Sanctuary

I didn’t see the house or The Farm again for three years.  I got married and moved to Seattle where my husband and I had both been accepted to graduate school.   During weekly phone conversations, Mom told me about the plans they had for The Farm.  Dad bought a small tractor and they put in a garden.  They built an outhouse and started going to auctions and farm sales where they found a wood cook stove.  She sent me pictures:  an apple pie that was a mouth-watering brown on one side and totally charred on the other; a table set for two with a plate of unburned biscuits (her wood stove skills were improving) and a bowl of wild strawberries picked from the field behind the house; the house buried in snow drifts; the upstairs bedroom with the chamber pot beside the bed.  My parents bought books about raising livestock and talked about living there full time.

Mom and Dad had always dreamed of living off the land.  They bought the complete set of the Foxfire books and subscribed to Mother Earth News, the instruction manuals for the 60s and 70s back to the land movement.  They installed a woodstove in the basement of our house in Franklin and grew a garden in the back yard.  My mother canned tomatoes and pickles every summer, and we made apple sauce and cider from the apples that fell from the trees in our yard.  One spring we tapped the maple trees along the driveway and made syrup over an open fire.  That adventure wasn’t so successful–the syrup tasted like smoke.  My parents were thrilled to have acreage at last.

All of this made me achingly homesick.  I loved living in Seattle with the bookstores and movie theaters and coffee shops, but I couldn’t shake the images of The Farm.   My marriage didn’t last and seeking solace, I decided to fly home to Pennsylvania for a few weeks in the summer of 1983.  Seeing friends and family was great, but I needed to go somewhere comforting where I could be alone.  I borrowed my parents’ white boat of a station wagon and stopped and bought coffee and a few staples on the way to the Farm.  I pulled into the driveway, got out of the car with my backpack and groceries, and unlocked the padlock on the door.  Someone had written on the peeling, white paint above, “No rabbits—Mike.”

I carried the bags in and set them on the kitchen table.  The room was painted white with brown trim.  There were no counters or cupboards, but there was a porcelain sink with a pitcher pump and a wooden hutch on the opposite wall just to the left of the door.  The only light fixture in the room turned on and off with a pull chain and was located above a 1940s Hotpoint electric range complete with a soup well.

The tiny, two-bedroom house was cozy and welcoming, and I felt that I belonged there even though I’d never been inside before. I left my bags in the kitchen and opened the wooden door that lead into the living room.  This was a dark and gloomy space with two windows in the south wall that opened onto what was once a porch but was now enclosed to form another room.  The west wall of the living room was covered in dark-stained barn board; the wall opposite was covered with cedar shakes and the remaining walls had a rust-colored wall paper with a small design of trees and what looked like a Japanese temple in white.  The woodwork was painted the color of spicy brown mustard.  The living room had an overstuffed couch of a color not seen in nature—a kind of tannish mauve– and a couple of squishy armchairs.  The room that used to be a porch was painted white and all that was in it was the large, cabinet stereo I remembered from my parents’ house when I was a child.  So the décor was basically early American garage sale.

I continued up the stairs.  The two bedrooms were painted yellow with institutional green trim.  Uncle Cecil had worked for the railroad and he brought home odd and ends to use at The Farm:  the last bit of paint in a can, some old light switches, an assortment of used nails and screws.  Plaster was peeling off the walls in places.  There was no hallway and no bedroom doors, but each room had a window and the space was light and cheerful.  The room at the top of the stairs had two single beds and in the back room stood a metal bed painted brown, as well as a small table with a lamp and a black and white TV.  My mother said that when she and my dad were shown around the place by a neighbor, there had been a lovely, old wooden chest of drawers in the back bedroom.  On their first trip to The Farm after they bought it, the dresser was gone.

The only space left to explore was the basement.  There was no door at the top of the cement stairs, which descended from the enclosed side porch, but there was a door at the bottom.  A small, metal sign above the doorway said “Dressing Room No. 7.”  Another railroad left over?  Uncle Cecil’s sense of humor?  No one knows anymore.  The basement had three rooms.  According to family legend, when it was first built, the house had no basement.  At some point, the house was jacked up and a basement was dug out, forms put in, and concrete walls and floor poured.  The house also had no plumbing, so no bathroom,  but there was a toilet immediately to the right of the stairs in the main room of the basement. There were no walls around it; no attempts at privacy.  It was flushed by pouring a bucket of water into it.

Pittsburgh Potty

For many years, I assumed the exposed basement toilet was an aberration exclusive to my family, they are apparently common in older homes in Pittsburgh, and even known as “Pittsburgh Potties.”  The city model is hooked up to running water, however; and I think it makes the appearance of a basement potty in a house without plumbing even more bizarre.  Why wouldn’t you simply build an outhouse? (Photo is not of the actual basement toilet, but pretty close. Image from @theinclinepgh on Twitter.)

By the time I was finished poking around the basement, I was tired and it was getting dark, so I decided to go to bed.  I couldn’t get anything to come in on the television, no matter how much I messed with the rabbit ears, so I read until I fell asleep.  This took longer than usual.  After living in towns and cities for so long, I expected nights in the country to be dark and silent, and although they were dark, they were anything but silent.  The crickets chirped all night and when the crickets started to wind down around five a.m., the birds were just getting warmed up.

I don’t remember what I actually did for the rest of that weekend, reading and going for walks, would be my guess, but I do know that just being there made me feel safe and strong and my depression retreated.  I was able to fly back to Seattle feeling renewed.  I decided to return to The Farm as soon as I was finished with graduate school, but then I met Henrik Nordstrom.  Henrik was Finnish and very exotic to someone who grew up on the outskirts of a small town.  He was smart and funny and despite growing up in Helsinki, his dream was to get land in the country and become “self-sufficient.”  We read everything we could find about gardening and raising animals, and after we got married and bought a small house in the Ballard neighborhood, we dug up the front and back yards to plant vegetables much to the horror of our neighbors who all had closely cropped grass and camellia bushes.

We spent weekends driving around the countryside looking for land.  In the 1980s, undeveloped property within two hours of Seattle was running about $10,000 an acre, while I knew that an acre in northwestern Pennsylvania was $500 to $1,000.  We fell in love with two acres on Vashon Island, but the soil test came back positive for copper, lead, and cadmium, most likely from the smelter south of the island in Tacoma.

It was at about that time when my parents announced they were selling The Farm. Their dream of living off the land had degenerated during six years of ownership into mowing the grass every few weeks and it had become too much for them.  I couldn’t let them sell it to someone else.  Henrik was reluctant, but I convinced him to move east.  And then I found out I was pregnant.

 

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