My dad could sell anything, especially to my mom. Strangely enough, he didn’t work in sales but as a bookkeeper for a company that offered everything from construction to carting. I would imagine him perched on a stool, Cratchit-like, with his green visor attached to his forehead and his sleeves cinched by garters, saying little and lifting his eyes from his ledger book only to listen to the cross-talk between the bosses. At home, he was the exact opposite. He would regale Mom and me with big ideas and even bigger plans: the house we would buy, the cars we would drive, the vacations we would take. There was no timetable for these plans. Any one of them just as easily could happen tomorrow as ten years from now. Or never. But we listened and in some corner of our minds we reserved a tiny space for unlikely possibility.
And then one night, without any warning, Dad sat down at the kitchen table, loosened his garters, shook out his sleeves, and announced he had bought a farm.
“You what?” said Mom.
“I bought a farm,” he said, smiling. “Just south of the Finger Lakes. I wired the down payment today.”
The smile melted from his face, which happened whenever he sensed a certain feeling radiating off Mom.
“And when were you going to tell me?” she said, though I could see a crinkle in her eyes, which was the tip of giddiness breaking through her stern surface.
“I just did,” said Dad.
Mom was an upstate country girl; Dad a boy of the Bronx. They met on a blind date when Mom was in nursing school and Dad was in college. They married and settled in a small apartment not far from the larger apartment where Dad grew up in Pelham Bay Park. Mom was a nurse until I came along. Now she was a housewife in a cramped one-bedroom. That giddiness I detected was the prospect of moving back to her roots.
We chewed over the details as well as dinner that night. The farm came with one barn, three hayfields, a dozen chickens in a coop, two pigs in a sty, and a half interest in a cow that boarded on another farm down the road. The nearest town was seven dirt road miles in one direction. The big city of Elmira was fifteen miles away in the other. Dad already found a job as business manager for the area’s central school district.
“Elmira has two big hospitals,” he told Mom with an arch in his eyebrows.
“Not on your life,” said Mom. “I’m going to be a farm woman.”
The move seemed to happen the very next day. I woke up early to men in overalls lugging our furniture out the door and Mom stuffing my clothes into a suitcase she dragged out of a closet. And then, with the sun barely up, we crammed into our Buick.
The farm itself was a disappointment, though not even Disneyland would have thrilled me after six hours stuck behind our moving van as it climbed over mountains and crossed rivers on a windy, rainy November day. A white clapboard house stood at the top of a hill. Below the house, just across a dirt road, a weather-beaten barn slouched on a precipice overlooking stubble fields that descended into a valley, where another farmhouse and another barn straddled yet another dirt road.
I sat shivering in the Buick while Dad directed the movers where to drop the furniture and Mom, I imagined, fussed in the kitchen. I didn’t emerge until the van drove away. What I found inside was a house that was small by most standards but palatial by ours: kitchen, parlor, and telephone room on the first floor, two bedrooms and a bathroom on the second. Having two bedrooms excited me almost as much as it must have excited Mom and Dad. No longer would they need to wait for me to fall asleep before unfolding the Castro convertible in the living room.
Mom whipped up pancakes for dinner that first night, and soon after that I climbed up to bed. I was exhausted and fell asleep immediately only to wake up a while later to discover a mysterious shaft of light poking up through a hole in the bedroom floor. I slipped out of bed and crept across the room. The house had a weird heating system, I would learn, with radiators on the first floor and louvered gratings in the ceilings that allowed heat to rise up on its own to the second floor. The grating in my bedroom allowed me to gaze down at Mom and Dad huddled at the kitchen table.
The discussion that night was basically this: why did a bookkeeper and a nurse buy a farm?