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She wanted "privacy but not seclusion," and the cabin was well-situated to her tastes and needs: on a dirt road not far from the highway, in a valley bounded by trees. "It had power and water and a phone line and was as nice as anything I could afford." Thomas, with her dog, Lily (who gets a lot of space here), and her friend Julian, would escape to their cabin periodically; gradually, she begins to enlarge it, to make it into a home. Like Michael Pollan in A Place of My Own (p. 126), she provides an amateur's enthusiastic record of everything from the excavation of the foundations for new rooms to the erection of the walls and roof. There is also much rumination on her life, on being in her 40s, directionless, frustrated, and unhappy. Having hit "rock bottom," she decided to quit her job, move to the cabin and gain "a ready- made sense of purpose and direction" by adopting a baby. Unfortunately, Thomas chooses to present Amelia, her adopted Chinese daughter, in random glimpses and segments, so that we have the child talking and wreaking havoc in the cabin a hundred pages before Thomas closes the book with the story of the adoption itself. There are a few amusing passages, such as Julian's desperate attempts at putting up a TV antenna, and some charming vignettes, such as Thomas's delight and fascination at an infestation of ladybugs.
Though often endearing, Thomas is inexplicably vague about the time frame, the cabin's location, when she adopted Amelia, and other areas that might have drawn the reader closer.
AN INTRODUCTION: BEFORE AND AFTER
IF I'D HAD the foresight to look ahead years ago, I would not have imagined that life would be turning out the way it is. If I had been so clear-minded, it would have all been different, anyway. In any case, I'm sure I could not have seen myself at age forty-eight, living in an old Boy Scout cabin in the middle of New England, perennially looking for work to support myself, my old dog, and my very young daughter. However did you land there? I would have asked, a little worriedly. But I might have been a bit in awe as well. I came of age in the sixties and was easily impressed by alternative lifestyles, although I had little grasp of the basics.
BEFORE MOVING TO my cabin, I lived in Boston for many years. Decades, actually. Except for a few brief forays, I had stayed on indefinitely after college, although I always considered myself in transit, in a period of transition, before life really began. This gave me lots of leeway, I thought.
Anyway, I had always thought home was the memory of someplace you grew up in; I never considered that it might be someplace you made. My family had moved around often when I was a child, living somewhere different every two years or so. I wasn't sure exactly where to say I'd come from if anyone asked; it could have been any number of places. A chance and random sensation--a cool breeze on my bare arm, for example, or a certain reflection of light, or some fragment of music I'd learned long ago--and I'd be taken back in time; I'd imagine shafts of sun through a tumble of clouds, fingers of heaven illuminating one special, lucky spot: home. It was always in the permanent past. Everywhere else was temporary.
I'm not sure what I was waiting for, but I was over forty when I came to my senses, at least to some degree. Temporarily or not, I'd lived in the Boston area for more than half my life. All that leeway had led nowhere; all I had to show for those years was a long series of false starts. Time had been running out, and I hadn't been paying attention.
I DIDN'T YET know how to piece together a new life; I just knew that I badly needed a change, and the cabin in Vermont that I'd bought a few years before seemed a possible starting point. It was there, available, affordable, far away but not too far; my dog, Lily, liked it, it was pretty, and it was mine.
It was also tiny and somewhat drafty and had some serious structural inadequacies. Unexpected problems arose with the passing seasons and the accompanying cold, wet, snowy, muddy, and dry spells. In time, my friend Julian started coming up on the weekends from Cambridge, and we threw ourselves into the many projects that presented themselves. Working on the place took on an interest and a passion of its own. We cleared land, planted gardens, dreamed about running water, and fantasized about a new septic system. We learned how to build, and the house grew bigger, although more and more strangely shaped with each addition.
Our friendship changed shape, too, along with the house, finally entering the realm of coupledom. Possibilities grew; we could make room for a child. And major changes occurred: I signed on to an adoption program, and after much agonizing and many delays I finally brought Amelia home.
For me, preparing for life with a child has centered around my cabin and the four acres it sits on. It really is home for now, with memories already made and memories in the making; but as it has turned out, making it home has had as much to do with the preparation as with the place itself. And that process, somewhat late in life, often haphazard, always ongoing, is what this book is about.
As I write this, Amelia is here, ever present. She runs from room to room, dropping toys and clothes and pots and pans in her wake, leaving behind surprise bags of miscellany. So she is here in this book as well from the very beginning, turning up at odd moments, at one age or another. She insists on this, and she is probably right.
SOMEPLACE JUST RIGHT
I BOUGHT THE cabin eight years ago. I had some money that my aunt had left me, and it was making me very anxious and guilty; I worried that I would fritter it away. So I decided to buy some land with it, a little house maybe. It would be a wise and wonderful thing to do. One long, late summer that stretched into fall, I set out to find one within my means and drove with Lily all through northern New England.
It was our quest, and our recreation too. Every weekend I would pick at random a region of one state or another, and off we'd go. I became uncharacteristically brazen about stopping into real estate offices in small towns, where Lily and I would pile into the salesperson's car to be driven to whatever property was cheap enough to consider. It was a little like hitchhiking in the good old days, only without the terrible fears and anxiety.
It was also interesting. I would start each drive knowing nothing, and at the end I would have learned something I'd never expected. I'd know that the salesman used to be a bank executive but had burned out and moved his entire family to this tiny town, all the way from New Jersey. Or that the saleswoman had taken up real estate that very same year. She hoped to make a bundle but, more important, also hoped to have enough free time to get to know her teenage son, from whom she felt estranged and with whom she had just started skydiving lessons. Another admitted that he liked getting to know people, but not very intimately or for very long, and that was why this job was perfect for him: we'd all get out of his car at the end of the day. I learned that it cost a small fortune to bring electricity to anywhere off the path not already beaten by electric companies. I learned that the words "cozy" and "quaint" in real estate ads really meant "claustrophobic" and "dilapidated." If the ad didn't mention where the house was, it generally meant that the house was two feet from a main road. "Convenient location" meant basically in the main road.
I learned a lot about my own taste and needs. I liked trees, but at a distance. I liked the smell of manure and the look of cows. I found that views of small white villages with church steeples gave me deep and anxious melancholy, especially in the fall, like some distant, ancient, very sad memory; but whose memory, or of what, I could not say. Houses in the woods reminded me, also unhappily, of Robert Frost poems. On the other hand, I loved the shape of the land, the mounds of hills, the open pastures and narrow valleys. I loved the summer smells and the green everything and everywhere of the New England countryside, so much beauty and life piling into such a short growing season. I did not let myself consider the New England winter. I learned that I wanted power and water and most definitely a phone line, privacy but not seclusion. Beyond those requirements, I didn't know what I was looking for. Someplace to live? Someplace to camp? Someplace to build? I had no real idea.
The first property we saw was a cozy and quaint three-room cabin in a remote area of the Northeast Kingdom. It was on a dirt road, and it listed dramatically to one side. It was homebuilt, the rooms were tiny and dark, and the ceiling was unnaturally low, as if they had run out of wood when they were building it. Near an up-and-coming ski resort, the location alone was worth the price, or so the real estate salesman, who wrote poetry in his spare time, said without much conviction.
The second property was a two-room structure nestled in a huge cloud of mosquitoes near an established resort lake, owned by a very young couple who were obviously frantic to sell it. There was a toilet sitting in the front lawn, which I asked about. "Ah," they said. We all stood around for a while, swatting away at mosquitoes, awkward and polite. I could hear the speedboats right from the front door.
We saw a homemade log cabin powered by six car batteries all in a row in the middle of the woods. "Entering God's Country," warned a sign on the road. We saw a mobile home on five beautiful acres near nothing in particular. It was squat and green and undeniably ugly, but it had a certain charm as well as a beautiful old white clapboard shed. Taking that as a cue, I sought other old clapboard structures, was shown a wonderful schoolhouse at the end of a dirt road (too expensive) and an old post office right on a main road, with a mail slot from the living room right to the bathroom (also too expensive). We went on a spree of seeing anything and everything: hunting camps way too far in the woods; strange, lopsided houses whose inner core would reveal a battered old trailer; old capes whose floors and roofs had rotted completely through; hilltop huts with spectacular views and nothing else; and one inaccessible plot of once-cleared land with a big pile of old timber--the original barn.
I was lucky: by the fall I wound up with someplace just right, a one-room cabin on four acres in a small valley. The cabin was little and set up on cinder blocks; it was a place to live in or camp at or build or rebuild, so I didn't have to decide right away which it would be. It was on a good dirt road not too far from the highway, and it even had a small willow tree. The four acres were an overgrown hillside of unkempt old apple trees, edged by a hemlock grove and a line of maple trees on one side and a hemlock forest on the other. It had power and water and a phone line and it was as nice as anything I could afford. It seemed like now or never, and so I bought it, using up most of my money. And that is why I'm here.
Because it is in a small valley and because the boundary is all trees, when I stand on my porch in the full leaves of summer I can truthfully say, "Everything I see belongs to me." I do not have long views, see no sad steeples. When I first started coming on weekends, I would walk around in wonder as I fell in love with the place. Sometimes I'd actually lie on the ground facedown and hug it; I loved that it was mine. Someday all this will be yours, I'd tell Lily. Now, years later, I say the same to Amelia, saving Lily her favorite place under the nearest apple tree.
* * *
HERE COMES AMELIA now. She is just two years old, and very proud of herself. She has reached the stage of having many strong and conflicting opinions. She is vehement, if unintelligible, about what she wants to eat, what she wants to eat it in, where she wants to sit, where she wants me to sit, and what she wants to wear. Lately, it is string cheese and grapes in a blue cup on the porch, dressed in polka dots. I sit on the porch with her, and Lily gets some string cheese, too.
My daughter has straight, flyaway hair that she hates to have washed. Sometimes it's quite sticky. When she smiles, it is with all her heart and soul. She is rather slight but has caught up to well within the curve on the growth chart my pediatrician gave me as a reference. Her day care teachers recently had individual conferences with the parents, providing a personalized chart for each child. Amelia's included "great sense of humor" and "loves scarves."