Thursday, March 27, 2014

Spring Sugar

It's that time of year again. Spring is shy. Such a tease. With plenty of snow and ice still on the ground and temperatures that make your fingertips ache, it is easy to dismiss the fact that it is indeed spring. I try not to think about it too much, otherwise spring becomes a roller coaster of alternating hope and disappointment for me every year. But really, there is no denying it; the signs are all around us and becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. Those birds are singing with fervor. Patches of earth peek up from between mounds of snow here and there. There's an occasional drip drip of ice melting from the roof. The squirrels are noticeably friskier. And there's this:

We had a slow start to sugaring season this year. The local maple syruping festivals came and went without any sap to show. Things have been a bit start and stop. But we've already collected a fair amount of sap from a couple good days and conditions are looking favorable for the next week.

Last year was our first year making syrup. And it was such a good syruping year that our syrup lasted through half a year of alternating pancake and waffle Saturday morning breakfasts. We have two box elder trees tapped in our yard. A third that is supposedly a box elder never produced much last year. We're giving it one more try. The box elder is a species of maple and its syrup is similar but distinct from traditional maple syrup. Undeniably yummy. From what I understand, the box elder is not typically a 'desirable' tree in landscaping. But the sweet sap they offer us so generously makes them among the most treasured trees in our yard. 

Here's to appreciating the undeniable signs of spring even as winter persists with its blizzards and frigidness. And hoping for another bountiful (but maybe a tad shorter than last year!) syruping season. 

Friday, March 14, 2014

Kitchen Renovation

Hi friends. It's been a while. It always seems when there is the most to share, there is little time to actually sit down and write it out. Now that our busy time of the year has passed - anniversary, holidays, all of our birthdays (including a big one for Will), family visits, and the persistent cold that made me wish I was a hibernating bear this winter - and we've had some time to breathe again, I feel ready to return to this space.

These days, when we know spring must be on the horizon somewhere, remind me of where we were this time one year ago. Just two weeks ago we had closed on our house. And thus began one of the busiest, most stressful periods of our lives together. For the following two months we worked tirelessly, through colds, fevers and upper respiratory distress, to get our house ready for move in day. I remember the Ikea delivery people lugging the many boxes that contained our kitchen up our driveway. It was mostly obstructed by a huge dumpster and covered in at least several inches of ice (because apparently our sidewalks and driveway hadn't been shoveled the entire winter before we moved in.) Will and I took turns each night going over to the house to get as much work done before we had no choice but to drag our tired bodies to bed. And most of the time, I took care of the kiddos while Will was doing all of the work I couldn't do. We were doubtful that we'd get it done in time. And without help, we wouldn't have.

Now the idea of "done" is laughable, of course. Because while thinking back to that time a year ago reminds me of how far we have come since those first days, I look around me and see unfinished projects literally everywhere. In fact, I'm not sure I would call any of our projects "done." But rather than wait for completion before a big reveal, I figure it's time to just show it like it is for our one year anniversary.

In the summer I showed you Will's amazing work on our three-season porch. The next stop on our home tour is the biggie - the kitchen. I hesitated to show you before pictures when we first moved into the house because I thought they might terrify you (or perhaps it was I who was terrified). Well, here it is in it's glory.

Does it give you an eerie feeling like you're back in your high school science lab? Cause that's the effect it had on me. The stainless steel countertops and backsplash were actually custom made for this kitchen, so I'm guessing someone really appreciated them. The black marble floor spanned the entire kitchen and powder room. I know some of you who have visited our house say you actually like the black marble - it is just not my cup of tea. When we bought the house the previous owners offered to sell us more of the tiles in case we wanted to cover more of our house in black marble. Apparently they had several hundred extra tiles. No thank you.

So out it all came. Will bought his grad students pizza and served them some of his home brew in exchange for their help ripping everything out from floor to ceiling. I am amazed by how quickly things can be ripped out compared with how long it actually takes to put them back together again. 

What you don't see in these pictures, besides all of the work of course, is all of the planning of (agonizing over) the design of the kitchen. We designed several incarnations of the kitchen and actually were about to head over to Ikea to purchase a completely different kitchen design before realizing that it wasn't going to work due to the placement of/space for plumbing and gas lines in the walls. In retrospect, I am so grateful that the initial plan didn't work, because the plan we went with is so much better - though a bit more expensive. And thanks to all of you who pushed us to go for the more complex, but ultimately superior plan (Papa, Aunt Debbie, that's you). 

At first we were going to keep the layout of the kitchen sort of similar to what it had been, since the window (as you'll note in the pictures above) was too low to put a counter in front of it. But get the Northrop men together and they inspire a brazen sense of confidence in each other and their ability to complete home renovation projects. Apparently it runs in the family. I have been told several times over the years of how Will's grandfather sent his grandmother out on a short errand one day. When she returned she was surprised to find he had completely ripped out a staircase in their home with plans to relocate it elsewhere in the house. (see my comment above about the time it takes to rip things out versus the times it takes to rebuild them. ahem.) If you, like I, were under the impression that windows, walls and stairwells are static, apparently you were wrong.

So they decided that they would just reframe and put in a new, smaller, window with enough room for a counter underneath it. It turns out this is not only possible, but not so hard as long as you have two people to set the new window in its frame.

This is where the fun began for me. While Will and his father turned their attentions on getting Eli's room ready for him, I put together all of the cabinets, installed the drawers, shelves, doors and handles. I can now say with confidence that there is nothing Ikea can make that I cannot put together. Perhaps not much of an accomplishment, but it feels good to have contributed at least this to our kitchen. Will mounted them to the walls (because I will not touch that job with a 10 foot pole -- I have a possibly irrational fear that things hung on walls are bound to fall down on me. Perhaps a psychological remnant of the time the wall shelves in my childhood room did exactly that.)

Eventually all the appliances arrived (after my dad somehow convinced the appliance store that our young children were going to starve if they did not deliver our stove within a couple days of us moving in) and the kitchen came together enough for us to use it very comfortably.

You may notice the delicious green peeking through the kitchen window. These pictures were not taken recently, though I assure you the kitchen looks almost identical today. After our initial burst of work on this space we took a step back and have gotten quite used to the primer on the walls, holes in the baseboards, and general lack of trim. It's funny how that happens. You forget about that hole in the doorway with exposed electrical wiring where the pocket door used to be until your toddler reaches her hand into the hole inquiring, "what's this in here?" (That hole has since been covered.) 

It's nice to take a trip back and see how far we've come. And it's also a nice reminder that it's about time to pick out those backsplash tiles, hang the light fixtures that have been sitting in a box in the basement for months, and finish framing out the window. Perhaps one day we'll even get to painting the walls! Maybe we'll have some "done" pictures to show you by our two year anniversary.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

A bag for Mimi

This is my Mama, Mimi. I've mentioned at least a couple times on this blog that Mimi is quite the prolific knitter. (Though the name "Grammy" was quickly relinquished when Ava first pronounced her "Mimi", yes, I am referring to the same woman in those old posts.) I am certain, however, the word 'prolific' does not adequately communicate how productive and generous Mimi really is with her knitting. 

I searched through my photos and gathered the small collection of images above of all that Mimi has accomplished in the 3 1/2 years since Ava was born. And friends, I do not exaggerate when I say "small collection". You can't even imagine how many beautiful sweaters, hats, mittens, booties and blankets Mimi has knit for these (and other) little ones. Let's just say they are in absolutely no danger of ever being cold. 

I was very happy to hear that Mimi has finally started knitting for herself, as she should be able to enjoy her beautiful work too. And I am looking forward to seeing her sweaters in person as I know they will be exquisite. Often when I make a small mistake in one of my own projects I just push forward thinking no one will notice it in the end - and most of the time I am right. But Mimi is exacting and will tear out rows and rows that may have taken her hours to complete just so that her sweaters are *perfect*. 

Given this keen attention to detail, you may be surprised to learn that Mimi totes her creations-in-progress around in plastic bags. Scroll up to that first picture of the lovely Mimi and you'll see the evidence resting in her lap. Now it's no secret that Mimi is a lover of ziplock baggies. (She may even love them as much as Poppy loves Lysol.) If you ever receive a package from her you'll be fully stocked with ziplock bags for the entire next year. And I'm not talking your run-of-the-mill sandwich bag variety. Somehow Mimi finds the most ginormous ziplock bags possible - they're practically large enough to crawl inside of (not that I am recommending you try it). While these baggies are no doubt impressive in stature and most certainly squall-proof, I've been thinking for a while that Mimi should have something a bit nicer and more earth-friendly to carry her projects along in as she knits her way from home to knitting store to Minnesota to everywhere in between.

So for Mimi's birthday in September I decided to make her a Super Tote knitting bag. I got the idea from Ashley's blog a while back. I felt the pattern would work perfectly for a knitting bag with it's large size and numerous pockets - not to mention it's so much more appealing than a ziplock. The pattern was extremely thorough and well made, and I am very happy with how the bag turned out.

The poppy print is a home dec weight fabric I found at Crafty Planet. Unfortunately the selvage is not labeled, so I don't know who the designer is. It struck me as being playful yet sophisticate and I hoped Mimi would like it (it's covered in Poppy's - how could she not!). The contrast fabric is home dec weight glimma by Lotta Jansdotter. The lining is a Kona cotton solid. I lined all exterior pieces with interfacing as recommended, so the bag is solid and structured.

I included pockets on the inside of the bag for stitch counters, scissors, measuring tapes, tapestry needles and any other knickknacks Mimi may tote along with her. After much consideration I omitted the zipper, as I couldn't get the thought of a knitting meets zipper catastrophe out of my mind - and I certainly didn't want to be responsible for such a disaster.

The large external pocket on the super tote seemed perfect for storing knitting patterns. I made and inserted my first piping ever on this pocket and am so proud of how it turned out.

We love you Mimi and hope your birthday celebration with us made you feel as loved as you are. We appreciate the warmth you send us with all of your beautiful knits and hope your new knitting bag serves well for toting your future projects wherever you may wish to take them. 

Monday, September 23, 2013

While Ava's away...

Ava starting preschool this month means Eli is finally getting a small glimpse of what it's like to be an only child - undivided parental attention, free reign of toys to play with (without the jarring interruption of a sister screaming "NOOO!" at him intermittently), and time to do whatever he pleases, however he pleases. Sometimes I marvel at how smoothly the morning goes when there is just one. Though I admit there are times I miss Ava's tendency to be a watch dog - like when things got a little too quiet in the living room and I peeked around from the kitchen to see Eli halfway out the open front door.

On this morning we both took advantage of the warmth we know is fleeting this time of year and headed up to the garden. When Eli is in charge of the watering, his waters his way.

You and I may not have realized it, but Eli knows the chicken is thirsty.

The rocks are too, of course.

The sunflowers that are as big as his head and the bunny tails that never quite sprouted their tails, well of course those are as well.

Maybe a little sip for the kale.

His clothes are always very thirsty.

Oh, and while we're out here on our walk, have we showed you our new garden bed? Will moved her from the other (shady) side of the yard. She is much happier in the sun. She needs more soil and compost, then we will plant her with garlic, garlic and more garlic in a couple weeks. I am enjoying the promise of an expanded garden next year and look forward to implementing the many ideas that one season almost under our belt has given us.

This boy of ours - yes, he really is transforming into a boy as the baby in him gradually fades - he enjoys his time alone with mama and all of the important work he does while Ava is in preschool. Tomorrow he starts down his own path to preschool with the beginning of Little Sprouts. It resonates as a significant shift to me - I remember Ava starting Little Sprouts back when we had just moved here from Michigan. I am happy he will finally do something that is all his own. That he will have the opportunity to make his own friends rather than always hanging out with Ava's buddies.  Our little man is growing up. 

As much as Eli is loving his alone time, at the end of the morning his smile never fails to burst forth when I ask him if he's ready to pick up his sister from school. sigh. These are precious times my friends.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Outside In

Continuing the (prolonged) tour of our home renovations I thought it appropriate this time of year to move from the outside in. So next let's talk about our porch. As I mentioned in my post from when we bought our house, some of the 'before' pictures were just too scary to look at without 'after' pictures alongside to buffer them. And while I won't say that the 'after' pictures in this post are final - there is still much to do before we declare the porch 'finished' - Will has certainly accomplished major improvements. Here is the three-season porch that sits off the side of the dining room as it looked on closing day:

The most egregious aspect of the porch was the vinyl asbestos floor tiling. None of it was friable, so the danger of exposure to asbestos was low; but Will felt the extreme heat and cold of Minnesota seasons could eventually loosen and crack the tiles. We certainly didn't want kids or animals spending time out there until the floor was replaced. And, of course, the floor was hideous. So it had to go. After taking down the once-upon-a-time-white curtains - which were probably original to this 1950s house and looked as if they harbored dirt from all six of the past decades - Will set to work.

The kids enjoyed their front row view of Dada's labor...

...until he sealed up the doorway with a large plastic sheet to keep any dust from entering our house.

After researching proper procedures for safe removal, Will donned his hazmat suit and respirator and set to the dirty work of removing the old tiles and glue from the floor. Once things were properly cleaned up, he primed the walls and ceiling of the porch to seal in any dust he might have missed when wiping the area clean. Then it was time to lay down the radiant floor warming mats that we hope will extend the use time of our porch, making the tile more comfy on bare feet as the weather cools. We used these. We haven't had a chance to test them out during the summer months, but will let you know how they work once fall is upon us.

We chose slate tile for the new flooring. Will had laid down ceramic tile in a small bathroom years ago, so figured he knew what was in store for him. He did not anticipate how much more challenging slate would be. For one thing, the slate tiles are all slightly different, both in terms of shape and thickness. They are also very irregular, sometimes being quite thick on one end and thin on the other. Then, of course, they are all naturally different colors. This all adds to the character of the finished floor, but turns laying down the tile into much more of an 'art'.

Laying down the tiles took several weekends of during-naptime work, but we were so excited with how the floor looked when they were all finally down.

Once all the tiles were laid Will used a pre-sealer which was supposed to make the grout easier to lift off the tiles. In hindsight, Will is so glad he did this as the grout was much more difficult to get off the slate than he remembered it to be with the ceramic tile.

Don't let his smile fool you, the grouting was HARD work. At some point Will enlisted my help in wiping the grout off the tile once his hands were beginning to give out. He may or may not have then proceeded to criticize my method of wiping the tiles *ahem*, but we'll pass that one off as fatigue and let it slide. After days, yes literally days, of scrubbing the tiles and then using some grout remover to help the process along, we were satisfied with how it all looked. Will applied the final sealant to the whole floor and we waited impatiently until it dried the next morning.

The kiddos were ecstatic to finally get out and dance around on the porch. To fully appreciate how excited they were about this, you must understand that they had been staring through the window of the dining room door out onto this porch for weeks and weeks calling, "Dada!" repeatedly while he worked on it. The porch had been pretty much off-limits since we'd moved in, so it was like a very special treat to finally set foot out there. And the new floor looked and felt so beautiful! In this moment, the first time we were all able to run around out there together, the weeks of hard work and missing Dada felt so worth it.

Even Lola had to check it out. 

Then we all set to work building furniture. At this point I was well versed in the art of Ikea assembly, as I had put together all our Ikea kitchen cabinetry (but that's a story for another post). Ava and Eli loved this process and actually helped screw the bolts in. Well, Ava helped screw them in; Eli mostly went around trying to stick bolts into any hole he could find (apparently the urge starts very early in life). Once the furniture was built Will replaced all the glass panes with the screens that are also original to the house. Happily, unlike most of the rest of the house, the screens are in excellent condition as they probably haven't been installed in the last 40 years. 

And now we have a porch we can use:

There is still more work to be done in the future - painting, new curtains, new pillows, base moulding, ceiling fan, etc. But at this point in our home renovations we are so so happy to achieve 'usable'.