Saturday, August 23, 2014

New Chest

Last Saturday Rob and I went over to Dothan and bought this chest at Land of Cotton, our favorite antique mall. The nice man who helped us wheel it out to the car on a hand truck told us it was made of American chestnut. Now I don't know if that's true, but it's an interesting thought--that our chest is made of an iconic, tragic American tree that's now basically extinct.

Rob and I love going to Dothan. We have lunch at Del Taco (a restaurant we don't have in Tallahassee), then head over to Land of Cotton. Land of Cotton is housed in an old K-Mart shopping center and boasts 20,000 square feet of retail space. We always stay at least two hours, walking the maze-like aisles packed with vintage Coca-Cola signs, duck decoys, Fiestaware, tin toys, iron beds, quilts, pottery, and other treasures. Rob hums along with the '70s soft rock that is inevitably playing and points out scary clown dolls and macrame owls.

"Why do you always show me the owls?" I said on Saturday in mock exasperation.

"Because . . . they're funny?" he said, sheepishly.

I smiled and rolled my eyes. If I didn't keep a tight rein on things, our house would be absolutely full of macrame owls.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Classic Cracker

Spruce Pine Cottage is a text-book example of a special type of 19th-century Florida Cracker house--the four-square Georgian cottage.

A four-square Georgian typically consisted of a large central hallway with two large, square rooms on either side. Each pair of rooms shared a chimney and featured back-to-back fireplaces on the interior wall.

Our house is built in just this way. The four rooms are identical to one another, each measuring 18 feet long and wide and 12 feet high. The hall is 12½ feet wide and runs from the front door to the original back door.

The kitchen of a four-square Georgian cottage traditionally sat by itself some distance away from the main structure, in the backyard. Kitchen fires were common in the old days, and by isolating the kitchen you reduced the likelihood that a fire would spread to the whole house.

There aren't many examples of detached kitchens left in Florida, but ours still stands, though it was largely rebuilt in the 1970s. Unfortunately, we don't use it as a kitchen anymore. It's our office and home to our boring old desks and computers.

Since four-square Georgians were built with only four rooms, they often ended up with additions on the rear. Ours has a bathroom, screen porch (now a sun room), and kitchen, all added in the 1920s. The original house was built in 1850.

Like all Florida Cracker houses, four-square Georgians were designed to stay cool in hot weather without the aid of air-conditioning. Shady porches and high pyramidal roofs were part of the strategy to keep things cool. The wide central hall conducted air through the house, and the hot kitchen was separated from the main structure.

Our house is quite cool and comfortable even on very hot days, and for much of the summer we don't need air-conditioning at all. When we do start using the air conditioner, mostly in July and August, we don't need to run it constantly. We usually turn it on at night, around bedtime, and turn it off again in the morning. It's amazing what smart design can do.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

My Great-Grandfather

This is my great-grandfather, my mom’s father’s father, Frank Allen. He owned a small dairy farm near Green Bay, Wisconsin. He was born in the 1890s, I believe, and died in the 1960s.

“What was he like?” I asked Mom when she gave me his picture. “Was he nice?”

“Oh, he was okay,” Mom said. “Joan and Diane remember him giving them rides on his bicycle and all that, but I don’t.” She laughed. “I told them they must have been his favorites, because I never got a ride.” (Joan and Diane are Mom’s sisters.)

“You used to go and spend time with him and your grandmother in the summer, right?” I said to Mom, prompting her. Mom doesn’t really like to tell me stories about the past—I have to force her. Mom lives in the present. “You’d go and stay with them, right?”

“Oh, yeah,” Mom said. “But they didn’t do anything special with you. They didn’t take you anywhere, except to church on Sunday. They were busy, so you’d trail after them or you’d play in the barn.”

“But it was still fun, right?”

“Oh, yeah. I loved spending time at the farm. My grandmother always made jut, which is mashed potatoes and cabbage, and that was my absolute favorite. Can you imagine a child liking such a thing these days? I can’t. But I loved it. And she made Belgian pies.”

(Mom’s grandparents from Belgium. They came to this country as very little children, around the age of two.)

“Tell me something else about your grandfather,” I said.

“For Christmas he’d always give you a silver dollar,” Mom replied. “That was his typical gift. Every year you’d get that silver dollar.”

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Vine House Again

Here's how the Vine House is shaping up these days. One side is draped with coral honeysuckle and the other with native pipevine. In the last six months, I've added two more Christine Sibley sculptures--the Water Spirit (in blue) and the Fire Spirit (in red). In June, when the petunias died, I filled the smaller clay pots with heat-tolerant purple torenia, which is looking very full and fat and healthy now in the dog days. (It is such a tough plant.) I daydream about buying 10 or 20 crystal prisms and hanging them from the trellises to catch the sunlight and make rainbows. It would be nice, I think, on a summer afternoon to sit in a lilac chair and eat a coconut popsicle (my favorite) and watch the rainbows play.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Crazy for Caladiums

Every summer it's the same thing: I'm just delighted by my caladiums. I'm constantly admiring them and taking pictures of them and thinking about them, making lists of the ones I have and the ones I want to get: Candyland, White Queen, Rose Bud . . . I become a little obsessed.

I've only been growing caladiums for a few years, but I've been fascinated by them for a long time. When I was studying horticulture in Atlanta, long ago, we students were required to keep binders full of information on the various plants we covered in class. We collected pictures and typed up our notes on growing requirements, etc. Well, I remember I had pages and pages on caladiums. I just could not stop adding pictures of the new cultivars I was discovering, and I'd often look through my binder and dream about the garden I'd someday have, filled with caladiums in all different colors and patterns.

My dream garden kept me entertained through lots of hard times, but real caladiums are better than dream ones. They brighten up shady spots. They shelter toads. They haven't disappointed me. Not at all.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Eggplant Effusions

This has been a great summer for eggplant. Rob and I have globe-shaped eggplant and cucumber-shaped eggplant in three colors: solid purple, solid white, and purple-and-white striped. The fruits are so bright and cheerful they look like balloons festooning the plants, and every day it seems as if the garden is decorated for a birthday party. Even if you couldn't eat eggplant, I think I'd grow it just because it's pretty.

But luckily you can eat it--and it's good for you too. It's low in calories and high in fiber, and the skin (of the purple varieties) is rich in disease-fighting phyto-chemicals. For the last couple months Rob and I have been enjoying eggplant all kinds of ways. My favorite way to eat it is in thin slices drizzled with olive oil, rolled in panko, and roasted in the oven.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014


Every summer I like to pretend that I enroll my cat Carl in vacation Bible school. You see, in my games and dreams he's my precious little son, forever four years old. Well, I mean, he's a cat, but he wears clothes and talks and walks on two legs like any human child. He's a cat, but he's fully accepted in human society. In fact, when I drop him off at vacation Bible school, all the teachers and the other mothers always tell me how cute he is.

"Oh, your son is so adorable," they say.

"Thank you," I say.

Once Carl's week at vacation Bible school is over, our summer days are less structured. Sometimes I take him to the city pool and he wears his water wings.

On quiet afternoons, we head to the library. I ride my bike, with Carl tucked into a little seat behind me. On the way home he sits in his seat and reads one of the books we've checked out while I pedal. He likes Sylvester and the Magic Pebble.

Carl is so sweet--not just in my silly dreams but in real life. He's always looking at me and "talking" to me and following me around with his tail held high. He's my little sunshine.