WEST RIVER, MARYLAND – Today is a holiday here in the U.S. So we give our dear, long-suffering readers a break. We will not go on… and on… and on… about how the feds’ fake money is destroying the country. You know that story already.
Instead, for no particular reason, we’ll just tell you what we’re doing on weekends and holidays. We were locked down in Argentina for most of last year. Now, we’re back at home on the family farm.
On the farm is an old wooden barn, held up by telephone poles.
The old barn
Back in the 1980s, we came down from Baltimore on weekends and camped out next to it.
Then, one of our first construction projects was to put in a loft apartment. This was our first lodging on the farm.
Calling it “rustic” would be flattery.
The apartment was above the business area… where we parked tractors and stored tools. At first, there was no stairway, just a ladder. Once up there, there was no bathroom… no electricity… and only a wood stove for heat.
Elizabeth was pregnant with our first child. But she climbed up and down the ladder with ease. We were young. It was an adventure.
Weekend after weekend, we worked. A generator supplied electricity for the power tools. And then, one improvement followed another – from the staircase to the indoor toilet.
Stairs to the loft
Each improvement was greeted with such glee and satisfaction, it was as if we had put in the neighborhood’s first swimming pool.
But we needed no pool. At the bottom of the hill was a pond. On hot, summer days, we would put down our tools and splash around. (One day, mowing too close to the pond’s edge, the tractor slid into the water. What fun that was, too! The children still remember shrieking gaily at their father as the tractor sank – with him on it.)
Life in the Barn
Later, we built a proper house, with all the modern conveniences and nuisances.
But our fondest memories are still of life in the barn, with its splinters and tumbles, its makeshift kitchen and built-in bunks.
Often, we were awakened by the sound of rain pounding down on the tin roof… or the smell of honeysuckle – or even better, honey locust – coming in through screen windows on hot, humid nights.
We moved out of the barn some 25 years ago, but the loft is still there. Children (and now grandchildren) love it. It is a bit like a tree house or a forgotten cabin in the woods. So we are improving it for when they come to visit.
What brought the loft apartment back into our field of vision was the coronavirus.
Suddenly, last March, everyone wanted to leave the city. One of our children moved fast and claimed the farmhouse for his little family. Others were left stuck in their apartments in Baltimore.
“If only the barn were still livable,” we said to ourselves.
Our project for this winter has been to make it comfortable again.
But the place has been neglected for a long time. The pipes froze and burst years ago. The tin roof leaked. Mice and raccoons got into the insulation. And the kitchen stove disappeared.
All of these things are easy to fix… more or less. Weekends and holidays – including today – we get out our tools and go to work.
And what a pleasure… to clean things up… and fix things that are broken… to recover what we thought was lost… and make it better.
Restoring an old house or garden is much more fun than building a new one – especially when it is one you built in the first place. It takes you back in time…
There, you can correct mistakes… You can retrieve what was good, and fun, and memorable… and redo what was not.
You know so much more than you did then! And now, except for time and energy, you have so much more to work with.
Fixing up the loft apartment… it was as if we were picking up the pieces of our lives… and putting them back together – as they were a quarter century ago. But better. Surely this time, we will not drive too close to the pond.
Each repair comes with memories.
We recall when one of the boys fell down the stairs… when the cold wind blew through the cracks and we all huddled around the stove to stay warm… when we sat out on the porch eating fresh oysters… happily throwing the shells into the bushes below.
And there they are still… reminders of another era… another period in our lives… another world, before 9/11… before Zoom… before the coronavirus.
But there is little time for souvenirs when you are working with power tools. That is probably what makes it so relaxing. You have to pay attention. You have to put the latest unemployment numbers… the crackpot stimulus theories… the censorship… the lockdowns… riots… and absurdities – all out of your mind.
You will need the space to figure out how to get the right angle on a joint… or how to avoid cutting off your own finger.
Our task for yesterday was to recycle some old, oak fence boards to use for the interiors walls.
We would have had a carpenter friend do the planing, but he has retired. Another local woodworker refused the job, worrying about nails in the old boards.
So, finally, we bought a small Makita planer and went to work on them ourselves.
Easier said than done! The old boards are warped, cupped, and irregular, making them hard to get through the planer.
We zipped up our jacket. It was as if a cold, dark cloud had settled over our woodshop. Maybe the past was gone forever… Maybe the damage from time, wind, and weather was too great. Maybe the boards couldn’t be re-used. Maybe they would have to be cut up for firewood.
And maybe that life of a quarter century ago can never be straightened out… never enjoyed again.
We had to put the boards through several times, lowering the blades each time. They fought with us. They resisted. And the planer groaned, as if to say, “Don’t make me work this hard.”
But finally, they were straight and smooth enough – at least for this job.
Once planed to our satisfaction, they needed to be worked on with a router, to put “shiplap” joints on the edges. We are going to put them on a wall, so we need each board to overlap a bit with those next to it.
This, too, was more difficult than it should have been. The router bumped and jumped around on the rough wood. The lap joints will be fine for a rustic cabin, though it was hardly the kind of woodworking you see on YouTube videos.
But now, the wood is ready. We are ready to put it up…
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