A Porch of My Own

A Porch of My Own

Thursday, July 28, 2016


Today I want to say something about gratitude and how I feel it in my life. To say the last 20 months since I lost Rick have been rough is an understatement, as anyone who loses their partner, the one they love the most, their best friend, the one who shares their life, surely knows. I always knew it would be hard but until it happened to me, I had no idea of the depth of the pain, the loneliness, the lost feeling, the despair. And that's as it should be. If a person knew how much it would hurt to lose someone, they may never venture into relationships.

Besides the obviously huge things a person is grateful for, such as not living in a war zone or losing my whole family to a disaster there are many small things that make up the life of a widow/widower that make me realize I have much to be grateful for in my life. The thing I'm most grateful for is the life Rickie and I shared. But even now I have much to be grateful for, both materially and in my spirit.

I have a roof over my head and it's paid for. I had a little money when Rick died, not a lot but what I thought was enough. I'm sure it's not what other people would consider enough and many would probably lose sleep on what I have. But measuring my success by money has never been the way I live my life. I gave a lot of it away. I felt a need I can't quite explain to do that. Some to the kids and grandkids, some to others, a little to a couple of small charities I like, and some to strangers on the street corner. It's never been a goal of mine to die with money in the bank. I feel like Jeff Bridges singing "Maybe I Missed the Point" if I go through life not making things a bit easier for others when I have the power to do so.

I was able to make some arrangements in case something happens to me down the line. If I get too frail to stay out here, if I break a leg, if I live long enough to get the Alzheimer's that took both my mother and her mother. I entered into a joint venture with my daughter and my son-in-law and had a tiny - 280 sq ft - house built in their backyard. We rent in out on Airbnb and it's there if I live long enough to need it. For being able to do this, for the kids allowing me to have their residence as my fall-back safety net, and for the city of Austin regulations allowing tiny houses in some backyards, I am grateful. 

I'm grateful I'm an independent person and that I have my health. I'm grateful I can do most of the things that need done around here. I've had to hire someone to do some things I can't. And I'm grateful that each and every contractor that came out has treated me with respect and kindness. There hasn't been hardly a one that hasn't offered to help me if I need it on projects other than what they came out to do. They've heard my story, they've looked around at how I've kept it together on my own, and they've said call me if you need help with that ceiling, if you need help burning some of this cedar, if you can't get that plumbing connection done. They've told me how to do some of the things I was going to do on my own. I've felt from them a respect and at the risk of sounding too proud, an admiration for how I've carried on and stayed here on my own. They've sometimes shared stories of other strong women they know such as their aunt who at 95 changed the blade on her riding mower. And they've told me of others they know who've also been left alone and I've seen the empathy in their eyes. Sometimes sorrow shared is sorrow eased, if only a little bit.

I've had family and friends that have supported and stood by me. Some that have come out and offered their help and just made a point to stop by have surprised me, as I haven't been in touch for a while. They can't know the love I feel for them doing that. Or maybe they do. I'm the second of my siblings to lose their spouse and the first of my long-time friends. It's somewhat new territory for most people I know. I've made some new friends, one who faced this same nightmare a few months before I did and she helps me as she shares her story and her friendship with me.

Some of my friends are also neighbors and they have stood firm in their kindness to me. They've offered help much more than I've taken it and I know I can call on them. They've proven it, but I knew by the type of people they are even without the proof. 

My family, in both big ways and small, has been the rock on which I stand. The kids both helping me, and encouraging me on when they sense I want to do something on my own. In the immediate aftermath of the event that shook my world my family dropped everything and circled around me in the way some wild animals do when one of their own has been injured. They carried me when I couldn't walk through it on my own. I know still that if I need them, I have but to turn on the Bat-Signal and someone will be here.

We've all been affected by Rickie's death, naturally both the kids and I, but others in ways they sometimes may not even see. One I wanted to mention because it touches my heart. My sister Kathy has always shown her love for her husband Derald, always talking about what a great guy he is. Which he is, by the way. I've noticed the last year and a half that she does this even more than she used to. Her Facebook photos of him are always accompanied with words like "my love, my best buddy, my life". At our age and with the knowledge that it could all be lost in the blink of an eye, she makes an extra effort, unconsciously I'm sure, to express her love. May we all do that in this time we have together.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The House That Built Me

I took a trip back in time this last week, back to see the house I grew up in. My first remembered tiny house! I don't know how old I was when we moved in but the earliest photos I can find show me maybe 6 or 7 years old. A records search gives the construction date as 1955, so this would indicate we probably bought it new. We left Monroe, Louisiana and moved to Houston the summer I turned 15. We returned to Monroe after that to visit family but I don't remember going by the house since then, back in 1964. 

It was a small duplex and my maternal grandparents, Papa and Mamaw, lived on one side. Each side was identical. Two small bedrooms, small - well, it was all small! - living room, kitchen, one bath, and a little hallway with an attic fan. It was an abestos sided house. On the parish property records the square footage is listed at 1000. I think this has to be for both sides of the duplex as there's no way our side alone had 1000 sq ft! It's on almost a 1/4 acre lot in the Ouachita Cotton Mills subdivision. In 1993 it sold for $28,880 but the tax valuation is listed as $12,000.

When there were only 4 of us kids, we all shared one bedroom with two sets of bunk beds. Kathy and I in one, and David and Andy in the other. As our family grew we added an addition across the back of the duplex. On Papa and Mamaw's side this was an eating area, a bit shorter than the addition on our side. We used our side for a dining table (the kitchen really didn't have much room for a table; I can't even remember eating in there), a place for the washer and dryer, and one end was my parents' bedroom, though it was open to the dining/utility area with a small sofa in between. 

By the time we moved, David and Andy had the littlest bedroom that used to be our parents', and we 4 girls had the other bedroom with two double beds, plus our baby brother's crib until he grew out of that. 

Though Monroe has grown a lot and all along the interstate you see every chain store and restaurant as you do anywhere, back in my old neighborhood time has stood still. The streets are just as I remembered. The only difference is our house and the elementary school we went to are showing their age. They need some paint and some trim repair, some love. And our yard that Papa, a farmer before he retired, took such good care of is overgrown and in need of sprucing up. 

The fire station across the street, where we went many a summer day to buy Cokes from their machine, is boarded over and not in use. The Baptist church directly behind that, where we were every Sunday and Wednesday, is now a Methodist church and has expanded. Plum Street Elementary is now Clara Hall Elementary. We walked two blocks to school there, and in the summer we rode our bikes to the recreation center past that to go swimming. Us older kids giving the younger ones a ride on the backs of our bikes. "Hold your feet out so you don't get them caught in the wheel!" 

We sometimes walked downtown from our house, down the street to Texas Avenue (prophetic, considering where I ended up), over the railroad tracks, and a few blocks further to downtown on the banks of the Ouachita River. Our mom worked as a bookkeeper at a shoe store and our Mamaw worked at a printing company and we would go see them. As we drove past the railroad crossing this week it seemed an awful long way for kids to walk! But we were used to walking and we were used to being on our own, the older ones looking out for the little ones. 

The neighborhood streets and most of the houses looked much as they did when we lived there. Tall trees shaded the narrow streets. One of the two pine trees Papa planted, one for me and one for my brother David, was gone and the other was twisted and strange looking from being trimmed off the power lines. Papa's magnolia tree in the corner of the front yard topped off for the same reason.

The chain link fence in the back yard, where we played Cowboys and Indians and Tarzan, was partially torn down, the rest covered with vines. The empty field behind us where Papa planted a big garden has had houses for years. The little store down the street we walked to was still there. Papa always had change in his pockets and he would give us money to go there and for Cokes at the fire station. 

When we left Monroe and came to Houston we had a 4 bedroom house with a living room and den and two bathrooms. We added a room and bath for my grandparents. Our financial situation improved as Daddy went from grading yards for a living to being a master plumber. We moved several times in the early Houston years and all the homes were much bigger and grander than the little duplex in Monroe. 

But I never loved any of those houses like I loved the tiny house. They hold no place in my heart. All the things - the character traits, the empathy for people with less than I have and for those struggling, the value of family, the "make it work" attitude, the sense of a home full of love, the appreciation of a simple life, the love of a garden, the ability to notice the little things and little moments that make up a life - all these were formed in the tiny house and made me the person I became. 

Driving through the pine covered hills of north Louisiana, past names of places and bayous such as Tensas, LaFourche, Delhi, Rayville, and Tallulah, brought back a lot of family memories. Mostly these places and the land brought back to me stories our dad told us of hunting and fishing the area. He loved to roam the woods and hills and bayous. He had moved to Louisiana from Illinois when he was 13 years old. 

My dad and I share a love of the land, the actual physical aspects of our surrounding, though we loved different types of land. I didn't love the piney woods, the humidity, the muddy bayous and rivers. I wanted the dry climate, open skies where I didn't feel fenced in, rocky ground and limestone hills, the clear rippling waters of small rivers and creeks. I have ended up in a place that is the kind of land I love. But it hit me as we drove along on this trip that our dad had left a place that was much prettier than the flat treeless Houston area we went to. And I wondered if he longed for it as I would if I ever have to leave the land I love. And it made me cry to think he left this place, with its own beauty and his history, to go to a place where he could support his family better. Did he dream at night of walking through the pine woods, crossing a creek, checking for deer signs, remembering the smells and the way the air feels on your skin? 

I'm grateful I got to visit my first remembered tiny house - I'm sure wherever we lived before this was tiny also - and glad that my daughter and her family got to see it with me. I'm glad the house that shaped me and led me down the road to where I am now is still standing, though a little worse for wear. 

It's been 11 years today since we lost our dad, and it's my grandson Zac's 19th birthday. Life goes on and we go on with it, taking our memories with us. It's not always the grand memories we carry, sometimes it's just the day to day ones. Sometimes those are the best. 

Thursday, July 7, 2016


It's just a simple little rustic bench that gets more rustic every year. Rick made it 32 years ago from some plans that Southern Living magazine had. It has a design flaw in that it wants to tip over backwards if it's not leaning against something.

It's survived every downsizing and all the many moves - 10 of them before we finally quit hauling it everywhere and moved it out to the ranch. It's been on front porches, back patios, under the trees, and one time it even made it inside for a while. It's got some holes in the back where Rick screwed it to a tree one time to keep it from being knocked over and some more holes on the backside where I attached a 2 x 4 to keep it from tipping when it wasn't next to something it could lean on.

It was country blue for a while, "painted" with Rit dye back in my country decorating phase. Then it was yellow, then gray to fit in with some limestone rocks it was near. Today it got a bright coat of a color called "Peppery". It's going on the little back deck between the screen porch and the addition. I learned a long time ago not to waste time distressing anything I paint out here. The hot summers and the cold winters take care of that for me!

I hope it lasts another 32 years.

I'm trying to get a native South Texas wildflower, Scarlet Sage, growing in the pot next to the bench. Rick dug one up - he was always doing that! - on a hunting trip down south years ago. We had it in a big pot in Houston and elsewhere and it was beautiful all Summer. It filled the pot and it came up every year again from the many seeds it dropped. A few years back he decided to bring it out here and plant it in the ground and see if it would make it.

It did come back every year but it always stayed small and it was only one plant each time. This year I decided I'd move it back into a pot when it came up and see if it would do better. Well, a tiny little plant came up and in trying to dig it up, all the dirt fell off - I should have wet the ground first. I planted it anyway and kept it watered and I thought it might actually make it. But it didn't.

So I went online and found a place to order the seeds. I planted some and I'm waiting to see if they come up. I added a winter savory and a mint to fill out the pot. If the sage doesn't make it I'll look for something else. It has to be deer resistant so that limits things. There's a big native plant nursery in Austin, John Droomgoole's The Natural Gardener. I'm going there in a couple of weeks and they may have a Scarlet Sage plant. I hope so!

Rick came a long way in his carpenter skills from this little bench, and I came a long way from the first bench I built on my own. From there we went to cabins and bunkhouses. You don't start out building an addition; you start with something small. From there your skills improve and you become brave enough (or dumb enough) to tackle something big. I'd say that's pretty much with anything. The main thing is to start.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Book Release!

Exciting news for our little cabin! Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell, of the blog Living Large in Our Little House fame, has a book about tiny house living coming out. The release date is tomorrow, June 7, 2016. And we're in the book!

Her book, "Living Large in Our Little House: Thriving in 480 Square Feet with Six Dogs, a Husband, and One Remote....Plus More Stories of How You Can Too" tells the story of how Kerri and her husband Dale came to make their life in a tiny lakeside house.

Interwoven into her story are stories of other tiny house dwellers. Our little cabin is one of those!

The book is a great read for anyone interested in downsizing, whether to a tiny house or just a smaller house or even just uncluttering the house you now live in. It's loaded with tips about paring down your possessions, organizing, holiday decorating, entertaining, and living a sustainable lifestyle. It's full of photos of tiny house life!

Kerri's story is told in an easy to read style, as if she were having a chat with friends. She doesn't sugarcoat anything but tells the challenges as well as the rewards.

She has treated our story, mine and Rick's, with kindness and care. I have to admit that I cried when I read it. Rick knew that she was writing the book and that our cabin would be included. He was very excited about it and proud that his tiny cabin would be one of the ones spotlighted. I'm glad that he knew this and wish he could see the finished book. I know he would love it and be touched by how our part of it was handled. Our story and little Texas cabin is interspersed throughout the book.

You can order the book from Amazon. Just click on the link below! We're hoping for a good release day showing, so if you plan to order, tomorrow is a good day to get in on the excitement! There have been a lot of pre-orders already and a good release day helps the publisher judge interest for additional printings. They've already ordered a second printing based on pre-orders! It's available in both a hardcover and a Kindle format.

Click here to order - Amazon - Living Large in Our Little House

Kerri's blog spotlighted the tiny bunkhouse this week, so check that out too! You can link to it above or here - Living Large in Our Little House - and follow her on Facebook - Living Large in Our Little House.

Thank you for your interest in our little cabin, both on my blog and in the book, and for all the kindnesses you readers have shown to me, especially as I try to go on living my life out here without Rick.


Saturday, May 28, 2016

Some Gave All

The streetlights lit up the new subdivision in Southwest Houston, keeping the dark away enough that we could see each other's faces as we talked. We were hanging out by his car at the end of the driveway. We kept our voices low, though it was late and everyone in the house was asleep and there were no neighbors out.

It was 1967 and I was 17 years old. He was a few months younger than me. He was good looking, his blond hair hanging in his eyes, his face movie star handsome, his eyes kind, his laugh easy. In the slang of the day he'd be described as a "dreamboat".

I loved him fiercely and I trusted him. Trusted him with my secrets, trusted him to never ridicule my thoughts and feelings. Trusted him to tell me the truth, trusted him to treat me as an equal.

He was my cousin Tommy and he was my best friend.

He had come to live with us my senior year in high school. His family was going to move from Louisiana to Houston but not until later that year. He was having some problems there and needed a new start, a new school, new friends. He found all that. And I found a friend, a brother, a confidant.

Throughout our senior year he and his friend Johnny took my friend Beverly and I to all the teen clubs that sprang up in Houston during the late 60s, the most memorable when we saw Paul Revere and the Raiders at La Maison. We made trips to Surfside Beach near Angleton, staying until dark and heading home happy and sunburnt. We hung out at the Chuckwagon, a neighborhood burger drive-in where all the high school kids congregated in the afternoons.

He'd come home with Johnny Rivers' single 45s, saying "come listen to this, Sue." We'd play them all afternoon, listening over and over again to Mountain of Love, Secret Agent Man, and Johnny's version of Midnight Special and Suzie Q. Dancing in the living room, memorizing the words to the songs.

He spent all his other spare time taking his car apart and putting it back together, parts spread all over the driveway, arms and clothes covered with grease. Getting it running smoothly so we could all go out again on Saturday night!

I can't say my high school years were happy. There was a lot of stuff going on in the family, I was a girl without a lot of self-esteem, afraid to apply myself though the education part of school was easy for me, all the usual teenage angst. The Vietnam War was in full swing and I was just beginning to get an interest in what was going on in politics and the world. Looking back, all these times with my cousin are the times that stand out, the good times we had and the closeness we had. My brothers were either too old or two young to be my buddy. Tommy was just right and we had the bond of siblings.
Then everything changed. I got married the summer after I graduated. A year later I was a working mom and had no time for anything outside that except for the occasional family gathering. Time passed and Tommy joined the Marines. He was sent to Vietnam.

Around noon on a February day in 1970, I was feeding my baby son John, my second child, lunch when the phone rang. It was my mom. She needed a ride to Aunt Margie's house. Two Marines were there and wanted someone to come be with her before they told her their news. Which, of course, we all knew by their presence. Tommy was dead.
A two week long wait began as we waited for his body to come home. I still see him in the casket, the open area over his face sealed with glass because the bodies were frozen for the trip home and they were fragile. His Marine dress uniform making him look older than his 20 years, his sister Brenda sleeping on the floor by his casket the night before the funeral, not wanting to leave him alone.

But that's not the way I see him most of the time. Most of the time in my memories of him, we are by his car at the end of the driveway. The neighborhood asleep, our voices low and quiet. His hair hanging in his face, his words that years later come back to me and guide me. "Do what you want because YOU want to do it, not because someone else wants you to. You make the decisions for your life, darlin'. It's your life, don't let anyone tell you different."

Monday, May 16, 2016

Around The Campfire

Though the sky was mostly cloudy, there was a break in the clouds where the half moon and Jupiter could be seen. Except for a couple of stars that make up Cancer, the crab, these were the only ones we could see. The kids and I had a campfire going and a cool front had come in earlier that caused Sarah and I to grab a long sleeve shirt before we headed outside. 

The moon was so bright the live oaks in the yard threw out shadows. Even with only a half moon, we could see the yard fence and gate, the trunks of the oaks, the cabin and bunkhouse, and the firewood stacked nearby. 

The chuck-will's-widows called out their name, answering each other on all sides of us. We roasted some marshmallows and made s'mores, although most of the kids like the roasting better than the eating! Bixby was too little and the firepit is too big for his roasting wire to reach into the fire. So I went to the garden shed and cut a long piece of heavy wire for him, making a loop at the end for a handle.  

He'd had a busy day being a ranch hand - feeding the longhorns, checking on the garden, painting some birdhouses, checking out the deer blind, doing some target practice with his suction tipped plastic ammo, and just generally doing things a kid does in the country.  

As the day wound down the kids went inside to clean up for bed and I was alone at the fire. If you haven't ever sat by a campfire in the quiet of the country, away from people, away from a campground, away from neighbors, it's hard to explain the magic of it. The only sound was the chuck-will's-widows calling all around, each one answering the other as the calls circled their way around me. Though it had grown darker, the shadows of the oaks still lay on the ground and I could still see the trees in the yard. There weren't any of the noisy katydids or cicadas that often drive a person crazy during the warmer months. 

It was as if there was no one else in the world except me and the night birds. It's easy to imagine the country as it was 100 years ago and sometimes you think about the people that have called this place home over time. It many ways it hasn't changed that much out here where we are.

A few weeks ago Natalie and Zac and three of their friends came out for the weekend and we got a campfire going. The big kids do the same things the little ones do; they just don't need as much help. They've been doing it for years now and no one ever gets tired of it. We had spent the day at Fredericksburg and Luckenbach then and wrapped it up with brisket in town and some washer pitching in the back yard here. That night I left the kids alone by the fire as the evening wore on.

I don't sit out by a fire at night as often as I did when Rick was here. He could sit there all night. And we didn't have a fire as often once we built the cabin. One of the few downsides to building it. 

When the kids come they always want to have a fire and it gets me back out there. I need to make an effort to do more campfire sitting. Just me, the night sounds and shadows, and the stars. And memories. They seem to rise from the burning logs along with the smoke. And they're all good ones. Sometimes the good ones are the hardest to bear but I can't imagine the kind of life I would have lived that didn't include them.

I hope you get to spend some time by a campfire this summer. Make an effort. Find a place where you can be away from neighbors and city lights, a place where it's dark enough for the moon to make shadows of the trees and the night birds to call out to each other. Make some memories, some good ones. 

Like these, other times, other fires -

This picture of Rick and Sarah is probably the first fire we had out here. They are sitting where the cabin sidewalk is now. Some of the stones making up this first firepit are still there, too embedded in the ground to be moved by hand. They are part of the landscaping.

Sarah and I by the campfire in 1990.

Rick and Zac during hunting season in 2005. In his hunting album Rick captioned this one "End of the day. A campfire, whiskey, and good conversation." That about sums it up. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Up on the Caprock, Me and My Baby Ride

I ran across a song posted on Facebook this week by Terry Allen, a Texas singer songwriter that Rick and I love. We saw him a couple of times at the Mucky Duck pub in Houston. He has a deep understanding of the subtleties of the world and his songs tell stories. Sometimes funny, sometimes terribly sad, often irreverent, and sometimes taking a critical look at the way we look at heroes and violence in the world.

But his real songwriting talent, at least as far as I'm concerned, is taking an ordinary moment, an ordinary life, and making you stop and look at it and see the magic of ordinary things. This particular song, Flatland Boogie, was about a fella and his love driving fast across the Texas high plains as the moon lights up the caliche on the long straight road they travel down.

That song brought back memories of a vacation Rickie, Sarah, and I took about 30 years ago. It was our first trip to the Santa Fe/Taos area and we stopped at Palo Duro Canyon on the way there. Driving across the endless plains in Rick's Bronco; Sarah just 5 years old, standing up in the back seat singing cowboy songs with us as we wondered whether we would ever get over the plains.

Though we didn't go to the Four Corners area that trip, we learned about the Anasazi, the indigenous people that lived in the Four Corners area thousands of years ago. And about the mystery of where they went and what happened to them. One thing I read later that has always stuck with me was a statement attributed to the Hopi. "The Anasazi didn't disappear, we are the Anasazi."

Rick and I would have been married 35 years today. He's not here and yet he is. I still refer to the Rockin' RS as "our" place; I still say "we" when talking about things that are being done here. Though things have changed somewhat with the addition you can still tell this is his cabin when you walk in. I still call the garden Rick's garden, not mine. The leather cap he left on the truck dashboard is still there, all shrunken and twisted from the hot sun; his boots are still by the back door.

It's not that I've kept things as a shrine. It's that he is so embedded in this place that his presence is still felt. You would have to burn the whole place down, trees, vegetation, and all to remove him. Even then, he would be here. Because like the Anasazi live on in the Hopi, he lives on in me and the kids. Rick didn't disappear, we are Rick.

We do the things he used to do, we tell his stories, we teach the kids the things he knew. We remember him.

The grief still overwhelms me a lot of times, especially at night when it's quiet and I'm not busy. I'll be almost asleep and the pain will hit me like a punch in the chest and it's clear why it's called a broken heart. I wish I could say it's easier, to give hope to any of you going through the same thing. All I can say is it becomes more familiar and, along with carrying Rickie with me always, I carry the grief always. I'll be carrying them when I breathe my last.

Happy anniversary, Rickie. I wish we were riding up on the Caprock one more time.

"And yet she could feel the pain becoming a part of her, finding its indelible groove but never vanishing. Time goes by, she wrote, days spill on, routines, appointments, diversions, some fun, a trip, somebody sick, on and on, times goes and grief finds a niche, a place, and settles in and goes along, too, included in everything. 'I'm here', says Grief. 'Never mind me, just go about your business.' " David Kushner, Alligator Candy

Flatland Boogie