The Importance of Being Grandma (or any other caregiver)

Mom and kay
My Mom, who passed away 4 years ago next week, helps her granddaughter learn to tell time with an analog watch.

When a young woman is burdened with a suckling infant and cannot fend for her family, she turns for support, not to her mate, but to a senior female relative — her mother, an aunt, an elder cousin. It is Grandma, or Grandma-proxy, who keeps the woman’s other children in baobab and berries, Grandma who keeps them alive. She is not a sentiment, she is a requirement. Kristen Hawkes, grandmother expert

My maternal Granny was the ultimate fountain of love and homemaking. She taught me to knit and crochet and bake from scratch. She loved to treat me with my favorite foods such as radish roses (just a regular radish wasn’t special enough) and cheesecake. She adopted puppies and kittens, fed the birds, and snuggled babies. My dad’s mother was adventurous and traveled and loved to learn new things. She had a supply of brain enhancing puzzles and toys and took me to museums and historical sites. She was quick to buy me things to expand my horizons such as lovely rocks (accompanied by a sheet of scientifically accurate information). Both lived long happy lives after their child raising years had ended and had a profound affect on me.

Many scientists have asked the question “Why do humans have menopause?” The very long postmenopausal lifetime is something unique to human females. In the plant and animal kingdoms, success is measured by how many offspring you can create so why do humans have a built in “stop” mechanism? Perhaps it’s because there’s more to life or at least to human life than just numbers. To love and to care and inspire is just as important.

Less is more. Less children of your own means a greater ability to take care of grandchildren and other youngsters you might love. Grandmothers allow their adult children to function and be better, less frazzled parents. There appears to be an advantage to having no young children when your own children begin to have children.

Chimps do not undergo early menopause and they have a survival rate to age 40 of just 7% in the wild! Not only do chimp babies have a poor survival rate, once childbearing is over adult chimps go down hill rather quickly. Compare this with humans who have a 70- 90% chance of surviving infancy no matter how harsh the conditions followed by an up to 40% chance of living to 90 after that!

Motherhood expert Sarah Hrdy noted that human babies require many calories, much attention, and a variety of caregivers. Mothers can’t do it alone—they need alloparents, including friends, aunts, teachers, and grandparents. Grandparents take better care of their grandchildren than the parents do. Kids who are cared for by grandparents have fewer injuries than kids cared for by parents. Children who have many “parents” also develop better empathy and the ability to see the world from multiple vantage points.

Historians looking at birth and death records from 1720-1874 found that having a living maternal grandmother halved the risk of dying as a baby back in the days before modern medicine. Studies of other cultures show that grandmas have very important roles in society: watching babies, guarding crops from predators, and carrying baskets and bundles. In fact old women appear to keep up with young women in tasks requiring physical activity.

Pressures of modern life can increase postnatal depression and grandmothers can help keep this away. New mothers feel a sudden loss of freedom and miss connections with friends and co-workers. Yet figuring out what to do with baby if mom needs to go out causes anxiety too. Even in the laboratory, if a mother rat feels she cannot control what happens to her babies she will become depressed! In the human world we have Grandma to the rescue. Parents can go out and leave baby with a known commodity. In fact, if your own mother can’t be with you after your baby is born, health care professionals now suggest hiring a post partum doula to act as a stand in mother to keep those baby blues away.

When I had my first child, I surprised myself. I left a high paying job for one with half the salary and moved across the country to be near my mother. Many times I’ve questioned my sanity about this decision. Now I understand that my actions were perfectly normal.

Mom and Ro
Mom and a great-grandchild delight in each other’s company. Interactions with many caregivers can help boost empathy in children.



Author News

I’ll admit it, I’m mostly a scientist. But if you find your life missing kooky, nerdy female protagonists who like men and science, check out my books. They contain romance but focus on the protagonist and her society which makes them technically, not romances. Romances focus on the tension between two lovers and although this might be a sub-plot, it is not the whole plot for what I write. I write about society–past or future.

My historical novel has a new cover. Here it isunnamed

To Celebrate I’m having a virtual New Cover Party

Click the link above and comment for a chance to win a Darwin bobblehead, Alice In Wonderland socks, a naked mole rat toy, and numerous buffalo themed items. This goes from now until Saturday night.

Sunday I’ll be at an author fair. Sometimes these are great and you meet new readers and other authors and sometimes you sit there awakwardly. But I’ll be there signing books–I hope.  Fates willing, people will be interested. When I find the key to being a successful author, I’ll let you know. In the mean time, my day job is pretty fantastic. And thanks for visitng my blog!CE IOWA AUTHORS - CATHERINE HAUSTEIN

Liberation Cakes from 1972

As I was decluttering, I found a wonderful stash of cookbooks with recipes I doubt you’d see today. I thought I’d share two of them and a touch of history.

They are both based on using boxed cake mixes. These handy mixes were invented in 1948 by Charlotte Cramer Sachs. (She was a prolific inventor.) With the introduction of cake mixes, cakes went from celebratory to common place. Food companies touted the release of women from the drudgery of cooking–freeing them to think and question and be full human beings. Push back made women feel guilty about doing anything but housework.

There is some feminist theory about this that’s pretty interesting.  We could talk all day about the guilt that’s heaped upon women. I know that I spent much of my early life trying to be a scientist and keep up with the housework and all of the duties expected of me had I been a traditional woman. Once I had kids, that began to fall apart as it was impossible. But let’s move on to the recipes.

Root Beer Angel Cake:

Prepare 1 package of angel food cake mix as directed except substitute root beer for water.

Prepare a frosting from 1/3 cup butter or margarine, melted, 2 cups confectioners sugar, 1/4 cup crushed root beer candies. Add root beer a tablespoon at a time  and stir until the proper consistency.

Mock Pistachio Cake:

1/2 cup slivered or diced almonds

4 drops green food coloring

1 package of angel food cake mix

Shake almonds and food coloring together in a plastic bag

Prepare cake according to package directions. Fold in the green almonds before baking.

If desired, add a glaze of confectioners sugar and 1-2 tablespoons of water to cooled cake.


We may look at these today and be appalled at how lazy or unhealthy they seem. However, put them into perspective: they allowed women to be both free and creative. They let women appear busy, as society demands, and yet maybe have time to read a book or even take a class at a local college or work and get their own credit card. (Although women couldn’t have their own credit cards until 1974.) You might even call them a stab at the freedom that still eludes most homemakers. And yet, as some have pointed out, for many women they simply filled time with meaningless and even unhealthy female busywork. 

Women have more choices today. Let’s keep it that way. Make the cake or go to the bakery or give up sugar altogether. It all depends on what you want to do on the road to your freedom.

Vintage 1972. Freedom without the guilt, maybe.



Watching Paint Dry

Paint can add or detract from the value of your home. Your need to update and the changing moods of what’s popular might prompt you to repaint. When it comes to color,  what’s in and what’s not will change and this is a good reason to not lock yourself in with siding or paneling that can’t change with the times. Instead, get used to watching paint dry.

Paint has a function beyond beauty–it protects a surface from damage, degradation by light and weather, and corrosion.

Paint was developed by the first chemists, the ancient Egyptians. The first pigment known was blue, which they made from bluegrass. Gum arabic, made from acacia trees, was another ancient component of paint. (It is also used in foods.)

Sometimes, a primer is used to seal the surface and add initial pigment before painting resulting in fewer coats of paint later. One component of a primer might be barium sulfate–the same thing used in a barium enema–or titanium dioxide. Even PVC can be in a primer.

Paint has three major components: pigments, binders, and thinner.

After paint is brushed on a surface, the thinner (also sometimes called a carrier) evaporates, the binder senses other, similar molecules growing closer, reacts with them and hardens as it dries. As it hardens it binds the pigment to the surface.

Bubbles can form in the paint, particularly if it is sprayed or if the paint is cheap, old, or shaken. Bubbles tend to wiggle through the paint until they group together and form in corners. Anti-foam agents can be added to paints when they are manufactured to prevent this. Other ways to prevent bubbles are to make sure you have the proper roller for the wall texture and to avoid painting in high humidity.

The binder plus the thinner is known as the paint vehicle, which is used to classify paint as either oil-solvent base or latex/acrylic (plastic) water-base. For chemical formulas of paints and primers, go here. And here.

Until the early 1950’s, the binder in paint was principally natural oils-tung, fish, and linseed. Then came latex in 1949. Within 5 years, 7% of all residential paint sales were latex. Today, 80% of all household paint is water-based. Water-based paint is more environmentally friendly than oil-based paint and provides for easier cleanup. Water-based paints used to be considered slightly inferior to oil-based when it came to durability but this is no longer the case. However, some painters consider them less glossy.

Even with the water vehicle, paint should be used in a well-ventilated area. Although water-based paint dries in an hour and can accept a second coat in four hours, it is slow to totally cure (bond with itself fully). This can take up to a month. In other words, it won’t be at its hardest for 30 days and should be treated carefully until then.

Any old house probably has seen lead paint. Older homes were painted white with linseed oil and lead oxide in a high concentration. Anything old that was once white was once lead. I’m a chemist and I like to test for lead. I haven’t found it in my home’s interior but have detected it in the outside paint in an inconsistent concentration. Lead dust is dangerous and lead paint chips laying around and on the soil present a hazard. Keep in mind that lead is a stable element. As such, it won’t change into anything less harmful. Lead should be painted over or if scraped off, should be wetted before being scraped and all chips should be put in a plastic bag and (in Iowa)  treated like municipal garbage.


These days, the primary paint pigment is titanium dioxide  (white). Colors are added to the titanium dioxide and they might be mineral or more commonly today synthetic organic. (NOT the same as natural.)

Pigments can be mineral or synthetic organics with organics being more vibrant.


The color of paint is a matter of personal choice. Some claim that colors will affect your mood. I for one want to make paint companies work for my money and like bright vibrant colors. This year’s color of the year is what I painted my bedroom when I was 13. I might fall in love with it again. It reminds me of the first synthetic pigment–mauve.

Doug gives us a deal on mis-tinted paint. (We used it in a closet.)


One question you may have is if it is worth it to buy cheap paint. Consider that cheap paint doesn’t have more pigment, just more thinner. What type of finish should you buy? Low sheen paint hides imperfections and is good for low traffic areas and ceilings. High-sheen paints are more durable and contain more binder vs pigment.


Unopened paint will keep its properties for ten -fifteen years. Opened water-based paint lasts for about two years although some say longer. Old paint gets lumpy. Binder particles find each other and cling together, and old paint might even grow mold or bacteria. What should you do with unused paint?  If you can’t give it away, recycle it, or use it up, put it in your municipal waste. (This is for water-based paint only.)  Solidify it first–kitty litter or newspaper can help. Keep in mind that new advances have made paint even better so there is not much incentive to save old paint.


Concrete Details

In sprucing up my house for her 100th birthday, I couldn’t ignore the need for a new driveway. The driveway wasn’t original to the house but according to old photos, it was at least 60 years old. It lasted through Iowa winters and at least two families with teenagers parking on it, bikes going round and round over it, and incessant basketball games. It was made from a nice aggregate and held up well until the past few years. At last, time took an unbearable toll.


I decided to replace it with concrete with less interesting aggregate in it for one reason–cost. Aggregate can double the price of a driveway and as you can see, this is a big driveway.

Besides materials, one concern about a driveway is the slope of it so that water runs down. Our driveway has just barely enough slope because when Main Street was redone, it was made 6″ too high due to an error in reading the instructions.  We would need a storm drain if we hadn’t made the grade.

Before we could get a new driveway, we had to stabilize our garage floor. It had cracks from the years but replacing it was impractical because of its ultra deep footings. Without stabilization, the pressure of the new concrete would crack it more.

Here are before and after shots of that:


The first step involved in making a driveway included removing the old slabs–easy in our case because they were so broken. The workers found an old sewer pipe in the curb of the old driveway and they kindly took it away. Next came building a frame, leveling the surface below the frame, adding reinforcing rods, and pouring the new concrete. Then the concrete needed to be smoothed so that water doesn’t pool on it and finally, joints were cut. Concrete shrinks when it dries and when it shrinks it cracks so cutting joints gives it a set of already made aesthetically pleasing cracks.


It took just two days to have the old driveway removed and the new one poured. Following that came patience as the “cement” (concrete is the proper term) cured for a week until it became tough enough to drive on.

Continue reading “Concrete Details”

What’s in store when you replace your basement floor?

My 100 year old basement isn’t a beautiful living space and probably never will be. It’s more an area for storage and washing the dog. A hundred years ago, a basement was more like a garage and a garage was more like a barn. An old house basement isn’t meant to be a living space. As an old house owner, you might want to ignore your basement. I did this for a long time but in the end decided to replace windows and even the floor.

In the room where I replaced the floor this summer it was uneven, being made from bricks with cement slabs over the top. It wasn’t wet but in very rainy years, it added a lot of humidity to the basement–enough that the termites went down there in their quest for dark and damp. This was the room that had the trail.

Getting your basement floor replaced isn’t glamorous or glitzy.  Here’s what happens during the process:

The first step was getting all of the junk  stored down there out. Out of sight, out of mind in an old basement is just too easy.

But as you can see, it got done.

Unsightly floor and walls. It’s just a basement. Who cares? I did.


It’s not an easy task to remove an old floor. Here is the floor in pieces a dumpster. It was broken apart with a jackhammer. Men carried it out in buckets. (This was not do it yourself.)

Plastic liner went down once the rubble was removed.

Concrete was pumped into the basement.

I painted the walls before the floor went in. Here is a freshly poured floor with shadows.


Finally, a drain leading to the sump pump was installed along the wall.drain


Putting in the floor occurred with minimal disruption to my routine. Was it expensive? I’d say yes. Yes indeed. Maybe foolishly so.

Doing what basements do best–storing stuff! (But not the old stuff. I got rid of that. This is stuff from the upstairs moved down–perhaps forever.)

I might have made a mistake and had it done and then tested for radon. I have some radon and want to get rid of it. I’ll have do that soon–and will tell you about it in another blog.

Was it worth it to redo the floor? We are having a drought so right now, I’m not feeling the advantage. When the rains come again ,the torrential rains, I’ll be glad to have a clean, dry basement.

I’m floored: getting your wood floors redone

My house had termites. They ate a board and a half from my floor and maybe a door sill.

They are gone. However, they did more than eat a board. They got me thinking about my house and if I really cared that much about it or not. It’s on a street that is sometimes busy. This little town of mine only has a few cross-town streets and Main Street is one of them. It’s poor planning for sure. Sometimes I have to wait a thirty seconds to pull out of my driveway.

So the question was, did I want to put money into this house? I decided that I did. I like where it is. I can walk to work. I can walk to town. In fact, I often walk to the meat market or the bakery or the pet food store. The house is near the hospital. This might seem like a disadvantage but the street is always plowed. The electricity is always on. I decided that I liked this house in this location. I did’t want to fix it up and then sell it. I want to enjoy my efforts. But I need to do things to it before I retire–which will not be soon unless I come into a fortune and even then maybe not. Once the termites were dead, I set about having the floors redone. The office needed a new board or two. And the whole set of floors needed to be sanded, resealed, and finished.

Unlike getting rid of termites, this was a major endeavor. We had to move out all of the furniture, appliances, and since that was all moving, I sorted things too. Not everything got tossed but I did give away books and threw out things such as old maps and any old plastic because we all know, I dislike old plastic.





My goal is this. I’m going to make my house beautiful and then I’m going to live in it.

The office floor had termite damage, the living room and family room had some water damage from 100 years of existence, and the back hall had holes from water pipes that had been moved. These weren’t extensive, you could cover them with rugs, or as it had been for years, with carpet.The carpet was aging and the floor dings had accumulated through the years and I faced fixing my house or letting it get worse and worse. I decided to fix it while I had a job–before retirement or the nation falling into rubble, which ever came first. I didn’t do this by myself. I called in floor restorers.

Step  one was patching. This took them a day. One question the repair company had was, did we have red oak or white oak? The woods finish differently. and replacing the termite boards was a major goal of this project.  The eaten boards were red oak. It’s considered more beautiful than white but is also more porous. This is what the termites adored and bored through. Most of the oak in the house is red except for the stairs which are white oak. By the way, floor refinishers say that white oak smells peppery when sanded. We also have fir floors and pine. Lots of trees gave their lives for this house and it’s an intriguing cornucopia of wood.

Next came sanding. Sanding the floors took over a day. This was longer than usual for a floor restore but previous owners had glued carpet and parquet over some of the floors. The mixture of sawdust and glue made hard little balls. Here is a photo of workers trying to get up the dark stain from glued on kitchen carpet. Never glue anything to your wood floors by the way.

People weren’t the only things trying out new substances. Floors saw an array of new glues and carpet backings. Here are workers trying to remove a mixture of carpet and glue from the 1960s.
Getting the glue off slowly. Working around radiators took a while.


Glue from removed parquet floors



IMG_3677 (1)
The floors are red oak and the stairs, white oak. Here they are after being sanded before being sealed or top coated. If you look carefully you can see that the banister covered with a thin layer of sawdust.


Here is a nice photo of the sanded floors in the living room.

Living room

Next came the sealing. Oak floors are best sealed with oil based polyurethane. This darkens them and brings out the yellow. It smells terrible and is hazardous. During this phase you need to move out of your house if you haven’t already. Don’t even think you can live there. Yes, I did leave my algae eater behind in her aquarium and she lived unscathed as the refinishing company predicted. However, I could smell the volatiles at least two feet outside of my house. This is not something cleaner or greener. The best hope is that it doesn’t have to be done too often in the life of a house.

Floors and stairs with sealant, illustrating white oak on stairs and red oak on floors.


After sealing, four coats of polyurethane are added with sanding in between. I thought that the sealing smelled the worst and each coat let off fewer volatiles. The last step in the process was to replace the baseboards. We had no baseboards in most of the rooms thanks to the carpeting. We had a choice of doing this last step ourselves or having it done professionally. My spouse is a handy person and was tempted to do it but I felt that the emotional energy on my part would have been far too great. How many days could I stand to look at no baseboards? Zero days. That’s what I decided.

After eleven days and a day after the last coat of finish we were allowed to enter the house with sock-feet, air it out, and the next day we began cleaning. Yes, cleaning. There was a thin layer of sawdust on all surfaces lower than 4 feet.


But here are the floors:

Yes this once had carpet glued to it.
Parquet no more.
IMG_3721 (1)
Once again, the living room will be grand.
The upstairs floor is humble pine but I’m a fan of yellow so I like it.
And d@**# those termites.
Finishing touch: custom quarter round.

The furniture can be moved in after three days and the rugs after a week. Since dirty shoes are tough on the floors we will probably join the ranks of those who take shoes off at the door. I’m a person who likes to be one with my shoes. As of today,  it’s all about socks. I can do it, right?

But not everyone is happy about that:

Although the floor people assure us that it’s people who do the damage to floors, for the next day or two Apollo will be sporting these no slip dog socks.

One thing to keep in mind when budgeting, if you don’t already have area rugs, you’ll want to buy some along with felt pads and castor cups.

Un-happy trails

I live in a house soon to be 100 years old. I’m on a mission to fix her up for her birthday. I’ll tell you all her dirty secrets and how I dealt with them. Here is the first problem that I solved–more easily than you think–although it left me a bit traumatized. I hadn’t been vigilant and this easily solved crisis gave me activation energy to go on and do more to my house.

One thing that bothered me about this house was this wall in the basement. It had a seepy spot that looked as if poison was dripping in. I hated it. Here it is:

Perhaps I was morose and staring at the walls, but I vowed to end this “drip” this summer. Little did I know what was causing it.

And it turned out to be much more than I thought it was. Dear readers, you know that I don’t keep the truth from you. The truth sent me into a tailspin. That’s not seepage; it’s a termite track. Yes indeed. A huge one, too. Where did these dirty  monsters go in my house? They went here, into my home office:IMG_3640

The good news is, I now knew both what had caused the “seepage” but also what had caused the “dryness” in the floor. The “dryness” popped up recently and was another “I vow to solve this immediately” mystery. Two problems identified in one conclusion! See the two gnawed away boards? Ugly isn’t it? The buggers ate right through the wood. But they stopped when they reached the other side of the wall–which is not oak but fir. Apparently, they love oak. Fir is less popular with them. Fir was used in kitchens because it is more water resistant. These were gourmet termites, thank goodness, and they went no further into the house but probably moved on to the closest woodpile outside.

Fortunately, at least here in the north, termites don’t eat a lot, are pretty easy to get rid of, and the chemicals used to eliminate them work in a fascinating way. No, there is no fumigation or tenting. The killer is contained in some bait that the termites drag back to their nest. They eat it and then you wait. The way that it kills them is that it makes them unable to molt. Then they die. This takes a while–four to six weeks. Mine took about a month to kill but the instructions that go with the bait says not to spray for bugs or disturb the home for 90 days to make sure they take the bait back to the nest. The bait is not toxic to things that don’t have exoskeletons. I had morbid fascination with checking it which isn’t good. It should be left undisturbed and in the dark–termites love the dark and damp. The bags were placed in the path of the termites. They make a little mud trail from the ground to your house. Once I knew what the mud trail looked like I watched it. Yes, I could see termites at times. Not that many but before the colony collapsed they looked as if they were crawling crazily. I was sure they weren’t dying out but had renewed vigor. I was wrong. The next day I didn’t see them and they have not returned.

The next step was to put out more bait around the house in case a new batch of the critters found my house as tasty as the last ones did.

Why am I confessing this? Because the pest control guy said that termites were all over in Pella and in Iowa. Yes. We are not as perfect here in Pella as it might seem. So if you see a brown trail in your basement or foundation, it’s not a happy trail. Believe me. It’s not. The good news is, it is less costly to get rid of termites than it is to replace a whole basement wall. Getting the tracks off of the wall took some elbow grease and a wire brush with TSP–just as if I was preparing the wall for painting. I then painted the wall for good measure. We have bait stations around the house and garage to fend of future termites. It looks as if there wasn’t much termite damage. Fortunately, this was a case where negative thinking got results. And if there is an invasion of outer-space aliens with eco-skeletons, I’m covered.


Your Thoughts on Dystopias

I’m working away on a sequel to Mixed In.  The protagonist has made some choices that will get her into trouble. The society is absurd, unfair, comical, and dangerous if you don’t keep your nose clean.  There’s a crazy cast of characters. It will need to make a turn soon and I want your opinions. What do you like in your dystopias?

Opinion Needed

Natural Attraction is two years old and the cover is getting a make-over.  Here are three possible covers. Which one would tempt you to take a read?

Natural Attraction - High Resolution - Version 2bNatural Attraction - High Resolution - Version 2aNatural Attraction - High Resolution - Version 1

Feel strongly? Here is the link to the publisher’s site.