The early-June day had begun back in St Louis, already mired in its notorious heat and humidity. None of us would miss its oppressive summer climate. Well, maybe I would, following the fifth or sixth month of unrelenting New England cold and gray and ice and snow. But that was all still way in the future. As the movers filled the truck, the three-storied Garrison brick house looked forlorn with bare windows and filled with stacks of boxes. John and Benjamin, our eighteen-year-old, would be making the journey by car with Eloise, our Bernese Mountain Dog. She was too big to ride with us on the plane, yet we could not imagine letting her go by cargo. So father and son (and dog) would drive across the country, leaving one life and beginning another the old-fashioned way. They would cross the states and see and feel the distance we were putting between the first forty odd years and the next.
Hannah, Eli and I were flying with our daughter’s best pal, Elle — who would help her unpack — and our little Cairn terrier Stuart who was small enough to carry on. Actually, at a stout twenty-two pounds, he barely missed the cut off. But we stuffed him into a small pet carrier (he was a medium) and let him poke his head out every time the flight crew and grumpy-looking passengers turned their heads. We also had our decidedly-unamused, fifteen-year-old cat Sophie. We landed in Albany and drove to Vermont in a rental. Our other car was being delivered in a few days. The plan was to stay at a B&B, for a day or two, while the renovators put the finishing touches on our 1850s farmhouse. Actually, the plan had been to meet the movers and start unpacking. Unfortunately, my contractor let me know a couple of days earlier that there was a teensy little, hardly worth mentioning really, bit more work to be done. And so the local Inn had taken our reservation instead. We would fill three rooms. Fortunately they were all near the back entrance, for we had hidden Stuart and Sophie and plied them with bones and tuna, respectively, to gain what we prayed would be their quiet complicity.
On the day that we drove up to the new house it was a breezy 70 something in Vermont. The whole village smelled loamy and fresh. The sun was shining, and we were all excited and happy. We’d heard the town church bells ringing old hymns at noon as we’d carried our suitcases into the Inn. The bells rang every day at noon and five. How simple and sweet, I thought, to live your life to the rhythms of those bells. I imagined cooking supper and stepping outside to stand beside the rosebushes I’d plant next to our new picket fence, holding a cup of tea as I listened and reveled in our new life here in this gentle old place. It was pretty good as fantasies go.
Then the first thing we saw as we came up the lane were thirteen men with hammers and cigarettes leaning out of every window. Rather they leaned out of big gaping holes where windows were supposed to be. The windows had just been delivered and blue tarps fluttered in the wind. We’d hired a cleaning crew who were supposed to have the place shiny and sparkling when we arrived. They had come and swept a few piles of sawdust but given up in the face of all the new messes being made faster than they could clean up the old ones. There was a Viking stove, the one I had been dreaming about for months, eight burners and convection oven, gleaming in the fading sunlight in the middle of the meadow. It had been delivered, but the electricity and gas weren’t ready, and somehow it had been shuttled to the meadow. The grass was about three or four feet high. We’d hired a grass cutter, but he’d gotten angry about the new picket fence and stopped coming apparently weeks before. At least it hid all the cigarette butts.
We jumped out of the car and I began gushing about the woods, sending the kids on a scavenger hunt to hide my distress. The late afternoon light was fading and bats were circling our heads. I’d never seen a bat up close before. My contractor Kevin welcomed me and handed me a stack of invoices saying they were running a little over and could he please have another forty thousand dollars in the morning. One of the guys saw me looking at the bats and said, “Wait ‘till you see the coyotes.” I thought about how I’d just sent the kids into the woods. I looked through the invoices and remembered the six figures we’d already paid.
Then the police cruiser drove up and asked if I was the lady who had hired these fellas. Stuart was barking, the men with the hammers and cigarettes had all disappeared inside, the kids were wandering around the darkening, coyote-infested mountain; and I began to wonder, not for the first time, just exactly what had we been thinking.
Back in the autumn, when we had cooked up this new life, we’d begun by school and house hunting. The choice of a school drove the choice of a town for our very academic girl who was headed for high school. Our kids had had great experiences in the urban hip-hop independent schools we’d left behind, and we were determined to stay the course. We found a little rural progressive independent 6-12 school called the Long Trail School in Dorset, Vermont. It was nestled in the high valley surrounded by mountains, and the school dogs cheerfully roaming the halls. It had an artsy reputation and a college prep curriculum. Its reputation was that it was a school for the ‘hippies in the hollow.’ Fine by us. Nearby were the famous Northshire Bookstore and Al Ducci’s Italian Pantry. The village had a quaint country store with quirky toys and fresh produce. It all had seemed like heaven.
Our Realtor took us, (well mostly me, as my family quickly tired of looking at old houses in villages, old houses in the woods, and old houses on the sides of mountains for months on end), to some 37 houses. He was patient and young. His dad had just died, and he’d taken over the family business. His dog always came along and both seemed glad enough to be out of the office, even if it was for this woman who dressed like a gypsy and sent an endlessly long stream of emails explaining what she wanted: old house in the woods or village with views of the mountains, glorious woodwork, four or five bedrooms, a big gourmet kitchen, and lots of porches — cheap. How hard could it be?
The day we found our house Hannah and I fell in love with its views and its proximity to the village; but at the same time, its perfect feeling of seclusion. It sat on four acres up a hill and backed by a protected wooded knoll. The knoll had a wonderful winding trail that led to an old stone tower built for the Astor children in another century. It even had a name. Four porches gloriously wrapped Manorside. The front porch had lovely views of Spruce Peak, a little point along the Taconic Ridge. The steps were like little crooked ruins, but they could easily be rebuilt. That gracious porch was topped by a balcony, where Hannah and I imagined a slew of languid sunbathing afternoons drinking lemonade while we read trashy magazines. John and I were taking a year off to settle into these new lives. All our fantasies were rich with possibility.
There was a side porch, on what had originally been the front of the house, and a screened porch on the woodsy side, which might, with a wall full of windows and a little heat, become my favorite napping spot. This place seemed perfect.
Inside there were a few challenges. The kitchen had dark, dirty beams that looked like rotting railroad ties. But surely those could be boxed in oak or walnut and restored to some old glory. It was a little small, but a good carpenter could bump out the wall, add a mudroom for all the ski paraphernalia we envisioned acquiring. Maybe he could add a banquette, lending the kitchen an old French farmhouse kind of appeal to go along with its wonderful window. Both sides of the window swung out, and I could imagine calling the children in to supper.
And there was a library. It didn’t have bookshelves yet, but it was in all ways perfect for some. It was a gracious twenty-four by twenty-four foot space with fourteen-foot tin and copper ceilings up above. These had some poorly-done repairs that would turn out to be a thrifty papier-mâché made from leaves and old newspapers and glue, then painted to match the original. But surely we could find some old antique replacement tiles and easily restore the ceiling as well. Upstairs there were five more bedrooms for a total of six. The master matched the proportions of the library downstairs, and I pictured myself learning to weave on the big old loom I’d found on eBay just for the purpose. The house, with a few minor repairs, was grand. And of course, we’d add the accoutrements for a gourmet kitchen, but that would involve little more than switching the stove and the fridge, and maybe adding some local slate countertops.
The men in our household flew up, we completed the negotiations, signed the contracts; and our new life in Vermont had taken another step forward. I was caught in a detailed fantasy that imagined months of choosing wallpaper and paint, and fun goodbye parties with all of our friends. I started calling VT contractors explaining how we needed some bookshelves in our new house and a little help with the kitchen and other repairs. Several came by for a look. They began sending me bids. These were bids of breathtaking proportion. They would bankrupt us. Clearly we would need to make some adjustments. And we did. Or I did. I swear I did. At the end, the rotten porch steps stayed, along with the dickey electricity and the bathrooms that left your knees touching the wall at strategic moments, and the ceiling (no one really ever looks up much anyway), and the screened porch had had screens for a hundred years that worked perfectly fine, and so on. We were left with a six-figure bid for bookshelves and plugging in the stove. Worst of all, the timeframe for completion ranged from a year to eighteen months. We were moving in a little under eight. Two of us have asthma, so living in a construction site could literally be life threatening. We were in trouble. But then I remembered about Kevin.
Kevin was the funny contractor with a cell phone in each hand, a big cigar and an even bigger truck. His dog’s ashes rode in a little vessel on his dashboard. Kevin was a sweet, ADD guy with a big crew he flew down to Alabama every year to work on his vacation house and his rental properties. Kevin had done beautiful renovations on our St Louis house. Could he be tempted to bring his guys to Vermont? Maybe so.
I called him. We flew him to Vermont and wooed him with dinners by the fire and long meandering drives around the countryside. We took him to the house on the second day. I mentioned the bookshelves. I talked about the kitchen. We had wine on the balcony. Lots of wine. Eventually we made our way through the dining room, past the rotten steps, through the family room with its bowed walls and wavy floor. I had a punch list that I revealed slowly over three or four days. Eventually we found a house to rent for his crew and started planning the shifts. Eight would sleep while eight worked; and then they would switch. Everybody would get an eight-hour break except for the ones who wanted the overtime. We could knock it all out in six weeks working round-the-clock, six days per week. Kevin knew some of his crew was tired of all the travel, but he thought he knew where he could hire on some extras. The price tag he suggested was unthinkable, but as the three of us sat on a quilt where the terrace would one day be, we figured, what the heck, we would only get to do this once. We’d take the year off, then get back to work and make it all up in three or four years. It would be worth it. What were nest eggs for?
Now there was a state trooper in my yard suggesting that one of these guys had driven off at the local country store without paying for his gas. Oh, Dear. Also the driver was alleged to have been weaving, so the store owner reckoned he’d had a few beers. (I remembered that Kev was a recovering alcoholic who often hired guys just out of the program that had saved him. I suddenly knew where he’d found the extra guys).
The trooper asked me if I knew which guy had been driving the truck he described. Kev ran over and apologized. He offered to run right down to the store and pay for the gas. Before the trooper left, he was smoking one of Kevin’s cigars and seemingly accepted that the fellow had just “forgotten” to pay. In this teeny little village, with only a few hundred year-round residents, this would become big news. I heard it myself the next morning at the coffee counter in the quaint little village store. A very nice bearded fellow with a giant cup of coffee told me all about the new people who had hired all those yahoos who had stolen some gas. If his cup size was any indication, then he intended to stay a while and tell it a few more times.
That day at lunch I heard more about these ridiculous new people. Apparently I was being taken for a tourist who could appreciate the humor. It seems these new people had hired a bunch of foreigners to remodel their house, thinking themselves too good for the local guys who surely could have used the business. These foreign guys bought up all the beer in the store and one of ‘em had met a pretty local girl and come in looking for “rubbers.” The guy behind the counter reported to a room full of people, “I told him, we didn’t have any, but I could order him some … be here by Wednesday if he could wait. But I figured if he was asking then he would be needin ‘em ‘fore that, so I also told him where there was a drug store that carried ‘em. Then I called up that girl’s brother and told him to keep an eye out. Don’t know if he ever needed ‘em after that.” This got a big laugh and left me feeling a little queasy.
But somehow we did it. Once the windows were in, Eloise, our Berner, could stay at the house. We managed to hide Stuart and Sophie for two more weeks at the Inn. When it was over, the job had taken nine weeks, instead of six, and come in just a hundred thousand dollars over budget. We were threatened with a lawsuit for the damage the crew had done to the rental house we’d hired, and we settled immediately for another sum that seemed high, until the man told us about the … er …. “things” his wife had found under the bed. Apparently she was a church-going woman, so combined with the scratches on her antique walnut table and the missing stereo components and the lawn chairs (which the police had found by the lake) and her icemaker (clogged with beer), she’d almost had a breakdown. The settlement, which included a gift certificate to a local spa, finally seemed perfectly fair and just.
Thus we began our new life in Vermont. It was early summer. The whole town smelled sweet like the blooming lilacs. We were a little more broke than we’d planned to be, and the town was a teensy little bit annoyed with us. We figured we’d fix that with some cheerful parties. Once they got to know us it would all be different. And it was too. Once they really got to know us, during the saga of The Horrible Quaint Country Store, they would mostly come to loathe us. And we would get a whole lot more broke before it was over. But for now, we played pinochle on the renovated screen porch. We drank pitchers of fresh mountain water, laced with cucumbers, and I counted myself lucky and blessed to be here, with these four other people I loved, in this quiet gently beautiful place.
That part of the story stayed true. And that is how I could tell it. We longed for new lives in a beautiful place, and five years later we still feel glad and happy and full to be here. Or I could say we moved to a vacation spot, bought a local business where we went broke and made a whole bunch of people mad. Neither of those begins to capture the intense beauty of this life or the exquisite mess we made for part of it. It was, and may always be, just a little bit complicated.