Building - Memoir by Pat West

October 1986


Eight and a half hours standing on the damn rickety ladder to sand and caulk outside the big south wall. My feet feel like they will never uncurl and I’ll walk like an ape for the rest of my life. Shock/Trauma class till 10 pm. I want to go to sleep.


Felt much better this morning. Was too rainy to go outside and up the ladder, which no doubt helped cheer me up. Started putting insulation in the walls. New insulation is bright pink. It gives a whole new look to the job- feel like I’m cutting and working with whale flesh. Should be singing whaling songs with pink hunks and slabs everywhere.

The sun was back out when Mom and Dad got back from the store so had to go back up the ladder- shit. It was so hot. It’s going to take forever to clean the caulk and paint off the windows. Builder Man Mike came out with his family at dinnertime. Mom cooks every meal now. I don’t even make feeble offers to cook anymore.

Daddy keeps asking about huaband- “What’s going on?” “Is he going to sleep his life away?” (He does seem to have gone to bed for Mom and Dad’s visit). I dance around the questions, afraid to say anything I can’t take back- not really knowing what to say- this whole thing seems now to roll on with its own will.

Insulated and papered some more this evening. When I paid the phone bill today, I asked how much for my own phone line- $25. I said do it. Daddy gave me $60 which I spent on insulation and caulk.


Watching wonderful sky colors come and go. I hope it’s all right to be in love with a building. Sure do pay for my love with lots of pain. Dad and I finished caulking, insulating and papering the upper room. The insulation bulging out into the room under the brown paper makes the walls look soft as clouds. If I go mad, I’ll have my own padded cell. My hands weep with small cuts.

Daddy keeps telling me that the tilt of my upper room floor really bothers him. It doesn’t bother me at all. On the way back from taking an old man to the hospital, I told Avery about daddy fussing about my sloping floor. He said I don’t even notice it because I live so close to West Virginia, but my father comes from the flat-lands of Nebraska. Dad checked my level today and found out it was out of true. I have been building the whole time with a bad level! Part of me wanted to scream with rage, but the other part was saying, “There, there, dear- it’s not your fault that everything’s a mess- you just had a bad level.”

Made Herb a birthday cake- he’s 52. I have always taken birthday cakes seriously- everyone gets their favorite kind of cake- each twin gets her own cake. I’ve even stayed bitter all the years no one has made me one. I gave Herb’s angel food cake to the girls to decorate. I joined in the ragged singing of Happy Birthday and again swore I would never do it again.

Lower Room by Pat West


Lower room almost insulated and papered. We worked on it most of the day. Daddy built some shelves for my tools. “A place for everything and everything in its place” is the way Dad works. “Look for the tool the last place you used it” is the way I work.

Arthur came for his self-appointed job of window cleaner. The walls look so great- not like being in a real house, but like being in the soft, lumpy gut of a huge beast. I feel very safe inside my whale belly.

Mom is cooking everyone dinner and I’m going to town for a rehearsal. My women’s performance group just got another booking, a paying one. I feel great! Just wish the rehearsals would go on forever and we never had to give a performance. The laughter- friendship- support- even the tears are enough to keep me nurtured. I don’t need to hear the clunk of the houselights going out to know it’s all real.


Insulation is done and I hope never to get that stuff on or in me again in my whole life. Worked on trying to make the big oak blocks into better steps from deck to ground- can’t get them right. I thought I had them right- now they’re not. They haven’t changed, so I must have. This happens all the time- scary.


There’s been a change in the weather. A cold front came through this morning, pushing glorious clouds. Frost warning tonight- the end of the locusts for 17 years till 2003 AD.

Last year frost warnings sent me racing to my beloved garden with blankets to decide what might live a little longer. But this morning I just went up into the woods for kindling. The woods are a mess, all overgrown, not passable for a horse in a harness and dragging a log. Everything would keep getting snagged.

Ate sawdust all afternoon. Walter came and passed me till I apply for sewer and water permits. He spent most of his time talking to Dad about the saw. I like Walter- I know now I never fooled him a bit. He is just letting me get by. I want water now, but no money. Probably I’ll still be wanting water when the 17-year locusts come back.


Had to get up at 3 AM to re-start the stove. I must make the stove draw less air- it burns the wood too fast.

Phone man came and put my phone in.

Only got half the south wall done before I had to take the girls to the orthodontist. (Thank God Mom and Dad are paying for it.) When I got back, Dad was upset about his saw not working well. Mom was upset about her much beloved 20- year old electric frying pan giving up the ghost. My phone didn’t work. It was a pissed- off day.


Sanded window trim from 8 till 3- Daddy got the 80-year-old ram pump at the spring working, but said he didn’t think it would get water all the way up to my studio. Said they were leaving Tuesday.

10/9 and 10/10

Started on the windows at 5 AM- gave up painting trim at 1 AM the next day- couldn’t make my fingers hold a pen to write that night.

This morning started re-painting what I had missed last night. Painted the 4 X 4s with boiled linseed oil, making the cherry wood glow. But the neat paint on all the windows and blocking really made my poor carpentry stand out- looks to be no level line or right angle in the whole place. Looks like it was built by a drunken sailor. I had the stove and fan going all day to speed the paint drying- want to clean windows tomorrow.

My pager went off this evening with a call that a man had been shot in Pembroke. The man had a small hole in the top of his foot and a big mess where the bullet exited. Seems he had a bad day hunting. On returning home, he had pointed his rifle down and pulled the trigger to see if it was still loaded. It was. Mostly I thought him a fool and snickered behind his back with the others, but I understand bad days. I know about long re-payment plans for a second of dumbness.


Windows are still too wet for cleaning. Brought 20 of my paintings down and stored them in the horse shed.

Spent a large part of the day looking for my wallet. I want all the time I spent looking for a tool added on to the end of my life. I can lose things without moving from the spot I last had them.

Robin and I went into town tonight- him to karate and me to see my friends- they fill a hole in me that goes forgotten and untended till I see them.


Mom and Dad leave tomorrow. Life will change. I’ll have the house to myself all day and I’ll have all the cooking and child care too. Nothing is ever free; all accounts payable on demand. My parents sure did a lot of work on my house.

I woke at 1:30 this morning with the house so hot I thought I would pass out. I worried about the girls on their high beds. Opened all the windows and doors to cool everyone down. Today when the stove was cool, I put more muffler cement in more cracks. Dad put a new kind of damper in too.

I do wish Hairy Cat would stop sleeping on my pillow. Daddy doesn’t like my cats and is always offering to take some half way back to Nebraska.


Stayed in bed after the girls left for school till 10 making love to myself. I had a lot of time to make up for.

Got the upper room windows scraped, cleaned and the big ladder out of that space. Moved my bed into the corner that’s all windows. Now I have new lines and planes slicing up my view of my world.


Today a car pulled out in front of a tractor-trailer truck. The truck driver swerved to avoid hitting the car and hit a young woman who was eight months pregnant. The first ambulance on the scene grabbed up the smashed woman and made a dash for the hospital to try to save her baby. The E.R. doc met them at the hospital door and yanked the dead woman’s cot into the nearest room. He quickly sliced the baby out. Since I was in the second ambulance, I got the remains of the day. I saw the police speed off in pursuit of the car that caused the accident. I saw the slumped over, weeping truck driver. And I heard the only sound that baby made before it died, a thin mewing.


This morning I set the drain for the old tub in the lower room. It didn’t take long at all. Maybe plumbing is my forte. Carried a hand full of tools down to the horse water tanks to see if the old ram pump had enough strength left in it to get water up to my house. The pump is going well enough to keep the horse tanks full. Three or four garden hoses should reach far enough up the hill to the lower room. Spring water drizzles into the tanks from a pipe with two openings (one for each tank). I had to seal off one opening and fit a leak proof hose connector into the other side (no problem for Plumber Woman). After a lot of work, got the plug threaded into one side. Worked bent over for an hour trying to get the connector threaded into the other side. All I got was a sore back and cold, wet feet.

After coming back from cooking dinner up the hill, I started building myself a table. It felt good to be doing art again- any table I make will be art, of course. Planed and sanded four boards for the top till 10:00. Rainbow around the moon tonight and owls are hooting up a storm.


I’ve got water! A very, very little bit of water. But it’s water to my house!

Found Doug at the squad hall and showed him the connector piece I’d tried so hard to fit into the end of the pipe yesterday. He said it was tapered and that if I’d worked till doomsday it never could have fit. Hooked a garden hose to the right connector and added more hoses till they reached my house. Water came up the hill pretty fast. I drilled a 1-½ inch hole in the floor and pulled the hose up through it into the old claw foot tub. Can hear the drizzle of the water while I write. Maybe I can take a bath tomorrow.


I want to get started on the interior wood walls and I have to put something up over the insulation under the house. At the sawmill I ordered random width dressed boards for the inside and rough sawed half inch thick, wide boards for covering the underside. The sawmill wasn’t sawing when I got there. The whole crew was clustered around the big saw; everyone- even Sonny’s Mom- was over there, milling about. I hurried over to see what was going on. A hundred years ago someone had hung a spent iron horseshoe on a sapling and today the big blade had found that horseshoe in the middle of a log. The saw lost 5 teeth in the encounter. This is a big expensive repair job. Poor Sonny- his saw is down, his wife is now completely bedridden, and his nearly deaf mother has taken over answering the office phone.


Rosco came by today. His emphysema was so bad that he couldn’t walk up the hill to the house. We visited in his truck. I’m fond of telling people that I found this 43 acres of wonderful river view land because of a wild white pony. But the only part that pony played was introducing me to Rosco. He was 53 and I was 25 that summer we tried to tame Silver. We were good friends till he said he loved me. For 2 years Rosco would slick down his hair, put his teeth in and tell me things I didn’t want to hear. Until one day Rosco gravely apologized for pressing himself on me. Said he’d been a fool but had control of himself now and would just like to be my friend. He also said he was thinking of buying some more land down by the river, but thought I might like it. It saddens my heart to see Rosco so feeble today.

Took my first bath tonight. Worked all afternoon heating the water a quart at a time on the used electric stove Susan helped me find. While I went to Shock/ Trauma class, Tyree and Valen took over the endless job of boiling and pouring. When I came home, they had a candle lit and a tray of snacks all laid out for me. It was wonderful. Even if the water was only tepid. Am scrubbed and oiled without going back up the hill.


Raced to Blacksburg to rent a floor sander. They were all out except for a little edger machine. Got that and raced home. What a shit job. Leveled most of the cupped floor boards in the upper room- ran out of sandpaper even though I got twice as many as the rental man thought I needed (guess he didn’t know that when I said cupped boards I really meant cupped boards. Bet he’s never seen floorboards as cupped as mine- I just might have the most cupped floor in the world.) Put a big sander on hold for tomorrow night.

Think a chicken laid an egg under the house early this morning. Heard the familiar sounds a hen makes after laying. They can lay an egg a day, but each one gets its own excited welcoming song. With all the hopping about and clucking after each egg, the hen must think it’s the Second Coming. I well recall the first egg I saw laid. I opened the hen house door- stepped inside and stepped right back out- God, the hen next to the door was in horrible pain. Her feathers were all sticking straight out from her body- shit- I would have to put her out of her pain- kill her like I did the one with all the maggots. I hate this. Opened the door again to get on with it- the hen’s rear was facing me. She opened and a wet egg popped out. Her feathers lay down, her song began and the egg dried in 10 seconds. It had never occurred to me that an egg came out wet- but of course it would have to.


A heavy front outside and very cold in the house this morning. Hard to get out of bed. It makes no sense to light a fire when I know the house will be hot one hour after the sun comes up.

Sanded the window blocks and beams in the lower room today. Don’t think it is possible for me to ever learn how long things take. When I started the job, I thought I’d get the room all sanded, caulked and ready to paint today- was lucky to get it just sanded before I left for Blacksburg to pick up floor sander and go to rehearsal. Susan is coming tomorrow to help with the big floor-sanding job.


Got the sander going as soon as the girls were out the door. Susan came at 10. She is a wonderful helper. I would never help anyone with such an awful job. $35 worth of sandpaper- dust- all the time stopping to change the sandpaper- flies, wasps everywhere (where do they come from? Why do they come here? Could it be that the sound the sander made grinding away all day was calling out to them?) By the time Susan left, we were covered in dust and the south windows were covered with bugs looking for a way out. I vacuumed up the flies, dust, wasps for an hour.


Foggy morning. About 50 of the biggest red wasps made an escape from the vacuum cleaner last night. Somehow they found the way out of the bag, down the long dark hose and onto my floor. I stepped on one when I got up this morning. The whole dusty lot looked pretty bedraggled with their bent wings and broken limbs. I did have a brief moment of pity for them before vacuuming them up again and putting the bag outside. If they can do it again then more power to them. Started oiling up the lower room. Then started washing my lovely old carpets in the bathtub. Spread them on the deck to dry. It was fun watching the pretty colors come up. A little time in the hot sun and they will smell great. The oiled floor glows in the lamplight- still have the damn cracks though.


Went food shopping- I’m tired of sorting the stuff at the checkout into uphill and downhill bags- think I will just start pushing two carts. I’m good at that- did it for years. One cart for food- one cart for babies.

Rugs were dry when I got home so I had great fun putting them down even though I know it isn’t very smart putting clean carpets down when I haven’t even started putting up the interior wood walls.

Smoked three of Ann’s cigarettes at lunch.


A call went off for a possible DOA. It’s always called a possible DOA even if it’s a body found after being in the river all winter. This old lady was well and truly dead. Her daughters had found her where many people seem to die- on the toilet. When we hauled her off the toilet and tossed her on the cot, she left a few turds on the floor. I feel bad now that I didn’t clean them up. I don’t want to go out leaving behind a little row of turds.


Finished painting and oiling the trim in the lower rooms. Now just have to wait for it to dry. I got the ram pump going again so the water is dripping into the tub again. The pee smell outside the door is getting worse and worse. None of us go far to pee at night. The thought of peeing on ice this winter is unappealing both physically and visually. I took a good sized hollow walnut log I had collected long ago, cut it to the right height, made a seat for it, found the biggest funnel (red) I could and fixed it inside the stump. Will work on the outside part tomorrow.


Good Day! Rolled around in the morning sunlight and then worked on the pee toilet. Drilled a hole in the floor- ran a piece of old garden hose up the hole and made it tight to the neck of the funnel. At the other end I ran it into a hole full of small rocks. Hung a small bag for toilet paper and joy upon joy, we can now pee inside. I felt so good about this that I took the old cart up the hill- dumped some flowers out of another hollow walnut log and hauled it down. Dug a deep hole behind a friendly bush- put the stump on top- made a seat and a lid- now I have a lovely shit hole. More reasons for them to come and carry me off to jail. The hard digging felt good after all that nitpicking trim painting.


My birthday-42. This morning I worked remaking my bed- the headboard now looks like something out of Snow White.

Went up to husband’s house and brought down a truckload of the big flat rocks I have been collecting for years. Even took the pick to pull some of my favorites from my stone paths. I’m always on the lookout for good stones. Always checking creek beds and road construction sites hoping for good stones. I want my rocks from up the hill more than any chair or table in that house.

Cut down three locust trees with my trusty bow saw and carried lots of armfuls of kindling out of the woods. If I can’t keep the fire going all night, then must have lots of starting material.

It’s cold with lots of stars- lots of owl hoots too but no insect sounds- all dead or asleep except, of course, for my own private company of wasps.

Sure do enjoy my inside pee toilet.


Fog and mist stayed around the house so long that I built a fire- I was cold. As soon as the fire started going well, the sun broke through and I was too hot.

Messed with my walnut dog table all morning. Put ribs on it and that gave the body the mass it needed- put hinges on the head so it can be played with- put the tail on a spring so it wags when someone walks near- looks pretty good.

Scraped and cleaned windows in the lower room. Arthur and I counted windowpanes yesterday- 200. 400 if you think of cleaning both sides. No wonder I sometimes think that by the time the last ones are done the first ones will need repainting.

Put the stones I got yesterday around the front door. So sick of mud.

Cut down a tree and brought it down from the woods in three trips. I’ll never be able to work Goldie in harness up in that overgrown mess. The kids are off from school tomorrow, so I plan to work them in the woods bringing in firewood logs- (hope I don’t need Goldie’s harness and ropes to keep them working). Never needed a whip for Goldie- unlike my kids, she has always down with what I asked of her. But like the kids, she’s always ready to quit. No matter if it’s the first or the 15th log we drag in, when I unhook the log she trots over to the shed for unharnessing and dinner. She gives a big sigh when I pick up the ropes back up and turn her again into the woods- but she always goes.


The girls and I walked up Sinking Creek to look for a pee toilet hiding tree. They like peeing inside (say they would die before using the shit hole) but they worry about what their friends will think. They want the pee toilet out of sight- I agree. So we went on this forced march of discovery and find it we did! A huge slab of old arborvitae in the shape of an elephant head complete with trunk. It had spent at least 100 years growing and dying- moving down the steep bank and across the creek just for us. Very lovely, but getting it the rest of the way home was not lovely. The trail back was long and suddenly narrow owing to the large trunk part sticking out. It was like the woods were trying to keep their own. Many times I thought of giving up but the girls were for pushing on and we stumbled home with our prize. I’ll bet it’s the same with all hunting- the biggest deer you kill will be the farthest from your truck.

Made the boys go up in the woods and help cut and carry firewood trees. It seemed that every tree we cut hung up in another tree. It was all scary- “How many ways can this tree fall on us?” “Where are the dogs?” “Now what do we do?” “It’s going to fall on Beazely Cat!” “Tell me when it starts to move and I’ll run.” No fun work.

I put the hard-won, elephant head tree piece up tonight to hide the peehole. It’s like a rearing wild thing in the house- truly wonderful. It reminds me of Dumbo’s mother trying to get to her baby. Too bad the girls say I have to hang a curtain from the trunk part- that will tame her.

My back hurts.


The kids are gone for the night. I’m heating bath water- I’m really happy. I do love this silly little house and will try to remember that next time I think it’s trying to kill me.

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