Fall and Winter in the House (2014)

Since my last timely post (published in July), I went decidedly radio silent on the house. It’s not that things weren’t happening, it’s that so many things were happening that blogging about them felt ridiculous. Now that Winter is coming to a close and we’ve lived a full year (and one month!) in the house, I’ve learned a lot more about the home and how we live in it.

A Brief Recap Of This Year

When we bought the Apple House, we didn’t know much about it. We viewed it (before we bought it) the dark for the most part. It was November, the sun was going down crazy early, and we were house hunting in the evenings and on weekends. We only saw the home fully illuminated when we had it inspected in the middle of the day, in full daylight. Once we moved in, though, we began to realize what we’d bought. The house just goes on and on. One day in the late Fall, I remarked to Mark that I hadn’t actually been in the basement (except to visit the laundry room) in months. In fact, I wasn’t even using the basement at all. It gave me a bit of a frisson to think about – there’s so much living we can do in a basement, so much potential. Sometimes, that’s how I feel about the whole house. There’s just so much space, so many stories to tell.

Over the past year, we haven’t quite figured out where everything we own is going to go, or what every room we have should feel like. I took the summer off from blogging and we took a hiatus on all forms of home improvement. We didn’t unpack. We fleshed out the essential parts of our home – the kitchen, the master bedroom, the technology and TV items. I paid attention to the primary “zones” where we live. Conclusions: two bathrooms, a large master bedroom with walk-in closet, one living room, a kitchen and a laundry room are all you need to live. You could convert this recipe into a condominium, actually. Although we live in a giant house, we actually live in a much smaller footprint inside that bigger cube. We’ve been limited to eating, sleeping, and watching TV. The spare bedrooms with their closets filled to the brim with boxed up books – ignored. We haven’t built a single bookcase.

Importantly, we spent the summer outside. Mark decamped into the garage, and spent the summer drinking beer, blaring music and working with his friends on tuning cars. I decamped into the front and backyard. In the front yard, we cut back the overgrown cedar hedge, dug out leggy and overgrown shrubbery, and tried to revive the flower beds with fresh plants. I kept all the flowers beds in the same places and shapes, but I never figured out what I needed to do to truly revitalize the yard and garden. I didn’t try too hard, though – still burned out. At least the beds were colourful and clean, if not sophisticated or particularly aesthetically pleasing. I nearly wore a hole in the front lawn where I stood, staring at the beds and trying to figure out what I wanted to see, what change the house was crying out for. Maybe this year it’ll come to me.

For me, this summer was all about staring at the house, trying to figure out how to bring some harmony and beauty to its facade. When we bought it, the house was a bad example of 1980s suburban architecture and it needed a big, bold, (potentially costly) kick in the teeth to make it desirable again. The first major change was choosing the roof colour (easy enough, not a lot of options). We chose an asphalt shingle in a golden brown palette that referenced cedar shingles, which has partnered beautifully with the red brick and creamy-yellow vinyl siding.

Then, the windows… they urgently needed to be replaced, and without a doubt a mistake in their design would be irreparable. That being said, making a bold choice in their appearance might revitalize the house and totally clear out that bad 1980s style. I called up Lambden Windows and doubled down on my instinct to make a big, expensive, risky change. I ordered up vinyl windows with interior mullions (grills) that ran across the top of the window only, a sort of Arts and Crafts look. The exterior of the vinyl windows can be provided in a wide range of colours at no extra cost, and after a great deal of consideration and discussion with Mark, we opted for a shade of brown that we felt was attractive in both the sun and shade.

It paid off times a million – the house is transformed. The house is much less dominated by its large 1980s style roof (the light hearted golden brown of the new roof is visually lighter and more friendly) and the beautiful windows with perfectly proportioned mullions have created a more traditional feel to the house. The windows are more friendly too, with their nice mullions. More approachable. I painted the front door and screen door an ivory colour, bringing a bright spot to an incredibly dark corner.

The garage door was changed from pale khaki to the same medium brown as the neighbour’s house, making the big picture look of our house and their house a little more harmonious. (FYI, their house and landscaping are prettier than ours, so we’re definitely going to borrow some of their charm until we have ourselves figured out.) Just a note – I used Behr Marquee exterior paint and I was amazed. I applied it to metal and wood without sanding or priming, and it stuck like glue. It has a nice satiny finish, and it dries VERY fast. I 100% endorse using this paint, let me tell you. Huge fan.

The shutters on the house are still dark brown, and we didn’t take on brown gutters. More work for the Behr Marquee paint in the spring, I think. We’ve been considering buying additional gutters for the house, though – maybe we’ll just replace them all.

Moving my attention to the backyard, I spent most of the spring and summer trying to figure out the story of the backyard. I couldn’t identify most of the plants. We cut down a cedar (which we later regretted doing – it was strategically placed to block a line of sight into a neighbour’s house) and we cut back some massive shrubs. Some grapevine had grown up over a trellis and was ripping up the roof of the shed and tying together the branches of the eponymous apple tree. That was delicate work, pulling the grapevine out of the apple tree. It was so important to cut off as much as possible, and tug as little as possible. I didn’t want to break apple tree branches and was 99% successful in that. I got the grapevine out before the apple tree even had leaf buds or flower blossoms, which was a big win.

Then, one day in May, the backyard blossomed. The giant crabapple bloomed, the other giant tree that I thought was a crab apple also bloomed, and the apple tree exploded with flowers. What a show. The wild violet weed that’s devastating lawns in Ottawa also blossomed, and the backyard was a fairy land. That “other” giant tree? Not a crab apple. Turns out, it’s a giant sour cherry tree. I don’t know how to cook with sour cherries, so I’ll look up recipes and hope for the best this year. The magnolia bloomed – dark purple flowers with pale pink insides. Incredible, just incredible.

The massive, well established clematis never blossomed, however, and I think that’s because it didn’t get enough sun. It just grew and grew in the shade, maybe reaching out for some sun to produce flowers in? But I lost momentum. The weeds got ahead of me by a lot. I found more and more flower beds lost inside overgrown lawn and weeds, and it was just too much. I found a peony planted almost underneath a deck. I found iris behind a mock orange.

A friend of mine started a private facebook group for people who, for emotional reasons, struggle to face their messes. I was added, and was powerfully inspired by the work of friends and family to confront their secret hoarding ways. I photographed and shared my problems. This is my truth: the herb garden full of NOT HERBS, the weeds, the dead lawn, the empty plastic flower post, the falling apart trellis…. and I feel like I can’t do it, I can’t fix it. The weeds are too much, I can’t handle the heat, I’m so burned out ANYWAY, and my allergies are rough. I need to buy mulch and compost to fill up the beds oh no I can’t do it.

But I did it. I faced it down, and took pictures of the results.

Our side yard had filled up with a huge amount of yard waste – the broken down trellis, cut up trees and cedars, lawn waste, and eventually a work table from the basement ended up out there. I hauled it all to the curb in the late fall, early winter. The City took it all away, and I felt like a fool for letting it pile up. This was the summer when we found out that the City green waste collectors are able to take away EVERYTHING you leave at the curb. EVERYTHING. It was astonishing.

We went crazy at Halloween. I bought a 9 foot tall inflatable Grim Reaper. I carved four pumpkins. I handed out four boxes of chocolate bars, and blared a Songza Halloween playlist out the front window. We walked over a few streets to see a house that had a false facade up, converting the whole place to Castle Anthrax. There was a Monty Python party in the garage. It was amazing. I swore again, for the millionth time, that I was going to someday make a great Halloween costume.

Remembrance Day, we went downtown for the Ceremonies. Last year was the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, and recently a deranged man had killed a guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We really wanted to be there, and so we were. It’s important to go, even though why it’s important is a bit difficult to define. Maybe just because World War I and II, the Korean War, the second Boer War and the War in Afghanistan need to be witnessed, need to be commemorated, maybe I just feel that even if you aren’t a member of the military, that it’s essential to show up and silently be present, to demonstrate remembering and respect. It feels good to go, to stand in a silent crowd that big. The singing of the national anthem is beautiful. Canada didn’t conduct the sort of commemorations that Europe did, which is somewhat unfortunate. The commemoration activities on the anniversary of the start of the First World War in Europe were incredible.

And then Christmas! We fit every last family member into our house, and it was glorious. We emptied our fridge, cleaned it, and then restocked it to the point that I thought the doors wouldn’t stay on. It was wonderful, and exhausting. I bought another queen sized bed and we used an inflatable bed for our niece, and then there you were. So many family members in one household! What a crazy good time. We did all this, and I haven’t even mentioned the wedding. Along the way, yes, we have planned a wedding. (So much for taking it easy.)

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