When a Place Chooses Us
Sometimes a place speaks to us, some times it calls out to us like ancient river stones, like the all absorbing pull of a first love, like spring geese with urgent discordant pleas to take action, get moving. Both homes we have owned presented an undeniable challenge to embrace who we must become when we move into new spaces.
The first house we bought was an 1832 cape. We brought our daughter Lila there at just a few months old, and despite the river running through the basement, the lean of the kitchen floor and walls, and the raccoon who greeted us by poking his head out of the roof, we knew almost immediately it was home. We had made a plan before meeting the realtor that if we liked it, we would stay cool, not tip our hand, but would somehow slip the word pig into the conversation as a way of letting each other know we loved it. I am many things, but nowhere on the list are the words subtle or reserved. When we pulled in the driveway, the neighbor’s cows were grazing in the small field out back, Pat and Bill, were working on their farm across the road and waved in such a way that I knew they were the perfect neighbors before they even uttered a word. And when we stepped in the house, there was a dutch oven beside the fireplace just like in my family’s house in Whitefield and my grandparent’s house in Alna. It was all I could do to not begin screaming “PIG! PIG! PIG!” as if the word meant fire.
It was a mess, the realtor had to hide his surprise when we made an offer that same night. But Chris and I both taught school and with summers off had the luxury of being able to see what the house on Orchard Road could become with a dozen years of hard work, hundreds of panels of sheetrock hauled and hours of mudding.
Our years there are a constant reminder to me that though we strive for perfection in life, it is often in the face of the most disorder (and possibility) when we are happiest. We spent the first year in the house sleeping on the floor on a futon, our daughter’s crib in the dining room while we worked on getting electricity upstairs. We often cooked off a camp stove and celebrated any freshly painted surface like a holiday. We raised two girls there, and never thought we would leave the house, every part of it felt like an extension of the best parts of our most hard working, patient selves. The house demanded that we live in the moment.
When my daughter Lila began middle school, she sat us down for a serious chat in the kitchen (which was still totally slanted, but now otherwise lovely) and said, “Mom, Dad, we are farm people. Soon I’m going to be off at college, and then married and living who knows where. I want to tell my kids I grew up on a farm, so we really need to get started.” It was too much to process, our daughters were going to leave us someday? How come no one had ever mentioned that? We had been so absorbed in creating our little world, that any one of us not being part of it seemed a cruel impossibility. I am pretty sure we were so stunned by the thought of her ever being married (had she had her first kiss?) that we just nodded our heads. She left the room yelling to her sister, “Tess! We get to bring home goats and chickens!”
And they did. We picked up Don Pedro and Bonnie, a Nigerian dwarf pair at a farm an hour south. The woman who sold them joked with us as we looked in awe at the 50 plus goats traversing her property, that her farm had started out with just two goats because her daughter wanted two as a 4H project. I laughed and shook my head, that’s not going to happen I thought. Tess and I took a dog crate on a ferry to pick up laying hens on a island just off the coast. And just like that, we were “farm people.” On the smallest scale possible.
How could I have known that just behind our house through some woods was a house with a huge barn that was quietly calling our name? We couldn’t hear it yet, but we were already its slave and its lover.
When I invited Chris to come check it out with a realtor, I was mostly joking. I knew we didn’t have the money to move and wasn’t sure I could ever leave our little nest. The realtor made a show of unlocking the door, but in truth, two of the doors were blown open by the wind when we arrived. The heating systems would all need to be redone, the well, well, it was a dug well in poor shape, and the plumbing and electricity, those needed work and possibly to be completely replaced too. When we walked out to the barn, it was so full of stuff that it was impossible to see how many stalls there were and in the pasture there was a demolished double wide trailer and mountains of trash piled on top.
It was perfect. Looking around we could already see the invitation it presented. There was even a shop space between the house and barn that could be adapted over time into a commercial cheese kitchen. I leaned in close to Chris, whispered “pig” but could already see in his eyes that he was planning his first spring construction project.
Here is the secret we’ve never told anyone. I think enough time has passed that it is OK to share. We were immediately desperate to land this house, which was a short sale on its way to foreclosure. But in order to get a loan approved we need a water sample. It was an icy night when Chris snuck through the woods to the house with a few wrenches and a flashlight. He want to make sure that he could get the water on for a well test before the inspector came…he knew it was risky, the house did not belong to us and although he knew every inch of the systems in the cape, this house was unfamiliar. He cast all this doubt aside, when into the basement and turned on the water. Even before he had mounted the stairs to the kitchen he heard the waterfall. Rust colored water was pouring from a light fixture in the kitchen onto the kitchen floor, freezing in giant puddles.
By the time he got me, the water was turned off and the rush of water was more like rain. We stood with our hands on our hips in the kitchen and in that moment we were so scared we didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, didn’t know that this was a christening, a new start, a chance to become the people my daughter had known we were all along, to become more like Pat and Bill across the road, farmers, who had more wisdom than most of the people we met combined. We didn’t know that just five years later we would have 20 goats in the field, that hundreds of people would come each year to sit in the pasture, goat kid on their laps and lose themselves in the place. We hadn’t ever milked a goat so surely we couldn’t imagine what our lives would be like once we were milking 17 by hand twice a day and making cheese with their sweet milk. But with that rush of water, we had the sense that there was no turning back, that life had invited us into a new space and we were going to have the welcome challenge of becoming the people it needed in the years ahead.