A Study in Botanicals

People used to tell my Granny that she should be an interior designer because she did such a beautiful job decorating her own home. She would respond, “I only know what pleases my eye.” I like that, so I’ve adopted her modest phrase as my personal decorating slogan. Teal ceilings please my eye. So do solid walls of tile. Bizarre? Probably so.

David and I now live in our fourth home (not counting those many months we spent living in hotels), and each new location has given me the opportunity to tweak my decor. I’ve changed some colors and fabrics with each new place, although our main pieces of furniture have remained unchanged.

Our new home has given me a unique challenge. How do David and I, who have transitional design preferences, live in a house that predates World War I? One answer is symmetry, and it is currently on display in our dining room. I chose to hang 18 classic botanical studies, printed from the 1613 originals, in simple frames but to grand effect.

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I completed this project one day when I needed a break from tiling the guest bathroom. That’s why there’s a gi-normous bag of mortar and stacks of tiles on the other end of the table.

Once I decided that I “needed” a crop of botanical prints, I discovered I could never afford them in a million years. Small framed prints go for $60 each–and those are the cheap ones! It was time for where-there’s-a-will-there’s-a-way Amanda to make good on her reputation.

First I found a book of botanicals with enough prints in the right colors to tear out and frame. Besler’s Book of Flowers and Plants fit the bill at $10. That was the easy part.

The hard part was finding frames at a volume discount. I spent months off-and-on searching the internet and stores for them. Finally Hobby Lobby had a 50%-off sale on wood frames that would work…as long as I was willing to attach the saw hooks myself. This made the project markedly more difficult, as hanging the collages evenly now depended on where I put the nails in the wall and if I centered the saw teeth. But at $3 per frame, I couldn’t say no.

Then it was time for innovation: the frames I had ordered were larger than the prints, and I absolutely could not afford mats. Remembering the buffered tissue paper I’d ordered when I was archiving my family’s memorabilia, I dug out 18 sheets, folded them in half, and laid them between the prints and the frames’ backboards. For $0, I had a unique look that would preserve my project for years. (Buffered tissue paper takes acid out of inks and paper, meaning my prints shouldn’t yellow over time.)

It took about 4 hours to do the whole project, from tearing out the prints to hanging the frames, and spawned a new personal slogan: “Practice, Precision, Patience.” I’m going to need that one in every room of this house.

Fourth-Day Flood (part 3): Tiles and the Tub Man

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Wolf in sheep’s clothing: this beautiful, period-appropriate bath renovation hid water damage behind cheap unpainted beadboard and rust under DIY porcelain reglazing.

Maybe the problem was the wall and ceiling color. Both the guest bathroom and the dining room were painted with a drab, flat crimson paint that clashed with everything else in the house…and looked like dried blood.

I see it now: these rooms were ready to make our bank account bleed.

It took 8 months to finish the dining room repairs, and in that time, we still didn’t have a fix for our bathtub.

The first plumber (that genius who had filled the bathtub and reflooded our dining room just “to see what had happened”) said we had a simple problem with seals between the tub and the plumbing. Later when he came to fix it–and the water continued to flow around the pipes after his repair–he informed me that the plumbing was perfect. Instead, we had a hole all the way through the cast iron tub near the drain.

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I don’t do anything halfway. While the tub was in the middle of the room, I removed the vanity, pulled off all the beadboard and moldings, repaired the walls, and tiled floor-to-ceiling.

How do you repair a cast iron tub? I asked around, and the historical society told me about the Bathtub Man. All he does is restore claw foot tubs. It took several weeks to get him out to our house, and when he arrived, he showed me that there was no hole. The problem was the plumbing, not the tub.

So I hired a new plumber–the one the Bathtub Man recommended–and we began 6 more months of imperfect repair after imperfect repair. The plumber would reattach the feet (3 of which had the strange habit of falling off, leaving only 1 foot and the plumbing supporting the tub) and redo the plumbing connections. All would be well for 1 or 2 guests’ showers, and then the feet would slip and fall off again.

As exasperation gripped everyone involved, I decided to call the Bathtub Man back. Armed with more “symptoms,” he was able to diagnose the problem: 3 of the 4 feet did not fit the tub. They looked as if they fit, but they were actually 1/16th of an inch too small. As a result, the combined weight of the tub, water, and an adult would slowly push the feet out from under the tub, breaking the plumbing seals. He could fix it, but it would require welding nickel onto the iron feet to make them the right shape for the tub. (Sounds like a cheap fix, right? Ugh.)

We had a solution, but we also had a deadline. My sister-in-law and her family were going to move in for 3 weeks while they were between houses. I knew there was no way 4 adults and a child could share our master bath for 3 weeks and continue loving one another!

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I went for a classic look: floor-to-ceiling white subway tile with a Carrara marble accent.

The Bathtub Man scheduled the 2-day repair. First he would come out, flip over the tub, take measurements, and take the feet back to his shop for welding. While the tub was upside down in the middle of the room, I would tile. Everything. Second he would return the following week to attach the feet and flip the tub. Then I would hire the plumber to come back and reconnect everything. Easy-peasy!

Hiccup 1: When the Bathtub Man flipped over the tub, we discovered the bottom was covered in rust. Mostly surface rust, but some more serious. The 2005 family who had flipped our house had clearly found this tub somewhere, picked out a few feet that looked good, painted the bottom with (I kid you not!) white Krylon, and reglazed the inside themselves with some DIY product…without bothering to remove the drain cover first. Rust, rust, everywhere. I was told to clean and paint the bottom with marine-grade Rustoleum, and the Bathtub Man adjusted his timeline to include some spot reglazing (we just couldn’t afford to redo the whole thing).

Hiccup 2: It takes a long time to lay over 2,000 tiles. I gave myself a week, but it took me almost 4 weeks AND the help of David and Melinda thanks to volume, unlevel walls and floor, and missing insulation. It’s done, and it’s beautiful. And waterproof! But I reinjured my right rotator cuff (torn way back when I was a swimmer), and it will be many months before the pain, swelling, and tingling subside.

Hiccup 3: The plumber couldn’t come out for more than a week after the rest of the repairs had finished, so our family still had to share the master bathroom for awhile. But we love each other!

a2a51134d42831112e0b9f76e4fb95ba-uncropped_scaled_within_1536_1152The bathroom is still a work in progress. I’ve installed a standing shower (upgraded for my tall brother-in-law!); but I still need to paint the crown molding, change the lighting and mirror so they are proportionate with the 9-foot ceilings, and replace the ridiculous vanity. (The back of it is dry rotted and literally crumbled as I pulled it away from the wall, and the top is poorly-sealed wood that holds water.)  But that will require hiring an electrician and calling out the plumber again…but I’m not ready to wash more blood-money down that tub’s drain just yet!

Fourth-Day Flood (part 2): Baseboards and Brass

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For 5 days you couldn’t hear yourself think anywhere in our house as the industrial fans dried out the walls and ceiling space. The effected baseboards were removed to be dried and straightened off-site, but we never saw them again.

If you’ve ever dealt with structural damage–be it from water or termites or what-have-you–then you know that fixing the secondary damage is more costly than eliminating the problem. In the days following the flood, we were led to believe that our biggest headache would be the dining room repair, not the bathroom plumbing itself. (This, of course, would prove incorrect.)

As soon as it started raining from our dining room rafters, I was on the phone with our home warranty company (thoughtfully and thankfully provided by the sellers). Unfortunately, the contractors they provided were worse than worthless. The plumber they made us use recreated the flood the next day, and then declared he could not help because “there might be mold.” The water abatement company they made us hire tried to overcharge us by thousands of dollars and threw away the 110-year-old baseboard moldings they were supposed to dry and straighten off-site. (The baseboards would be the most costly repair: a carpenter had to make a mold and then fabricate them to match the rest of the house.)

The warranty company then refused to pay for ANY repairs; they decided “the plumbing issue was preexisting,” so subsequent damage was not covered by our home warranty. And they didn’t care that it was “their” subcontractors who caused the most expensive damage after the initial flood.

There we were–just one week after moving into our house–with a huge hole in our ceiling, no baseboards, a nonfunctioning guest bathroom, and mounting bills. And so our house remained for 8 months, until we were able to hire carpenters and painters.

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For 5 days you couldn’t hear yourself think anywhere in our house as the industrial fans dried out the walls and ceiling space. The effected baseboards were removed to be dried and straightened off-site, but we never saw them again.

Finally it was time to have some fun! I chose grey-and-teal thermal draperies for the dining room windows then coordinated the room’s paint colors. My mother (and probably everyone else) thought I was crazy when I decided I’d be painting my ceiling teal. Grey walls, teal ceiling, white trim. This was a bold choice because the room can be seen from most angles downstairs.

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It took me hours to polish each piece, but the results are gorgeous. I love how the tarnish remains in the tiny crevices and adds dimension to the pattern, as it does in my equally beloved sterlingware.

Less controversial, but equally impactful to my detail-oriented eye, is my continuing restoration of the room’s hardware. This house is FULL of solid brass, unlacquered hardware–door knobs, casement hinges, window latches, you name it!–that have been covered with paint over the decades.

Until we moved here, I was a vocal brass hater. In our first house, I spent years slowly replacing every monkey-metal doorknob, hinge, and faucet with brushed-nickel fixtures. That cheap yellow metal they produce these days makes me cringe and “colored” my impression of brass. But I’ve done a 180. It thrills my soul that these solid metal beauties are hiding under sloppy DIY projects waiting for me to, quite literally, make them shine again.

I acknowledge that I am strange. I paint ceilings teal, and I LOVE polishing. In college we AOIIs would clean the house once per month, and I was the only person who wanted silver duty. Back then I did it all by hand; this time I had help.

A few weeks before I started this polishing project, David and I bought a nail grinder for Copper that is made by Dremel. I soon realized that the nail grinder could accept almost any Dremel accessory–including polishing wheels! I burned through 30 polishing wheels getting the dining room hardware clean, but the result is worth the time, effort, and cost.

So at the 8-month mark, we had our dining room back. But the upstairs bathroom? Still out of commission with undiagnosed bathtub problems…

Fourth-Day Flood (part 1): the 10,000-foot Perspective

Once the ceiling panels were down, it became obvious that this had been a long-standing problem. Boards had water stains, a beam was rotting out, and the upstairs floor was being supported by scrap wood.

Last fall when I wrote about my Hobbit Bath upgrade, I thought I was nearly done with the plumbing issues in our upstairs bathroom–and therefore nearly ready to write a post (or 3) about them.

I was wrong.

Here’s the summary story: Four days after we moved into our 1900s new-to-us home, my best friend had the audacity to take a bath following a day of helping us unpack boxes. When she pulled the plug in the upstairs claw-foot tub, 50 gallons of water flowed around the plumbing, filled the space between the upstairs floor and downstairs ceiling, and rained from the dining room’s coffers for 6 hours.

Sadly our disaster was declared a preexisting condition (in spite of our “clean” home inspection prior to purchase and a joke-of-a-home-warranty), so David and I were left to do several-thousand-dollars-worth of water abatement and repairs. We had no choice…if we wanted to retain our homeowners’ insurance. Ugh.

To summarize a sixteen-month-long investigation: the people who had renovated our house in 2005 did a lot of DIY. Three of the four necessary feet on the claw-foot tub did not fit the tub. So every time the tub filled with water, the feet slipped out from underneath it, cracking the plumbing seals. Then water would flow along the easiest path (around the then-detached plumbing instead of through it) into the ceiling space and destroy the dining room below.

I’m a big fan of silver linings, so in advance of this series of posts I’ll admit that I’m happy with the cosmetic results. The dining room had professional repairs (meaning I got to have a hideous dried-blood-red dining room repainted by not-me) that have since informed my house’s entire decor. The guest bathroom also had professional repairs, in addition to the Amanda-and-David upgrades (it is now waterproof thanks to over 2,000 tiles!).

Stay tuned to read the horror stories and see the beautiful results…

Freeing Our Front Door

Most of the surfaces in the house need to be stripped–they either have old lead paint or one coat of latex sloppily applied before the flippers put the house on the market. Next time I’ll invest in a heat gun instead of chemicals.

Christmas is around the corner, and I’m ready to decorate. I always start with the “outdoor” decorations, which for us are mostly located indoors. I’m that boring person who likes a single candle in each window, a big beautiful wreath on the front door, and not much else. Simple, but appropriate for our 110-year-old red-brick American Foursquare with 48 wavy-glass, wood windows. (Yes, 48 windows. And they all need to be restored and covered by storms before they rot away!)

I noticed this summer that our front door (and back door and basement door and carriage house doors) needed some attention. It had been painted green about 10 years ago, and that paint was failing. I could see layers of other paint beneath the green, and I knew I needed to strip the door for new paint to adhere well and look nice.

I’m getting pretty good at stripping paint. My first project here was restoring a transom window that hangs between our kitchen and mudroom, and it gave me lots of practice with different types of stripping solutions. Based on my window experience, I thought I could strip the front door in about 1 week. It took 3. There were 7 layers of latex paint, lead paint, and stain to dissolve and scrape before I finally hit wood.

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The restored door reveals the original wood details, wavy glass, and door knob plus a new unlacquered brass kickplate…and security system decal.

I almost stopped a million times. As each layer fell in sticky clumps on the drop cloth, I’d stand back and consider if the door was good enough to get some fresh paint. It never was good enough, and I’m so glad I didn’t settle. Because I was shocked to discover this door is solid mahogany, and it deserves to be admired every time it opens and closes.

I used marine-grade urethane and a gel stain that matches the color of the interior pocket doors. It’s dark and rich and only took 4 coats to heal and seal the wood. (Stripping is not a gentle process, especially when you’re working on a vertical surface).

I finished the project by affixing an unlacquered brass kickplate to the bottom of the door, replacing the hinges, and polishing the doorknob and backplates. But all that shiny stuff doesn’t compete with the wood door’s tiny dental molding, wavy glass, and intricate woodgrain. The result is beyond my expectations.

I almost wish I hadn’t ordered that wreath. The door it will cover deserves all the attention this year!

Small Room, Big Project

If you read Monday’s post, it’s possible you think I’ve been hiding under my covers for 4 months snuggling Copper. There was some of that, sure. But my primary coping mechanism in almost any situation is physical productivity. That’s probably because it gives me (1) the grand illusion that I have control and (2) the satisfaction of a job well done.

Back in January we moved from Denver to Chattanooga, and we bought a 100-year-old arts-and-crafts home. It was renovated “to the studs” about 10 years ago, but a LOT of what you can see was slapped together. Window moldings aren’t joined properly; nothing is caulked; paint combinations are atrocious; there is bead board and flat paint everywhere. I knew all this when we bought it. I thought, Sanding, painting, staining–I can do all of that. I’d like to do all of that!

But of course, every little project I’ve started has ended up taking about 5-times longer than it should have due to corners cut by the flippers. Here’s one of those stories:

The Hobbit Bathroom

If you’re over 6’1″ tall, you can forget standing up straight in here. Our below-the-stairs half-bathroom comes by it’s nickname honestly.

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Before

As I was working on the upstairs bathroom (a project that has been in progress since February and deserves a series of blog posts all its own), I thought, While I have the paint out, I’ll go ahead and hit the walls in the Hobbit bath.

It shouldn’t have taken more than an hour because the room is so small. As far as I could see, the only problems in the Hobbit bath were on the walls. The renovators had used flat paint, so years of hand washing at the pedestal sink had put water stains all over that wall. Yuck.

But as I took down the hardware and plastered over old nail holes, I realized there was a reason flat paint had been used. Flat paint hides imperfections, and these walls were full of imperfections. No one had bothered to sand and smooth the new drywall after it was installed. One coat of flat paint had been slapped directly over the lumps and bumps of mudded tape and gritty drywall dust.

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I spent an entire day sanding then washing the walls. Next I primed the whole room, including the ceiling. I had not sanded the ceiling because it looked okay aside from the hairspray on it. Primer would cover the hairspray, right?

Little-known fact: hairspray + Kilz = crackle-plaster. With one roll of primer I had the ugliest textured ceiling you could imagine. It took David’s strength to sand that mess and the rest of the ceiling before I could finally paint.

Whenever David gets involved in a project, it’s a safe bet that expectations will rise. During an ill-planned trip to Lowe’s the weekend of this disaster, he decided I should tile the wet wall behind the sink. Who was I to say no?

So my 1-hour project became a 4-day project, and I’ve had a total work stoppage on the upstairs bathroom. But the results speak for themselves, and I now have the confidence to tile the entire upstairs bathroom.

I figure that will take me a week, so I better reserve a month!

Fast-Forwarding to Mother’s Day

My calendar can’t possibly be correct: is it the end of April already?

Since my last post we’ve moved across the country (again), bought a 1900s Foursquare in a transitional downtown neighborhood, watched bath water rain from the coffers in the dining room, and cut a hole in a master-bedroom wall. All with a basset hound puppy (sometimes literally) underfoot.

Life seems to be approaching equilibrium. After 3 months Chattanooga is less mysterious, there is drywall on our dining room ceiling, and Copper is nearly house trained. What seemed scary has become good: we love our co-ed and senior-adult neighbors, destruction has given way to renovation, and Copper is nearly house trained. It is time that I stop spending my days in crisis-response mode and return to writing.

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Hoping my fur-baby will give me the “Mother’s Day” gift of his being housetrained!

I do so none-too-soon. Forgetting for the moment that backlog of books I have to write, my May calendar is full of Barren-related guest blog posts, radio interviews, and Facebook page hosting. I’m even doing a couple of giveaways. Though no one has said, “We want to talk to you now because it’s close to Mother’s Day,” I know the holiday is the impetus for at least 2 interviews. That makes me nervous.

In the last few years, I’ve read many blogs and articles that blast Mother’s Day. They like to highlight all the ways the day and its celebrations in church hurt women who struggle to be mothers or have lost a child. While I certainly agree that Mother’s Day can inflame fertility wounds and I freely admit to ditching church services on several second-Sundays in May, I am not and have never been anti–Mother’s Day.

Why? Because on Mother’s Day I honor my mother (and do my best not to think about myself).

When I was growing up, Mother’s Day was a big deal. It was the second-most-attended church service of the year (after Easter but before Christmas), and it was one of the few Sundays my family went out for lunch instead of going home to sandwiches. When we’d get to church, the children would be drafted to pass out carnations to all the moms: white for moms whose own mothers had died, red for the mothers whose mothers were living, and yellow for the mothers who had lost children. It was easy to know who got what because all the moms were already wearing white, red, or yellow corsages when they got to church.

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My mom sports her handmade-by-me corsage.

As an adult I’ve enjoyed buying my mother’s–and eventually my mother-in-law’s–corsages. Roses and carnations are the traditional flower choice, but I like to shake it up. Gardenias, irises, daisies, and even orchids have decorated my mothers’ dresses over the years. Sometimes I’ve made the corsage; sometimes I’ve bought one.

About five years ago, we realized my mom was the only woman at her church who still wore a flower on Mother’s Day. Every year I ask if she still wants me to get her one, and every year she says yes! She says that she loves telling everyone how her daughter bought (or made) that corsage just for her. And I love doing it.

So in the coming weeks when I’m asked to talk or write about how Mother’s Day makes me feel and I admit that no holiday does more to remind me of my fleshly desires and wounds, I’ll do my best to remember the woman who gave me life. She deserves no less celebration for the years she sacrificed to raising me just because my own dreams of motherhood have not been achieved. In fact, she deserves more because of the extra love she’s showered on me during my years of pain and miscarriage.

Keep reading Healthy and Hopeful in May for “Mother’s Day Survival Tips for the ‘Barren’ Woman” and a great book-necklace giveaway!