Saturday, March 16, 2013

This Flatlander's Dirty Laundry

Yep. Another re-post. So sue me. Report cards were due on Thursday and my book proposal was due on Friday, so my creative reserves are at an all-time low. I just don't have any words left over, and besides, it's still gray, cold, barren winter here in central New Hampshire. We get glimpses of spring in the form of bear sightings and the smell of wood smoke and boiling maple sap, but I'm desperate for the thaw that will finally break the ice in Grant Brook and get my creative juices flowing again.

We put down an offer on our little house in Lyme Center village seven years ago this month. I'd stalked it for quite a while before that, and the first time I pulled into what would become our driveway, I could hear Grant Brook raging behind the house. The spring thaw was underway, and the roar of the water between the lingering ice shelves was incredible. I heard that sound, peeked in the windows, saw past the dead black locust threatening the sun room roof, the peeling paint and obvious work ahead of me, and fell in love. This is the story of how we found our home here in New Hampshire; how this family of flatlanders managed to become Lymies. 

We moved to Lyme, New Hampshire because we were in search of a home. A town that offered our children woods, streams, meadows and ponds – places they could explore and acquire the sensory memories that would render them acquainted with nature. The sudden and shocking upwelling of frigid spring water in an otherwise warm lake. The silver underside of leaves revealed by the winds before a summer rainstorm. The smell of an impending snowfall mixed with wood smoke. Wet spittlebug foam and soft milkweed down. We also wanted our kids to know the comfort of neighbors and to feel as if they were growing up in a place where they could depend on the people around them. We searched for just such a place for over two years before we found it.

Our dream house – tiny, with peeling paint on an acre of neglected land - was way out of our price range, as most dream houses tend to be. It sat at the main intersection of a small village halfway between Lyme Plain and Dartmouth Skiway.

We circled the house, peeked in the windows, and explored the rain-swollen brook behind the yard, and did our best not to fall in love with the house. Really, we couldn't begin to afford it. The house had been purchased as a flip by a real estate agent looking to take advantage of a booming real estate market. She bought the house on the cheap, updated the kitchen, and put it back on the market for far more than it was worth. And there it sat. And sat, for over a year. Neighbors shook their heads at its overinflated price and despaired over its lonely condition. The owner received offers, some approaching her asking price, but all were refused. Time passed, and the booming real estate market started to slip. And slide. And tumble. Offers continued to come in at realistic price points, but she would not be moved. She was losing money with each new month, and when I sensed her panic rising to a desperate crescendo, I let it slip, ever so casually, that I loved her house. She told me where to find the key, and what I was welcome to check the house out whenever I liked. I thought I was the sly one, but in retrospect, the key was a brilliant move on her part.

I had been visiting the outside of the house for almost a month, and now, armed with the key, I spent inordinate amounts of time in its empty rooms, poking around the basement, conducting amateur home inspections. I threw tennis balls to our dog in the backyard, poked around in the overgrown gardens, and mentally arranged my furniture in its empty rooms. Under direct questioning, I played it cool, and I certainly did not tell anyone that I had been visiting the house almost daily, like some sort of real estate stalker.

Finally, two weeks before she was due to give birth to her third child, she uttered the fateful words,

"Make me an offer. I won't be insulted."

So I did, and she wasn't.

The house was ours just one year, five months, and six days after we first peeked in the windows, imagining our furniture, our kids, our lives within its walls.

The final piece of the equation depended on our neighbors. I had yet to meet anyone in the neighborhood, despite the fact that I had all but pitched a tent in the backyard. They had been watching me over the past couple of months. They watched as I walked around the house, pulled weeds from the gardens, and picked at the peeling paint. I’m sure they speculated about the odd woman in the silver Honda who visited their village nearly every day. The employees of the insurance agency across the street watched me eat my picnics in the yard while I watched them eat their lunches on the post office steps.

These same people are now my neighbors, and I depend on their generosity every day. We carpool each other’s children, raid each other’s gardens, help ourselves to eggs from other’s chicken coops. I’ve borrowed just about everything from my neighbors – generators, ladders, bottles of wine, headlamps, scythes, a wood splitter. We even have a loose neighborhood DVD exchange system. We know where each other’s DVDs are stored, and it’s understood that we are to let ourselves in to each other’s houses in order to make movie selections when the mood strikes.

But I am afraid I stretched the bounds of neighborly interdependence into the realm of the absurd yesterday.

I’ve been a little scattered, what with building a new home for my chickens, writing, dealing with the dogs’ eye infections, and seeing to my older son’s post-tooth-extraction soft-food diet. I was rushing off to pick my younger son up from school, and I thought I had packed the required button- and snap-free clothing for his gymnastics class, but in my rush, I forgot, and I did not have enough time to double back home.

I thought I was stuck. Until I remembered the Canning-Coldwells. Rick, Stacie and their three kids live a couple of miles away in the direction of the gymnastics class. I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw Stacie’s car in the driveway, but when I knocked and rang the doorbell, but there was no sign of life in the house. I stuck my head in the door.

“Hello? Rick? Stacie? Hello?”

That’s when I saw the size 4T sleeve dangling out of the dirty clothes hamper.

The coast was clear. The house was silent save for the distinctive Santa-jingle of the bells hanging from the Coldwell-Canning’s door. I tiptoed (why? I have no idea, it was obvious no one was home) over to the three-tiered hamper and pulled the striped shirt out of the middle bin.

The Caldwell’s definition of dirty must be a little looser than the Lahey’s, because it was easy to find a presentable pair of leggings to go with the shirt.

I had two choices. I could take the clothes, and if no one was home when we were done with them, simply return them to the hamper. I could even dangle the sleeve out, just the way I found it. I would unveil this particular anecdote sometime in the distant future, at a shared dinner, after a bottle of wine or two. I am a little worried about what this choice says about my character.

The second option was to leave a note, come clean immediately, and trust that Rick and Stacie know me well enough not to be horrified that I pawed through their dirty laundry in search of an outfit. But time was short. And I didn’t have a pen.

So we were off. I hustled Finnegan into the gymnasium, in Vermont, clearly over the NH/VT border and therefore out of the jurisdiction of the NH dirty clothing police. I pulled off Finnegan's button and snap-laden outfit, took a deep breath, and dressed him in the neighbor’s dirty clothes. About ten minutes later, as Finn was preparing to head down to his gymnastics class, 
“Jess! Hey! What are you doing here?”

Christ. Abort. Abort. You have been made. Repeat. Abort.

Rick’s stops in this tracks, happy to see me, and yet...his eyes shift from me, to Finnegan, then back to me.

“Hey – Adelaide has an outfit just like that….”

Just go ahead and add cross-dressing my son to today’s list of transgressions.

I used to teach Pride and Prejudice in my British Literature class, and I have always loved Mr. Bennet’s quip, “For what do we live, but to make sport of our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?” The significance of this line was made very clear to me today, the day I became the Main Event.

Fortunately, I was right about my neighbors. Rick does know me well enough to not be horrified that I pawed through his dirty clothes hamper. He said I was welcome to their dirty clothes anytime.

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