Deck the Halls with Dust and Rubble

2014-12-16 23.42.12It’s official. We have taken full possession of the farmhouse, and it’ll never be the same. Within a few hours of the renters’ departure, we began vacuuming and scrubbing. Then we rented a dumpster. A few days later, the place was a complete mess.

Here it is, before:

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Everything you’ve ever (never) wanted to do with a crowbar, we did last week. We feasted on demolition in clouds of dark dust, plaster, and mouse turds. Our white respirator masks turned black on the outside. Our hair stiffened. When we walked, we billowed like the Peanuts character, Pig-Pen. It was great.

Andrew’s parents drove from Indiana with a carload of tools and food. His brother flew in from California to help wield those tools, filling his long dark curls with decades-old filth from above our ceiling. I love these people.

Things started innocently: 2014-12-16 05.53.28We peeked above the dropped ceiling panels, installed in the 1960’s, oppressively close to the top of our heads. Above those low panels, the original ceiling soared at 9 ½ feet from the floor. In the kitchen, it was made of lovely interlocking boards, still in good condition. In the living room and downstairs bedroom, it turned out to be plaster, also 9 ½ feet high.

Things proceeded quickly and energetically. We tore out dropped ceilings in the entire first floor except the bathroom, and ripped off a bunch of walls, too, revealing the studs. There. Deviant electrical wires (some of them live), absent insulation, wall studs that dangled at one end, a missing load-bearing wall, and red revolutionary war themed wallpaper—this house had it all.

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I’ll admit it: Five days before Christmas, I had a moment of pause. Was all of this Really Necessary, right now? The electrical wiring alone, though, convinced me. As the dust settled and new wires began coursing through the open walls, the house became much safer, much less likely to self-destruct.

This was important work for many reasons. Ripping the house apart alongside Andrew, his father, and his brother, I watched their flow together. They bent and turned and reached like ballet in dirty old pants, seeming almost choreographed. Similar in their speed and controlled movements, they were always aware of each other, yet focused on their task.

Their sawzall blade razed two-by-six boards from above our heads, and each one was carefully, quickly escorted outside, without bonking anyone or breaking windows. Dust coated their mugs during coffee breaks. They sleuthed out frustrating wiring together and constructed a support beam to replace the previously removed load-bearing wall. In the end, they were still friends.2014-12-16 22.17.012014-12-23 04.20.30

On their last supper here, December 23rd, Andrew’s mom crafted a table centerpiece using a chunk of wood from the ceiling, lit with candles. The refrigerator was installed and the stove worked, thus ending a week of cooking in the bathroom with the microwave. There was still no drywall, but the ceiling was lovely, so we looked at that, and at each other. We sat around our picnic table in the kitchen, since half our stuff hadn’t yet completed the move. We basked in a tired gratitude, a sense of coming home.

The Curious Effects of Snow

“So what do you think of our weather here?” my dairy farming friend asks with a sly smile at the afternoon elementary school pickup in the middle of last week.

“I love it.”IMG_8473 IMG_8482 IMG_8483 I shrug as he laughs.

“Just wait til you have to get out and feed the animals.” He was shoveling snow until 11:30 the night before and up at four for milking. My sparkling eyes must seem naïve and amusing to him.

Leaving the school in his snowpants, Sam can’t resist repeatedly flopping into the blanket of snow, unmarked by other feet, which mostly stick to clear paths. If I’d worn snowpants, I’d probably join him, just to feel it.

I feel notably less romantic about snow, though, while driving our 1993 Toyota Camry out to the farm that evening. I nearly don’t make it up the hill on Little York Road. As we creep upward, slipping, I tell Andrew we should just turn around while we’re not in a ditch. But his determination to keep going, plus my realization that turning around isn’t a real possibility, holds me on course.

Both hands on the wheel, I exclaim how beautiful, each bare tree branch outlined, snow falling storybook-style in the dusk. The evergreens kneel, laden with snow like armloads of gifts. After we crest that hill, Andrew points past my nose, at my window. A ruffed grouse steps through the trees on a slope just above the road. Against the snow, its woodland camouflage looks bold. Intricate brown and black patterns swirl down its sides. I can see its spiky mohawk of feathers and the white outlining its eye.

Andrew coaches me into keeping momentum, so I swing into the next right turn and it carries me up the hill even though the car weaves like a kid learning to ride a bicycle. We pass the windswept spot between two open fields. We turn onto Red Barn Road, cresting a slope. Home lies below us.

For a few more days, though, it is home to these college students, and we pull out shovels and 150 pounds of traction sand, just in case. We shovel. On the dark, snowy drive back to our apartment, Sam wonders what all those lines are, coming at our windshield.

The next day, I stand in light snow with a friend after we drop off our preschoolers. Each snowflake lingers in her red hair, perfectly snowflake-shaped, like sprinkle decorations on a cupcake, but fading into clear droplets.

I had forgotten about snow. It offers us reprieve, changing the scenery without requiring travel. We arrived in emerald summer, began our life here through the fire of fall, and now the eye rests. The junk wears a silver-white shroud. The hidden grouse leaps into view.

Winter here will be long and gritty. Locals seem to have the chinset of survivors, having passed through the grey tunnel of January, February, March, even into April. We are the uninitiated. We can come fresh to the shovels. We haven’t yet landed in the ditch. We can fling ourselves down and watch each snowflake melt in each others’ hair.

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Your Personal Junkyard

Here is one of the reasons we bought this farm:HayFieldinBloom

Here is another:2014-10-18 16.16.37

Here are some of the reasons why nobody else bought this farm:2014-10-18 15.35.402014-10-18 15.34.09JunkyBarn

The farm’s previous owner has many treasures, still stacked and parked in the barns, loitering like unsavory characters in tall weeds. Three tractor-trailers have come, loaded up, and gone. They made a dent, but barely.

In our backyard right now sits a four-foot high loading ramp, handmade last month from old barn timbers. A rusted pickup missing essential parts perches on the ramp, like a Dukes of Hazzard stunt that froze just before take-off. If the snow holds off, a fourth tractor-trailer will come next week. If not, that pickup truck will wait until spring to complete its trajectory.

It’s hard to estimate, but at least six, maybe eight more semi loads will need to leave the property. Furniture, unusable farm equipment, used tires by the dozens, moldering sofas and televisions, antique (read: decrepit) cars, stacks of semi-useful wood, sheets of tin, used bricks, a sink and toilet, shingles, and much more. All of it will travel 600 miles to the previous farm owner’s new home. With luck, it’ll all be gone by late next summer.

In 1953, when my grandpa bought a Pennsylvania farm for my aunt and uncle, they kept a fire burning for six months, incinerating trash and debris from barns and overgrown land. My dad remembers his five-year-old self feeling spooked by those outbuildings, lurking with other people’s crumbling possessions. That spring, when my grandpa set plow to the land, though, he never hit a rock bigger than his fist, easily churning a rich furrow behind him.

This upstate New York land holds our future. For now, though, the farmstead sags, burdened by one man’s obsession with solid evidence of the past. Helping him move some old lamps and small tables, I asked him if they were from his childhood. “They’re from my father’s childhood in Brooklyn,” he said, shaking his head. “Everything has a story.”

Other stuff, he admitted, he has no idea why he kept it. I can only imagine how unsteady he must feel with his reassuring pieces and piles being jumbled and moved. When I was a kid, I saved a scrap of my old bedroom carpet as they rolled out the new stuff. Letting go is not my strong point, either.

This spring, we will try to ignore the junk, and the junk removal process, while we plant trees. By summer, we will have tomatoes growing and probably chickens for eggs and meat. We’ll begin to assemble our own collections of hopefully useful treasures.

 

The Heat Is On

IMG_8417IMG_8438IMG_8437IMG_8440We just step underground after waving at ourselves on Revlon’s “Love Is On” big screen in Times Square, when I get the call that the Heat Is Off at the farm.

My sister and her husband, who live in Manhattan, hosted us for Thanksgiving and are graciously showing us the city. Our kids’ eyes bug out on a simple subway ride. From the flashing Times Square, wallpapered with billboard screens larger than our barns, we are headed towards Rockefeller Center to see the view from the Top of the Rock. We are gulping in the sensory stimulation.

Stopping for a moment, I plug my ear with my finger to hear the voice message: There is no heat or hot water. Right now, for three weeks, we are landlords. Four responsible college seniors have been renting the farmhouse, and we won’t move in until their semester ends. A bit awkward, but workable.

We have owned the farm for exactly one week. The furnace, apparently, is off today. The temperature outside is 34 degrees Farenheit. The predicted overnight temperature is something like 12 degrees. Manhattan seems very far from the farmhouse full of freezable water pipes in this moment.

Staying sort of calm, we keep walking. I make some initial phone calls—they shouldn’t be out of fuel oil, yet, we hope. We ride up 67 floors in darkness with loud music, blinking colored lights and images, our necks craned back, staring through the elevator’s clear ceiling at the illuminated elevator shaft through which we fly. We seem to be flying headfirst a lot these days.

This is the clearest day he’s seen from the top, says my sister’s husband, who works in this building. We can see Coney Island at the far edge of Brooklyn, with water beyond it. We see the Statue of Liberty, the Freedom Tower, the Empire State Building, and looking across the length of Central Park, the George Washington Bridge, and beyond that, hills leading to a cold farmhouse.

I breathe deeply a few times and pull out my phone to call furnace fix-it places and beg someone to check out our furnace today. As if we were on a wilderness peak, my cell phone doesn’t have enough service to complete a call.

So we enjoy the view, which is truly astonishing, then take the blue-lit elevator shaft back down to ground level. A few more phone calls, and we still have no one to check our furnace today. I feel edgy. We return to my sister’s apartment, pack our stuff, trade hugs, and drive back over the George Washington Bridge.

After more phone calls in the car, we reach Carmine, who kindly meets us at the farm in the dark and replaces the furnace’s transformer. The furnace has plenty of fuel, just a regular old broken part. I call the renting college student, who is out for the evening: the Heat Is On.

Later, I reflect while stewing a chicken that we raised and butchered this summer into garlicky broth and meat for chicken noodle soup. A warm house restores my mood of gratitude and perspective. At our Thanksgiving table, we went around twice, naming what we are thankful for, then ate slowly and well, with laughter. And in urgent moments requiring repair, I still somehow want to breathe deeply and take in the view.

Farm At First Sight

ForSale.Oct.2014I lowered the map to my thighs and followed Andrew’s stare out the car window. As usual, he drove while glancing at the road between prolonged inspections of passing farms and woods, wildlife, and in this case, wetlands. He came around a curve and pressed the brake because this wetland had a small For Sale sign poking out of the weeds.

We were fishing for possibilities on this July 2014 road trip to upstate New York, starting with Andrew’s job interview that brought us all the way from Georgia to Cobleskill—a town we’d never heard of before. Coming from thick humidity, we felt relieved by New York’s bearable heat and lighter air.

Driving hilly roads the day before, I had squinted into the sun at a partly framed new barn atop a hill. Climbing ladders and crossbeams were scores of men with beards and hats. The Amish community would raise that barn quickly, I suspected, so I wanted to drive past again today and see the progress.

We missed that turn, though, and took another one—a small detour with big results. Andrew eased the car past the For Sale wetland towards a dilapidated farmstead. Dilapidated might be generous. The stolid, white farmhouse seemed more likely to remain standing than the barn, so starved for attention you could see its ribs. Beside the rutted driveway, another For Sale sign hung above a cast iron cauldron large enough to hold a small child.

Thick cedar trees hid the house. A Winnebago hid the barn. A silver-haired, round-shouldered man stepped down from a rusty pickup truck. We introduced ourselves. “I’ll show you around a bit,” the farm owner said in his Long Island accent. “I’ve got my wife over in the top of another barn, and she’s probably roasting.”

Overgrown grass and burdock and wildflowers filled the space around the buildings, growing up among rusting truck carcasses and other junk. We wove around stacks of furniture and some tires in the large kitchen, following a path into the living room. Several bedrooms were impassable, so we peered through cracked doors. The barns, with scanty siding and brave, century-old beams, held unredeemed antique cars embedded in nameless junk.

We loved the place on sight.

Looking at this farm later, my dad quoted his father, who used to say, “The land makes a farm, not the buildings.” From the barns, a hay field sloped upwards, good soil covered with Queen Anne’s lace and blooming legumes ready for a second cutting. The view from the hilltop rolled and folded, trees and farms. Below, a beaver-plugged wetland wrapped around the base of a small woods succeeding in an old pasture. Something shifted in us like emerging onto a trail after whacking through thorny underbrush for miles. We couldn’t see where the trail went, but we found our surprised feet on it.

Four months later, we signed all the papers and (with the credit union) owned that farm.