A day in the Ellenverse, Appleton WI

One of Beth's quiltsThere’s a feeling some places have. Warm hand-quilted comforters in a room of solid old oak, with the sound of music and laughter coming from downstairs. You’ve gone upstairs before the others, claiming some sort of reverse jet lag. Really, you’ve got no idea why you’re so tired, and you don’t want the evening to end, but you’re just flat out of steam.

A well-used recipeThe evening? The whole day, actually. A lazy morning in the kitchen, chopping vegetables for an old family recipe with Jan, Ellen’s mother. Sister Beth – yes, that Beth – and her father had headed out to the store to pick up more supplies for the afternoon’s merriment. You talk and fuss, and sit occasionally. Guests aren’t expected until 2:00, and there are enough hands to make light work of the preparations.

A new painting!Ellen’s neighbors are pretty much all expected to show up, and they promise to be an interesting lot. The house is just two blocks from the Lawrence University campus, and the neighbors all seem to know each other from painting class, choir, Gamelan orchestra or the like. This is not a community that lacks for the arts, and Ellen’s house reflects that richness in every corner. Guitars and ukuleles stand in a row beside the couch; the spare “house banjo” is tucked behind an easy chair. A great aunt’s piano finishes off the living room’s instrumentation, but hand woven rugs (Jan’s) and quilts (Beth) line the hardwood surfaces, and large, beautiful impressionistic oil paintings cover the walls. Ellen’s own artwork – including gorgeous metal and beadwork jewelry – cover shelves and dressers upstairs.

neighborsI find myself reflecting that in the 35-odd years of our acquaintance, I’d never before visited Ellen in her own space – in a place she could design and set with things that reflected her values. We’d always met when she was on the road, either staying with us as she passed through town, or visiting with a mutual friend. But finally, here I was: this was what a peek inside the Life of Ellen looks like. And yeah, was wonderful.

I’m usually pretty useless at smalltalk – either I talk too much, too long about things no one cares about that much, or I stand there listening, nodding my head, trying to be polite after having lost the thread of narrative. But these people? They’ve got wonderful stories. And, when, a couple of hours into the gathering, someone picks up a guitar, the music just flows. There’s blues and Beatles, Irish ballads and fiddle tunes. Gamelan bells (itty bitty ones) and bongos. And – later in the evening – a Theremin solo by Tad, Ellen’s wonderful and musically versatile partner.

Seems like everyone plays something, or sings. Jan took up banjo just this year, and she trades chords with Jason (on fiddle) in exchange for tips on clawhammer technique. Kids out front have discovered as-yet-unchalked portions of the sidewalk and stake out squares for their next creation.

Mondrian cakeCousin Jim – most of the extended family has come from within a few hours drive – calls us to attention, and it’s time to cut the birthday cake, unsurprisingly, in the style of Mondrian. Forget tired old Disney princess themes – in the Ellenverse, even cake decorators get to strut their artistic chops.

The gifts: pottery, hand-made by to giver, paintings, welded sculpture, and half a dozen CDs, recorded, of course, by people in the room.

And it’s all wonderful, and I don’t want it to end. But my body craves sleep, and some time embarrassingly early, after the music has wound down, but before dishes have been put away, I make make my excuses and climb the solid old oak staircase, to tuck myself under a hand-sewn quilt and drift off into dreams of contentment.

Dusk

Happy Birthday Ellen!

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