This morning my husband and I went to a service at a church built in 1849, wood framed and white steepled. Grey headstones with white lichen chill as hoarfrost rise in a tidy graveyard in the back. Inside, the old pews are tiny, built when the average man was 5’6”. Sitting is precarious. I feel like a large spoon in a small tea cup about to tip out.
An altar girl whisks past us with a candle; “Slow down,” my husband whispers. “Your candle is going to go out.” He speaks from ancient altar boy experience. A couple our age sits in a pew near the front. The wife has bedecked herself for autumn, a wool tartan skirt and orange turtle neck, a wool cap. I have realized too late, after a large investment, that the models wearing turtlenecks in the LL Bean catalogues are weedy ballerinas with long ballerina necks. On a woman like myself, less gracefully drawn, a turtleneck looks like a wooly St. Bernard, barrel full of brandy.
Fall growing up in Arizona meant Halloween, and the faint possibility of needing a jacket whilst trick-or-treating. Plastic pumpkins appeared on the store shelves, and as children we traced our hands on construction paper to make turkey silhouettes. If you weren’t a child or didn’t have one or didn’t shop much, fall could pass by unnoticed.
In late September in our upstate New York town, farmers’ wagons and vegetable stands full of pumpkins crowd the roadsides, as conspicuous and heaving as the Czech hedgehogs on the way out of Moscow. Inexplicably, bundles of scraggly cornstalks stand for sale beside the pumpkins. I puzzled over cornstalks for sale, detritus to me, until they began appearing, flanking mailboxes and light posts and porch pillars, reedy soldiers saluting fall.
There is a back and forth along our road of shared leaf mulching and wood stacking, invitations for soup— chicken noodle—treks through neighbors’ yards to avoid the busy road, trailblazing through the woods. The sight of neighbors’ woodpiles can inspire in me the same sense of self-doubt and anxiety that thin, beautiful women in Scottsdale once inspired. Wood is really important here. Really, really important. And we don’t have enough.
People seem to assume the best of us, are friendly, invite us over. We invite people over. When I asked the owner of the farmer’s market if he’d plow our drive after heavy snows (unintentionally emasculating my husband), he knew the house—“The barn?”, had been inside, mentioned how much he liked our cellar steps.
My husband is felling dead trees out back with his first ever chain saw. There is much talk of splitting mauls: which neighbor lent us one/let’s check in with the guy at the junk sale to see he’s got one to sell. My brother-in-law is sending snow shoes. One neighbor sold my husband his extra chainsaw chaps. “Safety is the most important thing,” our neighbor said. No, life insurance is the most important thing.
In 1993, from within a contemplative convent in the South Bronx, I sometimes heard gunshots ring out in the night. My heart beating hard and trusting more in probable bullet trajectories than in Jesus, I would drag my thin mattress from the cot to the floor to wait out the night. Nowadays, shotguns regularly blast in the woods behind us. We have bright orange jackets to wear in the woods, and have made a certain peace with uncertainty.
The cows at the farm catty-corner were lowing loud and miserable two nights ago because the farmer, Kurt, had taken the calves away. We could buy half a cow for $1200, but we don’t have a deep freeze and have a newly minted vegan in the house (Hell hath no fury like a new vegan). Kurt descends from the Ashdowns, the family after whom our road is named. At our last visit, he shared that the big farmhouse (our charming English neighbors) and our house (the former barn belonging to that farmhouse), was lost by his great uncle in a card game. His uncle literally “bet the farm,” and lost.
Decades ago, those who owned the farmhouse, our mother-house, so to speak, caused a town scandal when the wife ran away with the Methodist minister. She left her husband because there was no heat in the bedroom. Spicy! No, actually, there was literally no heat in the bedroom. (Recall the importance of wood.)
The woman in the big brick house who originally owned the land where the apple orchards sit on Blue Barns Road (down the road from two blue barns) was preparing for her friends to arrive for a bridge game when she fell down the stairs to her death. Her friends found her, notified the proper authorities, called a fourth, and carried on with their bridge game. After all, the house was clean and the food was made. It would have been a shame to waste it.
Life here is truly this wonderful. And, just as truly, this is a romanticized blog post.
Moving across the country was, in concept, an adventure. We—the adults not the teenagers— were excited about an old house, cooler weather, snow storms and turtlenecks. We were leaving everyone we knew, the place of my children’s and my birth, the intoxicating, earthbound scent of creosote before rain and the promise of an endless gush of sunlight.
I can say with confidence that in Arizona, I had the requisite number of friends to dispense with my corpse and eat my tea sandwiches. Maria, Gail, Joan, Pamela, Livia, Gina, Maryann. Any of them know me well enough to deduce my dying thoughts as I lay at the bottom of the stairs: “Oh dear, I hope the chicken salad doesn’t go bad.” If you scoff at the sentiment, I reckon you have never made chicken salad from scratch.
But what about here? How long does it take to make friends who would honor you in death by doing the next sensible thing? Ten years? Twenty? Do I have twenty years? The houses in this town have stories older than the living, the land’s stories older than the houses. An octogenarian neighbor with long silver braids sent me literature on the Mohawks, the people as old as the land. Land matters as much as wood, here.
I fall asleep at night looking at beams above my head, hand-hewn 250 years ago by a farmer with a hatchet and animals to shelter before winter. Marks left by the intermittent hatchet blows speak of hard work and mortality. Like gazing too long at a starry sky, an old beam hand hewn by the long-dead has a way of putting things in perspective.
But back to fall. In Cider with Rosie, Laurie Lee wrote of his first morning after moving to a new home as a little boy, the autumn morning outside his bedroom window crimson and on fire.
“. . . what’s happening to them trees?”
“Nothing’s happening,” his sister said.
“Yes it is then,” he told her. “They’re falling to bits.”
“It’s only the leaves droppin’. We’re in autumn now. The leaves always drop in autumn.”
Autumn? In autumn. Was that where we were? Where the leaves always dropped and there was always this smell. I imagined it continuing, with no change, for ever, these wet flames of woods burning on and on like the bush of Moses, as natural a part of this new found land as the eternal snows of the poles.
Wishing you a long life, at least three sensible friends in death, a Happy Autumn.