“I asked my Mother Map to open-up those crisp folds and let me draw paths across her paper skin.
Let me find what I was searching for.”
The Education of an American Houser — A Selection of Observations
“Lacking a tree for a treehouse and having to substitute a military trunk was an early indication
of the flexibility and creativity that would mark my endeavors to define the essence of a house and
the inequities of housing stock. In short, become a houser.”
Back in college, I was attracted to the creative endeavor of dovetailing words with images and
therefore chose marketing as my major. Although I liked the playfulness of the studies - when
the shyster side of selling began dominating a few of my classes - I began doubting my decision.
Fortuitously, the university’s archeology department had begun the study of garbage. Carless
and longing to get off campus, I joined a weekend fieldtrip to collect trash along a highway south
of Tucson. While stabbing at another piece of well-marketed garbage, the young man walking
beside me - an archeology major – asked me what I was studying. Now, as I replay my memory
of that moment – brushed by the hot wind of passing traffic and feeling ashamed to say I was in
marketing, I made a momentous decision. I answered, “I am thinking of changing my major to
education.” The following Monday, I enrolled in education with a minor in history.
When I moved to St. Louis after graduation, there were few options for high school history
teachers, so I wandered down the hill from my home and took a job in a daycare center. I loved
the joyful exuberance of the young age and eventually began a Master’s degree in early
childhood education. While I was studying at the university, a professor offered me the
opportunity to co-author an early childhood mathematics book. Dry stuff, but an interesting
endeavor in publishing.
Over a number of years, I worked both as an administrator in elementary schools and preschools,
and as a teacher. I wrote thousands of words in children’s memory books in a Reggio Emelia
program and plied the writing field through policies, articles, talks and handbooks. I intended to
write a book on administration with the principles grounded in stories… for instance, how my
school initially was financed with a single donation of one-hundred- and-forty dollars.
Before the administrative book took shape, a new plot appeared in my life. My husband was
diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I grieved three-and- half-years anticipating his passing and
then two more years after his death —equaling a five-year degree in grief. That education
combined with my years of writing laid the groundwork upon my retirement for my blog
boxoftales.com. Packing my car with my dog and my maps,
I began the travels that led to the book, Mapping the Topography of Grief – a Travel Memoir. I
have began giving readings and talks on grief and writing a second book named The Education of
an American Houser – a Selection of Observations. Next up? Maybe that book on administration…
Mapping the Topography of Grief - A Travel Memoir
A completed manuscript
“Step Six. (Of nine.)
If your grieving is brief, then you will need only one road,
a super-highway, upon which to hurry off to other pages of your map book.
Otherwise, draw your roads crisscrossing…”
With my slightly unruly terrier, I set off on a journey of 15,000 miles over seven months.
I carried maps. One of them I called a “Mother Map”, a crisp new map marking the destinations
for my travels around North America. A second map I named my “Map of Grief” – an imaginary
charting of my widow’s sorrow. That second map began as a blank mental image with a dot – a
blotch of consequence marking the death of my good man to pancreatic cancer. As I tell stories
from the road, the reader comes to understand how traveling alone is not so frightening and how
being a topographer of sorrow provides one with relief. Eventually, I roll and store my “Map of
Grief” and my travels continue on to new maps.
The Education of an American Houser – A Sampling of Observations
A Work in Progress
“I was a mere child at the time in the 50’s at the beginning of my education as a houser. … I
would come to specialize in middle-class houses.”1
Growing up in a home built with cinder blocks in a suburb of Reno, Nevada, I began a lifelong
fascination with how houses influence inhabitants. Cruising through neighborhoods in Newport
News, Virginia in my Uncle Charlie and Aunt Margaret’s Buick, I furthered my education:
“Quietly from the spacious backseat, I took in their house critiques. By the time I was ten, I
assumed all children studied rooflines, window styles or were conversant in architectural terms
like vestibules, saltbox, and corbels.”2
The Education of an American Houser, as a literary memoir, adds to the conversation with the
documentation of one woman’s observations of houser skills and ideas acquired along her path
from being a child to a widow living in a cabin in the woods. The term “houser” might be an
unfamiliar word, but in Houser: The Life and Work of Catherine Bauer, 1905-64, Peter
Oberlander, one author, describes a “houser” in this quote from the preface: “Catherine talked
about housing not only in terms of architectural or urban planning, but as social responsibility.
As a “houser,” she saw housing as a bridge between architecture and planning.”3
Like Catherine, I became aware of an imbalance of resources, ideas and roles in housing. While
design, funding and construction of common housing have traditionally been male-dominated
fields, the beginnings of female input – a new bridge – began during my lifetime. Jane Jacobs,
author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, upended the traditional notions of
residential planning. Female entrepreneurs – like Janie Lowe and Virginia Young, cofounders of
the non-toxic paint company called Yolo Colorhouse, or the tiny house designer-builders, Dee
Williams and Lena Menard – have become models to inspire other women to contribute in
making a new world of more equitable and nurturing housing.
I was older and a single mom before I began gathering tools – bear claws, a hod, a chop saw and
sanders. Becoming a “houser” with my hands, as it were. Now, there are opportunities for
young females to learn building trades, as with “Girls Build” started by Katie Hughes in
Portland, Oregon, a company offering summer camps in the construction trades for young girls.
I would have loved this as a child!
In the writing of this work, I hope to place the word “houser” into the toolbox of a wider range of
women, girls, and men as well.
1McConnell, Kathy, The Education of an American Houser — A Sampling of Observations.
2McConnell, Observation Five.
3Oberlander, Peter H. and Newbrun, Eva, Houser: The Life and Work of Catherine Bauer,
(UBC Press, 2000), XIV Preface.
As if writing with a shutter, I look for a hook with my lens.
In a paragraph of images, one will be the hook.
Each image has a backstory and is created with an agility honed by having taken thousands of snapshots.
Two skills, nay three, are present at each good shot.
Playing with the framing, being quietly alert and remembering to hold the camera still.
Permission from the author is required for reprint or reuse.
“Girl Crossing the Millennium”
“Cat Hunting from a Cushion”
Ocean Shores, Washington
“Women on the Ferry”
San Juan Islands
Los Padres National Forest, California
“The Dog's View”
Multnomah Falls, Oregon
“Love Made It in Stones”
McWay Beach, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, California
“The Sky is Falling”
Baker Valley, Oregon
“A Maypole of Electricity”
“Cheap Red Transport”
“It Is All About the Hats”
Descanso Gardens, California
Orcas Island, San Juan Islands, Washington
East of Canyonlands National Park
“The Space Needle's Flagpole”
“Self Portrait with Sugar Cannister”
To be announced
Helen R. Whiteley Writer’s Residency, October 2016, San Juan Islands
Pacific Northwest Writers Association Memoir Finalist, 2017