By Sheila Gilluly
One of my friends recently asked, “So what is your blog going to be about?”
“Well, I’m thinking of a combination of The Victory Garden, This Old House, Animal Kingdom, and The News From Lake Woebegone,” I told her. We laughed, because that really is my life.
Now, if you’re picturing a farm of hundreds of acres, a herd of Holsteins, sheep, goats and the like, then we need to get that straightened out right away. 2Dits Farm is not that kind of operation. Think smaller. No, smaller. As in: seven 16′ raised beds for vegetables; two semi-standard apple trees and five wild ones; Concord grapes; four highbush blueberries; patches of strawberries and of cranberries; two huge clumps of rhubarb; wild blackberries; three acres of woods; a flock of four hens; one cat; assorted wildlife and songbirds; and as many flowers as I can grow. So I suppose to call it a farm is over-egging the pudding a bit, as Mr. Carson might say, but let me just affirm that when it’s your back that’s doing all the work, you can call it any damn thing you want. (Which I have done upon occasion. Loudly.)
My mother bought this place after seeing it in the back of a magazine. It was 1978, the family had been living on the island of Guam for nearly a decade, and, having been widowed the year before at the age of 52, she was looking for someplace Stateside where she could be self-sufficient on a modest income. Across the street lived a couple who had originally been from Maine, and every year their family sent them a subscription to DownEast just to remind them of home. In the back of that magazine were real estate ads.
The tiny picture showed a cape-style house, and the text informed us that this was “a gentleman’s saltwater farm. Five acres, more or less. Farm pond and stream. Garden space, fruit trees. Outbuildings. Two bedrooms, one bath, parlor, kitchen. Needs some work. $25,000.”
Understand: we were sweltering. There would be snow! It was on the ocean!
My mother got on the island’s iffy phone system, called long-distance, and told the astonished realtor to hang onto that house, she wanted it, and she’d be there in a week. She was. I finished out my teaching contract on Guam and followed three weeks later.
When we drove up the dirt driveway, my heart plunged.
The only door to the house faced the backyard. The air was pungent with chicken, sheep, and goat manure, and clouds of flies were everywhere. There was no ocean. I couldn’t see a stream. There was no pretty red barn, only a smallish corrugated aluminum shed, another open-air manger in a wire-fenced corral, and a smaller structure that later proved to be an ice-fishing shack appropriated for use as a chicken coop. Swallowing my trepidation and three flies, I followed Ma inside.
It was filthy. Three layers of broken asphalt tile on the floor, cluster flies at every unscreened window, soot stains on the back bedroom floor from a kerosene heater, loud orange flowered contact paper used as wallpaper in the bathroom, kitchen counters covered with worn linoleum. All I wanted was to get out of here.
But my mother, her eyes schooled by having grown up in the Depression, had seen more deeply: 10″x10′ hemlock beams in the cellar; ceilings that showed no signs of water damage; floors that did not squeak when you walked on them; a recently re-lined chimney with a hook-up for a wood stove; a slate roof; plumbing in a reasonable state of repair; Romex wiring rather than cloth-covered or aluminum. Plenty of space for the garden that would feed us.
So we went to work. We scrubbed everything with Lysol. Put screens at the windows, went through strips and strips of flypaper, and eventually got rid of most of the flies. Discovered a beautiful hardwood floor under the asphalt tile and re-finished it. Planted our first garden. Stripped the contact paper in the bathroom and put a pretty wallpaper in its place. Painted. Made and hung curtains.
We canned everything from the garden that first summer, which was good, except that we didn’t realize there are very few vegetables that can be safely water-bath canned, basically only tomatoes, and even then to be certain that it’s safe, you add lemon juice or citric acid to each jar. Why we didn’t die of botulism I cannot tell you. Grace, I can only suppose.
We had a wood furnace installed and six cords of wood delivered. By that time it was late October, and we did not realize that the wood was green, not seasoned, firewood. We made another mistake and stacked it all in the basement. It made sense to us–why wouldn’t you put the wood where you wouldn’t have to go outside on a cold winter’s day to fetch it in?–but didn’t know that green wood gives off a heck of a lot of water vapor as it seasons. Had the house been tighter, this would have been a disaster, but as it was, it did no harm. We cut the wood with an electric chainsaw in the basement and split it, or tried to split it, with a camp hatchet. We took turns getting up every couple of hours all night to tend the fire because the wood burned so poorly.
The windows were single-pane and ill-fitting. The plastic we nailed over the inside of them billowed and sucked with the wind outside. It was so cold in the house that my mother sewed what she called ‘blanket suits’ which we wore over our clothes.
I cut our Christmas tree in our own back woods. It sounds all Walton-y, but, hello, John-boy, here in Maine that kind of evergreen ain’t called cat-piss spruce for nothing. My mother and I spent Christmas with each of us thinking the other hadn’t managed to get out of her blanket suit fast enough to make it to the bathroom.
That Christmas was a long time ago. Over the years 2Dits Farm has changed quite a bit, and so have I. Mom is no longer here, but I can hear her laughing whenever I have measured something wrong for the fourth time, and I am consistently off by two ‘dits,’ which is what I call the eighth and sixteenth marks on a ruler. The homestead and I don’t always get along, but now I wouldn’t trade the place for a condo in Florida.
Not even on January days like this, when the wind is still finding its way through my double-paned, insulated, and thoroughly caulked windows.