There is nothing quite like a day of international travel — including a mind-numbing five-hour layover in Detroit — to turn even the most social person on earth (me) into a misanthropic wretch, mumbling obscenities under my breath at the fractious toddlers, quibbling couples, teenagers who walk over my toes as they text while listening to their iPods… And those are the nice people!
But now I am settled into a sticky Naugahyde booth at the “Online C@fe” with internet service for the first time in five days, plus a place to plug in my phone. I predict a shoulder massage and a plate of excellent local Lake Michigan sushi, followed by a thrilling teeth-brushing session with running water — amazing! - before I board my plane to London.
Our last few days at Red Gate Farm were not the lazy, self-indulgent time I pictured when we waved goodbye to our last visitors and settled in for the end of our summer holiday. I had not counted on Irene.
As of the wee hours of Saturday night, we have been without power, and as annoying as that was, worse for me was the no-water part of having absolutely fabulous well-water. No electricity, no pump, all that delicious water stays right where it is, underground.
Luckily we thought ahead. I heeded the words of the sweet little teenage checkout girl at my supermarket, who upbraided the customer before me for stocking up on bottled water. “The hurricane hasn’t come yet! You still have running water! Fill up every container in your house, starting with your bathtubs.” I came straight home and John and I got to work filling Nonna’s bathtub, the drinks tubs from my mother’s birthday party, several stockpots and an empty kitty litter tub. We felt a little silly, as if we were overreacting like all the other people who had spent 14 straight hours watching the Weather Channel.
Thank goodness we did! Because while I had also over-prepared in buying tons of food, worrying that the stores would stay closed forever, the real issue came with the loss of power. With no refrigerator, the worry of how to keep food cold was far more pressing than having enough to eat. I learned another important lesson: ICE. Something told me to buy a huge bag of it, on the theory that it would keep my fridge cold for a little bit longer than if we didn’t have any, and that 8-pound bag stayed frozen, if a bit drippy, for the duration, five whole days. The vichyssoise, the many cheeses without which I did not feel I could survive a natural disaster, the beef fillets. “This will be a gourmet apocalpyse, damn it!” Avery said. Thank goodness she’d had her “Job Creator” ice cream fix the night before.
How I have learned not to take fresh water for granted. Five days was not long enough to cure me of the lifelong habit of turning on the tap. We developed a sort of triage system for water needs, like in the Little House on the Prairie books when every Saturday night, the mother gets the clean tub of bath water, then the father, then the oldest child, down to the littlest child. Our version of this was that I started with a stockpot full of fresh water to boil for pasta or potatoes, then in went the corn on the cob, then I scooped out the food and strained the water into another stockpot for washing the dishes, then poured it into toilet tanks! Completely crazy. But what on earth is our world doing pouring clean, sanitized water into toilet tanks, anyway? I will try not to become an environmental crank over this experience.
Our last normal moment was a trip to Penzeys for me for Fox Point Seasoning, then dinner with Jill and her family at the “Japanese Steakhouse,” which used to be my favorite thing my baby niece Jane could say. Gorgeous stir-fry and sushi, with the usual accompaniment of poor Molly’s tears at the leaping hibachi flames! Poor girl. We said our summer goodbyes and crawled home in lashing rain on the darkening highway, a harbinger of things to come. I awoke in the middle of Saturday night to deafening silence, not a good sign as I sleep with a white-noise maker. And this is what we saw.
In fact, this second photo was taken just hours after the first. The water receded fairly efficiently in our little ecosystem of ponds and brooks. Anne’s pond happily gushed, and received an ancient willow, broken harmlessly off in the night.
Avery and I toured the grounds in the still sprinkling rain that afternoon, realizing how we had dodged a bullet, retaining all the ancient and massive trees which dwarf and protect our beloved house. These branches emitted an unearthly screaming sound, like a crying baby, as they rubbed together in the lingering wind.
Thank goodness for my gas stove, and for the stockpiled water! I was able to produce scrambled eggs and bacon, and without a toaster, Avery’s new favorite food: grilled bread with mozzarella. I actually did not mind learning to cook by candlelight and gas lamp.
Later that afternoon, as the rain tapered off, our neighbor Mark came by to tell us about Southford Falls, a sort of yawn-making local park with a “waterfall” which has never failed to underwhelm any visitor we took there. Not on Sunday.
By Monday afternoon, the vaguely pioneer spirit of our electricity-, water-less lives had waned. We succumbed and went to Starbucks to join the rest of our town for free internet access! It turned out that 74% of our little town was without power, and most of them were sipping venti soy lattes. I was able to connect with my friends and read of their reaction to the adventures of Irene. Since they are my friends, they are funny.
Fiona: “Hurricane Irene has officially been downgraded to… British Summer.”
Molly: “Just finished a hand sanitizer sponge bath. Need water to come back on.”
As often happens after a tornado or hurricane, the following days were jewels of perfection. Just look at the shadows of the leaves dancing on the clapboards of Red Gate Farm.
Tuesday and Wednesday were more of the same, working our way through the still-chilly things in the fridge, finding more inventive ways to re-use water, feeling a bit sorry for ourselves having the end of our holiday used up in crisis mode. We played endless rounds of “Aggravation” by the light of the candelabra given me years ago, one of a pair, by my chum Binky. Under the circumstances, its Gothic excess was just what the doctor ordered.
And then Rollie stepped in. Of course.
It was my first experience with a generator! We were able to top up the fridge, to charge our computers and phones! There was never a more dulcet sound than its grinding rumbles. We listened in glee for several hours, until it had to go back its owner who had several bears and deer in his freezer. Seriously. This is rural Connecticut after all, where gunshots at dusk are not drug gangs, but neighbors cleaning up the coyotes from the valley.
Aside from a large number of displaced stones making up the walls of the pond, everything got back to normal at Red Gate Farm, at least outside.
Inside is another story.
Because one massive drama is never enough in my life, we were visited, both before and after Irene, with a demolition team to take apart the interior of about 40% of my house.
You see, during our winter absence from Red Gate Farm, there were massive snowstorms which resulted in a phenomenon called “ice dams” living on vulnerable parts of our roofline for much of the months of January through March. And those ice dams decided it would be much nicer to live INDOORS, which resulted in leaks, mold and falling walls and ceilings in my kitchen table area, my laundry room, the living room, and Avery’s and our bedroom ceilings.
Because we did not want to submit our many summer visitors to the debacle that would be the demolition, we kindly waited till the end of the summer, never of course dreaming the project would be combined with a hurricane. But there was a beautiful discovery!
Absolutely beautiful 200-year-old lath and plaster, perfectly unscathed from the ice damage. It is the unexpected benefit of a house without insulation — there is nowhere for the leaked moisture to stay, so it dries itself out, leaving only damaged surfaces, but underneath, an architectural treasure, which we’re going to try to keep exposed. How exciting to be reminded that houses were made of TREES.
We learned a lot, talking to the contractor whose inept and rather pitiful workers were about to rip out all the lath before speaking to us. Thank goodness I happened to peek in as they worked. The contractor said, “It’s important to keep in mind that you could have vermin living behind those walls, or in the attic, before you expose it. Because most insurance policies don’t cover vermin like squirrels. Better if the damage is done by raccoons. That’s covered.”
“But squirrels are mammals, just like raccoons,” I objected.
“Well, turns out there are subsets of mammals,” he explained.
“I wonder if I could argue that there are subsets of humans, too,” I suggested, and John jumped in.
“I like that!” Avery muttered in mock outrage.
“Well,” the contractor said, shaking his head, “I’ll go with the human-subset theory. I’ve often marveled that despite the efforts of a loving God, and the process of evolution, my employees have survived.”
Finally the contractors left, to be replaced sometime this fall by a restoration crew. We can only hope all goes well, in our absence.
The summer officially ended with a final barn-cleanout on a beautiful blue-sky day, drying the tarps that had collected hurricane water.
As always, the boxes in the barn are a never-ending source of amusement, discovery, nostalgia. This time we discovered hundreds of photos of us as newlyweds in the Seychelles on honeymoon, John’s parents on holiday in St Barts, real LETTERS from his mom with hundreds of newspaper and magazine clippings – 20-year-old version of her emails now with lots of links to things we’ll find interesting. No matter how many times we go through those boxes, there is always something to discover.
We had one last tennis game, one last swim at the town “Poo,” one last generous and welcome shower there. “No need to swim, just use our showers if you need to!” said a cheery sign at the pool. Tricia generously offered her laundry facilities. It takes a village, to survive a hurricane.
And here is an unheard-of sight in my life: a completely empty fridge! We decided we could not reasonably expect the power to come back on anytime soon (although it did just before I left for the airport!), so everything went. It will be fun to fill it up at Christmastime.
I spent my last night at Red Gate Farm alone among the candles, having been invited to Rollie’s, to Tricia’s (“dinner in half a hour!” her lovely husband drove over to say), and to Mike’s (“for a meal or a shower or whatever!”), but I decided to stay home and pack, get life in order, prepare to leave it all behind.
John and Avery report that all is well in London, the poor child having gone to the first day of school straight from Heathrow! She has been put into a wonderful new maths set — not too much pressure, I hope — and her been reunited with her beloved friends. Tacy the kitty is talking up a storm. “I told her to save some of her stories for you,” Avery assured me.
And so I shall be there in just 12 hours or so, leaving the joys and sorrows, the flavors and family and generous friends, the pressures and panoply of experiences that make up our American summers. London, here I come!Print This Post