Backyard Excavation

Our new Victorian home, originally built in 1910, in April 2018.

After 15 years in a house we loved but that had grown too large for us, we decided to downsize and drag fewer possessions through life. We wanted to move to an area (1) we could afford, (2) in a neighborhood with sidewalks and businesses within easy walking distance, (3) in the central area of town. Fat chance!

Properties in the downtown area proper were seriously overpriced, so after many blind-date visits to houses that were not us we were looking at lots to buy. Walking with our real estate agent in the Old North Knox neighborhood, we passed a Victorian, two-story home with a For Sale sign in the yard. We learned the home was in the final stages of renovation by a local house flipper. After winning the bidding war over two other bidders, we moved March 3 to this old-growth, tree-lined neighborhood called the Old North Knoxville Historic District that was originally incorporated in 1889.

Our Southern front porch.

We are not the only people seeking to live in an updated Victorian or Craftsman house or bungalow  built during the early part of the 20th Century. Our built-in-1910 house suits us in many ways, though it would have suited us even better at a lower price! But houses in established neighborhoods such as Old North Knox, the nearby Fourth and Gill area, and South Knoxville’s Island Home community are hot, pay-over-the-appraised value commodities–and we did.

Compensating for their inconvenient lack of an attached garage or carport, these older houses dating to the late 1800s and early 1900s feature the livability factors–sidewalks, bike lanes, community, biiiiiggggggg trees, a grocery store–that younger and middle-age home buyers want. We have a well-kept children’s park nearly across the street from our home, a Southern front porch, and a true neighborhood, none of which we had in our former home.

The park across the street from our house.

Of course alongside these pluses, we discovered more than a few downsides to our older home: standing water in the crawlspace; a muddy, nothing-but-straw backyard; not-enough cabinet space in the kitchen or closet space in general; no handrails for the front steps; paint already coming off that Southern front porch; water pouring into the master bathroom from a leaky room; and the cheapest toilets money could buy. Yowza.

Two glass bottle fragments found in the crawlspace under our house which was built in 1910 as well as dice from a Dungeons and Dragons game.

Between hosting various workmen, I have had quite an adventure uncovering treasures in our backyard and under our house. One of the members of the crack team who fixed our standing-water problem found vintage bottle fragments in the mud under our house. He presented me with a tiny glass bottle with a broken neck featuring Larkin Co. Buffalo embossed across its front and the neck of what could have been an early Coke bottle.

A quick search of the web told me the Larkin Co. was founded in 1875 in Buffalo, New York.

A page from the Larkin Company’s 1910 product catalog showing toiletries similar to the bottle found under our house.

The company was quite successful in its heyday when it was profitable enough to have the influential architect Frank Lloyd Wright design their headquarters building in 1903. At that time the company was a booming mail-order company–second only to Sears Roebuck & Company–with a national reach.

Larkin began as a soap company that cut out the middle man by selling directly to the consumer via door-to-door sales. Later they recruited women to market their products in the manner of Avon representatives. When they were known for the Larkin Look, the company sold everything for the home and family from furniture to toys.

The Larkin bottle found under our house was probably bought between 1910 and 1920 and contained a toiletry product such as a liquid tooth cleaner.

Each time I dig in our yard to add a tree, shrub, or plant, I never know what I will find: a windshield wiper blade, Dungeon and Dragons dice, bricks, cinderblocks, candy wrappers, plastic bag pieces, nails, screws, roofing material, and all manner of construction debris. By far my most unexpected find was just lying on top of the ground near our fence line: the head from a small statue of a woman.

A month or two after we moved in to our home, I found the head from a small statue of a woman in our backyard.

Despite her condition, I call my backyard treasure “My Lady” because she inspires me with her grace and serene beauty.

My Lady, as I call her, might have been originally made of terracotta. Although much diminished from whatever form she had when she was first made, My Lady has a singularly kind, regal, and peaceful quality. From different angles, she appears to show varying nuances of her personality. She is fragile, but she endures. She is broken, but she still has the strength of spirit to inspire.

The painting “I Am Half Sick of Shadows” [said the Lady of Shalott], by John Williams Waterhouse, 1915, in the Art Gallery of Ontario, Canada.

Much as the ancient statues left from Greek and Roman culture that are missing arms, legs, or heads, my backyard find is not complete. Yet her proud carriage has weight and presence nonetheless. However, I have not yet found an appropriate way to exhibit her since, after all, she does not have a body to stand on.

She puts me in the mind of a few lines from the poem, The Lady of Shalott, written by the much-loved Victorian (yes, just like our house!) poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892), and performed as a song by my favorite musician and songwriter Loreena McKennitt.

But Lancelot mused a little space;
He said, ‘She has a lovely face;
God in his mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shalott.

We are all broken somehow and in some way–although many would argue aggressively to the contrary: No problem here; nothing to look at; move along.

The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse, 1894, Leeds Art Gallery, Leeds, UK.

Grace is the quality I aspire to. To be gracious is to embody kindness, compassion, empathy, caring, and love whether in thought, word, or deed. But perhaps grace is beauty in action. Grace is love in action.

In Tennyson’s poem, the Lady of Shalott says, “I am half sick of shadows” which is a reference to a curse placed upon her in which she cannot see the world directly but must look at it through a mirror–and one would imagine, with distortions and darkly. However, the Lady of Shalott looks directly at Lancelot (of the Arthurian legends) as he rides to Camelot which breaks the mirror and allows her to see him clearly with her own eyes. And then she dies. Yes, seeing clearly can be dangerous.

These days in the second year of the reign of our country’s new sheriff in town, I find it hard to look directly at the world with its crying immigrant children separated from their parents and a tweeting reality TV personality as our leader offending the allies we fought beside in two catastropic world wars.

I find no grace in our leader’s swaggering ego and his unending appetite for power. It is truly sad that our country swerves like an alcoholic veering wildly from left to right. For eight years, we had a President whose mother was a white American from Kansas and whose father was a black African. President Obama was elected not once, but twice. So in the following election, an Electoral College majority (not the majority of the Americans who voted, mind you, but 3 million voters less) decided we needed a man who makes white men feel they are still in full control. When were they ever not? Even with a black President, the pale-faced men in Congress made sure he could only do so much.

The skies over the gorgeous state of Utah where we visited my cousin last year.

Me? I am a moderate. A practical, yet romantic dreamer of a moderate. Meaning, of course, that both extremes can take pot shots at you if you raise your head and say what you believe. But if I had to take an alcoholic swig and get in the proverbial car of state, I’d definitely come down on the side of liberty–with a strong dose of health care for all. As the French national motto says: liberte, egalite, fraternite. Personal freedom, equality, and fraternity. And I would add a profound tonic of protecting our environment and breathtaking natural resources for my grandson’s generation and the generations to come.

Last Monday my 82-year-old mother was hospitalized with a stroke that we think happened a few weeks before that. Her primary-care doctor sent us from his office directly to testing at the hospital, ordering an MRI, to be followed by an ultrasound. Yet, after the MRI that confirmed that Mama indeed had a stroke, the radiologist asked us to take her directly to the emergency room for further evaluation and possible admission to the hospital. After spending the entire afternoon and evening in the overcrowded and cacophonous ER, Mama was admitted to the “stable” stroke floor.

A tiny insect on the glass of our front door.

The next morning she was evaluated by a neurologist, physical therapist, occupational therapist, speech therapist, and the house doctor. They all agreed her stroke was “stable”, and we could take her home that day. She will need speech therapy because her ability to communicate in complete sentences was diminished considerably by the stroke.

A few days later my mother got a four-page letter from her medical provider, Humana, saying they were not going to pay for her hospital stay because, in their view, it was not medically necessary. Who is to pay for Mama’s hospital bill remains an open question.

My precious grandson.

In these strange times, I take refuge in the intricate beauty of small things such as the ethereally winged insect that landed on our front door. And most especially I take refuge in the smiling ear-to-ear joy of my (looking for a superlative-enough adjective to add here) grandson who defies my ability to find words for how special he is.

His eyes are open, his heart is sweet, he is innocent of the larger meanings, and I love looking in the same direction as him and considering the wonders of the world.

Through his eyes.


~ Anna – 6/26/2018




About aamontgomery

Seeing new possibilities in everyday things
This entry was posted in Autobiographical, Backyard Nature, Beauty, Family, Freedom, Happiness, Home, Ideas, Knoxville, Love, Music. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Backyard Excavation

  1. Kathleen says:

    Wow! What an experience with the new home. So sorry to hear about your mother and the healthcare fiasco. Focusing on the light and the good is what we must do. Thank you for another thought provoking blog post!

    • aamontgomery says:

      Thanks so much, Kathleen! Focusing on the light has not been as easy lately, but we must do it for those of need us! That’s what I keep telling myself. Bless you for reading my posts and commenting! I hope all is going well for you in Wisconsin! Sending love! Anna

  2. Anna has done a wonderful job describing our experience with the move to Old North Knoxville. We love your new home, and yes, it does feel like home. All of the hard work and effort have been worth it. The “this old house” adventure continues. Stay tuned for more.

  3. vicky martin says:

    I really enjoyed reading this blog Anna. Sounds like it can be quite an adventure buying an older, but beautiful home! I’ve always liked the look and character of older homes. Also didn’t know all this about your mom’s experience. She is a trooper though! And lastly, you’re right – there is no “superlative-enough adjective” to describe our precious little grandson!

    • aamontgomery says:

      Vicky dear! I am so glad you enjoyed my latest blogpost. Mama is indeed a trooper and so proud she would rather pretend nothing ever happened, which made it harder to get her diagnosed and treated. We are lucky her stroke just affected her communication skills and that it wasn’t any worse. Yes, Lincoln defies my ability to find the words for his utter fabulousness! He is so precious! Sending you love! Anna

  4. Laura Parkhill says:

    Always enjoy reading your Knoxvillian narratives, Anna.

    Happy for you and Kurt in new home but you can have those problems in a non-Victorian without the consolation of the neighborhood so rejoicing in the crack repairman. Btw, hope u never need them, but McGaha Electric is great! Ask for Drew and Zack.

    Yes, we are all broken, only explanation for all the surrounding messes! Someone said about our brokenness that the cracks are how the light gets in!

    Praying 🙏🏽 for your mom’s complete recovery of speech and resolution of bill.

    In admiration and wonder at my students negotiating this new English speaking world, and how Jesus said we must become like little children in order to enter the kingdom of heaven – adding looking through Lincoln’s eyes to my notes on acceptance of and an attempt to do whatever task comes next and daily joy in the simple.

    Tom and I would love to come admire your Victorian sometime. Hope to see you all at Shakespeare on Square in a few. 🤗😎

  5. aamontgomery says:

    Laura dear!!!! Thank you so much for these timely and encouraging words! Tonight we attend the receiving of friends for my sister Lisa’s father-in-law Charles Stanley, with the graveside service tomorrow morning. Charles has/had (not sure what verb tense to use here!) been declining for about a month. It is strange that around the same time Mama had her stroke and Charles had a close call where his heart stopped. It has been a bit much for our family to deal with at the same time. I am reminded often of my brokenness, so thank you so much for the image of the cracks being where the light comes in! I believe that!

    Kurt and I would LOVE for you and Tom to come by and visit us in our Victorian! Perhaps a good time will be after Tom’s Shakespeare in the Square events are over–in September. It has been too long since we have looked into your lovely faces. You are both such beautiful people and inspire us. I couldn’t be happier that you and Tom found each other! You were certainly meant for each other!

    We hope to get by the Square to see a bit of one of Tom’s plays. What he is doing for Knoxville is a wonderful service to the community! People soooooo need to express themselves through acting and watching actors act. Knowing Tom has been an inspiration to me–knowing that someone so unique and talented, who found his bliss so early in life, could then follow through and make it his life’s work in a way that enriches his home community–that is just amazing. I’m so glad he found his life’s partner to hold his hand, love him, comfort, and keep him, as they say in the vows!

    And yes, girl friend, looking at the world through LIncoln’s eyes gives me hope to keep fighting the darkness so he can find fulfillment and love in this world. His eyes are full of wonder and seeking to understand–two simple ways of being that he teaches me every time I’m in his presence. Ahhh, I love him soooooo.

    May you and Tom continue to be blessed with all good things–


    • aamontgomery says:

      P.S. Laura, I just realized that “Grace” was a big part of my last post, and that Grace was Tom’s mother’s name. That quality is what I aspire to more than any other. From what I learned at Tom’s mother’s funeral, she truly was what her name suggested, full of grace. Wow! The infinite circles and connections of life!

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