Home & Garden


By Elaine McGee
Tuesday July 20, 2010 - 07:39:00 AM

They say there are four seasons in California: fire, slide, flood, and quake. Fire is the one that most concerns me each year, since the home that my husband and I built in 1948 above the Clarement Hotel was lost in the Firestorm of 1991.  

Luckily, because we had built the house ourselves, we had the advantage of knowing we could do it again. So, joined in the process by our original architect, the three of us reunited, four decades older, but no less determined and enthusiastic, in the challenging and fulfilling task of rebuilding our home in the hills. 

More than a decade after the rebuild, sitting at my desk overlooking the glorious view of the San Francisco Bay, surrounded by new oaks and lush re-growth, the devastating firestorms in San Diego prompted me to write “Our Home, Our Passion. ” to encourage the fire victims to rebuild. Ours is the story of building two homes, of paradise lost and regained, in two very different eras. It is also a story of learning a difficult but wondrous lesson: to go with the flow; a lesson I must embrace, as the publication of the book has opened me to new experiences, not the least of which is performing readings for the public, at Montclair’s A Great Good Place for Books, for Mills College alumni, and, next up, on July 29th, at University Press Books in Berkeley. 

My story begins with discovering the site, in the then uninhabited hills above the bay, that would turn us into pioneering homebuilders. What follows is a selection from Chapter 7, “Higgenbotham et al”: 

Even though we had intended to build our home entirely with our own hands, we gladly welcomed Higginbotham into our lives. Higginbotham was to become our legendary hero. He was the one who demolished my husband’s wall as Henry put his thumb bob against his four foot block wall and proudly challenged him to build one as straight. With his contemptuous reply, Higginbotham boomed, “You make it easy for me. I’ll have your wall, as well as your massive chimney, up to grade in less than two weeks.” True to his word he finished in ten days. Had it been one more day, I wouldn’t be here to tell the tale... 

...To see the walls and piers that we had struggled all summer to get up to four feet, rise to eight feet, was so exhilarating that we slaved willingly. No matter that our hands were scraped raw, our backs were breaking from the strain of lifting blocks, that we were choking from cement dust and exhausted from too little sleep and a skimpy diet, we carried on, never complaining, not even to each other. 

Then fate stepped in to save us from this death struggle. Higginbotham, while jumping from one scaffold to another, slipped and sprained his knee badly. Any normal human would have been out of a commission for a week. Not our hero. He wrapped his knee in an Ace bandage and kept on working. However, the sprain slowed him down just enough to set a pace that we could handle. 

It wasn’t until the last day when the walls were up to grade and the massive chimney completed, that Higginbotham surveyed the job and became enamored of his handiwork. I can see him leaning against an impressive front pier sneering, “Would you take a hundred thousand dollars for this place?” I still hear my husband’s response, “Nothing but the gravest calamity could drive us from this place.”  




Elaine C. McGee is a published writer and poet. In her 9ist year, she continues to write from her home in the hills. Information: www.ourhomeourpassion.com Elaine will be reading and signing copies of OUR HOME OUR PASSION on July 29 at 5:30 pm at University Press Books, 2430 Bancroft Way Berkeley, CA 94704-1609 (510) 548-0585.