JIM DODSON: Our New House Isn't New at All
My primary job last weekend was to buy fresh strawberries and get the new house here ready to receive a moving truck from Maine on Monday.
Earlier this month, you see, we sold our house of 23 years, packed up whatever wasn't either given away to neighbors or hauled off by the junk man, then sent our remaining worldly goods careening down I-95 in the general direction of Southern Pines.
At this end of the affair, sadly, this meant I finally had to say farewell to the cozy furnished cabin where I've more or less lived like somebody's bachelor uncle on parole the past few years and translate my personal effects up the block to a rambling old house large enough to additionally accommodate one wife, three dogs and four teenage children.
Two days before the truck was scheduled to arrive, Madam, a lover of all things French and strawberry, speed-mopped the floor of the new house and jetted off with the girls for a gay weekend in Paris, leaving explicit instructions on how monsieur was to handle all of this potential mayhem.
The new house, as I say, is only half a block from my old faux bachelor pad, and in fact there's nothing remotely "new" about it unless your idea of modern convenience is kitchen cabinetry last updated during the Ozzie and Harriet years and doors and windows that haven't quite shut since the Jazz Age.
It possesses an unmistakable French flair, however, which undoubtedly fueled madam's imagination, perhaps recalling our happy ramblings through the French countryside or maybe the Madeleine books of her own girlhood, as in "an old house in Paris all covered with vines, lived 12 little girls in two straight lines."
As old houses go, in fragrant parlance of brokers, our new domicile is "loaded with charm." That simply means there is something in desperate need of repair or replacement everywhere you look, a veritable Chateau du Money Pit.
Though the place has obviously been well loved and extremely well lived in, I confess to having serious initial qualms about it after we strolled through the dim empty rooms and I got a load of the ancient steam boiler and creative wiring scheme in the basement. A scene from "The Poseidon Adventure" came to mind.
It wasn't until I saw the classical portico and utterly neglected terrace out back with its dead plantings and lush untrimmed Mediterranean-looking holly trees fact, that my imagination began to stir with the Provincial possibilities, picturing suppers beneath the trees, a murmur of friendly voices, a bubbling cassoulet.
Reportedly built as a winter getaway place for a large Northern family in the late 1920s, the house whimsically meanders everywhere, with eccentric nooks and back stairways, and even has a pair of tiny "servants' bedrooms" over the garage where we plan to stash at least half of our children when they come to stay.
As the dogs and I wandered through the place, bringing the first load of our possessions there early Saturday morning, I realized that this charming relic hails from an era when Americans required a lot less to get by in life, a slower time long before air conditioning and digital cable. The dogs, not surprisingly, thought it was an absolute hoot, chasing each other up and down the eccentric stairways.
After a busy morning of dropping off lamps and books and positioning my favorite reading chair on the portico where I could catch the afternoon breeze and maybe grab a helpful nap while I pondered the intricacies of how to place the terrace back in order, I set off for the new Saturday-morning Farmers' Market in Southern Pines with my various lists in hand, trying to remember exactly what went into my famous Midi cassoulet. I hoped to surprise Madam, you see, with a nice supper under the trees when she returned from her brief jaunt to Paris.
If there is a bright side to four-dollar gasoline and energy costs shooting to Venus, it may simply be that we Americans are finally being forced to reconsider the value of -- as a friend close to the Earth calls it -- "living small," the value of staying closer to home and turning our attentions to things produced in our own backyards and farms. With a little luck, she says, we'll soon rediscover the art of making conversation and growing cabbages.
In many ways, the new downtown Farmers' Market simply reflects a growing consciousness in favor of locally made food and sustainable agriculture, and couldn't be better timed to boost local farmers and enhance the vitality of our community life in a number of ways large and small.
When world food shortages and soaring distribution costs threaten to topple governments and push millions to the brink of starvation -- "a silent tsunami," as the director general of the U.N. World Hunger Program recently described the looming crisis -- what we eat and how we produce it may soon rival the quest for renewable energy resources.
Hence my surprise when I learned -- from chatting with a vendor who sold me some outstanding purple-leaf lettuce and mustard greens picked that very morning and sold at a price no chain supermarket could possibly match -- that market attendance has been smaller than expected. Yet he remains optimistic.
"The growing season is just beginning," he reasoned, shrugging like a Languedoc grower showing me a crate of voluptuous spring onions that had me thinking again about that bubbling cassoulet. "I don't think a lot of people even know we're here yet."
Grace in Lettuce
As I poked around a table laden with perennials and annuals, I bumped into an acquaintance I hadn't seen in months another benefit of living small and buying local, like someone from an old house in Paris all covered in vines.
She was buying lovely local snapdragons but fretting about the ruling junta in faraway Myanmar. Her nephew, turns out, works for a major disaster relief organization struggling to get food and medical supplies to victims of the worst typhoon in decades to strike the country formerly called Burma.
"They're guessing as many as 100,000 people could be dead, with half that many still missing, and more than a million and a half people displaced or homeless," she said, shaking her head. "I think God must be sleeping-in weekends. Or maybe he just never comes to work at all anymore."
At this gentle heresy, I went to find Madam's strawberries, unexpectedly reminded of e.e. cummings' famous letter to his sister Elizabeth in 1954 in which he wrote: "If you take Someone Worth Worshiping ('Alias God') away from human beings, they'll (without realizing what they're doing) worship someone-unworthy-of-worship; e.g. a Roosevelt, Stalin or Hitler -- alias themselves."
Twenty years ago, I visited the late activist preacher William Sloan Coffin in his Vermont veggie garden at the start of another presidential campaign and Northern growing season to chat about the international nuclear freeze movement Coffin had helped organize. At that moment, the media were full of dire forecasts about the rising danger of a nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union.
"What we choose to worship, we tend to become," Coffin calmly told me, echoing the words of e.e. cummings as we squatted in his lettuce patch. "These days," he added with a wry Presbyterian smile, "our leaders worship bigger and better weapons -- while the rest of America worships NBA players. Personally, I find God's greatest work in fresh lettuce. I think our salvation as a race may in fact come down to that."
As I walked home from the Farmers' Market nibbling a delicious strawberry from a berry farm out in Samarkand, I decided -- or at least hoped -- the Rev. Mr. Coffin might still be right.
The movers came right on time on Monday morning. By then I'd worn myself out carting boxes from one old house to an even older one.
As the crew did its work, my neighbor Myrtis suddenly ap-peared at the garden gate, bearing a load of handsome plants dug up from her own garden. I'd just sat down on the portico for a brief moment of introspection and maybe a quick nap, warming to the place by the minute.
"I brought you a housewarming gift," she said, adding, "Why don't the two of us try to get this terrace in shape before Wendy comes home tonight?"
So the pair of us worked for the balance of the afternoon, digging up dead plants, filling pots, bringing the terrace back to life.
By 4, the movers were gone, heading for another drop-off somewhere in Tennessee, grumbling how five-dollar diesel will soon make them a local moving company. Myrtis went home, and I headed for the kitchen to find the cassoulet pot.
Just then the phone rang. It was my wife, phoning from Philadelphia, where her flight had been canceled and she was stuck for several more hours.
Cassoulet Can Wait
By now you may have guessed that Madam really hadn't jetted off to Paris with the girls after all. She'd merely flown to Syracuse to see her sons for the weekend and fill them in on the charming old place where they'll soon be staying, plus or minus the butler outfits. Maybe someday soon, though, we would actually get back to France -- or at least bring a little bit of Provence to our backyard in the Sandhills.
"I'm so disappointed," Madam admitted, dangerously close to tears. "I was so eager to stay in the new house tonight -- to have a dinner under the terrace trees like we talked about doing."
"There will be plenty of time for that," I assured her, not bothering to tell her how my big plans for a bubbling cassoulet fell apart when I couldn't even find a pot to cook it in. Furthermore, as I was searching through boxes, I heard on the radio that a large earthquake in southwest China had perhaps killed 30,000 people and buried a dozen towns and villages.
"At least I have fresh strawberries," I said, pointing out how nice it was to have a Farmers' Market we could walk to.
"I can't wait to get home," she said, "and taste them."
Bestselling author Jim Dodson, the Pilot's writer-in-residence, can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More like this story