During the last days of March, we fell asleep to the sound of rain on the roof for the first time in a very long time. I awoke in the morning to the sound of morning doves calling, filling a months-long silence.
It felt like the release of a long-awaited promise: that maybe spring would, indeed, come again. The week before, my daughters – who had wished for the coming of winter snow back in autumn – went outside with shovels and attempted to help spring along by clearing the snow off of our lawn.
And now, the snow was melting, all on its own, revealing the first shoots of the bulbs I’d planted back in the fall starting to poke through the thawing ground.
But the rain, which sounded so soothing on our roof, also carried the threat of impending danger – or, at the very least – the threat of inconvenience.
“I bought us a truck,” my husband announced one night as he walked into the house after a day at the office.
My daughters reacted to the news as if we’d just announced a candy-only dinner, a week off of school, and a trip to the beach, combined: a squealing, jumping, hands-in-the-air impromptu dance party. The first two questions they articulated were:
“What color is it?” and, “Can we ride in the back?”
“It’s black,” he answered. “We’ll call it the Death Star.”
Just like that, we became the owners of a pickup truck.
It’s the time of year when we are all asking each other, “How was your summer?”
As the season changes, we re-emerge from the long, unscheduled days. Gone are the late, light nights and the mornings when various family members rolled downstairs to breakfast anywhere between 7 and 9 AM. Now it is dark when we sleep, and dark when we wake. Our days are snapped back into the structure of a schedule. We meet friends whom we haven’t seen for months. And, now that we’re back to “normal,” we ask them, “How was your summer?”
Our family had a wonderful summer, but it was unlike any other that preceded it. We celebrated a year in our house — a house that was the result of a dream of having more land on which to raise plants and animals. Much to my delighted surprise, this was a summer when we saw the fruition of many of our plans for our home and land.
Although there is now a sign at the top of our driveway proclaiming your arrival at “Gong Girls Farm,” I remain hesitant to use the word “farm.” We’re such novices, we have so much still to do, and we’re certainly not attempting to do this in order to make any sort of a “living.” Still, this morning when we remarked that the rain was good for the farmers, one of my daughters said, “We’re farmers!”
What follows is my visual answer to the question, “How was your summer?” It’s my attempt to explain why, although we spent an unprecedented amount of time at home, although we only took a week’s “vacation,” this was a wonderful summer — a model of what we hope our summers will all become.
First, an apology: In preparing this post, I realized that I have taken almost no “before” photos of our house and land. I meant to, I thought I had, but in the end I was just too busy with the actual doing to document! Here is a photo from the real estate listing of our house instead:
What you’re meant to notice in the above photo is the predominance of nothing: There is the house, a shed, a vast lawn, and some trees, but nothing else. No gardens, no flowering plants around the house, no animals, just…nothing. (Also, I’m not sure those clouds are real!)
Now, here are some views of that same flat expanse of lawn from this past summer:
Erick is starting to make noises about expanding the vegetable garden, and putting infrastructure in place so that we can “extend our growing season.” This makes me nervous and giddy in equal amounts.
One of my ongoing projects is to put in nice-looking flower beds along the front of the house. This is still very much a work in progress, since the house is laid out “railroad-style” (i.e. it’s very narrow and long) and there’s a LOT of front to plant!
Now, let’s move along to the animal portion of our little homestead:
Finally, we’ll walk around the poultry yard to the back yard, which is slowly becoming an orchard of sorts, with fruit trees and bushes.
No account of this summer would be complete without mention of the TREEHOUSE (which I also like to call: “The project that ate Erick’s summer!”)
The treehouse began as a dream of our daughters, and quickly became reality when my father enlisted the help of his friend (and our neighbor across the road), an octogenarian retired contractor named Ernie. Ernie drew up plans and whipped Erick and my father into shape. Almost every day this summer, from 8-11 AM, they’d be out back working on the treehouse. Often another octogenarian friend and neighbor (and former dairy farmer), Harley, would join in the fun.
Here is the finished product (minus the green and yellow stain that have now been applied to the house itself, and some ongoing plans for rope swings and bars to be installed under the deck):
It’s pretty magical up there, and I’m already looking forward to the day when the girls get bored with it and I can convert the treehouse into my writing cabin.
You may notice that Erick gets a great deal of credit for the things that we’ve accomplished this summer, and that’s well deserved. Erick has stepped up to this whole lifestyle — which began as my dream — in a way that continues to astound me. In the course of three months, he’s transformed from a suburban-raised economist who preferred hiring out for the simplest of tasks, to a confident and handy builder/mower/installer. He’s now finishing up a “chicken tractor” to enable our flock to move around freely but stay safe from predators, and just this weekend he became the proud owner of a chainsaw (which our daughters promptly christened “Daisy.”)
What can I say? This was the summer I realized that there is absolutely nothing more attractive than a man in ripped, dirty jeans, waterproof boots, and a John Deere cap who’s holding your 3-year-old on his hip and discussing building projects with your father.
When I was growing up in Northern Virginia, I had a number of friends whose families were of Asian origin. Whenever I visited these friends at home, the rule was to remove one’s shoes immediately after walking in the door, leaving them in the front hallway, vestibule, foyer, or whatever the entryway. Back then, this seemed like an exotic practice, one that I associated with bamboo floor mats, Hello Kitty!, and rice served in delicate blue-and-white porcelain. In my own house, we wore our shoes all the time.
Just typing that last sentence fills me with horror: We wore our shoes all the time. Now, I can’t imagine ever wanting to wear shoes inside the house. Now, it goes without saying, the rule in my own home is to remove our shoes immediately after walking in the door and leave them in the mudroom. This has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that I’m married to a man whose family is of Chinese origin; it has everything to do with the fact that I know where our shoes have been.
Next year, I will commit to very little between April and June, and I will clear our family’s schedule for an entire month beginning two weeks before Memorial Day.
No signing up for preschool snacks. No dinner or birthday parties. No expectation that dishes will be washed, laundry folded, or floors swept. No newspaper columns!
I knew that gardening and poultry raising would be a lot of work. I expected labor. What I didn’t expect was the massive to-do list that seems to regenerate endlessly within my brain: chop off some tasks and, like an earthworm, it just grows more. I didn’t expect to track the weather forecast like a day trader tracks the stock market, my heart dropping with every raincloud icon that threatens to keep me out of the yard (yes, I know the rain is good for the plants.) I didn’t expect to feel intense frustration whenever I’m not outside digging or dumping or planting — the sense that all life not involving dirt is somehow wasting my precious time. I didn’t expect to rush off to so many meetings with dirty fingernails, muddy knees, and hat-head hair. I didn’t expect to keep finding myself outside, staring at a patch of dirt, until my husband or children call me in to dinner.
I am sitting in Carol’s Hungry Mind Café to write this column, as I do nearly every Saturday afternoon. Usually I crave this time, when my husband takes our daughters so that I can have a handful of silent and solitary hours – usually my only silent and solitary hours of the week – in order to “work.” (“Work” is in quotations, because being alone to write feels more like play to me.)
But today I had to force myself to come here. Today it was only the threat of a looming deadline that compelled me to drive over to Carol’s. The light rain helped, too. Still, I couldn’t resist stopping in at Agway before landing at Carol’s.
It was my third visit to Agway this week.
Right now, I am not craving silent time to write so much as I am craving time to start seeds, dig and weed, compost and mulch, reseed the lawn, and help my husband finish off the poultry fencing. I want dirt under my fingers more than computer keys.
I’m distracted because it’s spring, of course. Really and truly spring – I think. In Vermont, April is still on the risky side of spring: We are still balancing along the wire of the average last frost, still unsure that Mother Nature won’t throw us one final snowstorm for good measure. But my online forecast shows evening temperatures above freezing for the next ten days, so I’ve taken the plunge and put my spring planting schedule into play.
Spring planting means plenty of visits to Agway, our closest lawn, garden, farm, and pet supply store. And because the only time I’m guaranteed freedom from my children is Saturday afternoon, I usually visit Agway with at least some of my daughters.
The cow was hanging on the wall, opposite the checkout counter at the Sweet Charity resale shop in Vergennes, and I fell in love with it immediately.
That I was in Sweet Charity, without children, on a Saturday afternoon, was due to a series of anomalous events. My husband was in Chicago for work, so a generous friend had taken pity on me and invited all four of my children over to her house to play for a couple of hours.
Faced with two precious hours of free time after two days of single parenting, I did what any woman would do: I went shopping for home furnishings with my mother, of course.