Bricks and stones may break my bones

One of the wonderful things about this big old house of ours is the big old yard that comes with it. As aforementioned, it has already become the frequent scene of frolics and boyish larks- fort building and bike riding, sleeping in tents and eating al fresco meals, and even a few good water fights, early in the season as it is.

But delightful as finally having some property has been, it also has had its challenges. Now you might be thinking,

“Here’s the part where she starts complaining about all the extra mowing and trimming a big yard entails,” and you would be partially correct.
There certainly is a good deal more mowing to be done, and like any good southern yard that has been ignored for many years, it has done its best to return to nature by winding itself up in poison ivy and kudzu and a dozen other nameless and sinister vines and shrubs. But I like to mow, and trimming the hedges is a job I don’t mind too much- at least in the spring.
However, aside from the usual maintenance, I believe our yard is unique- unique in that over the years, it has become a kind of storage unit for the hubby’s many house project leftovers.
I sometimes wonder how so much stuff has ended up heaped in odd and assorted piles all over my yard and a mental image always pops up in my head in response to my wonderings. It’s usually a conversation between two imaginary men who work for my husband and goes something like,

“Hey man, so that job is finished. What do you think we should do with all this extra (fill in- lumber, brick, cinder block, sheetrock, etc.)?”
“Heck, I don’t know,” replies the other.
“I know, let’s stick it in the bosses back yard!” says the first guy.
“Yah, that’s a great idea,” agrees the second. “It’s not like they’re ever actually gonna live there anyway.”
And then they proceed to leave behind whatever was in the truck and drive away, laughing maniacally.

Of course, this scene is purely imaginary since we don’t actually own a truck and my poor van is usually commandeered for the purpose whenever Steve needs to haul something. But I’m pretty sure the van would never have been able to transport the enormous stacks of cinderblock that are sitting in our driveway or the piles on piles of lumber sitting in varying states of decay throughout my lawn. But there they are. Or I should say, there they were. Because a week and a half ago, I decided to tackle the yard.

There’s not a whole lot that can be done to the interior of the house right now since Steve is so insanely busy at work, so I wanted a project to keep my mind off all that wasn’t getting done inside. So I started in on the wood. A few years ago, we cut down several large trees in the yard and cut them into big logs, hoping to be able to use them in our wood stove at some future date. These logs had since become a moldering heap of mostly rotting wood, infested with every kind of creepy crawly creature imaginable.
So, armed with long sleeves and very thick gloves, I began the process of sorting through the remains, fishing out what wood was salvageable, squealing girlishly when a particularly leggy insect scurried into view and then tossing the rest onto a compost heap where they could finish the job of returning to whence they came.
And then it was on to transferring big stacks of two by fours to their new home under the house and the shoveling and removing heaps of sand and then burning old cedar shingles and siding in a rusty burn barrel.
I worked diligently, going to bed each night with aching muscles and a sense of accomplishment, but all the while ignoring the worst pile of all- the mammoth pile of bricks and stones. The bricks were the remains of chimneys from inside our house and several other places, the stones were all the big rocks that had been removed when we had dug out our enormous basement a few years ago. We hope to put them to future use in building walls, columns, etc.
I kept putting it off, hoping that somehow, magically it would disappear, or maybe those imaginary workers would come take it and leave it in someone else’s back yard.
Of course, I didn’t have to move that pile. I could have left it in the middle of my nice big lawn, all overgrown as it was with vines and a miniature forest growing out of the top. I could have waited until the hubby had time, which would probably be in about ten years- or could have called up all my girlfriends and said,

“Hey! Come for a playdate with your kids and we can all move bricks!”

But that brought me to think of my own kids.

“Now hang on,” I told myself. “You had all these kids for a reason, right? You just never knew until today that you brought them into the world so they could help you move the biggest pile of bricks on the planet.”

Inspired by these reflections, I gathered my big boys around me and, being the nice mother I am, offered them a penny for every brick that they moved from the middle of the lawn to the parking area where they would be hidden, neatly stacked and denuded of weeds, behind the cinder blocks.
They were actually thrilled with the idea. I’m not the kind of mom who remembers to give her kids an allowance, so any chance to earn money is usually jumped at. They set to work with a will. I was pretty sure that they were going to give up quickly. I mean, one brick doesn’t weigh much, but the stooping and picking up and trundling wheelbarrow load after wheelbarrow load across the yard gets old fast. But they kept at it.
James had been doing the math in his head, and told me exultantly that if he moved 100 bricks, he’d get a whole dollar. I smiled inwardly, thinking they would never get that far. But they did. And then they reached 200, then 300, then 4. By the time the sun was setting they were stacking their 800th brick and couldn’t wait to start the next day. I was amazed and also slightly alarmed. The brick pile, as I stared at it through the twilight, did not look noticeably diminished. And my wallet held two bucks and one quarter, but I couldn’t part with the quarter as it was sacred to the purpose of my Aldi shopping cart.

By the next afternoon I had four eager hands stretching towards me, demanding no less than fourteen dollars. Still being without cash, I asked them if they would accept a new lego set in exchange. Oh boy, wouldn’t they! But they would like it now please, mom.
I decided to oblige them, since they really had worked incredibly hard, and goodness knows, I hadn’t wanted to move those bricks myself.
So I loaded everyone up and drove the 20 minutes to Target, where we wandered the lego aisle for an unbelievable amount of time, considering how short the aisle was and how few sets they could actually get for fourteen dollars. At last they had whittled it down to two sets, and had reached a stalemate- two boys wanted one, two another. To my untrained eye, one set looked pretty much like the other (who knew there were so many differences to be found in lego helmets!) but the fighting grew so bitter that I was obliged to flip a coin.
We arrived back home, two boys exultant, the other two sniffling a bit in a disappointed way. But off they all went to build the new set. I figured their brick moving fervor was now passed and I sighed as I looked at the remaining pile, figuring we might be half way through. I set to work, thankful that they had at least moved 1,400 of the darn things.
But I must admit, I’m not as young as I once was and I only managed 100 before calling it quits for the night. As I unloaded the wheelbarrow, sorting the bricks into two separate stacks (one for the smooth interior bricks, the other for the rough exterior ones) I found myself chanting to myself ,
“Rough, smooth, rough smooth, take the rough with the smooth, take the rough with the smooth….”
Then I had to stop and laugh, thinking how glad I would be to take the smooth at some point. It’s been rough for a long time now.

The next morning was a Friday, and as I worked with the boys on their lessons, I tried to gear myself (and the boys) up to tackle the pile again. But before we could, a friend called asking if James’ best friend could come and play for the afternoon. I agreed, and resigned myself to the boys disappearing on their bikes for the day.
But as soon as he got here, the boys had him surrounded, making wild promises of ‘free’ legos if he helped move the stack of bricks.
“Boys,” I said uncertainly, “I don’t want to make your friend come over here just to work…”
But he interrupted with, “Are you kidding! Where are the bricks? Let’s go!”

Soon the bricks were flying again. After about the tenth load, I suddenly had the brilliant idea to back the old van up to the pile, open the hatch and fill it up with ten times the bricks that the wheelbarrow could hold. The boys were thrilled with this arrangement, and I soon found their little friend was a born foreman, directing the brick laying, keeping track of the numbers and announcing with authority when they had a big enough load. Then they all joyfully tumbled into the back of the van, perching on the bricks as we bumped down to the stacks, where they formed a line and handed them to me one by one, shouting, “Rough! Smooth! Rough! Smooth!” and laughing all the while.
It’s a true saying that many hands make light work, and by the end of that day, they had earned another lego set. I even took them out to dinner as an extra reward and let them have a big sleepover in a tent in the backyard. The next morning, I finished the negligible amount of bricks that were left (only about 400) while the boys played with their hard earned legos.
But after their friend had gone, I found myself staring disconsolately at the remaining pile of stones, almost as big as the bricks had been.

“Take the rough with the smooth,” I muttered, but as I bent down to pick up the first rock.

“Hey mom,” said my oldest, suddenly appearing at my elbow, “We’ll be glad to help you with the rocks. And don’t worry, we’ll only charge you half price.”

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Tricks of the Trade

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Chapter 4

Yesterday evening, my husband began the process of teaching me how to mud sheetrock in the one room of our house that now has walls. It’s one of those things that looks fairly easy when you’re watching it, but turns out to be a lot trickier once you slap that first sticky blade full of white goo on the wall and start spreading.
“Just imagine you’re frosting a cake,” I told myself as I tried awkwardly to smooth the gloopy substance over the screws I was covering. In fact, the whole process had reminded me of making a giant batch of vanilla buttercream while I watched Steve put the huge mixer blade on the end of his drill and start whipping the mud in the bucket to a smooth consistency. He must have drawn the same comparison in his mind since when he was done mixing, he said, half jokingly to Etienne who had volunteered to rinse the mixer blade in the hose,

“Just don’t go licking it.”

I like making these comparisons in my mind whenever I tackle something new that I’m not sure I’ll be able to handle. It boosts my confidence. I have often, for example, noticed the similarities between construction work and, say, sewing. It’s the same idea, you know- studying the pattern or design, measuring and cutting the pieces and putting them together. I mean, is there really such a big difference between a needle and thread or a hammer and nails?
I’ve often thought building houses would be a really fun hobby that I would be totally capable of if it weren’t for two things. First, of course, the expense would be a hindrance. But the second, an even greater deterrent- my pitiful lack of upper body strength. Few things have put a damper on my attempts to help my hubby on his various renovation projects through the years than my puny arms. They were already whimpering at me after only a few minutes of reaching overhead to mud the screws on the ceiling.

“But why do you have to help?” you might ask. “Isn’t your husband a contractor? Can’t he do the work without you?”

And I would reply yes to the last two questions. But since we never seem to be able to find a home that is not in rather desperate need of repair, I have simply preferred to learn how to help than to sit around waiting for him to get home from work at night.
I can’t seem to help myself anyway. I am rather an impatient person by nature and if there is a big job that needs doing in front of me, I’m gonna try to get it done as soon as possible. (Unfortunately, this ‘get it done’ attitude doesn’t usually impact my list of daily housework though. Not sure why.)
That is why this whole house saga has been such a trial for me. I do not like unfinished work. I’d rather someone do a quick, half-ass job and call it done than have it sitting there waiting for some future, potential perfection. And I’m happy to do the half-assing myself. The hubby and I do not share this outlook, if you haven’t noticed.
I remember when we moved to Memphis five years ago. We were going to live in an apartment complex for the first time in my life and I remember thinking,

“Hooray! Finally a place to live where we won’t have to renovate!”

Steve was the manager of this particular apartment complex and as such, he had tried to find us a nice, ground floor apartment. But when we arrived, it was to discover a few of his workers frantically cleaning and scrubbing an apartment that obviously hadn’t been lived in in a while. The smell when we walked in was, to put it mildly, off-putting.

“Did the carpet cleaners make it yet?” Steve asked his workers, trying not to wrinkle his nose.

“They’re on their way,” was the reply.

So we decided to go grocery shopping while we waited for the carpets to get cleaned and hopefully released from the clutches of that awful smell. We got home late and all was quiet and dark in our new apartment. We unlocked the door, laden with groceries, expecting the fresh smell of industrial strength shampoo, but all that machine had managed to do was dredge up the foul odors of who knows how many years past, leaving us standing in a cloud of eau de wet dog.

“Should we?” asked my hubby.

“We should,” I replied.

And after putting our groceries in the fridge and our children in their beds, we tore out the entire carpet and left it in a moldering heap on the front porch to be dealt with later. Then we went to bed ourselves, breathing a little easier.
The next morning Steve had to go to work, but before leaving, he told me he would bring some tools home that night to help scrape all the old carpet padding off the subfloor so we could begin replacing what we had removed. But I couldn’t stand just sitting there all day, staring at that big old mess and waiting for the necessary tools. So I found a good substitute in my trusty old kitchen spatula.

And when, during my scraping, I encountered hundreds of little staples that had been holding the carpet in place, I discovered that a butter knife worked fairly well in prying them up. Of course neither the spatula or that butter knife ever worked very well after that, but the floor was cleaned and ready to go by the time the hubby got home.

In addition to the now unnecessary tools he had brought home that evening, he had several boxes of a faux hard wood laminate that was to take the place of the stinky carpet. And when I protested that he wasn’t going to have time to lay it all, he taught me how to measure and cut the pieces to fit and then spread the adhesive.

It’s just like making a quilt,” I told myself, going so far as to pull out my clear plastic quilting ruler to make the job easier. Even Steve had to admit it was the perfect tool for the job.

And now, with this biggest of all renovations before us, I figured I might as well learn to mud and add it to my list. Of course, we hope to be able to have the funds necessary to hire out the majority of the sheet-rocking and mudding since it is such a mammoth task. But just in case, I figure it’s a good idea to start increasing my store of construction knowledge. And who knows, I might even learn to hang the sheet rock itself.
But I should probably do some push ups first.