Everything…and the kitchen sink

I do a lot of reminiscing this time of year. And, like any good cabin wife, I do a lot of it right where I should: standing behind my kitchen sink. From there I can look out the window and up the driveway, keeping track of any comings or goings, observing Nature’s ebb and flow while washing and rinsing. It’s my other water view—the one that lets me gawk and ponder the passing of the seasons while being way more useful than when I’m swiveled toward the front yard just staring at the lake.

“Vacation is just another sink,” a friend of mine used to gripe at the end of every summer. She was a mother of six grown children, two of them twins, and our office secretary back before we had to call her an administrator for political correctness. Mostly, though, she was a grumble puss, a glass-half-empty person looking for opportunities to bemoan what she saw as her fixed station in life.

At the time I wondered if she’d ever found herself standing doing dishes in some of the primo spots I knew and appreciated. Had she heard loons calling over her shoulder while Rangeley balsam wafted over her soapy hands? Was there ever a beagle beside her circling for crumbs, softening her heart more than her two-legged beggars? Did she ever vacation where she had to do dishes without a sink and swear if, by some act of grace she got a sink, she’d never complain again?

Back when I first heard the vacation-sink observation, I thought having a camp by the lake–plus having a working sink in the camp by the lake—would be the vacation of my dreams. I had the camp part, a rustic A-frame on the northern tip of Moosehead. I sort of had the sink part, too. I’d recently graduated from perching a large Rubbermaid Roughneck dish tub on my kitchen counter to an actual sink installed in the counter. Except for the drip bucket under the drain pipe that often became a cenote for sacrificial mice, the arrangement was a much better alternative for holding water. But, when it came to running water, the mechanics of getting it into the sink by way of the faucet, my first camp setup left a little to be desired. The only running water I had was the kind I got (or hoped my husband would get) by running down to the lake with a bucket.

Fast forward a few years to my newly-built but still rough Rangeley cabin. So thrilled was I by the promise of indoor plumbing, I didn’t really mind reverting back to the old Roughneck tub for a bit. It was way before the time the girls would want to live in the shower, so they didn’t care that I swabbed Spaghetti-Os off them with giant wads of  Wet Wipes. I, however, was psyched beyond belief. Water, warm wet flowing water over my hands and my crusty dishes, was looming closer and closer like an oasis.

“You’re getting hot running water at camp?” my mother-in-law asked in astonishment. “All those years on Great East Lake, I only had cold water coming out in the kitchen sink. Had to heat it on the stove.”

Yup, back in 1988, I was as spoiled as I thought a remote cabin wife could be. Not only did I have lakefront property, I was going to have the luxury of bringing some of that lake water into my basement, heating it up, and gushing it into my brand new sink on demand! Seems like just yesterday I stood by the Sears “almost-the-best” stainless steel sink sitting inside my plywood pre-countertop next to the Coleman stove that was about to be put into hibernation. I was holding my breath, praying for water to pour forth. Thanks to my husband and the wizardry of hydraulics he was overseeing outside–where a hundred feet of hose came up out of the lake, through the cellar window and into the pump tank–we were ready and waiting. Finally, on his third try priming the pump, the spigot let forth all its pent up air and whoooosh sent a glorious torrent splashing and sputtering inside the sink.

That was more than 20 summers ago. But I still feel the same inner release, the same
liberated feeling over knowing it is possible for me to listen to loons or watch hummingbirds hover inches away white I’m rinsing crusty pots clean down to the
shine. My vacation sink is now my everyday sink, the one I’m glad to come home to, even after taking hiatuses now and again to some pretty sweet condo sinks in the Caribbean.

“All done up there?” I can still hear Tom hollering from his plumbing control center in
the basement. “Can I shut it down?”

It would be this time of year, time to shut down the water, close up camp and head down the mountain till May. “Yeah,” I’d yell back, taking one last swipe at the counter with my sponge. “Done with the water. You can shut ‘er down.” I’d look out at the hummingbird feeder dangling in the wind and hope none would come by first thing in the spring before I’d have a chance to fill it up again.

Now I’m happy to stay put, standing at my newer, shinier sink that fills with well water. I can look for as long as I like—through the yellowing birch branches to where I used to haul a “camp stuff” box out to the car, interrupting the flow of my best possible life for the cold months ahead. ‘Course, what’s not to be happy about, now that I’m living my best possible year-round life in Rangeley AD (After Dishwasher)? I grin each time I grab the box of dishwasher detergent out of the old Roughneck tub in the cupboard and know that, even if I wanted to roam far and wide, I couldn’t find a better place to hang my towel.

Keeping up with clutter snarl

One thing these bone chilling days are good for, besides standing at the back door peering at the thermometer, is catching up on my reading. Lately, I’m finding women’s magazines particularly entertaining. When I’ve memorized the latest Rangeley Highlander, I’m tired of the Mother Nature bashing on Facebook, and the novel I started is tucked somewhere too far away from the wood stove to make it intriguing reading, I turn to my pile of magazines and open a window to another world. As the mercury plummets and my tea goes tepid, they show me how many ways I’m not keeping up with “most” women, and how much I’m really not missing out on living in the Maine woods.

According to the editors, the top item troubling most women at the start of this new year is household clutter. Really? What happened to not enough family time, world poverty,  shrinking our carbon footprints, or maybe just our growing waistlines? Nope. Categorizing, containing and covering up our stuff is supposedly keeping us awake at night more than hugging our high-fructose filled kids, or wondering if we’ll keep our jobs long enough to pay our cell phone bills. An orderly life—or at least one that looks that way—trumps all.

Phew…check off that box!” I congratulated myself as I tossed the magazines into the burn pile. “I know exactly where all my stuff is!” And, at any given moment, I’m within ten minutes, two flights of stairs, a couple cupboards, drawers, boxes, baskets and/or totes away from laying my hand on whatever item becomes crucial to my well-being. Who knew that moving everything up to Rangeley was fulfilling my dreams and achieving what eludes most Good Housekeeping readers?

But it wasn’t long ago that any article on household organization would have featured me as a “before” profile, not an “after.” Heck, I’d have earned my own little side bar devoted to how my kitchen had more junk drawers than fully functional ones. “We all have at least one,” the lead in would say, “that retractable wooden rectangle about four inches deep hiding about six inches of worthless odds and ends under our countertop. It’s the great American junk drawer.”

Up until a year ago, I was a junk drawer junkie. With limited counter space in my previous kitchen, I put all manner of things “away for later” in drawers until, eventually, only two  were functional. The remaining six held everything but silverware, napkins, utensils or other sorts of necessities that kitchen drawers are supposed to keep easily accessible. The last time I managed to pull it out far enough to look, the biggest drawer held birthday candles with frosting still stuck on them, three boxes of toothpicks, a hospital ID bracelet, a bubble blowing wand, half an envelope of Rapid Gro, that special doohickey I needed for my dehumidifier back in July, keys to my ’68 Rambler, and a gadget I should have entered in Yankee magazine’s “What the Heck Is This?” column. The whole ungodly mess was tangled up with string, pencils, a couple shoe laces, and laying on top of some weird wooden utensils I’d received as wedding gifts and hadn’t prepared any food items in the last 30 years that had given me cause to use them. From the outside, of course, all my drawers looked identical—right down to their decorative brass knobs. My guests never needed to know what secrets lay within but me, unless they made the mistake of offering to help set the table. They’d pull out what they thought was a logical place for forks and spoons and realize too late they were wrong. Leaping back, they’d beg for assistance, and I’d have to free a rusty spatula or old tape dispenser imbedded sideways before I could level off the underlying junk and roll it all out of sight again.

It’s funny how quickly even the most ingrained habits can change with the promise of greener pastures (or, in my case, greener woods and a better kitchen by a lake)! One moment, Tom and I were talking to our realtor about market values, and the very next day I was “staging” my property for selling. “Staging” is realtor-speak for the crucial steps I needed to take to make my old house look like the best show in town. Stage One: Clear out all the furniture and knickknacks not worth the space they’d been taking up for decades. Stage Two: Pack up everything else, including what’s in storage nooks, closets, cabinets and, you guessed it, junk drawers. Basically, this stage entails dealing with all the places you hurriedly stashed stuff so Stage One buyers wouldn’t see it as clutter. If you’re lucky, like I was, Stage One lasts just long enough for you to wish you’d had that much elbow room years ago. Stage Two, on the other hand, can drag on until just before you leave the keys on the table and walk out the door.

Moving out took weeks of sorting, selling and selective packing, plus a four-page spreadsheet, a storage pod and, I’ll admit, a couple sleepless nights. On the Rangeley end, as I explained in Self Storage Ins and Outs, it took a pledge: “All crap goes out. No crap comes back in.” But when the move was finally complete, I’d managed to conquer clutter snarl, to use my beautiful new pantry with reverence and respect. Now that I’m really settled in, I sometimes need to remind myself how I originally labeled the sketches of my kitchen layout. “Silverware…cereal…Tupperware….” Not one square inch of storage was reserved for junk. It is still tempting to hoard, though, living 20 miles from a hardware store with a husband who I know can fix a toilet with string, duct tape, and a plastic fork. We haven’t stopped hanging onto stuff for reuse, since we do live in Maine, after all. We’ve just become craftier about where it takes up space before it’s brought back to live. 

“Wow, my clutter control must qualify for a Good Housekeeping seal of approval,” I told myself as I stoked the fire with another magazine. And I have no intention of returning to my days of snarled, sub-counter chaos. Besides, now that I’m caught up on my reading, what better do I have to do on these long, winter afternoons than keep my crap compartmentalized and where it belongs? It’ll be at least another month before any more magazines come and I get a whole new stack of burning issues to look into.

Coloring my world

The editors from Country Living haven’t called yet, but when they come to do a feature on my interior decorating style, I’ll bet they describe it as “L.L. Carib-Bean.”

The new touches I’ve added to my 20-plus year-old dwelling have not, I don’t think, placed it outside the quaint little cabin category. It’s definitely not one of those places you’d drive by and wonder “Don’t they know they’re in the Maine woods for crying out loud?” But while it may not qualify as froufrou, my decor is by no means a standard fishing and hunting “it gets us out of the rain” type place either.  As the pros would say, I “brought the outside in” with natural earth tones, lots of pine paneling, birch floors and dark cherry cabinets. I added a tile hearth in the same vivid blue that, on a good day, matches my view of Bald Mountain and Saddleback. And, of course, I threw in plenty of prerequisite forest (a.k.a. Rangeley green) accents. Then I kicked it all up a notch with splashes of color not often naturally occurring in the environment, at least not at this latitude. The end result makes a unique statement about my remodeling influences, including:

  • I’m making up for the fact that, in my formative decorating years, I defaulted to brown. Thirty years ago, when I moved into my first and only completely brand new house, I had little decorating experience and even less furniture. I did, however, have a tan Naugahyde couch and chair set and a couple beige lampshades. So I put in brown and rust-toned carpet that would “go with everything” I hoped I would later have, while “not showing any dirt” from the  outdoor dog I had and the kids I eventually would admit I hoped to have. My kitchen and bathrooms featured harvest gold, avocado, copper and all those other stuck in the ’70s shades. Behind closed doors in my bedroom, I even had a bright red carpet. But my living room stayed brown and blah for at least a decade.
  • Tom and I agreed we wouldn’t just go with the typical moose and loon motif when making renovations. We do love moose and loons, of course, and still are left with almost as many inside as we see outside. We just strived to be a bit different. So, instead, we came up with wild flower bathrooms. To contrast the knotty pine paneling throughout the rest of the house, we had the two bathrooms and the kitchen sheet-rocked so they could be painted. Buttercup yellow was my choice downstairs, accessorized with Black-Eyed Susan print curtains and (coming soon) wild flower art. For the upstairs bath, I chose the palest pink to compliment my purple, pink and white lupine shower curtain, my hummingbird and lupine stained glass in the window, and one of my favorite pieces of artwork: A moose standing in a field of lupines! (He’s your typical Maine moose picture, but just a bit different, hanging there in his pink and purple habitat.)
  • My color scheme was dictated primarily by stained glass. As I showed you in Come and Meet Those Dancin’ Feet (Part Two), my favorite keepsake and interior focal point in my previous house was a piece of stained glass – a particularly vivid piece featuring green grass, cobalt lake water and three bright red roses. I’m sure in reality my decision-making timeline spanned several months, but here’s how I remember it: 1) Tom told me I had a window of opportunity to decide on colors for paint, countertops, etc., for the Rangeley reconstruction. 2) I didn’t take him seriously enough quickly enough because: a) I had been living in the same quarters for so long that picking stuff out meant a quick trip to the Home Depot for either damage control or camouflage, and b) having a virtually clean redecorating slate was too good to be true and, in a twisted way, scared me into inactivity. 3) I was sitting in my Rochester kitchen, drinking coffee, gazing at my stained glass in bewilderment, wondering how the heck I was going to not screw up my one big chance to showcase my treasures in a new home, when my “window of opportunity” suddenly solidified right in front of me. I knew I would hang the stained glass in my new Rangeley kitchen. It would be a focal point forevermore, shedding light and color throughout my first floor, contrasting beautifully with my dark woodwork, matching my mountain-blue hearth and my grandmother’s blue Danish plates I’d hang on the beams! And the green glass of the grass would make a perfect paint color!
  • I matched the color of my kitchen walls to green stained glass (see previous bullet) on a really sunny day. With my new focal point in mind, I immediately marched off to Home Depot and made color choices in record time. (A true believer in supporting the Rangeley economy rather than a big box store, I wasn’t going to buy paint, countertops or Congoleum there. My mission was to match up swatches to bring to the Rangeley Building Supply for them to make the order.) What I described as New Leaf for my green kitchen color, the paint manufacturer actually called Swamp Splash. While this lively spring green did match perfectly with my stained glass still hanging in Rochester, it initially alarmed our building contractor with its incandescence. Adding in appliances and dark cabinets toned it down considerably and, to my knowledge, hasn’t scared anybody since. The end result is a Key West sort of ambiance in the western  mountains of Maine. 
  • I have a serious passion for red. Red cars, red-headed men, red carpeting (see first bullet). Fortunately, when devising my scheme of rustic jewel tones, I tempered my passion and incorporated red as an accent color only. I have a bit in my area rug, a few pieces of my mother’s ruby glass displayed here and there. Tastefully toned down, I’d say, and not what people expected I’d come up with given free rein. Those who knew my passion for red and pictured me remastering Belle Watling’s front parlor on the shore of the Big Lake seem relieved.
  • My other favorite place in the whole world is a tropical beach. I hope my readers aren’t dismayed when I admit that, even surrounded by Rangeley’s four-season splendor, I still often dream of turquoise waters and beaches lined with palm trees and hibiscus. In terms of decorating direction, this polarity has left me somewhere near the intersection of Rangeley Plantation and Coconut Grove.

Whatever collection of quirks has influenced my unique style, I’m glad all those decorating decisions are behind me, literally. The color wheel has stopped spinning, the paint palate is dry and I am most pleased with how I made my window of opportunity shine. I am especially glad this time of year, when I look past my hearth and my ruby window ornaments to the reds, greens and golds of fall in Rangeley. Country Living will call it “Kaleidoscopic!” That is, if they hurry up and come out here while the leaves are still on my trees.