Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Don't Blame Me, Blame HGTV! Or, How I Spent My Summer Vacation

 by Sheila Curran
I took this photo two years ago.  The background is our 'garden' in Tallahassee, where, as the saying goes, "Most places, you plant a garden, you water it and hope for the best.  In Tallahassee, you plant a garden, then beat it back with a stick."

       Clearly, the drought of 2006 didn't get the memo.  We lost our grass and gained huge roots that could not be beat back with any kind of stick I'd ever heard of.

       As mostly an inside person, I could have let the situation go, but my husband had other ideas.  Somehow, he talked me into some small landscape changes.  He has a way of making things sound easy.  He'd worked for a landscaping company in college, and afterwards, spent several years as a union bricklayer.  He knew how these things went.

The job started in mid-May and ended a week ago. In case you're counting, that's five months of work for our 'small project.' We subcontracted out the new sod but still, improving our curb appeal was an exhausting endeavor.  Every night after work, and all day on weekends, we dug and lifted and carried and sweated and generally threw ourselves into the labor of renovating our great outdoors.  I found myself repeating "The people who do this for a living deserve to get paid a lot more than they do!"

Nevertheless, there was something about physical labor that was satisfying.  The results were slow, but they were visible, unlike the less tangible rewards of writing, or trying to write.  Day by day, week by week, we installed a patio made of pavers (much, much much harder than it seemed when I idly suggested it to John).  I can't say he didn't warn me but I just couldn't believe it was that hard.  Dig a hole, fill it with some sand and add long brick-like stones in patterns.  How hard could it be?  I found the answer to that question: somewhere between three and four weeks of killing ourselves in the hottest summer on record.

This was our undistinguished and overgrown front entrance before the mammoth project.  We transplanted the huge sego palm and set out to lay, stone by stone, our own little slice of courtyard.

We finished the front yard in early July, then welcomed our son home for a weekend to help us build a deck on the side of the house.  Our teenage daughter helped as well.  We worked two twelve hour days in 100 degree heat.  Just as we finished, it started to rain and I took a photo of the newly installed wooden wonder.

I know.  It's hard to believe four people worked so hard and this is all we got.  Still, it was a huge achievement, and instead of the $3500 we'd been quoted, it only cost $1000 in materials and another 1000 litres of sweat.  I had this notion that we'd paint it and be done!  Yay!

Clearly, I'd forgotten the conversation in which my husband and I discussed his dream of building an outdoor fireplace.  And maybe a grill.  Shoot, he surely wasn't serious?  It was already the end of June and we'd killed ourselves.  Could we not make do? 

We made something. Peace I guess. Still, in the end, a huge truck showed up in our driveway and unloaded a pallet of brick the size of a car, and another one that consisted entirely of mortar.  Which I, as the unskilled worker on the project, would mix.  Mortar, or mud as masons refer to it, is mixed by lifting eighty pound bags into a wheelbarrow and watering and stirring until it gets to the consistency of something between cornbread and cookie dough.  Except you use a shovel to stir it and each 'spoonful' weighs fifteen pounds.  Might be harder than digging up clay to create a bed for the patio and then hand carrying sand and paver stones to fill it.  I think I mixed about a hundred bags of cement and each one was its own mini-boot-camp of strained shoulders and pulled triceps.  Not that I'm complaining.  Except, of course, that is exactly what I'm doing.

Here is a photo my daughter took halfway through the process.  My husband and I are dressed for success, looking particularly glamorous, I must say.

 By this time, I was DONE.  Toast.  Nevertheless, the chimney was not.  John and I worked side-by-side, quiet for the most part, and afterwards got to jump in the pool and talk about how hard we'd worked.  (This so you don't feel too sorry for us.)  I hesitate to use the word fun, but there was a certain element of pleasure in working together to create something physical and visual, to use our bodies, not our brains, in our efforts.  In our day jobs we toiled away on our book projects and after 'work' we did menial labor 'til the intellectual tasks we'd tackled sorted themselves out in our brains.  I was trying to complete my novel, the one I've been working on since 2008. Several plot twists actually came to me as I lugged another bag of concrete over to the wheelbarrow and went through the motions that had by then become rote.

In the end, we have finally finished.  What follows are pictures we took a week ago.  Already leaves have fallen on the patio and the deck too.  I need to water the flowers and the yard will soon need mowing.  But for now, we will pretend, just for a moment, that what we accomplished will stay that way without a lifted finger, except the kind you might use to point at something with pride, saying, "Man that was some kind of small landscaping job!"  In the meantime, I also finished a first draft of OUR LADY OF THE SNOWS and am grateful for the kinesthetic breakthroughs that came to me in the midst of mixing mud.  I'm now in the midst of weeding out repetition and beating back prosaic confusion with a stick, hoping that in the end, the novel gets to the point where it, too, is photo-ready and a joy to behold.

 And if you go around the corner, you can see the pool area.

And if you stood behind the fountain and looked at the house with the new side deck, it would look like this.

And if you walked towards the house and towards the grill and fireplace, it would look something like this.

Perhaps if it stays looking this nice, I'll host a gathering of the Girlfriends to come sit outside and tell me how it's kind of okay to go wildly off topic of "genre and scary Halloween things" to yammer on about my not-very-secret garden with far more drama than it deserves. 

In the meantime, let me tell you, whatever you pay the contractor to come in and make things beautiful, it's worth that and a whole lot more.

 Sheila Curran's novels, EVERYONE SHE LOVED and DIANA LIVELY IS FALLING DOWN are available in bookstores, online and as E-books.




  1. You look so cute in your hat and boots! And I love that pool. I'll bring the Cuervo Gold for the margaritas.

  2. whoa! what a project!! you always find new ways to impress me, sheila!!

  3. Karin you're on and Brenda, when you need a mommy break, come on down!

  4. I'll bring good wine and some yummy munchies.

    It's gorgeous, Sheila!

  5. Funny how your mind can wander into fertile territory while doing manual labor...or driving carpool, or listening to husband telling about his day. I get my best ideas at the weirdest times. Glad you got some material on the job. Beautiful! Count me in for the GBC party.

  6. Great post! And great pics! Love the pool especially, and the fire pit. Count me in for some chips and homemade salsas to go with the Karin's Cuervo Gold.

  7. Take me to Tallahasse. This is beautiful.

    Projects like this always seem so daunting that I don't do them. . But all that hard work totally relates to book writing.

    Great post.

  8. Love it :) Can you teach me how to do that?

  9. Girlfriends, I am TOTALLY SERIOUS about a GCC get-together, maybe in April when it's still snowing up north. We have walking trails in our woods and lots of sleeping space. Plus, Maria might have ideas on how to house the overflow. I'll send my family somewhere and we can have a serious tax-deductible conference on promotion and publicity. xooxxoxo Sheila
    ps. my last dream was to run a bed and breakfast!

  10. What a spectacular transformation! I am impressed. A GCC get-together would be great, and you'll have plenty hands to weed all those lovely gardens.

  11. She-- I have a picture of Nan wearing the same John!