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I haven’t set the kitchen table in weeks.
Each morning I wake up, pour a cup of coffee, open the back door and step out onto my patio. Usually it is cool enough to wear a robe or the heavy man’s denim work shirt I sometimes slip over my gown when I'm too impatient.
Lunch might be a salad while I work at the big table on the patio or idle in the shaded corner of my backyard. Dinner is eaten late, on the patio again, just as the sun slips behind the trees on the horizon. After the meal I leash the dog and walk to Manito Park to take a stroll around the gardens, where it is always at least five degrees cooler and the air is thick with the heady perfume of flowers. Then, at night, after the dishes are done and the dog and the cats have been fed, I slip out the back door again for a few more minutes. I sit on the glider, pushing myself back and forth with my toes against concrete that still holds the warmth of the sun, and I mark the end of another day.
This time of year, my living area is always turned inside out. I eat, read, relax, work and daydream outdoors. When my children were all still at home, before we moved out of the big house in the country and into the cottage in town, I set up a daybed on the patio. During the day they would sprawl over it, reading for hours, surrounded by newspaper comics, crossword puzzles, Barbie dolls, Breyer horses and empty Popsicle wrappers. At night, after dinner, after the last bit of daylight had faded, my youngest and I would lie down together on the summer bed. Often her sisters and her brother would join us and we would lie there like puppies in a basket, gazing up, watching the stars come out and the Milky Way spread like spilled paint across the black night sky. We pointed out the Big Dipper and called out when shooting stars streaked across overhead. We counted satellites. Sometimes we spotted the flash of the Space Station’s solar panels as it orbited, and once an owl startled us as it flew low and silently over the backyard.
Eventually the others would wander off and the youngest would drift off to sleep in my arms. But I would always lie there a bit longer, breathing the shampoo-and-green-grass fragrance of her hair, reluctant to let her go.
Finally, around midnight, I would rouse her and help her stumble up to her bed and then climb into my own.
Anyone who has ever lived where the humidity chases the temperature up the thermometer and the mid-summer air—day or night—is as uncomfortable and heavy as a damp blanket, will understand the way I delight in the season here. I grew up in the South. Summer could be long and cruel. But here in the Northwest, where the season is short and sweet, mornings are deliciously cool, afternoons are hot and bright and the twilight is long and slow and luxurious.
I can’t bear to waste a minute so I take my cup of coffee out to meet the sun and I’m there to watch the moon rise. And one by one these beautiful days go by while I sit and watch, and think of children whose hair smelled of green grass and lavender shampoo.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer whose audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of ‘Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons’ and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
There is a house down the street from where I live and I often pass it on my afternoon walks through the neighborhood. It is a small white house, a classic Cape Cod, probably built in the lean years before the second World War. There is ivy climbing up the chimney and a tall evergreen tree anchors one corner of the front yard.
Most days, there is nothing about the little house that would draw your attention. It is like a hundred others in the city. But if you pass it on a summer evening, just at the softest part of the day when the sky is darkening to a deep shade of violet but still light at the western edge of the horizon, maybe a few of the earliest stars are already out, it’s possible the front door will be open. And through the screen door you can see into the small living room of the compact house where two baby grand pianos sit side by side, situated so that the pianists can see one another as they play.
I know nothing about the house or the people who live there, but to my way of thinking it is the pianos that tell the story, the way they fill the room, claiming it as a place where music is, or has been, made. When I look into that room I see love. There are people there who love music enough to make it the center of the house.
Once, at the end of a day in Paris, I walked down a narrow street near the Latin Quartier and past an apartment building. A tiny slice of one of the apartments was visible through the open terrace doors and I could see a faded but still elegant armchair, upholstered in a soft blue velvet that was worn in places from years of use. Tall shelves filled with rows and rows of books lined the wall and a lamp cast a soft glow over the chair.
With nothing more than a glimpse into the room I could imagine the person who lives there. I could see him (I don’t know why, but it felt like a man’s room) come home each evening, scan the shelves, select a book and then settle into the chair to read. From the outside, the building gave no clue to its inhabitants. Rows of windows shuttered the lives of those inside, but the love of books, the familiar and satisfying feel of a favorite book in one’s hands, spilled out out through the open door, carried into the night by the golden lamplight.
The peek into those two rooms has changed the way I think about my house. Now, I try to look past the usual clutter, the sleeping, shedding, cats and dog, past the unfinished projects on my to-do list. I focus hard on the way the chairs sit next to the window, perfect for watching the seasons change and the parade of people on the way to the park. I look at the books I’ve collected over a lifetime and the photographs I’ve taken of the people and places I love.
The places we call home say much about us in ways we don’t always appreciate. We focus so much on the superficial—the wreath on the door, the curb appeal, the fresh coat of paint— that we forget that what defines any room as the place we belong has little to do with the decor and everything to do with how we live, and love, in the space.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a journalist and travel columnist whose audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of ‘Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons’ and can be reached at email@example.com
The routine is always the same.
I walk into our kitchen, a place that is deeply familiar and filled with all the pleasant associations of my family, and I pull out everything I will need. Methodically, listening to the radio or letting my mind wander, I chop onion, celery and carrots into the mirepoix that will form the base of a pot of homemade soup. Sauteing the vegetables, I separate two, three, sometimes four garlic cloves and chop them, tossing the aromatic pieces into the olive oil and butter with the other ingredients. Then I fill the big pot with stock, chicken or vegetable, add seasoning and put it on the stove to simmer. Sometimes I add leftover chicken but usually it is meat-free. In an hour or so our meal is done. I slice the bread, set the table and call out that dinner is ready. We pick up our spoons, take the first sip, and I know I am home.
Food, as we all learn quickly enough, as newborn babies crying out in hunger and frustration, does more than just feed us. Food comforts. Food connects and unites us. It brings us closer and broadens our tastes. Food carries us forward and, as we get older and years escape us, reminds us of the past.
In some elemental way, soup captures all of that for me. It is simple, inexpensive and quickly prepared but it carries so much more than just flavor.
For years now, after returning home from a trip, especially when no one could get away to come along with me, I’ve made soup when I got back and I’ve come to realized it is more than an act of putting food on the table. Sometimes, when I grabbed a cheap fare and took an impulsive journey, giving in to the temptation to travel, the meal is part apology. Other times, when my work took me away and I was busy and frustrated, it is part recompense, a way to make up for my short absence.
But always, whether anyone sitting around the table knows or even cares, the act of making and sharing a pot of homemade soup, of gathering over the savory fragrance of simple ingredients, is an act of love. It is a way to say leaving this place and these people always hurts a little. And that coming home to chop and and stir and season a meal to feed them, somehow feeds me more.
For more about travel and homecoming, read Traveling Mothers
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer based in Spokane, Washington, whose essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of ‘Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons’ and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)
The mantel is done, dressed with billows of fluffy artificial snow and a forest of tiny white flocked trees and candles, so I open the next box and pull out the family Christmas stockings.
As I slip the small loop at the end of each stocking over the hook under the mantle top, I think about the child, now an adult, who will take it down on Christmas morning.
Every moment of the day will be scripted by tradition. First, those who spent the night will stumble and stretch as they walk into the living room, sleepy, with the deliberate nonchalance of someone who cares deeply but doesn’t want it to show. The back door will open and one by one the rest will file in. Their eyes straying to the tree and the wrapped packages below it.
Pots of coffee will be made, the dogs will be underfoot until someone finally puts them outside. Comfortable chairs and corners will be claimed and when everyone is assembled the ceremony of Christmas morning will begin.
First, the “Santa” gifts. The toys, things they can share and enjoy—what used to be bicycles and Barbies and model trains but are now video games or family board games—will be opened. This used to be the big event of the day but now it’s more of a nod to tradition. Nobody in the house lies in the dark counting the minutes and hours until morning. Nobody is waiting and wondering, believing in magic. Nobody races to the tree. But Santa still comes, leaving one or two special gifts for the child inside every adult in the room.
Next, is breakfast. “Dad” always makes a big casserole we eat only on Christmas morning and the kids look forward to it each year.
After breakfast come the stockings. Everyone takes their stocking to their own corner or chair and they pull out one treat after another and admire it, taste or share it. The room is full of voices and the lingering fragrance of sausage and cheese and eggs.
Then, for a while the house will be quiet. They will wander back to bed, off to watch a movie or upstairs to play the new game. My daughter and son-in-law will leave to spend a few hours at their own home. This year the new baby will need a nap.
In the afternoon the Prime Rib will go in and just as the sun goes down we will gather around the table again. Then, after dessert, we’ll sit around the tree and exchange our gifts to one another, taking turns so that everyone has a chance to open each gift slowly and savor the moment.
And with that, the long day will be over. After our goodbyes I will walk through the house turning out lights, picking up stray ribbons and bows and folding empty boxes. I will stand in the dark room, lit only by the tiny lights on the tree, and my throat will tighten with tears because one more family gathering has come and gone and I still can’t say I appreciated it enough.
All this goes through my mind as I decorate the house, as I open each box and carefully hang each each empty stocking with tender, loving, care.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is the author of Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons. She can be reached at email@example.com
(Photo by R. B. Millsap)
One night, on my first trip to Germany during the month of December, hungry and still a little jetlagged from the flight, I walked into a tiny restaurant in a residential district near the center of Munich. I opened the door and then, dazzled by what I saw, stopped to take it all in.
A forest of dozens of small, elaborately decorated Christmas trees were hanging upside down from the ceiling of the room. I’d never seen anything like it before. Beautifully-wrapped packages of all sizes were stacked on windowsills, strung like ornaments on garlands of ribbon and greenery, and piled into corners. Evergreen boughs, woven with tiny white lights that glowed in the fresh snowfall outdoors and were reflected in the mirror over the bar, trimmed every door and window.
The intimate neighborhood eatery was filled with locals enjoying a big plate of schnitzel or wurst and crowded with friends who’d stopped by for an after-work drink. I felt as though I’d walked into a scene from an ornate Victorian picture-book, but I quickly realized the over-the-top decor was no show for tourists. It was just a perfectly fine example of the way Germany dresses up for the holiday season.
Anyone who has ever spent time at one of Germany’s Advent or Christkindlmarkts can relate. It’s the same kind of over-the-top feeling. Strolling down the rows of wood huts, most strung with white lights and wrapped in garland and decorations, it’s easy to feel you’ve stepped back in time.
Most markets are held in the traditional market square or city center. Surrounded by beautiful architecture, the air is filled with the sweet and spicy scents of sausages, pastries, potato pancakes and warm candied almonds and other nuts. Shoppers crowd around booths buying gifts of handmade wood toys, knitted items, ornamental gingerbread and hand-carved wood figures for the family creche. And the Glühwein stands are the most popular by far, with friends gathering to enjoy a mug of the hot, spiced and fortified wine that is so much a part of Germany’s holiday season.
Each market has a distinctive feel. The walled city of Nuremberg is famous for its red and white striped market canopies. The Munich “manger” market is where families come each year to select hand-carved pieces for the creche displayed every Christmas season. And the sprawling, busy, Frankfurt market stretches from the old city center to the river, highlighting both the history and contemporary culture of the vibrant city. The beautiful market in Cologne is consistantly voted one of the most popular.
If you have the time and want to explore Germany at a more leisurely pace, consider booking a Rhine River cruise. With frequent stops at villages between Frankfurt, Germany and Basel, Switzerland, a December river cruise down the Rhine River gives you a trouble-free way to enjoy the scenery as you cruise past ancient castles, beautiful and productive vineyards, old fortifications and picturesque villages. Each day brings a new opportunity to explore holiday markets in towns along the river, each with its own flavor and vibe, without the crush of peak-season tourists. Small-ship cruising combines the best of cruising—fine dining, comfortable staterooms and leisurely travel—but most river cruise ships carry fewer than 200 passengers so one never feels lost in the crowd.
No place is as beautiful as Germany this time of year. Every year when I hang the wreaths and decorate the tree I think back to that small but beautifully and exhuberantly decorated restaurant on a quiet street in a very busy city. And I'm always inspired to do just a bit more.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer based in Spokane, Washington, whose audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)
The wind had picked a bit up the night before, sweeping through the tall pine trees, taking with it loose branches and needles, dropping them to the grass below.
I noticed something else in the litter on the lawn and as I got closer I could see it was a small bird’s nest, still intact after its long fall. I picked it up and studied the way it was made. I have never seen a nest that isn’t, in some way, beautiful. A marvel, really. But this one was exceptionally so.
Made almost entirely of long strands of dried grass woven around what appeared to be wool or even dryer lint, the inside was lined with a soft, golden, feathery material. At first I thought it might be the bird’s own feathers but then I realized it was a layer of shredded cattail blooms, the tall plant that grows in ponds and marshes and bends and dances in the breeze. The compact bloom had been pulled apart and separated into downy fibers.
I held the nest for a long time, thinking about what an engineering and artistic accomplishment it was. And to what lengths the birds had gone to to create it.
Grass and lint are all around us. That could have come from any house nearby. But the cattail had to have come from the park down the hill, several blocks away. It would have been no small feat to bring home, bit by bit, enough of the fibers to fill even such a petite shelter. What compelled her to use that particular plant? Surely there must have been some easier way.
I carried the nest home and set it on the mantel in my living room. For days, every time I walked by, I would stop for a closer look. One afternoon I sat down on the sofa—a piece with a new slipcover, sewn by a friend who does beautiful work. I searched and searched for just the right fabric before settling on the natural cotton and now every time I look at the sofa, it pleases me.
Still cradling the fragile thing in my hand, still puzzling over the curiosity of it, I reached behind me to adjust the cushion at my back and felt the fine weave of the soft linen pillow cover under my fingertips. Immediately, I remembered the day I’d purchased it in a small shop in Estonia. I’d spent an hour pulling out cover after cover until I found a pair that were exactly right.
I glanced at the curtains hanging at the window and recalled discovering them in a second-hand store in Reyjkavik. I hadn’t given a thought to how I would get the four panels home, I just had to have them. The eight yards of material had stretched my already-full luggage to its limits and when I got to the airport I was told it was overweight. The gate agent listened as I told him how I’d found the curtains. How they were old and soft and the color was perfect and that I would never again find such beautiful fabric. Still looking at me, without saying a word, he tagged my heavy bag and sent it away without charging me the extra fee.
I turned to look at the small Native American rug behind the glass doors of the secretary standing in the corner. I’d spotted it in a weaver’s studio outside of Chimayo, New Mexico, picking it up and putting it down twice before committing. I tried to be practical, but I simply had to have it.
My own nest is filled with soft things from unlikely places. Things which, although I stumbled onto them at the time I was, in some sense, seeking. Who am I to question a bird’s choice? After all, exposed to the elements, at the mercy of wind and rain and sly predators, she had fragile eggs to protect and tender fledgelings to care for. I have four sturdy walls and a roof over my head.
The delicate nest is still on the mantel. I think I will keep it there as a reminder that the real difference in a shelter and a home is what surrounds us when we are there.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap can be reached at email@example.com
If you've been thinking about applying to appear on HGTV's “Bang for Your Buck,” the show that brings in experts to compare three home renovations to determine which got the most bang for the money spent, think fast. Today (Monday) is the deadline.
High Noon producer Callie Zanandrie is looking for homeowners in the Spokane, Coeur d'Alene area who would like to share their great room renovation story with viewers. If you'd like to participate here's all you need to do:
- Contact Zanandrie for the show application and cost estimation chart at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Email two or three “before” and “after” photos.
- Email two or three pictures of you and you family.
I got a note from the producer of HGTV’s Bang For your Buck and she's looking for Spokane home improvement stories. Here's your chance to be on TV!
HGTV is looking for great room renovations in the Spokane area to be featured on the hit show “Bang for Your Buck.” If you'd like a shot at the small screen, email Callie Zanandrie at email@example.com and tell her why you'd like to be considered. Don't forget to include one or two photos of the project and the estimated cost of the renovation.
I have read everything you’ve written since I moved to Spokane in 2002. I especially love your pieces on antiques. I’m a true collector and find myself drawn to flea markets and thrift stores. I can spend hours looking and imagining how I would recreate a rusted piece and find a place of honor for it in my garden. Everything in my house has a story.
I loved your “Home” section especially your Treasure columns and I wish I had saved more of them. I recently discovered your blog was back and couldn’t wait to write you. Glad to see you back.
Who knows, maybe we will meet at a sale some time ~ Kathy.
Thanks for the sweet note and the kind words. You made my day. Thanks for reading and for following the blog. I’ve decided to post several of my favorite Treasure Hunt columns from HOME. Hope you like seeing them again.
Let’s not wait for a happy coincidence. Let’s make a date to say hello at the next big sale. See you there!
It’s difficult to turn down a good read
By Cheryl-Anne Millsap
This piece was previously published in The Spokesman-Review.
My books, some of which have been with me since childhood, are as beloved to me as a few of the people I know and care about. And I turn to them almost as often.
There is comfort in the faded illustrations, the dog-eared pages and worn bindings. And the familiar words.
I like to have those books nearby, on a shelf by a comfortable chair or stacked on a table beside a lamp, so that when the mood strikes, I can tuck into a book of poetry or a quaint reference volume on botany or birds or travel. Or, I can revisit a character from a favorite novel.
I have a friend who uses old books to decorate every room of her house.
“I could drown in old books,” she once told me. “I love the way they look and the way they feel in your hand.”
Old cookbooks line the shelves in her big kitchen. Biographies and memoirs are stacked in the sitting room.
Each time I go to her house, usually to have a meal, I am drawn to the books she has chosen to keep. Sometimes, I pick up one and sit down to read a bit. Eventually someone misses me and calls me back to the kitchen, but no one can blame me.
The smell of good food, the sound of laughter and the warmth of books bound in cracked leather are the secret ingredients to her hospitality.
I love books, but like everything else, I try to keep only the ones that mean the most to me. So, occasionally, I edit. I pick those I think my friends might like and send them along. Or, I drop off books at fundraisers and used bookstores. If we’re having a garage sale, I always have a box of two of books to sell.
Books come and go. But some stay forever.
Those are the old friends I love the most
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
After sitting on the market for more than a year, the little vintage 1937 Cape Cod at the edge of the park didn’t suffer from a lack of attention.
A lot of people looked at it. They noticed the prime location across the street from the upper end of Manito Park. They took note of the neighborhood of well-kept homes. They looked at the pre-war charm and loads of potential.
What they couldn’t see was the best way to open up tiny, cramped rooms. Or to bring light to a dark interior. Or to best utilize the basement for an expansion.
Enter Josh Hissong. After a quick tour of the little house, Hissong was hooked.
“I wasn’t sure how I would do it, exactly,” Hissong says. “But I knew the house had a lot of potential.”
After the seller accepted his offer - he closed on the property on Halloween - he sent an email to HGTV, the home and garden television network.
“I went online and contacted producers,” he says. “I told them I was about to do a remodel and sent them some information asking if they were interested.”
The answer was an immediate yes. Hissong was asked to send photos.
Producers of HGTV’s sister network, DIY, called and said they would be taping Hissong’s project.
“I thought, ‘OK, well, now you’ve got to do it,’” he says.
While Hissong plowed into the renovation, the first time he’s done such an in-depth project, a crew from DIY Renovation Realities flew to Spokane and followed his progress.
“It was an adventure,” Hissong says. “My friend and I did the entire first-floor demo by hand. No power tools.” When he brought out the power saw, the first thing he did was cut through a live power line.
“The producer said, ‘Maybe you should go back to using a hammer,’” Hisson says with a laugh.
There were a few other mishaps and learning opportunities. At one point in the renovation the power was out and they needed to light a fire in the fireplace.
“We used the only drawings I had made,” Hissong says. “From then on it was out of my head.”
The result is stunning. The former dated, dingy and dark interior is now sleek and looks more like a downtown loft than a cottage. Hissong opened up the entire first floor, adding a powder room and frosted glass door to the garage. The kitchen, now a contemporary and user-friendly room, features stainless steel appliances, stone-tile accent walls and custom cabinetry. French doors lead to the new deck and landscaped back yard. Modern light fixtures both illuminate and decorate the main floor.
“I found them on Eurway.com for $108.00 per fixture with free shipping,” he says, estimating he saved hundreds on each fixture by ordering online.
Upstairs, the two bedrooms and small bonus room were updated and new carpet installed. The bathroom, once a simple washroom tucked under the eaves is now a glossy stone-tiled space. In the basement, Hissong installed another large bathroom and two more bedrooms. The original 1,800 square foot interior is now almost 2,700 feet of elegant, urban living space
“I have replaced pretty much every finish in the entire home,” Hissong says. “I spent every lunch break and free moment I could, researching pricing on finishes.”
The renovation and restoration work paid off. Dark wood, modern tile and smooth stone update the rooms. Neutral walls lend a serene atmosphere.
After all was said and done, Hissong managed to finish the project on time and within the budget. No small feat. He credits good help from friends like Brian Brumfield, and and his background as the area’s leading restaurant designer.
“A good contractor helps,” Hissong says. “But hiring a real designer that has money saving ideas and can control your labor, help with the design and finish choices will go further than anything else.”
“The long and short of it is I learned, again, that you have to take control of a remodel,” he says. “Or it will take control of you and your pocket book.”
Hissong has put the finished home up for sale, but admits it will be hard to let go of all his hard work.
When Hissong gathers with friends on Saturday night to watch the first airing of his project on DIY Television’s Renovation Realities, he’s looking forward to celebrating a job well done and lessons learned.
“What drew me to the house was the fact that it sat so long and that there were over 120 realtor cards in one of the drawers in the kitchen,” he says.“People loved the location and the style of the home, they just did not have the vision to transform it.”
Hissong had the vision. And, now, so do television viewers across the country.
(Click Continue Reading to see more photos of Josh Hissong’s renovation)