Thursday, April 26, 2007

Another Home Place

A new home or place creates a tentative grasp. At first it may be a loose thread. Perhaps it strengthens in time into a cord that tightens until it knots in the heart and pulls with all of its might. Or it loosens and frays and just doesn't take. I am starting to feel the tightening. It's like a quickening of sorts, a soaring of thought and feeling. A connection with a place that runs deeper than being merely transient: a connection as primeval as the early settlers must have felt as they forged up the creeks and cleared off the ridge tops. There could be trepidation and fear, as with any new venture. Sometimes there was loneliness, even sorrow about leaving a familiar place for an unexplored territory. But once the decision was made, the wagon packed and on its way, it was all about finding the right place to pull aside and settle in.

That decision would have been part intuition, part connective, part necessity. "There is water in the spring, abundant plants and animals: Let us live here." They hunted or had all they needed in the woods and creeks. They worked and cleared the land and became a part of it--eventually they farmed. They built crude cabins and sometimes moved on, leaving them there for someone else to find and inhabit. What they didn't have, they didn't need.

Porch Talk

This is our fourth visit to Kentucky in a year. When we came down last April we were on an exploratory mission--part tourists, part investigative reporters. We wanted to visit various places we had heard about and talk with people around the state. Things seemed to link together--almost effortlessly in retrospect--until we found ourselves here a year later even more certain of our choices. We saw three farm places last year with a realtor: two in Casey County outside of Liberty and another in Pulaski County. All are in Knob country in south central Kentucky, between the higher Appalachian mountains in the eastern part of the state and the flatter beginnings of prairie to the west. Here gently rolling hills stretch into large open ridges, where pastures and woods taper down to hollows with stone-lined creeks.

The third place was a charm. Part ridge, part bottom, we loved the peace and quiet, the meandering creek, two pastures and woodlands, and the one car an hour average past the property (if that). A month later we came back to buy it. We soon met our neighbors on one ridge and on this visit met others. While we are still finding our way down here, we feel that each direction we have taken has been positive and productive--like a trail of crumbs has been left out for us and we are finding them with no trouble before the vultures descend. Sometimes the way should be this easy, even if we do happen to rely on a trusty Kentucky gazetteer kept handy in our car and an inner compass for true north (more or less).

White Trillium

We visited our land many times this week amidst warm spring weather and shared it with our boys for the first time since we first looked at it a year ago (our teenage daughter said she will come down when we get our house built). Wildflowers have been in the woods and hollows in abundance: may apples, banks of white and pink trillium (the occasional purple one), emerging bloodroot, clutches of wild miniature iris, and other flowers I'd never seen. Cardinals and blue birds dart back and forth across the fields and road sides. Cattle bellow across the pastures.

Boys on Fence

The boys found rocks and geodes as they waded in the creek while I met with a neighbor in the hollow who is trying to identify the remnants of a kitchen garden. He showed me what a wild onion looks like and where a patch of strawberries has gone wild. My husband toured the land with several people to talk about projects and to learn more of its history. There is a quiet and serenity here--far removed from any major road or highway (we are two miles from a narrow state road)--that my husband and I have rarely experienced in our own rural backgrounds.

Elza and Margaret

Today I walked up to our land with our neighbor Margaret, down a dirt road from their farm and about half a mile across the ridge. We went to the rise of field which forms part of our north boundary along their farm. "I've lived on this ridge for 53 years and I've never stood in this field!" she said. Having worked their own fields, of course, and growing up on a farm on a nearby ridge, she would have never thought to come here without permission or a need to do so. The cabin once on our land in the hollow had long ago been dismantled and taken away--only three barns are there to remind anyone that this was once a home place. The top of the ridge, in the field where we stood, has no signs of habitation apart from an open pasture. As long as Margaret has been living on the ridge, there has not been another woman or family on this land to visit.

Kitchen Window

I asked her where she would put the house--she showed me the same spot I have been thinking about, on the highest part of the field facing southwest towards the breezes and fullest light, with a porch on the front and a small kitchen ell off the back (in true Kentucky cabin style). We could see with the emerging leaves on the trees that you could just catch a glimpse of their farm to the northeast. I agreed with her choices and we spoke about the right spot for a garden, a barn or two, and the boys raising calves. We walked back the half mile to their farm and Margaret picked a yellow flower that she had never seen before. In her own kitchen off the back of her house, she placed it in a small cup of water. "I like to put flowers on my kitchen window sill because I like to look at them," she said. [In her garden near the house she grows potatoes, corn, beans, zucchini, and sometimes beets, which she pickles to perfection. And lots of flowers.] We talked about recipes and how we tried to make more time for handwork (she crochets, I knit). I was glad she could share some time with me before she had to do the evening's milking with her son Frankie, who often helps her.

Elza, Margaret's husband, grew up in the home place just down from their present farm house, which they still own but that hasn't been inhabited since earlier in their marriage. One interesting thing about this part of the world is that when farms are bought or people move out of old houses, the structures are often just left there, abandoned--houses, barns, sheds, outhouses. Often new houses are built nearby while the old ones are just left there for nature to reclaim them. This is not a part of the country where there are gee-gaw houses and suburban cul-de-sacs. In earlier days, when Kentucky was wilderness, it was not unusual for settlers to move on and for another family to either move in or salvage the materials for their own cabins. Now these structures and their stray gatherings of outbuildings are rural ruins, unintentional follys in the landscape. There is a melancholy, even poetic beauty, in their decay and yet I can't imagine the land here without these former home places. I suppose it is better that they remain this way--if not to be restored--than to be torn down and forgotten entirely. In this condition of benign neglected state of preservation they are at least reminders of another time, of other settlements and people. Now they are scattered ghost houses on the land.

After our walk, and when Elza and Frankie returned with my husband after a tour around the land, Margaret surprised our youngest son on his seventh birthday with a cake and ice cream. Much to their delight, Frankie took the boys on several rides around the farm on the four-wheeler that he uses to herd cattle and for farm work. A few days before Margaret invited us in to a delicious supper of ham, cornbread, creamed corn, beans, fried potatoes (all from her garden) and fried apples. She had prepared that meal in no time at all after milking over 60 cows at the end of the day. We feel blessed by their kindnesses and we have yet to even build our house. We have rarely felt more welcomed.

Friendly Neighbors

Daniel Boone wrote in an account of 1771, when Kentucky was indeed a frontier: "I returned home to my family, being determined to bring them as soon as possible at the risk of my life and fortune, to reside in Kentucky, which I esteemed a second paradise." Our neighbors have lived all of their lives on this ridge or the adjacent one, seldom leaving because of the responsibilities on their farm. Frankie said that he has been many places but whenever he has been away, he has always wanted to come back. Elza cautioned that we would soon be homesick for Kentucky and that once we got settled we would never want to leave. After our recent visit here this week I am beginning to understand why. When some where starts to pull on you, that is where you should be.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

My website is up and I have Ronald Gehrmann to thank for that at for all of his hard work--but seemingly effortless (from my end of things)--on its design. You can read more about THE PANTRY book, an excerpt, and some other tidbits at [or you can also link to my site if you type]

What is amazing about the internet is that I e-mailed him my copy and photo attachments, we spoke on the phone briefly a few times, and the rest just sort of emerged before my eyes over the course of a few days. Once he had the template done, the rest was just a manner of tweaking. I had parked my site at and Ronald handled all of the uploading when the design was complete. Within a half hour, we were official.

I connected with Ronald in a strange sort of way: I was trying to find websites that I liked (after contacting a few web designers and getting prices of $1,000 and upwards of over $5,000). I didn't have time to learn HTML so I found a local publisher's website, liked it, and saw who designed it (Ronald). Then I contacted him.

Not only did he call me the next day from his vacation in Germany but it became clear that his vision of a simple uncluttered design--as well as liking other websites he had designed (that appear on his own site)--matched what I was trying to articulate for myself. Add to that the incredible value of his time and I had found the perfect web designer.

Ronald used to live in New Hampshire and decided to make a change and moved to New York. I can't say enough great things about working with him. He also is a Mac consultant and everything can be done over the phone or internet. We really almost don't have to leave our houses any more! [So yet another reason to have a pantry...]

Monday, April 16, 2007

Holding the Book

There is nothing like the thrill of cutting open a box of books that you have written and then first seeing the book, holding it and opening it for the first time. I have not had that kind of elation since I wrote my first article in a magazine. It is hard to describe. No one but my editors had seen it, just a few things here and there (like the cover), not even my husband. I wanted it to be a complete finished product before anyone saw it.

Advance copies are being sent to media outlets--but it will not be in stores until late May. My website, will be launched by the end of the week.

Perhaps the other most gratifying moment of the day was when my oldest son Henry gave me a big hug at bedtime. "I love you Momma," he said, "And I'm so proud of your book."

Friday, April 13, 2007

Home Place


Since my marriage I have lived about thirty minutes from where I grew up and where the farm is that my family owned for many years, and now doesn't. I was meeting two friends for lunch today--the same two with whom I was volleying e-mails yesterday afternoon--an impromptu gathering which is often the best kind [we ate at Aylmer's Grille in downtown Jaffrey and if you are ever looking for a great place to have lunch in the Monadnock region, this is tops: bistro-like, fine fare, great place to gab]. Arriving in town a bit early, I decided to drive past the farm for the first time since last summer--perhaps the longest time I had ever been away from it. I drove down by the lake, where my brothers and I would ride our bikes and swim or visit summering family friends, up through a dense cluster of houses, and on to the farm.

There was a time when we would approach the farm each summer in the glittering dawn, after coming across New York and Vermont from Ohio, in our nocturnal journeys by station wagon. We would load the car after dinner in Akron, the luggage stored somehow in the hull, two twin mattresses placed in back. With my father at the helm and my mother by his side pouring coffee, we would sleep. The bumpity-bump of the cement thruway would lull us as we ventured, bleary-eyed and in our pajamas, back to New England. In the morning, we'd wake up, still miles away, anticipating each landscape feature until we crossed the New Hampshire state line. First Mount Monadnock would rise in the distance, the farm still several towns away, and then the Cathedral of the Pines, and at last the long sweep of hill down to the farm. We would see the mountain again, a constant fixture in our region, as we descended the hill. My heart would quicken as the farm soon emerged in its little valley, shrouded in early morning light and mist. Our grandparents, early risers and farmers, soon opened the big red door to greet us as we tumbled out of our packed car into the best place on earth.


Today I was able to drive by the farm and feel attached but separate from it. It was an odd sensation, as if driving through a dreamscape, much like I feel when I slow past the house where I grew up in Akron or by the homes of friends or family who no longer live in them. While we are trying to sell the remaining land so that the fields remain open, I realized in passing through this former mill village and on out to the turnpike that so much of my childhood landscape had already changed, I just hadn't seen it before.

The old Cape across the street--for decades the home of Mrs. Waty Taylor who always wore an apron, baked pies and beans, and had the most lovely laugh--now has a new tract house in the woods behind it. The farm up the hill has been subdivided into haphazard house lots in the last thirty years, the road in front was moved, the land behind it now cleared. The area north of a former saw mill, and still an industrial zone, has been cleared but not well and appears choppy. A manufacturing company that came to town in the early 1970s, on the corner by the turnpike, has enlarged over the years. Recently, all of the white pines along the road were cut down so now the building is more visible from either direction.

The neighborhood has transformed--while certain houses and owners are the same, their complexion is different. Most houses have seen many owners in my lifetime. The land has changed, too, and is more congested, not quite as rural, less like the home I remember. Now when I drive through my New Hampshire hometown, often on errands, I know the farm is there, I still feel its presence, but it is in a different backdrop--a hollow ghost house, that although now occupied by a new family, was in a way abandoned, a body with a different soul. Isn't a house just a well-joined fusion of boards and nails? If it were only that easy to rationalize a place that has been occupied by a family--a home that has witnessed love and loss and sorrow and moments of great joy.


When I moved back to the farm with my mother and brothers in 1974, my grandfather died several months later. Soon after that I had a dream in which he visited me and said, "Don't sell the farm!" I told my mother about it and thought he had meant the message for my grandmother and mother. In second grade I wrote my grandmother about a nightmare I had (I still have the letter to her) in which I described a yellow school bus arriving at the farm from Ohio and my grandmother denying me entry into the house. In the dream she didn't recognize me and didn't want me there. She wrote me back a reassuring letter: "Precious one, I will always welcome you here." How could I know in my first decade of life that both of these dreams were somehow prophetic? That my grandmother would one day develop Alzheimer's and not really know me, that I would ultimately be the one, through a complex unraveling of good intentions, to sell the farm?


I can visit my hometown now without the blur of nostalgia because I have the visual and heart memories that sustain me from a place well loved. I know that the people in my life that once shared this farm are either gone, or have moved away, or have moved on from this place. I have, too, and that is both liberating and sad because I have had a part in its undoing. But I have finally left home.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Snow Days


Snow days in New England, perhaps any where, start out with such promise. "We'll have a fire!," my husband enthuses. "I'll thaw a turkey!" he adds. "I'll bake!," I answer. But first I'll sleep in...

So much for good intentions. You would think it was Christmas morning. Several pouncing boys at 7:30am and ninety minutes, two coffees, and piles of French toast later--which I made only because my sons were relentless--I attempt to sneak away to my office. There I watch the snow fall, heavy and clumping, outside of my window and attempt to write. The fire is spitting in the hearth downstairs, the boys are rolling around in front of it fighting over a pile of toys, and my husband has retained control of the remote control for the day (although he did put together an incredible mid-afternoon turkey feast for which I am grateful).

Soon I am found by my boys and the bid for the computer ensues. Somehow, books, games, even television, are not sufficient when Mom is trying to work. The snow-slush-rain mix proves too wet for any outdoor play and besides, I keep trying to put away the snow boots, the snow pants, and all of the winter gear that clogs our kitchen and anterooms. [Converting the unused "breakfast room" into an official mud room remains an elusive dream, but it has become one in its own jumbled way, as well as the kitchen table which is often heaped with coats, hats, and general winter gear.] It is April 12th and you'd think I could at least put them in the washing machine for the last time this season.

This winter has been such a tease in New England: a Christmas without snow, balmy weather through mid-January, a Valentine's Day blizzard, and February in April. Another nor'easter is predicted for Patriot's Day, on Monday, and I can't really envision thousands of Boston Marathoners fighting a wintry tempest.

A snow day is delicious before Christmas, fun in January and February, perhaps in March, but by April, with some flirtations with warmer weather, the glimpse of a few patches of bare earth and nesting birds, it's time for spring.

In the meantime I hide in my office away from the fray and e-mail my girlfriends about what else? The weather, cabin fever, and just about anything you can imagine. And watch the white flakes tumble down.