Life as I know It

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San Luis Obispo, California, and South Bristol, Maine, United States
Author ~ Illustrator ~ Lecturer

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Key to the Light Keeper's Cottage is Under the Mat

At the tip of a long finger of windswept coastline sits the Piedras Blancas Light Station. Off the tip of the point is a large white rock, for which the lighthouse is named. 

Have you ever realized just as a week is ending that it has been perfect? That's how this past week has been for me. The sun shone, the garden called me into it each morning, and I had a chance to revisit a life I lived joyfully many years ago.

The old lighthouse is now open for tours.

Work was good. I finished 24 pages of my bird book for children and sent them to my editor, revised my novel manuscript, and I got a chance to take a day off with Jeff to explore the coast above Cambria. My one wish was to drive up to the Piedras Blancas Light Station, where my faithful white shepherd dog Una and I once lived.

Una was always so excited to arrive at the lighthouse's locked gate. She sat behind me in my VW Cabrio convertible, howling and jumping (that is a big deal for a 100 pound dog) until we entered the gate and locked it behind us. Then it was the "BIG RACE." We zoomed down the long, dirt road, clouds of dust behind us, and Una raced me to our cottage. Soon she learned that by cutting across a big patch of ground she could make it to the cottage ahead of me. I swear that dog smiled as she waited, tongue hanging out and tail wagging.

Entwined in my earliest memories is a deep passion for lighthouses. Years ago we were visiting family in San Diego and took a trip to the Old Point Loma lighthouse. I'd dreamed of lighthouses, seen them in movies, but never thought I'd get to go inside one.

I think that the way I live and the way I've always furnished my homes grew from the Sara Orne Jewett and Celia Thaxter books, which I cherished in my teens, and from that first visit to a lighthouse. 

This is a tiny, hidden lighthouse on a private island off the East Coast.

I remember how my heart beat (like it did on Christmas Eve at my grandparents' house) as we entered the doorway to the little white washed 1855 lightkeeper's cottage. I was at home. Bright sunlight broke through the fog and shone on the shining floors, the brass lamps, and an old sea chest at the foot of a quilt covered antique bed. A narrow staircase, spiraled like a whelk shell, curled up the tower. The rooms felt simple, spare, yet filled with life. The brilliant indigo sea and the azure sky glimmered through the small paned windows. It felt like a sky island, a sea island, an island of peace.

I never deliberately tried to imitate the feel of a lightkeeper's cottage, but on that day, the images and the sensations of that place seemed to seep into my bones. 

During the early 1980s, my friend Bob, who was a marine biologist living in one of the lightkeeper's homes at Piedras Blancas, asked me if I minded house sitting when he traveled. "You'll be all alone there because the other families are away." I was overjoyed.

Una and I felt jittery at first. But soon we became used to the many voices of the sea and wind, and the constant flash of the lens. Late at night, we walked the cliffs above the lee side of the point where the fishing boats sometimes gathered. And east of us, high atop the "Enchanted Hill" in the Santa Lucia Mountains, sat Hearst Castle. It would be more accurate to say that the castle looked like it sailed across, rather than sat atop, the hill. It reminded me of a glittering blown glass schooner.

On our days off from my Heart's Ease Herb Shop, Una and I explored the cliffs and the shoreline. We found shells, moonstones, and bits of jade. Offshore we watched dolphins, whales, sharks, and endless black clouds of sooty shearwaters skeining above the sea. Those days and nights with my Una were magical times for me. I can still see her smiling her victorious grin.

I know you can't go back and I don't want to. I love that somehow Jeff and I have kindled a similar dream and kept our shared passion for the sea alive in our little Maine cottage. In there, we have shiny, sunlit wooden floors, old sailor's chests, handmade quilts at the foot of our bed, and in every room, small paned windows that frame the many colors and moods of the sea.

Pemaquid Lighthouse

 And best of all? Late on foggy or cloudy nights, as we curl up in bed, the flash of the Pemaquid Light plays off the clouds and shines into our room. Maine, our sky island, our sea island, our island of peace.

Love to you all.


*PLEASE JOIN ME & LISTEN to Heritage Radio Network "We Dig Plants" interview on January 30, 2011. Carmen and Alice ask about the sense of wonder, my gardens, Comfort Found in Maine, our old Maine cottage, family, and more. A fun interview! Please leave a comment. They've developed a GREAT program for gardeners and cooks.
* THE WINNER OF THE GIVEAWAY is Kay Niehaus of Kay's Flowers. Hurrah Kay. Please send me your mailing address and I'll get the Taber and Bellamy books in the mail tomorrow.
* VISIT me for gardening tips at my blog on Lowe's Creative Ideas.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Won't You Join Us for a Kitchen Visit?

The sunlight shimmers through the Lemon Verbena Lady's gorgeous herbal jellies. An unexpected gift we received this week.

BEFORE-Not our style, though the tile is great. The old plastic cupboards were falling apart. I don't want to see microwaves, etc. out in the open. I love open shelves, not closed shelving.

AFTER-Open shelving, an overhead vent (instead of through the floor), antique lighting, old sink, and our beloved stove, Abigail, named for my plump Grandmother Lovejoy.

BEFORE-A small sink complete with a garbage disposal, which we NEVER use. We believe that kitchen garbage is worth its weight in gold. It all goes into a bucket under our sink and is dumped into the worm bin daily. We donated all the cupboards to Habitat for Humanity's ReStore, all the tiles were set into the stonework of our new outdoor dining room. No waste!

Nope, no garbage disposal.

The worm bucket.

The old kitchen had very little storage. With slide out drawers and the use of a lazy susan, we were able to double the capacity.

BEFORE-A wall that took more turns than a country road. An oven installed next to the refrigerator, which was, perhaps, the noisiest fridge in the world. It conked out on us. To the left is the laundry area and far left, the one and only pantry.

AFTER-Slide out shelving in the pantry.

AFTER-I actually have a place to store things. I really only keep what I use; other things that aren't often used were donated to Hospice.

AFTER-ugh, I can't stand to see appliances. These cupboards are all fitted with electric plugs so everything can be plugged in and used in place.

AFTER-What was once a crooked wall is now all the same depth, the cupboards are simple, and there is room at the top of the cupboards (thank you, Jeff) for some of my big wooden bowls. Did I want a stainless steel refrigerator. NO WAY, but this Liebherr is the greenest one imaginable. Even the way they are manufactured is considered the greenest in the industry. Very low watt usage. Good food storage, but I wish I had an old one, or maybe the Northstar that looks old.

AFTER-I now have two drawers for storing my Grandmother's iron skillets, dutch ovens, and cornbread molds.

BEFORE-Storage in the protruding wall, a dropped ceiling with can lights.

AFTER-Protruding storage removed, bookcases installed (great windowsills for plants here), and floor patched and repaired. Antique cupboard for kitchen linens, and just because I love it.

BEFORE-Floor vented cook top, tile counters, no storage under stove because of vents.

AFTER-Make way for Abigail! Maple countertops with breadboard ends, and I love the little cutting board niche that Jeff designed.

AFTER-Two Fisher-Paykel dishwashers are under the sink apron. One on each side. The light above the sink is from Maine.

AFTER-Almost finished. I love the repaired and refinished wooden floors, the warm and welcoming work-family table in the center, and my old miner's coat rack from Pennsylvania, which holds my copper pots and pans.

And my favorite thing in the kitchen? These two recipes for "Heavenly Pie" hand written by my two beloved grandmothers. See Grandma's pie crimper?

Forgive me for posting such a long entry, but I am answering dozens of questions that we've been asked these past few months. Now you can see what we've been up to. We hired a cabinet maker to do the fine work on the cabinets, but when it came to elbow grease and willing learners, well it was us. We're so happy to have it within a feather of being finished.

Sending love and thanks to all of you who have written and who have sent notes about the Country Gardens article in the early spring issue. 

Followers, this is your last week to sign in for the give-away, which will happen next Saturday.

Love to all of you. Now dig in and start working on your dream kitchen. The elbow grease really makes it affordable, as does shopping in salvage yards, the ReStore, and antique shops. Such an adventure.


Now a word from Jeff

Let me explain why it has taken so long to complete our kitchen. If we ordered new appliances and fixtures, we could have finished in less than a calendar year. You have to remember that we spend at least five months a year in Maine, so our California year is only seven months less any traveling we have to do.
When we bought this house, we knew we needed to remodel the 1980’s kitchen and return it to its original 1930’s time period. We’re willing to wait until we find what we want.
What we wanted in our “new” kitchen was a farm sink with high back splash, open shelving, lots of pantry space, a niche for our huge antique wooden bowls, bookcases for cookbooks, room for an old farm table in the center of the kitchen, and an old stove. 

First we had to find an old stove and a sink, the heatbeat of our kitchen. In the meantime, the dated appliances that came in the house started to poop out one by one–first the dishwasher, then the cook top (we were down to one burner that worked). The refrigerator, whose only saving grace was that it was so loud you couldn’t hear traffic outside, conked out too. I’m sure being installed next to the built-in oven (yes, a refrig next to an oven) accelerated its demise. Every time we used the oven the refrigerator compressor was called into action.
We found a double drainboard farm sink at Ohmega Salvage in Berkeley. It arrived in the salvage yard the afternoon we were leaving the San Francisco Food Show. So, we detoured to Berkeley to look at it and decided to buy and store it until we were ready for installation. The monster sink took up most of our small garage. We located a man who resurfaces old bathtubs and sinks, and he spent a couple of days restoring the finish. He didn’t do a good job and right now I am learning how to refinish it myself.
When the cook top retired, we were luckily enough to find a 1950, six burner O’Keefe and Merritt with double ovens and broilers in a Paso Robles antique shop, only 35 miles away. The 42 inch wide stove got stuck half way through the doorway. I had to get out my trusty Sawsall and cut a four inch section out of an interior wall so I could move the oven into the house.
Once we had the pieces assembled, we demolished the inside of the kitchen and started the remodel. We filled voids in the floor before we had it refinished and I patched the walls and ceiling where I removed laundry and storage closets and a dropped soffit in the corner.
I designed the cabinets to hide countertop appliances (Sharon can’t stand to see these modern conveniences) and to have adjustable shelving to suit our needs for in-cabinet workspaces for the Kitchen Aid, Cuisinart, and Vita Mix. Form follows function without compromising aesthetics.
This year we found the hanging light at Let There Be Light in Stillwater, Wisconsin, and installed it. Once we determined the lighting pattern, we decided on the location for a wall hung light Sharon bought over a year ago at Trifles Antiques in Bath, Maine. Then, I pulled out the canned lights, removed the speakers in the ceiling, and patched everything with drywall and mud. A few finishing touches and it should be complete...complete? Sharon will find more chores for me, I’m sure. And I love doing this creative work.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Aromas from a Well-Loved Kitchen

The little garden is only steps away from the kitchen. I can walk outside and pick edible flowers (like the guavas and nasturtiums), herbs, lettuce, and fruits. I feel wealthy when I harvest these things.

Parsley (I love the robust Italian) and lots of thyme are an arm's length from my kitchen door.

This true bay tree is now three feet tall. It was about six inches tall when our dear friends Susie and Ellis Bassetti brought it to us as a housewarming gift. I love her and named her Eudora. She is a key ingredient in Jeff's spaghetti sauces.

Home picked herbs, fresh bread, and a tin full of homegrown peppers, which I've dried for sauces.

Good grief, he looks so SERIOUS. And he was...he read that pasta making book like he was studying for his most important catechism test. (See the hanging light? We found it in Wisconsin and carried it home in pieces when we flew back).

The beginning.

"I love kneading this."

Our floor looked like the snowstorm that hit Maine this week.

Proud as a new father.

A richness of pasta. 

"Could you get more chairs?" I did, and we had pasta drying over the back of them for a day. Now we use an old, trifold quilt rack, which works perfectly.

Well, it does have personality.

Scrape the old marble slab, sweep the floors, scrub the table. Days later and we're still picking up dough and bits of pasta, but we love this kind of mess.

Chicken breasts (sorry all my chicken-raising friends), butter, bread crumbs, parmesan cheese, and my freshly picked parsley.

Salt the water so the pasta has flavor, boil the water, drop it in. It was GREAT. We loved it, and Jeff is making it again for a gathering of friends this weekend. A young friend of ours died unexpectedly in November. We are going to her home to share an Italiano party with her husband. All of us are taking pasta (mostly homemade), different sauces for toppings, and appetizers. We're hoping that the joy of cooking with friends will help his healing begin.

While Jeff does his thing I do mine.  

I'm making lavender dryer bags (instead of those perfumed sheets), and I'm mixing spices for my old iron scent pot. I love to simmer these on the stove on chilly days. (Can you see the quilt rack in the background? Now it is a pasta rack.)

The iron pot can't be used for anything other than spice simmering. The spices have permeated the iron and even when it isn't in use, it scents the kitchen with sweet aromas. 

For all my life, I suffered through kitchens so small that trying to work in them with anyone else was a huge chore. Frustrating.

I loved my tiny kitchen in Cambria (you can see photos of it in the Rizzoli book Country Kitchens by Jocasta Innes) and used it well, but I had always dreamed of an eat-in-kitchen, like the one in my Grandmother's bungalow. I wanted sunlight, a long table in the center, which could stand in for an island, comfy chairs, bookcases, open shelves, simplicity, and room for two to dance through recipes.

After nearly four years of working on our kitchen, we are ALMOST finished. We just recently installed lighting appropriate to the age of our cottage (1930), and we have only a few small tweaks till it is exactly how we want it. Workable, good storage, lots of light, a sweet, old stove, a sink that nearly broke our backs when we installed it, and storage, abundant storage, and open shelves, which I love. If you don't like how it looks...why own it?  We love it and spend most of our time at our table doing our own projects and cooking what we love.

My husband is half Italian. He grew up with a flock of devoted aunts who filled their home with the scents of Italian cooking. His cousin Joyce once told him that there was "always a pot of sauce simmering on the stove." I love that image and can almost smell the sauce.

Now Jeff is slipping into the stream of his heritage, cooking and even making his own pasta with the simple Imperia hand crank that I bought him for his birthday. He is so happy and peaceful when he cooks, and so danged methodical. Much more than I could ever be. I riff off of recipes; he follows them like a road map.

I love sitting at the kitchen table while he works. I do my thing; he does his. We play music, catch up on news, and laugh. Isn't laughter one of the best things to come out of a cozy kitchen?

Sending love to you from our cozy, scent filled kitchen,


P.S. I've received over a hundred letters from you faithful readers about the magazine article, which was just released. Yes, our garden has much, much more than what was featured, but they do have space constraints and some things were not in bloom. Nobody wants to look at a mass of gray lavender plants with no flowers! Thanks to all of you for your encouragement. Yes, I am into my bird book, which must be finished by the end of May. Yikes, I'd better get back to work now! Thanks for the visit, come again soon for my book giveaway-Something Old and Something New. A treasured old volume called The Stillmeadow Road by Gladys Taber, and a new book called Sugar Snaps and Strawberries by Andrea Bellamy (Heavy Petal Blog). I reviewed her book for an on-line store and now have a chance to offer it to my followers. Take joy and play!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Through the Windows of a Book

"My books are friends that never fail me."
Thomas Carlyle

These are the books that inspired this posting. They showed up in my Christmas post, and I got letter after letter from book lovers who wanted all the information on them. Then Deborah Jean wrote me and ordered some copies.  We decided to do a co-op post about some of the books we love. Oh heavens, what a can of worms I opened. I love so many books, so many topics, and I've collected them my entire life. And, luckily, I inherited or was gifted some of my favorites from my Grandmother Lovejoy, author Ethel Pochocki, my neighbor and dear friend Kate Pemberton Stearns, Lynn Karlin, Susan Branch, Marilyn Brewer, and so many more. The books are memories, cherished treasures, and a part of my life I could never imagine doing without. The ones I'm featuring now are old, but there are so many new and wonderful books that deserve their own place in the sun. Maybe in the coming months?

This is the book of poetry that Grandmother and I shared.
It is dated 1900.

Some of my earliest memories are of my Grandmother Lovejoy snugged into her favorite, over stuffed chair with her tattered book of Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses spread open on her lap. I sat beside her as she read to me in a soft, sing-song voice, and I followed along, trying to make sense of the magical black marks called an alphabet that brought the books to life.

I can't imagine a home without books. Their presence is a comfort to me and a promise of hours of joyful and peaceful reading, adventures, discoveries, and so much more.

The title says it all.

Ok, I'll admit it-sometimes I fall in love with a cover, and yes, sometimes you can judge a book by its cover.

For example:

Here are some of my favorites, and they're as great inside as they are outside.

I learned about this Edith Wharton book while reading Emelie Tolley's column in the old Victoria magazine. She was right, this is fabulous. Check out what is going on with Emelie now. She is as busy and creative as ever.

A birthday gift from my pal Marilyn.

A gift from Kate, one of my most treasured friends who recently passed away. She wore through some of the pages of this book when she was a child.

Rosebud and Red Flannel, a gift from my dear friend Ethel Pochocki.

A gift from my friend Susan Branch. She found this for me when she and Joe were traveling through England. I love this!

Covers, pages, and sometimes, even the endpapers like the ones below send me into ecstasy.

These are the endpapers drawn by Damariscotta, Maine, artist Jake Day for the book Houseboat Summer by Elizabeth Coatsworth of Nobleboro, Maine. Elizabeth was one of the first authors to win the most important award in children's literature, the Newbery Medal. Elizabeth and her husband Henry Beston (author of The Outermost House-a year on Cape Cod) lived in this houseboat on Damariscotta Lake. I have ALWAYS wanted to live on a houseboat, and this one looks perfect to me.

 This is a portion of a poem from my Grandmother's book of Robert Louis Stevenson poetry. 

Faretheewell for now. Won't you visit a neighborhood bookshop and enrich your life with a book you love? I promise, you'll never regret the time you spend with them.


P.S. We have great antiquarian bookstores in Maine. Why not meander up our coastline and have a bookish adventure?