“Some Enchanted Evening”
I have sometimes reflected on those opening words from Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities,” but never so much as when I contemplate the long, long process that was the making—and eventual use—of our own little Backyard Paradise. Truth to tell, I had never so much as banged two boards together before we came to San Diego in 1982. During those early years we occasionally found ourselves needing things which I then designed and built, culminating in a double pedestal computer desk (I’m sitting at it now!) which I made with the only tools I had at the time: a Skilsaw, drill guide, and electric drill.
When we got our home in 1992 I told Christine that if I just had a table saw and some other tools, I could customize our home throughout, and that if not another thing happened, we would at least have a slice of the pie. We had been in the house for several years before I finally turned to on the backyard.
It’s hard to talk about something like that yard without its sounding like bragging, so I rarely do. I am entirely too aware of the many other woodworkers who make me look like a boy scout. I personally know a dozen woodworkers or more in San Diego alone who could do that kind of work in their sleep. And I’ve restricted the list to those I actually know! I do think it is fair to say that I hold my own as a woodworker, but I am certainly not deserving of the praise that sometimes comes my way. I know people who are absolute wizards with a piece of wood.
But, even so, here I am writing about my own modest achievements. Partially, I do want to explain why I was away from the blogging these last few weeks—doing last minute work on the yard, up to and including new bench backs! Partially, I want to talk about the wonders of a developed backyard, because done correctly, it becomes a truly wonderful place for entertaining. And partially, I just want to write about an evening we’re still buzzing about, both guests and hosts!
Altogether, I worked nine summers back there, never in the winter months, excepting the casita which required one full year of my labor to finally realize. There’s a spa behind the windows and a separate storage area behind the blank wall. I had the most help on that structure; a contractor friend and I put in the slab and framed it on three sides. He also wired it, and the stucco was done by professionals. The rest was me, including the making and installation of all the windows and doors. The only other help I had was when I installed the posts for the two raised decks, as that is very much a two-man job; one keeps the post plumb, the other fastens bolts and such. I installed the overheads myself, some of which are twenty-two feet long!
We call the larger of the two raised decks the gazebo because that is the form we first thought it would take. When it evolved into its present shape with the awnings, we kept the name because it seemed to fit it. The other misnamed structure is the white reading porch because I’ve never actually had a chance to read back there! I deliberately set out to create something tranquil and Stickley-like spindles seemed like just the ticket for that. Altogether there are 166 spindles secured by some 332 mortise-and-tenon joints. It was the last structure I made, and it really went quite well.
Then there was long period of maintenance with only an occasional gathering of some sort. But throughout that period we never once saw that yard being used the way I had envisioned it when I was working on it for so many years. But this last weekend we had the perfect group and the perfect time, and all the stars finally aligned. Christine really likes the people she works with, and she invited a number of them for a party that really was what we said it was when we conceived it, just a chance to share our little sanctuary with her friends—mine too now, although I’ve only just met most of them!
I must say the evening was a complete success, but damn! I literally put the last bit of paint on the last bench back on Friday for the blue lines on the cloud lift design. Because it was inset router lines, there was nothing to rub off. Plus, it dried FAST in this heat. So, that was OK. Christine took off Friday and Monday. Friday and Saturday we worked like dogs. Two long days, especially Saturday when we got up at 6:00 and turned to. The party was to start at 5:00, and I finally asked Christine at the last minute to postpone it to 5:30, which she was able to do. We’re able to close off the master bedroom and be completely private, which is good because I stepped into the shower at 5:15, and we already had a few guests who hadn’t gotten the text changing the time!
But I have to say—and I do say—that it was everything we hoped it would be. I finally, finally, finally saw that yard used the way I always hoped it would be when I first designed it and so many times during the nine-year construction period when I would take a break and dream a little. What I most wanted was a group of good friends back there in a convivial setting, one in which they would feel free to wander throughout the yard, sitting on the gazebo sometimes, on the benches down below at other times. We had a total of 20 people back there, and when we finally served at 7:00 there were people on both levels.
Several times I caught a glimpse of Christine’s face. I have never seen such a look of satisfaction on her face. Later when we rehashed the evening I asked her about it, and she said, “It was everything I hoped it would be. That’s why I looked like that at times. I genuinely like all those people, and I was delighted at having them in our home, enjoying our hospitality.”
Some of our guests asked Christine where I got my plans and were surprised to learn that all the work was my own. I don’t think you can inherit talents, but I do think you can learn behaviors and outlooks. In that regard it very much reminds me of the saying, “If I see further than my father did, it’s because I should. I’m standing on his shoulders.” The reason I always design my own projects is because it really never occurred to me to do it any other way. And the reason I feel that way is because of my father’s example.
Dad was a wonderful carpenter, electrician, plumber, and so forth. As a very young man he did work in construction, but he left that field before I was born. Thinking back on it I sometimes find myself wondering why because he really was very talented. And the Old Man never once sent away for a plan. He just grabbed a sheet of paper and sketched out what he wanted. Truth to tell, there were many times when he didn’t even do that. He could see it in his mind’s eye, and that was all the visual aids he needed. That work always fascinated me, to such an extent that I started “helping” him at the age of six, sitting all day as a small boy so I could occasionally fetch him a tool. As I grew older, I became part of the actual work, and he would sometimes describe to me a project that existed nowhere but inside his head. Personally, I do prefer a sketch of some sort, but I do know that designing my own projects was engrained in me from a very early age.
I think the other part of a successful party is going the extra mile. Christine is a wonderful cook, and because she’s Mexican-American that wonderful cuisine is her specialty. She’s another one who doesn’t spend a lot of time with other people’s recipes. We served a complete Mexican meal (chicken fajitas, chile verde, rice and beans) which we preceded with the traditional appetizers.
We made our own guacamole, our own chips, and the Margarita recipe we used was one we figured out some years ago. We could have bought chips—and briefly considered that—but we wanted to make the evening as special as possible. She fried the chips earlier in the day and kept them warm in the oven after she’d fried them, replenishing the bowls as needed. From time to time the call would go out, “We’ve got fresh chips and guacamole.” And the lines would form at once. I’m told one of our guests never really eats at these affairs, but when he saw the others eating with such relish he couldn’t resist. He soon found himself lining up every time the call went out!
One guest said, “That party involved a lot of planning and a lot of love, and it showed in every delicious bite!” Another said, “I need to watch my weight, so I’ve gotten to where I routinely pass on things like chips, but when I heard people raving about homemade guacamole and homemade chips—I mean, c’mon, who the heck even does things like that! I can be good all next week.”
There really is something magical about dining al fresco during the warm summer months, especially after the sun sets. It brings people together in ways that really cannot be imagined until you actually consent to it.
But you certainly do not have to put together anything as elaborate as we did. Nor do you have to invest so many years of your life in building so many permanent structures. As this last picture shows, all you really need is a table, some hurricane lamps with candles, and friends you genuinely want to spend time with. All the rest is details.
Because it took me longer than I thought it would to get the yard ready, we started the actual party preparation much later than would have otherwise been the case and had to run like mad to catch up. That Saturday we got up at 6:00 a.m. and turned to shortly afterwards. The last guest left at 10:30, and we cleaned up until midnight. But for all the exertion of so long a day, we then sat up until 2:00 a.m. rehashing the events of the day, basking in the afterglow as Christine often says. So many, many years went into the making of that yard, and then that long period of maintenance followed by the making and installation of new bench backs, but for all that work, still in the end, it was very worth it. It truly was an enchanted evening. Next year we shall have more.
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