May 2, 2010
In the end, it wasn’t moving out of our home of more than 30 years that got me. It wasn’t packing up and selling off the last of our family belongings or even sweeping the house when it was empty, locking the doors and driving away. It was two photographs that arrived in my e-mail box from someone I barely knew, after returning to my studio apartment in New York City.
Like many townspeople in Bolton Landing, NY, she had came to the two-day tag sale we’d staged the weekend before closing. It was an opportunity, for some, to pick up cheap armchairs and rugs and wicker porch furniture. For others, it was a time to see the inside of the house for the first time, one of the great ones built on Millionaire’s Row on Lake George. And for several who’d actually worked on the property, it was a time to come back, sit on the porch, and reflect on what Nirvana Farm had meant to them.
“I’m sure it is with mixed feelings that you close up shop at the farm and move on,” my new friend wrote eloquently in her e-mail. “What a beautiful, peaceful spot it is.”
I knew it and yet I didn’t, or at least I hadn’t allowed myself to feel it, not in the four years since my dad had died, then my aunt, then my sister Mary, and, a month ago, my sister Karen’s husband, David. It seemed that I’d only known how beautiful Nirvana Farm was when my mother had been living there, before her passing, in November, 1988, with my dad and my sisters and me gathered at her bedside.
Since then, we’d rented the house out in the summertime for income, painting the inside and the outside every year, cleaning, planting petunias and impatiens and getting it ready so that other people could enjoy it. But it wasn’t until my dad died in 2006 that it became clear we would have to sell. None of my sisters or I lived large. Only one of us had a house. The rest of us lived in small apartments. And while it was nice to have a country spread as grand as Nirvana Farm, it was also supremely odd to spend the week in a 550-square-foot apartment in New York City and weekends on four acres in the country with a red-roofed boathouse, private beach, seven bedroom home with attached greenhouse, massive carriage house, rose garden, arbor, apple orchard and six other outbuildings.
Nirvana Farm lived up to its name: views of islands, lake and mountains, sprawling lawns, beds of flowers and lovely mature trees that blazed in autumn and cooled in summer. I remember the first time I saw it back in high school, when my parents purchased it, even though we had another house that my great grandfather had built in 1904. What did we need a second home on Lake George for when we already had one, I wondered? But both my parents loved the lake and our other home wasn’t winterized. It had no electricity and had only lake access. So they bought Nirvana Farm. Pastoral in summer, fall, winter and spring, heaven, except under the pressure to clear out 30 plus years of accumulated objects and memories in the midst of so many family deaths and losses.
We’d loved Nirvana Farm in various measures and toiled over it, endlessly. The former owner, Helen Simpson, had a staff: maid, butler, chauffeur and numerous gardeners. A pawnbroker’s daughter, she lived in the house alone, and never married, devoting herself, instead, to its gardens. There were footpaths bordered by lilies, a grape arbor, a raspberry patch. The house even had a potting room, a vaulted, wood paneled room leading to the greenhouse with a long sink along one wall in which the Nirvana Farm plantings had gotten a start.
This was the room in which my mother had passed away, not the Master bedroom. Why? She wanted to be closer to the porch, where she could sit outside and look at the lake and the mountains beyond. We never really did much to the room afterward: we moved in a ping pong table, a grand piano and several love seats. The cabinets that had once held terracotta pots filled up with boxes of photos, mismatched sets of limoges, boxes of vintage Lionel trains and some of the other eclectic items my parents collected throughout their lives.
Nirvana Farm was filled with surprises. I remember being delighted upon walking through it for the first time to discover an electric stair and a buzzer system that rang in the butler’s pantry. Need more wine at dinner? Ring the buzzer under the dining table. Thirsty at night? There were others in the bedrooms for calling the help.
Once Miss Simpson passed away and Nirvana Farm came into our hands, though, there was no more delineation between master and servant. We retained a groundskeeper and housecleaner but took over other duties ourselves. My dad and sister Mary handled most of the work for years (they both lived close by) but with his death and then hers, the rest of the family pretty much went from being owner to hired hands overnight. We worked on weekends and holidays, getting our hands dirty, our bones tired from constantly moving heavy tables, cabinets and boats from one part of the property to another. One of the tasks I loved was mowing the lawns on a riding mower. I loved the smell of the grass, others loved gardening, but it did take hours of time. Genteel as it may have looked, Nirvana Farm did not take care of itself.
One project had us searching for a buyer for dozens of hulking pieces of antique machinery my father had installed in his workshop out in the carriage house. There were lathes, a grinding machine, a massive drill press and countless engines from boats we owned. The engines we would sell to various collectors or give to his friends, but the machinery? It was bolted into the floor and ceiling and weighed thousands of pounds, ran on a series of belts, and made the entire carriage house vibrate when turned on.
A family friend helped us donate these to Peter Jackson, the director, who was building a museum in New Zealand. In return, we were offered some Lord of the Rings memorabilia which we have yet to collect (note to Jackson: please ship Viggo directly to my apartment on University Place). Another boondoggle had me searching for a home for the grand player piano with boxes of piano rolls left me by my mom, the one that sat in the potting room after her death.
I’d had dreams of holding concerts for friends during which I would play Rachmaninoff and tell witty stories. When I was in college, our next door neighbor, the Chairman of the Music Department at Union College, had invited members of the Philadelphia orchestra to perform the Brandenburg Concertos in the Carriage House. How spoiled we were! But my tiny quarters near Washington Square barely had room for the small amount of furniture I already had, much less a grand piano and an audience. What would I do? Get rid of my bed? Why couldn’t my parents have left a bank vault filled with securities that were easily liquid, instead of so much stuff weighing thousands of pounds that none of us had room for and no one would buy? Such was our plight.
But back to my e-mail. “It’s hard to grieve when you’re planning a funeral,” my sister said, when I related the story of the two photos I’d received after the tag sale and how they’d tripped some kind of sadness alarm that I thought had been magically disabled. “Everyone kept asking me if I was sad to sell the house,” I told her over the phone. “You know what I told them? I wasn’t. I think I was just too tired. You know, this place aged me. I look at photos of myself three, four years ago, and I look like a different person. I want that back.”
There was a brief moment of silence, and then I added, “At least we won’t be working so hard any more. Or yelling at each other,”
“Plus we have Tongue Mountain,” she said.
Ah yes. I’d gleefully explained to inquirers that we were lucky enough to have another place North of Bolton.
“You know the first house on the Narrows? The one with the island and gazebo?”
“You own that?”
“It’s smaller and we’re going to fix it up,” I told them. “So we will still have Lake George. And we will still be residents of Bolton.”
Sometimes, I’d lighten the story by telling them about the rattlesnakes out on the mountain; how two had gotten into the house and how Nina and Mary, as teenagers, had chopped one up with a series of hatchets on the windowbox in our living room, then mixed themselves up a pitcher of gin and tonics. I did not relate how I’d had my first love affair out there at age 18 and how, after leaving Nirvana Farm, I hoped to flee to the cool, quiet mountainside, there to skinny dip, read books and, with my sisters, return to being the girls we once had been.
Still, when I stared at the photos on my computer screen, at the photos of the property taken by a stranger, I felt cheated. There, in her images, was something I’d missed about Nirvana Farm. It was peaceful. It was beautiful. Everyone, it seemed, who had come to the property in the thirty five years we’d owned it, or had visited for the tag sale could see it. But I, somehow, in my quest to pack, to move, to unburden myself and my sisters by being perfectly organized, had entirely missed it. And suddenly I knew. I had walked away too quickly.
I had, with my three sisters, come together for one last weekend, two of us from New York City, one from Connecticut, another from Columbia County. We had an auctioneer take out most of the better furnishings, we had packed up some for ourselves, we had sold and given away the rest and then driven down the long driveway without a backward glance. In between, when we had time to relax, to sit down together for dinner, we reflected: about things that had happened there, about poetry we loved. Karen recited some of the early verses of the Inchcape Rock and then, Nina and she and I attempted The Highwayman.
“The moon was a ghostly galleon, tossed upon stormy seas,” I started, forgetting the first verse. “The road was a ribbon of moonlight, looping the purple moor—”
“and the highwayman came riding—” we repeated together, “Riding—riding—The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn door.”
We continued with the next stanza, about the French cap cocked on the highwayman’s forehead, then got lost.
“He’d a coat of claret velvet—,” Karen said after a moment as we sipped our coffee. “Imagine a coat like that.”
“His breeches were of fine doe-skin,” I added. “They fitted with never a wrinkle; his boots were up to his thigh!’
There was a pause as we all considered it and then I told them that Sally still had the book of poetry, the one our mother had read to us from when we were little, and we all fell silent again. I, for one was relieved that it hadn’t been lost or given away. Some things should never be let go.
We’d had a long time to think about saying goodbye to the house—more than four years. Our weekend together before closing had been an epiphany of sorts. Here we were, welcoming strangers into our home to pick through stuff we’d examined, piece by piece, deciding if it merited keeping and if not, what we’d sell it for. The signed Stickley cabinet in the dining room would stay in the family. The table saw, the TV, the various armchairs, the couches, the rugs, and even my mother’s knitting chest could go. It was small, but in tiny apartments like the ones we all lived in, there was no room. To all our satisfaction, it was bought by a local guy I knew from the deli for his mother.
“She’ll love it,” he said, cradling it in his arms. And so we let it go happily, feeling that a transplant had taken place. One mother’s chest, another mother’s knitting. Life was flowing onwards.
So the day went. We sold rakes, shovels and garden planters. One guy showed up looking for a posthole digger. Instead, I referred him to our freebies pile.
“Do you have a pickup truck?” I asked.
“Do you belong to the NRA?”
He looked perplexed, until I handed him a small plastic rifle that you could use to light your barbecue grill. Ironically, it had a small warning on the side. “This is not a toy,” it read.
“You can tape it in your back window,” Nina said, helpfully.
“From my cold dead hands,” I guffawed, doing my best Charlton Heston imitation.
He took the toy rifle that was not a toy and also bought some washing machine hoses. I think we made $4.00 on the deal.
Some buyers were sentimental. “Would you sign these books?” one asked, holding several I’d donated from my personal collection. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t written them. It only mattered to her that they had sat on the bookshelf at Nirvana Farm.
Another practical buyer bought a shower caddy, for $3.
“And you have the guaranteed satisfaction of knowing that all the residents of Nirvana Farm have taken showers with it,” I told him.
I felt happy and checked myself for signs of sadness and its other forms: regret, remorse, depression. But there weren’t any. I felt as sunny as the day was bright.
Oars and paddles, tables and chairs, boxes and lamps. These were our top sellers of the day. We sold a weird canister from the basement that no one could identify for $10. We also gave a lot of things away in the afternoon: half a dozen Shur-Stop glass globes filled with carbon tetrachloride that were installed in the house decades ago for fire protection; some board games and, to a shy eleven-year-old girl, a pretty wicker seat with green velveteen cushion and matching wicker footstool.
Her name was Helen and she arrived with her dad, a local sculptor I’d seen about town, always wearing a speedo bathing suit and Teva sandals and with Helen in tow. She was slight, with long dark hair and a quiet but friendly manner. Today he was wearing shorts but was shirtless, covered with tattoos, his belly hanging out. She wore a pink sweater and carried a small blue purse. Where was her mom? Did she have one, somewhere?
“I built Helen her own little house, right behind mine,” he said, looking over a set of chairs with rush seats. My sister Nina and I exchanged happy glances. We all knew the thrill of a girl having her own, private place.
“Would you like something for your house?” we asked her. Nina pointed out the wicker chair and footstool, and both father and daughter looked at us, before Helen beckoned to her dad and whispered something we could not hear.
Nina rang up another sale as he and Helen quietly conversed. When I next looked at them, Helen was standing off by herself, by the porch railing.
“Helen would like to accept your offer,” her dad said softly.
It was mid afternoon. We had sold a lot, but there still remained a number of things left and we knew we had to mark them down or give those away, too.
“Everything is half off, now,” Nina announced, at which point Helen’s dad disappeared into the living room with some other buyers. In a moment, he had the door open and was calling her to see something inside.
“We’d like to buy the couch,” he said, emerging moments later. It was the big one I’d napped on so many times in front of the television. “Can Helen stay here while I go get my truck?”
I said sure, mentioned that she’d be fine, and he said he trusted us. Along with everything else that was happening that day, that made me feel really good.
Helen. I pondered her name. You didn’t hear it much any more. To me, it was a grownup name for such a small child. “We can take my dog for a walk—or you can, until your dad returns, Helen,” I offered, as soon as her dad had left. She liked that idea.
The blooms on the apple trees were on the cusp of bursting, the sky was blue as we headed down the slate footpath leading from the porch with my dog, Daffodil, on her leash. We crossed the driveway, through the apple orchard with its brown, twisted trunks and several branches that had fallen down in a recent wind, to the carriage house.
“Daffodil’s been inside all day,” I mentioned. “So she’s pulling a little. Can you handle the leash?”
I showed Helen how to hold it in one hand, controlling the tension with the other, the way I’d shown my neighbor’s daughter back in the city.
“It’s really big,” Helen said, peering in through the sliding barn doors into the vast, empty space that had once been filled with boats, chairs and tables. This was my favorite building on the property and I’d had it on authority that the new owners would not tear it down. The house, I’d heard, though, might not be so lucky. These were people with a lot of money. They had, in fact, bought the Sagamore Hotel that you could see from our dock on Green Island.
Next, Helen and I walked toward the road, crossing the grass where a big patch of daffodils—my favorite flower—and narcissus grew.
“Don’t let Daffodil pull you,” I told Helen, as we walked past a cherry tree with tight, magenta blossoms not yet unfolded. There was a small hillock and I clambered up it. The grass was full of violets and forget-me-nots and I told myself to take a photo of it. I’d taken so many photographs of the Nirvana Farm grounds, but never the violets. And somehow, I knew I’d miss them. Take a picture of these, I told myself. Take a picture.
“Here,” I said, pointing. Helen dragged Daffodil over to where I stood and we both looked down. There, hiding among the grass and clover were small headstones marking the graves of seven different dogs. Bobby. Barney. Gipsy. Fairlee. Penny Popover. Freckles. Windy. Judy.
“Were they yours?”
“No. See the dates on them?” I pointed them out with my foot. “This one died in 1943. This one in 1957. They all belonged to the previous owner. And these two were apparently buried together.” We looked at the last headstone in which two dogs, though born in different years, had died, eerily, at the same time.
Helen stood quietly. Daffodil sat down.
“Now you can take her for a walk, if you like,” I said. “Just don’t leave the property. Or you can come back to the house and wait for your dad on the porch.”
“I was going to ask you a question—” she began, then stopped. “I probably shouldn’t.”
I looked at her. What would she ask? Would I date her dad?
“Shoot,” I said uneasily. “Whaddya wanna know?”
“If I pick a tulip—can I keep it?”
“Sure, as many as you like” I said, looking around to see if there were any in sight. But there weren’t. They seemed to have all but vanished.
She and Daffodil wandered off to look for tulips and I walked back to the house. Dig up some bulbs to transplant at the Bolton cemetary, I thought to myself as I looked at the apple blossoms blooming in the afternoon sun. Dig up some bulbs! No use leaving them for the new buyers. They would never miss them. Besides, they would be lovely adorning the graves of family members, like my mom, my uncle and grand parents at the cemetary on the other side of town.
Nina had come up with that idea, a day before, when she and Karen and I had inexplicably stopped off at the graveyard on our way back from our lawyer’s office in Lake George Village. We almost never went to see the graves, though I thought about them most every time we drove past the entrance. It was simple, set in a hill, overlooking Lake George, with little in the way of plantings. Our family had a plot, there, though there were only four headstones in it. The oldest was for my mother’s younger brother, Bennett, shot down in World War II in May, 1945, right before the war ended. His body had never been recovered, and I reminded myself what a terrible loss this had been for my grandparents and my mom. I imagined them, receiving the news, two uniformed men arriving at their door in Garden City. Two men telling them that their only son had died in the service of his country. Only 22 years old.
Someone had placed a veteran’s flag next to Bennett’s grave and Karen, Nina and I stood around, reading a Robert Louis Stevenson poem my grandmother had inscribed on his tombstone. If I remember correctly, it went something like this:
Under the wide and starry sky,
dig the grave and let me lie,
and I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me,
here he lies where he long’d to be
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
and the hunter home from the hill.
My grandfather’s headstone stood opposite from Bennett’s, and the one my mom and grandmother shared next to that. Aggie had actually never wanted one and my mom didn’t show much of an interest in things of that nature, either, but when she died, we decided to erect one for the two of them—together. What could be a better way to keep some of Nirvana Farm alive in our hearts, but to plant some of its flowers there, where they’d bloom for eternity, for mom and Aggie, Grampy and Uncle Bennett? I might add that there was no headstone for my dad or Mary, but that was no big deal. It had taken us 7 years after my mom died to erect a stone in her and Aggie’s memory. None of us was in a hurry. Dad and Mary could wait.
Back at the house, I quickly forgot about the bulbs I wanted to save for the cemetary. There were people in the driveway who’d stopped by for one last look around the property. They had stories to share. One had mowed the grass on the property as a boy. He had to have been in his mid-sixties. Another’s aunt had been a housekeeper for us, perhaps 15 years ago.
“I’m Vivian’s niece,” she said, proudly. We’d had so many housekeepers, over the years and I could keep most of them straight, but not all their relatives. Still, we hugged. Vivian had been with us for many years.
So had our groundskeeper, Chuck, who stood in the driveway, helping a middle-aged couple put some drawers into the back of their SUV. He started as a kid, helping his dad, Albert, with the grounds until Albert had retired, what? 18 years ago? The two of them had been heroes, cutting up fallen trees, mowing the grass, snow plowing, fixing the plumbing, getting the boat started, keeping the tank filled, and turning on the heat when the weather got cold and they knew we would soon be arriving for the weekend.
How do you thank someone for that but to offer them a beer?
“Later,” Chuck said politely, watching a lone figure approach from across the apple orchard. We all turned to see a mobility scooter zipping toward the house, an American flag fluttering from an antenna behind the seat.
By that point, two of my sisters had come out of the house to observe.
“It’s Albert!” we all must have said, collectively. Sure enough, it was. He was hunched over, wearing a plaid shirt, driving straight up to the house at about 10 miles an hour. Aside from a recent sighting at Stewarts, we hadn’t seen him much over the years, but he still said what he always did when asked how he was.
“Well,” he said with a small smile, “I’m still here.”
He got off the scooter slowly, we each hugged him and then watched as he walked with Chuck into the house for one last look at the place they’d both tended for most of their lives. Sally and Karen returned to the house to pack up the last of our linens and dishes and I wandered onto the porch where I found a terraacotta wine cooler and filled it with water for Helen’s flowers.
By the time her dad returned, she had a big bouquet picked, including tulips, daffodils, narcissus and forget-me-nots. It was a big armful of flowers for a small girl, but she looked happy and that made me think. I’d be giving this place up in just a matter of days. She would take her chair, and the couch and the flowers home with her and what would I take home? Good memories? Or bad?
I thought about things I should be doing. Photograph the house. Shoot it empty. You’ll regret it if you don’t, a voice within whispered. I wrestled with the idea. Did I have to be sentimental? For the past three years that the house had been on the market and the two times it had nearly sold, I’d photographed it from every angle and in every season. I had photos of the maple trees in full flame, the ginko in silver, the birch with its ghostly white bark.
I’d photographed the greenhouse in its various states of decay, the carriage house, the chicken house, the ice house, the wood shed. I’d shot individual leaves lying on the ground in fall, chairs on the porch in spring, boats in the boathouse in summer. And here the house was, almost completely empty, and I was thinking I needed to capture that. And I did a mental check. Am I sad? Do I need to capture everything or will I hold it in my heart? And I decided I could do that. I had enough photos. And then, I looked down at the lawn and noticed the violets again and how pretty they were.
The next day was supposed to rain, but it didn’t. Upstairs, Karen and Sally continued packing, and Nina and I consolidated all the leftover sale items in the potting room. I even made a new sign and placed it down at the end of the driveway as an incentive to bargain hunters. “75% off!” it read.
Not too many people showed up, though. There were a few who filtered into the potting room, asking about dressers and such, but I had to tell them the auctioneer had taken all the nicest stuff and they left looking disappointed. We were now getting down to the wire. Whatever we didn’t mark down we’d have to store and we didn’t want to do that. So we just started giving stuff away, practically for nothing. We sold hooked rugs for $5 and a teak table for $10 that used to sit on the porch and gave away as many books as we could.
This is how I got introduced to Lisa. She’d been poking around the freebies pile and I told her, if she wanted, to take as many books as she liked. We got to talking and I found out that she lived in town and that she liked dogs. And before I knew it, I offered to introduce her to Daffodil and to give her a tour of the house.
“Won’t you miss this place?” she asked earnestly, as I led her up the backstairs, showed her the bedrooms and the small sleeping porches and then, when we were downstairs again, the butler’s pantry.
“What will they do with the property?” she asked, and I told her I didn’t know.
“I think they will keep the boathouse,” I told her. We walked down there, stood on the dock for a bit, and looked over toward Green Island and the water, now stirred into small white caps. Next I took her over to the carriage house. “This will stay, too, but I’m afraid the house will come down.”
“That’s terrible.” She said. “You won’t be sad?”
I was beginning to wonder if there was something wrong with me as I led her across the grass, past the patch of daffodils, back to the dog cemetary. Once again, I repeated my story about Tongue Mountain, how it had been neglected because we’d spent all our time fixing up Nirvana Farm and how we were going to put in electricity out there and even a hot water heater.
By that point, we’d reached the top of the small hill that I’d dragged Helen up the day before.
“Now here’s something you don’t see every day,” I told her.
We both looked down in silence. I had to admit, the cemetary grabbed me in a way it hadn’t previously. There was something so poignant about it. Here I was, too busy to put in a gravestone for my dad and sister and Helen Simpson had headstones for every dog she’d ever had. I felt, actually, a little guilty.
We went back to the house, Lisa gathered up her books, and I gave her my card before she left. It had been an extraordinary day: new faces and old, curiosity seekers and those who’d come back to remember. And all of them because a house in town was about to be sold. And people had come to bid it goodbye.
I’m getting a little tired as I write this. I’ll just sum up and say that Sally and Karen left that night and Nina and I stayed to meet the mover in the morning. Everything went according to plan: it was again supposed to rain, and it didn’t, so after all the boxes were gone, after the Stickley cabinet had been spirited away and the linens and the dishes that would head out to Tongue Mountain, I let Daffodil out for a run, took out my camera, and strolled the property.
What did I shoot? The daffodils. The violets in the grass. The cherrytree blossoms, which had unfolded slightly overnight but were still gathered into small, pink fists.
I looked at the house, but resisted taking any photos of it empty.
Nina and I then packed up her car for the ride home—two cats in the back seat, Daffodil and I in the front. She locked the door. I took a deep breath and we drove away, past the apple orchard, the carriage house, down the driveway past the daffodils and the cherry tree and the small hillock with the headstones. We neared the end of the driveway and Nina said, “I think we should go to Stewarts for milk shakes,” and I felt happy about that and forgot to look back when we turned onto the street.
It felt strange. We’d done it. We’d moved and in four more days, we’d close. And I’d never have to worry about Nirvana Farm again, never argue with my sisters over the bills, over who was working hard and who wasn’t. I thought about it on the way down in the car and I told Nina I wasn’t sad and she told me she was.
Later that night, after I’d arrived home, after I’d entered my small studio apartment in the Village and given Daffodil a fresh bowl of water, I sat down to check my e-mail before going to bed. I’d been away four days, and there were more than 130 e-mails in my inbox.
One of the last, though, was from Lisa.
“As I was leaving your property to pick up my car, I took photos of some of the old dog cemetary stones in the front yard,” she wrote. “The graves show the loyalty and caring that must have taken place between the dogs and their owners.”
I quickly went to the link and what I saw made my eyes well up.
I felt so foolish—even bitter, like when you break up with someone and all anyone else can say is what a great guy they were. This was Nirvana Farm. Sure, the insurance payments had been too high, the taxes exorbitant, the work my sisters and I had put into the property exhausting. But to try not to miss it was stupid. Who was I kidding?
I spent the next day playing Spider Solitaire, wondering how I could go back and make up for my miscalculation. Would there be time before the closing to walk the grounds, free from work and worry, and take in its charms? Would I have time to dig up those bulbs I’d forgotten, to go once more to the dog cemetary, to walk the silent rooms?
Two days later, I had my chance. It was the night before our closing, and Sally picked me up at the train station in Hudson for the drive up to Bolton Landing. We arrived late in the afternoon, still early enough to take photos and walk the property. My neighbor, Marshall, had already dug up some bulbs for me and left them in a bucket; he’d leant me a trowel, too. But by the time I was ready to go to the cemetary, it was too dark to even find the graves, much less plant anything.
Instead, Sally and I went to dinner in a local diner. We talked about the house and what it meant to us and I told her I’d brought a card with me.
“What for?” she asked.
“I don’t know. I figured we’d write it out and hide it in the attic, a kind of message in a bottle about why we love Nirvana Farm,” I said. “Years from now, if they haven’t torn the house down, they may find it. The new buyers. That’s what I was thinking.”
“Hmm,” she said. “We could do one of those exquisite corpse exercises.”
She explained that this was where one person writes a line, and then another person writes another line. Before you know it, you’ve got a story. This was somewhat different from what I was thinking, and certainly more creative. So I gave Sally a pen, and she wrote the date, and then she wrote something like this: “We, the magic elves of Nirvana Farm do cast this spell…” And then I continued “made out of silver fish hooks and Sea and Ski and a pinch of Accent…”
Well, I’ve tried to recollect what the rest of it said, but naturally, being inspired by magic elves, neither Sally nor I can remember it. I do recall, though, that we wrote “Open if you dare” and drew a skull and crossbones and some bats on the envelope. And we sealed it.
The house was dark as we walked up to it after dinner. We turned on a few lights, then went up to the second floor, pulled a cord releasing the attic stairs from overhead, turned on the light and, one after another, climbed the steep stairway.
The attic was empty, of course. We’d cleaned it out when we’d sold the house the year before, the time we actually completely moved out of the house, put everything in storage, only to show up at the closing and find out the deal was off. As I peered into the dark corners of the attic, I had the odd feeling that I wasn’t sure if this wouldn’t happen to us again. We couldn’t be that unlucky, twice, could we? Would the elfish spell we’d put down on paper help us? I wasn’t sure.
Downstairs, we turned off the attic light and I had an idea.
“Let’s sing karaoke in every room,” I said. “And each song needs to be about leaving.”
So that’s what we did. We sang “Leaving on a Jet Plane” and that song from the Sound of Music, “So Long, Farewell” and some others I can’t remember. We danced wild dances and pounded on the walls and whooped and hollered in every room. “Goodbye door. Goodbye window. Goodbye bathtub,” we sang, kissing the walls, the window sills, whatever we could.
And then, we went out and sat on the porch, and did something I’ll never forget: we howled at the moon.
That night, I slept at our Real Estate agent’s house, but Sally slept on a futon in the carriage house.
“I went back on the porch after I dropped you off,” she told me the next morning. “I could hear loons calling.”
And just like that, I let go. I’d miss Nirvana Farm, but I had Tongue Mountain, I had flowers to plant on my mother’s grave and the memory of that night, howling at the moon. Most of all, I had my three sisters: Karen, Nina and Sally. And we, at last, could stop worrying. We could go back to being girls again.
The closing took place later that morning at 10:30 am, leaving just enough time for planting flowers in the family plot before heading to the attorney’s office. As luck would have it, I managed to step in a big pile of dog shit somewhere between the parking lot and the waiting room. How funny is that? Elves, is this your doing? Your way of lightening what was sad, of making merry in the midst of long farewells?
I’ll leave it there. It’s late and time for sleep.
Photographs by Lisa LaMothe and yours truly.
Special thanks to Chuck Robinson, Marshall Ford and Hugh Wilson and so many others.