Fireplace Face – A New View



This is Fireplace Face. When Mister and I moved in, Fireplace Face was already residing in the New Pad. She jutted out into the room – about 4.5 feet – and she dominated the entire wall.



We had a lot of fun with Fireplace Face. During drunken DJ nights, I liked to perch up top. During visits with friends, we’d take photos of folks sitting inside Fireplace Face. But never – not once – did we have an actual fire there. It would have required crawling inside the firebox to start the flames. I didn’t want to do it. I’m guessing Mister didn’t, either. So Fireplace Face sat unused, imposing and cold.



At some point, we thought about getting rid of Fireplace Face. We did the math and realized we’d gain a lot of floor space if the beast was gone, and maybe we could turn it into something a little less obvious.



So during the 2013 Thanksgiving holiday, Mister and his Daddy rented a demolition hammer and went to town. (I was in charge of hauling the debris out of the house.)





It was a monster job, y’all. It took a couple of days. It took a lot of energy. It took a lot of patience. And do you know how loud demolition hammers are? That job took a lot of ear plugs, too.



And when they were done, Fireplace Face was gone. There was room in the room! And there was ugly, too. I mean, that big, gaping hole in the wall was unattractive. The demo had exposed original stone work and wood cabinetry, but it had also damaged both. Not only that, but there had been alterations made to the original wall after repair from the Northridge Earthquake. That temblor had toppled the chimney and then some. (The previous care-takers of the New Pad had filled us in on all the deets.) So as much as I would have loved to have kept the original fireplace wall, it simply wasn’t possible.  But Mister and I had plans. Or rather, I had an idea of what I wanted in the space and Mister went along. We intended to get the mutha back up and running pretty quickly.




But you know how plans go. You’re coasting. You’re dreaming. You’re ready to commit time and/or money. And then you don’t. For whatever reason(s). That’s what went down with us. Some of what held us back was very real. Other factors – not so much. And you know what happened? We got used to living with a hole in our wall. We turned four blind eyes to it. It’s a shame and I’m not proud to admit it, but it’s the truth. So there you go.


Cut to a shiny new year, 2015. I don’t know what happened, but we hit our limit. So I culled photos and ideas, cobbled them together and Mister drew explicit and precise plans for what we wanted. I knew I could do finish work, as in painting and staining, and I also knew I absolutely should not attempt work that involved safety. I mean, what if I failed to fill in a small hole that trapped hot ash and burned the house down? Not cool. So after a couple of professional consultations, we chose to hire Ralph. And that guy was alright.



The first thing Ralph did was advise us on further demo. (We explained to Ralph that we wanted to save money anywhere we could, and doing the demo ourselves helped on that front.) He said we needed to take out even more stone, in order to get a relatively flat space for starting the project. Okay. So Mister and I went and rented a small demo hammer for a couple of hours. Mister handled the machinery and I hauled the refuse out of the house. This time around, we had much less waste.



Once we’d gotten the wall ready (according to Ralph’s specifications), the job began in earnest. Ralph worked alone, which meant the process took longer than any of us had expected. But he also worked as an artisan, which is all-too-rare these days. He leveled each and every brick. He was always measuring and getting my input. Many times I saw him working out math and contemplating how best to proceed. In short – Ralph did this job the right way. He took pride in his work, even though the design was ours. He cleaned up every afternoon, so Mister and I had space to live. That was greatly appreciated, y’all, as Fireplace Face was in our Rumpus Room, and that’s where the TV lives. And friends, I loves me some TV, um-kay?



Anyhoo, as Ralph worked away on Fireplace Face, I painted the Rumpus Room. I’ve shared how that job just about took me out. The painting wasn’t too rough, but the taping! Dear Lord – the taping! And then one evening, the only thing left for Ralph to do was to mount the mantel. It was at that point that Mister suggested we put a message in a bottle and have it sealed beneath the mantel. I understood his thinking. The entire time the wall was being demo-ed, I kept looking for something. Anything that might tell me a bit about someone who came before. A previous owner. A worker. Sadly, all I found was a stamp from Mexico. I am unable to read a date.



So Mister and I did indeed compose a note. We placed it in a bottle and it now resides in the wall.



By the time Ralph finished his part of the job, I was able to paint the bricks and the bookshelves. Once those tasks had been handled, I moved on to staining and varnishing the mantel. After a few days (some steps take time – curing, you know), Fireplace Face was no more. Instead, we ended up with something on the traditional side. Something that might have been here all along, dating from the period the house was constructed.


Mister and I have now built a fire in the new fireplace. We’ve put goodies on the shelves, we’ve hung art and are now in the process of accepting the new wall. It still strikes me as new, as I’ve not yet grown accustomed to its presence. Hey – we lived with a hole for a long time, so it’s okay if this takes a while to sink in.




I’m proud of us for choosing to do something good for ourselves. I’m proud of us for doing as much of the work as we could, and for knowing when we needed outside help. The Rumpus Room is really getting there! And the new fireplace wall is a huge part of that. It’s functional. It’s non-intrusive. And it’s beautiful. I love it and look forward to the day when it’s just a wall and not this new-fangled thing we did. We’ll get there. If we can accept a hole, we can accept beauty.




Late Wednesday night I got word that my former neighbor – Marcia – had passed away. Mister and I rented a little house next to hers when we first moved to California, many years ago. They say Good Fences Make Good Neighbors. I guess we must have had a pretty good fence, because we definitely found ourselves with good neighbors.


It’s funny. I was just thinking about Marcia a few days ago, after I spotted a bumper sticker referencing a particular California coastal town. Marcia and her husband used to have a get-away place there and I remembered how much they loved it. The timing of seeing that bumper sticker and then hearing of Marcia’s passing seemed odd to me. And it got me wondering about Marcia and whether or not I’d known her at all…


I remember she loved “Tweety Bird.” I don’t remember why, but I know that was perhaps her favorite animated character. She was also an avid bowler. On a team and everything. I loved that about her, because I flippin’ love bowling. And I was jealous that she bowled every week.


Just thinking of her throwing her head back in laughter makes me laugh. It was so raw and true. She once showed me one of her wedding photos. In it, her head was back and she was caught laughing. It was gorgeous. On the flip side of that, she could be downright gruff when she was upset or didn’t like something. Those moments, too, were raw and true. I liked that about her, also.


The lady loved Barbra Streisand. It was Marcia’s appreciation for Babs that led me to give Ms. Streisand a chance. And while I’m not a devotee or anything, I do respect the technique and talent of Streisand, whereas I wasn’t much of a fan before. Marcia changed that.


I remember one day she knocked on our door and asked if I wanted to go to “Stateline” (Primm, Nevada) for a day of gambling with her and her daughter. The best answer I could muster was “why not,” so the three of us climbed into Marcia’s little Honda and we took off. Only Marcia wasn’t taking the main highways. She took back roads. With a lead foot. It was one of the weirdest, funnest days I’ve known. And the whole thing was on a whim.


Marcia’s potato salad was about my favorite in the world. That’s a big statement, too, as I love, love, love potato salad. After having hers and realizing I needed it in my life, I went to her and asked for her recipe. She sat me down and talked her way through it as I frantically scribbled every word. To this day, when I make potato salad, it is Marcia’s recipe I use. Every time.


Immediately after the Northridge earthquake, Marcia and her husband came to check on us and asked us to come over to their house to ride out some of the aftershocks. Mister and I were doing well to simply have shoes on our feet, so when we got inside their house and saw Marcia sweeping up the few remaining remnants of what had been broken, having already tidied the entire house, I was in awe. Not only that, she and her husband had a generator going so there were lights and coffee and television and all the comforts of their home. It was our first big earthquake, so we were pretty messed up. Marcia and her husband not only kept us sane, they also took care of us.


The woman knew how to grow roses, y’all. She just had a touch. I tried to learn from her, and Lord knows she tried to teach me. But that was her gift, not mine. So I just watched and marveled.


Marcia once told me her father’s last name (and therefore her maiden name) had been Lamb. She then told me her mother’s maiden name had been Garlic. I don’t know if she was just pulling my leg or not, but I’ve always believed that story.


Marcia could screw up a movie’s title better than anyone I’ve ever known. I remember her asking if I’d seen “that Kevin Spacey movie – ‘The Regular Line-up’” and me wondering what the heck she was talking about. When I realized she was referring to “The Usual Suspects” I had a good chuckle and chalked it up to a Marcia-ism of the highest order. I used to love it when she’d get a movie title wrong. Her abilities on that front were astounding.


The back door of that little house we rented was actually on the side, just off the kitchen. Marcia’s back door was situated similarly, facing ours. She and I would sit on our respective stoops and talk all the danged time. More than once I found myself out there, talking about life with Marcia, only to realize hours had passed. Each time I thought it had merely been minutes. But that was one of the great things about Marcia. We did talk. A lot. And I truly enjoyed our conversations. We were very different people with very different lives and yet we got along. We broke bread together. We laughed together. We even cried together. And I liked her. I guess I knew more about her than I thought I did.


They say Good Fences Make Good Neighbors. In the case of Marcia and her husband, I think our fence was good because of our neighbors, and not the other way around. And while most of us don’t know very much about those living right next door, I’m grateful I did get to know my neighbors. I’m grateful they were kind enough to get to know me. And I’m very sad that the world has lost a sparkly-eyed, funny gardener who could bowl. They just don’t make ‘em like that anymore.


Godspeed, Marcia. Godspeed.

20 Years Ago…



Today marks the 20-year anniversary of the Northridge Earthquake. It ripped through parts of southern California at 4:31 am on 17 July January 1994.


Mister and I were asleep, like we should have been, when the rumbling started. It was loud, y’all. Super loud. When a book case fell on the foot of our bed – in the pitch black of early morning – I thought maybe the ceiling was falling in on us. The only light I saw was the reflection of the flash produced as electric transformers blew. Then there was the crash of the bathroom wall mirror being torn from the wall and hitting the floor.


I won’t lie – for a few seconds I had no idea we were experiencing an earthquake. My cold-war childhood led me to believe we were being attacked, that war was taking place. Because the earthquake lasted around 10 seconds, I had time to figure out what was happening while it was happening. Then I knew we had to take action.


I yelled to Mister to find some shoes and get them on, quickly. We pulled on clothes and got the hell out of the house. We were lucky – we were able to open our garage manually and get the car out (nothing much had crashed down on it). We sat in the car, in the driveway, listening to the radio for emergency information. After only a few minutes, our next door neighbors came to check on us. They invited us over for coffee.


Terrified of being alone, we accepted their invitation and entered their pristine home. They had already cleaned up the mess suffered in their house and had fired up their portable generator. There was indeed coffee, as well as other edible comforts. These particular neighbors had lived through the Sylmar Earthquake of 1971 and were prepared. Though aftershocks were already rattling, those neighbors took care of us and soothed our frazzled nerves. I will be forever grateful for that.


After a while, Mister and I decided we needed to get back to the house and inspect the damage. Once more, we were lucky. The shattered bathroom mirror was the worst of it. We cleaned up the mess and tried to calm the heck down. It didn’t really work, but we had to try.


The Northridge Earthquake messed me up for a long time. When the very earth beneath your feet is unstable, what does stability even mean? And all those aftershocks? Each one sent me reeling.


There have been other earthquakes in the last 20 years, and there will undoubtedly be others. But the Northridge Earthquake – that one was a doozy. I may remember it today, but I do not remember it fondly.