4. Land of Milk and Honey
It took the better part of a week, but Benjamin did it. He unsealed every window that had been nailed and caulked shut. With that unforeseen task behind him, we were finally able to open the windows and let the fresh air flow. This simple habit of opening a window was something we had previously taken for granted. Now, it was like a breeze from heaven.
We longed to set any heaviness free, leaving room for great expectations, hopeful anticipation, and unchartered possibilities. Despite Belinda’s assistance in cleaning, and my family’s labor-of-love, we had hardly scratched the surface.
Nesting, settling, and decorating, were far from the here-and-now. We agreed to focus on clean up and repair before we even thought about renovations. Anyone who knows us well, knows we don’t “do” cardboard boxes, nor do we believe in long-term storage or collecting anything — well, “collectable” —which is rather ironic considering we’re now running an antique business.
This mindset of letting go and living light came after years of traveling with no more than a backpack. In my 20’s, after a year circling the globe, I returned to a storage unit filled with things I neither missed nor wanted, including my collection of Precious Moments figurines. Afterwards, I no longer wanted to store my life in a box, and ultimately became more selective about anything that required dusting.
But now, Benjamin and I didn’t have an option. Boxes would become our furniture, our closets, and our pods of all that we owned. I unpacked those I could, propping up photos and artwork against tired walls, each plastered in aged wallpaper and punctured with enough screws and nails to play connect-the-dots.
I so desperately longed to settle in, but Benjamin reminded me that every single surface would first need a facelift in our attempt to bring new life to the Betty Crocker Estate.
In that first week, I tackled the only room I could actually “decorate” — the attached sunroom. Prior to our arrival, it acted as a sort of “dog house” for two Great Danes. Massive is in understatement. Their kisses were like showers and their paws could pin a cat. They welcomed you by sitting on your lap, curling up like puppies, unaware that their heads were bigger than yours. The two dogs would nap in this glass-box solarium while soaking in the afternoon warmth.
Now that we had access to the house, I scrubbed that room on hands and knees, determined to make it my happy place where orchids could reach toward the sun in full splendor. Even now, months later, it’s still the only room in the house marked “done” which means we’ve been patch-working our way around the historic estate, doctoring one aesthetic wound after another.
Just days after our window fiasco, we received a letter from our homeowner’s insurance, notifying us they would cancel our policy unless we cleared away the limbs hanging over the roof. Our repair list was growing by the day, with Benjamin fixing what he could, and outsourcing those tasks beyond our skillsets.
Not a day went by without someone inside or around our home, handing us another report of what it would take to make things “right.” Again, dad to the rescue, a man who loves heavy machinery and will jump any opportunity to rev the chainsaw.
For a creative writer, the sound of a chainsaw is right up there with that of a jackhammer, Makita, and power drill — yep, my dad and his crew used all three at the same time. Chaos reigned.
I blared classical music throughout the house, but nothing could fade my father running through the door shouting, “You’ve got to see this!” That line became commonplace, generally 2-3 times per day, and for good reason. The daily transformation was really quite remarkable.
For this big job, my dad had hired a tree trimmer who mastered the art of pruning by dangling from branches and swinging his body around the trunk like a trapeze performer. Between his vigorous chainsaw, and the strength of my dad’s crew below, they managed to pull down limbs the size of railroad ties.
Muting my phone, I gave my dad a thumbs-up, and informed him I was on a conference call with Saddleback Church, one of my regular clients in Orange County. Trying to focus on the call, I stood there mouth agape as the tree trimmer swayed from the rope like Huckleberry Finn, my dad’s two workers were losing their grip on the ground — one with his hands wrapped around the waist of the other, my dad cheered on his team, and Chucho and Lola barked uncontrollably.
For a moment, it looked like a circus act. Despite the mayhem, the crew managed to get the job done, and create a beautiful wood pile worthy of Swiss approval.
In the midst of tree trimming, Belinda was polishing the copper counter tops in the kitchen, while I deep cleaned areas that doubled as rodent motels. We were counting the days until Benjamin could start his 3-month break from work, rage against the machine, and join our quest for resurgence.
For some reason, we (as in me and the Brick n Barn crew) created this pipedream that Benjamin would be our savior, galloping in on a white horse to save the day — and the house, and the business, and ourselves — the moment he was free from the office.
Until then, we would take whatever help we could get. Each morning, Benjamin would tackle what he could, and would leave the rest for evenings and weekends. He longed to revive the historic house that was painfully suffering from shortness of breath.
Somehow, in our desire to bring dignity back to the Betty Crocker Estate, we were losing our own. One evening, Benjamin I both stood over the bathroom sink, staring into the mirror, and noticed we had never looked more exhausted.
Benjamin examined his dirty fingernails. “Our personal hygiene and self-care are taking a beating during this stage in life,” he said.
I parted my hair and yanked out a grey. “Yep, I would say so.”
We were getting very little sleep due to our workloads and the attic noise. It wasn’t uncommon for us to finally sit down for dinner at 11 pm. The fact we were down to one car since Benjamin had totaled his motorbike, also meant I would go days without ever leaving the property. It became all-consuming.
That next morning, I opened the gate and waved goodbye as Benjamin sleepily drove to the office. I walked back to the front door, stamped with the founding date of 1883. We had never used the front door since it was easier to access the home through the side entrance. But on that morning, I looked up to see the majesty of that home, and noticed a beehive the size of a basketball.
During escrow, we paid $1,000 to have a beehive professionally removed from the attic — something the owners disclosed during negotiations. By the time we moved in, the hive was in fact removed. To access it however, the company cut through the ceiling, leaving one of the worst patch-up jobs we had ever seen.
Unbeknownst to any of us, the rogue bees returned from their day of pollinating to find their attic entrance closed, thus setting up shop at the closest location. That apparently, was right over our front door.
Next story on "Channeling Betty" coming soon.