Monthly Archives: October 2009

Secret Room, Secret Dreams

As mentioned before, I like dreams about unexplored areas of houses. I’ve dreamed about new houses with labyrinth-like layouts and about finding secret places in our current house. So, when we discovered that we might have a secret room under our screened-in porch, I was intrigued.

Our house was built shortly after World War II in an area of Bethesda called Huntington Terrace. The street on which the house was built hosts several other homes that look similar to ours — a typical brick center hall colonial common in this area. What is unique about the homes is that the home directly opposite is exactly the same — a reverse mirror-image, but no two other homes are the exact same. Another unique quality of several of the homes was an excavated “secret” room under the screened in porch. At least two neighbors broke through the cinder block in the basement to find an extra 1000+ cubic feet of space. At least two others broke through from the outside and created outside storage.

When we first heard about the room under the porch we joked about opening it up and making a root / wine cellar out of it. We also joked (as did several of our friends) that we may find a body in the room. I didn’t really think seriously about it until we looked at the across the street neighbor’s extra room when the house was on the market. Dean went back at least once to look at the room and not long after that we called the man who refinished our attic (my current office) and asked if he could do the job of breaking through the wall and making a door to our room that we now were sure existed. He wasn’t so sure, but gave us a reasonable estimate price and said he’d call when he had time. Months went by, but he eventually called and said he could start work on a Monday in August.

In anticipation I snapped a few shots:

Basement where the door would go
Basement where the door would go
From the outside
From the outside
Shot of the porch

On Monday at 9:00 am sharp, Peter and his assistant, Eric, arrived to start work. They quickly set up and while Peter brought things in from the truck, Eric started chipping away at the cinder block of the laundry room wall. Checking out the wall The first chip Making the hole

It didn’t take long for Eric to chip through both sides of the cinder block. He asked for a flashlight and we took our first look into the room
DSC_0318.JPG DSC_0320.JPG

Instead of 61 year old air we saw dry dirt. Peter and Eric both tried to push a crowbar into the dirt, hoping it was not packed into the space, but it wouldn’t give. I called Dean and told him the news. We didn’t have an excavated secret room. Instead we had a room full of dirt that hadn’t seen the light of day in over 60 years.

Peter and Eric did find air instead of dirt directly under the porch, but the porch is only about 4 feet above ground.

Dean did some musing for about a day and a half about how he and Andrew could excavate the dirt through the laundry room and out the basement door but calculations came to far too may work hours to make it a reality.

As you can imagine we were all disappointed. I thought I’d get a wine / root cellar. Dean hoped for some extra space so he could set up his workbench inside instead of having to store it outside under the addition. We’re over it now, but it sure would have been nice.

We wondered why some of the houses on our street had excavated rooms and others did not. I recently found an old Washington Post advertisement about our street and it seems that the homes on the opposite side of the street were finished first. I think that by the time the builder got to our house he figured that there was no need to remove the earth from the area under the porch. Little did he know that his decision would make some future owners kind of sad.

In hindsight I wonder if not knowing would have been best. It was always kind of cool to think that there was a room on the other side of the laundry room wall,  just waiting to be uncovered. Now that we know it is just a space filled with dry old soil, it’s taken away a small, but delicious, mystery.


I’m not a dog person. I don’t dislike dogs, I just prefer cats. Well, there are some dogs I dislike. I don’t like Dalmatians because every Dalmatian I’ve ever encountered has bared its teeth at me. I’m afraid of Dobermans. My Uncle Don raised Dobermans and one bit me when I was 3. I don’t really remember it, but I was told about it enough to make me wary of them. I also don’t like pit bulls purely because of their reputation. I’ve heard too many stories about people being maimed or pets being killed by pit bulls that, even though — until recently — I wouldn’t have known a pit bull if one was attacking me, I didn’t like them.

So when my Aunt Ginny gave me instructions on what to do when I arrived at her house and it involved being friendly to a pit bull, I was more than a little worried. She said that the dog that showed up pregnant on their doorstep and subsequently gave birth under the neighbor’s playhouse was really very friendly though and I should have nothing to worry about.

When I did arrive at my aunt and uncle’s house in Northeastern Mississippi I thought that no one was home. I saw the dog almost as soon as I got out of the car and talked to it as friendly as I could. “Hi there dog. How are you? I understand you are a friendly pit bull, right? Don’t bite my leg, ok?” Then I saw my uncle and was relieved. I’d spilled a nearly full box of Annie’s Goldfish crackers on the floor of the passenger’s side of the car and my uncle said it was ok to give it to the dog. She was friendly — and liked to be petted. Each time I went outside she was right there, ready for some attention.

The not-very-scary pit bull, PD

Ever since reading Lali’s post about puppy-sitting her friend’s Cavalier King Charles Spaniels and remembering when our neighbor’s dog had puppies when I was a child and how much fun it was to be surrounded by several tiny biting beings with breath that smelled of coffee grounds I wanted to hang around some puppies too. I knew I had a chance to do so the weekend I was in Mississippi. The first two days I was there I was too busy to suggest a visit to the puppies. I considered walking over myself on Saturday evening, but didn’t want to be mistaken for a trespasser in case the neighbor or her son were at the house. I did spend some time outside on Saturday evening, looking at the water, watching birds and petting the dog (whose name I’d been told was PD — for “Pregnant Dog”). She seemed to not want me to go into the house — she seemed to want some company and when I did try to head towards the house she pushed me away from it. I thought maybe she was pushing me towards her puppies, but didn’t really think that was possible (although I had recently finished The Story of Edgar Sawtelle which was rife with stories about Very Intelligent Dogs to whom pushing a human to check on puppies would be a piece of cake) so I waited until the next morning.

On Sunday morning my uncle received a phone call from the neighbor whose playhouse the PD had chosen to give birth under. The neighbor was spending a while with her ailing mother, so was unable to check on the dogs. Her son was stopping by occasionally to check on the puppies and when he was there last saw that the puppies were gone. The neighbor wanted to know if Uncle Jack would check to see if PD had moved them or if they were really gone. I was a little worried — having been looking forward to seeing the puppies. Uncle Jack grabbed a flashlight and we walked over, accompanied by PD and, sure enough, the puppies were not under the playhouse. We looked around a little more, wondering what could have happened to them (I suspected coyotes) but we didn’t see any blood that would indicate that there had been foul play. Then we saw that there was a small shed that I’d mistaken for an outhouse that had a gnome sized hole cut out of the bottom of the door. We walked to it, Uncle Jack shone the flashlight through the opening and saw movement. Then a small parade of brown and black puppies trotted out to greet us.

Delighted, I dropped to the ground to get closer to the puppies. All but one climbed on my lap and nipped at my clothes and shoes. PD chose to become part of the chaos and joined in on the fun. She would not stay still to nurse the puppies, even though they seemed to want some breakfast. Then, since most of her puppies were in my lap, she decided that she wanted to be there too. So I sat there, cross-legged  in the Mississippi dust with a full-grown pit bull on my lap while she nursed four of her five 4-and-a-half-week-old puppies. Oh to have gotten a photo of that! It was certainly a moment to remember. (And I actually thought about Lali and her Cavalier experience as I sat there)

After a few moments, just about when I thought my ankles couldn’t stand the pain of being pressed into the hard ground PD got up and went back to my aunt and uncle’s house. The puppies still wanted to play a little, but eventually they went back into the shed with their less curious sibling.

I went back one more time, this time on my own, to get some photos of the puppies. I tried to get a video, but operating a camera and being a climbing toy for 5 puppies is a little difficult. If these guys had been old enough to leave their mother, I might have been tempted to take one home with me. They were really that adorable.

[Update: PD was euthanized on October 14th for complications due to heartworm & scabies. May she rest in peace.]


Mississippi stopped being on my list of places to visit after I got over the thrill of being able to spell it. Even when my Aunt Nancy and her family moved there in the 1970’s it held no appeal to me. I had no desire to ever visit to a state whose reputation for racism was so pronounced. In fact, I pretty much avoided all Southern states until we actually moved to one, but since Alexandria it was the Northern part of Virginia I didn’t think much of it.

This is not to say that I had lots of opportunities to visit the South. Sure, I could visit my relatives in Mississippi, but I chose not to. While I remembered them from my childhood, I didn’t feel the closeness with them that I had with, say my Aunt Ginny. I had mostly vague memories of my mom’s sister, Nancy and her family at family events. Then they moved to Mississippi and we’d occasionally see a few of them at a time when they went north to visit.

When my Aunt Ginny moved to Mississippi a few years ago, I knew that a visit there was in my future. She talked of how nice people were there and how much they liked living there instead of living in Illinois. We planned to visit them as a family for spring break, 2007, but Aunt Ginny wasn’t feeling well so we went to Savannah instead.

My Aunt Nancy was diagnosed with lung cancer a while back and went through chemotherapy which left her weak and feeling bad most of the time. When the doctors told her the cancer was back and suggested chemotherapy again, she said she’d had enough and wanted to live what she had left of her life without feeling sick all of the time. I knew that this was a good time to visit — to see my Aunt Nancy again while she still felt OK and to see Aunt Ginny again. I was also looking forward to seeing all of my cousins again.

So I made plans to drive to Mississippi the week Andrew went back to school and before Labor Day weekend. I also thought it would take my mind off the trauma of dropping Clare off at college. I eventually decided I’d spend Labor Day weekend in Mississippi — drive down on Thursday and drive back on Tuesday — hopefully that way avoiding any holiday traffic.

The trip to Mississippi was very smooth. I felt great as I drove down Interstate 80 and looked forward to driving through Tennessee and seeing the mountains. I also was excited about adding two states to my list of states I’d visited: Alabama and Mississippi. I spent the night in Chattanooga, Tennessee, knowing that showing up around midnight at my aunt and uncle’s house would not be appreciated — besides, I was a little tired and hungry.

I rely heavily on my GPS to get me around, even in my town, so was happy to have the familiar voice instructing me where to turn. I was a little worried when the voice instructed me to exit before the town my aunt and uncle call home, but followed his directions and after a slight scare on a gravel road, found a main road and eventually my aunt and uncle’s home.

The day before I left for Mississippi my Aunt Ginny called and said that she was in the hospital. I took a few hours do decide if I was still going to go to Mississippi, but decided to go ahead with the plan. I’d still get to see both my aunts and perhaps could help out somehow. When I got to my aunt and uncle’s house I pulled up near the boathouse and was excited to see an armadillo having a drink of water from the waterway on which my aunt and uncle live. I’d never seen an armadillo before, so didn’t know they usually don’t come out in the daytime nor are they usually surrounded by a horde of flies. When Uncle Jack saw it he figured it was doomed — the flies were probably attracted to a wound on its side.

Wounded armadillo

After taking some photos of the armadillo I called my aunt in the hospital, thinking that my uncle was there too. I was in the middle of telling Aunt Ginny how lovely I thought her view was when Uncle Jack came outside to welcome me to their home. Along with Uncle Jack was a noticeably lactating white dog with a large head and strong jaws that I’d been warned about. Never having seen a pit bull before, I would not have worried when I saw her, but knowing her breed, I was a little wary. I didn’t have anything to worry about, however, she was a real sweetheart and liked the treat of organic goldfish crackers I gave her (they’d fallen on the floor of my car as I turned the corner onto the street where my aunt and uncle live).

The not-very-scary pit bull, PD

After settling in a little, Uncle Jack and I drove to Tupelo where the hospital my aunt was staying was located. Her doctor said she could go home with us, so we visited a while until she was discharged and went back to their house.

That afternoon Uncle Jack and I drove to a town south of their house to pick up something at their pharmacy. I wondered why they drove there when they could have gone to a closer town, but when I saw the pharmacy I understood, immediately! It was a small drug store that I would not be remiss in calling an apothecary. When we pulled up I saw a bright sign in the window. “Mammogram Magic”. I was slightly shocked, then impressed that the store was being so forward in making sure they got the word out that mammograms save lives. I didn’t say anything to Uncle Jack, but later, as I took photos of the building, noticed the sign again — this time on top of a marquee that gave the time and temperature. Only then did I realize that it said Monogram Magic and not Mammogram magic. I took a picture anyway — and told my uncle my mistake. He thought it was funny.

Monogram, not mammogram

My aunt and uncle live on what is called the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway or Tenn-Tom for short. It connects the Tennessee and the Tombigbee Rivers and is about as wide as a medium sized river. Quite a bit of boat traffic, from individually owned recreational boats to fancy yachts to huge barges, goes up and down the waterway daily. There is also quite a bit of bird traffic. As soon as I got out of the car the first day I heard a belted kingfisher’s rattle. Later in the visit I saw geese, cormorants, an osprey, herons and egrets on the water. It is really lovely there — even during a mayfly swarm. Never had I seen so many mayflies as the first day I was there, if I’d ever seen one at all.

A Mayfly

The second day, Saturday, my uncle and I drove to Etta, Mississippi to visit my Aunt Nancy and her family. When we got there, Don came out and greeted us. It had been such a long time, I had to ask him who he was. After that people told me their names (whew!). So during my visit I saw all of my Aunt Nancy’s children except for my cousin Ron, who doesn’t live nearby. I had a great talk with my Aunt Nancy — she seems the same as she was the last time I saw her. I always wished she’d written down her life-story. She is a wonderful writer and I used to love to get letters from her.

On the way back to Aunt Ginny and Uncle Jack’s house Uncle Jack and I stopped to pick up a pizza at a newly opened Italian restaurant in Tupelo. Uncle Jack said that he and Aunt Ginny had talked about getting a pizza from there someday — that it looked good (they said that pizza in Mississippi was usually a disappointment). This restaurant had the neatest thing I’d seen in a restaurant — a wine-dispensing carousel that doled out small portions of wine if you inserted a smart-card into a slot.

The rest of my stay was wonderfully relaxing and pretty much uneventful. It was so nice to spend some quality time with my Aunt Ginny — she and I have always been quite close. I also saw a part of my Uncle Jack that I’d missed before because I wasn’t looking or perhaps he’d hidden it in the past. He’s a gentle, kind and loving person. He took care of Aunt Ginny when she needed it. He cooked all of the meals (and seemed to enjoy doing it) and has taken over the laundry duties. He’s also feeds a squirrel who sits on the railing and waits for him to notice her.

Jack’s Squirrel Friend

I’m so glad I went to Mississippi. The people I met were all very nice. I learned that not all pit bulls are scary. I got to see some relatives I had not seen in years and I spent some time with one of my favorite people in the world.