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.