Today was my birthday. It snowed. It snowed a lot. Having a January birthday and living in the mountains pretty well assures that you will have snow on your birthday if it is in January.
When we were kids we were allowed to invite something like the number of people you were old. If you were 5 year old, you could have 5 people at your birthday party. It was my mom’s way of controlling cost and a way to keep party goers and those for whom the party was given at least half-way sane. I don’t think it was a strict rule but we usually had small parties. A great emphasis was placed on the special “birthday dinner.” The birthday girl (in our house it was all girls) got to pick whatever she wanted for dinner. We would plot amongst ourselves for days determining what the dream meal would be. I doubt any of us ever thought to ask for caviar or lobster although we knew they existed, but sometimes it was a stretch for what we wanted. I never remember being turned down. I do think we typically asked for things that were not dreadfully expensive. We usually asked for my mother’s Chicken Tetrazzini.
Our family tradition was a small birthday party after school or on Saturday morning and then a family birthday dinner. It was a good thing that we had a strong family and that we put the emphasis there. My sister and I were both pretty geeky so we did not have a bevy of fawning other giggly girls to invite to parties. More than once we only had one or two people show up. Geekdom was not well understood in the 50s and 60s.
It was with that background that I decided on my 30th birthday to have a real party. We had a nice circle of adult friends. Some were geeks-grow-up and some popular kids who grew into pleasant adults. I planned a fancy dinner for 12 with Chicken Tetrazzini as the main course. It is a very respectable dish with impressive recipes like the one from Giada de Laurentiins.
The version we grew on falls into the category with green bean casserole and Jello molds. If you were not there, it is impossible to imagine the world of orange carrots in green jello, oleo-margarine and canned soup for cooking. The U.S. would be a very different place without the soup tins of the 50s. The recipe that made its life-long imprint on us is essentially spaghetti pasta layered with Campbell’s mushroom soup in a 3-4 inch deep casserole. Hand shredded boiled chicken is layered on top of the pasta upon which Munster cheese and almond slivers are placed. The whole is baked until you can cut the casserole into squares but the spaghetti are still recognizable. I am a good cook and we almost fresh foods, but I can eat my way to eternity on this stuff.
The day before the party a big snow storm was foretasted. I was not worried, we were strong Rocky Mountain people, we knew about snow. When we woke up it crossed my mind to be worried since we could not see the porch rail of our house. By 10 am I knew we were headed toward party-disaster. At noon I called people and cancelled the party. It was a good thing. Before the storm passed we got over three feet.
About a decade ago we gave up on trying to have birthday parties. Even our closest friends could not make it out because of presents Mother Nature gave me for my birthday.
This week we had spent the week thinking my birthday dinner. My spouse asked if I wanted to go out to dinner. We don’t go out much because I have a hearing disorder and going into noisy places is not much fun. He said we could go early and it might be fun. As last week went by I felt stronger and stronger about going to the woods for even a 10 foot hike if that was all we could do recovering from bronchitis.
I mentioned to our architect mid-week that my birthday was coming up. Around Thanksgiving we had to go back to the drawing board and do a dramatic re-think since the house we had been working on was about 1/3 over our upper budget limit. Everyone has worked very hard, and with bravery, to take ideas that were loved from the first house and literally start over. I had a hunch our architect was trying to get a revision to us by my birthday. To start the day today, I got a happy birthday email. Later I got a phone call with a short burst of cheerful Happy Birthday sung to me. Then I got the new plans. They are perfect. I have not been so confident about anything about the house, perhaps since it burned. A birthday of a huge burden lifted and a beautiful home to work toward is a mighty fine birthday.
The plan carries forward some of the best of the best of the ideas from the too-expensive not-quite-right plan and wraps them into a totally different package is just amazing. I felt like I could see “The House” emerging but after months and months of dealing with the details of our now deceased house and all of us working so hard to come up with plans for a new house that would fit on poor wounded land I was miserly with my hope. Today I feel rich.
Building a new home is hard work but there is excitement and anticipation associated with it. The circumstances we face because of the fire burning our house to the ground are trauma-based. Building a house for us is not just hard, sometimes it is downright painful. There was not pain today. The new plans merge our old house with ideas we liked from the too expensive house. The most amazing part of it is that all of those little, “If I ever got around to it, I would like to do X wit this house.” As homeowners, we think about things years but never get sorted out since we re not architects. Our architect listened to our mutterings and figured it out for us.
This merged house will sit on our tiny bit of land in a respectful way. It is a home that is at once elegant and cozy. It is a home that has a very well designed working office for both my spouse and me. There will be a workspace for his antiques and a it has a workspace for me so that I can build cabinets and furniture. There is a solid wall between his workshop and mine so my dust does not get into his 200 year old basket. On the Master bedroom level we have his and her’s bathrooms and closets. Like many families, one of has always hiked from the master bedroom to a bathroom that was not in circulation. When we started talking to people about it seems like a lot of couples don’t share bathrooms. In this house each of us has a big bathroom but it is also linked to another room so it is a Jack and Jill bathroom if needed.
The plan has carefully thought out public and private spaces. The spaces can be used in different configurations. The family room/kitchen can be sectioned off from the other areas so you can heat that area and enjoy being warm without having to heat the rest of the house. The residential areas are thoughtfully tucked into small clusters around the house so that each bedroom has easy access to a bathroom and can have some privacy and peace and quiet.
Our house is a place of peace. It is a sanctuary for us and for others. For three decades people come to visit with us to refuel and focus. We never set out to be a retreat house but over the years people have come and gone through our home using it as a place for restoration. We once had a monk who lived in our basement. We saw him at one meal per day but otherwise he prayed, thought, sang prayers and walked in our woods. More than one we have had refugees stay with us during difficult transitions. Sometimes it is family members. Mostly these days it is just us in the house but our doors are open to those who need the solace that a carefully designed and loved space can provide.
In this new houses there are places to be in the sun. There are places to be in the shade. There are places to be in the thick of things and there are places to be private and read when the tick is going on. The living room and the dining room and the family room/kitchen all link through a small hall-room where the stairs make their journey, three rounds per floor for three floors.
It will be a very livable house. It will hold rafts of people for my birthday parties of the years to come. From now on the party will be held on July 11.