sad gate / happy gate

We’ve been knocking out a lot of smaller to-do lists on the existing house while waiting for the bigger project to start. One of those nagging items was replacing our front gate. The photo above was taken during the first full summer we lived in the house (2001) – look at that pitiful mansard and sagging dormer, yikes. You can see two of the four original fence posts in that photo, along with a slightly sagging front gate. The rest of the “fencing” was a temporary wire fence that had been put in place to keep out animals? Look nicer than no fence? Who knows.

The story we were told was that the original fence had been stolen. This was not uncommon in these old neighborhoods where properties stood vacant and architectural relics were worth good money. There’s a street on the southern end of our neighborhood called Cherokee Street that was known as Antique Row, and it was a really booming place in the nineties and early 2000’s. So if you were missing something on your house, that was the first place to check. (I wrote about the structural stars in an old post here.)

We used to spend a lot of time in these stores, looking for old doors and hardware or mantels or other items we needed during those early stages of renovation. I was digging around the courtyard area of one place, and I saw these really beautiful old fence panels leaning up against the fence. After measuring how many linear feet there were – and getting the price for the panels (only $300, which seems crazy cheap to me now, but was really expensive at the time), we bought them. We contacted Eureka Forge and met the head blacksmith there, Todd Kinnikin. He made two new intermediate posts in that long run of fence, and divided the salvaged fencing into three equal sections for that area, plus one smaller section to the left of the existing gate. The tops of the salvaged fence were bent over and pretty beat up, but he straightened everything out, cleaned them up, painted, and installed them. He also made our steel front porch, and the post details there match the intermediate posts on the fence.

It looks really pretty in the snow.

But back to that old gate. You can see how junky it looks next to the fence. It leans, and those hinges are rusty and shot. The rusted chain is a good look too. There’s this pipe that sticks out of the ground to provide a place for the gate to latch, which makes the whole gate look like a cobbeled together afterthought. It doesn’t swing out anymore, and gets caught in odd angles when swinging in. We’ve tried several times over the years to get Eureka Forge to make a new gate for us, but Todd has passed away, and his son runs the business now and they are always swamped with work. It just never seemed to be a huge priority.

But this summer one of the brackets gave out on the shorter fence panel to the left of the gate, and M took the whole panel off to make sure that it wouldn’t “walk away”. So it looks really bad now with the missing fence panel and sad sagging gate. It was the kick in the pants we needed to get this work done.

I contacted two ornamental iron companies, and after a few weeks I received quotes back from both. They were pricing the repairs to the brackets and installation of the missing panel, and we also asked for a newly designed gate that would match the details of our existing fence. Both quotes were pretty similar (and both left me longing for those 2001 fence prices!), but we went with Classic Metal Craft because they had the most detailed quote and also didn’t look at me cross-eyed when I asked for shop drawings. The catch was they were 14-15 weeks out on their schedule, so we’ve been looking at this eyesore for months.

Two weeks ago they picked up the missing panel, and did final field measurements, and last week I received the first round of shop drawings.

It was pretty exciting to see just how GOOD the new gate was going to look compared to that old one. They had done what we asked – matched the details of the existing fence for the gate design. But when we looked at all the other wrought iron fences/gates on our street, we noticed that all of the gates had something different that helped to distinguish it as an entrance – an arched or pointed top. Since we have an arched top window detail on the house, I sent back this sketch with a revision idea. I also noted that their drawings were missing the bottom detail of the fence.

They revised the gate drawings and they look amazing. We inquired about the need for a cross brace, and they showed it on the drawings, but they said there are enough welds on the gate to prevent sagging over time. But we’re going to leave it there as an insurance policy. It’s a detail on most of the gates on our street.

Look how good the gate looks in the context of the rest of the fence. I can’t wait for it to be installed.

I optimistically bought the pine roping this year for the fence. We might go ahead and install it on just the long part of the fence for now, but I’m hoping that the gate and missing panel might get installed before Christmas. We’re planning some projects for the front of the house next year – historic replacement windows and erecting scaffolding to repaint the trim. It’s been sixteen years since we last did that, so three cheers for good prep work and paint! We’ll have to rip out the bushes, and so I’m also hoping to get a landscape plan in place for what I want this front yard to look like. I’d also love to remove the neighboring chain link fencing and install a simple black iron fence on the sides at the same time. It’s a snowball thing, I know, but I can imagine how much it will enhance our curb appeal, and how good it will look for our Thursday night blues gatherings when it’s done.

leslie meets frances, and we all flip out

After inundating Instagram with photos Sunday night, I thought I should probably take the time to write down what happened so that we could read it later and remember all of the details. It’s not likely that we’ll forget that night anytime soon, but it’s a fun story to share as well, so here goes.

M’s parents gave us an early Christmas present this year. They bought us some really special VIP tickets to see Leslie Odom, Jr. in concert with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. When I was first discussing this opportunity with my MIL, I waffled a bit about the whole VIP thing. The tickets were very pricey, and I wasn’t even sure if children would be allowed. I knew that the girls would enjoy the concert regardless, but their grandmother called the Symphony’s office to chat about the details, and ended up going for the whole shebang.

Since I was the only one with any real knowledge of the details (although I had blocked off the time on our shared calendar in September), I knew there was an extra sting to our cancelled Thanksgiving trip. It was our opportunity to open the tickets together as a family. Instead, they packaged them up, sent them (insured!) through the post office, and we set up an evening to open them over Skype. Frances squealed, but Ella had the most profound reaction. She raced out of the room in tears, and came back barely holding it all together. It was pretty cool to watch.

Sunday rolled around and we ate an early dinner and got dressed up for the show. E put some fantastic French braids in F’s hair, and there were zero complaints about fancy holiday attire or dress coats. I always think the girls are pretty cute, but I will say that F was looking particularly adorable in her dark blue twirly dress with tiny gold stars and I’ve missed those braids now that she prefers to do her own hair in a simple ponytail. She also stood out from most of the crowd because of her size. There were definitely other children there, but most were older elementary, middle or high school students. In the first three rows where the VIP’s were sitting, she stood out as the only little one, almost dead center on the stage, and just feet from the microphone where Odom was about to stand. You should have seen our faces when we walked down to find our seats! I think that’s when it really started to sink in – Aaron Burr was going to be right smack in front of us for the next hour and a half. We were already over the moon and the concert hadn’t even started.

Then he was there. People went mad. The electricity in that place was unreal. He walked out of the door and straight to that mic and our whole family was just giddy. He immediately started to sing “Wait For It” from Hamilton, and that’s when it finally hit me how special this night was. We had this whole concert ahead of us, Odom, his musicians, the entire orchestra, and then, when that was through, we were going to meet him in person. I knew we’d never forget this night.

And then, after singing some of his own music – (“Winter Song”, “Autumn Leaves”, good gracious, so beautiful), the whole night changed. E noticed towards the end of the third song that he had locked eyes with F and gave her a little nod and smile. E said she knew then that he’d say something about his smallest fan. (I was oblivious to this because I was convinced that he was really just singing to me the whole time.) E was spot on.

He looked right at F and asked her for her name. Clear as a bell she answered “Frances.” The whole theater ahhed. He put his hand on his chest and said “Frances. I love that name.” (Melt.) “How old are you Frances?”

“Eight.” She wasn’t shy, she didn’t hide her face or cling to her dad. She just looked right back at him and answered. He teased her that she must be so bored with all those LOVE songs, and was wondering when he was going to get to more Hamilton already. She cracked up and he laughed with her, promising her they were coming, just you wait. He continued to talk to her between songs, and then intermission happened, and the four of us just stared each other with our jaws dropped. It hardly seemed real.

We headed to the lobby to get something to drink – F was VERY excited about this because we also had VIP drink tickets, and she had a Shirley Temple on the mind. That’s when we realized that we kept hearing the name “Frances” around us. Everyone was talking about that lucky little girl, and trying to come over to talk to her. She giggled when she realized that she was “famous” now.

My phone had buzzed a few times during the show, so I checked it and found a slew of messages like these:

We thought it couldn’t get any better, but then the orchestra filed back in, followed by Odom’s musicians, and then the lights dimmed and he walked back in to thunderous applause, waving, and pointing a phone to record the crowd because “his social media manager said he needed to post more.” The crowd went wild, and then he walked to the center of the stage, paused, pointed directly at our row and said “Frances. How are you?” The crowd erupted. “Good,” she answered.

“Did you take a power nap during the break?”

Giggling. “No!”

“Did you eat some candy?”

Again, “No!”

M and I stared across the girls at each other in disbelief. The night was young, and it just kept getting better and better and better. He continued to check in with her, referenced her age when telling the story of the first Broadway musical that changed his life – his “Hamilton” – the musical Rent. He thanked the crowd for supporting the arts. He looked right at me, at M, and thanked us for bringing our girls tonight. He sang a bit of “Forever Young” to her. He sang “Dear Theodosia”, and I seriously thought I might lose it at that point.

Then it was time. The orchestra was at attention. The musicians were alert. The lights changed. And Leslie Odom, Jr. looked right at F with a knowing nod and launched into “The Room Where It Happens.” Full force Hamilton, just as promised. The girls’ faces. M’s face. My goodness, let me remember this bit the longest.

…..

We were one of the last people to head downstairs to the lounge where we were scheduled to meet Odom. There were maybe 20-30 people in the room, and no other children. We waited a few minutes, and then the door at the top of the stairs opened and he came downstairs. F was standing on the landing, and he stopped, smiled and said “Frances – how did I know you’d be here?!” stooping over to hug her around the shoulders. Then he greeted the room and started meeting people one by one.

It was fun to be at the end of the line, because we got to watch him interact with everyone. He was hilarious and sweet and exactly as we imagined him to be. When it was our turn, each girl talked to him on their own, posed for several photos, and had him sign something special to them. F had him sign her lanyard, and E brought our big Hamilton book. He asked her if she had a page in mind, and she flipped open to a full page head shot. “Wow, that’s one handsome man,” he said, pulling out the marker to add his signature. “Well, I prefer the one of King George, but this one will do,” she teased. He cracked up and they talked for another minute of two. She seemed so cool and calm and it was just amazing to watch her charm one of her idols. Kids are just so cool sometimes.

We posed for a few family photos, and M shook his hand and thanked him for a night we would never forget. He thanked us again for coming, and we gave a shout out to the grandparents for the amazing Christmas gift. “Thank goodness for Grandmas!” he yelled, and we floated up the stairs and out of the quiet theater (pausing for a final celebrity Frances sighting and photo op!) into the night.

In the words of a favorite book we used to read years ago –

Wow. All I can say is wow.

gratitude cake

I started this post several months ago, and for some reason I just never finished it. Last week, in a series of serendipitous events, I remembered it, and so now I’m sitting down to finish the first story, and start the second one.

The last thing I made for my grandfather was this cake. It was several years ago, and we were visiting over the Labor Day weekend, and I brought a plum torte with me. It was sort of a birthday cake, although I’m sure we probably also had homemade ice cream that my parents made. It’s probably one of the few things I ever made for him to eat. I didn’t cook much as a kid, and I’ve lived away for all of my adult life. When we visit family we are usually fed, not the other way around. When he would visit us in the early years of our marriage we would always eat out somewhere around town – his treat! – and I wasn’t much of a cook in those years either.

Still, so many of my memories of my grandfather center around the table. There are holidays and birthdays and all the food traditions of home, of course. But the ones that I think about when I think of him are simpler. At least once a week over the course of my summer internships during college, I’d leave the office at noon and cut through a few neighborhoods to his house for lunch. My grandmother would make me a sandwich, and my aunt would fill one of their tupperware tumblers (avocado green with a white rim at the top) with ice and water from the front of the refrigerator. The water would smell like tupperware and my grandparents’ kitchen. I took a drink from a plastic tumbler the other day and it all came rushing back – it’s such a signature smell to me. 

There are just a couple of weeks when Italian prune plums are in the stores, and I’ve learned to buy them all when they arrive. They show up near the start of September, right before my grandfather’s birthday on the 4th, and my niece’s birthday just a few days later, on the 6th. This year I bought over 150 of them, and I started making a couple of these plum tortes a night. The house smelled delicious for a week or more. I began to think of them as a gratitude cake. Each year, to honor my niece’s birthday, we do acts of kindness in her memory. I brought this torte with me everywhere on her birthday – sharing it with people that are special to me, people doing work we appreciate, people we love.

I made so many tortes that I decided to freeze a few. I served a couple at the Open House reception I throw each year in October. They were a hit. I love to share food with others. I love to watch people smile when they eat it, to turn and tell their friends to grab a slice before it’s gone. One third grade boy started hanging out with me after he finished his slice. He asked me a lot of questions about the ingredients, and how I made it. He told me it was delicious. He brought his mother in to share a slice. She’s a new friend to me, and I love that we stood together for a few minutes and talked while she ate. She mentioned the cake again at a birthday party last month. She’s still thinking about it, and that makes me smile.

We had two cakes left in the freezer, but when M picked up some pasta orders from a school fundraiser last Friday, our freezer got very, very full. He sorted and rearranged everything, and managed to fit it all in. But when I opened the door later that weekend, I noticed the cakes sitting on the top of the pile, and thought I’d put one in the refrigerator to thaw. Maybe for a Tuesday night, post parent-teacher conference treat. Maybe to throw in the car for our trip to spend Thanksgiving with family. Maybe for a little bit of late summer in November.

Tuesday night conferences never happened. M called me around four that afternoon and told me that he was headed to radiology for a CAT scan for a suspected ruptured appendix. Suspicions were confirmed, and our evening plans and travel plans and holiday plans all came to screeching halt. I raced around to pick up the girls, rushing to get us all back to the hospital to see M before he was taken into surgery. But the surgery had to wait – there are necessary interventions first. We sat up most of the night, piled onto a tiny hospital bed, and then a second one. Later, the girls and I climbed into one bed at home to sleep for a couple of hours. I snuck out before dawn to return. Hospital minutes drag on and on and on, and just when you nod off for a moment, someone comes in to wake you up and talk some more. There was little sleep, and little eating.

Two years ago our Thanksgiving travel plans to visit M’s family abruptly changed when my grandfather fell ill and entered the ICU. We decided we needed to be there, and to provide some support and relief for my parents and my sister and her family (which included a newborn). We packed quickly, and I scooped up a stack of cookbooks on the way out the door. During the drive I mapped out a meal plan for the rest of the week, enough food to feed eleven people as they moved in and out of hospital watch and through those foggy first weeks of infant care. I wasn’t sure how much we could to do ease the burdens of those days, but I knew that I could make sure that everyone was fed, and had a table to sit down to each evening. I wasn’t cooking for my grandfather, although I longed for him to be sitting there at the table with us. But in a way I was. When we visited him in the hospital, my mother was telling him all about the food we had feasted on the night before. My husband was feeding him scrambled eggs, and coaxing him to drink some water, and he was listening to the description of our thrown together Thanksgiving while he ate. He seemed the most alert during that time. I think he knew we were all together, and understood the significance of that gathering.

Thanksgiving morning felt pretty heavy last week. We were all exhausted and disoriented. The fridge had been cleaned out in anticipation of our travels. We had planned to be fed for five days, and now we were home from the hospital, tired and off schedule, with no real appetite for anything. We thought we should get some fresh air, find some coffee (for me), stretch our legs a bit to get the blood pumping again. We went to the garden and stayed for a few hours until mid-afternoon. We searched for a few places that might be open on the holiday, but struck out everywhere. We headed home to make peanut butter sandwiches and call it a day. Everyone traipsed upstairs to watch the recorded Macy’s parade, and I started to dig through what was left in the fridge.

The first thing I saw was this cake. I put it out on a cake stand, and set it in the center of the table. The sunlight was streaming in the back window as I dove back into the fridge for more inspiration. I turned the oven on and tossed some squash and brussels sprouts onto a tray for roasting. I started some water to boil, and pulled out some of that new pasta in the freezer. I diced up a lone pretzel roll into bite size pieces to share. Raw veggies came out of the bin and into dishes. I poured pear juice into wine glasses for the girls. I called them all downstairs for sandwiches and surprised them with this.

And there in the center was that plum torte. One of a dozen or more. One that I first made years ago for my grandfather. One that I share every fall with others. A gratitude cake that showed up just when we needed it most.