Friday, September 24, 2010

The New Girls in Town

This is how my day in Eldon, Iowa started today. Molly Moser -- who is not only the new museum curator/American Gothic House Center administrator but also a fabulously talented artist with a sense of humor as dry as vermouth -- called me my from the parking lot in front of my house on my Los Angeles cell phone number to ask if I was ready. Oh, right. I had forgotten. We were going to ride the beach cruiser bikes (that had just arrived with my shipment of furniture from Portland) to the post office. It was going to be my big outing for the day. But I was still in my pajamas, drinking my cafe latte while lounging in my overstuffed daisy chair, reading the hardback copy of Garrison Keillor's "Lake Wobegon Days" which I had purchased the day before at a flea market in Ottumwa for two dollars. No worries. I threw on my de rigueur Iowa attire -- my bib overalls and flip flops -- gulped down the rest of my coffee, and jumped on the bike.
There is nothing better than feeling the wind in your face at 9:00 a.m. on a crisp, early fall morning. (There is nothing worse than breathing in a little too deeply and getting a bug up your nose.) We hooted and hollered and rang our bike bells like crazy, carefree schoolgirls...all six blocks to the other side of town. (Eldon may possibly be the world's smallest town. And most definitely it has the world's shortest -- albeit nicest -- bike path.) Molly mailed her package while I dropped off that "dumb blond" coffee mug at the McHaffey Opera House thrift store, where all proceeds go to renovating the original opera house, which, like the American Gothic House, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. (It would be a miracle if they could get 25 cents for that cheesy mug, meaning it could be a long time before they earn enough to start construction.)

During our big trip to "town" Molly and I stopped at two garage sales. Yes, it was a big, booming day for commerce in Eldon. Molly bought Christmas lights at the first one and a Polaroid camera for 50 cents at the second one a half block down. Score! I bought a bag of 40 watt light bulbs and six votive candles, for a grand total of 25 cents. For the whole lot. That saved me both a bundle of money AND a trip back to Target in Ottumwa, a 20-minute drive away. God, I love Eldon!

As we pedaled back to the American Gothic House I asked Molly, "What do you think the people here make of us? I mean look at us. Two new girls in town, riding on these fancy beach crusiers with a dog in the basket. I mean, do we look out of place, or what? Like city slickers who are living in the country for a lark?"

She just laughed, rang her bike bell a few times, and pedaled ahead of me because she didn't want to be late for work. I pedaled home slowly, unloaded my purchases -- and my dog -- from my basket, and went back to reading in my chair. Just another day in Eldon, where this new country life suits me fine.

Refrigerator Art and Stray Dogs

This is Chloe, age nine, with me in front of my new house, the American Gothic House. Chloe is my new pal, and also a kindred spirit. She is tough and feminine. She climbs trees and wants to be a fashion model. She catches frogs and has Justin Bieber posters hanging next to her all-pink bed. Chloe is also an artist. While her mom, Carrie, was helping me scrub the last of the cobwebs from the corners of the house, Chloe sat outside making a sketch for me to hang on my refrigerator. In spite of her wild, tomboy ways, she also possesses the ability to sit still and pay attention to detail. She got the roof lines right, the scalloped border of the lace curtain in the Gothic window, the spindled columns on the front porch, and even the cracks in the sidewalk. And as if she were channeling Grant Wood, she even had me appear to be posed in front of the house, even though I was inside, down in the basement, mopping the cement floor. (I say channeling Grant Wood as the couple in his American Gothic painting never posed in front of the house and were painted separately from each other.) Chloe drew the bibs and buttons of my overalls and even got my hairstyle right -- a messy bun piled on top of my head, a result of rolling out of bed that morning not expecting company. And she depicted the dogs perfectly. I have two (pictured bottom right corner), but she made a point to include the stray Jack Russell terrier who I had fostered for the two previous nights.

It's a dangerous thing for me that the City Dog Pound is immediately across the parking lot from my house. I can't stand to see these lost (or, more often, intentionally abandoned) dogs outside in a cage. In the rain. And thus, I freed the little Jack Russell by breaking into the kennel, pulling back a corner of the chain link fence, and bringing her into my house. And into my bed. Fleas and all. Including the stray dog in the picture was Chloe's way of telling me that I was supposed to keep this dog, that my house was its new home. Period. Bossy, insistent, clever. Kindred spirit indeed.

The pie magnet in the upper right corner of Chloe's art was a gift from Carleen, one of the volunteers at the American Gothic House Center. I met her the day I came by as a tourist -- fateful day that it was, and only a few short weeks ago! -- and she remembered I was a pie baker. She bought the magnet thinking I must already have a zillion pie magnets. In fact, I have zero. And now I have one, an adorable pie-surrounded-by-ants magnet to secure Chloe's masterpiece onto the (very clean) refrigerator in my charming, historic, famous home. Life can be so good.

As for the stray Jack Russell, Chloe convinced her mom to take the dog to their house. But she still needs a permanent home. She is house broken, affectionate, smart, and funny. Please help us find a healthy, loving place for her. Otherwise I'm afraid Chloe's artwork could be prophetic. In which case I may never let her draw for me again!

The View from my Kitchen Window

You've seen the shots of people posing with the pitchfork with the American Gothic House in the background, but here's a new perspective. This is what I see when I look out my kitchen window.
Three couples, dressed in the free costumes provided by the American Gothic House Center, lined up to have their photos taken this afternoon. Little did they know they were being watched! The picture below is taken from the living room, through the lace curtain. Note the pitchfork. The visitor center has a big supply of them.
For those of you who thought I was going to be too isolated living out here in this remote corner of Southeast Iowa, think again. The traffic is light (compared to, say, the Empire State Building) but it's steady and like other national treasures the American Gothic House attracts people from all over the world.

Seriously, I could watch these visitors come and go all day. It's more interesting than television. Which is a good thing since I don't have one.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

It Takes a Village

No sooner did I complain about how hard it's been to clean this house (again, my apologies for venting) help arrived!Carrie Teninity (pictured above left) is many things. She is City Clerk for the City of Eldon. She is caretaker of the American Gothic House grounds, where she can be seen weekly maneuvering her John Deere mower around the green acres. She is mother to the adorable and feisty nine-year-old Chloe (that's Chloe below, climbing my flag pole). But she is also rescuer of whining pie bakers with hands rubbed raw from scrubbing the 130-year-old wood floors. Carrie showed up this weekend like Xena the Warrior Princess hauling along her mop, broom, bucket and rubber gloves. Her supplies, sadly, came from one of the Salvation Army flood kits the city gave out to this summer's riverfront residents. (You see? I have no right to complain about a little grime in my house. Imagine what it's like cleaning out a whole river that's swept through your living room!) I'm claiming Carrie as my new best friend for helping share the load of the cleaning. Not only is she a hard worker, her idea of clean is as anal as mine. Amen to that! Then, as if her Emergency Maid Service hadn't already qualified her for sainthood, she added to my rapture over the clean house by inviting me over for dinner. (This is of note because I had been living off of peanut butter sandwiches for days. Also of note, the only dish in the house was a coffee mug left behind by the former tenant with the inscription: "I'm a Real Blond. Please Speak Slowly." An item that is now on its way to the thrift store.) Carrie replenished my depleted calories by serving hearty burgers made from the (hormone-free) cow her parents butchered for her. I love Iowa living -- and will be vying for more dinner invitations in the near future!One of the reasons Carrie's help was so needed -- and appreciated -- is that we were scrubbing against a deadline. The moving van was arriving Monday morning. All of my furniture -- my couches, my desk, my dishes, my winter clothes, everything -- would be filling my new house at last. Best of all, my Tempurpedic mattress was coming. No more sleeping on a borrowed air mattress!
(PHOTO: Man, my house looks dwarfed by the moving truck! But it's about ten times bigger than the studio apartment in Portland where I was just living.) Here's the thing about coming to my new house. If you come, you WILL get your picture taken. That's why the house is still here. That's why there's an elaborate sprinkler system inside to keep the place from burning down. That's why there's a brand new visitor's center and museum next door dedicated to it. That's why the visitor's center provides pitchforks for posing. That's just what you do. You get your picture taken. Even if you are the truck driver from United Van Lines who delivered my furniture.Thanks, Dave! I'm still impressed -- only one broken Champagne glass out of all that stuff. Amazing.

The American Gothic House is officially my home now. Or as I like to call it, the International Headquarters of The World Needs More Pie. I am so grateful -- and feel so privileged -- to be here. And even more so, I'm thankful for the kindness -- and the heavy lifting -- of those who have helped me get moved in. At last, I can sleep in my own bed, bake pie in my clean oven, and....stop complaining!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Good Pie Starts With a Clean Kitchen

My apologies for my absence here but I have been busy cleaning my new house. The American Gothic House hasn't been lived in for two years and given that the place doesn't require a cleaning deposit it appears the last tenant took advantage of this little loophole. She packed up her belongings but didn't scrub the black mildew out of the bathtub, didn't wipe out the spill of some thick orange greasy slime pooled under the crisper drawers in the refrigerator, didn't clean the oily splatter of her cooking off the side of the stove, didn't even bother to pull the nails out of the walls where her pictures hung. It would be one thing to have two years of dust (and mouse droppings) to clean, but two years of someone else's grime with dust (and mouse droppings) collecting on top of it? Let me just say, I've been scrubbing so hard for so many consecutive days I lie in bed at night with my forearms bulging as big as Popeye's throbbing with fatigue.I don't mean to rag on this former tenant. But my rant is this: HYGIENE, people. Practice good hygiene! Who wants to eat pie made in a dirty kitchen?

I have moved too many times in my life and therefore cleaned up after far too many not-so-hygienic tenants, which is probably what contributes to my frustration here, but come on. I beg you. Open your eyes and see the dirt. Pay attention to the cooking splatters and use a rag to clean them up. Right away. And don't let your crisper drawers in the refrigerator become a collection bin for the maple syrup, meat, and juice spills from above. Pull them all the way out, give them a good rinse, and wipe underneath them while you're at it. Not just when you move out but do it regularly. Your house will smell better, feel better. You will feel better. And when you're done, make some pie. It will taste so much better -- and so much healthier -- when you make it in a clean kitchen.

My furniture and all of my belongings arrive from Portland, Oregon tomorrow. After I unpack everything I will christen my house by baking a pie in my immaculate, sanitized kitchen. And then I will find my hammer and remove all those leftover nails.

Thank you for listening. I feel better now. Though my arms are still tired.