It Takes Strength to Tend House and Home Alone

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Nanny and her pride and joy, her home.
2 / 4
The author.
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Nanny, her son and a boarder in the 1930s.
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Nancy believes that what a woman needs in her life is something visible that she has done.

Throughout my childhood, summer and Nanny’s log house on
the hill above the waters of Shuswap Lake were synonymous.
The dwelling, which was built by my grandparents in 1930,
was painted canary yellow on the outside with plaster
between the logs. It was half-surrounded by a roofed-in
Virginia creeper woven porch. Alternately perched and
sprawled there, on boards routinely swept with a wet broom
by Nanny, I found one of my favorite places on Earth. Now
and then, the dancing of leaf shadow on the pages of
Robinson Crusoe or What Kady Did would be
enough to send me into a trance, broken only by my twin
sister’s foot tapping. As a child Donna hated to read, but
what we shared in the cool, roomy house was a haven.

At Nanny’s I also entered the dichotomy, of a farm ceasing
to function while the land remains in all its glory. Since
Nanny’s husband Papa Bert died, the barn stood empty and
the root cellar had begun to collapse. Despite the decay,
bumblebees swam their slow wake through a world of emerald
grass, clover, and plantain while the aroma of cottonwood
buds, cherry blossoms, and fresh-turned earth drifted
across the yard.

Nanny did her best to endow me with domestic smarts, but I
was happiest romping with my sister through the field
toward the unpruned orchard where robins and warblers sang.
Before long a plaintive call of, “Come, girls, where are
you?” would waft across from the porch. While Nanny’s
outside voice was frail and distinctly feminine, inside she
was capable of a good, solid bellow if necessary. So we’d
scamper back.

In those days Nanny seemed tall, elegant, and capable. Her
silver hair hung in clouds beside her full, worry-laden
checks. Nanny had beautiful hands and a light touch at the
piano where she played songs, like Mendelssohn’s “Woodland
Echoes.” The deafness that had afflicted her since the age
of 30 played havoc with her sense of tone. A cord traveled
in tributaries to her ears from a small gold box nestled in
her bosom. It squealed horrendously, and she would yank it
out and spin it in frantic attempts to tune in the world.

Nanny’s love manifested itself in work. Even her barking
was an expression of love for us, the wayward pups. With
sound heels she would march across the hardwood expanse,
broom in hand, armed against any insurgence of dust
kittens.

If Nanny wasn’t latching the handle onto a freshly heated
flatiron, ready to dash it across the surface of every
scrap of laundry right down to the underwear and dish rags,
then she was at the baking table. She stood in her pink
house dress kneading bread, beating cake, and rolling out
what Nanny, her son Don, and a boarder in the 1930s.
amounted through the years to thousands of pies.

There was often the smell of paste wax and simmering; pot
roast, and the order to “STAY OF THE KITCHEN
FLOOR!”
as we sped past, the slam of the screen
door igniting a flurry of flies. On her hands and knee,
with her house dress hoisted and tucked in, for the
thousandth time, Nanny would scrub and wax the kitchen
floor, the seam of her nylon stockings advancing backwards
across the citrus-toned linoleum.

She had never in her life donned trousers. She would
wrinkle her nose at our jeans and say “ish” Then
scold, “Why don’t you girls ever wear dresses? Gosh, what
awful pants!” We’d end the discussion by wheeling away.

Nanny gave us a sense of order. One of her mottoes was “a
place for everything and everything in its place.” She also
gave us a strong sense of love. She didn’t have a career.
Her purpose and passion was her house, and the energy that
she brought to cooking and cleaning could have matched the
gusto of any top-flight executive. With two children of my
own to care for, and the thousand details I have to shape
into the four walls of our home, only now can I appreciate
Nanny’s care of that cabin.

“Adobe Works”

Nancy Parkinson also lives alone in a hilltop home looking
over Shuswap Lake, though I’ve no doubt my grandmother
would have regarded her 33-foot post-and-beam adobe castle
with some degree of alarm. After all, in this climate, moss
sways from the trees and the earth can vanish for months
beneath a shawl of snow. But as Nancy says, despite much
popular theorizing to the contrary, “Adobe works, even in
cool, wet regions.”

As I enter her house, unassuming from the outside, I see
what she means. From my vantage point in the 12′ x 16′
kitchen I see that the house has evolved into a cozy,
peaceful three levels. In contrast to the densely forested
laid, the white adobe walls conjure up visions of untouched
desert spaces.

A petite five foot one inches, Nancy assures me “you don’t
have to be big or strong to build a house.” She describes
her upbringing as small town, bereft of both city smarts
and country smarts. “My dad wasn’t a Mr. Fixit kind of
guy,” she told me. “I didn’t know the difference between a
saw and a hammer until I came out here.”

After earning a degree in psychology from the University of
Guelph in Ontario, Nancy departed for B.C. with a friend
and began what she called her “second childhood,” in which
she learned about all she could do for herself. For two
years she lived in a tepee on land owned collectively, and
despite no small amount of hardship, she was determined to
stay. When she lost that home, building her own seemed the
only option, but, she says, “There’s nothing trickier than
saying you’re going to do something when you have no idea
how.”

It was her affinity for bent trees that lured her to her
present site. At the outset Nancy had to save for two weeks
simply to buy a hammer. Then for the next three years she
spent half her year in a puny $50 trailer and worked in
Vancouver during the winter in order to save enough money
for a truck. She wandered the alleys scavenging potential
building materials.

Inspired by her neighbors, Eric and Diane Lutjen, who had
built a house of mud brick, Nancy settled on adobe, a
method that takes much time but next to no money. She made
her own bricks and kept track of every penny. “The original
28′ x 14′ house cost $3,000 when I moved in. All my lumber
was seconds and I framed with two-by-sixes.” She avoided
using traditional 2 x 4s in order to accommodate a sod
roof. Sod is a great insulator. but is tremendously heavy.

For the first year, house building be came an obsession
with Nancy. She thought, breathed, and dreamed it, and was
initially fanatical that she do ever thing herself. The
neighbor who dug the building site let Nancy run the
excavator and she felled every tree with a chain saw. She
did grudgingly allow Eric Lutjen to pull the logs over to
the building site by horse without her assistance.

Even so, gaining the respect of local builders was another
matter. She remembers the looks of skepticism at the hard
ware store when she announced her intention to build an
adobe house. “I learned to get eye contact and keep it like
little barnacle and I followed them around until I got what
I wanted.”

A worker at the local gravel pit where she went to get
rocks for her foundation offered to haul a truckload up the
hill for her. But when she arrived home she found he had
ignored her “Put Them Here” sign and dumped not one but two
truck loads–a hill of rock–right on top of her
building site. Nancy proceeded to remove every rock so that
she could continue working. Some were so large they could
only be rolled. The joker chuckled for years over this.

Nancy believes her ignorance was a gift. “When I had a
problem to solve, the solution could come from any
direction rather than simply the one dictated by tradition.
I was this wide-open book.”

The original house was framed with a hand saw. Later Nancy
went to work as a cook for a log builder and, due to her
keenness, was taken out of the kitchen and put on the crew.
She became adept with a chain saw. Instead of tossing salad
and frying steaks she learned to cut notches and to
flatside logs.

Surprisingly, the most difficult part of the entire
building process came at the very beginning. She was
plagued by nightmares, and her failed attempts to build a
sawhorse drove her to despair. If she couldn’t build a
sawhorse, how could she possibly build a house? She sought
the ad vice of Jannis, another female builder in the
community, and Jannis advised her to “just keep plugging
along.” Nancy repeated this motto like a mantra for four
years.

From the time that Nancy laid the first rock in 1981, it
was a solid year of work before she was living in her
house. At that point, one wall was her old tepee canvas,
but it was good enough for shelter. It was complete to the
point that “regular folk would live in it” in three years.

Nancy holds a certain reverence for mud brick. “It might be
because they have such a part-of-the-flesh feel to them,
and so much of you goes into each and every brick. If
you’re a person that likes curves and shape, clay is the
way to go.

“You don’t have to live in Mexico to make adobe brick work.
The material is totally accessible and cheap. You don’t
have to take out a 30-year mortgage simply to have a house.
And it doesn’t check, twist, rot, or burn.” To top it off,
this substance doesn’t put further pressure on our
declining forests. Even so, Nancy admits that if there were
strictly enforced zoning codes in her town, she could have
run into problems. She adds, “There are bylaws that need to
be changed to allow for this material in many areas. Don’t
just start making bricks or you’re likely to hit some
serious snags. Ask questions.”

Sand provides the strength of the brick, clay provides the
bond. After hoeing first the clay, then sand through a
one-quarter-inch mesh screen, Nancy mixed the two together,
sprinkling in water until it was of pie dough consistency.
She then put the mixture into a brick maker-a metal box
with a long handle on it-which compressed the material. She
claims it becomes intuitive after the first 100 bricks.
Stacked to allow air flow and left to cure for one month,
the bricks were then laid in place with a trowel and a
looser mortar mix. One of her most important tools was a
level, which enabled her to keep the bricks in line.

The south facing wall is two bricks thick with a space
between them. Two hundred colored glass bottles are
embedded in the wall. Nancy lucked upon them at a recycling
depot on a trip to California. Getting the wax out of them
wasn’t easy, but clay adapts well to the bottles, which are
not only decorative but also double paned. That insulation
is an absolute must here in the land of the six-month
winter.

Because of demands such as a roof and the need to close in
the walls, Nancy didn’t begin work on the chimney until
late in the construction process-and late in the year. Had
she done it in the summer it would have taken three days.
Instead it took three weeks.

Nancy recalls, “Twenty below and I was out pick-axing the
sand and dirt because it was frozen. I had to melt snow for
water.” Not only did she burn her hands with the lime, she
also put her back out. “The chimney became a monument to
strength,” and as work progressed, many people dropped by
with advice and help with the roof and floor. The town’s
skepticism was slowly lifting.

After I ask the obvious question, she chuckles, “This may
be a castle of sand, but you can hose it down and you’re
not going to wash it away.” Even so, as a precaution, Nancy
opted for a four-foot overhang on her roof.

Now leaning back and reflecting, Nancy smiles, “At first a
home is all grunt work and you’re not getting any returns.
But there’s a point you reach in every project where the
project takes you over. You’re not having to think so hard
about it anymore because, in a sense, it’s thinking you.
Some other energy or creative force is running you. At this
point, you know you’re the servant of this thing and you
become humble:’

Nancy creates as she goes along. Often she wanders about
her yard looking at odds and ends without any preconceived
notion of how she will use them. “I try to keep my mind
open. When I look at a tin can it’s no longer a tin can.
It’s a cylinder with untapped building potential. It’s
exciting and invigorating that this process can’t be put
down on a blueprint.”

A few years ago when Nancy was diagnosed with cancer, she
felt like a stranger as she stepped back into her own house
from a stint in the hospital. Her awe for the structure she
had built gradually gave her the strength to proceed with
the surgery that cured her. “Many times now I’ve pulled
building that house out of my back pocket and put it in
front of my face to give me the strength to take the next
hurdle.”

To her, 90 percent of the benefits of house building were
spiritual. “In the normal female experience of life, we put
out a huge amount of energy that is invisible. We don’t see
the huge pyramid of dishes that we’ve washed, the mountain
of diapers we’ve changed. We end up with this enormous
invisible that we can’t touch. What a woman needs in her
life is something visible that she has done.”

My thoughts drift back to my grandmother. What would she
have done if confronted with the miles of floors, the
mountain of laundry, she had scrubbed in her lifetime?

…I see her standing in a field in a pink dress and
essential broad-brimmed hat. At the center gleams a
colossal pyramid. Every dish she ever washed has solidified
into a massive china monument in her honor. I see her smile
softly, shake her head in amazement, then the words fly
forth, “Gosh, isn’t it awful?”

…But the words can’t extinguish the glow of pride.