The short of it:
Favorite item in home: Besides the sauna? I think it is a tie between the pie safe from my grandmother and the Hoosier cabinet that was the first piece of real furniture I bought after we got married.
What I'm reading: I'm actually between books right now, so I'm catching up on the stacks of magazines we have (New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Bon Appetit), but the last couple books I read were both memoirs, and both excellent. One was Trevor Noah's book, Born a Crime, and the other was The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. Also, I'm reading The Witches, by Roald Dahl to our 5-year-old, Faye. And Goodnight Moon to 2-year-old Holly. Repeatedly. Vera reads everything she can get her hands on, and peppers in re-reading Harry Potter, and John just started the Harry Potter series so he can understand Vera.
What I'm listening to: If I am in control of the radio it's NPR. I've been listening to NPR since before I can remember, and I used to work at one of their affiliate stations, so I'm a junkie for it. I jam hardest to Teri Gross. If I'm not in charge of the radio, lately, it's the Moana soundtrack. The girls saw the movie a few weeks ago and we've been listening to it ever since. Did I ever think that I would enjoy singing along to Dwayne Johnson? No. No, I did not.
Best food in town: We really like Don Pedro's. John considers himself a connoisseur of tacos and Don Pedro's tacos stand up to any of the Chicago taco joints we used to frequent. We'll often go to Firefly for date night so I can get a nice piece of fish or something. And in the summer we go to Homewood Grill for ice cream - it's a nice little slice of Americana. But, I love to cook, so most of the time we eat in. I do miss the ethnic food you can get in bigger cities, so I'll stock up on groceries from St. Louis (Global Foods international grocery is my idea of a good time) and make it at home.
Favorite thing about Effingham: What I like most about Effingham is living on our farmette and having "free-range" children. I love sending the kids outside and telling them not to come in until dinner:) It's how I grew up, and I really enjoy giving that lifestyle to our kids too. We love our little petting zoo of a barn, having a big garden in the summer, bonfires in the fall, etc. It is hard to not feel like an outsider sometimes since neither of us are from here, but we have made some great friends, and my brother and his family live in St. Louis, so we see a lot of them.
What I want people to know about me: Well, geez. I guess I'll say that I'm always up to something. I've always got a project or two percolating or some hair-brained scheme hatching. I love to try new things and I get a lot of satisfaction out of doing things myself - whether it's learning how to install flooring, or make french macarons, or carting the girls off to explore a museum or park or somewhere new. We're always up for an adventure.
The long of it:
I think it’s very appropriate that the John and Helen Pantazis (pan-TAY-zis) family are featured during the month of Valentine’s Day. They’re the type of couple that when you see them interact you’re like, they kind of make me sick what with their constant and genuine amusement and enjoyment of one another.
Helen regularly flashes her beautiful smile at her husband’s jokes and not in the pandering haha that’s funny way but in the I’m genuinely amused by you way. But I guess when you consider all of the places their married life has taken these high school sweethearts from Iowa City, IA you realize that they’ve mainly had to rely upon each other as they navigated new lives in upstate New York, Boston, Seattle, Chicago and now Effingham.
Along the way they’ve had daughters Vera (8), Faye (5) and Holly (2). When John got a job with Heartland Dental he convinced Helen that moving from their apartment in Chicago to Effingham would be cool because they could live on the lake. Turns out Helen had dreams of hobby farming so when the homeowners of a piece of property south of Watson walked them around the outside of what is now their home and she saw the barn she immediately knew this was it. They do, however, from time to time get a lake-like experience when Bishop Creek floods.
Four years ago the Pantazis family moved from a two-bedroom apartment in Chicago to this four-bedroom home in the country. That meant Helen had her work cut out for her in terms of furnishing it. She said they needed everything from couches to a shovel. She discovered the flea market on Rt. 40 towards Altamont and found many treasures there, including a shovel.
Helen loves to do things herself and if the how-to videos on the internet leave her stumped she seeks advice from her dad. Helen replaced her garbage disposal in such a manner. She singlehandedly tore out the carpet in the basement, which she likened to wrestling a bear. She chipped away at various projects like stenciling “wallpaper” in a couple of rooms, laid flooring, painted cupboards, added a backsplash, etc. You’ll see the extent of her DIY-ness as you read.
In addition to flea market furniture, she used antiques from her family as well as things she made to fill her home. She went through a pretty intensive fabric arts stage. Testaments to that stage are scattered about the house. She also paints furniture and frames and she builds saunas. More on that later.
Helen and I first met at the Effingham Public Library back when it was the Helen Matthes Library. We hit it off and one day she happened to ask if I knew where she could find an old metal desk. Being the hoarder that I am I just so happened to have one in my parent’s barn. She came over and looked at it and said it was perfect, dust and all. In addition to realizing that we both love junk we also realized that we are pretty much the same person. Both of us grew up on a farm, we kind of look the same, we both have a strange sense of humor and we both love junk. Twins.
One of my favorite stories that she told me on that first visit was that when she bought her house her mom confided in her sister that “she’s got a big beautiful house and she’ll probably fill it with junk”. I love that story. One man’s junk…
For those of us born here, the Effingham area is a wonderful place to raise a family. There’s hardly any crime, we know everyone (heck we’re practically related to everyone), we’ve got caring teachers and great schools and with family so close by babysitters are easily had. Helen has done her best to make the best of being an outsider here. She’s met people at the library, she takes her girls to the Workman Sports Complex and she keeps her sanity by getting the heck out of Dodge to visit her sister-in-law in St. Louis who also happens to be a stay-at-home mom. They shop and drink gin together.
This is the first What’s Inside that features a family where not one member is originally from here. To put that into perspective we’ve done a dozen What’s Insides thus far and not one has been of a family where at least one spouse was originally from the area. Total outsiders are a small but growing population in our small community. What I’ve learned from Helen is that although this is a nice place to live, coming here knowing no one is not easy. Breaking into friend groups is tough anywhere, but it is especially tough here since we’re such a tight-knit community. Long story short, keep these newbies in mind. Ask how they’re doing and invite them to stuff. Like breakfast at the Gabby Goat with your girl gang. Can’t wait to hear more about your time with NPR, Helen. : )
//Next issue: The Aaron (America) and Brianne Wilson home
About the photographer: Tytia Habing is an award-winning and highly regarded fine art, family and commercial photographer based in the Effingham, Illinois area. You can see her work at tytiahabingphotography.com.
About the writer: Joanna Davies is co-owner of Fresh Digs in Effingham, Illinois. Fresh Digs sources locally, globally and uniquely made home goods and gifts. We also like to get people together. Join us.