Sunday, May 8, 2005
Ok, this is a certified rant. Friday we received a letter from our insurance company saying that the parent company would be dropping our policy on the family farmhouse in September because an inspector didn't like the back steps (been there for forty years or more and never a problem), a rotted porch post, peeling paint in patches, and, the real kicker: we'll have to upgrade our electrical system to get house insurance coverage. Even the several woodstoves were an eye-raising event and the series of sheds and barns that connect to the house? Forget about it.
This farmhouse of which I speak has been in our family since 1946. I moved there with my mother and brothers in 1974 and we helped care for my grandmother who developed Alzheimer's. My mother has lived there since. I met my husband at this house but before him there are many memories of things like the smell of the back stairs and old barn wood in the heat of the summer, playing in the pinewoods, swatting mosquitos in the dark, just being there. The place holds great memory and nostalgia--perhaps too much. I'd always imagined myself the torch-bearer of that legacy: I am the oldest cousin in my generation of children from five of my mother's siblings. I knew my grandmother probably better than any of us and shared a special bond. But beyond that is the aspect of place and caretaking of a legacy: the farm.
In a process too difficult to detail here--for many reasons--my husband and I bought the farm last year with the intention of moving there after our daughter gets out of high school. That won't happen now until 2007 so we'd hoped to at least rent the place. Now we likely can't even do that unless we do a major systems upgrade that we weren't planning on until 2007. Do you realize how many old houses are out there that are "not up to code" and the insurance companies aren't even aware? Are we getting to the point in our culture where every house must be vinyl-sided (to avoid lead paint issues or the idea of paint altogether), rubberized, coated, perfectly sealed and air-tight, air-conditioned, level and absolutely conforming to every code in the book? Any lover of old houses will tell you that the charm is in the creaky floorboard, the drafty bedroom, or the "weathered paint job". Our home insurance companies are against historic preservation, or the delight of benign neglect, plain and simple.
The Amish order is commendable for many reasons, one being that no one carries insurance on their farm buildings or farmhouses. A fire or other calamity is considered an act of God. But more to the point, if there is such a disaster--good wiring or not--the community bands together and builds another house or barn. They help each other and do not require handouts from insurance companies. In our "law suit happy" nation we are destroying our own culture and values in the process and putting insurance companies on red alert.
It has seemed that everything is against us where this farm is concerned. It has been like swimming upstream against a strong, unrelenting current. I think my mother will be better off in the long run but this has not been easy on her, either. Yet, could she afford to stay? Systems failures in old houses happen quickly and at great expense, as we are now discovering. I have not given up yet--I am going to call a trusted electrician and get an estimate. But we are also looking at a new roof, a new septic, a new heating system...and that doesn't even begin to cover the expenses in the barn. What is increasingly rare and old and beautiful is threatened by lack of home insurance. This series of buildings is irreplaceable yet knowing that you could at least have some coverage in the event of disaster or lightning or a roof leak is somewhat comforting. Not anymore.
Everyone's situations change and ours did when we realized that our daughter could not switch school systems or houses right now. We put our children's needs before our own. So now we own two large houses, two great legacies, two huge elephants on our backs. I wish right now that we lived in a house like my friend Judy lives in--a small, unassuming Cape. I wish I'd never even begun to appreciate places and old things. I wish I could fancy life in a double-wide, or better yet, a Gypsy caravan with no roots, just roaming. I wish that the past held no meaning for me. I wish I could rewind four years and start all over again, knowing then what I know now. I would be here where I am in my husband's family Federal and less restless, more certain, and having spared everyone less destruction.
I realize that my children identify with our present house--my husband's legacy house--which has become their own place to grab hold in memory. I do not want to disrupt their own house-bonding process. I realize, too, that no one in our house shares the memories I have of the farm--not my husband, not my children, not even our daughter who spent her first three years there. I am learning that, try as we might, we can not have it all. At this point I would just like a plan that I can work with. I tried, once, to invest my emotions in my husband's house, the one we share now, but then he wanted to sell it. Then the farm presented itself as an opportunity. Then I became reinvested over there after more or less shutting the door on that part of my life. I want my children to be happy, I want my mother to be happy, I want my husband to be happy. My happiness in this matter is more of an afterthought.
A woman from an old New England family that my husband knew well in the town that we live in had a hill farm and a large farmhouse that used to take in summer boarders. The farm was an institution in its day and also an anomaly: two brothers and a sister, all unmarried, lived there until their deaths or health needs changed. My husband worked for them when they used to keep cows, and apples, and hay. The buildings were relics to a vanishing rural past, time capsules of the late 19th through early 20th century. The sister is still alive in a nursing home and it was her wish that a New Hampshire land group inherit the land. But the buildings? She wanted them knocked down for good--she did not want anyone living in her family farmhouse. So the town fire department came and set the place to fire for practice after much had been taken apart or salvaged. In only several years, the land has reclaimed the area where the buildings used to be. Unless one scratches around a bit, there is no memory in the land that anyone ever lived there. The old road goes up past where the house and barns were gathered, and all around the pastures are filling in with trees and brush. Now the property is like so many abandoned cellar holes in the reforested New England woods.
If we have to sell the farmhouse, we will at least keep the 70 acres that remain with the farm. I can not and will not see McMansions on this land, yet selfishly, like the old farm woman, I can not envision anyone else but family in that farmhouse. I should have let go a long time ago and never ventured back. Thomas Wolfe was right: "You can't go home again." It is never the same.