Table of Contents – Click any title
Fernwood Cottage, Its History and Hazards
South is Up, North is Down
Roger Sells His Farm
More Horses and Sheep
Ducks and Geese
Children of Nature (furred)
Thibaut the Guardian
Mitzi and the Tempertons
The Saving of Marguerite’s Lake
Chickens, Peacocks and Guineas
Cats, ‘Possum Dearie and Becky Sharp
Harvey and the Thank-Roofing Dinner
Pickle Cottage and Pottersville
The Day Dwayne’s Church Celebrated Passover
Murder on Spruce Lake
The Police and the Fire Department
Being New Yorkers, we knew nothing of farm animals, especially nothing about sheep except that they ate grass. But with about 180 feet of lawn and an aversion to the noise of lawn mowers, we decided to buy a couple of sheep. As luck had it, our postman, Hank, was the judge of sheep at the county fair and raised them himself. Meeting him at our post box, I asked if we could buy a couple of sheep for our lawn. The next day he arrived with two bundles of bleating fluff hog tied on this truck-bed.
Before addressing Hank on the subject, we’d cleared our cars out of the two story, 24’ x24’ cottage-shaped garage and built pens. I had envisioned this as a little barn when we first saw the property, wistfully hoping for horses. So we had a 12’x12’ box pen and two straight stalls of 6’x12’, with the remainder of the space for hay. Hank’s two little ewes were trundled to the hay carpeted box pen.
We still lacked any kind of fencing, so the sheep ladies were set to their lawn care with dog collars around their necks and long, light weight chains attached to movable stakes in the ground so they could be moved from place to place. How clever we thought ourselves, until a neighbor came by and, in pity of the sheep’s excessive job, mowed the lawn. Fortunately, our woolly ladies were undaunted. Very soon we had given them names: Hyacinth and Petunia. But they seemed picky eaters about their supplemental grain. I consulted Hank who solemnly told me “They gotta get accumulated to the place.” The next day they apparently were sufficiently accumulated for they ate heartily.
Our first inkling of sheep’s social behavior was when we heard furious bleating. Petunia, who was the more reticent of the two, was at the end of her chain yelling hysterically. Hyacinth had slipped her collar and was deep in the garden nibbling the buds of the one surviving rosebush from the previous owners.
Soon, charmed by our four-footed creatures, we longed for lambs. Meeting Hank on his rounds, I asked if we could rent the use of a ram. He told me he no longer had Cheviots, the breed of our two ladies. The prospect of lambs was shelved. But a few days later, while delivering the mail, Hank said, “Got a Cheviot ram.” Oh!” I said, “can we rent him for stud service?” “Yup.” “But, Hank, you don’t raise Cheviots any longer. “Nope.” “Well then, could we buy him?” “Yup.” He had bought the little guy for us and if I hadn’t trod through the right questions he’d have been stuck with him.
We followed Hank’s, direction to his farm and loaded the little ram into the back of our Buick station wagon. Maneuvering the car into our little barn, we opened the pen gate. The pretty little guy leapt off the tail gate and chased the ewes round and round: we had lambs to the very date of gestation. So we named him Valentino.
But the stake and chain system didn’t work well for a ram. Valentino’ s satchel of enormous testicles hung below his knees and constantly got wrapped up in the chain, risking emasculation. We had to put in fencing. A neighbor’s son offered to sink hemlock posts for us around the eight acres that lay beyond our lawn. In payment he wanted our Volkswagon “Beatle”, it was a deal. We strung electric fence wire known as “weed cutter”, for its high voltage. The charger was in our basement, emerging to form a little paddock on our lawn, then extending around the field. In time we filled the field with a small flock of Cheviots, all Valentino’s offspring.
Like believers in Aquinas’s theology of an order of precedence in all Creation, our sheep had a strict social order based on age and ambition. I say ambition because a younger sheep, by browsing next to her superior, if accepted could move up in the social hierarchy.
But one thing could not be changed. No male child of Valentino’s was permitted to mate with the ewes. This was frightfully frustrating for his eldest son who, with weeping eyes, would fold back his upper lip and emit the most pathetic snorts. After some time of this alarming performance, his father took pity on him. He allowed his son to hump him until he reached satisfaction, then the lad would kneel down before his father and Valentino would pee on his head.
Since owning these sheep, so civilized in their own ways, we’ve never eaten lamb.
Fernwood Cottage, Its History and Hazards
It was 1979 and my husband-to-be and I had determined that we wanted a vacation home away from New York City. Peter was an entertainment writer for a suburban daily newspaper and could arrange his interview schedule to have three days off in the week. But our search for a country home had been abysmal.
Then there it was, in the Sunday New York Times real estate section:
Waterfall for sale 65 acres 7 room house.
The house deserved its almost invisible typeface. But we had never owned a house before and were merrily ignorant. My architect cousin Alfred, when he came for a viewing after we’d bought it, was tight-lipped in his smile. The house was unattractively covered in combed gray asbestos shingles that looked like elephant skin in deep old age. The trim was red, peeling in white-backed curlicues to vintage gray wood. But there were 65 (or maybe 64) acres of beautiful hardwood forest.
And there was the Waterfall. In fact there were three. One, at some distant in the woods, was a small cataract, active mainly in the Spring. Another, down the road and into the woods, was wide and shallow as a formal staircase carpeted in dark green velvet moss. The third, the one of notable reference, was 20’ wide and 20’ high and sank it waters from the foot of a terraced flower garden about 60’ from the house. It was (and is) spectacular, conveniently supplied by Nature with a huge, thick slab of slate as an overlook seat at mid-height of the falls.
In the 19th century there had been a mill, when land in the region was high priced for its many rapid streams providing water power. There had been twenty mills on this same stream, the Shadigee, in those olden days. Remnants of a “dry wall” stone foundation still stood on each side of the stream just below the head of the falls. A building had straddled the stream, its mill wheel overshot, a wooden sluice directing flow over the top of the wheel. Remaining still were a large and a small stone grinding wheel.
The mill ground apples for cider, from apples grown in the orchard on level land across the stream. The trees now were ancient and dying, spreading their gaunt boughs like angry specters. The departing owner bragged that he burned nothing but apple wood, perhaps in self- defense. But the mill wheel powered another business as well. It operated machinery that made “turned” objects: broom handles and spindly chairs. What had been the basement of the mill, near the overlook rock, was stocked with bits of machinery, an old boot hard as porcelain, the remnants of a potbellied stove; the bones of the property’s ghosts still spoke.
Despite its unappealing appearance, the house had its virtues. While the former outbuildings of the mill were almost all gone, one had survived: a little barn large enough for one horse and a cart. Sometime in the past the property had been bought by a hunter and the structure made into a hunting shack. And a porch added to view the falls.
Then the property passed to “Doc” Wylie, shop foreman of The New York Dailey News, who took on its development as an do-it-yourself weekend project. He added a hallway, a bathroom and closet to the shack and enclosed the porch. (The former porch floor still sloped as if hoping for rain run-off.) Then, 22’ from the shack’s side, he built another little house, the space between being grandly intended for a swimming pool. Doc was in luck. As he commenced his project, the News bought new presses; they arrived in big, sturdy crates. He salvaged the wood and, within the walls, the studs of the house to this day boast the address of the Daily News.
The pool ambition never materialized. Just a couple of feet below the proposed site was a massive boulder, smoothed and dropped here by the last glacier. So Doc roofed the space, floored it with bluestone slates from the abandoned quarry across the road, built a front door and a big fireplace on the road side and created wall of glass plates, acquired from the newspaper’ color printing process. He set this glass tastefully in framing that gave the appearance of an immense shoji screen. We much admired the effect of this, until I found that in the winter the whole thing became thick with frost and then melted, flooding the slate floor. We replaced the glass wall with six French doors.
But the floor plan was ideal. The former shack became an apartment for my grandmother, with bedroom, bath and closets, and a sitting room where the porch had been. The space between the two buildings we called the “stone room.” And the press-crate house became Peter’s and my dwelling, with a kitchen, dining room, library, bath and bedroom. Since the stone room’s floor was right on the boulder, there was access only for a narrow pipe to carry water between the two main buildings. So we had two furnaces and two water heaters, making us the biggest electricity consumers in the region, apart from the dairy farms.
Doc’s roofing of the stone room created a problem that took us twenty years to solve. The rooves of the stone room and of the former porch leaked despite being replaced five times. When water came pouring through our electric box and you could stick a finger through the walls, we a general contactor we’d used before with some success. Weeks passed. He finally showed up and told us, “Move out all the furniture, take down the chimney and when my son gets out of prison we’ll be here and fix it.” Desperate, I called all the other contractors for miles around.
Jim Slocum finally took pity on us (He said he’d never seen a house in such condition and still lived in.) From March to December we had two to a dozen of Jim’s workmen here. Most of our furniture was in storage, but the press-crate wing, which was blessedly solid, had furniture piled high, leaving passageways to the kitchen, to our seats at the dining table, to the bathroom and to one side of our bed.
The problem of the leaky rooves was found. The studs that framed the wall that held up the rooves over the stone room and bedroom and former porch were set, not at the prescribed 18” intervals, but 36” inches apart. When Doc had a basement dug under the ex-barn/porch to install a furnace, two of the all-too-few studs had simply been cut away for the heating vents. With very little left to support it, the whole long wall had twisted, pulling the rooves apart on both sides. With the wall rebuilt and the rooves made into a pair of picturesquely steep gables, we’ve had no further trouble, apart from the neighbors referring to our house as “the Kincaid cottage.”
We called the house Fernwood Cottage, because our beautiful forest was carpeted with ferns. (As I write, a golden full moon is rising through the naked boughs of the maples across the stream.) We moved in on Halloween night of 1979. I settled down to write in quiet isolation, while Peter remained in New York, newly appointed his newspaper’s Broadway and opera critic – on hand for opening nights and no longer master of his work schedule. I soon found that I was living alone and that winter here meant four feet of snow.
But Spring came, and with it the grass grew. There had been some stunted junipers in two rows flanking the house, like two hands squeezing in its cheeks. One day, when Peter arrived not too exhausted from watching eight shows per week, he cut the trees down, giving us that long, narrow lawn running from our 8 acre “home field”, to our little barn. All the rest of our 65 acres was inconveniently on the far side of the stream with only a foot bridge at the end of the garden to reach it.
South Is Up, North Is Down
It’s getting a little tiresom to deal with the wings of our cottage by their history, so here’s our topography, to simplify things. The barn/porch end of the cottage is the south wing, the Daily News end is the north wing. Counter to intuition, north is downhill and south is uphill.
This is the “Endless Mountains” where nearly everything is either up or down. It’s that region of crumpled green velvet you look down upon, flying east/west, or north/south for that matter. For this is the crossroads of the air. While the name “Starrucca” means nothing to most of humanity, it’s well known to every American pilot. Back when navigation through the air was by sight alone, here was a landmark so unique that it served as a focal point for knowing where you were and where you were going. Here, on either side of our mountain, the ribbons of the Delaware and Susquehanna Rivers nearly meet, separated only by the massif on which Fernwood Cottage perches.
Not only do the east/west and north/south highways of the air cross here, but ground control shifts from New York to Cleveland (if that’s the direction you’re going, and for just about any other continental direction as well.) The system isn’t flawless. On occasion I’ve watched two contrails heading at each other. Long after you’d suppose the pilots might have noticed each other, the two lines make sudden right angles, diving or rising for the sake of life itself. A reminder of how much we live by faith: that our plane will get where it’s going, that the earth won’t pucker and belch, putting up a volcano where MacArthur Park used to be, or that the grocery store will still have toilet paper.
About Starrucca: It’s a Lenape word meaning “Wedding of the waters.” An interesting idea. Among the Lenape, a marriage apparently was not a union but a sustained approach, letting husband and wife still go about their business.
The place itself is a bit like Brigadoon, there and not there. It’s the gasping remnant of a town that once had factories and even a race track. There’s an old post office with a bit of wooden sidewalk like the set for a 1950s Western. I think office has been decommissioned, or is about to be. There’s a church, but no priest, a cemetery with a road that’s hardly passable, and a bridge that has finally been reconstructed after years when a local farmer made off with the funds and repaired his own bridge that went nowhere but to one of his hay fields. But then I suppose he needed to be recompensed, when the flood of 2006 spread deeply below, around and over his little bridge it swept one of his cows into the next village. She surfaced unhurt, but having had quite an adventure. Over-excited by her travels, she probably declined to give milk for a week.
There are some pretty houses in Greater Starrucca, at the moment mostly for sale quite reasonably. And there’s a charming inn at the village’s heart.
A word about our “mountains”. Their proper name is Moosics and they lie just west of the far better known Poconos, home of the honeymoon spas with heart shaped beds and stemmed, champagne-glass-shaped, effervescent bathtub. We’re far more modest here, with no X-rating but plenty of kids’ camps, and what, until recently could only euphemistically called “second homes.” The rough cabins are falling, replaced by suburban-ish houses surrounded by acres of lawn that provide their owners with the engrossing bump-car-like hobby of long-distance riding mower travel.
There is even a sort of club for the recent arrivals. Bet, while the natives used to welcome new-comers who made up for the loss of population after World War II, these next generations have not endeared themselves, too often giving advice on the maintenance of ground and water purity while loading the lawns with weed-killing pollutants. The locals have for generations maintained a high A rating for the purity of their streams, air and soil that these book-wise arrivistes refuse to acknowledge.
But about our mountains, I almost blush to call them that, they’re gentle hills. Soil is deep on their level tops where multiple glaciers have sawn off any crags and, with a sigh, left the pulverized remains of mountains further north. The slopes are more rugged, with streams everywhere exposing the glaciers’ pockets-full of rocks. Rain and floods scour down in spots right to the ledges of slate that far distant eons compacted here. Apart from milk production and logging, the chief local industry has been slate quarrying, a lively business when sidewalks in small towns across America were made of slates placed end to end.
With the replacement of these hazardous, foot-tripping slates with poured concrete, quarrying languished like a 19th century consumptive — until an enterprising secretary at one of the largest stone yards took to the internet, and now our quarries are sending our region’s underpinnings, as famed Pennsylvania Blue Stone, for houses and gardens from the Eastern Seaboard to Japan.
Across the road from Fernwood Cottage are two pits, long abandoned and home of a family of deep-throated ravens. These gaping holes in the hillside can no longer be safely picked away. Directly above them lies a large, 100’ deep lake. What is left unpunctured on the hillside is, effectively, the dam keeping the lake in place. This lake is said to have boulders as large as cottages littering its bottom. Just below it, I fervently hope the lake stays where it is.
Lakes. I’ve been told that within five miles of the spot where I’m writing this, there are 55 lakes. And that’s not counting the man-made ponds for stock-watering, and what we have in the place of fire hydrants. Some lakes are entirely private, some have a few houses with extensive properties, some have old, crowded lake communities (more of that later.) And one has a Great Blue Heron rookery. These birds, tall like a very skinny man, stalk about as if they owned the place. Their wing-spread is prodigious; I watched one trying to land in a sumac, a slender plant half way between a tree and a shrub. The wind from the bird’s wings so bent over the sumac that, however much he stretched down with his long legs, the sumac was blown lower. Herons’ fishing talents make them bad neighbors. It‘s quite impossible to keep Koi. Some people claim a trip wire surrounding a pond keeps the feathered fishermen out, but it would send clumsy me head-first to the water, so no Koi.
A worse avian hazard: we have bald eagles. A family roosts just down the road. Little dogs, regardless of how dear they are in every way, cannot be let outside without a leash. A couple were enjoying cocktails on their terrace, their Yorkie cavorting about their chairs, when an eagle swooped in among them and took off with their pet. The husband, a paraplegic, rose from his wheelchair and whacked the eagle with his cane. It dropped Sniffles. A happier story than most.
Roger Sells His Farm
A few years ago I sold real estate. An order of young nuns wanted to establish their convent in a remote place and contacted me. Fortuitously, Roger, whose farm was in the very midst of Starrucca, was having to sell; his brother and partner had died and the widow wanted her share in cash. Roger was of an age to retire but was selling, beset with regrets. The property, with its big, recently updated farm house, vast barn and lovely rolling fields, met the nuns’ imagined vision. Roger hoisted his spirits up and agreed to show them the farm.
These nuns, led by the thirty-something foundress of their fledgling order, raised their own funds by embroidering magnificent altar clothes and vestments, and by having a few wealthy friends. It was to these friends they applied for the funds for a farm. The Benedictine-robed Sister came with their monied patrons to view the property, and Roger led the way. The donors were three shy couples, meek and quiet to the point of blending into the shadows of the vast, dusty, vacant barn.
Roger, standing in the empty barn, a thing he had been avoiding, was overcome with sorrowful nostalgia. In his mind’s eye his beloved cows were still there. Here stood Starbright Lady Bright, and here, Starbright Angel, and there, he went to the spot where she had stood, was Starbright Wonder, the finest Holstein he’d ever owned. She bore near-perfect calves, the pride of the county and envied winners at the county fairs. His hope in life had been to breed Wonder to a really superb bull. Such sires of course weren’t local, one bought a refrigerated glass ampule of their sperm. And such bulls commanded prices far above Roger’s means. So Wonder aged, seemingly never to have a mate that lived up to her brilliance.
Then one day a light of hope shone. Two other dairy farmers were pooling their resources to buy a really splendid ampule of bull sperm. (Roger’s audience of nuns and their mild patrons were starting to shift about uneasily.) Roger made a deal to have a share in this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He led old, gaunt and arthritic Wonder into a borrowed horse trailer and hauled her over to the farm where the refrigerated ampule had been delivered. The partners insisted on inspecting his proposed candidate. When they saw her, the two dairymen burst out laughing. ‘You’ll waste “Wonder of Iowa’s seed on that rack of bones!” “She’s a Wonder too,“ Roger murmured, hardly above a whisper. But the mockers needed Roger’s share of the cost, so they agreed to let him have the washings from the ampule. Roger took Wonder back home with at least something to show for his investment.
Now, a cow can’t become pregnant at just any time, like a human may. She has to be bred at just the right moment. In a pastured herd, a sort of paint sponge can be strapped to a cow’s chest so that, when she’s amorous and tries to mount some other cow, her LGBT partner will show a splotch of red paint on her back. Or so I’m told. But Wonder, feeble as she was, no longer left the barn. So each morning Roger would go out, lift her tail up high, and thrust his whole arm, up to the shoulder, into her vagina to feel if her ovaries were ripe. (At this point the nuns fled and the patrons nearly fainted.) At last, detecting the perfect moment, Roger filled a big syringe with the watered-down sperm and injected it deep into Wonder. By some miracle of paired Wonders, the sperm found their way to the eggs and the pride of Starbright Farm was pregnant. In due course the four-footed octogenarian gave birth to the two finest calves ever seen in northeast Pennsylvania.
By the time Roger emerged from his revere, I was the only member of his audience remaining. Nevertheless, the farm was sold to the nuns.
Once we had our lawn-nibbling sheep we were inspired to acquire more farm animals. I spent my childhood “playing horse” so of course I yearned to have a real horse. There was a handsome farm called Hillcrest that I passed on my way to Honesdale, the county seat and site of a selection of grocery stores. One day, horses were cavorting in Hillcrest’s pasture by the road, luring me to turn aside from my shopping .
Mell, the co-owner with his wife, Roberta, was there and having a slow enough day that he took delight in showing me around. There was a huge barn, each wing covering a wide passageway with a dozen stall on each side. Between these two wings of stalls was a large indoor exercise ring, tack rooms and a viewing room, for this was a professional racehorse training and stud farm. From stall doors horses looked out curiously .
The next weekend was Easter. I drove down to Honesdale to pick up Peter at the bus from New York. On the way home I urged that we stop off at Hillcrest so he could see this equine heaven. Along our rural roads homemade signs were offering bunnies for sale. No! We both agreed we would not get any rabbits! I pulled up in front of the great barn just as Katy, the rolypoly stable-hand trudged by. Peering in our windshield and seeing strangers, she bent her steps to our side window. “Hey, will you buy a rabbit and save him from the pot?”
Hillcrest, we found out, survived on its horses’ winnings at various tracks and was having a losing spell. We bought the rabbit, a black and white little guy who might have made a soup but not much of a dinner.
Our purchase was in our car and nibbling on his cardboard box as I watched a small but sturdy woman exercising a magnificent horse that was definitely not a thoroughbred. This was Roberta exercising her personal mount munt on a longue line. He eyed me up and down coolly as her horse made circuits ‘round her at a brisk trot. “I hear you bought Katy’s rabbit?” I confessed my foolishness. Roberta hardly paused, “I’ll make you a deal you can’t say no to. You can have two of my best thoroughbreds for $500 each. They’re both sick. You stable here for two months and, if I haven’t brought them back to full health, you can take your pick of my stable.”
So that’s how we got Pivot Turn and Bonsey, two of the tallest horses I’d ever seen. A saddle on either of them was far above my head. Bonsey’s real name was Eastern Promise but he had such difficulty keeping on weight he’d earned that sobriquet. Even skinny and sick, he was magnificent. Bred at Winterthur stables, he held the world record for long distance, but his major track racing was far in his past. His besetting flaw was, while he could beat any other horse given sufficient distance, he wasn’t particularly aggressive and most days couldn’t be bothered to make the effort. Roberta tried him for steeplechase, which he liked. But when she returned him to flat racing another problem arose. He so liked jumping that at night he mistook the shadows for jumps. Galloping far ahead of the field, he would become airborne and glide through the air as the other horses caught up and passed him. Roberta put a big fuzzy nose band on him so he couldn’t see the ground and its shadows, but that took all the fun out of it for him.
No longer a winner, expensive to feed, and now with a sore the size of an orange under his chin, Bonsey was passed along to us. Gorgeous reddish brown with a black mane, he was as gentle a giant as can be. But he had definite dislikes. He would not be tied to anything. With him home with us, I tied him to a split-rail fence post while I turned to pick up my saddle. He raised his head and plucked the post out of the round as if it were a daisy. A horse would be tied with cross-ties while being shod, but not Bonsey. He’d stand still patiently, and was so relaxed in our field that he fell asleep, leaning on the sturdy farrier, knocking him down and nearly tumbling on top of him.
Yes, Bonsey regained his health. Before bringing him home, I took him for a trail ride that Roberta was leading. A dozen insecure riders were mounted ahead of Bonsey. The big fellow and I had become good pals from my grooming him to a penny’s shine and he wanted to show off for me. The equine wimps ahead of us were an insult. Holding him back, we covered more distance vertically, bouncing about as I struggled to keep him in our place at the rear of the line. When we got back to the road I wriggled down from my perc and led Bonsey on foot to the barn. He nuzzled me all the way, his limpid brown eyes gleefully saying, “I did right, didn’t I, boss?”
The sheep were using our fenced “home field, so we rented our absentee neighbor’s unused fenced pasture, then found that a big rock had been used for the entertaining pastime of smashing glass beer bottles and canning jars. Carefully I picked out every shard before we introduced our fellows to their new home. There was a barn: we installed a steel I-beam to hold the building up, but the low ceiling was for cows and our tall guys couldn’t fit indoors. We did use a room at the end for their oats.
Pivot was a frightfully clever fellow. He hadn’t been in the field long before he figured out how to turn the animal-proof latch and open the door to the feed room. Always cautious, he forced Bonesey in the little room ahead of him to test the floor. Assured it was safe, he grabbed a big bag of oats, carefully maneuvering backward through the door and into the field where he could enjoy the rich feed at his leisure. That’s when we stopped him. Had he eaten his fill he’d have foundered, his hoof ligament would have collapsed leaving them crippled for life.
Pivot, a winner at going forward at speed, also had considerable talent for going backwards. Once I rode him up the street to visit a neighbor with a long driveway. The neighbor was on the roof, repairing shingles. That possibility escaped Pivot; he peered around nervously. Terrified by the apparently disembodied voice, he took off backward at full gallop back down the drive. On happier rides, he loved long distance views and would take me, willing or not, up mountain roads to stand at the summit gazing into the distance. He had his dislikes too. He distrusted bridges and was none too fond of his pasture mate at feeding time. Bonsey, unimpressed by his Pivot who, at 16.2 hands, was a full hand shorter than he was, would rear up on his hind legs, waving his forefeet about and giving the impression of a sequoia in a wind. Pivot had found the only horse who was not in awe of him
There came a day when Pivot was sick and had to go back to Hillcrest for a cure. Unlike Bonsey, Pivot was born and bred at Hillcrest and had been their steady winner, supporting the stable for years. He was loved there, and to him this was his personal domain. You have to picture Pivot to appreciate his grandeur. He was white, with mane and tail blending to black, like an Arab grown gigantic. Yet he was light and graceful, noble in his every move except when he combed my hair with his teeth while I brushed him, or when Mel, clasping his hands behind his ears, he would lift the hefty man off his feet and swing him like a bell.
Recovering from his stay at Hillcrest, he was let out into the pasture there were many new horses there, all arrivals since he had last been home. With exquisite grace he trotted out of the stable — and raised all equine heads. Large eyes turned, sharp ears pricked. His hardly deigning to touch the ground, Pivot trotted to the highest point of the field’s knoll. All the other horses gathered I a circle around him, necks sagging in concave submission. Before his adoring subjects, Pivot rose to his hind feet and pirouetted, spinning and spinning before he allowed his forefeet to touch ground. Roberta, too, must have watched such a performance and that is why she named him Pivot Turn.
We had other horses at Fernwood, but their stories came later.
There was thunder, not in the sky but on our back terrace and front lawn. In the darkness nothing could be seen. Bravely, after an hour or so of quiet, I took a flash light and went to investigate. Black lumps lay everywhere. In the flashlight’s beam bodies were visible, reclining under our apple tree. Some twenty young Black Angus, drawn by the perfume, had come to enjoy our fallen apples.
I’d met one neighbor, Mitzi, by this time; I called her and she gave me the phone numbers of several likely farms nearby. The next morning a whole family arrived to claim their apple-gorged beasts. T
There was Laura, a fifteen-year-old giantess, sitting on the back of the truck, bare feet dangling; there were her two handsome younger brothers, Joey and Mikey, and their father, “Old Joe.” They took home their cattle and we all became friends. I hired Laura to look after our animals for the times I went with Peter to New York.
Down our road about two miles was Old Joe’s farm, chiefly given to dairy but with the current experiment in “beefers.” Their low-lying pastures marked the terminus of some ancient glacier. Old Joe remarked that, if he had a potato for every rock and boulder the ice had left, he’d be a rich man.
All the children went to school through high school in Susquehanna, but they remained very close to the farm. Their fields were numbered, and it was not uncommon for Laura to say “I jes’ saw a eagle out on number nine” or “We havin’ rabbit Mickey shot out on three,” as if all the world would know exactly where that was.
Laura became almost like a member of our household, and we were fond of the whole family. Winters, Old Joe would come with his tractor and snow plow, and delicately remove the snow from our narrow driveway. Country custom required that this service be paid for. We paid Laura a salary, but the snow removal was a courtesy. No money would be accepted. The currency was home-made jam. Fortunately, our first summer at Fernwood Peter had “put up” eighty-four jars of wild raspberries. I presented Joe with four jars. But this was over-paying. He brought me a jar of his own preserves to even matters out. With a twinkle in his eyes he said, “Bet yuh can’t guess what it is.”
It was a jelly, red with some appearance of seeds in it, and it was delicious. But no one could figure out what it was, not even New York foodie friends. Stumped, I finally asked Joe for the recipe. He got out a crumpled copy of Grit, the farming magazine, and there it was: tomatoes in strawberry Jello.
Laura’s and the boys’ mother was Marty, a powerful woman with short blond hair whom I always found stirring a huge pot of spaghetti. There were other family members, too. “Uncuh’ John” whose farm met Joe’s at the rear. There was a son that was Joe’s but John was particularly fond of him. And there was an older daughter who arrived from time to time in a decrepit Cadillac driven by “Ol’ Pete”; the car had a loud-speaker system he made frequent use of in place of a horn. And there was reference to several other family members I never met. Curious, I asked Old Joe how many children he had. With that twinkle in his eyes he said “Twenty-two.” Of course there had been other wives, and, for that matter, he had never married Marty.
This gave rise to some dissatisfaction on Marty’s part. One day, as I got out of my car at the Hancock grocery store, I met Laura. I was dressed rather nicely. At her astonishment, I explained I was going to a wedding. “Oh, yeh?” Laura grinned. “I went to a weddin’ yesterday. My Pa wouldn’t marry my Ma so she upped and married somebody else. Somebody she met at bowlin’. Now Pa isn’t speakin’ to me ‘cause I took her bowlin’.”
In the fullness of time Uncuh John was dying. Laura went over to his cabin, where he kept big metal milk cans, filled with his life’s savings in cash, arrayed around his bed. But all the milk cans were gone. “Where’d yuh put yer money?” Laura asked, dismayed. “In the bank,” he murmured. In a few days John was dead. He was mourned; going across the fields to his cottage had always been a favorite retreat for the kids. But what of the money in the milk cans? Armed with rented metal detectors, Old Joe and the boys went over every embankment on John’s farm. They found nothing. John had actually invested in a savings account at the NBT Bank.
Back to weddings.
Peter and I were wed at Grace Church in Manhattan, two short blocks from our apartment. Nevertheless, my friend David Segal was providing his Volkswagon as our nuptial chariot. The gray dashboard flaunted a little vase of daisies, and Mendelsohn’s wedding march was cued up for the speakers. But the car’s engine wouldn’t start. David had practiced with the Mendelsohn so assiduously that the car’s battery was dead. So we walked.
Grace Church is on Broadway at what would be 11th Street, if the church garden didn’t block the street. The architect of the exquisite little medieval church and Parish House was the new son-in-law of the head of the Vestry. The nepotism paid off, for the commission led to the young man building Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, which isn’t half so lovely. But, in proper gratitude, New York’s cathedral boasts a stained glass window of the architect with a tiny version of Grace Church in his hands.
In the late 19th century Grace Church was the pride of New York Society. To fund construction the pews were auctioned off at astronomical prices. To not have a pew with a brass plate bearing your name was a blot on one’s fiscal integrity. Dion Boucecault, in his play “The Streets of New York” had his upwardly mobile anti-hero gloat that he would have a box at Grace Church and a pew at the opera. (Was it was the other way around? Boucicault was more pro-theater than he was pro-Episcopalian.)
But by h 1960s the beautiful little church had fallen on hard times. By the time I moved to within hearing of its bright carillion, its faithful parishoners were reduced to two: a Bowery drunk and a homeless old woman. The church was kept alive by its associated school. Enjoying the noon time voice of the bells, for years I never thought to step inside the doors.
Then in Leicester, England, doing research on the town’s 13th century earl, I had an epiphany. Literally. I had no religious training as a child. My mother was a lapsed Catholic. Although we lived across the street from Immaculate Heart convent and college in Los Angeles, my mother never went near the place. It was with my Jewish grandfather with whom I went there, once, to visit the Mother Superior. Grandpa was delivering some secret message to her from a New York monsignor who was an old school friend of his. One wonders what that clandestine message was.
Despite the absence of religion in my upbringing, nevertheless I was a very devout child. My nightly prayers were lengthy, asking blessings upon the telephone wires as well as Christopher Columbus. By adulthood, I’d become a sort of secret Christian, until my visit to Leicester. Roaming through the grounds that had once been the earldom’s castle yard, I found Saint Mary de Castro Church, much as it had been in 1229 when the man I was writing about first saw it. The young priest in attendance was an American and a friend of my friend Jan, a former Episcopal monk. The priest asked me to come to his Sunday service so I did. There was good attendance. I sat shyly sat the back, as invisible as possible, But when the priest called for those partaking of the Communion, everyone got up and went forward but me. My new friend the priest couldn’t help but notice. When the long line of the Communion was done, he came through the crowd, placed his hands on my shoulder and bestowed a blessing. From my childhood inclinations it’s clear I’m of a spiritual nature, but this blessing was unexpectedly real. It went through me like a lightning bolt.
I’d never been baptized. Shaken by that jolt stunning jolt, I vowed that I’d be baptized as soon as I was home. So I became the third parishioner at Grace Church, just as it was being to be rediscovered, with a flood of new memberships. The church’s popularity was credited to its minister, who went on to be a bishop in one of the Carolinas, thanks to this amazing success. He was one of the most boring speakers I’ve ever heard, his having previously only a drunk, a derelict and the church’s magnificent acoustics for practice.
It was the junior priest, named Paul Zahl, whose words brought in families of faith from three states around, and it was he who conducted our wedding. Peter, a newspaper music and opera critic at the time, hired a harpsichordist and a pair of opera singer, Marilyn Breustadt and Will Roy, for the occasion. They sang the Adam and Eve duet from The Creation by Hayden, and they gazed at each other with such ardor that they were married the next week. Marilyn was better known as Carmen Ghia in Peter Schickele’s “The Abduction of Figaro”. Encountering the couple at a diner two weeks later, Marilyn exclaimed in her high piping voice, “You see. I told you the marriage would last!”
From the ceremony we all went on foot to my grandmother’s large apartment, in the same building where I lived, two blocks away. It was August 9th of 1980, the hottest day of the year. My grandmother was not especially happy about my marrying; she thought I’d have less time for her. In the church she’d allow no one else to join her in the foremost pew, saying, “From now on I must sit alone.” In her apartment she turned off the air conditioning in the living room and retreated with her friends to her bedroom where she had the air conditioning up high. When Peter and I arrived, a trifle late having been detained with the signing of the official papers, we opened the apartment door and guests oozed out like a gelatinous mass lubricated with sweat. We had ninety guests crammed into the super-heated living room. Being the height of summer, we expected few would respond to our invitations, but they all came.
Peter and I had prepared a recipe from an old Gourmet Magazine: The Grande Salade Vladimir, a mélange of many pounds of shrimp salad and Russian cucumber salad decorated with smoked salmon and White Fish dotted with quail eggs dyed magenta. There was also a roasted turkey. Peter complained he got nothing to eat but I have a photo of him brandishing a turkey leg. Norma, my grandmother’s assistant, had put the champagne in the bath tub to try to keep it cool, so at least everyone was sozzled. There was of course a wedding cake, by a baker who was featured in Peter’s newspaper for her extravagant sugared flowers. We had a bouquet of roses perched on every tier of our wedding ziggurat.
As soon as the feast was done we all squeezed out of the apartment and headed for cars, those who drove taking in those who had none but public transportation. For the wedding continued at Fernwood. And continued for a week. Some stayed at local inns, some stayed on every sleep-able surface in the house, but the largest number brought tents. This was in the days when our farm animals were limited to Hyacinth and Petunia. The sheep took to the invaders on their lawn with gentle curiosity. But my cousins who set up a big tent in the old apple orchard across the stream were stamped and bellowed at by a buck in the night. These were in the days when we were innocent of our more formidable furred neighbors: the bears, bob cats and mountain lions.
It was the height of blueberry season. We sent or guests out with paper grocery bags to harvest from the eight-foot-high wild blueberry bushes on our property and the abandoned blueberry heaven next door. The bags came back brimming. We had blueberry everything from pancakes and muffins to ice cream, the diet varies with some kielbasa we brought from New York, hot dogs, hamburgers, endless coleslaw and potato salads.
By the end of a week the tide of guests had ebbed, leaving Peter and me alone at last. To celebrate, we went to the Wayne County Fair. Home again at Fernwood, we weren’t feeling so good, and we spent the next week in bed with the flu.
When Peter and I married we had two dogs, my Yorkie Chloe and his yellow dog , Wilma Pupkinson, of questionable ancestry. Wilma’s most notable accomplishment was, when in old age she became incontinent, she was given a hormone medication to reestablish some control of her bladder. The drug had unanticipated effects. Wilma’s skin turned black and entirely shed, leaving her fresh as a pup. And, although she was spayed, never before showing the slightest interest in the male sex, now she could not be kept at home but was down at a neighboring farm enthusiastically mating with their sort-of-Boxer.
My love of dogs dated from infancy when my Aunt Ethel would read to me stories of dogs: Lassie Come Home, Bob Son of Battle and, best of all, G. B. Stern’s The Ugly Dachshund, set on the French Riviera and about the life of a Great Dane who thought he was a dachshund.
But I spent most of my childhood in an apartment where no pets were allowed. I’d had to content myself with a turtle named Scheherazade who had bad breath because she ate raw garlic.
I yearned for a dog. As soon as I had an apartment of my own I acquired a Basset Hound puppy, Angie, who turned out to be far from angelic. No one told me that Bassets have a distinctly scatological temperament. As we came back from a walk one day, the doorman, as was his custom, gave her a cooking. Just after us, in came a a little schnauzer whom she adored. Angie at once turned presented him with the cookie she’d just received, and, overcome with generosity, disgorged on the marble floor in front of him the mouth-full of dog poop she’d collected, unnoticed during our walk. Even the schnauzer looked appalled.
Given her system of values, Angie was un-housebreakable – at least by me. And she had a liking for destroying what little furniture I had. So I tried closing her in the bathroom when I had to leave the apartment. Neighbors complained of her barking and the superintendent came with his pass key and let her out. I arrived home to find my apartment a layer-cake of chewed raw potatoes and onions from a kitchen cabinet, crushed oil paint tubes (I was an aspiring artist at that time), and toilet paper – a full roll decoratively spread about, with the whole creation topped with a generous donation of doggie poop. Angie was so excited about her work that when I came in and saw it, she leapt with all fours onto the coffee table and, gleefully wagging her tail, spread urine all over the walls and me.
At that point I realized it was unfair to the pup and to me to be keeping her in an apartment. She went from me to a couple with a house and a new baby. But now a very different aspect of her nature emerged. She bared her teeth, growled and wouldn’t let them near their child.
A beautiful example of her kind, Angie ended up with a Basset breeder; there I hope she found her métier.
Back to Aunt Ethel. It was she who roused my interest in Yorkshire Terriers. Visiting her niece, an editor of the “women’s pages “of a newspaper in Florida, Ethel made her acqaintance with the breed. One of the department’s writers would bring her tiny pet to work. He would sit on her desk, daintily accepting petting from all.
I’d heard this story with no particular interest until, some years after my aunt’s death, I was riding down on the escalator in Lord and Taylor’s department story and saw a woman with a Yorkie in her arms, coming up the adjacent escalator. I was instantly obsessed. I went right home and called the American Kennels shop on East 14th Street. I knew there, and no place else, was where I had to go. Yes they had a Yorkie puppy. With my grandmother in tow, I rushed to the pet shop just as they were pulling their metal grating across the windows and doors, closing for the day. They kept open for me and the sales woman acknowledged that they did indeed have a Yorkie. What she brought out was a tiny male – not at all what I was seeking. I insisted it was a female I wanted, and a bit lager. Reluctantly the clerk returned to the back room and brought out a slightly larger female that had just come in. The dog, as soon as she was near me, leapt from the sales girl’s arms onto my shoulder. Grandma remarked, “I guess this is what we’re here for.” Not for any particular reason, I named her Chloe.
Years later, my friend Jan the former monk, was amused by a fortune telling device, a ring suspended by a thread over a piece of paper marked with a circle and a crossed lines: the lines labeled “yes” and “no”, the circle, “maybe”. Like most reasonable people, I’m a sceptic when it comes to fortune telling. I took the thread from Jan’s hand and held it myself, but the ring did seem to propel itself, rather energetically, on its own. I gave it back to Jan and we asked the usual silly questions.
Chloe was taking an intense interest in these proceedings. She climbed onto a chair, which she had never done before, and watched the gyrations of the ring with her nose so close it almost interfere with the spinning. Jokingly, I suggested we ask the ring if Chloe had been human in a former life. Jan was indignant, no one re-incarnated from a human life to a lower species. But the ring swung “YES!” emphatically. Through a series of questions, the ring insisted that Chloe was Aunt Ethel. My grandmother was furious, her sister had succeeded in coming to live with me.
My next canines were Greta and Tinka, German Shepherd pups of undistinguished appearance. I’d gone to the hardware store in Hancock, New York State town was just across the border and only about fifteen miles from Fernwood. I was there to buy paint for the front door, but Astrid, the amiable girlfriend of the storekeeper, had this pair of pups by the cash register. A sullen, rather dangerous looking man hovered nearby. Desperately, as Astrid rang up my sale, she urged, “Won’t you take these dogs? I’ve had them here all morning and no one would take them.” Nodding toward the ominous presence beside her, she added, “He’s the dog catcher. He uses them for target practice.” The half-grown pups came home with me.
Their story was that a local man in Hancock owned a beautiful German Shepherd bitch. A friend offered that, if he bred her, he would pay a hefty sum for the pups. But when the puppies reached the age when their fine lines should have been showing, the commonness of the sire was all too apparent. The man refused to buy the pups. In a fit of pique, the breeder gave them to the dog catcher. Astrid kept a constant eye on what went to the dog catcher. She was the self-appointed rescuer of Hancock’s unwanted animals.
My new pups were a cheerful, uninhibited pair. Having lived in a cage up till now, they were neither housebroken nor used to living among furniture. Controlling them was a challenge. Words had no effect. I asked myself what a mother dog would do, since that was probably the only deterrent they knew. She would have clamped her teeth on the back of a thickly furred neck, lifted the offending pup off the ground and shaken her. Do I did just that, though not with my teeth. I’d heft the pup up and shake the both of us as best I could while muttering low growls. It worked. Both Tinkie and Greta got the idea of my disapproval and became models of civilized doghood.
Except for one thing. Not far from wolves (who knew who their father was) there are some local pet wolf crosses in the area. The predator instinct ran high in the pair. By winter they were bring steaming haunch of venison onto our snowy lawn. It is a crime here in Pennsylvania to let your dogs hunt deer. Anyone seeing them do this was believed to be within their rights to shoot the hunters dead. The sisters were let out only on leashes after that, until we had a fence around the lawn that would contain them.
But now they took to practicing their skills on the sheep. I was treated to a demonstration of their technique. Chasing a sheep, one would go for a hind heel; with the victim slowed, the other would go for the throat. I rescued the sheep, but clearly this deadly teamwork had to be broken up. I placed an ad for a young female German Shepherd available for adoption and Greta was soon off to a new home. Tinkie became a model of good canine behavior.
Her only error occurred years later, when we had a pre-Revolutionary stone cottage in Potterville, New Jersey (but more of that later.) One day when Peter and I were out, Tinkie absolutely had to relieve herself. In her determination to be good, she climbed the narrow, winding stair to the attic and, thinking she was hiding her misdeed, she peed copiously on the floor. Now, the flooring of that attic was chestnut, so decrepit that it had old copper patches and every seam was shrunk. The spot Tinkie chose happened to be directly above the kitchen “island” on which sat Peter’s laptop computer, leant him by his newspaper. The pool of pee flowed until it found a crack, then it poured down into Peter’s computer. The result was so daunting that the tech team at the newspaper refused to attempt a repair. Peter got a new computer. After that, we kept the paneled door to the attic shut.
More Horses and Sheep
My best friend in New York, who had been here for the wedding and saw our circumstances, gave us, as a wedding present, funds to improve our south bathroom. What we had was a rusting metal shower, a scabrous looking sink and a toilet that was reluctant to flush. Since my grandmother was often here, we wanted to make the improvements safe for the elderly; a friend of hers had been stuck in her bathtub for hours, pickling until her cleaning woman found her and hauled her out.
So we bought a low, square bathtub made for children and the elderly, a sink and toilet to match in pale spruce green, and handsome dark terracotta non-slip tiles, with the tub and shower surround paneled in cedar in case Grandma slipped and hit her head. But the new fixtures, in their wooden crates cluttered the living room for weeks as we searched for a reliable plumber.
Local workmen of any sort were not necessarily to be trusted. There was the story of the carpenter who built a storage barn then, leaving, slammed the door and the building fell down. And there was the huge new barn, inspired by the vast “sheds” the highway department put up to shelter their road salt. But this barn was even taller; so tall there was no chance of ever changing the one light bulb, half way up the wall. But worse, it had its own indoor weather. The breath from the heifers it housed gathered in clouds under the high arched roof and there was indoor rain. The heifers died of pneumonia.
As for plumbing, we’d found our settling tank underground was a rusted garbage can with garden hose for drainage. So we were cautious in finding a plumber. Then there was Jerry, an actual licensed professional plumber, and he lived in the next town. I called, reaching his wife. Yes, he agreed, although he was busy he could add us to his schedule. We waited. And waited some more. I called again and again, always reaching the wife. Apologies; he would be along as soon as he could – we at least had a more or less working bathroom. Jerry was attending to emergencies. Weeks, then months passed but emergencies went on and on.
Believing in the squeaky wheel principal, I began calling the plumber’s wife with regularity and we became friends. She had a pony she could keep no longer, but she was afraid to send it to the farm auction where he might be bought for meat. I too thought that a dreadful prospect. An idea occurred to me. I’d buy the pony if Jerry delivered him and installed our bath room.
Jerry showed up with a beautiful black Shetland pony. His mane was long, his tail hung to his heels and his hooves shone like patent leather. What a joy he was – I imagined. You should never trust seductive beauty. With a horse, the look of the eye will tell you the truth. The pony had a sly and hostile gaze. Unpleasant in temper he was. He hated the sheep on the lawn, so we put him in the field next door with Pivot and Bonsey. He was quite chuffed, but they were indignant. At a gentle trot they chased him round the field, reaching over his back to bite his withers as his short legs galloped as fast as they could go.
We brought him back to the lawn with the sheep. There he took his revenge, chasing the bleating sheep mercilessly. One time he tried to trample Chloe. The only recourse was to take him down to Hillcrest for retraining. But there he crept under the field fences and annoyed the Thoroughbreds, and no amount of patience or skill could amend his bad behavior. Eventually I sent him back to the plumber’s wife. Some Shetlands are incorrigible.
But my horse-buying didn’t end there. When Pivot was at Hillcrest recovering, I visited him often. Across the aisle from his stall was a sweet pair of horse eyes in a gray face that bent over her stall gate and followed me with interest. Her name was Flora.
Pivot and Bonsey were a challenge for everyday riding, a challenge even to mount, and I never knew when Pivot was going to take me trespassing on somebody’s hilltop. If someone was riding with me, the two huge Thoroughbreds would decide to race. We had perfect bridle paths near Fernwood: old cinder railroad beds that, under hoof, must have reminded our boys of their race track days. Bonsey would take off at his impressive gallop, inspired to prove his superiority. Pivot wouldn’t decline the challenge. But Bonsey of course was inexhaustible. You no doubt have guessed that I’m not the most capable of riders. Soon I’d be clinging to his mane (an “English” saddle sportingly offers nothing much to hold on to). Only when Pivot was left out of sight around a curve would he slow down and become tractable again. So I was not averse to buying a third riding horse.
As cold weather came we stabled Bonsey and Pivot at Hillcrest for the winter. With the black pony gone, we had a stall available in our barn. I approached Roberta with an offer to buy Flora. But before the deal was consummated, Flora suddenly died. Roberta explained that this sometimes happened; a horse could be fine at evening feeding time, then be dead on the floor of her stall the next morning with no apparent reason.
I was heart broken, I hadn’t known Flora very well yet but I had pictured such pleasant rides with her without fear of our venue being mistaken for Saratoga. In grief, I was vulnerable for a bit of bait and switch, practiced by myself, not Roberta.
There was a similar small horse stabled on the same row. He was a gelding, stunning looking with his teacup muzzle, a dark gray mane and an alert, friendly eye. He was an Arab, that noblest of breeds. His coat was a roan: sprinkled grayish red on white, apparently in process of turning white for he was still quite young. His name was Haybin, which made him sound like a prodigious eater, but I was told that in Arabic it mean “honored.”
I bought him and our relationship began. First I groomed him since this was a very good way for a horse and person to become fond of each other. He responded enthusiastically, leaning against me until he had me pinned and crushed into the stall wall. He lovingly trampled my feet, thank heaven my riding boots had steel reinforced toes. We graduated from grooming to exercise on the longue line in the central ring. This was yet another opportunity for him to express his love. The idea of the longue line is that the line forms the radius of a circle; the horse gallops round and round, getting exercise without having to go anywhere. Haybin would gallop in circles for about five minutes, then, overcome with love for me, he would gallop straight at me.
We moved on to my mounting him for a practice ride in the ring. Overcome with excitement, as I hefted my saddle onto his back, Haybin would push and rub against me and this amorousness went on and on, with no way I could fasten his girth, until the effort of fending him of left me too exhausted to ride.
I never managed to get onto Haybin’s back. When I asked Roberta why I’d been singled out for all this affection, she admitted that was how he responded to everybody. If he couldn’t be ridden, and obviously he couldn’t be raced, I asked why she had him. She explained that when he was gelded he was “proud cut”, that is, part of his testicles were missed and were still there. Shed bought him because out in the field he would mount any mare that was coming into season, showing Roberta which of her mares was ready for breeding. I gave up on Haybin and he went on with his profession as Lothario.
But my impulse to buy a third horse didn’t end there. At Hillcrest was pony named El Senador del Prado, a fancy name for a pretty but slightly dwarfish Paso Fino. This isn’t a well known breed. It originated in Puerto Rico as a ranchers’ mount, bred for a comfortable day in the saddle overseeing cattle. Unlike other breeds that walk, trot, canter and gallop, the Paso Fino does the paso corte the paso largo and the paso fino, ranging from gentle a walk to a fast but very smooth trot. We found El Senador’s name presumptuous. If anyone was the senator of Hillcrests fields it was Pivot. With us, he was called Curial, for a medieval knight. Curial, at Hillcrest, was entirely ridable. Indeed his gates were smooth, the roughest being nor more than a slight shaking at my thighs.
He had a sad history. He first had been owned by an American couple. Traveling in Puerto Rico, they had discovered the breed. Charmed by the little horses, they bought a pregnant mare. At home with them she gave birth to twins, but one died and the other was slightly dwarfish. Nevertheless they lavished attention on the foal. The wife even carried him about in her arms like a long-legged baby. As he grew, they engaged a fine trainer him who was sensitive to his every preference. Hence he never would accept a bit, and the saddle he required was a long-skirted English dressage saddle.
His owners, as I understood from Roberta, went on to becoming the first breeders of Paso Finos in the continental United States. As their stable grew, El Senador ceased to command so much of their attention. When a couple with a deeply impaired little daughter came to visit, the child roused from her lethargy to uncommon brightness as she petted El Senador. Her response was so unusual and heart-warming that the owners gave El Senador to their visitors.
All went not so well for him well from the outset. His new owners had no stable so they kept him on their lawn and the husband fed and watered him each morning and evening. But then there was a divorce. No one took care of El Senador any longer. He grew perilously thin and weak. Neighbors complained and the local animal rescue service came and picked him up. Roberta was recruited to take care of him. She got veterinary attention for him, kept him quietly stabled and fed him beat pulp to restore his weight. By the time I met him he was well on his way to recovery.
I brought him home. The sheep were moved to the pair of 6’ wide straight stalls with a central panel of the dividing fence removed so they had the same twelve-foot square space they were used to .El Senador, now Curial, had the 12’x12’ box stall. Daily I fed him his beet pulp and hauled two heaping wheelbarrow loads of horsey poop to the compost heap.
I knew his preferences for tack and, luckily, the saddle I had was a dressage saddle, just what he liked. But all our bridles required bits. I went to the vast equine supply store on New York’s East Side. There I found myself rather grandly explaining the salesman, a very elegant gentleman of color, “I need a hackamore for my Paso Fino. One doesn’t want to ride thoroughbreds every day.” He understood perfectly. Curial got his bit-less hackamore.
Soon Curial made friends with his stable neighbor, our new black ram, Hunding. This bundle of black wool on four slender legs sported extraordinary horns. They curled before his eyes like massive eyeglasses.
The horse and sheep would nuzzle each other over the fence. As many horses do, Curial had a simple webbing headstall that he wore when at home. One morning I came into the barn to find Hunding in Curial’s stall, dangling in the air, hind feet thrashing. One of his horns was hooked into Curial’s headstall. In panic, the horse was holding his head as high as he could and hanging the sheep well off the ground. Hunding’s weight made it impossible to pull his horn free, I couldn’t lift him, and Curial wouldn’t lower his head. Eventually I got the headstall undone. Hunding gratefully flopped to the ground, then dashed back to his own pen. Sadly, that ended the inter-species friendship.
But now I had my own problem. Sweating, struggling to shovel out his prodigious poop every day, I had lost dignity in Curial’s eyes. We’d gone for lovely trail rides at Hillcrest, where his brisk trot was almost able to keep up with the other horses’ canter. But now he really didn’t care to be my mount. Bitless hackamore headstall and saddle in place, I took him out for a jaunt up the road. He turned around, tail foremost to the direction I wanted to go. It wasn’t that he particularly wanted to go down the hill, he was unwilling to take me anywhere. Pivot would sometimes behave similarly. We let Peter’s nephew mount him once. Pivot walked slowly to the barn and stood with his nose against the barn wall until the lad dismounted. With Curial, I wasn’t going to be refused. We went up the hill, as I wished, but backwards all the way.
Exhausted by the daily wheelbarrow loads, and not much pleased with Curial as an equine companion, we gave him back to his breeder and the home of his heart. They sent a horse trailer for him but were dismayed when I didn’t give them his registry papers, which we had never received.
As you can see with Hundig, we’d acquired more sheep. There was a small sheep farm in a village with the embarrassing name of Hop Bottom. Not really salacious, the name referred to the growing of hops for beer. There we bought some different breeds of lamb, which the farmer sold to us by weight. We were conscious of saving them from the roasting pan. I was interested in knitting our own fleece so we bought black and brown lambs. And there was a big, woolly white Polled Dorset we named Snegurochka, the Snow Queen’s Daughter. Polled meant no horns. Dumb and sweet, unlike our clever Cheviots with their ably regulated society.
Our Cheviots had suffered de-horning at birth, which meant a very hot iron applied to the root of their future horns. The torments lambs suffered appalled us. Customarily, their tails were chopped off or a thick little doughnut-shaped rubber band was applied to cut off the circulation. The lamb so treated would roll around on the ground bleating in agony for hours.
But we discovered the hard way why most of the tail had to go. As a sheep grew up, the woolly tail, held clamped to the anus to discourage flies, would become a mass of poop. The condition was picturesquely called “paste up”.Indeed, the sheep’s rear end would be glued closed, making it impossible for the poor beast to relieve itself. In ancient times, we read, the Sumerians particularly favored sheep tail meat.. They constructed little carts that each sheep would drag behind her, holding her tail up. We weren’t about to supply Sumerian carts, so most of the tail had to come off, leaving just enough to cover the anus to discourage flies.
Peter undertook to do the operation on our first lamb. He brought the fellow into the living room for convenience sake. Unwilling, but recognizing that it did really had to be done , I held the little guy down on his side on our slate floor. Peter bravely raised his Chinese kitchen cleaver and chopped off most of the tail with one well-aimed blow. I let go of the lamb and he sprang up, far less traumatized than we were. “Three shakes of a lamb’s tail” is an apt expression: a lamb can shake his tail very fast and this one did just that, spraying blood all over the living room walls. But he seemed unfazed. We took him back to his mama, where he set to nursing at once. She sniffed the stump of his tail and looked at us balefully. But the operation was a success. I set to washing the living room walls. Peter picked up the severed tail, and fainted.
This is not a poetic chapter on gazing at the night sky, but about the tiny village of Starlight, Pennsylvania, and more so about the Starlight Lake and the old Inn at Starlight Lake.
We didn’t buy the future Fernwood from Doc Wylie, but from its next owners, Jack and Judy McMahon and Judy’s brother Dennis. Jack and Judy were theater people. Judy, very tall, sturdy, with a broad face, one might cast for Mother Courage; Jack was stocky with curly reddish hair. He had had been a member of a professional singer and member of the Robert Shaw Chorale. Judy was a graduate of the Yale Drama School. They met in the touring company of “John Brown’s Body.” After marrying, Judy quit the stage as she began having the first of her several children. With a family now, Jack took a job as an executive of a record company. Finding affordable summer vacations for their ever enlarging brood, they found the solution in buying Doc Wylie’s house, stream and 65 acres. Soon, they liked country life so well that they sought some way to make a living here. The Inn at Starlight Lake was available.
The Inn, built about 1885, stood near the end of a rail line from Philadelphia. In those pre-air conditioning days, upper middle class families spent the entire summer in retreat from city heat. Mother and the children were full-time summer residents at mountain resorts, father came up for weekends. But by the 1970s even the children of those faithful families either had died or were too decrepit to make the trip by car. There was no more leisurely rail travel; the tracks had been taken up for scrap metal during World War II. Apart from a few cadaverous codgers sunk in the deep feather cushions of the lobby couches, the inn was nearly out of business. Together the McMahons and Denis bought it.
Wisely, Judy kept the old, shabby furnishings and found more at thrift shops. While the Pocono inns were spiffy with gleaming new wood and designer upholstery, attracting the New Jersey honeymoon set, the Inn at Starlight Lake breathed authenticity. Its increasing clientele were of a more intellectual and sentimental sort. While their children splashed in the lake, they sat in lawn chairs reading old mystery stories from the inn’s comfortably passé library. The lobby was cozy with over-stuffed chairs, the above-mentioned couches and a massive stone fireplace. The dining room had rows of windows facing the lake, reminiscent of romantic 1940s British films. Jack was a film buff of just such movie classics and would show them in the billiard room on Saturday nights.
When the gas shortage of 1979 cut into their summer bookings, Jack, Judy and Denis realized they had to sell the Starrucca house and Judy, placed her ad for the waterfall in the New York Times.
Peter and I were going to visit a friend of mine who was living in Ligonier, in south western Pennsylvania. We decided to take a look at the waterfall, and the almost unmentioned house, on our way back to New York. I called Judy, got directions and arranged to spend the night at the inn. It was very dark as we drove through town after town, with pale houses lining the road like ghosts of Edward Hopper paintings. These were mining towns with simmering shafts beneath the streets from old mine conflagrations. But I didn’t know that then.
Judy greeted us at the darkened inn, we were the last to arrive. It was late September, the slim season of an already slim summer, and we were nearly the only guests.
After a fulsome country breakfast the next morning, Jack took us on a tour of the waterfall, the acreage across a little footbridge, the old orchard, a four-acre pond which he had ordered dug, explaining that he meant it to be bigger but the springs that were released would have flooded the next door farm. There was an impressive dam at the down-hill side.
Hiking through the dry stream bed, we reached a set of massive natural stone stairs that rose up to the terraced garden at the head of the falls. By then, having just come from reveling in the picturesque woodland and streams of Ligonier, we were completely captivated. Only then did Jack dare show us the house. In its gray asbestos shingles and peeling red trim, with a front gate made of a wagon wheel hung from a scaffolding of sewage pipes, it had none of what real estate people call ”curb appeal.”
Having forgotten the key, Jack broke into a window. The house had been lived in by a neighbor’s delinquent son and his friends who partially vandalized it. The McMahons, aghast at its vacant vulnerability, hurried to put it up for sale. But we were already “sold” on the land. As our lawyer later, for the closing, remarked, “You can always change a house, but there’s not much you can do to change the land.” As soon as we’d reached home in home to New York, I’d had called Judy to say we would take it. My call was only moments ahead of a couple in Texas called, offering to buy the property sight unseen. But sixty-five acres, more or less, waterfalls, streams, a pond, a two-car garage perched on rotting railroad ties, and a deplorable house were now ours.
We and the McMahons became friends; we had much in common. Being theater people, Judy found a way to bring acting into the inn’s program. She introduced Murder Weekends. We were gathered into a little company, The Starlight Players, to enact some fairly complex, scripted murder mysteries written by Judy’s friend Axel Pedersen. These dramas were enacted among the inn’s guests from Friday evening to Sunday morning. The guests’ Sunday fun was to write up solutions to the mystery which were read aloud at lunch. The one who came closest to the actual story won.
The Starlight Murder Weekends became hugely popular. Before they left for home, the guests were told the period of next year’s murder so they costumed themselves appropriately. They devised characters for themselves, sometimes insinuating their adopted personas into the action.
The Murder Weekends even gained local fame. There was the time when, at Friday dinner, someone broke a window, shot into the dining room and Judy’s brother Dennis went face down into his salad. For authenticity’s sake, Judy had hired the local ambulance to come get him, but the police came too. The next issue of the county newspaper reported a real killing at the Inn at Starlight Lake.
Sometimes Judy was over ambitious, as when a former acting teacher of hers at Yale sent her a 19th century play. The setting was the Tyrol; in the story a greedy innkeeper murders a rich guest, steals his money and disposes of the body. (Reading the script, I supposed this was a joke from Judy’s teacher, but she seemed blind to that possibility.)
The play was written for the immense theaters of the period like London’s Hippodrome, designed to display the latest in stage technology. The action began in a blizzard-blown mountain valley. A flame-belching iron furnace stood at a little distance as a horse and sleigh passed over a bridge, bringing the wealthy merchant to his doom. The furnace had to be large enough for the murder victim’s body to be stuffed into it.
This challenging winter landscape vanished to show the interior of a large, half-tmbered inn, which in turn vanished to bring the audience a courtroom scene with twenty-four be-wigged jurors. When I observed to Judy that I thought this was all a little beyond our capacity, she objected, “We can do snow!” Perhaps this indomitable spirit explains how she made such a success of the inn, and how her Murder Weekends were so convincing.
Most memorable for me was the weekend I played a Polish countess interned in a refugee camp at another nearby lake (the camp actually existed during World War II). Peter was Dieter Heydrich, a newly created, fictional younger brother of Reinhard Heydrich, the SS officer best known for his role in creating “The Final Solution”, the methodical murder of Jews in the Nazi concentration camps. The time was set before there was any knowledge of the holocaust. Dieter’s job was to recruit sympathizers to the Nazi cause in America. Dieter was a charmer. At the lobby’s piano, Peter as Dieter sang beloved old German songs and the lilting arias from “The Merry Widow” and “The Land of Smiles.”
I, as the Countess on leave from the camp, supposedly was earning pocket money as a cocktail waitress, bringing whatever the inn’s guests ordered from the bar. But collecting payment hadn’t been part of my rehearsals; I wasn’t charging anything, a little error that later had Jack livid. The highpoint of my role was when I climbed over the rocks behind the inn, broke the little window beside the fireplace’s massive chimney with my pistol, and shot Dieter mid-song. Peter collapsed over the piano, gushing blood. A genuine doctor among the guests rushed to him and four guests carried the dying Nazi out to the kitchen.
My next big moment was to pitch head first down the stairs to the low landing in the lobby, a Nazi knife sticking out from my back and blood all over the stairs’ carpeting. In this case it was a guest dressed as a priest who rushed to me. “I give you the Last Rights,” he murmured. “You have the right to remain silent.” Constricted with giggles, I had to hold my breath until I too was carried to the kitchen. The mystery of course was that it was I who killed Dieter and the bar tender, a secret Nazi, who killed me. The pseudo priest recreated the story best and won the contest. He was actually a test pilot with the Air Force.
Ducks and Geese
The Sears catalogue, in the days when it was the farmers’ window to the world, was the size of its contemporary, the New York City telephone directory. That is, a block of paper seemingly a foot thick. I’m told that, as each year’s version was made obsolete, its fate was to be toilet paper, a few pages at a time poked onto a nail in the outhouse. It must have been crisp on the bottom, but then mid-20th century European toilet paper was too.
Before its ignominious ending (yes, pun intended) its pages offered everything from Sunday frocks to tires, pressure cookers to ducks. It was this last that arrested my attention.
Ducks. We had a pond but it was a twenty-minute walk away through the forest. Maybe our stream would suffice. From the head of the falls, going up stream, there was a stretch of maybe forty feet of smooth water to the foot bridge, and beyond that, another twenty feet before a little cataract. Surely this would be enough to please a duck.
The Sears ducklings were sold by the dozen. I ordered a set. They arrived in an egg box, each little peeping fuzz-ball in the kind of pocket usually reserved for eggs. With the baby birds came a heating lamp, a galvanized aluminum chick feeder with a gabled top arched with a dozen apertures, and a glass object that you screwed onto a water-filled canning jar, then turned the thing upside down, the device’s channel filling with water but not overflowing.
I’d provided my new adoptees with a refrigerator carton, sawed down to a height of about three feet, for their nursery. Their floor was strewn with sawdust. In other big box the talkative little ones went.
They were fluff balls with bills, but they would grow up to be Rouens. This breed looks like wild Mallards, iridescent blue-green heads for the males, dark bodies, and wings with white and cobalt blue stripes. The females modestly would be mottled brown. They’d grow to be larger, and considerably heavier, than Mallards, partly to provide a decent-sized main course, and partly to keep them earth-bound so they wouldn’t fly off and escape their culinary destiny.
Mine, of course, would never be heading for the oven. Judy’s brother Dennis, after leaving Fernwood and marrying, had bought a farm. He and his wife, Barbara, had a few sheep. With the birth of their first lamb, they invited us to come and gush over the charming little fellow. A few months later Barbara invited us to dinner, a dinner of that adorable lamb. I never forgave her. But then, I think she never forgave me either for a remark I couldn’t resist. Wild animal sightings, as I say, are a favorite topic of conversation here. One day Barbara told me she had seen a family of bears driving to work that morning. I replied “Really! I didn’t know they gave them drivers licenses in Pennsylvania.”
Back to the ducks. I hadn’t understood that ducks, from their earliest age, worship water. Somehow these little guys would take a bill-full of water, shake their fuzzy heads and distribute water everywhere. Their saw dust carpeting clumped and was sodden. Worse, the water they sprayed on the cardboard of their nursery had the walls sagging and disintegrating. The ducklings could dissolve a refrigerator box in a week. Life became a panicked search for big enough boxes. When, at last, the ducklings were large and feathered enough to go outside, I felt as liberated as if I were sending Junior off to college.
In the midst of a snow storm, Peter and I had built what no doubt was meant to be a tool shed, with a small prefabricated gambrel roof like a miniature barn. It still stands and has a Dutch door: the lower half can be closed and locked and the upper half kept open for fresh air. This is our Duck Barn. A few yards away, in the “falls garden”, on a stretch of level lawn beside the stream, we laid broad, flat rocks for Duck Steps to the water.
The ducks were moved from their sodden box to their new home, which they shared with Kathy’s black and white rabbit and a lame white Peking duck I’d acquired. I can’t remember how or where I got him but it’s not uncommon for birds raised for food to grow so heavy that their legs won’t hold them. That was this fellow’s misfortune. He hobbled around on his deeply bowed yellow legs in the hay-storing half of the barn. (Incidentally, the achievement of my farming lifetime was when I loaded five tons of bailed hay and stacked it to the barn’s eight foot ceiling.) Kathy’s rabbit had been living in a cage in the barn, although I deplore cages. Together, amid the ducks in their mini- barn, the rabbit and the white duck became pals, the duck often combing the rabbit’s fur with his broad yellow bill.
When they were old enough to be let out, the ducks were shown the way through the garden to the Duck Steps. The stream became their heaven. Loud was the avian laughter from the stream as they invented a wonderful game. The footbridge cast a shadow on the water. It was beneath this shadow that the game started. One duck would turn upside down, his pointy tail sticking up in the air. This was the signal for all the rest of the ducks to race down the forty feet to the head of the falls. Arriving, they burst into cackling laughter that only subsided when they paddled back up to the bridge’s shadow and began the race all over again. This went on from morning until evening when I came with a bucket of feed to lead them in a wobbly march back to the Duck Barn.
In the third year of this duck adventure, their population began to diminish in the night. What was happening? A neighbor suggested bobcats. Between the Duck Barn and the road was a flat area that later became our vegetable garden, but it wasn’t fenced and planted yet. Peter parked the station wagon to serve as his shooting blind, installing himself to wait with a loaded pistol. In the depth of the night there was a loud BAM! Peter came back to the house. “What was it?” I asked, picturing a dead bobcat. “A big raccoon.” “Did you get it?” “No.” “Well, that’s it for tonight,” I said with some relief. That shot had echoed through the hills, no doubt alarming the neighbors for miles around. “He’ll be back,” Peter said stoically and returned to the car.
In twenty minutes there was another thunderous BAM, and Peter came back. “You got it?” “Not yet.” “Well, surely it won’t be back tonight!” “It will,” Peter muttered as he went back out. Ten minutes later another nerve-shattering shot, and Peter returned. By now it was two in the morning. “That’s all for tonight.” Surely you’ve scared the creature away.” I could have added “and wakened everyone from here to Lakewood.” You understand, it’s very quiet here. You can hear a car coming from over a mile away or a jet plane 30,000 feet up and over New York State.
A little later, when I took the dogs for their delayed last walk of the night, there was the raccoon, huge and complacent, sitting with his back resting up against the door frame. He’d followed Peter home, apparently to prove he how unimpressed he was. For their greater safety, we sent the ducks to live on Starlight Lake where they became pets of the inn’s guests.
Geese. Our goose collection began with Maggie and Bertie. They were fat, mottled beige Buffs Geese. The Honesdale fair has a long chicken house with two aisles walled with bird-displaying cages stacked high along each aisle. Winners of the judgings displayed big, fancy blue ribbons, affixed to the bars of the cage. Bored roosters cast a beady eye on those bright things and shredded them.
Low steps led from one side of the chicken house to a long lean-to where rabbits sulkily inhabited the cages. The outermost aisle of the Rabbit House opened to a muddy outdoor pen and a pond crammed with water birds. As I leaned on the pen’s fence, my gaze was captured by a very big, fat pair of brownish creatures. I had to have them. We brought our pair of Buff Geese home in the ever essential, big cardboard box.
Peter’s brother Don and sister-in-law Sharon were visiting. Don was of that hyper-energetic sort who, after the three-hour drive from their home in New Jersey, would no sooner have sat down in our living room (his equally energetic dog crashing into and smashing a concrete urn), than he’d ask “What are we going to do now?” We took them to the fair.
Home again, Peter and Don set at once to building a pen in the garden, down by the waterfall, to house the geese. After much hammering, the geese were hefted from the box n the car and deposited in their pen. As Peter and his brother, exhausted at last, came up through the garden to the house, the two geese, undaunted by penning, waddled along right behind them.
There was no keeping Maggie and Bertie anywhere except where they chose to be. Their range became from the falls to the driveway in front of the barn. Once, Maggie tumbled over the falls and sat in the water bellow, honking hysterically. Peter climbed down the falls to rescue her, bringing the big bird up cradled in his arms. Overcome with gratitude, with half-closed eyes she nuzzled him, delicately unbuttoned his shirt and lovingly pulled at his chest hair with her rose-colored bill.
A devoted family bird, Bertie was eager for gosslings. Maggie, distinctly less so. Our ducks laid eggs. I’d gather the eggs into a bucket. Left in the barn, the ducks would step on them, so they had to be hatched in an incubator. Put back in the barn too soon, their parents, with an astonishing degree of carelessness, would step on and crush them. Rouens seem to be the most stupid of creatures when it comes to offspring.
One day I’d put a half-dozen duck eggs in my bucket, shortly before the geese waddled into the barn for the night. Maggie went straight to the bucket, eyed the eggs with strong disapproval and commenced pulling hay from a bail and stuffing it in among the eggs to keep them warm. This, for Bertie, was a positive sign.
When the duck eggs hatched, having learnt my lesson of the disintegrating boxes, I hung a heat lamp and penned the ducklings in an oval, close-woven fence in the open part of the barn floor, sparing them from their parent’s broad feet. Maggie and Bertie came in for the evening as usual. Bertie immediately went to the ducklings’ pen. His eyes shone as he cocked his head this way and that, studying the little ones, then he looked gratefully to Maggie. She came over and peered into the pen. Straightening abruptly, she shook her head and turned away, like someone encountering some thoroughly disgusting thing. Bertie was stricken. He slunk away, his hopes of fatherhood crushed. (You would’t say this was anthropomorphizing if you’d been there to see this.)
Perhaps Maggie was sensitive to Bertie’s feelings for she did begin building a nest in a corner of the barn. And she laid two big eggs. She sat and sat, no longer going outside. Bertie stayed by her, attentive, expectant, but with no more idea of the gestation period of goose eggs than I had. This brooding stretched to what seemed a very long time. Finally I detected what actually was happening. Maggie had welcomed a skunk into her nest. The skunk had long since eaten the two eggs and was enjoying the coziness of Maggie’s downy bosom.
These geese had an adventurous aspect. They would waddle down the road a hundred feet or so then, inexplicable, become panic stricken. Running, honking like the watch geese of Rome and flapping their broad wings frantically, they’d become slightly airborne. But they had no idea how to land. Since our former garage was full of animals, our cars were parked in the driveway. The geese would aim at the station wagon, bash into the side of it, flump to the ground, stand up, ruffle their feather and strut away as if nothing had happened.
This became their daily exercise and they seemed to consider the road now their private air field. Their possessiveness took a hazardous turn. Any vehicle, from a Volkswagon to a massive dump truck, they looked upon as an intruder, hurling themselves at it flapping their wings and yelling at top voice. When we saw a pickup truck careen almost into the ditch, it was time to stop this sport. We gave Maggie and Bertie to Mitzi who had a large farm where the big birds could be kept far from traffic.
There would be more geese, but enough of geese for the moment.
Children of Nature (Furred)
I’ve said that the sighting of wild life is the favored topic of conversation here. It’s not that the Moosic Mountains are teeming with wildlife, but there is a sufficient presence to keep gossip satisfied. Our roster of critters includes Virginia White-Tail deer of course, Black Bears, opossums, raccoons, beavers and otters, weasels great and small, several varieties of squirrels including flying ones, chipmunks, rabbits and Varying Hares, porcupines, Eastern Coyotes and wild cats, from bobcats to lynx and mountain lions. These last, whose existence is denied by the Game Commission, are the most favored sightings.
There even are some minks, escaped from a defunct mink ranch. One moved into our south basement. Hissing at me at eye-level from an I-beam, she did her best to convince me this was her home now, not mine.
The deer are ubiquitous, even to the point of being a road hazard worse than our geese. One night, as we sat motionless in our car, a small herd of deer ran into us. Nobody got hurt, but heavens, they’re supposed to have good night vision.
I’ve known a buck and doe to have a regular evening date, the one arriving and gazing intently in the direction from which the other was expected, until they were united and went off for a stroll together. This, not in mating season. At that busy time the bucks chase the does with earnest and unflagging intent.
Because the hunting laws have always favored bucks over does, allowing rifles, muzzle-loading guns and bows and arrows. But customarily there were only two days when does were legal to kill. This was agreeable to the hunters for their search was for the biggest buck with the biggest “rack” of antlers. Our over-hunted deer now tend to be small with modest antlers, and there are even some bucks with no antlers at all. It is told of group of does who clustered around their favored buck while he, with his antlers held far down, hid in their midst.
Fawns appear in the spring, and now in summer, and even autumn, because the few bucks remaining take that long to attend to every doe. Late fawns have little chance to survive the winter; our regional herd is diminishing. But, on the bright side, so are the hunters.
When we first came to Fernwood, the first days of rifle season there was a line of pickup trucks and old cars all along our road. A bartender in Orson, a couple of villages away, would tell guys that hunting was open on our land; this most likely was a legacy from Doc Wiley who frequented that bar and sought to ingratiate himself with the locals. I posted the land with “No Trespassing” signs in early November until one icy day I fell in the creek, my bundle of signs flowing away to warn fishermen in the Chesapeake Bay that Peter and I would not welcome them.
The hunting situation became so bad here, with outsiders blasting away with no idea where house or road might be, that the locals took to hunting illegally in the summertime. I cured that situation. I invited the local children to swim in our pond far back in the woods. Off-season hunting stopped.
Our neighbor Mitzi was particularly bedeviled by hunters. Brave woman, she made citizens arrests, taking the offenders at gun point to the local magistrate’s office. But those hunters got their revenge. As soon as there was a good snowpack on the ground, they came on their snowmobiles, driving round and round her house and shooting out the windows. More of the lawlessness of region later. Surprisingly, Pennsylvania, noted for pacifist Quakers, is not a state but a commonwealth and has a long history of rebellious individualism, dating from the 18th century tax protest known as The Whiskey Rebellion.
Bears. We have Black Bears, much more tractable than the Grizzlies of the West. That’s not to say they’re friendly. Nor are the actually black. The only black one I’ve ever seen was a creature loping across the road in a cottage development far south of us. This fellow appeared to be just as big as the cottages.
Bears, more than any other animal, are our constant problem. They love garbage pails and are quite skilled at opening them. Latches, bungee cords, nothing is a challenge for them. Garbage pails can be set out for the refuse collector only briefly before he’s due to arrive. We had big rubber pails that turned out to be the favored form of packaging for our bears. Lodging their lower fangs under the handle, their upper ones through the lid, they would drag the heavy pails across the road and into the woods until they found a tree situated perfectly for their comfort. There, sitting up with their backs against the trees, they would open the pails and take out the garbage like children selecting their presents under the Christmas tree. I’d not have minded, but what they didn’t eat they left strewn all over the woods.
One day I came home to find a pickup stopped in the road and blocking our driveway. In my most polite tone I asked, “Can I help you?” The somewhat toothless farmer in the truck grinned back, “Jes’ watchin’ the bears.” Two young bears were siting with a pail, nibbling and decorating our driveway with dirty wrappers..
The outdoor housekeeping problem the bears create gives little hint of their true capacity. I used to have a bird feeder bolted to a thick wood platform attached firmly to a metal pole until, time and again, a bear would wrench the feeder from its mount and go loping into the field with it tucked under one “forearm.”
Then there was the time a large bear tried to open the rear door of the barn. Peter saw it and ran for his pistol. Aiming to one side of the barn, he let off a shot. The bear took this as an affront. Still on his hind feet and standing very tall, he came striding across the lawn toward Peter. After a couple more shots fired over the bear’s shoulder, the furry giant at last literally “stood down,” dropping to all fours and ambling away. Had Peter not been standing right by the house door, I doubt he’d have been quite so ready for what he referred to as his “Showdown at the OK Corral.”
Mountain Lions: These you seldom see and are the most admired topic of local gossip. A mountain lion is a very big tawny or black cat, who can be as long as seven feet from tip of nose to tip of tail. Our mountain lions are a shy breed, to the point where the Game Commission denies their existence. But I’ve seen them and heard them. Purportedly there has been a den of them under the little bridge that serves the “Horn Road”, about two miles north of us. It’s called the Horn Road because a local farmer fancied that, as the short dirt road met our road, it splayed out like a horn. Local road names are as informal as that. Until the 911 emergency phone service operators complained that rural places were hard to find, locations were simply “Down toward Skurski’s” or “Up in Preston Village”, never mind that Preston Village hadn’t existed for nearly a hundred years. There are detectable dirt road intersections deep in the woods where a village once stood. All that remains is trees in a line. The Earth does heal from human presence.
The Horn Road Mountain Lions: Before we moved here, back in 1978 there was an incident down toward the Skurskis. A farmer was losing calves. It was winter and there were paw tracks in the snow. The farmer followed them, rifle in hand. You know how it is, the prickling at the back of the neck when you sense you’re being watched. He turned and found a full grown lioness only a couple of feet behind him. He froze as she rose up on her hind legs, her forepaws on his shoulders, and sniffed him. Some of these farmers don’t bathe very often; whatever the case she found him unappetizing, got back down on four feet and walked away. The farmer was so terrified that he was hyperventilating and had to be taken to the hospital to breathe normally again.
And there was the night Peter and I heard shrieking in the woods just across the road from our bedroom windows. It sounded like a woman being murdered. Peter threw on his bathrobe, grabbed his gun and bravely went out to the rescue. Concerned for our nearest neighbor, Sally, who I knew was alone that night, I hopped in our car and drove down to her farmhouse. Despite knowing Sally went to bed by 7:00 and rose before dawn, I stood on her dark lawn and shouted at the top of my voice, “Sally! Are you all right?” No sound. I rushed home and tried the telephone. Sally finally answered. “Are you all right!” I demanded. Sleepily, she said “Someone was yelling on the lawn…”
As I write, White Hands the squirrel is out on the terrace in a snow storm digging down to the sunflower seeds I put out before I went to bed. A patient band of chickadees waits close beside her as she uncovers their breakfast. White Hands is not actually generous; any other squirrel appears and she’ll chase it up the apple tree, but the birds she doesn’t mind.
Squirrels are everywhere, but we have a nice assortment of types in addition to the usual Grays and Red Squirrels. There are Fox Squirrels who look like the ordinary Grays until, by comparison with their surroundings, you see they’re much bigger. They know themselves to be too heavy and don’t attempt jumping from branch to branch, but scurry across the ground from tree to tree. By contrast there are Flying Squirrels, in sizes small and smaller. They don’t actually fly but glide, thanks to a flap of skin reaching from hind foot to forefoot on each side.
My first close encounter with a Flying Squirrel was when Peter and I had gone down to New York, leaving our late harvest of green tomatoes on the fireplace step. We came home to find green sludge all over the couch. This was in the days predating our tall gables, when we had open beams below the ceiling. There, on the beam above the couch, sat a Flying Squirrel with the remains of an oozing green tomato in her paws. She must have been tired of tomatoes and wondering how to get home, for she let me catch her. On our back terrace I opened my hands and, spreading her furry cape, she glided down over the stream and away into the forest.
There are of course mice and rats. The ill-favored House Mouse (mus musculus) is tiny, gray, with and an unattractively pointy nose. But there is also the White Footed Mouse, large-eyed as a Disney character, golden brown with a white tummy, and flesh-colored paws that are hard to distinguish from miniature hands. I was leaving melon seeds in a little bowl for the one I fancied was our particular kitchen mouse, then I saw six of them, perfectly identical, sitting on their haunches around the bowl and nibbling the seeds as if at a dining table. Since then I do trap them in a Victor Tin Cat trap. It’s a galvanized box with a window on top and two hallways with spring doors that snap shut. I supply the box with a mouse-favorite snack: crackers slathered with peanut butter.
After the era of our ducks, when the Duck Barn was being repurposed as a tool and barbeque shed, I would set down a good legacy of sunflower seeds and open the box in the little barn. Often as not the inhabitant, or inhabitants, as there could be more than one of the same brood, would look up at me and refuse to leave. Gently, I’d have to shake them out onto the floor.
But there came a time when the Duck Barn could no longer be used as the mouse house of exile. One Spring we hauled out our barbecue, dragged it across the lawn and set it up on the terrace. As we opened its lid, like tourists at a ship’s rail mouse faces appeared at the rim. Using a large green plastic ladle, I gave passage to twenty-one mice and one small rat back to the Duck Barn. The little fellows sat in the ladle, several of them at a time, their paws holding onto the spoon’s edge like a boat railing, and observing where they were going with utter complacency.
There is the issue of hording. Even as I move a stack of clean sheets I can find a stash of sunflower seeds pressed under the weight of the pile. When I was young and had my first apartment in New York I had a pet hamster. She was peach colored and was named Peasblossom. She had a small cage but the door was always left open so she could roam at will. When her bowl in her cage was empty I would refill it. Then I found she was methodically emptying her bowl and stashing the food elsewhere to prompt this flow of abundance. Once, as it began to rain as I walked to school (these were my college years), I opened my umbrella to have a rain of hamster feed pour down on me. But Peasblossom didn’t only take, she also returned things to her cage. She was particularly fond of the U-shaped tacks that held the telephone wire in place . She would pick them out of the wall and stuff them into her cheeks. With pointy spikes bristling, she’d scurry back to her cage and, using a hind foot, kick the tacks out of her jowls, spitting them into her treasure heap.
Small creatures can be quite providential. We owned a cottage in Lakewood once. Taking the decaying walls apart, we found a stash: a marble, a toy tin cup, a tattered bus schedule and an entire silk slip.
Wood rats: Unlike the common Norway rats, these are charmers. Brown, with a snub nose almost like a beaver’s, they are highly domestic and will live in houses if they have the chance. On a warm Spring day I’ve seen their young out on the front lawn playing that universal game of “bump me.” There were six of them. They’d spread out, then run at each other, ricocheting off each others’ sides then quivering with what clearly were spasms of laughter. How can one not love such little beasts, even if they have taken up residence in the basement?
In the last couple of years we’ve had a mystery in the veg garden, by the stream, beside the pond in the home field. Large, perfectly conical mounds have risen. Made of leaves and twigs, the reach about two-and-a-half feet high and three feet wide with a smooth surface. Some sort of animal architecture. Water rats? Wood rats? The first two of these structures appeared in the veg garden when it was in disuse for several years. This past Spring I took to gardening there and found those mounds long since abandoned and turned to excellent mulch. Little holes perforated the sides and I observed chipmunks coming and going. But there is no way those little guys could have built those pyramids.
It was a chipmunk who welcomed me to Fernwood when Jack McMahon first showed us the property. Dismayed by the house, I sat down to rest on the stone walkway to the garage. A chipmunk came and sat just in front of me. She sat there, gazing at me, and I gazed back at her. Might we not have bought Fernwood but for that furry welcome?
The chipmunks hibernate. They have holes all over the lawn, several holes per dwelling. What their underground hallways must be like I can barely imagine. Many years ago a department store in Brooklyn set up an enormous White Mouse habitat. It was at least five feet tall and equally wide, with passageways and rooms of various sorts. There was the gym, with a running wheel, the larder where feed was placed, bedrooms of shredded bedding made of newspaper carefully chewed until it was soft and fluffy, there was a latrine where “mouse berries were in greater abundance than elsewhere, and there was the nursery with tiny infant mice, their bare heads poking from their finely chewed bedding to nurse. Are the chipmunk homes beneath the lawn like that? (Without the wheel of course, they get enough exercise bringing food to their stashes.)
Last Spring three Chippie children emerged from a pair of holes beside the terrace. They played the “bump” game. We have two old hundred-gallon “stock tanks” that held water for our sheep in the home field years ago. These now leak and serve as planters for veggies on the terrace, most handy to the kitchen. I planted them with lettuces, spinach and nasturtiums. The lettuces and nasturtiums were untouched but the spinach totally disappeared. So much for kids not eating their spinach. The chipmunks also appreciated our supplying them with all our strawberries, gooseberries and blueberries.
Lynx and Fishers are a rarity here, I’ve seen one of each only once. But Bobcats are a serious problem. More of them (perhaps) when I talk of chickens.
But, alas, we must speak of the Coyotes. These are not true Coyotes as in the Southwest. These are a complex breed, part Coyote, part Canadian Timber Wolf and part domestic dog of unknown blend of breeds. They’re known as Eastern Coyotes and they look somewhat like ill-bred German Shepherds. The first one I saw was dun-colored and short of leg. She was bouncing around a field, trying to catch a butterfly. My next viewing was of a gray one close up. Peter’s brother and sister-in-law were visiting and we’d gone blueberry picking. Don leaned far out from the bush where he was picking, as if avoiding getting too close to the foliage. I urged him to step right in there. He looked down, then so did I. There lay the bloated body of a dead Coyote.
That rabies epidemic passed and we still have plenty of coyotes. They, more than the hunters, have reduced our deer herd in recent years. With deer hunting requiring more and more searching, canids have followed the bears’ example and turned to raiding garbage. They find their favored picking in the village of Starrucca, three miles from us. But their howls can be heard even from there. Two nights ago there was a mass howl here, closer and louder than I’d ever heard before, and I’ve been here now for forty-one years. The leader of the pack began with a long, musically varying baritone aria. Then the pack, a few at a time, then the whole chorus, joined in with voices ranging from nearly as musical to raucous yipping. The concert ended with the baritone mournfully singing his solo again. Peter and I were transfixed and shaken for the rest of the night. The only thing more frightening than a howl such as that is the weird, drawn out scream I heard in the woods one night. It sent me dodging behind the front door and locking it. Later I learned it was the voice of a rabbit.
Braver than I, the geese Maggie and Bertie would have none of coyotes trespassing on their driveway. It was one of those times when Peter and I were away. A neighbor heard the geese honking excitedly and non-stop. He grabbed his shotgun and came to their rescue. There were two coyotes circling the geese. Bertie, his neck stretched out, was hissing and honking furiously and Maggie was jabbing in the direction of the predators. Our neighbor let off a couple of shots in a general direction, aimed away from the brave geese, and the coyote fled. From that day until we got help from a professional, all the animals stayed in the barn.
Thibaut the Guardian
The professional coyote-deterrent we acquired was Thibaut. Thibaut the Magnificent. Thibaut, whose relative, of the Court of Louis XIV, was referred to as “the gentleman in the fur coat.” Thibaut was a Great Pyrenees, an ancient breed that guarded sheep from wolves, a breed descended from the Marimmano that had guarded sheep since Roman times. The modern version is registered as Marrema, but differs little from its Pyrenees cousins.
Thibaut was all white, fluffy-coated and very big. On his hind legs he stood almost seven feet tall. Evenings, after he had conducted his sheep into the barn, he would stand on his hind feet, his forepaws on my shoulders, I would sing “Shall we dance” and we would waltz around the barn. In the house, seated on the dining room floor, his nose could reach across the dining table. In the car he stood with his hind paws on the back seat, his forepaws on the front seat and his head cramped against the windshield. He seldom traveled except to go to the veterinarian for his periodic shots. If this was the totality of his car experience, we never could have persuaded him into the car. So I made sure a car ride meant a treat. We had to stop at the ice cream stand where Thibaut would be served a large dish of vanilla ice cream, which he accepted condescendingly.
We bought Thibaut from a sheep farmer who had a specialty sideline in Pyrenees. The farmer rented the land and stable from a mansion near Scranton. The stable was palatial with marble walls and stalls with elaborate, shiny brass fittings. Here the dogs were bred. But the sheep were in less glamorous quarters. In the sheep shed, just above a rough wood partition, the dome of a white head and a pair of brown eyes observed us. This was Thibaut. He was an “altered” male. Viable Pyrenees can be difficult. There is the story of the suburban Pyrenees who took to herding and guarding joggers, his owners coming home to find a clutch of frightened joggers in their back yard. But Thibaut was the soul of gentleness, except if he thought his sheep at risk.
Every day in the morning, either Laura or I opened the barn and Thibaut led his sheep in a gallop across the lawn to the field. There he grandly sat among them all day occasionally giving voice. His bark was basso profundo. No coyotes dared come near. He even challenged any airplanes that were visible, high up at their crossroads in the sky.
At evening he guided his flock back to the barn, with Laura or me leading. It was then, when the sheep were safely penned, that his friend Buster, a boxer mix who followed Laura up from their farm, would approach and he and Thibaut would play, the big white guard dog being ever so careful of his much smaller buddy. But one day Buster, eager to play, approached before all the sheep were in their pen. Thibaut went for his playmate as if he were a total stranger. Had Laura and I together not succeeded in pulling him off, he could have killed Buster. And that was the last we ever saw of Laura’s dog.
Great Pyrenees are not long-lived, but we didn’t have him to the end. When I placed that ad for Greta the deer-hunting German Shepherd, the woman who came for her sat down on the barn floor with her arms around Thibaut’s neck. Whether she had ever had a Pyrenees, I don’t know, but she had lost a big dog that she still mourned rackingly. We were moving to Pottersville, in New Jersey’s hot climate, and I feared for him there, heavily coated as he was in thick double layers of fur. So I offered Thibaut to her, if she would take his sheep as well. It was unthinkable to part him from his sheep.
She had a proper farm with a big barn and sheep and cows. Much as I adored him, the move would be better for Thibaut. After he had been living on that farm for a while, I went to check up on him to see how he was faring, ready to reclaim if all wasn’t well. In the vast, airy barn, with a far larger flock under his care, Thibaut was happy. So happy that he let me know he preferred to stay there, leaning against the farmer’s chest and looking at me with a gaze that said he hoped I understood. And I did.
Missing him, I went back to his breeder and got a female Pyrenees pup, Nellie. She was the most active of the litter – a thing I learned to see as a warning. For, as Nellie grew, she became the busy tyrant of our household, terrifying our other dogs. Once, as I protected tiny Chloe the Yorkie, Nellie bared her teeth and lunged at me. I had to grab a chair and fend her off like a circus lion tamer. That ended it for me. Nellie went on to a neighbor who’d had many large dogs with success. But there she couldn’t be kept in the yard and was found by Starrucca folk as she grazed on the corpse of a deer. There is no way that her hundred-pound plus weight ever allowd her to race after a deer and down it. But it was Nellie who was found at the carcass, and Nellie whom they meant to shoot. She moved onto yet another home and we lost track of her. Perhaps it was she who rounded up those joggers.
At her departure from our house, our dogs ran about, giddy with their release from her bullying. I realized just how oppressive she’d been for all of us. Not all dogs can be taken to your heart.
It was Peter who was interested in goats. At the county fairs those personable animals would climb up their pen’s fence to present themselves to be petted, their peculiar horizontal irises gazing in your eyes with a knowing look as to say, “I know you, don’t I?”
So it was that Peter found a small ad in The Paper Shop, the all-classified advertising publication that offered you everything from a buyer for your “antiques” to tires for your tractor. The ad simply said “Goat for sale. $25,” and gave a phone number. From the number it appeared the location of this goat was not very far from us. Peter called, got directions and found his way to one of the more messy properties in our region. It’s not uncommon for some folk to live in a rusty trailer, the front yard filled with upholstered furniture oozing stuffing, a broken plastic rocking horse, a battered TV, a pristine satellite dish and even the proverbial rusted bed springs. These trailer folk can often be the best of neighbors, coming at once if you need help, when your Westchester immigrant neighbor won’t even answer the phone, or will tell you, when you suggest a reciprocal arrangement in case of emergency, “Oh, I can’t be responsible for that.”
It was just such a cluttered place that Peter reached, looking to buy that $25 goat. The owner gazed around. No goat could be seen. At last the animal was found at the bottom of a deep and muddy pit. Hoisted out, wiped off with paper towels, and with her feet tied, she was set in the back of the station wagon and brought home.
Heidi was a black and white French Alpine goat, for all we could tell pure bred despite her questionable origin. She was sweet tempered, even the sheep liked her. But if Peter’s intent was to have goat’s milk and cheese, she would have to be bred. So we got a “Billy” goat. Jack was white, stinky and had no particular interest in Heidi who remained dry and kid-less.
At this time the home field was fenced with the “weed cutter” electric fence. We were taught the way to introduce a sheep to an electric fence was to put on thick rubber boots, grab the sheep by her wool and wrestle her until her nose touched the fence. So informed of the nature of the fence, Valentino quickly figured out how to deal with THAT. He arranged his family into a flying wedge and ran at the fence with all heads lowered so only the wooliest, most insulated spot met the fence. They capably knocked a section of wires down and fled back to the barn faster than we, having lured them out, could get back. But with time, the sheep came to consider there were advantages to being in the out-of-doors and accepted the fence.
The sheep and Thibaut were peaceably living on the home field during the day time when Heidi and Jack joined them. It was my custom to bring a bucket of sweet feed out to the field each evening; it was this treat that was certain to bring them back indoors for the night. As I’d unhook the wires that formed the gate, Jack adopted the disconcerting habit of dashing toward me, then, standing on his hind legs he’d stare in my face until the sheep, eager for their feed, bleated their complaints.
But Jacks most startling behavior came when one or another of the ewes was in season. Considering himself quite the Don Juan, he would fold back his upper lip, baring his long teeth, and snort like someone with a bad cold. This was his prelude. Then out came his tongue for a loud “raspberry” that he performed with eyes crossed. Last came the ultimate attraction. Bending down with his head lowered and his hind quarters tucked in, he would liberally pee on his beard. The ewes were not impressed.
Other goats. There was a publication for knitters who raised their own wool on the hoof. Optimistically, I subscribed. Carding and spinning came before knitting, carding being accomplished with carding combs: two wooden boards with handles, the face of each board covered with a sort of rubbery matting in which a hundred or so wire teeth were set. One would take up a handful of fleece as clipped from the sheep, set it onto the teeth and comb it with the matching carding comb. The sheep of curse had been wearing this fleece for all of the past year, so it had bits of grass, twigs and unidentifiable matter which the teeth drew out. Considering how long the sheep had been wearing this wool, the detritus was less than expected. And the nice part was sheep sweat is lanolin, that basic ingredient in hand lotion.
Carding is a good cure for chapped hands, but its purpose is to set the fibers into line, straightened somewhat with every fiber going in the same direction. Some wiggle in the fiber is necessary for them to cling to each other when spun. A few Poodle owners, admiring their dogs’ crimp, spun and knitted up sweaters of the stuff, then found that if the garment got wet it stank and shrank catastrophically.
As for me, my Cheviot wool was not hard to spin, or knit, but the result was like a sweater of chain mail. If I was going to use my home-grown wool for knitting, I needed something far softer. The Cheviots’ wool went for insulation in the attic, where it became a favorite home of our old and gigantic snake whose presence we encounter each year in the form of his long, shed skin.
I was looking for a source of soft, knittable wool when I saw an ad in my craft-persons’ magazine for Angora goats. They were raised on a farm in Vancouver, Canada. “No problem” the Angora raisers assured me when I called, “We ship our goats to the U.S. all the time.”
We bought a pair of teenage Angoras small enough to fit into a large dog carrier. Our precious young buck and nanny were put on an Air Canada plane and sent to New York’s Kennedy Airport. Dressed in our farm clothes, we drove down to the city. Peter scrounged and found enough wood on the streets of the Lower East Side to build a pen that fit neatly into the back of our much-used station wagon and we went out to the airport to pick up our goats. They were to arrive at 6:00 PM. We arrived early at the Customs Office to make sure everything went smoothly and nothing went wrong because, by the time the plane was to land, the office would be closed for the day. That’s when everything did go wrong.
“Goats? There aren’t any goats coming in today,” the Customs Inspector said with certainty, opening a file drawer in his desk to prove there was nothing there. “But they are coming on the Air Canada flight arriving at six,” I insisted. “We’ll wait and see,” the Inspector said in a tone that bore a palpable hint of threat. It seemed there were new documents required for the importation of farm animals from Canada by plane. He had received no such papers. While we as a nation believe ourselves to have thoroughly amicable relations with our neighbor in the north, it seems there are these little border wars, carried out through bureaucratic annoyances. We called the breeders in Vancouver. They’d shipped to this country many times but had never heard of these documents.
The Inspector contacted the crew in flight. “Yes, there is a pair of goats on board, in a dog carrier.” The Inspector stayed long past the proper closing of his office, until the Air Canada flight touched down. Then he quarantined the entire plane far out on the air field. No one could get off. Not until the goats were disposed of one way or another.
I was practically reduced to tears. I suppose some of those stranded passengers were too. The Inspector relented. There was a solution: the new documents were not required for bringing in animals at a land border crossing. He would remove the goat-baring dog carrier from the plane himself and let it being its passengers to the arrival gate. The goats he would store in a hangar, to be put on the next plane to Canada. Again, as a kindness, he wouldn’t send them back to Vancouver. They could be repatriated via Montreal where we could pick them up and bring them home by land..
Peter and I, dressed in our sheep-tending clothes, began our all-night drive to Montreal. The first plane from New York would land in Montreal at 2:00 in the afternoon. Tired, rumpled and probably seedy looking after our ceaseless drive, we presented ourselves at the Customs Office. The Inspectors raised their eyebrows in a very French expression of shock. For now we were attempting to import into Canad goats that had been rejected at the Port of New York. Hoof-and-mouth disease? Anthrax? We, dirty and disreputable farmers that we seemed, were trying to taint all of Canada. It was pointless to argue that these were Canadian goats that were rejected at Kennedy solely because of our not having certain documents – documents the Canadians of course had never heard of. The skeptical, snide rudeness of these officials was more than frustrating, it was infuriating. It takes much to really rile me, but I wanted to lift their tall, cylindrical and weighted metal cigarette disposal thingy, and heave it through their plate glass window.
Just as I was calculating whether I could actually lift the thing, Peter emerged from the back office where he was in consultation with the Inspector-in Charge. The Inspector was saying, as an ultimate threat, “The only way you may bring in these animals is with the permission of the Chief Customs Inspectors of Montreal, New York City, with the Chief Veterinarian of the Port of New York.” “Good!” Peter replied, “Let’s do a conference call,” and he got out a credit card. The inspectors were stunned. They had judged us by our disheveled jeans and sweat shirts. Eyes wide, one murmured, “Cette un gentilhomme!”
The call was made. The two ultimate Chief Inspectors consulted and agreed we should have our goats, with the approval of New York’s Chief Veterinarian. The testimony of the Montreal Inspector, who had taken a look at our little goats and found them perfectly well, though thirsty and hungry, was sufficient. Full of apologies, our tormentors were all graciousness. “Madame,” their chief reached for my hand, the hand that had so nearly smashed their window. He tried to kiss it. Glaring, I fetched it back with enough hauteur to put any Frenchman in his place.
At last we had our goats. They got a bucket of water and some feed right away, as soon as they were settled into their pen in the car. By now it was 4:00 o’clock. We had to reach the border crossing before the veterinarian there left for the day. In a mad rush we drove for the border., but arrived well after dark. The veterinarian already had gone home for dinner. Again, we found kindness as the guard called the Vet, and he came back to inspect the goats. Genial and quite tipsy, he opened the hatch of the station wagon, peered in with a flash light and shut the hatch. “They’re fine.” And we drove on home, with me in the back seat rubbing Peter’s shoulders and singing to keep him awake.
Our little Angoras were beautiful. If you’re old enough to have ever had a Kewpie Doll from the circus, you know what Angora fleece is. It’s long, crimped with a Marcel wave and white; but not merely white, lustrously, pearly white.
At shearing time a sheep would be sat upon her hind end, which was so deep with wool that she couldn’t even shift from side to side. With electric clippers, first her belly and chest fleece was peeled away to either side; then the clippers were run down her sides, the fleece falling away like a blanket to the ground. The tricky part was holding the sheep still long enough to make the final cut down the middle of her back so the fleece came free. As soon as the shearing was done, the sheep would jump up, stand a moment uncertainly, then walk sedately to the other sheep who were standing clustered together in embarrassed nakedness.
The Angoras were different. If a sheep is wearing a full year’s growth of fleece and has the misfortune of falling on her side, she may not be able to get up without help. The Angora’s wool wasn’t thick enough to immobilize them. Where a sheep, so moderately clothed, would be up in an instant, these little goats were passive to a fault. Tenderly, they would be set down on the grass, where they lay like martyrs accepting the humiliation of the sheers.
Cutting an animal during shearing was the one unpardonable sin. With no big, tiring flock to shear, we could be careful and set our finished sheep back up without a spot of blood. The Angoras, trimmed to a white fuzz on their pink skin, would lie there in a faint and have to be petted and set back on their feet, and petted some more.
Our two Angoras never got any bigger than a large Golden Retriever, and they had a gentle temperament that was thoroughly endearing. Unfortunately, the buck never mated with his proper lady, but jumped the four-foot partition between the stalls and mated with Heidi, who produced perfect little twin facsimiles of their father.
Mitzi and the Tempertons
Mitzi was one of the first people I met when we moved here. The Starrucca Post Office, in its picturesque Old West clapboard building, is three miles away, down a precipitous hill and en route to nowhere. The Lakewood Post Office is also three miles away, on gently sloped roads and on the way to everywhere I’m likely to go. So it’s always been to Lakewood that I’ve gone to buy stamps and mail packages. Beside the door there is a notice board and on that notice board there was a card advertising a shop of local crafts. It was located on Spruce Lake, just around the corner from me, after the manner of country distances. Here, “around the block” is five miles.
Mitzi’s shop displayed ceramics, whittlings and wood carvings including those monstrous ones made from a tree trunk and cut with a chain saw. But the principal stock was sheepskin slippers. These Mitzi and her elderly mother made every winter; such slippers are definitely the coziest of foot gear.
Mitzi and her family were New Yorkers. In their prosperous days they had bought a mountain top farm with long lake frontage that probably included the Great Blue Heron rookery. Mountain tops here have the richest land and Mitzi’s farm was verdant. It was where I eventually sent Maggie and Bertie so traffic would be safe from them.
By profession a dancer, Mitzi suffered an injury that precluded her dancing again, a fate all too common among dancers. With the family reduced to just her and her mother, and the family wealth reduced as well, Mitzi and her mother had retreated to the farm and to their craft shop. There were animals on the farm, pet pigs, chickens and ducks, and a retired horse whose cleverness included escaping from his wire-fenced field. He was the bette noire of the neighbors, his favorite scratching place was their big satellite dish which his pleasurable rubbing regularly de-focused.
Mildred was Mitzi’s mother’s name. Whether she had other children or only had Mitzi, born late in life, she was of an age to be a companion for my grandmother. But we never got to know Mildred well, my most vivid memory of her was oft Mitzi sending her out to check the electric fence. The old lady would touch it, and if it knocked her flat it was working.
Actually, I never got to know Mitzi well either. There seemed a reluctance on her part. I later learned that she and Judy McMahon’s brother Dennis had been a couple and she had envisioned their wedding in the glass-walled living room of Fernwood. That hadn’t happened. Dennis married Barbara, a scientist at the medical equipment manufacturing plant outside of Hancock. Living in the house she coveted, I think I reminded her of her lost married life.
Like the post office, Mitzi’s shop had a notice board. It was there I found the business card of Gary Temperton, Contractor. His address was even nearer to me than Mitzi’s shop, not a mile away. We had much work to be done on our house. As it turned out, far more than we could have imagined. Our lawyer, at the closing, had pointed out, “You can always change a house.” I had a list of changes and was delighted to find someone nearby who could turn that list it accomplished fact.
Since childhood I’ve been amused by the aptness of names. Walking to school, I passed the offices of Dr. Carver, Surgeon. There were the two famed judges: Learned Hand and Justine Wise. And my favorite, the Crocker Fire Extinguisher company.
Gary Temperton had quite a temper and it channeled his life. Many were the storekeepers he wouldn’t deal with because of some argument in the distant past.
Although from a distinguished family, one brother was a “Bird” Colonel, the other the head of a prestigious boys’ school, Gary was the back sheep. He held the opinions of a “Red Neck”, hostile to the world in general, and particularly to Black people. Gary’s job had been as regional chief carpenter for Sears stores. It was he who maintained whatever woodwork there was, but most of his time was spent building displays. His best friend at work was a Black man, and that one friend was closer to Gary’s heart than anyone but his own wife. When this friend was fired by Sears, Gary went to the Personnel Office in a white hot fury and quit.
Like Mitzi, Gary found in the Endless Mountains a retreat from the collapse of his professional life. He had an uncle with a piece of land in the now non-existent village of Preston, just up the road from my cottage. It was here he brought a long trailer and set about making a new life. This trailer was perhaps the height of elegance among its ilk. It was very long, and it sported a bathroom of black marble Formica with elaborate bronze fittings, suggesting a facility intended for the Borgias. The trailer was heated by an enormous, cube-shaped sheet metal wood stove that, in the worst of winter’s cold, heated the place to tropical oppressiveness.
It was at Sears that Gary met the woman he married, Joanne Horton. Gary was tall and lanky, like the actor James Stuart, not merely in awkward length of limb but in face as well if Stuart were pictured biting into a lemon. Jo was barely five feet tall, if that much. Skinny, with a long face and long nose, she had an elfin quality. In their work together her smallness enabled her to shinny into low, spidery crawlspaces to attach heating ducts, run electric wire or re-fit sewage lines. Rooftops also were in Jo’s repertoire.
But Jo had not always been a builder’s helper. She came from Upstate New York, growing up next door to the Onondaga Indian reservation. She remained friends with the chief and the local sheriff. But her past professional life she most spoke of was as hostess in a restaurant in Palm Springs, California. I can well believe she was a favorite among the celebrities who dined there. She had a mordant sense of humor, was invariably honest, and, as they say in the theater, “she cleaned up good.” In make-up and her fluffy wig, she looked like a miniature Dolly Parton. The restaurant owner, referred to as “The Diamond,” made her his particular confidant.
But now it was as Gary’s helper, and more, that she locally shone. Together she and Gary were the “first responders” for anyone in need, for they operated a short wave radio and monitored the police broadcasts. While the police had no idea where “half a mile down the road from Soden’s” was, Gary and Jo did know. Jo was known and loved for the expanse of their shortwave’s reach as “Pioneer Lady”, long before the name was commercialized.
Gary undertook the job of stripping the gray asbestos shingles from our house and replacing them with cedar shingles. This is not the easiest of jobs. When we bought the house, the rooves had to be re-shingled. We specified cedar shingles instead of the more common asphalt shingles. Already we were aiming for a traditional look. The workmen set the wooden shingles upside down and they all curled. The look we got was of a frizzy “bad hair” day. Our several re-roofings, executed by Gary, ranged from tar roll roofing for the then gently sloped living room roof to the wisely preferred asphalt.
Gary re-sided the house with cedar, stripped the peeling red paint on the trim and painted it a warm beige; we’d found our inspiration in Cape Cod villages. In the north wing, windows facing the road were slots high on the wall with a view restricted to our usually overcast sky. Most likely such windows were intended for suburban houses, to let in light while shielding the interior from neighbors a few feet away. These high placed apertures we had Gary replace with a window seat and a casement. On the side overlooking the stream, Doc Wylie, built smaller versions of his glass wall: the glass plates used in color printing set in 4”x4” framing,, These we replaced with two sets of four tall casement windows, all Gary’s work, and the house flaunts his signature crown moldings in abundance.
Gary was working on the front door, which we were replacing with a colonial paneled steel door and side lights. I was driving down to Dykes Lumber’s store in New Jersey, where the supply of moldings was most varied, when I heard on the car radio the news that changed all our lives. An airplane was reported to have crashed into the World Trade Center.
It was at the Trade Center’s top floor restaurant, Windows on the World, that my grandmother’s birthday was usually celebrated. I knew the buildings well. Peter and I first visited, entering the blue-carpeted lobby late at night, and saw New York’s favorite former mayor, John Lindsay, and his wife gazing about at the soaring architecture, as awed as we were. From the restaurant’s floor to ceiling windows, one could look down dizzily on cars below, smaller than ants. I had a dream that the vast elevators operated at free fall, the compressed air beneath serving as a cushion to produce a gentle stop. The Trade Center, however often visited, inspired awe.
A plane colliding with a tall New York building was not an unheard of thing. In the 1940s a small plane had bashed into the then-new Empire State Building. The announcer of this first release of the news assumed some small private plane had struck the tower. But quickly that assumption was corrected as the huge body of a passenger jet stuck out of the upper reaches of a tower, engulfed in flames.
As I drove down Route 17 to Dykes, sirens blared and a steady stream of emergency vehicles raced past me in the fast lane. When I reached Dykes, a column of black smoke could be seen in the distance where the southern tip of Manhattan lay. In the store, the employees had a television on and we all watched in horror as the second plane struck. One man muttered, “Where’s Bruce Willis when you need him?” referring to the balding hero of the “Die Hard” movies in which the actor seemed able to rescue anyone from anywhere. Such witticism aside, we knew we were watching a disaster of a magnitude beyond anything but the catastrophes of cities in full wartime.
I bought far more moldings than I intended, the salesman and I both functioning mechanically, in shock. Though people diving from the flames to their deaths on the sidewalks below were not visible on the television, there was no relief from knowing the horror that was taking place, as one after another molding was set on the counter. I went home with a great bundle of moldings of all sorts and sizes, barely able to see the road ahead of me as images of the great towers engulfed in smoke engraved themselves forever in my mind.
At home, there were a number of workmen at the time, deconstructing the house to replace the leaky rooves. None of them knew of the disaster yet, and none believed me until one brought out a radio. Then we all turned somber and listened, like the damned fixated upon our hell. And our world has never been the same.
As a memorial of that day, Gary, in as much of a daze as we all were, used all of the moldings on the front door lintel with something of an hysterical effect.
Saving Marguerite’s Lake
Marguerite Card and I were best friends. Her hay field, at a slight remove from the main farm, met our land at the back, along an unmarked line in the woods. Her logger, Nick Filocamo, swarthy, short and with impressive muscles, rang our doorbell. Would we like to have some logging done, as he was in the neighborhood? The fact was, not knowing where Marguerite’s property ended and ours began, he’d already cut trees of ours. At that time we didn’t know much about forestry and never wanted any tree to be cut down, ever. Years later we found a large plie of big logs rotting away in our “back forty,” near the border.
Nick was an honest man. No doubt if we’d agreed to the logging he’d have added the worth of the trees already cut to whatever else he did. Later, we did have him do the recommended “one in five” cut as the crowding was resulting in trees toppling over.
Nick was a local character. When his chain saw kicked back and sliced far into his neck he clapped his hand over the gash, hopped in his truck and drove 45 miles to the hospital in Binghamton, where he fainted over the sill of the Emergency door. It seemed nothing could stop him. He died from a fall from a ladder as, with evening coming on, he hoisted that one last “square” of shingles onto a one-story roof. When it’s not your time, nothing can get you, when it is, there’s no avoiding your fate, however absurd.
Marguerite’s farm was next to Gibser and two farms down from Shehawken Corners, by the old reckoning, which is quite precise. Here is how it came to belong to Marguerite. A Mr. Card, Marguerite’s grandfather, had a money-lending business. The family that farmed the property for two or three generations took a loan from him, then defaulted. Card evicted them and sold the farm to his son Leo.
At that time, Leo was affluent enough to have a cottage in Florida as well. But he loved the farm to the point of worship. It was some 400 acres with a big farm house and barn. This sale was between a father and son, there was no mortgage contract, no payment books, and payment had to be in cash, not unusual during the Depression when so many banks had failed. The Florida cottage was sold and, month after month, year after year, most of the milk money went to Leo’s father. At last full payment was complete. After two months of Leo not paying, his father threatened to foreclose. Leo had paid the full amount with interest but, as his father pointed out, he had no proof. No contract, no cancelled checks. Leo went on paying for the farm until his father died.
Leo took to farming, with thirty dairy cows and a vegetable garden that grew enough for his family to be nearly self-sufficient. Leo’s family consisted of himself, his small, frail wife Miriam and Marguerite, robust as a child and more so as a woman. In advanced age (I had no idea how old she was) she had a large, jowly face framed by masses of brunette curls: no beauty, she conveyed an amiable sturdiness.
One day, when Ma and Pa were out, two men in suits visited the farm. Marguerite hid in the barn. One of the men remarked, as he glanced in the barn, “I thought I saw the adopted girl.” That’s how Marguerite learned she was not actually Leo and Miriam’s child. A family they knew in Florida had more children than they could feed and simply gave the Cards their new-born baby girl. The practice is not uncommon in the country, I was twice offered infants and Roberta had a teenage boy she’d acquired as a baby.
Marguerite loved the farm but did not love farming. Leo, unhappy for abundant reasons, was a tyrant. He sent the child out every evening to find the cows when they’d strayed into the woods. Searching through the cold, dark forest, tripping over roots and peering for the strange white shapes of the Holsteins’ sides was nightmarish for the child.
Holsteins, in the dark, can be frightening looking. Once when I was driving through a heavy fog , I saw luminous weird shapes undulating past my windshield. Inches closer I could see it was a herd of Holsteins crossing the road, going to their barn for milking. Before we owned Fernwood, the McMahons had rented it to a couple of city-dwellers. Coming home at night, they found strange glowing shapes on the lawn. They called 911 and reported an invasion of space aliens. It was just Evanitski’s cows, come to eat the fallen apples. The apples had fermented, the cows were quite drunk and were sleeping off their binge.
The report was not quite so bizarre as it would seem. That summer a space ship had been reported hovering just a mile up our road. That had set off a “Meet” of alien buffs on Soden’s field, at our hilltop. And I’d been rather spooked when, attempting a bit of grooming on our newly acquired land, I heard a strange, insistent beeping. I called Barbara McMahon, which is how I first heard of the space aliens. Truth was, when the breeze is right, the soft back-up toot of the road department’s big trucks, over a mile away, can be heard in our woods. Peter was in New York and I was alone, I did not appreciate Barbara’s Twilight Zone news.
Aliens or not, Marguerite had good reason to fear. When she was creeping through the dark woods it was in the years of the Depression; homeless men, fed at the back door by farm wives, took shelter for the night in the forests.
Farm architecture in the Endless Mountains: a proper barn here is set on a slope at the road side. The vast upper floor has a yawning maw of a doorway, opening close to the road for the hay wagon and tractor to drive right in. Beneath the hay loft is the low-ceilinged accommodations for the cows, with doors opening out to the pasture. Often there are no stalls, but each cow knows her place. There’s a queen of the herd and everyone else observes strict precedence, like our sheep but more so.
The Card’s milk to be sold came from the Holsteins, but for their own use they had a pretty little Jersey cow with huge, limpid eyes and a smooth coat of golden brown. In the barn, each cow was tethered to her place in line, with her head above the feed trough, her tail above the channel in the concrete floor where poop handily accumulated. The Jersey had the spot in the northeast corner, by the coldest wall. When the wind blew from the north she shivered pathetically and moaned. Marguerite convinced Pa they had to move her to the middle of the herd where bulging black and white cow flanks heated the air. Hitching the Jersey to a rope, Pa led her down the aisle, past tall cow-hips. Seeing where she was going, the Jersey balked, went down on her knees and bellowed in abject terror. It was worse than presumption for her to be at a place of higher status. She knew she’d be kicked, if not killed, by her offended neighbors. Marguerite led back to her cold but safer station and brought old blankets and quilts to keep her warm.
Every morning the thirty cows had to be milked by hand and the big metal milk cans filled. This work was Miriam and Marguerites; then the two of them would drag the cans out of the barn, hoist them onto the two-wheeled milk cart and drag the cart up the steep slope to the road, where Leo had the horse hitched to the wagon. Then the women folk went back to the house to make breakfast while Leo drove the five miles to the creamery in Lakewood, by the railroad tracks. It was at that creamery that Leo’s farming days ended. A thick sheet of ice slid off the roof and hit him in the spine. He recovered, but could never do heavy work again. He went into the insurance business. But I leap ahead.
The farm was nearly self-sufficient, the vegetable garden yielded enough potatoes for the year and hens past laying age were plucked, boiled and “canned” in large glass jars with the jellied water they were cooked in. Served with biscuits, this is the local dish “chicken and biscuits: a plate overflowing with chicken jelly and shredded meat with a biscuit submerged and sopping. It’s actually quite good. Sometimes the Card farm raised a few pigs, and bull calves were sold as veal, a couple kept back for a treat. Miriam “corned” the pork and beef to preserve them.
But there were supplies the farm could not provide. The day Dolf Worms came in sight down the road, with his old wagon and older horse was occasion for a celebration. Bolts of calico, pins and needles, coffee and tea, sugar and rag dolls, hammers and nails and horse tack were supplied by Dolf. These things could be gotten at the General Store in Starucca or Lakewood, but Leo, paying off the farm, preferred waiting for Dolf for he was cheaper.
Leo’s greatest pride in the farm was a work of his own hands. Below the barn and in pleasant view of the house, was a valley with a stream burbling through it. This Leo saw as a lake, and he made it a lake all by himself. At the northern end of the valley (downhill, as usual here) the stream passed through a narrow declivity, bounded by the slope up to the road on one side and by the foot of the mountain’s shoulder on the other. Here Leo set rocks and wedged them with mud until the stream began to back up, silting the embryo dam with more mud. As the dam grew wider, Leo made a roadway across the top. Driving his horse and wagon to the mountainside, he opened a quarry. Blue stone slate is what our mountains are mostly made of. Now Leo, with a hand pick, cut out and hauled bigger stones into his dam. When the work was finished, where the valley and stream had been, Leo had a beautiful 40 acre lake. The dam held, more and more silt securing the lake waters for decades.
Even without the lake project, the Card farm took overwhelming work. It should have been a comfortable enterprise, were there three hearty sons to help, as the previous farmers had. But Leo had only a fragile little wife and girl. Something had to be sacrificed, and it was cleanliness; as Marguerite explained to me, “Whose business is it if we live like water buffaloes?” Exhausted at night, Leo would shed his overalls in a corner of the bedroom, where they remained standing until he stepped into them in the morning.
The financial debacle Leo suffered from his father, then the accident at the creamery, the farm began to be thought cursed. This was confirmed when the farm house burnt to the ground, Leo, Miriam and Marguerite barely escaped with their lives. Leo pulled a cottage from some other property and set it on the farm house’s much larger foundation. Somehow, it worked for a while. Marguerite spoke of the fire often, and I thought it must have happened recently, shortly before Leo’s death. Then she showed me a news clipping about it. The fire was in 1943. After that I tended to think Marguerite’s news was of events long ago. But all things were in the near present for Marguerite.
No farm girl at heart, Marguerite followed the advice of a judge she somehow met. She and Ma saved up egg money until she could take herself to New York City and study to become a Court Recorder. The Women’s Residence where she found a cheap bed was miles from her class. She walked downtown and back each day, buying an orange for breakfast on the way, and a hot dog from a pushcart for her dinner on the way back. She grew thin, but she was happy, earning a new life that meant her freedom from the farm, and from Leo.
As a Court recorded Marguerite prospered. In a few years she had an assistant, then she had a company that included all the Court recorders in Binghamton. She bought a little house in Corbetsville, half way between Binghamton and the farm. Miriam died, then Leo died, just before we bought Fernwood. And Marguerite inherited the farm. It was this occasion that prompted the logging, and our meeting Marguerite.
Marguerite moved back to her splendid farm for her weekends. There were no animals now, except her pet Welsh Corgi she brought with her. And there was no habitation but the cottage perched on the ill-fitting foundation. Rot had set in. As Marguerite walked across the cottage floor, it gave way dumping her, with a shattered knee, into the farm house’s stone basement. Were it not for the barking alarm the Corgi set up, and Marguerite’s peculiar capacity to be oblivious to pain below her neck (dentistry was excruciating), she would have died in that pit. But she managed to crawl out and reach the road. A passerby took her to the hospital in Binghamton. Elaborate knee surgery restored her ability to walk, but she was incapacitated for months. In that time, another Court Recorder took over her business. No longer the principal employer of Binghamton Court Recorders, she managed to get some work from judges who were fond of her. But her livelihood was very diminished.
Marguerite would often come to our house and stay for meals, but she was afraid of men, and that included Peter. He threatened to make a sign to put by the front door, one side saying, The Ogre Is In, the other, The Ogre Is Out. He never actually made the sign, but its message has become handy. If Peter is about to lose his temper, I say, “The Ogre Is In,” and the moment turns to laughter.
We never were invited to the Corbestville house, but Marguerite repaid me with beautiful clothing. She haunted a thrift shop and she had superb taste. However, there was a pitfall to her generosity. The mother of a famous woman Broadway producer lived in Binghamton. I knew this because Marguerite had met the mother at the thrift shop and, like most mothers, she loved to talk of her daughter’s work. Now, Peter was a Broadway theater critic and sometimes I went down to the city to go with him to an Opening Night. So it was that, in my favorite skirt I was sitting next to the producer who used to wear that skirt. She eyed me with acute interest.
It was almost as embarrassing as when, at age fifteen in Madrid, I’d had a fancy skirt made of a copper colored brocade. When my father, who was a screen writer, his wife Velma and I were invited to a tea party given by the Duchess O’Reilly, I found I matched her drapery. (The Spanish Duchess O’Reily: the wreck of the Armada on Ireland’s shores had unguessed results.)
Back to Marguerite and her lake. Few people have a forty-acre private lake, ringed by woodland, with a meadow stretching to the water’s edge. The farm had been the torturous magnet for Leo’s soul, but the lake was the real treasure, obvious to all who saw it. With such a lake, the farm was worth well over a million dollars, not that its owner ever thought of that. Then came Hurricane Gloria.
Weather predictions were more than dire, Gloria was plowing a path of flood and destruction northward up from the South and we were right on her way. Gary Temperton was putting up the last of our cedar shingles with only a few more to go before the job was done, and the house “buttoned up.” Hurrying to beat the storm, he pounded the last nails in with such force that, inside, he knocked the barometer off the wall.
Gloria hit us, and left Starrucca under four feet of water. Propane tanks floated away. The Post Office was sodden, he mail turning to paste. Roger’s cows stood hip deep in floating hay and manure.
At Marguerite’s lake water poured over the dam, bringing extra flooding down into the submerged village. In a few weeks the Army Corps of Engineers were following very tributary of the bloated Susquehanna River. They found their way up the Starrucca Creek to Marguerite’s farm. Her dam hadn’t failed, but hadn’t held its waters back entirely. Were it to fail, the wall of water it would send down to Starrucca could be catastrophic. And the dam was built only of rocks and mud, the official engineers condemned it.
Of course the dam couldn’t be demolished all at once. They would take the dam apart gradually, until at last the valley emerged with its little, unfettered stream.
Marguerite protested. She found an engineer to draw up plans for the dam’s improvement. When that plan failed to gain official approval, she submitted another and another, costing her far more money she could not afford. But it became clear that no one in the water controlling bureaucracy cared to be responsible for approving any plan. If a new dam failed, the approong official would be blamed.
Marguerite’s nearest neighbors were a young couple from New Jersey, Paul and his wife Natalie. Paul loved the lake, and he was a “can-do” person with extraordinary talents. He believed he could do anything he set his hand to, and his life was testimony to that fact.
Paul came from one of the most affluent of northern New Jersey suburbs, but at the age of twelve his mother had thrown him out – literally. He took shelter in an engine repair garage and the mechanics there let him stay. They taught him how to repair engines of all sorts, from BMWs and sports cars to buses the biggest trucks. Paul had genius for the work. By the time he was twenty-one he’d earned enough to buy the farm next door to Marguerite. Now the most complex truck tractors, the most valuable sports cars, came to him.
But the threat to the lake troubled him beyond bearing. He thought of little else for days, and finally suggested a plan to Marguerite. To make a dam of local rock so large and strong that it would withstand any force, would take earth-moving equipment of enormous size and power. He offered to sell his farm to raise the money, if Marguerite would share her farm with him 51% to her, 49% to him. He would build a new house for his family to move into when new owners closed on his farm, and he would build a house for Marguerite to replace the rotting cottage she no longer could use. She could design the new house with whatever features she wished, and he would build it for her.
Marguerite and I began driving around suburban neighborhoods, looking at houses, admiring this architectural element and that. Marguerite wrote a list, with sketches. A gable, a front door, a bay window… But the more we looked at houses, the more Marguerite scratched out her previous sketches and added more. She couldn’t make up her mind.
Paul’s closing date on his farm was approaching and he had to build the new home for his family. Now it became evident that Paul had never built a house before. His plan was a simple, gabled frame house by the shore of the lake. Seeing the house from the road, it looked like a rather ordinary, boxy little house. Up close it was evident it was enormous. Mechanically it was perfect, just cavernous.
And still Marguerite couldn’t decide what she wanted. She was looking forward to leaving the Corbetsville house, but couldn’t until her lake home was a reality. So Paul bought a large “mobile home” and set it on the slope overlooking the lake. Marguerite moved in, with Paul’s assurance that, as soon as she came up with a plan, he would build her proper house.
And now he turned to acquiring his equipment for the dam. There were immense mobile machines that easily could lift Leo’s quarry a boulder the size of a Cadillac and trundle it to the dam. Paul had his brother video tape everything he did. The dam grew much bigger and very solid. When it was finished, the video was submitted for approval. The Army Corps of Engineers returned to inspect Paul’s dam — and determined that it was completely adequate . The lake was saved.
There is an odd coda to the story of Paul and of Marguerite’s farm. After several strokes, Marguerite died and the farm became entirely Paul’s. But by then he’d had enough of farming, and especially of our hard winters. He was ready for something new. He sold the farm and bought a large sailing yacht, large enough to sail around the world.
He and Natalie had neither of them ever been on a boat or been to sea. This yacht had automated equipment to raise and lower its sails, so what could be a problem? Their friend Kathryn urged Natalie, “What about the milk? “What do you mean?” Natalie sensibly asked. “You’re going to put it on the table and it’s going to fall off!” And Kathryn offered the same reasoning regarding the alarm clock.
Despite these wise warnings, Paul and Natalie set off to sea in their glorious yacht. The first thing they learned was one or the other of them had to be awake at all times. They settled in the Caribbean for a while, literally “learning the ropes.” Good learners, they ventured through the Panama Canal and out into the Pacific. Last I heard of them,they had sailed to the South Pacific where their boat was docked at a private island belonging to Mel Gibson, and they were caretakers for the actor’s tropical retreat.
Chickens, Guineas and Peacocks
Chickens: One Christmas I asked Peter to give me something beautiful, and he gave me a Light Brown Leghorn rooster and two hens. The rooster (unoriginally) I named Chanticleer, the hens, Bertolotti and Henny Penny. Chanteclere was magnificent, all the beauty I could wish for. With long hackle feathers of gold to copper, a similar copper colored “saddle”, iridescent emerald chest, and a fountain of iridescent black/green tail feathers, Chanteclere was a stunning creature. His ladies were a modest brown with golden brown hackles.
One evening before Christmas we drove out to terre incognita, in the neighborhood of Montrose, Pennsylvania, to purchase Leghorns from Cecil Rose, an old man who from childhood had been winning ribbons for his poultry at the Wayne and Susquehanna County Fairs. He led us in the dark to his poultry barn, where cages were stacked up to the ceiling, and let us select from his adult birds. I supposed the three we chose would be delighted to roam freely, perhaps for the first time in their lives.
At home in our little barn they seemed shy at first, recalling to me Hank Glover’s remark, “They gotta get accumulated to the place.” But in a day or so they were perching on the wooden walls of the pens. Peter made nesting boxes which the hens eyed, cocking their heads from one side to the other and kicking the nesting hay about. They seemed to approve their new circumstances, however they produced no eggs. And Chanteclere seemed utterly indifferent to his two wives.
Such was the situation when Marguerite told us of an abandoned Game Hen and her chicks. I said of course we’d take them. In a day or so Marguerite turned up with a large, rustling box. From it exploded fourteen half-grown, airborne chicks and Marguerite lifted out the mother hen. She was half the size of our Leghorn ladies and the homeliest bird I’ve ever seen, with all her brood taking after her in her unfortunate plumage. The best description is that they had the coloring of week-old snow spattered with mud. With intended irony I called this pathetic hen Pearl.
But Chanteclere stood on tiptoe and took notice. It was love at first sight. We were having warm, early autumn days and the front door of the barn was left open so the chickens could roam. I saw Pearl cautiously step out the door, looking from one side to the other, then turning left and, squeezing under the fence and into the vegetable garden. Chanteclere stepped briskly after her, every feather tense with interest. He went to the open door then looked back to see that his hens were busily occupied kicking straw about in search of corn. Assured they weren’t watching, he darted out of the barn and shoved himself under the fence. I followed to see what was going on and found him under the grape vines with Pearl, beneath him, being pummeled in his mating passion.
Not long afterward, Pearl vanished. Her brood however, was growing fast. There were more dingy little cocks than there were hens and I feared that, as they matured, they might challenge Chanteclere’s supremacy. Fortunately, for years their combat took the form of singing contests. His musically mighty crowing left them docile and contrite. At least for the present.
It was the day of our first snowfall when I heard a desperate peeping from outside the closed barn. There I found two chicks whose unmistakably awkward appearance declared Pearl was their mother. Pearl apparently had left them and was comfortably warm in the barn. I picked up the little fluffy twins and put them in a box in the house with the heating lamp, the feeder and waterer that had served for the ducklings. Far tidier than the baby ducks had been, this little pair were quite endearing. I kept them in the house until their feathers sprouted and grew to about the maturity that Pearl’s first young had been when they arrived, a stage at which I figured the new ones would be able to fend for themselves.
Up to now the Leghorn hens had ignored Pearl, although Chanteclere continued to be besotted with her. But Bertolotti was harboring revenge. The chicks had not been in the barn a day when she killed them both and literally painted the walls and attic of the barn with their blood. Not only was I stricken – these were my little ones, but I realized that while neither Bertolotti nor Henny Penny were likely to produce chicks, anyone else’s chicks would meet this same fate.
Bertolotti had to go. I went into the house and told Peter what had happened. ”Bertolotti has to go!” I announced. It was clear I meant he had to slaughter her. Peter’s response was “I have to talk to my editor.” As he consulted her regarding the mischief in our hen house, I realized there was no way he was going to do in a chicken with his own hands. I fetched his Chinese clever out of a kitchen drawer and marched back to the barn with murder I my eyes. Bertolotti was standing in the driveway, watching me with her neck stretched out in defiance. Without the slightest flutter of protest on her part, I picked her up by her neck, took her to the barn’s back steps and laid her head on the step. With an outraged mother’s fury, I whacked off her head with the clever with a single, deft blow. It’s not true, at least in my experience, that chickens run around without their heads, but she didn’t seem to notice the loss right away.
Holding the dripping body by the feet, I took it and the Chinese clever back to the house. Peter was still on the phone with his editor. Seeing me, blood spattered and holding up my trophy, he hung up, shocked. He was shocked I could do it, but his mood turned to unforgiving pique when he discovered I had knocked a chip out of his Chinese clever. Nevertheless, that night he cooked a splendid Cacciatore a la Bertolotti.
Pearl’s children grew, and Chanteclere aged. The singing contests among the rooster became incessant. One day I went in the back door of the barn and saw Pearl’s hens forming a line and moving in peculiar order toward the far corner of the barn’s front door. As each hen reached the front of the line she jumped up and down then went to the rear. I went to investigate what this was all about. There, with his head thrust under the door for protection, was Chanteclere, disheveled, bloodied and undoubtedly deposed as premiere cock. With his head unreachable under the door, the hens hadn’t been able to blind him and puncture his brain. I picked him up tenderly and put him in our greenhouse for safety. There I fed him Purina dog kibble. Why I thought this a good idea I don’t know, but he thrived and soon was not only back on his feet but thoroughly rejuvenated. I wrote to Purina telling them of the miraculous cure of my rooster. They never wrote back. In the barn, Chanteclere regained his supremacy.
When we moved to Pottersville (that sojourn related in another chapter) we gave our chickens to a farmhand at Hillcrest. But, when we returned to Fernwood, I of course had to have more chickens. I was charmed by the thought of green-shelled eggs and found a source for Araucanas. They were raised on farm out beyond Tunkhannock, more of terre incognita again. My friend Susan Wyler went with me.
The farmer led us into his barn where poultry crates were stacked about five feet high, the wooden cages full of quail. These tiny creatures flowed en masse from one side to the other of their cages in dizzying rapidity while twittering hysterically. Convincing me I never want to have a quail.
The Araucanas, about ten hens, sat soberly in a concrete floored pen, looking demure and thoroughly appealing. Their breed, while standardized in their smallish size and in the matter of producing oddly colored eggs ranging from olive green through blue, is not the least bit standard in appearance. No two were at all alike. There were partly white ones, rust brown ones, speckled ones and every permutation. With them was a handsome cock of unknown parentage. He was tall, white and had a magnificent plume of a black tail. Hisis name was Eagle.
Eagle was the most intelligent chicken I have ever met, and I’m not damning him with faint praise. I‘ve met a few wise chickens (given that they are chickens after all.)Either eagle could count or he knew his every hen. Evenings he would stand by the back door of the barn as his hens waddled in to roost for the night. If one was missing he would go looking for her. Not until he had found her and shooed her into the barn with beating of wings and chiding squawks, would he let me close the door. Mornings, if I wasn’t in attendance as early as he thought I ought to be, he would open the back door himself. This he did by hopping up the stairs, turning around at about mid-height and flying at the door with all his might.
I was so pleased with my chickens now that I became an avid reader of the Murray McMurray poultry catalogue. Chicks could be ordered only by the dozen but the selection could be a mix of breeds. I got golden Buff Orpingtons, black Jersey Giants, fluffy Buff Brahmins, all hens, and an extra chick was added as a freebie: a Polish Crested cock. Eagle proudly accepted his increased harem.
The Polish Crested was a fancy looking creature as he matured, with an all black body topped with a fright wig of narrow white feathers that concealed all of his face but for his little beak peeking out from the fringe. He never challenged Eagle who, for his part, considered the Pole no threat. But the Pole considered himself a great Lothario, ever attempting to mount the hens and being beaten up by them until he crept under a nesting box to hide. We got him a beautiful, all white Polish Crested hen who fell abjectly in love with him. She would stamp her feet for attention and squat in the mating position. He ignored her, apparently needing the thrill of the chase.
Now we had quite an assortment of hens and they did provide us with eggs. Some of the new hens laid pink to rose colored eggs. Proudly I offered my egg boxes with green, olive, blue, pink and rose eggs to the little market about five miles away. They were delighted to have them, until a customer returned a box of my eggs complaining they had palmed off on her someone’s old Easter eggs. So I lost my only customer.
Peacocks: In Dame Edith Sitwell’s autobiography, Taken Care Of, there’s a photograph of Edith as a child. She’s walking down a garden path, away from the viewer, and under her arm is a peacock, his tail spreading on the ground behind them like a grand train. From this vision of companionship I yearned to have my own pet peacock. But of course peacocks must be very expensive. I knew that swans were, so we had no swans. Then, at the Honesdale fair one summer, there was a cage up front in the poultry house and tiny balls of dull brown fluff were huddled in it amid the wood shavings. The sign on the cage said “PEAFOWL $20.” Out came my $20 and I went home with a brown fluff-ball cradled warmly in the palm of my hand.
There was the tiniest bit of iridescent green amid this chick’s dull brown, so I strongly suspected the one I had picked out was a he. I named him after Edith’s brother Sacheverell. Hoping to make a pet of him, I fed him by hand, gently petted him and took him about with me, tucked in the front of my sweater (yes, sweaters used to be essential here even in the summertime.)
But Sacheverell did not respond as I’d hoped, and after a couple of weeks it was clear he preferred not to be my pet. I became concerned then that he could be lonely. Reading up on peafowl, I found it was important for them to have mates if you wanted to be sure of keeping them on your premises. I called one of the governors of the fair and found out where the pea chicks had come from. Their source was a farm south of Honesdale. Peter and I hopped into our car and went in search of a pea-mate for Sacheverell.
One may see a gloriously grown magnolia in the yard of a hovel, or the most splendid ragweed towering from the gravel planter in front of a New York apartment house. Nature is no snob. The pea farm had magnificent peacocks strutting everywhere. Their apricot-brown hens went about their business with that sang froid so common in the animal kingdom, where the females ignore maasculine beauty in a manner at the far opposite from the fixations of romance writers.
I looked in vain for a barn or poultry house, there was none. Instead there was a collection of rusting, broken down “mobile homes.” Here and there, from the sagging metal doors a peacock eyed the world. The establishment looked like an abandoned mobile court slum invaded by these most regal of birds.
As I think about it, trailers probably were a wise choice for poultry housing. Unlike a pen on a concrete pad, no weasel or fox could dig under the fence, no eagle could dive from above, and the metal was reasonably well insulated for winter heating. From the little house on the property, the owner emerged and conducted us into one of these trailers. The place was remarkably clean and odor free. Disconcerting as their homes were, the birds were meticulously well tended. I was able to select my second bit of brown fluff.
I had hopes this one would grow up to be a peahen so Sacheverwell would be happy in domestic life with us and with a wife. He did immediately take a warm interest in the newcomer, nestling the tiny one under a wing and gently grooming his fluff. So far so good. But in a couple of weeks bits of iridescent blue began to appear amid the brown. I named him Strephon, for the character in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Iolanthe.”
The two peacocks grew into magnificent birds, as is their breed’s way. There is no diva more eager for the spotlight or conscious of her audience than is a peacock. Expecting that your attention may move in his direction, he will first ascertain the direction of the sun, then position himself to take full advantage of it. With a shake of his feathers he will then spread his tail to the full fan, catching the sunlight in every gold-tipped fiber of his glorious tail. He will stand perfectly still in that pose until he considered your dropped jaw needs further reinforcement, then he will shimmer his tail with a sound like a snare drum roll lit by a fireworks display of golden sparkles. He will keep that up, pausing to let you breathe every now and then, until, aesthetically exhausted, you start to move away. Then he will follow you, insistently rattling his fully deployed tail. He is insatiable in his demand for awe.
Peacocks are smaller birds than you might suppose. Supporting that gargantuan ego is a frame no bigger than a large duck. He has long, hellish-looking scaly black legs with formidable claws. Like a gaudy cavalier, he’s capable of being deadly when need be. Heaven help the person who parks a convertible car in his vicinity. The soft roof will not survive as a peacock perch. And yes, they can fly, although the sight turns His Majesty into a buffoon. The long, splendid tail flops like a blanket shook out behind the moderately powerful wings.
Out of doors, Strephon and Sacheverell liked to perch on the house roof or in a tree. For a time they were granted free run outside all day and night. They were too formidable to be threatened by raptors and the sight of them, wherever they cared to pose, I found thrilling. But then, not having wives and a domestic nest, as we were warned they conceived a desire to wander. They would trot up the middle of the road, forcing us to fetch them home. There are few things more ridiculous than herding peacocks. They thrust their feet out in a wild, rhythmic wobble requiring a human canter to keep up with them. This pair kept veering off the road and toward the stream, driven back by my flapping “wings” and eardrum-piercing squawks, like a pea being garroted. Yes, peafowl do have a voice. As Flannery O’Conner’s neighbor said, “They makes better eatin’ than listenin’.”
So it was that Strephon and Sacheverell came to be confined in the 12’x12’ pen in the barn, along with all the other fowl. It was about this time that a Bobcat discovered our available meat supply, and no bird could go out safely. I was standing on the lawn by the front walk, watching our hens poke about in the grass, when a Bobcat leapt onto one of the pillars by the gate, sprang down and grabbed one of our very big Orpingtons. With her shrieking, and me standing by stunned and helpless, the cat leapt back onto the pillar and was gone in an instant. After that, except for the peacocks who could dumbfound anything, nobody with feathers was allowed outside.
This was past the time when Eagle ruled the roost. He was a mature bird when he came to Fernwood and his life span reached its fullest peacefully here. Now the peacocks made themselves masters of the hen house. Sacheverell chose the highest perch as his throne, and Strephon became his enforcer of avian peace. If two hens were contesting the occupancy of a nesting box (there were five of them, identical, to choose from and why one would be preferred seemed solely a matter of henish superiority) Strephon would hop down from his seat beside his monarch and stand between the contestants until they turned a walked away,ruffling their feathers in accepted frustration.
The Polish Crested paid his unwanted attentions especially to a certain Araucana. She had no claim whatever to attractiveness inhuman eyes, but her appeal was unquestioned. Now Strephon also found her irresistible. I never saw him attempt to mate with her, but as soon as he hopped to the pen floor, the Polish Crested would creep under the nesting boxes and stay there while Strephon strode behind the irresistible hen, displaying all the glories of his tail.
When my aging made most of my barn duties no longer tenable, we came to the difficult decision of parting with many of our creatures. The peacocks and chickens, all but the Araucanas, went to a beautiful large farm in Damascus, Pennsylvania, belonging to my friend Marian. We studied the problem of moving full grown peacocks. With some struggle we got hold of them, laid the out on the pen floor with their tails closed and down, and rolled them up in two carpets, gently setting them on the rear floor of our station wagon. At this undignified treatment they murmured slightly but stayed quiet, perhaps recalling their confinement in the egg. Thus they arrived at the Marian’s farm like Cleopatra presented to Julius Caesar. There they thrived until Sacheverell discovered a large flock of wild turkeys and took off to preside as monarch over a more interesting constituency. Among turkeys the grandest tail feathers predominate, so I trust he had no contest in his superiority.
Guineas: Guinea fowl are alarming looking birds. A guinea has a body shaped like an immense egg about the weight of a large chicken. The plumage is beautiful, ranging from the most common: black or dark gray spangles with a thorough dusting of small white dots, to pastel versions of the same, ranging from lavender to white, the dots becoming more ghostly the paler the feathers. What is shocking is a guinea’s neck and head. Scrawny, emerging from the bulging body, the neck and head are totally bare. The is neck wrinkled in folds like the oldest crone. The head, perched above these gray-blackish wrinkles, is the absolute white of clown makeup, touched on the wattles of the cheeks with clown red. Atop this travesty is a horn-like protuberance, rounded at the tip and as stunningly red as the wattles. It takes a strong constitution to gaze on a guinea, until one become used to their complete absurdity.
Braving the problem of their appearance, I’d read that guineas are more effective than watch dogs at guarding premises and raising alarms, and they have the added advantage of eating bugs. So, when I met a woman who raised guineas, I was interested and soon made a bargain with her – after she assured me they’re docile and even personable.
Ordering chicks from Murray McMurray required a minimum order that was more chickens than I wanted, so I offered to include in my order chicks for my new friend. Whatever breed interested her (and that McMurray’s extensive offerings included), in exchange for a pair of adult guineas. We agreed, I sent in my order and was given the shipping date. They would arrive by ordinary post.
Two days before the expected date, I received a panicked telephone call from the postal depot that was served by Binghamton, New York’s airport. The day was inauspicious, a spring snow storm was expected and the cold temperatures boded no melting. The postal employees were in near hysterics. My chicks were there already, and were raising hell about the cold. I must come and get them at once! “Can’t you put them someplace warm?” I asked. No, there was no warm place to put them.
I called the Guinea Lady and we arranged to meet in the parking lot of McDonalds in Great Bend for our exchange of creatures. Following the directions from the postal people, I wended my way round and round the maze of an industrial park, stopping several times for directions that only confused me further. Finally I reached a huge, roofed structure completely open at its delivery end.
By now the snow was falling in earnest. As soon as I got out of my car, I could hear my chicks yelling. A heavily bundled up and deeply relieved postal employee hurried to me. He held a box the size of a flattened show box, and it was positively vibrating with protests. Once placed on the seat beside me in the warmed car, the box fell silent but for a few murmurs of satisfaction. I thanked the postal employee. He looked at the quiet box, “You don’t know how worried we were about them.” “Yes, I do,” I assured him. “Thank you so much.”
By the time I reached McDonalds the Guinea Lady was there with a large cardboard box and a smaller one. In the shelter of the warm cars I opened my box, peered at its fluffy, huddled contents, studied my McMurray catalogue for the markings of the chicks she’d ordered and our transfer was made. So it was that, slipping and sliding on slick roads, I brought Vito and Rosa home to Fernwood.
I’d seen avian devotion before, in Chanteclere’s passion for the plain little Game Hen. Pearl at least had been accepting of her lover’s attentions. Now I witnessed unrequited love. It was clear from the outset that Vito adored Rosa. He would stand and gaze at her for hours. The newly arrived chicks went in the house and into a box with a heating lamp, the always serviceable chick feeder and waterer; but the guineas went right into the pen with the pea-fellows and hens. Since Vito had eyes for no one but Rosa, and she had eyes only for chicken feed, neither the hens nor the peas took any notice of them.
It was a heart-breaking romance I witnessed. Vito lived for Rosa, but she, when she didn’t ignore him, she was abrupt and impatient. Let outside, since their business was as watch-fowl, she roamed about the grass in search of interesting bugs. He simply followed her, nibbling a bug now and then to keep up his strength. I never saw him attempt to mount her, although he must have since it seems she eventually laid viable eggs.
Then one day Rosa crossed the road and strode up the wooded slope; I saw her do it as though the territory beyond the road was quite familiar to her. Vito, who took his territory seriously, went no further than the gate, but perched on the stone pillar on which the gate was mounted, and stood all day gazing after her. For over a week she came back every evening, but then she came back no more. Vito remained literally at his post.
We bought a beautiful white guinea hen for him. This exquisite fairy tale creature fell as much in love with Vito as he had been with Rosa, but he paid no attention to her. Demurely, she never left the barn, but when he returned at dusk she would rush to him. He behaved as if she wasn’t there. One morning I found her a rumpled mass of white feathers on the barn floor; I believe she died of a broken heart. And Vito, to his last day remained on vigil for Rosa’s return.
That summer I heard of a guinea hen of Rosa’s description parading the roads of Starrucca, four miles away, with a train of young guinea fowl following her. It seems Rosa had a nest in the woods, brought her eggs to hatching and raised her brood on her own in the wild, with no intention whatever of returning to her forlorn Vito.
Cats, ‘Possum Dearie and Becky Sharp
I was allergic to cats. So allergic that if I went into a room where cats lived, even though there wasn’t a cat in sight, I not only began to sneeze, but my face turned red and puffy, my gums began to bleed and I started coughing up foamy blood. I was never going to have cats.
But moving to the country, with our own private well water, had unexpected benefits. In Los Angeles and New York, where I’d lived before, the water was liberally laced with chlorine. I drank it; I wore it in my laundered clothes and slept in it in my laundered sheets. Chlorine apparently brought my irritant level up to the point where cats were deadly to me. Now, with no chlorine in our water, and with propane eliminating the chance of irritant particles in our forced-hot-air heating, I presently have four house cats. Still, if one of them scratches me it raises an itchy welt. So allergy lurks but, with the reduction of environmental irritants, I live happily with four cats.
Cats entered my life like this:Barbara, who used to live in Fernwood Cottage, told me I absolutely had to have a cat or I’d be overrun with mice. Well, the lady who sees bears driving to work was not a figure of authority for me. I couldn’t have cats then, and besides, I’m quite fond of mice. But one day I found three kittens by our front door. I managed to catch them one by one in a Hav-a-Heart trap, a hefty wire cage with a spring-loaded door. So far no allergic reaction. They became our pets: Perdita, because she was lost and found, Hortense because she loved plants and Claudio Melopepo for the Pumpkinification of the Emperor Claudius, because he was orange. Claudio disappeared, as male cats are wont to do, but not before getting Perdita with kits, which she stored in the barn in a box of circular saw blades, and apparently forgot about them. When I found them at last, they were past saving. Perdita was an unmotherly cat.
Hortense and Perdita did their duty with the mice, to my horror, leaving a head or a tail on the stone floor of the living room from time to time. But the most memorable occasion with these cats was when we moved, temporarily, to Pottersville. We supposed they were more attached to Fernwood than they were to us — I’d read of cats traveling long distances to return to a former home — so we left the cats in place as we gradually moved out. But as our last car-full of belongings was loaded up, the cats mewed pathetically and rubbed up against our legs in clear declaration that they didn’t want to be left behind.
Peter and I each picked up a cat, settling Perdita on my lap, Hortense on his in the car and we began the three hour drive to our new home in New Jersey. We’d been driving for less than an hour when I was assailed by a very foul odor. Turning to Peter, who was driving, I asked, “Do cats fart?” (actually I said “can cats be flatulent?” but that’s me speaking.) Before he could answer, Hortense stood up from his lap, sniffed in the direction of Perdita, turned and neatly vomited all over Peter. We still had a two hour drive ahead. When we paused at the toll booth for the Delaware Water Gap, the clerk at the booth stared at us in horror as the odor came out our open window with the bridge token. Arriving at our new home, Peter and I grabbed our cats, dashed to the laundry on the basement and stripped, stuffing our cat-vomit-and-diarrhea soaked clothes into the washing machine.
When Hortense and Perdita eventually found their way to kitty heaven we were catless for a while, and did indeed become overrun with mice. The dear little ones were highly selective, with a marked sweet tooth. I opened a sealed box of chocolate cherries to find the wrappers glued together with cherry liquid but the chocolates and cherries all gone. There was a mouse-sized hole in the box. More mysterious was the disappearance of wedding cake. Peter had made the cake for the wedding of our friends Clara and David Reeves. In true Victoria style he put small pieces of extra cake in fancy little heart-shaped boxes tied up with ribbon, as souvenirs for the wedding guests. For years I had two of the boxes on my bedroom dresser. Dusting, one day (which I do every few years whether it’s needed or not) I found the boxes peculiarly light. One had a tiny hole, but the other was completely intact. Removing the ribbon and opening the boxes I found them both completely empty. Dear mice.
But on with cats. It was when we had chickens in the 12’x12’ pen in the barn, but before the era of the peacocks. A weasel got into the pen. What I found was a dead weasel. And our lovely Buff Orpington hen who so personable and friendly, was dead also. She had defended the flock, and lost her own life gallantly in victory.
I went at once to the Dessin Animal Shelter in Honesdale in search of a cat to protect the remaining chickens. What I came home with were two kittens: a nearly all black Persian-ish tortoiseshell whom I called Sophie, and a short-haired white and orange cat whose name was Caramel but who became simply Sister. But the good people at Dessin also persuaded me to take a third young but full grow, neutered male cat. Unlike any other animal at Dessin, he was not in a cage but lounged confidently on top of everyone else’s cage. I was told he’d delivered himself to the shelter. While the kittens were perhaps too young to rid the barn of weasels, this fellow, I was assured, would do the job. So he came home with me too. Fr over twenty years old now, he’s still with us as I write and he’s Peter’s Buddy.
Weasels never came to our barn again, but Buddy’s interest in mice was peculiar. There was a stack of winter tires in a corner of the barn. Buddy would catch mice and drop them into the well formed by the tires. Perching on top, he would watch with fascination as the mice raced round and round in the hollow of the bottom tire. When mouse-racing palled, he would let them out again.
When we bought Fernwood there were what one might politely call idiosyncratic features in its construction. One was that the barn had, for a foundation, stacked railroad ties. While this might be okay for a shed, this building was 24’x24’ and fully to stories. Nevertheless, with the house providing us with leaky roofs, walls collapsing, and an electrical system devised by a pyromaniac, it was not until the railroad ties actually rotted away, leaving the building supported by what our contractor imaginatively called “sky hooks”, that we got around to working on a proper foundation.
The chickens and peacocks by this time had gone to live at Marian’s farm in Damascus. But the three cats were still living in the barn. I arranged a cozy habitation for them one of the house’s two cellars (two far-separated cellars are another of Fernwood’s peculiarities.) The cats were transferred and the barn was meticulously cleared. Then the whole building was lifted up, little by little, on four structures gradually built up of railroad ties, like massive stacks of toy Lincoln Logs, in the middle of the floor. Miraculously, with a “front loader” the size of a go-cart, the contractor ran around the interior walls digging out the remains of the rotted foundation and trenching for concrete blocks – without disturbing my plantings just on the other side of the walls. My hero!
The new foundation in place, the building was lowered, log by log, and we were ready for pouring the concrete floor. Just as my hero was smoothing the broad, square floor to flawless perfection, there was a loud pounding on the stairs. A cat I’d never seen before came bounding down the staircase, went splat into the concrete at the foot of the stairs, thrashed about an instant and disappeared out the door. It took hours to get the floor smooth again. My favorite contractor never believed I’d actually moved all our cats. And he worked for us no more.
When the barn was finished, our cats were released from the cellar. Sophie and Buddy made irresistible bids to be house cats. But Sister, allowed in the house, impressed me mightily as she tiptoed across the shelf above a toilet, carefully knocking perfume bottles into the toilet to watch them sink. And she didn’t get along with Sophie who bullied her. She was content to move back to the barn and have it and the out-of-doors to herself. No longer oppressed by Sophie, Sister took charge of her world.
In the barn there was a chicken door in the rear of the large pen and this Sister used for ready access as she took up garden. Sitting by an upstairs window that overlooked the vegetable garden, she’d watch me digging and planting. Inspired to do likewise, she’d dash downstairs and out the chicken door to work at my side. As I cut a shallow groove in the soft soil, dropped seeds in then gently covered over them, she’d follow up, pawing away the soil I’d just put in place, squatting very carefully and planting malodorous wads where the seeds had been. Then she’d carefully covering over her accomplishment. I had to wait until she was back in the barn eating her dinner before I could dig up and discard her farming efforts and replant the row.
Incidentally, mice do farming too. They bring sunflower seeds from the back terrace and plant them in my indoor planters. Most amazingly, they favor the hanging plants in the greenhouse. Long, pale green sunflower sprouts bend up against the ten-foot-high roof of glass. How the mice get up there is a mystery. But their farming isn’t just busy-work, they like to eat sunflower sprouts.
Sister, freed from Sophie’s bullying, became a remarkable cat. She could talk, and I do mean in English, although her vocabulary was limited t two words. Boxed in the cat carrier and going to the vet, she would keep up an incessant yelling of “Why! Why! Why!” and at the vet she would say “No! No!” Who knows what more she might have said, given comparable provocation.
Why creatures talk in human speech, when they do and what they choose to say, is beyond understanding. In my teenage years I had a beautiful white parakeet named Spooky. He lived in a large cage in my grandparents’ dining room and had free run, joining us at dinner by walking on the dining table and sampling our salads, his tail dragging through the salad dressing. When we were washing the dishes, he would fly into the kitchen and dive through the soap suds. He was an intelligent and capable bird, but try as I might I could never get him to learn a single word. He had his own agenda. Listening to the dining room radio, he would occasionally puff himself up proudly and murmur “Maybeline.” But his greatest verbal achievement came after a day when my grandmother and her sister had washed and rehung the dining room curtains. That night Spooky clearly announced, “Ethel, the curtains are too far to the left.” His remark left us all speechless over our dinner.
Returning to Sister. I worried about her. She clearly was deeply lonely all by herself in the barn, which was gradually being transformed into our garage. I tried to find someone who would take her, she was clearly a people-loving cat. But I had no luck. And she did seem very fond of the place she had. She just wanted me to move in with her.
The barn/garage had a goodly second floor with potential views over the vegetable garden, the waterfall and the lawn to the house. I was inspired to convert it into an apartment. To install a full bathroom, a kitchen, a bed/sitting room and closets was a project requiring measurement to the sixteenth of an inch. We found a remarkably capable builder, Bob Rutledge, the dairy farmer who was also head of our property-owners society. He built and renovated houses to keep the family farm solvent. (The perilous situation of family farming in our time is another story, not for a book that aims to be cheerful.) Bob’s helper was a German fellow who was here courting his betrothed, and who gave me brandy-filled chocolates, the most delicious confections I’ve ever eaten. Both men were big, noisy and wore heavy boots that shook the floor. Their power tools were ear-splitting. Nevertheless, Sister remained where she was and oversaw the construction.
A day finally came when the work was nearly finished. I’d been amusing myself buying odds and ends to furnish our new guest apartment, including a pair of large orange velvet pillows from Pier One. I kept them in the store’s big white plastic bag in a storage space under the eve that I called the “cubby closet.” With the sleigh bed/couch in place by the veg garden window, I was ready to deploy the pillows. Hefting the bag out of closet took far more strength than I expected. I peeped inside. On top of the orange pillows was a brindle fur pillow I didn’t recall buying. Suddenly the pillow launched itself out of the bag, dashed into the bathroom and hid behind the shower door. There, huddled in the shower, I found an opossum. And she had left two tiny red bits behind. These were premature babies, jostled from her pouch. I left them where they were in hopes that, when I was gone, she’d put them back where they belonged, but she didn’t and they didn’t live. But, learning that opossums had six young at a time, I figured she still had four more.
The two orange pillows were immaculate, nevertheless I put them through the washing machine and dryer and they came out good as new. It was evident that we had an opossum who liked her comfort. I remembered that, a few months before, I’d seen an opossum in the garage, sitting on a green velvet cushion on a stored wicker chair. Seeing me gawking at her, she’d reluctantly gotten up and trudged out by way of the chicken door. I didn’t doubt this was the same pillow-loving beastie. I named her Possum Dearies.
Possum Dearie was with us all winter and was a good companion to Sister. At night they played together, Dearie ate Sister’s cat kibble and used Sister’s cat box. Since she also liked sweets and shiny things, I gave her candy wrapped in shiny foil. She ate the candy and assembled the wrappers in a tidy collection under the old pillow I’d given her for her bed. The only problem with her was the prospect of four more opossums. Come warm weather, I put her pillow and her wrapper collection into a large dog carrying case. She moved in and eventually I was able to carry her outside. I don’t believe I’ve seen her since, unless she was the opossum I saw in the snow one night outside the library window. I put out some banana pieces. That opossum picked up the pieces, studying them carefully, then picked up a similarly shaped item of dog poop, studied it with equal care and ate the dog poop. I doubt very much that could have been my meticulous friend Possum Dearie.
But then there was Becky Sharp. We no longer had sheep to mow the front lawn; Peter set out to do his semi-annual mowing under the apple trees at the front of the house. That was when he noticed the grass was littered with twigs. I came out to have a look at this mess and noticed a dark lump up in one of the apple trees. By shaking the tree I got it to move just enough so I could make out a bristly tail. We had a porcupine. Unlike opossums, porcupines are not benign. No, they can’t shoot out their spines at you, but if they whack you with a tail those spines will pierce and stick. Once into the skin, each spine opens into a shaft made of barbs all pointing the wrong way when you try to pull them out. Jo Temperton had a Chow who thought he would nip a porcupine. His neck, despite his heavy ruff, his nose and, worst of all, the whole inside of his mouth were a mass of needles. The poor dog, in desperation, held his mouth open as we tweezed out each barb. It took all night.
So I was not happy to see we had our own resident porcupine. And not just for the sake of the apple trees. I yelled at this snub-nosed, prickly invader until I got her attention. Slowly – for porcupines know no fear, nor any reason for them to bestir themselves at speed – she gradually descended. I kept yelling. More to spare herself the noise, she trudged off, curling up under a bench at the end of the lawn. With her head tucked in, diminishing the racket I was making, she seemed to go to sleep. She remained there, under the bench, all the next day.
Now, those three apple trees on our front lawn really did need pruning. I confess that after that porcupine’s work we had much better crops. So I came to tolerate her, and she returned to our trees for a few years. I called her Becky Sharp.
Harvey and the Thank-Roofing Dinner
with some Digressions on My Life With Food
I must say at once that where I shine in the kitchen is loading the dishwasher. Not that I haven’t tried my hand at cookery.
At the age of seven I made my first attempt at cooking, and I was unsupervised. I had a passion for creamed spinach and found a recipe for it. It was to be a surprise for my mother. Whether we even had spinach in the house I’m not certain, but the recipe called for a hardboiled egg. I set a small pot of water to boiling tempestuously and broke an egg into it. At once, yellowish froth erupted out of the pot, poured all over the stove and made a yellowish puddle on the kitchen floor. My mother was surprised.
I made no significant attempt at cookery again until, at age nineteen, I had my first apartment in New York. To celebrate my new life, I invited my friend David Segal and a couple who were his friends, whom I’d only recently met.
A bit about David Segal and his family. They were dauntingly witty. His brother Erich was that Segal best known for the novel Love Story. When I met David, during my time at NYU, Erich, although he taught at Harvard, had a show Off-Broadway, “Sing Muse” with lyrics such as, “Why did I marry you, Menelaus? I was Helen the belle of the Peloponnese.” And David was quicker, sharper and wittier. His chatter of insults was so rapid-fire that one didn’t know one had been poked until hours later.
David’s father was one of the foremost rabbis in New York City, but he’d died just before I met David. Brought home to meet Mother, I was dazzled by the eighteen-room apartment and the woman who met me at the door, robed in crimson velvet. She, however, was not dazzled by me. Stalking off, she muttered “Any of my sons marries a shiksa, my money will be buried with me.” In time, she came to be quite fond of me.
That first year after the rabbi’s death, I was invited to the Segal family’s Sukkot feast. This is the Jewish harvest celebration and invocation for prosperity in the coming year. The table was set with every imaginable silver serving vessel, and several never imagined by me. The feast was sumptuous. I made it through all right, until dessert and tea were served. There were numerous courses, some presented with great formalities that were strange to me. So, when I saw a footed silver vessel, its elaborate repousee roll-top set back to present the largest lemon I’d ever seen, I took this to be the way the Segals served lemon for the tea. There happened to be a small knife nearby. As the family sat in silent horror, I picked up the knife, cut a wedge from the lemon and squeezed it into my tea. Later, David quietly took me aside. That wasn’t a lemon I’d cut, it was the Etrog, a citrus carefully chosen for its perfection and kept in its silver casket for the whole year. It symbolized the family’s fate for the year. No one objected as I cut a slice from it — it perfectly spoke of their loss of Father.
Back to my dinner with David and his friends. Since childhood I’d loved Gourmet Magazine. My mother had subscribed, and I did too as soon as I had my own home. It was Gourmet’s recipe for Pompano en papillote that I chose to prepare for my first guests.
The meal began with a gazpacho then moved on to the parchment-wrapped fish, and asparagus. I overcooked the asparagus, which was standing on end in its pot. Somehow not only did the water boil away, but the asparagus sucked up the tin lining and become a permanent part of the pot. Tactfully, I conducted the very hot pot to the building’s incinerator chute down the hall. Fortunately, the building didn’t catch fire.
Otherwise, all went well until dessert and coffee. I poured the coffee from my new electric percolator into each person’s cup, then my own. The coffee seemed fine to me, but I noticed no one was drinking theirs. I murmured to David, “Is something wrong with the coffee?” David raised his cup and turned it sideways. Defying gravity, the coffee sat firmly upright, a right angle to the table. I’d forgotten to put the little sieve on top of the grounds. Each person had a cup of grounds, masked with a little fluid. By the time I poured my cup, the grounds were gone.
I made one more serious venture into cookery. Paul Cummings, for years, was my boyfriend in New York. He was an authority on current art, the author of The Dictionary of Contemporary Artists. He took me to formal museum openings, but, better yet, he was a superb cook.
I rarely cooked for anyone, not only because of my doubtful talent in that area, but because men seemed to take it as a declaration of engagement. But I’d known Paul for so long that I felt free to cook for him. I roasted a leg of lamb. The recipe called for studding the meat with cloves. I dutifully studded the whole thing with cloves until it was solidly encased in woody clove-nails, solid as a suit of armor. Paul suggested that I should hang it in the closet as a pomander.
I just don’t have good sense when it comes to cooking. So I don’t cook. Fortunately for us, Peter not only cooks but particularly loves to render the haute cuisine of Eastern Europe. (As I write, he’s sitting beside me composing his list for Christmas dinner.) Coulibiac is a favorite of his, as is Bigos, a “hunters” stew basic to Polish cookery. He made a Bigos for a Halloween party I gave. He’d returned to New York by the time the guests arrived and I fetched the pot from the over. Gary Temperton peered at the stringy, tar-black stew and asked “Is this the trick or the treat?” My guests ate it all, along with the Pickle Soup that accompanied it.
When we decided to give a very special dinner to neighbors to whom we felt very indebted, Peter decided on a dish that not only was a classic, but handsome to look at as well: Beef Wellington.
Our debt was incurred in this way. The Suerkin family lived about half a mile up the road from us. Harvey was retired from his job with a Pantry Pride grocery store in Philadelphia, and had built his nice house with his own hands. His wife, Sis, was tall and blond with the look of a Park Avenue matron. She actually was an Adams, descended of our nation’s founding fathers. But in this life she was the mother of four children and a spick-and-span homemaker. Their youngest son, twelve-year-old Michael, was often at our house, helping with the sheep and otherwise being useful: cranking the ice-cream-making bucket or digging with me in the garden.
As years passed, we learned he was failing in school. The problem was he couldn’t read. The time had passed when, in the one-room schoolhouses that dotted our region, if a boy failed to learn to read no fuss was made. His wife would be able to read the machine instructions for him. But now school buses brought the children to a county-wide school in Honesdale And Michael was failing. In New York, on the radio I’d heard ads for Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics. With Harvey and Sis’s blessing, we enrolled Michael and began taking him down to New York for his Evelyn Wood classes. He learned to read. Peter also took him to opening nights at the theater. Michael had a grand time.
With the help Michael had long been to us, we felt we were only repaying our debt. But Harvey felt otherwise. This was one of the times when our living room roof was leaking and Harvey insisted on repairing it. It turned out Harvey was afraid of heights, but his brother-in-law, Jerry Adams, was a professional roofer. It was Jerry who actually reroofed the living room.
Now we did have a debt. Money would not be accepted. But Peter meant to repay Jerry in the best way he could. Hence the Beef Wellington, served with champagne. In the event, both Jerry and Sis declined to come, but Harvey asked if he could bring a couple who were his friends. So it was that the friend and the friend’s girlfriend were included in the party. Very likely Jerry and Sis opted out when they heard the couple were invited, but of course we knew nothing of that. We were perfectly happy to have this unknown pair, the food was plentiful, although Jerry had been the reason for the feast. We never did manage to thank him.
The couple arrived with Harvey; the man was a big and burly fellow, the woman looked as though she had been oversold at a cosmetics counter, but seemed pleasant. All were offered champagne. Here the trouble began. The unknown man took deep offense. We didn’t have Screwdrivers? We’d not been notified that this cocktail was all that this couple drank, and that they drank it in large quantity. Worse, we didn’t even have the makings and bubbly Veuve Clicquot was no consolation. The couple left at once and returned an hour later with their essential orange juice and Vodka.
Nor was the Beef Wellington a success. Harvey picked at the meat’s surrounding pastry and stuffing of mushroom duxelle suspiciously. The couple wouldn’t touch it and went on downing their Screwdrivers. Before we reached dessert, an elegant flan surrounded by fresh fruits on a circular pound cake, the fellow was sozzled to the point of pugnacity. Eyeing the extensive remains of the Wellington, with its pastry flowers on top, he muttered, “What kind’a man makes that?” Turning to Peter, he demanded, “You some gay or somethin’?” Harvey arose between his friend and Peter, and the friend punched Harvey. Somehow, with the girlfriend’s help, the defender of culinary manhood was hustled out the door.
It was certainly the most lively of dinner parties, and Peter and I had all that Veuve Clicquot, Beef Wellington and fruited flan to ourselves.
The Pickle Cottage and Pottersville
The winter of 1985 was typical, four feet of snow and temperatures below 10 degrees below zero for weeks. I often say someplace has to benefit from global warming and Starrucca has been one of them. Fro for feet, our usual snow pack has diminished to less than one foot, and in summer the blueberries and daylilies reach their prime a month earlier.
By 1985 we had reached a total of seventy-five animals. Our four horses (Pivot, Eastern Promise, the Arab and the Paso Fino) were living at Hillcrest but our little barn was full of sheep, goats, chickens, peacocks, cats, a new batch of geese (more of these geese later) and Thibaut, our stalwart sheep guarding Great Pyrenees. And one very frigid day, after I opened it the rear door wouldn’t shut.
The temperature was hovering near 20 below zero with a nice crisp wind. There I was, hacking at the door and door frame with a kitchen knife, trying to pare down enough of the frozen wood to get the door shut, to hold in what heat the animals produced so they wouldn’t all freeze. Double mittens made the job of merely holding a tool harder and didn’t keep my hands from stinging painfully. A crust of ice on my stiff, hurting face gathered from tears of frustration. Cold hurts.
Peter was away in New York working. I was very much alone, with all these animals depending on me to get the door shut. Finally, splinter by splinter, I got enough of the wood pared away for the door to close and latch. I staggered back to the house with the realization that this life just wasn’t working.
We still had our New York apartment. No longer an entertainment features writer who could build his own schedule, Peter was working now as a full time theater critic, which meant attending openings eight times a week on a schedule dictated by the shows’ opening dates. It had been three months since he’d been able to come to Starrucca. We really had to give up on Pennsylvania and find a country place in reasonable commuting distance from the city.
Weeping, because I loved Fernwood, I called him and told him I just couldn’t manage anymore. I began house hunting in New Jersey and New York State.
In New York we found a charming house with a barn, a stream and a grassy fenced field rising gently between woods. There was also a magnificent Victorian house but it was not included. It was owned by a tall, very gracious lady of a mocha tint who was a concert pianist. She was one of the most charming people I’ve ever met, our being neighbors was one of the many plusses.
We put a deposit on the house and had our contractor, Gary Temperton, come look at it. Even we could see there was at least one problem. Some craft-minded person had installed a long wall of rounded stream stones in the living room, narrowing the room’s width to about ten feet wide and causing the over-burdened floor to sag alarmingly.
Gary quickly found more problems. Lightning had struck the electric box, frazzling all the house’s wiring. The tub upstairs had overflowed, ruining the floor and rotting the structure. So there was no plumbing and no electricity. My new friend told me she’d seen the owner carrying little plastic bags and depositing them in the barn. There we found a mound of bags he’d used when he no longer had a functioning toilet. Further, we found the septic system no longer functioned and it was questionable how it could be replaced.
We retrieved our deposit on this rural heaven, said a sad goodbye to our almost neighbor and went on with our house hunting.
Seeing colonial period stone cottages along rural roads, I’d developed a passion for them. When there was an ad in the New York Times for a stone cottage built in 1720, in Pottersville, N.J., we went to see it and fell in love. It was the Pickle Cottage, for the unfortunately named farming family who’d lived there at least through the 19th century. The little house was built of rough local stone oyster white in color with passage of caramel hue. It had milk-paint–pink shutters, and a Dutch door at the porch. There were three acres, triangular in shape at the joining of a paved road and a stony dirt road. Attesting to the Pickle Cottage’s antiquity was a little stone spring house out front. The structure had been there so long that a tree had grown up in its rough entrance, a tree with a trunk now more than four feet around. The cottage was a dream come true.
Without impairing its antique qualities, it had been augmented for modern living. The ancient building with three-foot thick stone walls had a single “great room” with a fireplace at each end, and an upstairs floored with chestnut so old that it had copper patches. One of the fireplaces was large, with a trammel for cooking and, inserted in the stone of the chimney, a “beehive” baking oven. The surrounding wall at that end of the room had rustic 18th century paneling, bought by the previous owner, a left-over from a reconstructed colonial village. A cabinet door in the paneling concealed a narrow staircase with small wedge-shaped treads that wound around the chimney in the dark. (When my architect cousin Sylvia came to visit, she had a conniption about how against “code” that was.)
Among its modern amenities was a large island in the center of the room, with a sink, cook top, cabinets and electric outlets, somewhat dividing the room in half. Peter often left his laptop computer on the island and worked there. One evening we were late coming home from the theater. Tinkie, our sweet German Shepherd, was a very well behaved old girl, meticulous about house soiling. But she had to go and who knew when we’d be home? Desperate to conceal her sin, she climbed the dark, narrow stairs and squatted on the chestnut floor in the upstairs. We had no idea of her accident until the next day when Peter turned on his computer. It wouldn’t work. And it stank. We finally traced the cause. Where Tinkie had squatted, the pool flowed across the floor until it found a crack in the floor, then it poured down directly into his computer. He took it to be repaired by the technicians at his newspaper but they refused to touch the reeking thing. He got a new laptop. Poor Tinkie had never gone up those stairs before and never did again.
To the colonial cottage, the last owner had added two bedrooms, a bath and a full basement; the new structure was clapboarded and neatly matched. The old cottage had its own, intriguing cellar. It appeared that the pioneering family of 1720 first had dug a cellar, roofed it and lived underground for a year or so while they cleared away the surrounding forest for their farming fields. In this cellar, beneath the smaller of the great room hearths was a hearth quite adequate for heating and cooking.
When we bought the house it meant parting with some of our animals. The chickens went to a farm hand at Hillcrest. The peacocks went, in their carpet wrapping, to Marian’s farm in Damascus.
I’d intended to keep the sheep and had electric fencing installed around our three-acre field, but when the woman who came to adopt Greta, one of our German Shepherds, Thibaut and the sheep went with her to her lovely farm. The woman had sat on our barn floor and wept with her arms around Thibaut’s neck. Her own Great Pyrenees had died young, as most very big dogs do. Knowing how hot New Jersey can be, and how limited our facilities were, I realized her big barn and flocks would provide a better life for Thibaut. Parting with him and his sheep was an act of love. When I checked up on him in his new home, he leaned against the farmer as to say, “I’m happy here. Please don’t take me away.” As it happened, by 1988 we had a summer when, for weeks, the temperature was near or over 100 degrees. Thibaut, with his heavy double coat, couldn’t have survived it.
The horses. We sent back the Paso Fino to his breeder and they came with a horse trailer to pick him up at Hillcrest. The Arab we sold to a horse-devoted young woman. I trust their love affair led to Haybin’s being a more cooperative riding horse.
I wanted to keep Pivot and Bonsey (Eastern Promise.) I checked out local stables but their cost was astronomical. Far beyond what we could afford. Search for a new home for them led to my social advent in Pottersville.
First, I should describe the village. Our cottage was about a mile beyond the “town” which consisted of no more that pair of tree-lined intersecting lanes, a handsome, colonial style, and very expensive private school dedicated to teenagers who had made a botch of their lives elsewhere, a general store and café, and the post office.
There was rural delivery, but if our pink painted post box was an example of local service, it was understandable why everyone picked up their mail at the post office. Our box was full of bullet holes. Oddly, I never saw any other sign of violence in the area. It was in fact a very chic place. Jackie Onassis rode with there with the Essex hounds. (Those hounds, one time when they were off the scent, came by our cottage. Those dogs were tall! They were, to the familiar beagle breed, what a horse is to a pony.) An international bicycle race also peddled past us, with onlookers crowding onto our lawn. So yes, Pottersville was a fancy place. It was also very beautiful, a verdant valley where, when a mile or so away it was raining or foggy, here the sun seemed always shining. I called it The Happy Valley.
Back to the horses. Across the road from our house was a beautiful rambling manse with extensive grounds and a lovely fenced field with only a donkey in residence. I learned the property was owned by the Van der Lydens (not the real, but yes old Dutch, name). Mr. Van der Lyden had made his fortune by inventing that little metal clip spout one struggles with on cardboard packaging of dish soap, etc. Such is the way of capitalism.
I crossed the road and met Mrs. Van der Lyden. We chatted amiably, cushioned deep in her voluptuous chintz upholstery, it was a very welcoming room and she was a charming older lady. But no, we could not board our thoroughbreds in her field. The donkey belonged to her daughter and even he was not really welcome. So we chatted a while longer until Mr. Van de Lyden came in. He was a slender but robust man with a puff of silver hair. His white swimming trunks displayed a tanned, well-muscled chest and legs. We spoke only briefly before I left.
About an hour later I went to the village post office to pick up our mail. Now it must be understood that the post office was the social center and chief gossip resource of Pottersville. It was always full of people picking up their mail and lingering to chat. I had just gathered my mail when a stunning looking older man in an impeccable white wool suit came in. I stared, then out of my mouth came the words, “Oh, Mr. Van der Lyden, I didn’t recognize you with your clothes on.”
My character was established in Pottersville from that moment on. I was the local scarlet woman. What Mr. Van der Leyden thought of it I dare not guess.
The fact that Peter was absent at the theater every night, and any social invitations we received I had to attend alone, added to my alarming reputation.
Up the road from our cottage was the home of an outgoing woman who had taken it upon herself to inform me of the neighbors. There was the lovely plant nursery owned by the Howels. “They’re English, you know,” she informed me, her implication being that the nursery was therefore the best. In fact the Howels hadn’t been English since the 18th century and Howel township in New Jersey was named for their ancestors. Nonetheless the nursery was first rate.
I’d asked my gossipy new friend about lawn service. She arranged for two lads, who were home for the summer from Princeton, to mow our three acres. They came by and gave me an evaluation. That would be $400 per acre. For $600 they would be by every other week to keep our three acres trimmed. I considered this was a price about right if they were doing the job with cuticle clippers. We bought a lawn mower at the cost of a single mowing. My friend’s reaction to my turning down the Princetonians was typical of Pottersville. It was only a look, but it said it all. “You have a problem with the price? Maybe you don’t belong here.”
All this happened before my episode at the post office. Before I became the favorite item of gossip, and my informative neighbor had already invited me to an evening garden party. Of course Peter was working, so I went alone.
I had not seen the grounds of her house up to then, although she’d told me that they put in a swimming pool because she was afraid of the snake in their swimming pond and, the first day the new pool was filled, the snake moved into I so no one could ever swim there. I was curious to see this tainted pool, and the rest of the grounds, so when I overheard her husband offering to take a male guest on a tour of the landscaping I asked if I could tag along. No sooner had we got out of sight of the lawn party than a gunshot blast went off. We hurried back. Our hostess had shot off her pistol to bring us back. I was not to be trusted alone with men!
It was at that point I realized the gossip mill of Pottersville was a serious matter. For all its sunny vale paradise, Pottersville was not going to be the place for me.
We did have another try at acceptance. The Essex Hounds was the hunt that counted Jackie Onassis as a member, in company with others of her high standing. But there was also what might be considered the comic relief from the Essex Hounds; The Tewksbury Foot Bassets. My friend Clara Reeves, with whom I’d traveled in France doing my research for Montfort, lived in Princeton about a forty minute drive distant. She and her husband David were eager for us to make a go of it so near them. And they were members of the Foot Bassets.
The next village to Pottersville was Gladstone with its international equestrian facilities. It was also home to the Foot Bassets. Judges were brought from England to inspect the qualities of the Tewksbury pups. This consisted of constructing a pen of hay bales, introducing the lumbering puppies into the enclosure, then rolling a cookie in front of them to see if any of them was capable of follow it. None were.
Far more exciting was the Jack Russel Terrier race. Here a long track was constructed of proper fencing. Near the end was a wall of hay bales with a few narrow spaces left open. An arrangement like a miniature version of a horse racing gate stood at the end opposite the wall of hay. Into its cages a variety of smallish dog were placed, chiefly Jack Russells but also a spaniel, a beagle and a couple of miniature poodles. A packet of chicken innards was tied to a long string that was threaded through the middle hole in the hay wall. This lure was placed a few feet in front of the starting gate. At the firing of a pistol the starting gate was opened and the string on the lure was jerked and reeled in toward the hay wall. The Jack Russells, yelping hysterically, leapt forward and streamed at high speed after the lure. In moments they reached the hay wall but the lure had been yanked through the hole and to the other side. The Jack Russells, shrieking at even higher pitch, swarmed over the hay or squeezed their frantically wriggling bodies through the small holes in the wall. The Beagle soberly trotted far in the rear of the terriers. The spaniel stared at the dashing tails in bewilderment. One poodle cowered in her cage and the other walked out daintily and tried to make friends with the spectators. It was a vivid lesson in breed personality and quite sobering about Jack Russells.
We were invited to join the Tewksbury Foot Bassets. The costume for the hunt was beige Bermuda shorts, dark green knee socks and a hunt jacket the same cut as a proper equestrian hunt jacket but dark green. The track was laid out with a bundle of offal at dawn before a hunt, so no fox was involved But all that would be required of us was that we rise before dawn, put on white dusters and walk the dogs. Since, with Peter’s theater reviewing and my writing, we often didn’t wake until noon, our last chance at social acceptability in Pottersville was lost.
We stuck it out for four years, then went back to Fernwood. The people to whom we’d sold the house we’d foolishly allowed to move in before closing. They defaulted and left the house wrecked. The daughter of the famiy had been in the floorless attic when the doorbell rang; running on the insulation, she had knocked down every ceiling the full length of the north wing. Paint had been dribbled across carpets, cabinets in the kitchen had been torn out and what remained was all painted butter yellow and midnight blue. The grounds were full of holes where they had misguidedly searched for the well. The greenhouse glass was smashed and a door broken. They had never paid more than rent, never completing their purchase contract. We considered bringing suit but they hired the best lawyer in the region who informed us that if we attempted to sue, they would sue us for decline of their health due to our house. Apparently they had exhausted themselves In wrecking Fernwood. We were so glad to get the house back, and leave the unpleasant folk of The Happy Valley behind, that we dropped legal action. I went back and supervised the repairs, so very glad Fernwood was still ours.
I’d sent our big, truck challenging Buff Geese, Bertie and Maggie, to live at Mitzi’s farm but I missed them. My favorite catalogue, for the Murray McMurray Hatchery , listed not only chickens but geese as well. I couldn’t resist ordering eight Toulouse goslings: seven females and a male. Toulouse Geese, as adults, are gray with blackish marking, picture Mother Goose.
The fluff balls that arrived from McMurray were far more civilized than the ducklings and loved being petted; one in particular was intelligent and personable. Unfortunately, when my neighbor brought her three year old over to see them I let her hold this one. She placed her little hand on the gosling’s head as if to pet her, but squeezed instead, permanently dislocating her beak so that the lower beak went off at an angle. This made the bird’s eating a bit slower but otherwise she seemed unimpaired.
As our geese grew up, they loved people. This was before our serious predator problem at Fernwood so the gray flock roamed freely over the lawns, swam in the stream and weeded in the garden. Whenever anyone drove into our driveway, the birds would set up a shouting match and, with mighty flapping of wings, would hurry to greet them. A flock of geese running and yelling at you with broad wings beating is a daunting sight. But far from pecking and pinching our visitors, what our avian troop wanted was to untie their shoe laces. As soon as someone stepped from the car, all feathered necks bent to inspect the shoes. If there were laces they deftly began to tug at them. Our friends got used to this greeting, but once our feathered shoe fetishists did us a serious job of protection.
It was a morning when a lamb had just been born. I was out in the barn inspecting the ewe and her still bloody babe when a large yellow step-van pulled up, the sort vehicle that used to be common when bakery goods were delivered door to door. Out of this van emerged the most disreputable looking men I’d ever seen. I used to live a block from the Bowery in New York, but this bunch made Bowery derelicts look presentable. Though I’d never seen these men and their van before, I recognized them as what were locally referred to cautiously as “the Apple Sellers.” They lived up to their ill fame. One filthy, leering man approached me with an apple held out and demanded, “You wanna buy some apples, lady?” while the others spread out across the lawn and into the open barn.
Their arrival had coincided with the geese’s swim but the big birds came hurrying to greet them. Two of the men were on the lawn, heading for the rear and front of the house. These the geese flew at, necks stretched out and shrieking their welcome. The men instantly turned and ran for their van with the geese fast gaining on them. At the same moment the man in the barn came out with a look of horror on his grimy face. “There’s a lamb all bloody in there!” The Apple Sellers all piled back into their van and drove away fast. They never came again. They were thieves and the apple gimmick was their rather obvious method of casing a prospect.
Although our seven ladies had a gander, they never produced fertile eggs and goslings. He was an amiable gander, but not much of a father. At that time the farm wife up at our corner was looking after our critters when we were in New York City. I got a call from her. “Your gander’s looking funny,” she said. “How does he look funny?” I asked. “Just funny”, was all she could manage. We arrived home a few hours later and he did indeed look funny. He was lying on the ground of the goose pen with his neck stretched out in front of him and his eyes half-closed. I tried to get water down his beak but couldn’t. As I held and petted him, he died. I’ve seen birds mourn and search for a lost mate, but our Toulouse ladies didn’t seem to miss him.
For a while after we bought the Pickle Cottage we were living in three houses: the New York apartment, Fernwood and Pottersville. We had animals to find homes for. The horses finally went to a service, Monique, that taught disabled children how to ride. Monique was recommended by our vet and known for its excellent care of their animals. It was a good new profession for Pivot and Bonsey who were very gentle and fond of children.
The sheep had gone with Thibaut, but there still were our much loved geese. By this time we were experiencing the hellish heat of a Pottersville summer. We could dig a pond for the geese but it would have to be filled from our well, and the well water was problematic. The cottage had a modern water treatment system but this would hardly serve to fill a pond.
It was by means of the water treatment system that the cottage seemed to express itself in regard of my sister-in-law, a person who was both bossy and much practiced in finding fault. The first time she and Peter’s brother came to see the house she entered the great room, pointed at the carpeting, which imitated the sort of sisal matting an 18th century cottage might have, and she announced, “Well, that’s got to go!” From that pronouncement, she headed to the kitchen faucet, turned it on full force and helped herself to a drink direct from the spout. Her head came up chocking with foam pouring out of her mouth. The water treatment system had flushed all its caustic soda into her drink. Since nothing like that ever happened again, I like to think the house was taking revenge.
The only other time I’ve ever so enjoyed revenge was when a couple who were friends of Peter’s came to stay for two weeks. I always ask guests about food allergies and preferences. They told me they ate everything ; but then arrived they announced they were absolute vegan ovolacterians. We struggled to do new marketing and rearrange two weeks of menus. Revenge came when we took them to the Honesdale Fair. They opted to ride the huge Ferris wheel. As they reached the very top of the wheel, the machinery jammed and they were stuck up there for over an hour. Wicked me, I felt Fate had given me a wink.
After due study of our Pottersville three acres I felt that, although we had enclosed the little field with electric fence, I could not in good conscience bring our lady geese to Pottersville. In roaming about the picturesque local roads we’d found our way to the Black River and a little bridge that crossed it. Below, in lonesome isolation, stood a Toulouse gander. There was a house just past the bridge and I introduced myself to the elderly woman who lived there. She explained that the gander had arrived as a slim youth with a flock of Canada geese. When they flew south in the autumn he’d evidently gained too much weight and was unable to fly. Since then he’d been unhappily alone. I asked if I could bring my seven lady geese. She was thrilled with the prospect.
At Fernwood we packed our gray ladies into the traveling pen that fit into the back of our station wagon, included a big rubber bucket and bag of their feed, and drove to the Black River bridge. We set out the bucket and filled it with feed then brought out our ladies, setting them down so they could waddle down the embankment to the stream. They observed their new surroundings with loud comment. The gander, for his part, swam over, stepped out on the stream’s verge and stared. If a goose’s face can express disbelief, his did. He stared and stared at the ladies ambling down the bank, then, as if to prove he wasn’t dreaming, he climbed up to the bucket ate some of the feed. It all was real!
The lonesome gander hurried back to his stream where our girls were turning and turning, getting the feel of the strange water. As he stepped, in they all looked up and paid silent attention. He swam a little way upstream. The girls followed, forming a line. With the gander in the lead they swam in perfect, regimented order. He led them upstream to the upper limit of his domain, then turned and led them downstream to his lower limit, letting them know his borders. Then all flipped over and over in the water with loud and joyful honking.
Our geese were very tame and the gander became tame also. The Rangers of the nearby park began feeding them and the friendly flock of geese became a popular feature of the Black River bridge. Families came, bringing their children to visit the friendly geese.
The Day Dwayne’s Church Celebrated Passover
Our farming neighbors were Prostestants. To minimize my outsider-ness I began attending the local church. The congregation, of about twenty souls, met in the farm house up at our corner. The pastor, Dwayne Giles, a man of imposing girth and stature, spent his week days inseminating dairy cows and drove a truck with the logo Bull Shot. His sermons, for many years were drawn from his weekly experiences and I’ve never heard better, more sensible discourse. The little house organ was played by Lila Ellicks, despite her deeply arthritic hands. What lacked in music was made up for in willing martyrdom. And the twenty of us sang with a will.
This congregation, I was told, had formed when its members were shunned by the upper reaches of local Society because those decent people complained our people smelled like cows. Unkempt cows have a rather sickeningly sweet odor, but neither my fellow church-goers nor their four footed, well kept black and white Holstein employees ever revealed to me any such scent. Nevertheless, it was said among these farmers that cow dung “has a nice sweet smell.”
I refer to the cows as “employees.” Elaine, the farm wife in whose house we met, told me they were looked upon by some of the locals a “poor folk”. With well over a hundred acres worth many thousands of dollars as a going business, and with a hundred or so milk producing “employees” worth thousands each, these farmers were actually millionaires, and I told her she shouldn’t let anyone suppose otherwise.
I couldn’t ascertain what denomination of Protestantism this church, known simply as the Northern Wayne Christian Fellowship, was, but their Christianity was unmistakable. They gave of what little they had to anyone they found in need. Dwayne’ wife, Carole, came with me to New York City one time. We saw a crippled youth living and begging on the corner of FifthAvenue and 12th Street. Carole was so moved she set to work, found housing for him in Binghamton, educational opportunity at Binghamton University and funding through New York State. She collected, through the church, clothing and basic household furnishings and utensils.
By means of an agency that worked with the city’s homeless, where the boy was well known, he was contacted and informed of this opportunity. He seemed pleased, if a little stunned. A day was set for him to bathe at the shelter, change into his new clothes and be taken to his new home. The day came, but the boy disappeared and was not seen again at his familiar street corner for weeks. The agency manager warned us that this might happen.
When Elaine and her husband sold their farm at the cornerand moved to a farm in Oneonta, New York State,, the little congregation moved across the road to where Jo Temperton allotted them a patch of land. An old but tidy trailer was donated and Dwayne installed a heavy locomotive bell to summon his parishioners. Throwing his considerable weight against it, he could just get the bell to swing enough to be heard from slope to valley on a Sunday morning. As for the trailer, when wind blew you could hear the rivets cracking as the structure trembled. I recalled how it always seemed to be a trailer park that’s decimated in a wind storm. An element of thrilling tension played beneath Dwayne’s sermons as the structure’s hissing, popping and cracking during any determined breeze played alto to Dwayne’s basso continuo.
When Dwayne found a pamphlet describing the Jewish observance of Passover, he was inspired to find out what this holy day was that Our Savior was celebrating before his crucifixion. With his congregants’ eager approval, it was decided they would have their own proper Passover feast.
Peter was very friendly with a fellow theater critic, Sy Syna, who was something of an authority on the Passover Seder. I volunteered to host the church’s Secder, with Peter, who’s an avid cook, happily agreeing to prepare the feast in consultation with Sy. But this soon proved not feasible. Sy insisted that we must serve potatoes, despite their New World origin. It became apparent that we had in mind a meal circa 33 AD, while Sy was focused on a modern intercultural event and absolutely would not give up on the potatoes. So Peter and I were going it alone, with Dwayne’s pamphlet.
Through the food writer at the newspaper, a butcher was recommended for our purchase of the essential lamb. Peter ordered enough for some twenty-five people. When he picked up the hefty package he was stunned by the over $600 bill. We eat little meat; since raising sheep we never touched lamb.
Other problems emerged among the congregation. Elaine was nursing; the inclusion of garlic in the Passover recipes surely would give the baby colic. For that matter, most of Dwayne’s parishioners never at garlic and were reluctant to try it.
And wine! Heavens! I once found mussels in the chiller at the local grocery store. There were two local women studying a package of the black shells, frowning and turning the mussels over and over. I spoke up. “They’re delicious steamed with a few herbs and white wine.” They stared at me, dropped the mussels and ran down the aisle as if the devil had nearly grabbed them. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union was not only still alive in Starrucca’s neighborhood, but had its own radio station and antenna over in Montrose for twenty-four hour condemnation of dreaded alcoholic beverages. Dwayne’s Passover would have Kedem kosher grape juice. The same he served every Sunday.
Since it wasn’t possible for us to have plates that, according to Kosher rules, had never been used for dairy foods, we resorted to some pretty paper plates, and plastic glasses. But I bought a beautiful ceramic plate from Israel to display the prescribed Bitter Herbs and salt.
The Soden men, strong dairy farmers all, hefted our furniture out of the living room and brought in their own big picnic tables and benches. A long new tablecloth united the furniture into something of a festive formal arrangement, with a chair at the head for Dwayne and a chair reserved at the foot of the table for Elijah.
The Northern Wayne Christian congregation filed in, Elain with her baby in her arms. Several well behaved children, scrubbed and in awe toddled in as well.. Everyone took places at the long table and Dwayne began to read from his pamphlet. It was solemn and beautiful in its way, each person having an epiphany of the correspondence between the elements of the Seder and Christian belief; most strikingly of Jesus as the sacrificial lamb of God. The children fulfilled their parts with quiet wonder. As for Peter, he hid in the kitchen, a lapsed Catholic far happier with his food preparations than with the spiritual mysteries unfolding at the picnic tables.
As the congregation, filled with ceremonial food and with eyes shining in mysticism, filed out the door, they eagerly assured us they would be back for Passover with us next year. By the next Spring we’d moved to the Pickle Cottage.
I’d come to a sooner parting with the little church. It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving: the day before rifle season for deer hunting began. This was the time of year most anticipated by the local men. Throughout Dwayne’s sermon there was a constant, loud and disconcerting racket of gun practice. Coming to the end of his prepared words, Dwayne beamed and said, “Now I know how eager all of you are to get out there shooting so we’ll end early today.” This put me, animal lover that I am, over the edge. I stood up and announced that I thought the tracking, maiming and killing of an animal that owed us nothing was very far from the spirit of Christianity. That if Christ had taught us anything it should be mercy. The men folk were furious at me, their wives burst into tears. Carole apologetically whispered, “But I love my husband.”
After that, my religious observances moved to Transfiguration Monastery in Windsor, New York, where the Vesper service was sung by the nuns and I spent my time paging through the ring-bound notebook of the service trying to find my place. Though it wasn’t as easy as Dwyane’s service, it brought me new friends.
The nuns, Camaldolese Benedictines in full white robes with black veils, were welcoming , especially the Prioress, Sister Donald Corcoran, who became my best friend. She is an authority on Church belief and the application of the spiritual insights of the Church’s long history to modern life. She lectures all across the country (now moving to Zoom for an even broader reach.) Her knowledge of Church practice in the Middle Ages was of huge help to me in writing Montfort. At the turning of the twentieth to the twenty-first century, I asked her if this was to be the beginning of the Golden Age. “No,” she said. “This was believed to be the Age in which all the devils in Hell would be let loose.” Since September 11, 2001 her words have seemed all too accurate. But lately she told me this dreadful time was only to last a hundred years, not a thousand. At this moment I fervently pray it will only have lasted twenty years (written on January 20, 2021, the day of President Biden’s inauguration.)
Murder on Spruce Lake
The Starrucca Police and Fire Department
Starrucca has neither police nor a fire department. There once was a policeman, appropriately name Art Cop but he retired long ago. There are the State Police.