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“Humorous ... this true-life tale charts a big-city girl’s transformation to farm gal.” —People
“Jeanne Marie Laskas is the thinking woman’s Erma Bombeck ... [with] a talent for finding wisdom in daily life.... Even the most entrenched urbanite will be charmed by this book.” —Andrea Sachs, Time.com
“[A] delightful memoir about love and relocation ... [by] an accomplished journalist and also a deft storyteller ... Hilarious ... a pleasurable read indeed.” —Newsday
“Rarely has a city girl transformed herself into a country goddess with such humor.” —Rita Mae Brown
Be sure to look for Jeanne Marie Laskas’s new book in spring 2003 wherever Bantam Books are sold
It's hard to say how a dream forms. Especially one like mine, which at first seemed so utterly random. It could have been a sailing-a-boat-to-Tahiti dream, a quit-your-job-and-hitchhike-to-Alaska dream. It was a fill-in-the-blank dream, born of an urge, not content. An urge for something new.
I was thirty-seven years old. I lived on Eleventh Street, the last house on the right, in South Side, a gentrified old mill town on the banks of the Monongahela River. I rented an office in downtown Pittsburgh, a fifteen-minute bike ride away, which is where I spent my days writing stories and magazine articles. I had a garden. I had a cat. I had a dog.
And I had a farm dream, a fantasy swirling around in my head about moving to the country. Where in the world was this coming from? That's what I wondered. It might have made sense if I was a miserable person, sick of my life. But I was not. I had a good life; it had taken me a long time to get it that way.
A farm dream would have made sense, I supposed, if I was at least the farm dream type. A person with some sort of deep personal longing to churn butter. A person who had had city life forced upon her and now was determined to go be true to herself and live among the haystacks. A person who wore her hair in long braids, used Ivory soap, and liked to stencil her walls with pictures of little chickens and cows. A person who, at a minimum, had a compost pile in her yard where she diligently threw lawn clippings and coffee grinds and egg shells and earned the right to use the word organic a lot.
But I was not that person. I was not even sure what hay was, or why anyone would stack it. And if I composted anything, it was only by mistake.
In fact, I was a person who liked to go to the mall. I was a person who had no conflict about liking to go to the mall. I wore my hair in a bob courtesy of Christine, who also touched up my roots every six weeks with bleach. I used Clinique products on my skin, mainly because I was a sucker for the free stuff you could get during Clinique Bonus Time. I had a formidable tower of Stouffer's Lean Cuisine in my freezer, and I harbored little or no fear of processed foods. I believed very deeply in the power of air conditioning, microwave ovens, and very many things you plug in.
And I had a farm dream. The real source of this dream was something I was able to admit only after a lot of torment, as I'm sure plenty of people can understand: my farm dream had its roots in Green Acres. Which was never even my favorite show. But to grow up in the suburbs of the 1960s is to have TV, glorious TV, as your reference point. And I had always been one to side with Eddie Albert. "Farm livin' is the life for me." And I knew every single word of that song--"Darling, I love you, but give me Park Avenue"--and suddenly, after decades of not singing that song at all, I couldn't get it out of my head. Ba-da-de-dum-dum. Dum dum.
It's funny how the urge for something new can really be an urge for something old. Something you let go of a long time ago.
I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, on a happy little street called Lorraine Drive, which featured a row of tidy ranch houses and a most excellent hill for riding bikes down. That's what you saw when you looked out our front windows. You saw: suburbs. But if you looked out our back windows, you saw a farm. A working dairy farm that once encompassed the land that became Lorraine Drive. That farm was the backdrop of my life. It was the scenery I emerged from. That was the way I saw it, back when I understood everything.
I was eight years old. I understood exactly how the world was organized. Everyone was either this or that. Everyone was either Italian or Irish on their mother's side. Everyone was either Lithuanian or German on their father's side. Everyone was either Catholic or Jewish. Everyone was either a country-person or a city-person. And everyone had a willow tree in the backyard.
That these categories overlapped, or consisted of sub-categories, or didn't exist for some people at all, was a realization that would continually shock me. For instance, I remember the horror I felt when I visited Laureen Hampton, my very first city-person friend. I went from window to window, room to room, pulling back curtains and pushing up blinds in a most desperate way.
"What is the matter, dear?" her mother finally said.
"Where is your willow tree?" I asked.
I did not understand her explanation, not for a long time. How could you not have a willow tree?
In my family we were Irish and we were Lithuanian and we were Catholic and we had our willow tree and some of us were country-people and some of us were city-people. No, you couldn't just be a "suburb-person." That didn't mean anything. The suburbs was an in-between place, a place you were headed in or out of, depending on your country/city orientation.
I was a country-person, at my core, in my heart. Because I loved that farm in our backyard. I would play there, in those woods and in those fields and in that barn. "Oh yeah, I live on a farm," I would practice saying, loving the sound of those words. When I was upset, I would run there. I would pack a pretend suitcase and move into a shed near the barn. A little red shed, with benches and rusted old tools and bags of chicken feed to prop your feet on. I would sit there. I would say, "Well, I'm home. Thank goodness I'm home." There was a secret passageway in that shed, a board that swung left that I could squeeze behind. I had my stuff there. I had my paints and my sketch pads. I had my secret scrolls. I had things I would say to God. I had stories I would write about my life on the farm back in the olden times when there weren't even any toilets.
Perhaps most importantly, there were animals on that farm. There were horses and goats and rabbits and all those cows. These were my friends. My most trusted friends. In the real world I had siblings, John and Kristin, a distant twelve and eight years older than me, and Claire, just two years older. Claire was my friend, but she was better than me at every single solitary thing I ever tried to do, so this friendship had its limitations. This friendship so often was seen through a wall of tears. I was a painfully shy kid; I would cry if you tried to talk to me. The grade school teachers would send notes home to my mother saying, "We can't get her to stop crying." I remember how hard it was to make it through a whole day of school without at least once bursting into tears, how I would congratulate myself if I actually accomplished this. I would leap off the school bus and run past our house, head down to the farm and I would tell the goats. I would tell the horses. I would say, "Hey everybody. I did it. I did it!" And I swear to you those goats would applaud. The rabbits would run in circles with glee. The horses would sing.
I felt safe, like I belonged, on that farm.
One day, at the farm, God spoke to me (which, to tell you the truth, I half-expected). He said, "Okay, I am getting a headache from all these prayers coming at me for me to take care of people. People, people, people. What about animals? Somebody down there has to take charge of praying for the animals." So He anointed me. It wasn't a big deal. It wasn't like He promised that I'd one day show up on a stained glass window or anything. It was more like, "Hey, could you do this for me? Could you pray for the animals?" And I said, "Sure." So I began looking out for the welfare of turtles. I became an activist for chipmunks. I had meetings with many neighborhood cats on a bill of rights I was drawing up on behalf of the sparrows. Eventually, I became a crusader for the eternal life of all animals. I would bless myself, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, every time I saw a dead animal on the road. This act would send the animal to heaven. This was my job. I took pride in my job.
As I got older, I never quite abandoned my animal friends, but by the time I reached junior high school I was done being shy. I turned into a loud mouth. I won the award for Wittiest and Peppiest in the Eighth Grade. I had discovered, rather late, that there was more to being a person than just having an inner life. And the outer life was a blast. I was having so much fun in the outer life that I stopped doing homework and played hooky and took up bowling and smoking and almost flunked out of school. My mother yanked me out of that school, dressed me in a uniform, and whisked me away for ninth grade to a private all-girls school. My siblings had all gone to private schools. I was my mother's public school experiment, which she saw as a failure.
I didn't see it that way. Leaving public school was the worst tragedy of my entire life.
I turned shy again. I couldn't quite figure out how to have both an inner and an outer life at the same time. The inner life was safe. The inner life, which I had come to equate with the farm, the animals. The farm, the animals, they brought me toward God. Toward prayer. Toward an urge to step back, really far back, and try to understand what was going on in the giant universe. It was strange how the inward would catapult you upward. I turned inward and inward and inward. By the time I got to college I felt like the only place I really belonged was in my own head. I discovered writing. Thank God for writing. It was a way of getting all the inward stuff out. It was like installing a ventilation system, a link of fans blowing through duct work, releasing emotion and thought to the wind.
Right after graduation, all my college friends got married, settled quickly. They had clear paths set out for them. They were turning into accountants and middle managers, and soon they all got Subarus.
I had no clear path set out for me. There was no set path toward becoming a writer. I moved to Pittsburgh to go to graduate school because I didn't know how else to become a writer.
Pittsburgh opened my eyes. In Pittsburgh I understood how someone could actually be a city-person. I loved the neighborhoods, each one its own minisociety tucked in the fold of a hill. I loved the huge sycamore trees. I loved all that energy, which wasn't the same as the collision of energy in the East Coast cities. In Pittsburgh there was collaboration, participation, a weird but contagious spirit of civic pride. I loved the way drivers wouldn't cut you off when you were trying to merge. In Pittsburgh, they waved you in.
I took to exploring the city neighborhoods on my bike. One day I crossed the bridge into South Side, and I was hooked. That neighborhood captured me. I loved the abandoned steel mills, huge hunks of orange and brown, bent this way and that, stretched across the sky. I loved the hilly, cobblestone streets. Some of the streets were so steep, they weren't streets at all, but stairs with street signs. I loved the flower gardens in patches of dirt surrounded by little plastic picket fences. Tiny flower gardens adorned with aqua blue Virgin Mary statues and yellow and purple pinwheels. I loved the red brick houses that leaned into each other, held each other up. I loved the utter absence of straight lines. I loved the way everything was so old and hobbled and slumped.
Soon South Side became my every-Sunday destination. I would go to the Lithuanian church there and sit in the wooden pews darkened by generations of prayer, of hope, of thanksgiving, and I would bask in the whispers of my ancestors. One day I rode my bike down Eleventh Street and there it was: 136 South Eleventh Street. A house for sale. It was like a lot of them: It needed help. Paint, new windows, pointing, chimney repair; it needed a lot of help. I loved it instantly and without reservation. "This is where I belong," I thought, and soon I was a home owner. Soon I was an urban dweller. I had a newsstand four blocks from my front door, a corner market, a dry cleaner, and shoe-repair place within skipping distance. I felt as though I had entered a storybook, and I half-expected to bump into Gepetto walking Pinocchio to school.
I was twenty-six years old. My house became my coming-of-age house: I renovated it, and it renovated me. I tore down walls, opened up rooms, added windows and skylights, spent three months chipping plaster, inch by inch, reclaiming a wobbly brick fireplace. In this house I learned how to handle a hammer, a socket wrench, a leaky faucet, a frozen downspout, a trowel, and many, many bags of tulip bulbs. In this house I acquired a community of friends who came to represent family: Beth up the street, B.K. and Kit over the hill, Nancy and Lynn and Sally across the river, and the rest of the so-called "babes," a group of single women who encourage one another's dreams.
It was while living in this house that I discovered my love of gardening. In that most wonderful garden. By the standards of the neighborhood, my yard was large: an L-shaped piece of land, about a quarter acre, going alongside of and behind the house, separating me from the Conrail tracks. Freight trains would come moseying by a few times a day. I came to depend on the clatter, and I liked waving to the engineers when I was out there pulling weeds. This was an urban garden, a little oasis, a miniparadise surrounded by the noise and smells and warmth of the city.
It was while living in this house that I became a writer. I wrote essays for The Washington Post Magazine, traveled the world and wrote about the collapse of the Soviet Union for Life magazine, and for GQ I traipsed around after a cult of very happy people who believed they would live forever. I wrote about rock stars and preachers and old ladies I met, as well as plenty of characters I stumbled across in my own head.
But the writing life, it turned out, was difficult. It wasn't like you could sit down and flip a switch and crank on the ventilation system. Sometimes it didn't work, and sometimes you couldn't even find the switch. The truth about writing was, writing made you nuts. It made you adopt weird napping habits. It made you overly sensitive to smell, touch, sound. It made you eat nothing but popcorn for thirty straight days, and then nothing but carrots, and then nothing but Pop-tarts. It made you not belong anywhere. And there were all those old college friends trading in their Subarus for even better Subarus, and they got condos and then one of them had a baby, so then they all did. Then they traded in their Subarus for minivans and started driving through the Taco Bell Drive-Thru. And South Side didn't even have a Taco Bell. I was way, way, way off track. Married? Kids? Minivan? Hell, I didn't even have a boyfriend. And, as anyone knew, first you had to get a boyfriend to get the ball rolling. But really, the only men worth any time at all, I found, were men you met in foreign countries and brought home to show your friends. I brought home a man from Israel, a man from Switzerland, a man from Russia. Funny how these men revealed their tragic flaws only when on American soil. These were relationships that could exist only when I was in another place, another time zone, another planet.
I was terrified of love. Love was so chaotic. Love was freedom and passion and Wittiest and Peppiest in the Eighth Grade. Freedom and passion meant you flunked. Freedom and passion called for intervention. Freedom and passion meant you should wear a uniform. You should stop having freedom and passion and start having a structured environment. Well, you had a choice. You could have an intellectual and spiritual life. Or you could have love.
You couldn't have both. You couldn't have inward and outward. It was impossible. Inward was order and outward was chaos. How could you have both?
I chose order. Of course I did. We always choose the familiar path first.
And so this is how I ended up, at thirty-seven years old, at 136 South Eleventh Street, the last house on the right. I spent my days writing stories and magazine articles. I had a garden, a cat, a dog, a good life.
And I had a farm dream, a song I couldn't get out of my head.
From the Hardcover edition.
|3||Sheep are Stupid||133|
|4||Cue the Mule||197|
Posted May 29, 2012
I love this author and everything she has chosen to share with us. Her books are a pleasure to read, except that I read them too fast and now I am left with none of her work. TRULY an exceptional writer - I KNOW her characters.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
I loved this book and never wanted it to end. A great story about a couple who follow their dream and the poodle that shares their new life. I own a standard poodle, so I have a special spot for them, but like Marley and Me it is just a great dog story. The dog in "Fifty Acres" is not your stereotypical poodle, but rather the type that most people own loving, gregarious, and not afraid to get a little dirty. If you like dogs and dog stories, check this one out. I loved every page!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 31, 2003
I recently made the move to 30 acres in the country and I could totally relate to this book. One year ago, I lived in a condo, now we have a tractor, a dog, cat, horses and the same type of neighbors (which is great because we hardly know how to use a hammer). I laughed and cried and enoyed every word immensely.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 25, 2002
Laskas shares her journey as she makes her dream of living on a farm come true by sharing hilarious antecdotes along the way. You'll laugh at all her adventures, including those with Bob, the cat, and the neighboring farmers who are disarmed by her poodle, Marley. You'll howl, especially when she describes her experience buying a wedding dress with her girlfriend.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 13, 2012
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Posted August 7, 2011
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