Soft green summers, wet and full. The kind of summers where you hear corn grow, and early morning smells like sugary peach cobbler. Friends slowly walk in and out of one another’s houses with all the languid promise of teenagers listening to one long piece of music. People laughed easily, more easily than they’d laughed in years, and the crickets, instead of their buggy twittering, actually seemed to chirp. If I didn’t know any better, I would have thought we were all in a Disney movie, one of those summer films with big floppy dogs named Ben and old men on swings telling each other jokes, and falling in love with Shirley MacLaine.
We were New Yorkers in a small upstate town, Middlefield, part earthly paradise and part hell, depending on who you were. The people in the paradise half tended to be New Yorkers, or ex, =country types, the sort of people who ordered cotton weekend clothes in primary colors out of catalogues, slick mail order books where all the models were thin and tanned and looked like they came from Western Massachusetts. The New Yorkers had good jobs – lawyers, teachers, editors, real estate brokers. We bought old farmhouses for less than the price of a studio apartment in New York City. We liked places with views of orchards, with winding creeks and old sycamore trees. Then we filled up those houses with Viking stoves and expensive pots, with auction house rocking chairs, copper tea kettles and McCoy vases, giving themselves a history they could buy. We planted gardens full of heritage vegetables that all seemed to glow. What we wanted from the country was a little hard to say: a simpler life, maybe, a little bit more time, or maybe just the chance to nest.
The people whose lives were a little more real were the locals, a hardbitten group who had their own appeal. They were practical and tough. They could do things, a lot of things, like plough fields and build barns and bake apple pies with their eyes closed. They were wiser than the New Yorkers, less naive about what the earth could do, and what they saw. They didn’t confuse a raspberry’s sweetness with its price. But their lives weren’t easy. They didn’t have much money, and their children didn’t have too many choices. They went to hopeless fifties schools, green rooms with desks in rows and teachers who’d been patient long enough. They married too young, found themselves with little children and a lot of debt, with tired jobs where they worked long hours and never had time to do what they’d planned.
The two worlds had some occasion to intersect. Usually there wasn’t all that much hostility between them. Locals thought city types were more or less useless. They hired people to do things they should have done themselves, like washing windows and tilling gardens. City people could be condescending. They knew the locals didn’t read The New York Times. But the kids played together every summer, biking the very same roads, swimming in noisy profusion along the Catskill Creek.
Once a day each summer, most of the Middlefield residents, locals and weekenders alike, would stop at the Daily Harvest farm stand on the intersection of Route 28 and 9G. It was on the way no matter where you were going. For auto parts, for milk, for a swim in the creek, to pick up the mail. The farmstand was the local meeting ground, our house of worship and conversation.
No matter who you were or what you thought or how you voted, you’d buy your vegetables there. Fresh each day. Even if you grew them, you went to look at theirs. It had been an inn a century before, a stop for strangers on the way from their villages to Albany, to do their business.
During the bright yellow corn-filled months of summer right through the fragrant green and red buckets of apples into Crayola colored orange pumpkins, people flocked to Daily Harvest, sometimes just to talk. There would always be someone there, holding a paper cup of lemonade, or Kool Aid, or iced tea. They kept an old refrigerator out by the stand, for herbs and some of the greens that would wilt too easily in the sun, beet greens and kale,sweet basil and chard. Every morning the children would make big jugs full of drinks, and we’d all just help ourselves. There’d be cookies too. Whatever was on sale at the supermarket that week, they’d lay out on paper napkins on round straw trays.
Middlefield is beautiful, not in the even-handed careful way of paintings, of wealthy summer towns where every blade of grass stands at attention before it’s mowed down. It was beautiful in a wild and fragrant way, like horses and lillies and young children allowed their freedom, like dogs who can run all they want. It was beautiful like the moon, and like those memories all of us have of when we were young, and someone kissed us outside in the dark, by the cemetery, on a seawall, or in an open field. Middlefield was not a muted place. It was not careful or correct. The light, no matter what time of day, what time of year, fell out across the valley of old black locust trees, gnarled and knotted, stretching up into the heavens like limber Sufi dancers. The village was one of those places where one god or another was hovering around, helping the flowers and vegetables grow.
Here’s how we bought our house. By driving around. In a funny way buying
a house is a little like all those big and entirely ordinary parts of life
that you can’t conceive when someone else describes them to you, no
matter how articulate they might be. Like sex or children, two words as common as any,
two nouns that are as much a part of being human as arms and legs. But if I were
to try to tell you about sex for instance (and god knows many thousands even millions
of people have tried) I don’t know that I could let you know what it feels like (not
wonderful and frightening, not disappointing and cataclysmic, not unexpected and
addictive, but small pieces of all of those). Not really. I could give you an instance
or two, the way people often do: I saw him, and then. Or I saw him but I didn’t know.
Houses, especially for those of us who don’t have them in the usual way, those of us
in this peculiar Boomerish generation that ran away from the ordinary, and one of
the most ordinary words on the planet is House, we ran away from curtains say, or
dishes that matched, we ran away from convention, from words like normal. But
there’s always an even so. Even so, we who wanted to believe that who we were
was original, that we were living, somehow, in unchartered territory, that we would
create a New Life, whatever New might mean.