I bought a house!
Part One: The Norridgewock Farmhouse, 1983
My father always says that he fell in love with the Norridgewock house because of the row of maple trees out front. The barn had collapsed, an outhouse was still attached to the house, and due to poor insulation, the previous owners only lived in part of the house during the winter. Every part of the house from the cellar to the roof needed work. It was the first house that a caravan of young prospective homebuyers looked at that day, and my parents decide it was the only one they needed to see.
None of my parents’ Massachusetts-living friends and relatives could understand the logic behind buying a ram shackled old house in Central Maine. My Dziadziu, my dad’s father who has constructed several houses and done all the work himself, found the conditions particularly appalling and vowed to help.
Thirteen years later, the kitchen had been moved into the el, the bathroom had been remodeled, the entire house had been insulated, concrete had been poured over half the basement, and so on, and so forth. My dad had seen the potential behind the squalor, and slowly transformed the space.
Part Two: The Sound, 2015
I had not been house-hunting per se. I did not believe a house existed within my budget on Mount Desert Island. When I found something priced at $119000 in my old neighborhood near the Giant Slide trailhead, I emailed the realtor and the realtor emailed me back immediately and said, “Here is the code, you are welcome to go in but you may need snowshoes”.
After all, it was towards the end of the snowiest February on record, four feet of snow on the ground and I could barely see into the first floor windows. Incidentally, I did not have snowshoes at the time, so I crawled through four feet of snow to reach the front door.
My first time in, I was relieved to see the walls intact, the ceilings not caving in, and no sign of animals living there. The realtor said it mostly needed deep cleaning, and I agreed. I called my former landlady who lived down the street, and as I went up to the second floor, I noticed ice on the walls and snow coming in through the windows.
“Oh, that’s normal with an unheated building,” my landlady told me. The house felt airier on the second floor, with huge windows looking out on Somes Sound.
Yet the third floor convinced me that I needed to buy the place. It smelled of wood, just like all of my favorite places that I have ever rented, and it had steps up to a built-in bed next to the window. In the leafless honesty of February, I could see Somes Sound.
The house was what I always wanted in the neighborhood I always wanted to return to and grow old. I knew that magical section of Mount Desert had bred hermits, bachelors who had created universes of and sports games on the radio and scattered tools and canned goods in the shadow of Sargent Mountain. If I were not mistaken, I would be the first hermitess, who collected different types of tea and hung mounted plants she had pressed in college and filled her house with beautiful things….
An ex-boyfriend had promised her that they could take the ferry across Moosehead to climb Kineo. She was looking forward to climbing a new summit, to driving up Route 15 to Greenville on a blue-sky October day, foliage only slightly past peak. He insisted on taking his beloved truck, not the most fuel-efficient but the only socially-acceptable way to arrive in Greenville.
Yet he chickened out. They arrived at the boat launch, her mouth dropped open at the sight of Kineo on the other side of what was not yet really Moosehead but rather the mouth of the Moose River. It seemed short and square like the Porcupine Islands, but it would better be described as the Porcupine Islands with a receding hairline, green on top and bottom with gray cliffs in-between.
He did not want to pay for the ferry. It was bird-hunting season and one of the moose-hunting weeks, and they were not wearing blaze orange. Moose-hunting in the state park? she thought.
She returned the next summer, alone, with enough cash for the ferry. She was surprised to find more people in line for the ferry than the captain, a Maine Maritime student, could take in one trip. The passengers were an odd mix of golfers and hikers, and by hikers, mostly families with small children. She felt like an oddity as a twentysomething, and she realized that she would not have Kineo to herself.
The Maine Maritime student directed the hiking passengers towards the two trails. He said that the Indian trail was the steeper and more scenic of the two, and suggested taking that one up and the more gradual Bridal Path down.
With no taste for hiking in a crowd, she dashed ahead of the families and started up the Indian trail. She still passed a steady stream of people hiking down, and she felt in a bit of a claustrophobic panic. To anyone else, the amount of people coming down the mountain would not seem significant. To her, she felt like she had stumbled onto one of the top ten hottest destinations in Maine. If she wanted tourists, she would have stayed in Bar Harbor.
She did not find the road less traveled until she reached the view-less summit, where one could not see anything unless she climbed a fire tower. She discovered a third trail besides the Indian Trail and the Bridal Path, a trail that veered east at the summit, descended steeply, and slowly looped back to the boat landing. She did not have a map, but it sounded like a good idea, at the very least to escape the out-of-staters.
Once she descended from the mountain, she found herself traversing a watery path with woods on one side and Moosehead on the other. She eventually found herself at a cluster of campsites, and she decided that it was time for a swim. She tossed off her t-shirt, and waded in wearing her sports bra and shorts. She splashed off the mud from her legs, and lay back in the water. This was the Moosehead she was expecting, a place where everyone had arrived at their campsites via boat.
“207?!” The campers at the picnic table said. Wherever she swam or hiked or sunbathed in the state, her tattoo, almost three years old at that point, still caught other Mainers’ attention. After she explained that it was her quarter-life crisis tat, the campers invited her to stay for supper.
“Oh, no, I must be getting to the ferry,” she said, but she appreciated the warmth. The campers said they were from somewhere outside of Augusta, and she felt some kinship with them in a way that she did not feel with the golfers on the ferry. She had found her own version of Kineo.
As she took the ferry back, she vowed to return to this particular corner of Moosehead. She hoped that she could convince someone to camp back at that site, and climb Kineo up the backside, and coax her up the fire tower. She just did not know when that would be.
If you have been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that I have been infatuated with a particular corner of Mount Desert Island, in the vicinity of the Giant Slide trail head and Sargent Drive. I first stumbled into this neighborhood in Fall 2011, and I never wanted to stumble out. I wanted to fall asleep at the base of Sargent Mountain and smell Somes Sound every morning.
In an unlikely turn of events, I found a home that I could afford in the neighborhood, a two-bedroom/one-bath fixer-upper. I placed an offer, which was accepted, and Bar Harbor Savings and Loan has been willing to work with me on obtaining a loan.
Of course, I want to share this exciting news with my blog readers. I also wanted to let everyone know that I have started a housewarming fund for myself on indiegogo, and I will be incredibly grateful for any contributions. On the site, I have written more about my whole home-buying process, should you like to read more of my writing on the topic. Here is the link:
Once I own this property, I would love to have any blog readers stop by before or after a hike on the island. I am halfway between the Giant Slide trail and the Parkman Mountain lot, and I will have a carriage trail running through my back woods. If this all works out, I plan to name the house “The Midpoint”, because it is so close to the psychological half-way point of the the ten highest peaks traverse. I would be thrilled to have lots and lots of hikers spend the night, so if anyone needs a place to stay, please ask!
I do not know exactly how my Polish and Irish ancestors finagled their way into this country. Having been personally motivated by desperation too many times to count, I imagine it was indeed desperation that caused them to leave behind the comforts—close-knit communities, sprawling families, and common language, to scratch the surface—and come to a place that they believed, that they hoped was better. I too feel this drive in my blood, this drive to fight like hell for anything worth having. However, maybe I am attributing this to a genetic disposition when it is, in fact, the human desire to survive.
I know that some of my mother’s Irish ancestors first lived in Canada before moving to Somerville, Massachusetts, an area that, at the turn of the century, was more of an ethnic enclave than the hipster bohemia it is now. My Polish great-grandparents, whom I know only from stories, learned varying degrees of English after immigrating to Ware and Palmer, Massachusetts. They had little use for the English language. They could buy groceries, go to the bank, and get their cars repaired using their native tongue.
All eight of my great-grandparents were deceased before I was born. I know for certain all eight were wild characters, simply from knowing their off-spring and because, more to the point, that I am one of their off-spring. I only wish I could have sat down with them at their kitchen tables, and, over a home-cooked meal, heard how they arrived in this country. I remember my Polish grandmother telling me about an ancestor who, rather than returning home after a summer job was complete, she hopped a boat to Ellis Island and never saw her family again. I do not know if this decision was impulsive or well-thought. Either way, I am convinced that someone related to me could have pulled that kind of stunt.
These impressively strong-willed, hard-working, loving great-grandparents went onto raise large families of children of the same hardy stock. When I look at the pictures of these large families, roughly ten children a piece, I am surprised that my grandparents remember every single one of their siblings’ names.
Sure enough, all four of my grandparents are still alive well into their late eighties, a true testament to a strong gene pool, impressive self-care, and luck. All four can still remember all their siblings’ names, as well as cook extravagant meals, grow abundant crops of grapefruit, walk around the block, dance late into a Saturday night, and otherwise lead far more active interesting lives than a lot of twentysomethings I know.
In these pictures, everyone is sitting on the stoop of a fastidiously cared-for house, wearing shirts that would be wonderfully crisp to the touch, every hair in place. Funny, I would have guessed I came from more disheveled stock! I fixate on everyone’s healthy complexion and feel like my skin is literally pale in comparison, on death’s doorstep compared to these relatives (when exactly do ancestors become relatives? For some reason, my great-grandparents feel like ancestors and my grandparents feel like relatives). I gawk at their muscles and think that even though I have been working out at a gym for over a decade, my physique is a joke compared to theirs. The matriarchs are always in the center. I can not recall any of these pictures with the patriarchs in them, in part because two of my great-grandfathers died early, work-related deaths.
I know some of what was happening behind the scenes in these well-composed photographs, but not very much. I have pieced together my family history from listening to personal anecdotes and knowing the course of the twentieth century. Once these large families were established, the daring, perhaps desperate parents of my grandparents planned to do everything in their power to feed, clothe, and nurture the brilliance of the next generation.
Then the Great Depression hit. My strong-willed great grandparents, devout Catholics, understood this as a sign from God that they needed to work harder to care for those they love. Was it a risky proposition for my father’s father to cut a tree for a priest? Yes. Did he need the money to feed his family? Uh-huh. Was that tree the death of him? Yep. Did my great-uncle step up to the plate and become the primary breadwinner for his mother and siblings, earning money to buy a farm house outside of town? Yes, yes, he did.
The Great Depression may have forced my hard-working immigrant relatives into overdrive and may or may not be indirectly related to the deaths of several of them. That being said, World War Two, being fought in the old world, may have been the single greatest event in world history that allows me to lead the life of luxury I currently enjoy. In all four of my grandparents’ families, the sons almost all enlisted. All four families experienced the tragedy that can come with the inherent risk of a better life through serving this country. After all, when my grandparents speak of the war, speak of the pride that they feel in the relatives who served, they also speak of those who never came back. These siblings will always be young in their memory, just as they are in the photographs on the wall, even as my grandparents themselves struggle with arthritis and heart conditions and knee and hip replacements. They look at those sprawling families and point out those who died either from the war or some childhood disease that has never been on my radar screen because I was vaccinated a long time ago.
Yet some of the men who are pictured in uniform did return, including both my grandfathers. I do not know exactly how my grandfathers, both very rational brilliant men even under the age of twenty, calculated that the risk of not coming back was worth it. However, they are both such honorable men, such devoted husbands and loving fathers and, I have to imagine, doting sons, loyal patriots from all the opportunities that this country had given their parents, that they could have very well made that decision because it was the right thing to do.
My grandmothers posing at the beach are next to the pictures of my grandfathers’ in uniform. I look at my grandmothers, and, though I am slightly biased, I think their beauty rivals any of movie stars from the same time period in which they were married, but I suppose that is only because I know their inner beauty as well.
From the black and white photographs, you cannot tell that my grandmother is a redhead. You can however tell that she is confident by the way she holds up her chin and leans back and smiles for whoever is taking the photo, maybe a boyfriend whose name is long forgotten now, maybe my grandfather. She would tell you she was not always confident. Growing up, she always felt self-conscious because she was shorter than all the other girls (I never understood this when I was little, she appeared to be the universal grown-up size). Then she started going to dances and learned that boys LOVED to dance with someone shorter than them, and she decided if it meant she was more attractive to future dance partners, she did not care how tall she was. Of course, I must imagine my grandmother was attractive to future dance partners simply because she was, is, and will always be one of the most dynamic conversationalists that I have ever met. Whether she is shopping in her hometown grocery store or watching a grandchild’s soccer game, she manages to find something in common with someone and strike up a conversation (once again, definitely my relative). At one fateful dance that was part of many chance events that brought me into this world, she ran into a tall (this is one of her chief deciding factor in whether or not a man is handsome) classmate from Somerville High in a navy uniform, and I am sure she did not have to try very hard to finagle an invitation to dance from him. My grandfather may have been a little more reserved than my grandmother, but every skilled talker needs a strong listener.
Rather, from my grandparents’ 50-plus year relationships, I have learned that it is not enough that people’s chemistry complements each other, it is not enough that there is a spark. I look at these two successful marriages, and not only do I see how well my grandparents complement each other in their marriages, I see that they have “space in their togetherness”, as I hear quoted at nearly every wedding.
My father’s parents’ romance started when they met through mutual friends in the Polish community of central Massachusetts. The attraction was strong enough, the interest was strong enough, the intrigue was strong enough that the relationship continued even once my grandfather, my “dzadziu” as he will forever be called, headed to Missouri for graduate school. They continued their correspondence in love letters. Perhaps of all the ways to date, I think a courtship via the US Postal Service, in which each side must have the patience to engage in the process of writing, sending, and receiving letters, can be the most telling of whether a relationship can truly last.
I have not decided about one photograph in my possession, about whether its place on the mantle would be more helpful or harmful. It is my parents’ wedding picture, and I cannot imagine the mantle without it. It would be like cutting the front page, or perhaps the editorial section out of a newspaper, and saying, “Here you go, this is the whole story.” Because I still believe my parents’ romance, which ultimately ended in heart ache and was not meant to be, is the greatest love story of the twentieth century, simply because it brought, well, me into this world.
I have heard it so many times that you could wake me up in the middle of the night and I could tell it to you as it was always told to me. It may not be audible, but I could tell it to you, as it was told me not hundreds, but thousands of times in my childhood. I loved the story so much, sometimes I would ask, and other times my mother and father would freely share how they met, fell in love, and decided to make the commitment to spend the rest of their lives together. Here is how I tell it.
My father and mother were both students at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. They were both the third child in families of six children, and they both so enjoyed caring for their younger siblings that they both decided to become nurses at a young age (yes, this was unorthodoxed for a man in the seventies, but my father has been a little unorthodoxed his entire life).
My father’s father prudently decided that rather than pay room and board while all six of his children attended the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, he would build a house there (this also reflects the kind of man he is). Here was my father, living at home with his parents.
His Uncle Joe, after whom he was named, gave him a business proposition. Pick as many apples as you want off my trees, and you can sell them at the Amherst farmers’ market.
My father, who works hard and plays hard, could not turn this opportunity down. He picked those apples, and he drove down to the Amherst Farmers’ Market, not nearly as organized as it is now, and he sold them.
He even convinced a red-headed University of Massachusetts student to buy some by “giving her an offer she couldn’t refuse”. (At this point in the story, if we were all there sitting around the dinner table, my mom would say, “Joe, stop it.”) He found my mother’s weakness for produce, and ran with it.
They dated on and off throughout their college careers, until finally they broke up for the last time. My father lived in Cambridge and worked at Boston City Hospital in the year after he graduated, saving money for graduate school. Eventually he chose the University of California-San Francisco graduate program. He was prepared to drive cross-country when that red-head called him up and said she heard he was going to California and wanted to talk. They rendezvoused on the pedestrian bridge near the MGH T stop and the esplanade, and made plans to drive cross-country together.
They loved San Francisco. Their voices always became warm and all-knowing when they spoke of living near Golden Gate Park, and even as a little girl, I vowed I would go to this city, to San Francisco, to California some day.
Yet my mother especially ached for her family, ached for New England, did not want to spend her whole life so far from those she loved the most, and once my father finished graduate school, they drove back east, engaged, and my father was offered a job at Redington Fairview Hospital in Skowhegan, Maine. At the job interview, they warned him that unless he planned to raise a family, he may be bored in central Maine. He assured them that that was the plan for himself and his wife.
I am so happy that was his plan, and that that was also my mother’s plan.
That plan, and all the perhaps overambitious, wild, driven plans of my relatives and ancestors, is the reason that I exist.
She had a last-minute hat change before the Tucson rodeo. She had already bought one wide-brim cowgirl hat within 12 hours of landing in Arizona. She and her friends had gone to the rodeo parade on Thursday morning, and her friends did not have to work very hard to persuade her to try on hats and purchase one. Once she committed to one, she wore it to the Desert Museum, and the restaurant where Bill Clinton ate, and the Grand Canyon, and Sedona. She would have happily returned to Maine with that one wide-brim hat.
Yet every hat shop caught her attention. She continued trying them on and admiring herself in them in the mirror for the entire trip. As they were leaving the Tucson farmers’ market on Sunday morning, she noticed a hat stand selling, among other things, hats with the widest, most curved-up brims that she had ever seen. She did not hesitate to try on one but she had no intention of spending more money.
She looked at herself in the mirror. The entire hat did not fit in the reflection. It was silly and outrageous, yet she could not stop looking at herself in it.
“It’s Kentucky Derby meets the Tucson rodeo,” one of her friends said. Yes, yes, it was.
“I want to buy it for you,” one of her friends kindly said, and the hat was hers. The seller reassured her that the hat could be folded into a suitcase and retain its shape. She knew it would be bulky to bring home but she did not care. It was her soul hat.
She had trouble wearing it while getting into the car, and she worried how she would fit into a public restroom stall. The hat gave her a wider birth than she already had, and she feared no one would be able to sit next to her at the rodeo.
In fact, the widest brim hat made on earth turned out to be the perfect match for sitting in the uncovered rodeo grandstands under the direct rays of the Arizona sun. She and her friends had discussed the most appropriate rodeo outfit since none of them had ever been. Once they were there, they understood that boots and jeans and hats were not merely fashion statements but practical responses to the ever-present dust and strong sun. She realized that rodeo season fell in February and March because the sun would not be tolerable any other time of year.
They began walking through all the vendors outside the rodeo grounds, past stand after stand selling boots and hats and belts. They met someone who worked the rodeo, who went out onto the grounds and wrangled up horses after the vaqueros had been thrown off. He told them that the junior rodeo started at 12:30 and then the professional rodeo began at 2pm. He gently suggested that they all buy hats to survive sitting in the stands.
While her friends tried on hats, she stood and watched and took pictures. The salespeople began to admire her hat and say,”Wow, that’s the best hat at the rodeo”. She did not know about that. It was not what any of the locals were sporting.
Yet she was making this rodeo, her 30th birthday present to herself, her own. She felt attracted to how rough and rowdy she imagined the event to be, but once there, she felt comfortable because it turned out to be wholesome fun. She liked that the event drew families and seniors and young singles, just like a Southwestern version of the Blue Hill Fair.
Before the rodeo, her friends bought pulled pork sandwiches for lunch, but she passed, only eager to find a water fountain. She had to dump out her water at the gate, and she refused to pay two dollars for a small water bottle. In that heat, she would need to fill her Nalgene several times. No water fountains in sight, she sat with her companions while they ate under the dining tent.
They struck up a conversation with a couple from Idaho across the table from them. The couple did not know how many rodeos they had attended in their lives. “I was in a couple amateur rodeos,” the man proudly declared. They explained that these days, they preferred watching the junior rodeo. She tried to ask about the events that they would be watching, and they said that every rodeo showcases different events.
After lunch, the foursome made their way to their bleacher seats. Once there, her friends declared: “Look at the sea of hats!” Her friend took a picture, and even amidst the sea, hers stood out…..
i dream of squalor. i dream that should i ever be handed the key to my dream home, should i ever be told that it is mine as long as i continue to pay the mortgage, that night i will move in a mattress, and only a mattress. having not yet turned on the electricity or filled the propane tank, i will wear my head lamp and lay my 20 degree sleeping bag on top of the mattress fit snugly into the built-in bed. i will fall asleep in the neighborhood where i sleep best, at the base of sargent mountain, a stone’s throw to the sound. i hope to convince someone else to join me that night. i imagine i will be a little scared on my first night in my new home, not quite used to its particular version of silence. accompanied or not, i will wake up in the morning and turn my head to look out upon the sound, a view that i will some day know in every season, a view i will offer to my friends as a gift. “would you like to experience something truly decadent? i will sleep on the couch, and you can have my bed. you can wake up and feel like the wealthiest person in the world.”
i do not plan on buying a refrigerator until my father arrives in june to start the renovations in earnest. yet that will not stop me from moving in. i spent the first ten years of my life living in a construction zone, and the most recent ten years living in a nomadic state. i would in fact turn on the utilities on day two, and i would need a stash of clothes. i could leave most of the house bare until my father arrived, bare so i could vacuum up the dust and scrub the place with vinegar and paint the plywood floors.
once my father arrives, he will indubitably be the hero. he has been the hero of the story all along. he had promised me years ago that he would help me if i found a place, but i could only find structures that needed to be torn down. i quickly learned how to rule out houses. yet this not only appeared liveable to me but also to my former landlord, a builder.
we would need to start in the bathroom, with a brand new tub and a rotten floor, and work our way to other mysteries….
Cucumber may wander and meander far from where she begin, but she sends out tendrils grabbing ahold of friends along her journey and she refuses to let them go. She abandons Facebook in search of genuine connection. She prefers the old-fashion romance of opening her mailbox to find a letter from a penpal or answering a phone call from a distant area code in the middle of the night. Her friends do not want to let go of her either, for as diverse as they all are, they all see themselves in her, in her faith, in her joy, in her acceptance. She soothes with her huge smile; it is her secret weapon. Whether ebullient or annoyed, she cannot help but embrace the world.
She could not remember the last time she had slept in the luggage closet. As a child, she would sleep in the windowless space with her cousins every February when her family gathered at their Cape Cod timeshare. Then, she had loved sharing close quarters with cousins that she only saw a couple times a year. She had strangely looked forward to it, and her family would laugh about the lack of space. Now, she and her mother were the last to arrive, and the luggage closet was her only option at 11pm that Friday night. At the prospect of sleeping sooner rather than later, she took it.
She woke up at 6am, unable to stand up straight in part because of the slanted ceiling and in part because the cotton sleeping bag proved to be insufficient padding. At home, the lethargy of February was beginning to set in, and she never wanted to get out of bed until she needed to get ready for work. Here, she bolted out of her sleeping bag and wanted to leave the crawl space for the sauna and hot tub at the club house.
She swapped her pajamas for her bathing suit and slipped on her snow pants and down jacket. She trudged to the club house to find the pool did not open for another hour. Rather than return to the locked condo, she went for a walk in the coldest temperatures she had ever experienced in the Cape and returned once the building opened.
She did not gain clarity about her sleeping arrangement until she had soaked in the hot tub, and puttered in the pool, and stayed in the sauna long enough to glow. Being a goddess is not about lingering in bed, she thought. Although she savored lingering in bed, although it could feel like one of the most decadent luxuries in the world to sprawl across a mattress, there she felt more in a womb than she felt alive and invigorated. She needed this morning of slight discomfort and solitude to shake her awake in a way that she had been fighting….
things I love about myself: my mainstays of my wardrobe are clothing that my parents wore when I was a small child, so comforting and classic; my collection of hiking maps in the bathroom; the way that I decorate a room or arrange a produce shelf; that I truly do resemble a chicken in terms of both my excitability and panic; that I know my way around Acadia without a map; that my knees lock when I am truly joyful; that I found produce at an early age and rediscovered it at twenty and that will be a theme for the rest of my life; that I am so willing to share anything I have with anyone who needs it; that I consider picking up lots of hitch-hikers but only offer rides to the ones who remind me of myself; that dressed appropriately, I can spend an entire winter day outside…