‘Honoring Miss Pietsch’ or how a composer helped me get my house in order, featuring 1886 wallpaper

 

House1904AAUW
Composer Edna Frida Pietsch stands in front of her house in 1904, insert is Pietsch at 8, in 1902. The awnings are in the attic, although they’re pretty worn out. (Photo from Wisconsin Women: a gifted heritage©1982, a project of the Wisconsin State Division AAUW

If anyone with a social media presence wants to see their blog stats tank, here’s my advice:

  1. Quit Facebook.

Even though my blog is my gift to me, a place where I write what I want to in order to loosen myself up to write better and more freely and not about how many readers and followers I have, I will freely cop to being a little sad at how dramatically my readership disappeared when I parted ways with Zuckerberg & Co.

But, I’m over it now. (Okay, maybe I am. Or maybe I’m just lying to myself.)

In the meantime, I have made excellent use of the time between blog posts to do something I have not been able to do since moving into my current house. With a little push from the house’s longest resident, Edna Frida Pietsch, and a lot of help from a couple of neighbors, my house has turned into a place I want to hang out in instead of run away from.

Well, the first floor, at least. Which is a lot, given that the first floor includes a kitchen, living room, parlor, dining room and a couple of porches. All presentable, all beautiful.

MusicRoom
The parlor – and music room

What brought on this miracle?

Two things, actually. One was our neighborhood’s annual home tour. Sweetheart and I live just outside a historic district that has hosted a home tour for the past 28 years. When he lived here with Then-wife, they were asked multiple times to open the house up for the tour, but didn’t.

I’d done the tour before. My previous house was inside the neighborhood boundaries, and there was nothing  wrong with it that a cash infusion of roughly $250,000 wouldn’t have addressed nicely. It was 2005’s “house-in-progress.”

The tour prep process resulted in a lovely, tranquil and neat first floor that stayed lovely, tranquil and neat for six months. Then, a car accident rendered me unable to do much of anything involving cleaning up after people who messed up faster behind me.

Still, it was a valuable lesson. I learned I could create and maintain order – something I had not had the chance to know about myself prior.

In the ensuing years, my decision to live in what could diplomatically be described as a pigsty was informed by my priority list.

When Sweetheart bought his house back after By-Then-Ex-wife put it up for sale, I was working full-time and in graduate school. That overlapped with helping Mom move across six states into an assisted living high-rise and then to a nursing home. Good grades, keeping my job and caring for my mother took precedence over housekeeping.

Still, the process of organizing Mom’s house while she was still there to ensure maximum safety and efficiency while she lived independently, then breaking it apart twice more for her moves showed me I had somehow mastered the art of hanging on to the right stuff without hanging on to all of it – or even too much.

There are people for whom housekeeping and clutter-repelling comes naturally. Sweetheart and I are not among them.

So, for almost 10 years, I lived in this house and whenever I had the time to look around, mostly wanted to cry and run away because there seemed no way to get it under control.

Graduating from library school in 2014 freed up time, but by then Mom was in the nursing home. My free time went there until she died.

Then, it was March of 2018, and all I had was a job. No Mom. No school. Just an upcoming neighborhood home tour focused on the arts.

And Edna Frida Pietsch, the neo-classical composer whose father and grandfather built our house. Pietsch spent either all of her life here or lived here from the time she was five – in 1899 – until she died in 1982.  She taught theory and composition at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music for 35 years and composed solo, chamber and symphonic works.

20180511_123022
A cassette recording of Edna Frida Pietch’s “String Quartet in D Major”

Given that, there was no question that her house had to be on the tour. So, thanks to a pair of Sallys – the tour chair and the volunteer chair – we cleaned, and scrubbed, and excavated. (Good people going through rough times –intimate partner violence survivors and people living with brain disorders – will make good use of what we don’t need and won’t miss.)

I took a trip to Madison’s Mills Music Library at the University of Wisconsin, where Pietch’s manuscripts and recordings are housed. Library Director Jeanette Casey and her staff were wonderfully helpful. After I left, they digitized some of her music so I’d have recordings to play on Tour Day.

 

 

 

Pietsch’s portrait hangs in the Art, Music and Recreation room of The Milwaukee Public Library. Librarians there let me scan reference copies of her music. And an anthology of Wisconsin women published by the American Association of University Women featured a section on Pietsch and photo of the house from 1904.

MPL_PietschPortrait.jpg
Edna Frida Pietsch, painted by Joan Beringer Pripps

Hands in Harmony, a local piano studio, provided three hours of live music from teachers and students, including some works by Pietsch. The house looked fabulous.

The morning of the tour, I was putting the finishing touches on a display board. An empty board was laying on the dining room table.

“Can I use this?”

Sweetheart was cocking his head at the display board, his arms wrapped around a worn-looking cardboard box he’d brought from some cluttery corner of the attic or basement.

He began laying chunks of dusty plaster on the cardboard, arranging them in lines. Some broke apart as he lifted them from the box.

1886WallpaperBoard
Chunks of dusty plaster

“Um….what are these?”

Which is how I found out about the second chimney sprouting a leak, causing a dining room wall to buckle. Sweetheart and Then-wife had to remove the plaster and replace it. Underneath the molding, they found the 1886 wallpaper. He’d boxed and kept it, along with a sample of the old-school jute-lined linoleum that had been under the carpet when they’d redone the floors.

WallpaperCloseup.jpg
The 1886 wallpaper

We gently wiped the wallpaper with damp cloths. The plaster dust vanished, revealing a floral pattern in deep burgundy, with various shades of pink, almost silver, and gold. I thought – not for the first time – of how lucky I am to have a life partner like Sweetheart.

Reductio ad Essentialis:Diet time at The Landfill I Call Home

This holiday season, my sister got me a pair of socks that sprung a hole the first time I wore them and a pen my brother-in-law brought back from a trip to China whose individual components waged a civil war in my coat pocket. (The pieces are still in there.)

Good_Luck_Socks2-2-16-at-7.jpg
They say “Good Luck Socks.” I wore them once and used up the luck.

She also got me a pair of Roots sweatpants that fit perfectly, and an envelope with Sweetheart’s and my name on it. Inside was a note and a check for $200. The note instructed me to use it to hire someone to help us with cleaning and organizing The Landfill We Call Home.

It was a lovely gesture. Debby is well acquainted with my travails around cleaning and organization. I definitely have too much stuff. But Sweetheart is in a league by himself, and I’ve lost control of the situation.

Once upon a brief time, I lived in a house where everything was in order. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced, a mini heaven-on-earth. It was the first time in my life I remember waking up and not thinking “I have to clean the house today,” because the house was already clean and I was able, with minimal effort, to keep it that way.

Heaven
This is not my house. It belongs to friends of mine, and when I go there, it feels like heaven. That period when I was able to get and keep things in order was, too. (Posted because I couldn’t find a photo of my house from back then.)

 

Then, I was in a car accident, Youngest Daughter moved in and, shortly after that, Sweetheart and his stuff.

Landfill1
This is the chaos that followed my order. It was pretty demoralizing.

I want to live in my own heaven again, with Sweetheart. Which is, itself, a good enough reason to clean and organize. But there’s another reason, and it is that I love my children.

Moving my mother across six states five years ago was a really eye-opening experience. I was the one who packed and boxed and helped her to figure out what to take and what to leave.

She had pills that were older than my adult children and issues of Good Housekeeping that dated back to my high school years. There were bed sheets from when I was a kid, and bank receipts that pre-dated the Kennedy assassination.

Moms_MoveResized
Mom’s Great Migration, a snapshot.

Don’t get me wrong. There was a lot of cool stuff, too.

FonduePot_FromMom
Cool things from  Mom’s (above & below)

But this baby packrat did not fall far from the mother tree when it comes to accumulating stuff. Whether I get old enough that my children have to help me move or I expire in my own digs, the last thing I want to leave them is a mess.

Which leaves only one alternative. (Well, two if you count burning the house down, but that would create a whole new set of problems.)

The house needs to go on a diet. I’d say it needs to lose approximately 2/3 of its internal mass.

Which is why Debby’s gift threw me into a bit of an existential crisis. Given the scope of what needs to happen, I wasn’t sure $200 would be enough to effectively begin to address it.

“It’s enough to rent a dumpster!” Sweetheart said.

A wholesale toss-fest sounded too much like a possessionary version of the {insert name of favorite} Diet. First Ex was a big crash/fad dieter. He’d lose a bunch of weight on whatever diet du jour was in vogue at that point, then gain even more back. A wholesale purge with the possibility of ending in storage locker rental was too big a risk.

Also, it didn’t feel right. This, to quote Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz, was a “delicate” situation.

Margaret_Hamilton
“These things must be done delicately, you know.”

So, for the past few months, I’d risked losing that check somewhere in The Landfill I Call Home (our house eats things) while I pondered and waited for the right thing to do with it.

Which turned out to be my friend Annie. She was closing the vintage clothing shop she’d run for years to start an estate sale and organizing business.

Annie
Annie, behind the counter at her fabulous vintage clothing store. (Photo Credit: One of Annie’s other friends.)

I got in touch within five minutes of hearing the news. She came over for dinner and a tour of the house on Thursday. We scheduled two three-hour sessions – one for each of us.

Mine was yesterday. But in the runup, I decided to start clearing out dresser drawers so Sweetheart could have an entire dresser to himself. In the process, I began winnowing. Sweetheart saw what was happening and joined in. By the time Sunday was in the rear-view mirror, I’d thrown away three pair of shoes, a pillow and piled up a few new rags.

TakeItAwayAnnie
Annie, hauling away what I parted with after our work session. The porch and front hall look much lighter!

I also packed a huge suitcase. It’s full of clothing that still fits, but that I don’t need or haven’t worn for years. I’m off to Canada this week to see my sister.

I have a round-trip ticket. But for the clothes in that suitcase, it’s a one-way ride.

Repo Week – Day 5: I Can Dream, Can’t I?

Yesterday Sweetheart’s brother Tommy came over to help him do some excavating. I’m not sure what they got done, because I was busy fighting with myself over letting go of useless things I wanted to keep. Also, realizing that I was doing my own excavating while listening to Garbage made me feel a bit more cheerful.

Cheerful, but not any more less angst-ridden about throwing things away.

I turned to Tom for rational advice, and he was perfect.

“Kill your darlings,” he said. Then he explained that when he cleaned up his family basement and had to make tough decisions, that’s what he told himself. I plan on remembering that one.

I was starting on a metaphorical infanticide festival when the phone rang.

Mom wasn’t having a good day and wanted us to have lunch together. So I brought take-out over to the nursing home. Mom ate three pieces of an oreo roll (tuna/mushroom). Debby had a tempura roll and something called a Boston roll, which had – I don’t know – baked beans? I had fresh rolls and a small helping of green curry. The portions are huge, so Sweetheart and I split the rest for dinner later.

After lunch, Debby came back for a couple of hours, theoretically to help me with the room. But she is working on a problematic book review. (The writer lives in the same city as she does, and they have friends in common.) The story is interesting and the writing sparkles in spots, but the book was poorly edited, so there are too many characters, too much going on and a sub-head device that’s the equivalent of a seventh-grade girl who insists on dotting every “i” with a little heart. At first it’s cute, but you want to break every writing implement the kid owns after the 20th occurrence.

So her definition of help was to sit in her room writing while I occasionally showed her things. Which, while not what I was hoping for, was better than someone who’d rather be doing something else in there, tipping me ever closer to complete meltdown.

Anyway, here’s what I got done yesterday.

A picture of a room.
It’s looking a bit better. Today it ends, wherever it ends. Hopefully in a usable, functional place that I can maintain some order.

Today, I’m inviting Sweetheart in to help with one thing – taking apart the Halle Berry chair (once upon a time it was hers) and stowing it in the attic for my oldest offspring, who wants it – and installing a light fixture.

Then, at the end of today, I’m gonna call it quits for the time being. It’ll be functional and I can relax and work in there. I don’t know if I can ever get it and the rest of the house to where I’m fully satisfied. But I can dream, can’t I?

Welcome to Repo Week!: Adventures in Room-by-Room Reclamation, with a slight pollinary diversion

Before the real meat of this post, a quick update on the bees. As of last week, I can report that they are schlepping pollen to their hive. I expect to find baby bees when we open it later this week. Meanwhile, here are a couple of close-ups of my girls with full pollen baskets.

The yellowish ball hanging underneath the bee is pollen.
The brighter yellow ball hanging underneath the bee is pollen.
Another shot of a bee with a full pollen basket.
Another shot of a bee with a full pollen basket.

One of the most amazing things about having a job is paid vacation. This past year, I jealously hoarded the week and change I had left after my daughter’s wedding in order to begin addressing The Landfill I Call Home.

When we moved to this house six years ago, I was in grad school and working full time. I made a conscious decision to put unpacking and housekeeping last, focusing my energy on doing a good job for the People (I’m a public sector employee) and excelling at my studies (I graduated with honors). During that period, I moved my mother across six states into an assisted living apartment and then to a single room in a nursing home. Which did nothing – and continues to do nothing – to help decrease the stuff in my house or increase the amount of time needed to deal with it.

Anyone wondering about Sweetheart and this process? Fuhgeddaboutit. He’s the love of my life. He feeds me and calms me, and that’s huge. But when it comes to housekeeping, he’s more a problem than a solution. If I ever write a screenplay, it’s going to be a horror movie/romcom called “When Packrats Fall in Love.”

Bottom line: Last year, I got my masters degree. I did a bit here and there, but the cleaning/organizing/purging process does not come any more naturally to me than it does to Sweetheart.

Nonetheless, this week, it’s happening.

My dream would be to Marie Kondo the entire place wholemeal. But one thing I have worked hard to be good at is seeing things as they are. Trying to take on the entire house in a single week is a recipe for defeat.

So I am going to attempt the following:

  1. My study
  2. The pantries
  3. The front and back hallways

I started the study a couple of months ago, when I had a long afternoon. It went from okay to terrible in about three hours. I was so traumatized that I stopped.

The Ultimate Before Picture. I am mortified to be posting this, but if all goes well, the next picture of this room will look way different!
The Ultimate Before Picture. I am mortified to be posting this, but if all goes well, the next picture of this room will look way different!

But today, as soon as this post is posted, I head upstairs to turn on some good music and start again. I’ll be on my own for a couple of hours, and then Grace is coming over. Something I learned when I first started breaking up Mom’s house is the utility of having a friend who really understands your pathologies. It’s the equivalent of hiring a stand-in for your rational self, someone who can bypass your freaked-out inner child and reassure you that getting rid of your (insert possession here) will not, in fact, cause your soul to wither and life as you knew it to end. Unless, of course, you’re defining “life as you knew it” as “being so overwhelmed by clutter that you can’t function.”

I’ll probably be posting every other day or so this week, maybe even daily as this process unfolds.

Stay tuned.