Thursday, July 18, 2013

Time's Passage

My hand-painted rocking chair
My sister and her family came to visit yesterday, so I spent the morning cleaning the house. It's sad, since it was really clean over the weekend when my parents were here, how fast it deteriorates! I had an extra teenager yesterday and the day before, though, because my son had a friend over to stay.
Once everything was tidy I got to work on our living room. This room is really tiny, and it hosted our Christmas tree for the first couple months we lived here, so it hasn't really been completely decorated yet. Right now I have our piano in there, along with my grandmother's writing desk and my other grandmother's sewing machine. These pretty much fill the room, but people need somewhere to sit, so I added my hand-painted rocking chair.
My grandmother's writing desk
All of the furniture I show here has been finished or re-finished by me, me and my dad, or my grandmother, so I thought I'd write a little about finishing furniture. The writing desk was originally a dark mahogany vanity, which my grandmother refinished in the 1960s with an "antiquing" kit to its present cream with gold accents. This was my father's mother, and she was an incredible homemaker. I wish I'd inherited more of her personality. She had this writing desk positioned right next to her front door and every day when the mail arrived she would get it and sit right down and write any replies needed, pay any bills, etc. She had a little wire rack with the days of the month printed on it and she would place each letter in the proper slot dated with the day that piece should be mailed out. Somehow, she was able to make the most mundane household chore look attractive in her front room! When I try to sort mail and leave it out for Jerry to view it always turns into a big messy pile. Things get lost, and I feel I'm drowning in paper. Grandma was just a natural organizer and decorator and her house always ran smoothly and beautifully. It was one of my favorite places in the world.

My grandmother's sewing machine

My other grandmother was not such a fantastic housekeeper. She had six children and far preferred reading to cleaning. This treadle sewing machine was her actual working machine, which she used until about the 1970s. My grandfather had electrified it by attaching a motor to the belts. It couldn't backstitch, though, so my mother used to have to sit next to Grandma and tie the knots at the end of the seams. When Grandma stopped using the machine she just left it down in the basement where her four youngest boys were allowed to play with it and mess it all up. She gave it to me when I was in college and all the little ornate pieces were broken off. My dad and I spent months gluing the trim all back on, refinishing the wood, and polishing the metal parts with oil to refurbish them. Grandma hated old things and antiques, probably because so many of the household items she had to use were antiques! She couldn't believe I wanted this machine and neither she or my grandfather could believe how nice it looked as a side table when they saw it in my house.

I learned how to refinish furniture working on that sewing machine, and it has served me very well in my married life. We hardly have any new furniture pieces. Almost everything in our house was handed down to us or purchased very cheaply or even fished out of the trash!  Something we do quite often if we want a "new" piece is shop unfinished furniture stores. When I was pregnant with our oldest I guess I was "nesting" as they say, quite severely. I became obsessed with the idea that I must own an Ohio-style rocking chair to rock the baby. I think these style chairs are called "Hamilton" chairs, but I can't remember for sure. They were very popular and numerous in Ohio, but you rarely see them here. A man who came to our house to assess the cost to move our furniture collects antique furniture and he because very excited when he saw my chair because he thought it was a real Hamilton chair. He grew up in the N.C. mountains, so I guess the chairs must have been available here to some extent in the past.

My hand-painted rocker

At any rate, I was rocked as a baby in a Hamilton chair to  James Taylor's "Sweet Baby James" and I owned a tiny child version, which I've passed down to my children, and I absolutely could not give birth until I had a Hamilton rocker in my baby's room! Looking back now, I wonder at it. This was just after Jerry's accident, so he still had his arms in stabilizers and casts and I had to do a lot of things for him. Then as well I was working full-time and freelancing at night. It was summer, so it was about a thousand degrees (that summer was the hottest or second-hottest on record for North Carolina to this day; a great time to be pregnant!) and to top it all off I decided the finish had to be authentic, so I used oil stain! I will say, oil stain lasts better than any other. It's much less likely to get sticky in our humid weather and it doesn't need refinishing every 5- 10 years like some of our other pieces.

The process I used was to buy the darkest wood stain I could find. Since I finished this chair new tintable stains have come on the market, so if I were doing the chair now I could get ebony stain, but at that time the best I could do was walnut. I stained the chair according to the manufacturer's instructions. Then I got Treasure Gold wax, which comes in a little pot located in the wood stain aisle at Michael's, and mixed it with regular artists' oil paints and Daniel Smith interference oil paints and rubbed in into the carved parts with Q-Tips. You rub it on and wipe it off with a rag gently until you have the look you want. Then I hand-painted butterflies and flowers and stuff on the chair rails. I wanted a look like modern rosemaling, and I think it worked. We've enjoyed this chair for years, for rocking babies and just for sitting on.

This room does need a little more seating, though. I would like to find a petite settee or something. Yesterday I hung up the kids' photos. I think they're a bit high, but I know if I lower them to the optimal location someone will smack that chair into them and knock them down. We had the photos taken just last year and I can't believe how much younger the children look. They've grown so much in just a year! It really makes you see how fast time passes!

It made me think, the end of summer is fast approaching. Soon it will be October again, and a whole year will have passed since my life changed so drastically. Then it will be hunting season again, and the time for camp fires and bonfires. So, I thought I would share a recipe my grandmother gave me:

Norske Pinnebrød
(Norwegian Campfire Bread)

2 1/4 cups flour
2 teaspoons salt 
2 teaspoons baking powder 
1 cup water 

Blend together all dry ingredients and then add the water. Knead the dough. Use enough flour to keep it from being sticky. Roll the dough into pieces the shape and size of a hot dog and attach it to your stick (a tree twig or grilling stake works fine). Grill it over a campfire. The bread is finished when it turns light brown and the dough can easily be pulled from the stick. Eat the bread with a hot dog, or just butter and a favorite topping.
The great thing about this recipe for camping is, you can just mix the dry ingredients in a container and take them with you and add water at the camp site. You could even just take self-rising flour and maybe a little extra salt for flavor and use that instead! This would be great with hot dogs, or with fresh game or fish.
Scandinavian cuisine is very much centered on cooking and eating out-of-doors. I think this is because the culture is historically so involved in hunting and fishing and traveling. Also, the good summer months are so rare people feel they must take advantage of every temperate day. The juniper berries I wrote about in my last are particularly used to flavor game, such as venison. I would say the flavor is a mixture of wintergreen and blueberries, both sweet and spicy. They are perfect for sauerbrauten and roast venison or game birds. We never had them at my grandparents' house, though. For one thing, my grandfather was pretty clumsy as well as blind in one eye, so fishing was his only hunting-type activity, and for another my grandmother was deathly allergic to gin, which is flavored with juniper!
My mother would sometimes cook sauerbrauten at our house, though, and it was a huge event when she did. She got her recipe from her German friend, Ing, and it involved the meat soaking in seasoning for days and sitting out for a while, and then it was served with labor-intensive potato dumplings. I love sauerbrauten, though,and haven't tasted it for years. I think it would be fabulous made with venison. In Germany it's traditionally made with horse meat, but I love horses too well to do that! As a very small girl I used to have to go with my grandmother to Mrs. Allen's house to pick up a rabbit for supper. Mrs. Allen would choose one and kill it and Grandma would take it home and cook it and then I would have to eat the poor, sweet rabbit! At least we knew where our food came from, though, and we knew Mrs. Allen took good care of her rabbits so they were happy until they died.
Thinking of  pinnebrød makes me think of a sad story I heard last month when we went home to Ohio. When I was growing up we got to go stay in Michigan every summer, and many years we were able to stay at my Aunt Trudy and Uncle Bob's cabin. The "cabin" was a huge Michigan-style summer house, all made of wood with paneled rooms and round rock fireplaces. Sand would fall down from the ceiling when people were walking around upstairs. The upper floor had a balcony all along one side that looked out on Lake Michigan, and every bedroom had a glass door that opened onto the balcony. There was a boat house and a long staircase down to the beach. Now they renovated and insulated the cabin as a year-round home and took the balcony off.
My aunt and uncle (actually my great-aunt and great-uncle) would let everyone in the family have a turn to stay, no small undertaking with our giant family. Usually we would stay two or three families at a time, so my cousins would all be there. We would have a bonfire on the beach at least two or three times while we were there, and we would be told to go find a nice branch in the woods. Then we would have to whittle our own grilling stake to cook hotdogs and smores and pinnebrød and such.
I have such happy memories of that house, and so I was terribly saddened to hear it has to be sold now in order to pay for my aunt and uncle to go to a home. My aunt has senility and my uncle fell on the ice and damaged his brain. They had been able to live in the cabin with home care, but now they are too far gone for even that. The land, since it's a huge lot on Lake Michigan, has gone up in value so much that, even though the whole thing cost my aunt and uncle $30,000 to build, it's now worth almost a million dollars. We talked about trying to scrape up enough money to buy it all together, with the entire family, but even if we could, the taxes are so high we couldn't afford them. It wouldn't be fair to those of us who are so far from Michigan, either, since we'd be able to go so much less. But it really is heart-breaking to lose a home so fondly remembered by three generations of our family.
The stairs from the cabin to the beach

Lake Michigan, as seen from the cabin
The most awful part of the whole thing, though, is to see my aunt and uncle, who were so very brilliant, in their current state. My uncle was the head of the nuclear physics department at the University of Michigan for many years. He helped set up Switzerland's nuclear program in the 1950s and was very musical. He played fiddle or banjo or something in a band, but that was back before I was born. My aunt was very funny and musical and athletic and extremely smart. She was wonderful with animals, and one of the best things about staying in the cabin was that she'd tamed all the wild animals to eat from your hand, so it was like stepping into a Snow White movie. When you'd go outside squirrels and birds and chipmunks would come and sit on your lap and beg for food. Not surprisingly, one of their daughters became a veterinarian. I'm so happy we were able to take the children over to see them summer before last. They could both still carry on a conversation, though Uncle Bob knew he wasn't quite with it and that made him angry. The beach was overrun with weeds, which made me and my mother sad. They always kept a rock beach in better days. The children enjoyed seeing them, though, and playing and swimming on the beach, so I felt I was able to share a small piece of my childhood. My aunt was still lucid enough to look through a book of native wildflowers with me and try to identify the ones growing in the yard.
A 1950s Cissette dress in need of repair.
Now that our rush of visitors is over I am going to try to get back to work. I have another Cissette trunk set to finish, and I have a tagged dress for this one. It needs cleaning and some future fashion designer embellished it with non-factory star sequins and beads. I will have to remove those and see what I can do with the needle holes left behind.
Speaking of time's passage, Jerry and I have been married 16 years this week. That just blows my mind! I was hoping to make enough money to pay for a nice trip or something, but I didn't quite make it, so I think we will settle for a fancy dinner out!

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