Remodeling the Kitchen

The Things We Keep

I love rustic Americana. I think fine china and crystal are nice, but they’re not me. They’re fragile and pretty, and I’m not. I’m physically challenged, but I am far from fragile. I am strong in mind and heart from years of living with a life-and-body changing disease, and my beauty is the beauty of a well-seasoned cast iron skillet, not a silver chafing dish.

That said, it’s probably no surprise that some of my favorite pieces that I’ve collected over the years are my red-and-white enamelware coffeepot, cup, small pan and soup pot. I would have more of these pieces if I had more room. The coffeepot was actually our camp coffeepot for many years when we tent-camped. When we finally retired it, I put it up with my other treasures on the top of the cabinets.

While I’m giving away and donating a lot of things I’ve collected over the years, I’m keeping the white-and-red enamelware. It’ll go on some open display shelves made perhaps from barn wood.

When I packed up these things, I noticed something about the big white-and-red soup or stew pot that I’d forgotten. Before it hit the secondhand shop or yard sale where I bought it (I’ve had it so long, I really can’t remember when I bought it or where), someone had tried to make it hold water again by placing a bolt or screw through a hole in the bottom, securing it with a washer and nut on the other side.

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Eventually, the bottom of the pot rusted out in a ring, and then it was no longer functional and couldn’t be repaired. But I wanted it.

Why would anyone want a pot that won’t hold water? Well, I love the look of the white body with the red trim. I love that somebody, maybe many people, most probably women, used this pot. Cooked beans and bacon in this pot. Stew. Cornmeal mush and grits. Turnip and collard greens. I look at that pot, and I imagine the meals that a woman like me produced in it. And I honor her effort and cherish the only remnant of it.

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But the other reason I love this pot is the very fact that it’s been mended. That says to me that somebody was poor enough to need to mend this pot. The owner of the pot couldn’t just buy a new pot. Either she didn’t have the money for a pot, or she lived in such a frontier sort of place that replacement pots weren’t available. So with some ingenuity, the owner of the pot mended it, and the pot continued to be used for some time afterwards. I applaud that kind of mental toughness, grit, determination, the ability to go on in the face of misfortune. What do you do when your one pot is broken? You mend it.

We live in a culture of the disposable. Disposable products come on the market with monotonous regularity. From toilet wands to coffee filters to razors, there’s a disposable option for nearly everything in our world. We create so much waste for the sake of convenience. Many folks, like my oldest friend, Coral Young Hawley, work really hard to rescue, repurpose, reuse, and recycle what others have discarded. (Check out the clothing, jewelry, and other items in Coral’s Etsy shop at https://www.etsy.com/shop/DaughterOfBetty). People like Coral are the spiritual heirs of the owner/mender of my pot. When I display this leaky old pot on my wall, I salute the mindset that mends rather than discards.

 

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Remodeling the Kitchen

In Memoriam: Virginia French

As I pack up the decorative items in my kitchen (I’ve barely started on the contents of the cabinets), I am washing things so that they can be put away clean and taken back out and put back clean. I have time, as I wash, dry, and wrap, to think about what these things mean to me, and in some cases, what they meant to someone else.

One of the things I have to find a new space for after the kitchen remodel is this huge vase/urn/thing that belonged to my mother-in-law.

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When I took this thing down from the top of the cabinet and washed it, I found the tag Virginia had placed on the bottom many years ago. On a piece of white adhesive tape (the kind we used for really big boo-boos when I was a kid), she’d written: “Lee and I bo’t this in Tijuana, Mex. in 1951.”

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Lee was Virginia’s husband and my husband’s father.  Dennis’ dad died when Dennis was seven years old. Lee had gone on a hunting trip, fell asleep at the wheel while driving home after getting his buck, and was killed when his vehicle drifted across oncoming traffic. It was a devastating blow to Dennis, his older sisters, and his mom. I know that Virginia loved her husband very much. She talked about him quite a bit over the years, and I think this vase was a reminder of a time that was very precious to her.  1951 was three years before Dennis was born, and about five years before Virginia was mistakenly diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

This vase was one of the things Virginia brought with her when she moved up to Susanville to be close to us in the early ’90s. She downsized from a double-wide mobile home to a one-bedroom apartment, where space was very limited, and she chose to bring this huge vase with her. One handle of the vase has been broken and mended (more skillfully than I did with my Blue Willow plate).  It obviously meant a great deal to her.

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When Virginia’s disease progressed to the point where she could no longer live alone, she moved into the convalescent facility in Susanville and lived there for ten years before she passed away. The vase (and a lot of other things) came to our house when Virginia moved out of the apartment and into the nursing home.  She put these adhesive tape tags on many of the things she passed on to us, so that we would know their significance.  I really appreciate that now and have begun to do the same thing for my kids.

Virginia and I didn’t get along well.  I was never good enough for her baby boy, and she let me know it.  I always tried to be respectful to her, but I often didn’t like her much. I appreciated her better qualities, though.  She had guts, a good sense of humor, and faith.  I think at times I resented her for still being alive when my mother was gone.  But after she passed away, I missed her more than I thought I would.

I think this vase is ugly. I don’t really like it. But it was important to my mother-in-law, and out of respect for her, I can’t discard it. Maybe my kids will be able to get rid of it when I am gone. They are far enough removed, emotionally, to not be particularly moved by it. But I am. I look at that vase, and at that faded tag written in Virginia’s distinctive script, and I think about the father-in-law I never met, the family that he left behind, the struggles they all went through with his loss, and the courage that Virginia possessed to raise a little boy on her own while battling a disease that slowly sapped her ability to move.

I’ll find a place for that vase somewhere. It’s what my mother-in-law’s memory deserves.

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Remodeling the Kitchen

The Blue Willow Plate

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When I was a little girl, my mother had me read Blue Willow, by Doris Gates, published in 1940. It’s a story about a little girl, Janey, whose father becomes a migrant worker in the San Joaquin Valley in California, in the 1930s. Janey’s prized possession is a Blue Willow plate that is both a family heirloom and a symbol of the permanent home she longs for.

When my daughter, Amy, was three or four years old, I found a Blue Willow patterned plate in a yard sale. I gleefully bought it, put a plate hanger on it, and hung it on my kitchen wall. I loved that plate and the memories of talking about the story with my mother that it evoked, and it served as a vehicle for introducing the story to Amy when it was her turn to read Blue Willow.

It was Amy’s job to dust the kitchen, and one day, when she was dusting the stuff hanging on the walls, my Blue Willow plate came crashing down. I heard it from the living room and came rushing in to see what had broken. My heart sank when I saw what was lying on the floor in pieces. My little girl held the dust cloth in her hand, a frightened look on her face.

I was angry. I treasured that plate, and I thought Amy had been careless because she didn’t like dusting. (She hated dusting, and I did too, when I was her age.) I don’t remember what I said to her, but I remember that it stung. I could see it in her face. I remember that she said she had been careful, but the plate had just fallen. I could tell that she felt really bad about the plate; it was written all over her. I picked up the plate and looked at the hanger. The nail it had been hanging on had pulled out of the wall. The same thing would have happened to me, if I’d been the one dusting the plate.

I gave Amy a big hug and told her that she was more important to me than the plate was, so much more important that she could not even imagine it. Feelings assuaged, Amy continued to dust the kitchen, and I picked up the pieces of the Blue Willow plate.

I almost threw the plate away. It was badly broken, and even if I glued it back together, the breaks would show. But then I thought that maybe I needed to mend the plate to remind me of a very important lesson: Never let things become more important than my kids or their feelings.

So I glued the Blue Willow plate back together as best I could, and I hung it back on the wall with a longer, stronger nail.

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When we remodeled the kitchen when Amy was about twelve, I ended up putting the plate in the space on top of the cabinets with some other blue treasures. (That is Amy’s 3rd grade painting of a clown on the wall.  Those of you who know me from UNR days might remember it hanging in our graduate teaching assistant office.)

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A few days ago, I started taking down, washing up, and packing up my cabinet top treasures in preparation for another kitchen renovation. The first thing I took down was the Blue Willow plate. Still broken and badly mended. Still beautiful to me.

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I wrapped the plate carefully and put it in the “save” box to put back up after the impending kitchen remodel is done. The lessons embedded in that plate are too valuable to lose. I hope that one day Amy will treasure it in her kitchen as much as I have always done.

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Remodeling the Kitchen

Remodeling the Kitchen

For somebody who uses her kitchen like I do, a remodel is both scary and exciting. It’s scary because I am going to be without a kitchen for months, potentially.  It’s exciting because I am getting what I have needed so badly since I started canning and preserving again:  more counter space.

Today, I started the process of packing up the kitchen in preparation for the demo.  I began by taking down, cleaning, sorting, and putting away my rustic treasures that I am saving to display in the new kitchen.  It took all afternoon to do one side of the kitchen!  And I haven’t even begun the process of emptying out the cabinets yet.  Yeah, it’s going to be scary and exciting both.

Because I won’t have a working kitchen for quite some time, I’ve already put some thought into how I’ll be cooking in the next couple of months.  I will probably have Dennis put up the propane camp stove on the dining table I need to refinish, so I can fry and saute.  I’ll have my crock pot for one pot meals.  What I will not have is an oven, unless I use the really crappy one in the travel trailer, and as cold as it is, I probably won’t.  And I will have to wash any utensils or pans in the hall bathroom, in a pan of water on the counter.  Like camping.  Fun.  Not.

So here’s the deal.  I’m going to chronicle the process here, for myself and for friends, of remodeling a kitchen.  We’ll be doing a lot of the work ourselves, so our mistakes (and I’m sure we will make some) might be instructive for somebody else attempting to renovate on a shoestring budget.  I’ll also be posting some recipes I’ve been either hanging on to, for one reason or another, or working on, so even if I can’t bake/cook them myself for the next couple of months, you can try them.

One reason I expect the reno to take so long is that it is going to take us some time to demo.  You know those shows where they take sledgehammers to old cabinets and clear out everything in a day?  Well, that’s not us.  Some of these knotty pine cabinets are still in good shape, and those will go in the pump houses, shed, and barn for storage.  (And maybe some might go in my guest cabin one day if I ever get to build it.) So the cabinets are going to be taken down carefully, not smashed to smithereens.  The counter top will be reused also.  I want to use a section of it in the laundry room to create a folding counter, and some of it might go in the cabin eventually.  We will be putting the sink, stove, and dishwasher back in.  I’d love to be able to replace the stove and dishwasher so they match the fridge and sink, but I don’t have the money to do that all in one whack.  We’ll make them match as they wear out and need to be replaced.  And once all the cabinets and fixtures are out, we have to peel off the green, checkerboard linoleum and put down unstained red oak hardwood, to match what is in the living room.  Yeah, it’s going to be a while before I’m cooking in that kitchen again.

To start the journey, here are some photos of the kitchen as it was today before I started taking down my treasures.

From the living room, looking down the 21′ length of the kitchen.

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From the table in the corner (which will be replaced by banquette benches and my other, expandable table that belonged to my mother-in-law), the only side of the kitchen that currently has counter tops.  Not enough!

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The big pantry cabinets, which are coming out, on the other side of the kitchen.  When these pantries were put in nearly 20 years ago, I needed them.  But now I have pantry storage in my laundry room, and I need counter space/work space more than I need pantries.  The new cabinets, uppers and lowers, will extend to about where the little telephone table is sitting.  Counter space!

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This photo shows the section of wall that is coming out to open the kitchen up a bit more to the living room.  The last time we remodeled, almost 20 years ago, we widened what was originally a door-width opening (the kitchen actually had an interior door on it at one time, before we bought the house).  Now we will widen that opening a bit more, about 3 1/2 feet, and the upper cabinet run will end on the section of wall that’s left.  No more corner cabinet.  The quartz counter top will butt up against a redwood burl slab, so that opening will function as a pass-through with a redwood bar top.  It will be live edge, so it will round the end of where the wall is now, extend out into the living/dining room space, and as my son says, “die back into the wall.”  It’s gonna be cool, people!  I have to pick the slab.  I’ve got several to choose from, so I should be able to find one that will work.

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This is a view of the section of wall that will be coming out.  The knotty cedar paneling in the living room will be carefully cut out (don’t want to lose any of that stuff!) and the opening will be supported and cased.  The burl bar top will come through the space where the wall is now and extend out a little way into the dining space.  That table you can just see, covered with a hand-crocheted lace tablecloth (made by my husband’s grandmother) expands from a console table size (40″ x 24″) to become large enough, with a fold-out and pull-out function and three leaves, to seat 12 people.  That table will go in the kitchen in the corner, for family dinners, and we will use another of Dennis’ burl slabs in the dining area to the right of the wall here to create a live edge dining table.

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So there it is, the old kitchen, and an idea of the new kitchen.  Our friend, Leonard Castro, put this kitchen in for us nearly 20 years ago.  It has served me well, and a lot of food has come out of this room, but it is time to make it easier for me to cook, can, and clean.  I’m excited, and scared because it’s going to be such a big job, but I never let being scared stop me from doing something I really want to do.  So, here we go!

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