Without knowing what we were doing, we had opened ourselves to learn some lessons which life in the world of the city and the “modern world” generally were not prepared to teach. Without knowing what we had set in train, we were to discover that living without the shelter of modern conveniences opened our eyes to more permanent wonders. Although, parents and children, we had come with the usual diversity of agendas, something in the new life spoke to each of us.
Remembrance of Things Past
In a world full of things, one occasionally glimpses a truth only fleetingly seen down the corridors of time - that not to be possessed by things may be the greatest riches of all.
Although our eldest daughter still declares, in mock seriousness, that we waited until she had gone to college to put a bathroom in this house, the fact is we came straight from the city and city conveniences to this country place with the appurtenances of summer cottages we had loved and we lived here for four years before we even had the wherewithal to begin to think about making changes, and if there were complaints, and I'm sure there were even if I don't remember them at this distance, they were of that sort that can be summed up under the heading of "Yes indeed, it is a fallen universe."
For the first year and a half or so of our time here we were in fact on leave from my position in the university back in Ontario and expected and expecting to return there. So in a way we were just "camping out" for rather longer than usual.
There came a time though, and my memory is of a very dark evening sometime in the winter, when we gathered the children of an age to have an opinion in what memory suggests was the room in which I am now writing but then was part sitting room and part storage space. The room, as I remember it, was itself rather dark. That particular family council was called to make a decision about our return to the city. I had to make my intentions known to the university, and although at one level there was no question but that we would return, at a deeper level it seemed a tide was running in the opposite direction.
I am still awed at the strength of that tide as it appeared in the gloom of that dark evening. None of us, it seemed, was longing to go back to the city. But the "sense of the meeting" was positive, not negative. All of us wanted to stay. And so the unimaginable letter of resignation was to be written and sent off and I for one fervently hoped that the tide that was running would not sweep us away into the pathless ocean to be lost in its dark depths.
Something one of the children told us recently opened a little window onto those times. Our youngest, now living in Ontario, said that friends of his will say to him, "Tell us about how you lived when you were growing up." And he tells them about chores and getting up in a cold house in the winter and about making hay and bringing it in loose, and, no doubt, about the treks across the yard to the outhouse in the double dark of night and winter. His audience shake their heads in astonishment.
No-one opposed the plan to put a bathroom in when there was a room free for the putting, some four years later. The outhouse still is available although its principle use now is as a support for a luxuriant yellow clematis. Our great innovation (which I'm sure we read about somewhere) was the installation of a styrofoam seat for winter use. A visitor in those early days came back from the outhouse with a smile from ear to ear. He had grown up in Wales where the seats, as he vividly recalled, were slate.
The outhouse is, for most of the world, an object of ridicule. A standard item in country gift shops of my childhood was a slim volume entitled "How to Draw Outhouses" - the reductio ad absurdum of books which will tell the seeker how to draw flowers, trees, country cottages or what-have-you. Nevertheless I often think of our forays into a bitter winter night just before going to bed and the wonders, like northern lights, we no longer see because we no longer make that journey.
It was on such a quest, one snapping cold night, as I was waiting my turn outside that I saw the stars dancing. I had always assumed that the phrase referred simply to the twinkling of starlight in a clear sky, but I know now, thanks to that humble trip across the yard, that there can be some disturbance in the atmosphere which does indeed make the stars appear to frisk about as if they were dancing.
The alchemical philosophers were right when they said that the philosopher's stone which changes base metal into gold is so common it is thrown in the gutter every day - and, I might add, every night as well, if our seeming, worldly, riches keep us from seeing what is truly to be seen.
23 September 1997
After all the legal minutiae had been attended to and our rash decision was made, like the cast of Caesar’s die, there yet remained a symbolic step. A new bride traditionally was carried across the threshold, which was regarded as a boundary between two lives. The new owner of a property must “take possession” of his purchase. For us, the action was a memorable one, involving as it did a journey of a thousand miles at the waning of the year.
A Brief Flight from the City
As I write, the full moon is low enough in the eastern sky to shine directly in the window in front of this desk, reminding me that this has been an entire day of nearly cloudless skies and mild temperatures, a November day very like our first day here after we bought the place.
It had been summer - August, in fact - when our offer to buy was accepted. The offer had been a madcap escapade, viewed from any kind of sober and sensible vantage point. "Three days in the province and you did what?" As it turned out it was one of the best decisions we had ever made, taking what was left of a small inheritance after a so-called financial planner had made an ant-hill out of a mole-hill while assuring us that the mole-hill would almost miraculously become a mountain.
The experience taught us why property is called "real" estate. Put a bunch of dollars out to flourish in what is called "the market" and you may very well wonder where they all got to because they certainly didn't call to tell you they were leaving. Put the same dollars in exchange for a piece of land or a bit of property (you pays your money and you takes your choice) and they go to other human beings. Now, however, you can at least grow carrots on the remainder and improve your night vision, something impossible to do on stock certificates.
When the lawyers had finished doing their 'whereas's" and "parties of the second part" it was nearly the end of October. Schools were in full swing, I was in the midst of first term at the college, we were involved in all the myriad of activities a big city uses to keep its citizens from imagining how happy they could be elsewhere. Even so it seemed only right that we should come down and do what all the cottage owners of our acquaintance always did at the end of the season - "close up the place."
And so, on a day toward the middle of November of the year 19-- (as all the good tales of adventure start), we clambered aboard our big van, bringing a friend to help with the driving and our oldest girl, who had not been with us in the summer, and set out to drive the thousand miles and back on a self-declared long weekend.
What is there to say about a drive? It was long and by the time we were in Woodstock it was already growing dusk. We couldn't remember the turn off the highway that would take us to "our" farm. A call to the former owners not only gave us the information but offered us sleeping accommodations with them that night, an offer we gladly accepted. It was the beginning of a warm relationship, one which has persisted over the years, something that pleases us very much.
Saturday morning was sunny and warm with that slightly fey, hide-and-seek quality that such weather has this time of year this far from the equator. The trees had all dropped their leaves, of course, and the windows were blank as we approached the house up the old driveway that came straight up the hill from the road, straight up and below the level of the surrounding fields, a design whose implications were not to become clear to us until after the first snowfall our first winter down here, when we came back from a shopping trip to town to find that the driveway had all but disappeared, filled in with drifting snow.
We had observed our wedding anniversary driving down, little realizing that we were about to open a whole new chapter of the family saga. Now the autumnal scene, the white house with its startling turquoise doors, the straight-roofed barn, the fields around and about, the valley in front of us, spoke of the history of another family, one that had lived here for over a hundred years, and we hoped we would be able to keep something of that history intact.
It is hard to account for the feelings one has about places. I remember once driving in Scotland, on a road we weren’t sure was the one we should be on. We drove along hoping for an indication of our route and entered a valley, seemingly like any other valley, except that this one for some reason made my skin crawl. There was something ominous about it. We found out later we had driven through Glen Coe, site of a dreadful massacre in the seventeenth century.
On the other hand, we once sold a house because my wife was reading a story to one of the children on the couch in the living room when prospective purchasers came through.
This place, even in that brief glimpse of a bit more than 24 hours in the middle of November, seemed right, seemed a good place, seemed a place, as my wife said, to live out one's life.
Much has changed since we came here. The driveway no longer goes straight up the hill, the big elm beside the house has died, the house itself has changed more than just its colour. On the kitchen wall, under the barometer, is a picture of the way the house looked when we first came here. For all the changes, though, this is still what it was, a home. And a good one.
26 November 1991