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Sow’s Ear – the beginning of a book by Mary

Sow’s Ear

The Beginning of a Book


To my father

George John Prevo




My father taught me how to use a handsaw.  “Let it do the work,” he said, grasping the wood with his left hand, thumb knuckle bent in to form a guide.  “You get it started by drawing it back and then gliding it forward.  Just push a little bit and let gravity and the weight of the saw do the rest.”  After the saw blade had taken its first bite, my father set to work with strong, smooth strokes and soon the board fell in half.  To me it looked like magic.   His rule also works for hammers.  You start the nail and move your hand back to the end of the handle, looking for a comfortable pivot point.  Then you guide the fall of the hammer, balancing its weight against your arm’s.  Tong, tang, ting — the nail hits a higher note as the metal shaft shortens.   The hammer becomes an extension of your arm.  Your shoulder and elbow raise the hammerhead.   Its weight and forward momentum drive in the nail.


My father taught me these lessons the summer I was almost seven.  He had decided to build a boat in our barn and I was to be his helper.  “No, not those, sweetie. I’m ready for the smaller finishing nails now.”  I’d lean over for the other bag and be ready with a nail whenever he turned.   Tong, tang, ting, nailset, tap, tap.  Next nail.  This didn’t hold my attention for the hours it held my father’s, but for the time it did, I was a help and he thanked me when I skipped off.


  The barn was eighty by eighty feet and built shortly after 1809.  The boat was to be a twelve-foot open skiff with a flat prow.   The plans came out of Popular Mechanics, I recall, and included laying out lots of strangely shaped templates on lightweight plywood.  When the boat was finished we painted it gleaming white on the outside and bright blue on the inside.  Somewhere my father had found a piece of teak for the transom.  He sanded it smooth with steel wool, finished it with marine varnish, and placed the boat’s name in the upper left outside corner.  With a tiny brush and a sure hand, he outlined beautiful Roman letters in gilder’s red.  Then he blew on whisper-thin sheets of gold leaf and burnished them to a high sheen.  I remember tiny bits of gold clinging to my forearm that day when we came in from working.  He named the boat “Sow’s Ear.”    


My father loved the water and I remember being excited and happy setting out with him on a summer morning. He’d nod with a smile at the boat bobbing on the surface of the cold Maine water.  We usually left as the tide was going out of the narrow tidal river below our house.  I loaded bright orange canvas life preservers.  He hefted the little five-horse power motor over the too-fancy teak transom and we would head off for a day on the dark blue waters of the Harraseeket River and Casco Bay.   


We went out on the boat a lot in the beginning, but my mother never liked it much.  Tippy boats made her nervous.  “George, don’t rock the boat so.  And don’t get so close to the rocks,” she’d plead as we rounded an island covered with sunbathing seals.  We all agreed that it was more fun to go out on the boat without her.  But she admired and loved the man who built the boat in the barn.  “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” he’d say rocking back on his heels just plain proud of himself, “but goodness knows, I tried.”  “Some might say what you’ve actually done is gild the lily,” my mother would reply.  


My mother preferred horses.  And it wasn’t long after the boat moved out of the barn that two scruffy summer camp horses, Eric and Judy, moved in.  With them came new sounds and smells.  Stamping feet, low whinnies, warm dusty coats, oats, hay, leather and saddle soap.  It still smelled of fresh wood, for the boat workspace was now filled with a mountain of clean shavings from the sawmill for horse bedding.  


Neither my father nor my mother is alive.  As the oldest of their children, I have, perhaps more memories of them, both good and of bad.  In fact, my father’s rocks were alcoholic and my mother couldn’t keep him away from them any more than she could keep him from the coast of the seal island.  Trying only broke her health.  So they both died too soon, my mother at thirty-six, my father two years later at forty-two.  My brother, sister, and I went to live with different relatives, separating earlier and more abruptly than most siblings.  Now that I am older and have a child, it becomes important for me to trace the brighter strands of this story for him and for myself.  


My mother was a writer – never published except as a local correspondent for the Portland Press Herald.  My father was an artist.  He made his living as a commercial artist.  Both could wield a hammer – my father to build, my mother to repair.  From them I learned to find joy in looking at the world around me. They taught me to puzzle about human accomplishments and human needs.     


Books and reading were a constant in our lives.  My mother was a voracious reader. “Audrey, are you going to put that book down and come to bed?” my father would call. “You are going to regret it when you have to get the kids off to school tomorrow.”   We went to the local library every week and came back with mountains of books.  My brother and I would start reading in the car on the way home and stay in the car reading until we were called in for dinner.   


Before he built the boat in the barn, my father built bookshelves in the living room.  They filled an entire wall – shallow shelves above waist level and deeper shelves below.  “Most books can be held on a shelf four to five inches deep.”  This was a rule established by my mother’s father – an industrial designer and planner.  We children called him Grumps.  He had been consulted in the design of the bookshelves and as usual his advice was followed.  All the houses I grew up in had these shallow shelves, which took less floor space than commercially produced shelves.  When our new shelves were finished, they held my father’s multi-volume Mark Twain and my mother’s similar Charles Dickens.  My brother and I used to puzzle out the titles, squinting to read the faded ones high above our heads.  Way up at the top were five precious volumes of Shakespeare, bound in plain white vellum and very, very old.  I have often wondered what happened to them.  I remember the rough paper with uneven edges.  On the very top shelf, far above a child’s reach, was one of those marital relations manuals from the 1950’s and the Kinsey report on the sexual behavior of the human male.  We weren’t supposed to be able to get them, but when it became necessary, we figured out how to climb up the front of my father’s well-built shelves.  


The record player and records fit in the deeper lower shelves.  Next to them was the World Book Encyclopedia — always missing four or five volumes taken by different members of the family for different reasons to different parts of the house.  My brother and I were fascinated by the anatomy illustrations.  We would peel back the acetate overlays, watching muscle reveal organs and organs reveal bones.  The large shelves in the corner by the big armchair held children’s picture books.  One of our parents would read two or three aloud every evening for bedtime.  Big shelves near the floor also held by father’s art books.  I spent many hours pouring over these – the bright abstractions of Cezanne, Matisse, and Picasso; Aubrey Beardsley’s strange and dark obsessions.  There were books of American painting with views of other times and places – Thomas Cole’s wild mountains, Thomas Hart Benton’s fields and cities, Grant Wood’s solemn faces.  


In the process of turning the 1809 farmhouse parlor into a 1960 living room my mother stripped all the wall paper (columns of tiny white flowers on a field of brown).  In the process we discovered a cupboard just above and to the left side of the fireplace.  And inside the cupboard we found a perfectly preserved mouse skeleton, white and pristine like a laboratory specimen.  I still have it in a balsa wood box.  Finding it was an event.  “Come quickly everyone,” my mother had called with great urgency and we all came running.  “For god’s sake Audrey, I thought you had killed yourself,” my father said with a smile and we gathered around the tiny miracle, counting the number of bones in the curling tail.  Together we considered the circumstances of its demise.  When was the cupboard sealed?  When, how, why did the mouse wander in?  My mother built a story of a mouse finding a crumb of bread.  Did he or she have a family?  I suppose to be so perfectly preserved that it probably died of poison, but this was only briefly mentioned and then set aside as too sad and ordinary to consider for very long.   I looked at the hole that connected the cupboard to the structure of the flue and chimney inside the core of the house and imagined the secret passages that must run through all the walls.  I asked about the fireplace and chimney.  My room was directly above and had a fireplace as well.  Did mice visit me at night?  In response to my questions, my father took me down into our low-ceilinged cellar and showed me the foundations of the central chimney.  All four fireplaces fed into the chimney in the middle of the house.  He explained how a flue worked and that it connected the fireplace to the chimney at an angle to draw the smoke upward.  He explained that a central chimney was a common design for northern New England because it held the heat inside the core of the house for a long time and helped keep us warm in the snowy Maine winters.  We walked into the vaulted space under the center of the chimney and sensed the weight of the structure above us.  The walls of the barrel vaulted space were lined with narrow shelves for jars of preserved fruits and vegetables – another way the chimney sheltered us for winter.  He asked me to picture the chimney that rose in the middle of the roof two stories above and the flues of each fireplace – the three on the first floor and one on the second in my bedroom – filling up the spaces in the walls between the rooms of our very old house.   I spent quite a lot of time thinking about those passages and trying to figure out exactly where they were behind the plaster and wainscoting.


I’m writing this to pull together my memories of the spaces that have held my life, boats and barns, apartments and houses.  The craft and skill that made them have molded me and sent me on a trajectory that finds me now apprenticed to the builder I’ve contacted to renovate my own house.  This is another farmhouse – smaller than the Maine house and far to the south in central Virginia.  It is set in a grid of streets that grew around it in the 1940’s and 50’s — one of the changes wrought on our small central Virginia town by post-World War II expansion.  My house is the only house in the area that is oriented to the sun and not the streets.  Built in stages, it was first a two-room cabin with a central hall.  The owners built it as a hunting season getaway.  A front porch soon followed.  The scars in the siding show that the house once had floor-to-ceiling triple sash windows in the front just like Jefferson’s Monticello.  The first addition was an el to the back of the north room.  Today it, too, is one and half stories tall.  Sometime after WWII, the space in the elbow of the el was filled in with a one-story, low pitched shed roofed space and the second story was finished, which added three tiny gables to the front over the porch.


My college architectural history professor would call it a house with warts, by which he meant a house with many, successive small additions.  The last warts were two small porches, since enclosed, and a tiny storage room on the back.  Last summer after a minor flood from a backed up air conditioner condensate tube, we decided to remove these warts.  Now we are replacing them with a slightly bigger footprint—2 feet, six inches out.  The new space will be completely conditioned and give us more living and working space, as well as a real mechanical room for the furnace and hot water heater.  I had already been thinking seriously about remodeling this part of the house.  In fact, I had been obsessing over various plans for about two years.  So, while sparked by the unfortunate failure of the air conditioner, this project has been several years in the making.  In that time I have read many books about remodeling, about houses.  I have looked carefully at the houses in my town, both new and old.  I’ve poured over magazines.  We considered lots of options — sell and move, tear down and rebuild from scratch.  I covered miles of paper with design ideas.  At one point, when a very respectable modular home (you don’t call them houses) was constructed across the street, I started designing in fourteen foot modules.  But we always came back to how much we loved our front porch and funny crooked floors.   We also have the very best yard in town and didn’t want to leave it.  I am an architectural historian myself and couldn’t imagine tearing this down.  After all, it pre-dates the streets and is oriented to the sun.  

And so, as I swept the scraps of ancient and nasty rock wool insulation from the fresh sub-floor of the new addition, I was suddenly struck by the fact that I am adding a too-fancy, teakwood transom to a very plain house.  Like my father, I’m making a silk purse.


List of other things to write about.

After three years of obsessing over plans and   

Spaces for living, moving, dreaming

Conceits – houses as symbols of something else

Building – making spaces



Summer Houses with Names

Little Houses

The Old Farm House



Chicken Barn

Tall, thin house



Just plain houses