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Originally published December 11, 2010 at 10:01 PM | Page modified December 13, 2010 at 10:47 AM

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Seattle family lives small, but with meaning

Sue Truman, her family have always lived frugally in their 880-square-foot cottage in Seattle's Bryant neighborhood. Nothing new for them. But Truman does think it's very cool, that the rest of us are finally catching up on trying to save the planet by treading lightly and smartly. She has much to teach us about wasting not and wanting not, and doing it with wit and grace and whimsy.

Song and dance

A dance and fiddle session at the home of Sue Truman and Richard Twomey.

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SUE TRUMAN is all shades of green. Makes her curtains from bedsheets, the rods from twigs, gets her clothes second-hand, grows her own food, makes her own gifts, drinks out of glass jars, and gets her books and movies from the library.

But this is no fad. No new way of thinking. No reawakening. Truman, her husband, Richard Twomey (to whom she has been married longer than she can remember), and their college-age son, Michael, have always lived like this. In their 880-square-foot cottage in Seattle's Bryant neighborhood.

She does think it's "very cool," however, that the rest of us are finally catching up on trying to save the planet by treading lightly and smartly. But you and I, we're no Sue Truman. She has much to teach us about wasting not and wanting not, and doing it with wit and grace and whimsy. Nobody's suffering at her house. In fact, they seem to be having a blast over there.

"We don't have a TV," she begins. "I don't do a lot of the things that mainstream people do. I don't shop at the mall. God, I hate malls. I get most everything I need at Value Village."

Now, this might sound a little cranky. It's not. Sue Truman laughs when she talks. She puts flowers on her neighbors' doorsteps, tends her neighborhood traffic circle, organizes garden tours and manages the food bank P-patch along with her own at Magnuson Park. She and Twomey set up little "fairy houses" in their front yard and fill them with tiny surprises for passers-by, preferably children, to discover. Neighbors, having gotten the hang of it now, often add their own trinkets to the boxes.

By day, Truman works for an employee-assistance program, telecommuting. Twomey is an ultrasound consultant. By passion, she teaches step dancing (in a tiny cedar studio in their backyard) and plays Cape Breton fiddle. Twomey plays Irish fiddle. Sometimes they shovel the living-room furniture into the truck, throw open the windows, pull the dance floor out from under the bed, and fill the place with fiddlers and steppers for a good old-fashioned Scottish Gaelic ceilidh.

Living the green life at the Truman-Twomeys is not about doing without or being stingy with the resources. There is both joy and bounty here in the why-the-heck-would-you-buy-it-when-you-can-make-it attitude. She gardens. He cooks. They buy eggs from the neighbor. What Truman saves in fabric and packaging and groceries and carbon emissions she gives back in generosity of spirit and a fondness for community.

The neighbor who ratted her out for this story (Truman would not do such a thing herself) called her home "a labor of love of all things small and purposeful."

Let's start at the front door.

"Really, we chose this house because it was what we could afford in this neighborhood," Truman says of their three-bedroom, one-bath cottage, a cheerful sage-green with rough-wood shutters made by Twomey. Front-yard flowers are a confusion of good cheer. A wood stove provides heat.

"That was 15 years ago, and friends said, 'You'll want to get a bigger house.' But we don't need more. This house was built in 1920. A family 30 years ago raised three boys in this house."

Then she says, "I love the whole rustic-cabin feeling." This explains the twig curtain rods, clothes pins to hold up the curtains, the wicker furniture and various furniture pieces Twomey built for their home.

"When we were growing up people had small houses. It was no big deal," Truman says. "We're kids of Depression-era parents. Nothing was wasted." Ask if she's ever considered herself to be a hippie, and she says yes. But not now. Too conservative.

The bathroom is at once no-nonsense (claw-foot tub, no shower) and charming. Walls are a chocolaty brown wainscot. A big stick (or small tree) serves as the towel bar. "It's never too early to light candles," she says, speaking in bon mots. Votives surround a jar of yellow tulips. "Whenever we can use twigs and wood, we use twigs and wood."

The view out the kitchen door is a flock of birdhouses, jars filled with little purple flowers. Beyond that is the fence that wraps their yard. It is done up in a rainbow of brightly painted watering cans hanging on the pickets. A backyard bird sanctuary offers a place to perch and feed safe from fur — Tiger and Fern, the family cats. Look down and you'll find a mosaic steppingstone or two. A little splendor in the grass.

To keep it interesting, and, really, the trick here is all about keeping it interesting, Truman changes the curtains, rugs, towels, bedding and accessories with the seasons. "It brings new energy," she says. Black-and-red-check curtains for winter, blue-and-white stripes for summer. Shells for summer. Apples, squash, pumpkins for fall. Narcissus, greens, fruit and vegetables for winter. Flowers from March to November. Lanterns and candles, tea lights and votive lights, and strings of holiday lights, which stay up after.

"You can make any space better with candles and fresh flowers," she says. "And the thing I love about flowers or fruits and vegetables is that I don't have to store them."

And the holidays, Truman is very big on holidays. At Christmastime she is her own elf, making 40 or so gift bags for her students, neighbors and family. As an example, she produces a basket full of yo-yo pins, puffy little, flower-like circles crafted out of tartan fabric. "It kind of an old-timey thing, something to do with the scraps. The quilting equivalent of jewelry."

Then there is storage, the constant struggle for a small household.

"It's not a total bowl of cherries," Truman says. "There've been times I've wanted more space. But precious few times. If I had more space I'd still have a storage problem. It's tempting, man, but you have to be ruthless — and use every little inch." Example A: The bathroom sink wears a homemade skirt to hide the space for cleaning supplies.

Truman, wearing a black linen top and jeans this day, says neither she nor Twomey are clothes horses. "That would be a problem." She keeps her clothes in a tiny closet in their bedroom and has an extra downstairs. An armoire holds sheets.

The cedar studio out back serves multi-purposes: dance studio, dining room, summer bedroom.

On her way back into the house, Truman wipes her feet on a homemade rug. "Old curtains, old sheets past their prime get crocheted into rugs," she says.

"My mother is 96 now, and she's a wonderful craftsperson. She's always doing something. So is my dad. He made everything in our house.

"I value handmade things. It's just how I was raised."

Rebecca Teagarden is assistant editor of Pacific Northwest magazine. John Lok is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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