Monthly Archives: December 2014

Tiles and tribulations

Remember the kitchen renovation? The one we’ve been working on since 2012, when I began this blog? The one we burned out on as soon as we had a fully functional kitchen? Well … we’re back on it!

ready for backsplash tiles

What about the side porch, you ask? For a while, it was on ice, literally. And then it was under water … and then .. well, maybe this isn’t the best time of year to build a porch. But it’s perfect for inching our not-quite-finished kitchen toward true completion.

Long ago we decided to repeat the bathroom’s white subway tile in the kitchen, but with gray grout to complement the floor. We bought all the materials. And naturally, I procrastinated. After months of tripping over buckets of thin set in the hall and working around the box of tile next to the sink, we finally got our butts in gear. We thought that our four days off over Thanksgiving should be more than adequate to install our backsplashes. (Place your bets now. The fact that I started writing this post in November and am just now publishing it in late December should be a hint.)

Oh no … not again! By clearing everything off the counters, I recreated this familiar scene. That dining room table sure is a magnet for kitchen crap … what can I say?

dining room mess

Months ago, when Eric installed the backing board, he was challenged to find adequate attachment points. He had difficulty installing the backing board at the same depth as the plaster wall above it. Easy in theory, but not so easy in practice. I put the camera as close to the wall as I could to get this shot, which shows a fairly wide gap between the countertop and the backing board. I was worried whether the thin set and tile would be thick enough to bridge that gap.

gap between counter and wall

I started tiling at the Mother Hubbard end. Applying mastic to the narrow space was awkward, even with a small notched knife. After messing with that for a while, I gave up and simply buttered the individual tiles.

The curved edge at the of the sink required some tricky cutting. Eric had the tile saw set up in the basement to prevent tile dust from covering the kitchen. He got his lower body workout running up and down, up and down the stairs, getting the tiles to fit. The cut tile wasn’t exactly precise, but we figured any irregularities would be disguised by caulk. That’s when I realized why I had avoided this task for so long: Tiling is messy, fussy, and time-consuming. The wall was not even and I had to scootch (technical term) the tiles to fit. The old house constantly reminded me of her age. “I’m 101 … this is as straight as I can stand!”

tiles curve around sink edge

As I progressed, I abandoned the gray grout idea because I knew gray would emphasize any unevenness between tiles. We traded the bucket of gray for white. Even without grout, I was surprised at how much vintage detail the subway tiles lent the room.

With the tile in place, I could feel the wintry air rushing in from between the window apron and the wall. Caulk … we need caulk!

sink wall backsplash nearly tiled

We moved on to the other side of the room, which we expected would be much easier, as there were no curves to negotiate … just two outlets. And it was easier. But … what the hell?? Look at the upper row of tiles—they’re WAY skinnier on the right. #$%^!!!

backsplash tiles are uneven

I had no idea that this wall was so out of alignment. Really, there wasn’t anything we could do. The counters are level with the floor, and the upper cabinets are level with the ceiling. It’s just that the floor and ceiling aren’t level with each other! Since we couldn’t change that, somewhere in the middle, the discrepancy had to make itself known. Unfortunately, it was in a place where the house screamed out at me, “Look how crooked I am!!” Those uneven tiles really looked pretty amateur. Most of our projects look darned good … I’m not a fan of amateur. I was bummed. I hoped that grout would conceal the unevenness.

tiles before grout is applied

I got busy with the grout and forgot to take photos. My small grout float wouldn’t fit behind the faucet, so I smooshed (another tech term) the grout in with my fingers. (Yes, the window trim desperately needs to be painted. That will be my next trick. Don’t hold your breath, though.)

grouting with my fingers behind the faucet

Then it was Eric’s turn with the caulk gun. I was right, the thin bead of white caulk neatly concealed any rough edges around the sink tiles, and with a little extra caulk, the winter air no longer blew in under the window. Whew!

caulking around sink

In Eric’s hand, that little plastic caulk trimmer did a great job of creating a clean line. The sink before trimming …

untrimmed caulk around sink and counter

And after. Nice, huh?

sink caulk trimmed

Overall, I’m really pleased with our backsplashes. They look so clean and shiny and Craftsman-y. The white grout did a lot to disguise the crooked top row under the upper cabinets. It still bugs me, but 95% of people who visit our kitchen won’t notice it. Of course, now you know, so you have to promise not to snicker or roll your eyes if you come over.

finished backsplash under cabinets

subway tile backsplash behind sink

So, this task is complete at last, and before the end of the year. TA DA! I can go to sleep at night knowing that I won’t have to do any tiling in the foreseeable future, and that nothing—but nothing!—will seep between my sink and the counter ever again. And really, isn’t that the secret to peace of mind?

white subwaytiles on wall

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A time-travel Christmas

Months ago when I was rummaging through random boxes, I found a whole bunch of photos taken by my dad, who was always interested in photography and often processed his own film in a little mysteriously lit room in the basement. Among the memorabilia was a yellowed envelope from Chas. Menger, Inc. Florists—my grandparents’ business. Written in faded pencil, in my dad’s hand,

House Pictures—Inside
N. 116 St.
Winter 1952

old envelope containing negatives

Inside were a handful of negatives and the promise of a virtual visit to my childhood home in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, on Milwaukee’s west side. I peered at them many times against the window and tried to make out details. At last I prevailed upon Eric to scan them and turn them into prints for me. Sherman, set the Wayback Machine to December, 1952 …

My dad casts a long shadow in the afternoon sun. Our little rancher, built in 1949, wears a garland of icicles. But that’s not the neighborhood I remember! Most of the neighbors’ houses have not yet been built. An old apple orchard occupies the lot next door. When I zoom in on the photo, even though it’s pixilated, I can make out familiar details: the thermometer mounted on the kitchen’s picture window, the milk box on the back stoop, and a couple of saplings that became our elm and flowering crabapple trees. In a few years, my dad will build a garage where the Chevy is parked, and connect it to the house by a room that will become our new foyer. (Click on any of the old photos to enlarge them.)

ranch house in snow

Go in the back door and turn right into the kitchen, with its corner sink and the big picture window. Get a load of that trellis wallpaper! Notice the dark color of the ceiling. It’s a fashionable Chinese red. The cabinet frames are white, and the doors natural birch with beautiful grain. The countertop is gray pearlized Formica with aluminum trim. I love the corner sink with its triangular shelf full of plants. (Mom would park my high chair in front of the big window. On milk delivery day, she’d always say, “There’s the milkman!” So, “milkman” was my first word. I’m sure my dad was thrilled.)

kitchen with corenr sink

Follow me into the living room. There’s Mom, looking fetching in a glittery, striped sweater, posing with Lassie in front of the bricks-and-boards bookcase. (I would continue that tradition in college.) I wish I still had those black panthers … so 50s! And the peacock blue frisee couch (with matching club chair). Dig that wallpaper! Yipes—stripes on one wall, and coordinating 1940s gray and green floral on the accent wall … grounded by a gray carpet with sculpted acanthus leaves. Everything, as always, set off by lots of healthy plants.

livingroom with mom and dog

livingroom with mom and lassie

Finally, the master bedroom—a bamboo forest retreat! I should have grabbed that beautiful blond wood bedroom set (bed, night stand, chest of drawers, and dresser with huge mirror) instead of letting them sell it 30 years ago … sigh. Oh well … I don’t have room for it, anyway. Look at those nice hardwood floors—no dust bunnies! And the chenille bedspread.

bedroom with floral wallpaper

Perhaps this explains my present dining room wallpaper. It’s genetic, I tell you! I love this stuff! Although mine is more William Morris-y than 40s botanical. I feel inspired to buy some vintage wallpaper for our next house … be forewarned, Eric.

acanthus dining room wallpaper

On another night, the kitchen looks chaotic. Counters are covered in what appear to be groceries, and Mom and Lassie are busy making something intricate. Maybe they have company. If it’s Christmastime (something tied in ribbon is on the table), Mom is just a little bit pregnant with me. Mom, what the heck are you wearing? That leafy print is edging toward Midcentury Modern, and it certainly fits the décor. By the length of Mom’s hair and the radio on the counter, I know these photos were taken at a different time than the ones above, but if Pop says winter of ’52, he should know. What I don’t know is if some of them are in January or February, or December, nearly a year apart.

kitchen with mom and lassie

Hey, my aunt and uncle and their dog have stopped by for a play date! I wish I knew who the arm and the saddle shoes belong to … my mom and aunt, surely, but I wish I could see their faces. Pop is behind the camera, more interested in photographing the playing pups.

dogs playing in livingroom

The humans swap seats and the dogs snap to attention to focus on a treat. I assume it’s Mom who is offering it, so maybe the saddles belong to her. Besides, that’s not her arm in the other chair.

two dogs in the living room

Now it’s Christmas, and an eight-foot tree dominates one corner of the living room. That’s a lot of presents for just two people—maybe the whole family is getting together at our place on Christmas Eve (when we traditionally opened presents).

Christmas tree in corner of living room

I’m ridiculously sentimental about my Wauwatosa childhood. We moved across the country to Tacoma, Washington, when I was 10, and extended family and “home” seemed to vanish. So I shouldn’t have been surprised to see how many items in these photos I still have. Click on the photo to see some of them.

1. Kitchen table and chairs (in the attic).
2. Channel-back chair (in the attic).
3. Black electric clock.
4. Little treasure chest (for cards, I think).
5. Blue and white vase (hand-painted by my great aunt Amelia).
6. Footstool with needle-point top by my grandmother (my laptop rests on it daily).
7. White china lamp (in the attic).
8. Pictures frames (need to use them!)
9. Mom’s Steiff bear.

I can’t quickly put my hands on a vintage photo of the front of the house, but this is what it looks like today. It’s a sweet little house, and I’m glad to see it’s cared for.

our home in Wauwatosa, WI

To all my blog friends, may your holidays be merry and bright! Be sure to take some photos that your family can puzzle over 60 years down the road.

Livingroom with Christmas tree  19132013new