World Gone Away

I spent the better part of the past week in a neighbor’s kitchen. They are, like us, a couple from New Jersey who decided to pick up and relocate to the Lakes region of New Hampshire for the weather. I joke, of course. The weather had little to do with their decision, but you could say that it was the climate that attracted them. They are older than me by a generation and where my wife and I are still working on the finer aspects of parenting, this couple has moved into the Grand-parenting stage of life with an ease that I admire. Their five year old Grandson has been spending a chunk of his vacation being shuttled from day camp to boat rides, swimming classes and art studios by his doting elders while I helped them to open up their kitchen to the beautiful view of the Ragged Mountains in the distance. We share a great deal in common despite our difference in age; a fondness for New Jersey delis and Tasty Cakes, both treats unavailable to us where we live these days. They are honest souls who prefer the easy days of their life as it is and while I worked at stripping the old lathe and plaster from the Southeastern wall with a flat bar they sat at the kitchen table and talked to me of long days at the Jersey shore, old friends and long ago memories of a different time where we both came from. They never prepared a sandwich without asking if I was hungry as well and on more than one occasion I’d set my tools down for a spell and join them at the table for a bite to eat while their Grandson peppered us with questions about Legos or farm animals.

It has been a strange Summer for sure. The drought, while it may not be official, is as real as it gets. The vernal pool at the foot of the sugar orchard is bone dry for the first time since we moved here, the bottom a thick porridge of black mud six feet deep. I have already begun to feed the cattle from my stockpile of bales put up for Winter and my wife and I have discussed the very real possibility of thinning the herd, paring down the stock that we have labored for years to build up just so that we can make it through to another Spring. Financially we are tapped out. Whatever capital reserves we had put away before we moved up here are gone and we do our level best to make it from week to week, taking off farm work as it comes along so that we can make the next tax payment or the installment on our Daughter’s braces, or the repairs to our truck as each obligation comes along. In this way we are back where we started in our marriage, absent the inexperience of course. There is a constant thrum of excitement in a way that drives us forward each day, my wife off to clean the boats in the harbor, or me wrapping up the last section of barbed wire before breakfast so that I can load up my tools and head over to repair a deck or tile a bathroom for the Summer homes that hug the lake shore. When we finish at the end of each day we make a point to either take the kids for a swim, or to the stables to ride or back out to the lake with the canoe to try and catch some fish for dinner. They do well enough on their own throughout the day without us and it gives us time to earn the cash money that we need to fill the gas tanks or pay what we owe on our Daughter’s flute, but we try and hold to the purpose for our relocation, to be present in their lives each day and to set an example and share in their experience as they grow up into futures of their own. There isn’t time for us to mail it in or to turn them over to distractions of the modern age if we want to remain true to our goals and so we take the added burdens as some kind of blessing and are rewarded in ways we would never have expected when we first set out on this adventure. Behind it all, this life we live with each other, there has been the ever present buzz of a storm building in the larger world. I won’t pretend that we don’t pay attention to it, though I wish we could ignore the ever present electricity of something much larger going on out there. The divisions of the years past have become chasms these days, so wide that they are past the point of ever being mended. There are camps now, tens of millions on one side, equal numbers on the other with very few people in a position to sit things out no matter how hard they try. Our country is heading for an event that no one can easily describe, but that we all know is just over the horizon. In the same way children anticipate Christmas in the weeks leading up to it, the adults that remain in our culture are equally aware that something big is approaching and that things will not be the same when it comes. The rifts and squabbles that have defined our experience as Americans in the past are coming to a head, this much is sure, but what the outcome will be is anyone’s guess at this time. Like the days that have stretched into weeks without the first whisper of rain there is a downpour that is due, but when it comes it will be too little, too late.

I like to work with my hands, always have and always will, I hope. There is a deep pleasure in being able to size up a job and to know exactly which tools I will need, how I will remove and then replace the materials to make the job appear as if it has been the way I will leave it since the beginning. The kitchen in my neighbor’s house has always been dark, a single double hung window set in wide expanse of wall. The task was to remove it and blow the wall out and replace it with a triple bay almost four times as wide as what was set there originally a hundred years ago. On the inside the cabinets that flank the opening have to be removed, the plaster and lathe stripped, wires relocated and a new header installed above. To do this requires a set of scaffold to be erected above the steeply canted yard out back and cutting through a century old balloon frame structure that has stood without fail for twice as long as I have been alive, if not more. I always lay down rosin paper wherever I plan on working and tape the edges securely with blue painters tape and on the surfaces where I work sheets of visqueen are carefully secured against the debris. Demolition is a dirty job and in old houses you can rest assured it will be filthy with the accretion of time. Decades of dust and mice, insects and decay all of it spent in darkness come suddenly to light with the first jab of the sawzall and pry bar. It’s always best to tear out everything on the first go, like pulling out a rotten tooth or tearing off a bandage, the quicker it’s done the less pain all around. By the time the window sashes are removed and the sheathing, siding and old studs sawn through and discarded there remains a clean, fresh hole to the outside, light and air pouring through and the view to the horizon like something from a dream. Where earlier there was only the dim light of what they had been accustomed to for years, a fresh glow of what would replace it moving forward now filled the room.

Late in the afternoon I drove a load of composted manure down into the lower field to spread, the tractor chuffing in the failing light of the day. There was a slight breeze, not enough to provide relief, but nice enough all the same and as I gazed off at the parched grass and the thin ribbon of brook that ran along the bottom of the eskar, something flew past me on the right, dimming the Sun for an instant. I thought that it was one of the red tailed hawks that took residence in our back forty, but as it came to rest on a crooked maple branch twenty feet ahead I saw that it was an owl. I stopped the tractor and turned off the engine, setting the brakes on the steep slope and removed my headphones. It swung its head as if it were mounted on a lazy Susan, a good half turn around its body and looked directly at me, eyes flat yellow discs with ebony irises. We fixed each other with a stare that transcended our species, each of us regarding the other without fear or threat. You don’t see owls very often in daylight, in fact I couldn’t recall ever having seen one this close before. It was young, that much I could tell from the size and feathering and though I am not a birder it was obviously a barn owl — I’d heard them often enough to recognize the call when he finally let out short screech like an old hinge in need of oil. Time flattened out in that few moments, the two of us about our business in the same place and when he finally turned his head away from my to look east my eyes followed his and there on another branch across the lane was a second owl, the same size and shape watching the two of us. i wondered how many people would ever get a chance to see not one, but two owls at the same time and to listen to them exchange calls as if they were discussing their neighbor on the tractor below. I sat there, motionless until they flew off together, their wings beating softly as the moved under the canopy of green foliage and disappeared from sight.

Later that evening the phone rang and it was a man who had given my oldest son a job a few months ago, a Mennonite with a family business that didn’t hire much outside of their own community. At first I was apprehensive about the call until he told me his reason for making it. He wanted to thank me, he said, for the job his Mother and I had done in raising him. He’d employed a lot of young people over the years he told me, but very few like him and he wanted me to know how much he was appreciated by his employer and that if I were ever to come out their way to please make the time to introduce myself and share a meal with them. I told him that the feeling was mutual and that I was grateful knowing that my Son had found a place where his work was appreciated and where he was more than a hired hand. We said our goodbyes and I shared the contents of that conversation with my Wife before we went to bed, tired, but excited as well in the knowledge that what we had hoped for as parents had come to fruition.

Over the next couple of days I framed up the opening, built a new header from rough cut hemlock and sheathed and papered the outer perimeter of the new window before setting it into place and plumbing and leveling it with cedar shims. After vacuuming the inside of the kitchen I wiped down the surfaces and replaced the old lathe and plaster wall with blue board and filled the cavities with expansive foam, insulation against drafts. Later I installed ceramic tile above the counter tops in a subway pattern, carefully buttering each one before laying them into place and on the following day I grouted the declivities between and polished them up with a piece of burlap damp with olive oil. I primed and painted the trim and caulked and cleaned up one last time before I packed up my tools, stripped the ruined rosin paper from the floor and bagged it up for a trip to the dump. Before I left we all sat together at the kitchen table with sweat covered glasses of iced tea and looked out the window to the manicured lawn and the gnarled apple tree rooted in its center, the blue hump of ancient mountains running left to right through the expanse of new windows. There were white clouds moving merrily from back to front, growing larger as they came towards us, shadows moving across the treeline. I rose at last and said my goodbyes expressing my gratitude for the work and they for my craftsmanship then headed back home to my wife and children following the path of the empty stream bed the entire way.

We get used to things, the way things have always been until we decide we want to change them. Then we go through the ugly process of tearing old familiar aspects of our life apart until we find something that is a better fit for the way we want to live and wonder why we didn’t do it much sooner when we had the energy or could better afford the cost. Sometimes we just put it off altogether and let the next generation worry about it because it’s easier that way, less burdensome and safe. You can live with a lot of things the way they are until you can’t anymore. Some things are too big to do anything about, like the weather and others are just forms made by men, as easy to demolish and reconstruct as window in a wall, giving us a view we never we had until it’s done.

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