Last weekend, I built my first wall.
Iíve been learning a lot about carpentry since I moved into this old house of mine. Iíve learned a bunch of things. But Iíve never built a wall before, other than metaphorically.
Youíll recall that I have embarked on a project involving the enlarging of a small half-bath into a full-blown facility, though still not very large. This will allow me to then gut and rebuilt the master bath. The current work entails taking in about 60 inches of space, 36-or-so inches wide (I told you, itís a small bathroom). That entailed building a wall, with doorframe, and a corner about seven and a half inches long to meet up with the existing air conditioner closet. Donít worry. Iím confused too.
My pal Larry Deslatte gave me instructions on wall-building and corner-fitting, saving me a lot of heartache and perhaps potential disaster. I happily took off to Stewardís in Baldwin that Saturday morning to pick up all the lumber I needed and five pounds of nails.
Something about fresh, uncut lumber just gets to a do-it-yourselfer such as myself. Itís likeÖI donít knowÖan unsliced pie. A fresh pot of gumbo. An unread book. You get the idea. Part of you wants to leap into the job, carbide-toothed blades screaming, sawdust flyingÖbut the other wants to just kinda admire it, pristine as it is, a neatly stacked pile of potential and imagination.
But there was a wall to be built. If you read the last column on this project, I said part of the space was going to be a water heater closet, but that idea was nixed and the water heater will be moved elsewhere. I had picked out a door unit, so I knew the doorís rough-opening size I had to build. I was ready to rock and roll.
There wasnít enough space available to do the proper thing, build the wall on the floor and lift up, so I had to built it in place. Now, in a house approaching 170-some-odd years old, in a back section with a decided lean Ė built that way, of all things! Ė toward the bayou, certain challenges are immediately evident.
I lined up the new wall with the one that I was extending by using a long straight edge and marked it on the floor, corner and all. The old adage "measure twice, cut once" does not suffice in this old house. Itís more like "measure thrice, carry board out to the saw in the shop four to six times and nibble away 1/16-inch increments until it fits." I installed six studs in t his wall, and their lengths varied from eight-foot 10 and a half inches to eight-foot 10 and three-quarters inches, in no specific pattern. Ah, me.
Luckily many years ago, realizing I have always been mathematically-challenged, I purchased a fractional calculator with a base of 12 instead of 10, i.e., I could add, subtract, multiply and divide foot-inch-fractions until Iím blue in the face, which is usually the case because Iím holding my breath hoping I hit the right keys.
At such times, when problems present themselves and I canít find my pal for advice, I take the WWND tactic. "What Would Norm Do?" of course refers to the godfather of do-it-yourself television, Norm Abrams, co-host of This Old House and host of his own program, The New Yankee Workshop. I have expanded upon the concept of WWND slightly, however, with all due respect to Norm, and converted it to "What Would Nick Do?" because my dad, Nick Stouff, was a master carpenter in his own right. Either an answer presents itself at once, or I go find something else to do until Larry can drop by.
I ended up with a wall, with a door frame, and a nicely-done corner. Came our fairly well, I think, though it hasnít been formally inspected by my mentor yet. I do have a clever tactic for getting passing grades: A fine cigar and a cold one. So far, my marks have never fallen below a "C".
Odd thing is, over the course of last two weekends, three times Iíve come and found the existing door to the little bathroom open. Itís latched and locked with a throw-bolt at all times. I figured maybe one of us forgot to throw the bolt the first time, so I made sure it was snug and locked in place. Sure enough, twice more, I found the old door open.
I had to stop and absorb it for a little while and a memory crept back out of th e crevices of my memory where I could see it. It was back in 1997, and my grandmother, who had lived 70 years of her life in this old house, was then in a rest home. A slight mist had settled over her mind, and though she was never really inhibited, moments of clarity were never quite what they once wereÖor so we thought.
The last time I saw her was, I think, Motherís Day. I was living in the house by then and that morning I had cut the grass with her trusty old Snapper lawn mower. When I was a tike, she would ride me on her lap, without the blade turning, much to my delight. Later, I learned to steer, and still later, I was charged with cutting the yard myself, and a couple of generations of Snapper mowers were my tools.
My mom and dad and I went to the home to visit her, and I hugged her there in that sterile, white and stainless steel environment. She was so small and thin, but her eyes were fire.
"I saw you this morning," she said. "I saw you outside the window."
"Did you granny?" I asked, afraid the clarity was slipping again, the mist thickening to fog.
She nodded. "You were cutting the grass. You did a good job, baby."
Of course she saw. How could she not have? She rested her head on the wooden porch and listened to Papa Jack tell stories about kich and neka sama and Grande Avoille Cove. She sat in straight-backed kitchen chairs and learned to make river cane baskets, fingers sliced and bloodied by the sharp edges of the cane. Churned butter, ground coffee, learned words and phrases and most of a language. She learned to heal with traditional medicines and learned to speak to kich herself, the little brown bird that would warn and advise and rejoice. There was an umbilical between her, in that antiseptic hospital bed, and that old house back on the reservation, that could never be severed.
So of course she saw me through the window, like a magic pane, like a trip through a looking glass, cutting the lawn. So of course she opened a few doors the last couple weeks, unseen, but she surely peeked her head around the corner, looking, up and down, left to right. I guess I know in my heart that she lifted her chin the way she always did, stiffened her upper lip proudly and nodded.
"You did a good job, baby."