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Category: old house

the grilled cheese that launched a kitchen

phone rang yesterday mornin’. it was jim, the man who built our kitchen, builds our dreams, i always say. he needed to stop by, pick up some hinges, make sure they fit the corner cabinet he’s building for my dishes, the ones stacked in moving boxes in the dark corner of the basement for four years now.

i am nearly certain plates and cups are broken. it would defy all of newton’s laws for that fine old china not to be broken, what with all that’s been dumped on its head.

but, like an ostrich, i’m not looking. and then, when i unearth a chunk of plate, a half a saucer, i will put on my best zen, and say i’m lucky for what’s left, for they all came to me the easy way, from folks cleaning closets pretty much, knowing i’d be trusted guardian to their treasures. gulp. (did you hear me swallowing my chagrin?)

ahem. back to jim, and his stopping by. last thing i said before we hung up was, “i’ll crank the griddle.” he laughed. he knows that the griddle is synonymous with grilled cheese, and grilled cheese around here is synonymous with jim, fueling jim, fueling him for years, in fact.

in the latest installment of jim’s-grilled-bread-with-cheese, during the 12 months that was supposed to have been three that it took to build our farmhouse kitchen, i musta slapped, slathered, sizzled some 1,000 grilled cheese. gone through 500 loaves of hearty wheat, nearly as many bright orange blocks of cheddar, enough butter to charm a cow.

every day, round lunchtime, even on the days when we were inhaling dust or ducking under dripping wires, i cranked the firehouse stove i call my own, and i sizzled up at least three if not more grilled cheese. then, on paper plates some days, jim & crew shoved aside just enough saw dust not to get more crunch with their cheese, and sat down to lunch. many a day, i sat down too.

and the grilled cheese always sealed the deal. always said the thing unspoken, though i’ve told it to his face plenty of times, and in print in the newspaper, too. the grilled cheese told jim & crew that they were not some hired workers, they were integral, essential, pretty much part of the family.

if they could build me my dream, hammer through headaches and near frostbite, for cryin out loud, jigsaw through knicked thumbs and delayed orders, powerdrill through the hassles of a stolen van and a lifetime’s lost tools, i could slap cheese on bread; butter; grill.

to be honest, not every day was a happy day on the long road to the farmhouse kitchen. at least one or two days jim wanted to kill me (like the day we discovered that the cabinet doors i’d described and the ones he ordered–and was starting to hang–were decidedly not the same).

but through it all the cheese was grilled, the apples were sliced, and in the end, the jim who walked in yesterday, pulled out a stool, sat down and bit off a corner of my grilled cheese, he’s one of the dearest hearts in my life. we endured, fueled, in good measure, on that oozy cheese.

it just seems right to me, and food for more thought for another day, perhaps, that the souls you invite into your home, to build your home, to wire your home, to get the toilet flushing, they are part and parcel of the woodwork, the wiring, the very innards of what makes your house not just a house but a very live theater with all sorts of characters who fill the stage with their charms, their quirks, their persistence and their considerable capabilities.

it is a bond not paid in dollars. it is far beyond obligation. it is, far as i can tell, a kind of love best served crunchy on the outside, oozing in the middle.

i’m curious, have you too forged bonds with folks who make your house keep ticking? or, if you’re a soul who does keep houses ticking, how’s it feel when you’re made to know, in no uncertain terms, that you are, simply, indispensable and far beyond just another worker hired for the job?

p.s. those are, obviously, jim’s hands up above, holding that grilled cheese. i love those hands, working hands. as i kept clicking, while he chewed, i was raving about the hands–knicks, calluses, rough spots, the whole shebang. he chuckled. said that was a first. said i oughta go watch seinfeld, some episode where someone–i should know who–becomes a hand model. oh well, in the comedy i call my life, jim’s hands will do. just fine.

every time i turn a knob…

which, as you might imagine, is a hundred times a day in a working kitchen, with two boys, a fat cat, a hungry husband and me. and every single time, since i found out, i think of danny. danny screwed in every one of those ice box catches, as they are called in hardware speak. there are 17 of them in the farmhouse kitchen, and another 23 drawer pulls.

danny, who is no longer, sweated over every last one of all of them.

on a july day so hot he was licking away sweat from his upper lip before the third catch was on, danny and his power driver had at it. during a chapter in the kitchen construction that was nearly a stand-still, they called in danny. to come to our rescue. danny was the kind of guy who comes to your rescue: solid, quiet, get-the-job-done.

danny killed himself exactly three weeks ago today. leaving behind a wife he loved, and three kids, 5, 3, and newborn.
hung himself, danny did.

despondent over lord knows how many things. but one of the things was that he’d been rehabbing his own house, trying to make it stretch for his stretching family. he’d dug a new foundation, right up against the old one. and the rains came one september spell. literally washed his foundation out. the house caved in. danny, 38, wore the weight of it on his taut, slim shoulders.

and every time i turn a knob, i see danny. see a hundred frames of danny getting the job done.

a house, a house lived in by souls who love it, who honor it, who keep an ear open to its many whisperings, is, as any archeologist would tell you, an artifact layered with history and meaning, heartbreak and miracle.

the knobs for me will forever be danny, danny’s heartbreaking story.

besides the fact that we were finally getting knobs on cabinets that had hung naked for weeks, the drama of the week that danny came was that danny had a baby coming any minute. his third baby.

see, danny had grown up on our watch. back at our old house, he was the smart, young kid on the job. the carpenter with the degree in economics from lawrence university, one of those really fine midwest liberal arts schools that pull in really smart kids who might not look toward the coasts. danny could push a pencil, but he thrilled at banging a hammer.

they were a team of four, the builders, our builders, jim&friends. and we loved them. i don’t know how you have a house filled with men hammering and sawing and building your dreams and not love them. each one had a role, a schtick, a something you could count on. characters on the stage of your life for however long the job takes, you await their coming in from the wings each morning, you stand and applaud when they have just sung their hearts out–even when they sing with a hand plane or a power driver.

not long after wrapping up our job in the city, danny decided he needed to hang up his tool belt and become something of which his wife would be proud: an accountant. he took the tests, passed on his first try. danny was always a smart kid. he tried crunching numbers for awhile. but he just didn’t get the buzz that comes from building houses for a living. so he went out on his own, his little family growing right along with his business.

but we needed him this summer. the building had, for a number of reasons, gotten way behind.

the day he showed up, everyone knew we were back on track. he stayed late the night he put the knobs on. we came home to a dark house, but a house with polished-nickel knobs shining.

danny kept coming all week, getting the job done. his wife had the baby the next tuesday. he didn’t come to our house that day. but he came back soon after. he was beaming. he talked about kathy, the kids, he was beaming.

i never talked to him after his house caved in in september. i should have. i was dreaming up some kind of benefit concert, something that would get some cash in his hands. i never got past dreaming.

then jim called one dreary november morn, right before thanksgiving. jim who had worked beside danny since danny was a 15-year-old kid looking to make money during summers in high school. jim who said he cried like a baby when he got the call.

“you remember danny,” he started, oddly. as if. as if i wouldn’t remember.

“he took his life.”

it’s been three weeks. and every time i reach for the knob….i think of those kids, this christmas. i run my fingers slowly over the polished-nickel knob. bless you, danny. bless you.