 for us seems to have been traveling.  The Husband spent a lot of time on the road for business, with trips all over the US to teach training classes, hold meetings, and visit customer sites in Chicago, California, Atlanta, Maryland, Florida, Ohio, Las Vegas … lots of trips!.  In September, he was in Europe for two weeks, visiting Germany, Switzerland, and Ireland.  It was his first time in Ireland, and he had some great photos and stories of what he did while he was there.  Connie traveled to Heritage Rose conferences in Dallas in May for four days and to England in June for nine days.  The trip to England was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see gardens she had only read about and to meet some online rose friends in person. 

"In addition to our solo trips, we were able to get away together to two more bucket-list destinations.  In August, we traveled to Asheville, NC, for a family wedding. We extended the trip into a long weekend, and brought along some of our favorite traveling companions.  The six of us spent two days touring the house and grounds at Biltmore, and went white water rafting. 

"In November, we spent five days in New Orleans.  Connie had to be there for a Board meeting of the Heritage Rose Foundation, and The Husband’s work schedule allowed time for him to tag along.  Even though we were there during a historic cold snap (with freezing temps, rain, and wind), we bundled up and had a great time.  We toured three antebellum sugar plantations outside of town and visited private homes and gardens in French Quarter.  The food was fantastic, including the best catfish and oysters that either of us have ever eaten anywhere.  Of course, we had to eat beignets (twice) at Café du Monde, a NOLA landmark.

"The rest of the family is doing well.  Daughter #1 and her husband are close by, and we get to see them and their boys often.  Daughter #2 is still in Montana, and one of the best parts of the year was when she came to visit for a week in October.  Her trip was a surprise combo-birthday present for both of us.  Daughter #3 made all the arrangements -- it was the best present ever!  Speaking of Daughter #3, she graduated from the police academy and she is now an official, full-fledged patrol officer.  We are so proud of her … even though it sometimes can give us a start to see her police car when it’s parked in front of the house.

"In January, we added another member to the furry family -- an elderly four-pound Chihuahua that we named Winnie.  The process went something like this:  The Husband was on one of his many trips to California … Connie saw Winnie’s photo and story that a friend shared on Facebook … Connie knew instantly that Winnie belonged in our family … and Connie drove out into a snow storm to bring Winnie home, telling The Husband about it AFTERWARD.  We don’t know exactly how old Winnie is (probably at least 12, maybe older), but she fits into our family perfectly!   All of our other critters adapted pretty easily to her arrival, though the cats still aren’t sure about this tiny, toothless little creature that growls at them.

"The Husband still works from home, and he spends a lot of his spare time on his oil paintings.  Right now, he is putting the finishing touches on a fantastic portrait of Connie and Daniel (one of our former greyhounds).  Connie’s time is shared between a never-ending array of house projects and work outside in the garden.  Life is quiet … exactly the way we like it!

"We hope that you have a wonderful Christmas, and that the New Year brings you health and happiness."

(and I extend these wishes to each of you, too.)

Merry Christmas, Everyone!!

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Tap Tap Tap ... Is This Thing On?

I'll bet you thought I had abandoned you.  Here I was, lauding over milestones and expressing my gratitude for the time you spend here ... then I go and disappear for what seems like forever.  Not to worry, it's all good.  Been spending time on Christmas preparations and other not-so-exciting daily activities.

One of many Santa ornaments.

Pretty peacock.

Roses, of course.

This year, I only put up one Christmas tree (instead of my usual two), and it's a little bit different than usual.  No garland or tinsel ... the tree is packed with our entire collection of glass figural ornaments.

This is a painted oyster shell, referencing "When I am old, I shall wear purple."

I really like squirrels.  We have two squirrel ornaments, and I placed acorns and corn ornaments on the tree near them so they're not hungry.

Our middle daughter was obsessed with penguins when she was younger.

This collection reflects 30+ years of Christmases spent together, and many of the ornaments commemorate events or places that are special to us.

Cape Hatteras lighthouse ... North Carolina's Outer Banks is a favorite vacation spot.

This resin alligator is from my trip to New Orleans last month.

Taco, because Christmas for the past few years has been all about family, friends and Mexican food.

It took a couple of days to sift through the boxes of ornaments, carefully placing each one onto the tree and remembering the memories that so many of them represent.

Grapes, because we live next to a winery.

Santa with toys.

Our grandson's handprint, from when he was three.

My Christmas shopping is finished (except for a couple of items that I will pick up in the next day or two), and Christmas baking is well under way.  Our house is quiet and calm this year... and part of me misses the energy that small children add to the holiday atmosphere.  It's been a lot like the famous poem, "Not a creature was stirring" ... me included right now.

One of my favorites ... flowers and I Love You.

How about you?  Are you doing the same thing as usual this Christmas, or are you changing things up a bit?  

Tuesday, December 9, 2014


During November, while I was in the middle of my month-long series of posts about Mr. Rogers, two significant things happened here at the blog:

My one-thousandth post, and ...

This blog's SIXTH anniversary!

These rose-print Converse sneakers are my most recent favorites!

I am amazed, sometimes, to think that I have kept at this for so long.  Six years worth of gardens and projects, ups and downs, thoughts and dreams ... six years is a LONG time in blog years.

Ruby waiting patiently at the foot of the stairs, which don't look like this at all now that I have reassembled the railing.

NYC at Christmas.

You have been right here with me, helping to celebrate the arrivals of new family members and we have mourned some losses (both of humans and critters).

Spending time with the grandkids.

Ruby arrived in 2012, and Winnie has been here for almost a year.

Alice and Dorothy arrived in 2010, and my sweet Daniel left in 2013.

I think about how many people I have come to know and love through this little slice of cyberspace.  Some of you live nearby and have become real life, in-person friends.  Others live too far away, continents away in some cases, but the relationships with these folks are just as rewarding.

Making pendant lights for the renovation of The Shack.

Mystery rose that was given to me by a dear friend.

Along the way, I hope that you have learned a few things.  Whether it was general subjects like how to use tools, refinish and paint furniture, plant and care for roses, fun places to go on vacation, or something specific like how to break the news to your husband that you adopted a geriatric Chihuahua without asking him first, I've covered it.  

Chalk paint projects.

Adding walk-in closets to our master bedroom.

Winnie has changed so much since she arrived here!

I'm not a professional blogger, one that's driven by stats and page views, sponsors and ads, or contract commitments.  What you see here is real life and what I'm doing and thinking, as lived by me and the rest of the crew here at Hartwood Manor ... our little corner of rural countryside with the suburbs fast approaching ... this place that I am blessed to live and where I call HOME!

Hartwood Manor ... my largest renovation project ever.

Thank you for spending part of your day here, whether you are a regular reader, a newcomer, or you visit only from time to time, if you speak up and comment or read and move on without leaving a trace.  We are all given the same 24 hours to use each day ... I am grateful that you choose to share part of your time with me.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Restoring and Reassembling Our Stair Railing

I spent a large portion of last week working to gather and reassemble the pieces and parts of our stair railing.  This is a long-running unfinished project, which I began in January 2006 ... almost nine years ago.  

To help you get your bearings with this, I'm going to start with a bunch of older photos that show where things started and bring you up to speed on the work that I did to finish this project last week.  Here are some Before photos, taken with an ancient Epson digital camera, during our first tour of the house before we bought the place in 2002.  Everything looks way better in the photos than it did in person.

View as soon as you come in the front door, looking upstairs from the foyer.  (July 2002)

Basement door.  (July 2002)

Side view, showing the plain square balusters, curvy stair trim and paneling with moldings.  (July 2002)

Upstairs landing.  (July 2002)

This photo gives you a good view of the staircase as it winds around the center of the the original 1848 portion of the house.  There is a small set of three steps not shown, behind this view leading to the addition.


All of the woodwork in this house, except the handrail and newel posts on the staircase, are made from heart pine and it has always been painted.  Previous owners added more paint, lots more paint ... most of which was applied hastily and without adequate cleaning or preparation.  A lot of my renovation effort in the early years was spent with a heat gun in one hand, and a scraping tool in the other, as I worked to remove the paint and reveal the original contours of the moldings.

Stripping paint, carefully removing moldings as I worked, with a large pile of paint curls swept into a pile.  (January 2006)

Slow and steady progress.  (January 2006)

Box of parts ... panel moldings, curvy stair trim, and stair tread return moldings.  (January 1006)

Before and After view of moldings that I removed from the stair paneling, stripped, scraped, and lightly sanded.  (February 2006)

I used drywall knives to protect the original finish on the newel posts from the heat gun and scraping.  You can tell that this was a long time ago ... Look at my cell phone there on the step.  (February 2006)

Only two little bits of trim and some risers left to strip at this point.  (April 2006)

View from the other direction.  You can see that I had stripped the front door, trim, transom, and sidelights already.  (April 2006)

In 2007, I removed half of the balusters from the staircase to make it easier for the floor refinishers to work on the stairs ... and to gain better access to the remaining balusters so I could strip and sand them.  I had to be very careful as I worked, because it was important to me to preserve the original finish on the handrail.

Balusters removed, and half of the ones in this photo are stripped of paint.  (April 2006)

See how I had stripped the lower portion of the balusters, and the upper part (where I had to be so careful next to the handrail) wasn't stripped yet.  (April 2006)

The balusters that I removed were stripped, sanded, and added to the box of parts.  (April 2006)

This is what was underneath the handrail ... sloppy paint from previous paint jobs in three colors:  beige, green, and white.  Grrrrr.  (photo from April 2006)  I carefully scraped off as much of the paint as I could, then touched up the wood using various colors of brown acrylic craft paint to make the damage disappear.

Risers on this upper run of stairs are stripped and sanded, balusters are removed for safe keeping, ready to have the treads refinished.  (February 2007)

As I disassembled things, I marveled at the craftsmanship!  Each baluster was held into the stair tread with a half dovetail joint, no fasteners or glue ...

... and was attached to the handrail at the top with two tiny square cut nails.  These two nails broke off during removal, and the part you see is what I removed from the baluster.

This is an in-process photo of the floor refinishing, and it shows that the paneling on the stairs was sanded and primed.  (February 2007)

Finished floors, and a front view of the staircase as it was at the time.  (March 2007)

Risers are painted, and the skirt board is primed and ready for finish paint.  (May 2007)

Even though the staircase was still mostly disassembled, the messiest of the work was finished and we ordered and installed the new carpet runner ... Karastan's 'Samovar' pattern. This is how the sample piece looked on the stairs.  (May 2007)

This brings us up to the present, when I picked this project back up last week.  My goal was to finish and reassemble the railing itself ... the paneling and other parts of the staircase will wait for another time.

In the basement, I taped off the dovetails on the loose balusters and laid them out to be primed and painted.  Notice how each of them is a different length, having been custom fit into place when the stairs were constructed.  Thank goodness I had the presence of mind to number them when I took them out.

Primed and painted!

The stair tread return moldings had globs of varnish drips underneath of them from a sloppy refinisher.  I scraped this off ... you can see Before and After improvement.  Notice that I was careful to leave the original square cut nails in place.

Stair returns ... all ready to be reinstalled.

On the staircase itself, I carefully taped off the balusters, top and bottom.

This shows the balusters on the center landing, at the halfway portion of priming that section.

One coat of primer, two coats of finish paint ... Farrow and Ball's 'Wimborne White'.

It was a challenge to paint in such close quarters and to make sure that I didn't accidentally leave a drip or a run that would spoil the finished product.

Dorothy and Alice were usually around to inspect my handiwork.

Dorothy, again, on a different day.

It took DAYS to get all of the balusters primed and painted, and the return moldings scraped and repaired.  I was so happy to finally get started putting the pieces back into place!

Ready to put the missing baluster back into place.

Balusters slip right in, without any fasteners or glue.  This photo also shows a pencil notation (that I can't make out) that was made by someone during the staircase's original construction.

I realigned the nails into their original holes, and carefully tapped the stair tread returns back into place.

I'm not going to try to disguise or fill the original nail holes on the returns ... they are what they are.

All that was left to do was to break out my compressor and brad nailer and to pin the tops of the balusters in place underneath the handrail.  See the rug by the basement stairs (at the top left of the photo)?  It's the original carpet sample from the stair runner ... perfect size for that spot.

Winnie and Ruby stuck close by one another while I was using the nailer.

That's it ... all finished (with this part of the stairs, at least)  

A pretty picture of the final result.  From this angle, the stairs almost look finished.

There's still lots to do (curvy stair molding and the paneling and painting) ... but I will wait till after the first of the year to get back to it.

You may be asking, why did it take almost a whole week to do what seems like a minor portion of this project?  Painting and reassembling a handrail is only a good afternoon's worth of work, right?  Not!  I'm very deliberate when I work, and I insist that I do my very best, which slows things down.  Every bit of paint is applied precisely, with nothing slopped where it shouldn't be and no runs or drips.  I wish I had counted how many times I went up and down the stairs, round and round each baluster, as I carefully applied the paint and feathered out the edges while I worked, one coat of primer or paint per day, lightly sanding between coats.  (There's also the matter of daily household stuff that still needs to be done, more on some days than others.)

Folks tell me from time to time that I should have my own TV show, demonstrating old house renovation.  Based on how careful I am when I work, and the quality of the finished product that I demand of myself, and how long it can take me to achieve this, I can't imagine anyone but me being interested in watching that ... you figure, I just condensed nine elapsed years into one blog post.  (Having watched the Rehab Addict slop paint onto dirty siding on the back porch of her Dollar House, I realize that quality work isn't necessarily a requirement for having one's own home improvement show.)

Now that our stair railing all finished, it's time for me to break out the decorations and add some Christmas to this place ... gonna do that while I watch football this afternoon.

Happy Sunday, Everyone!

P.S.  Click HERE if you want to see an overall tour of our entire foyer, from a blog post in 2010.

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