Josna Rege

127. Going Up the Country

In 1980s, Family, Stories, United States on November 12, 2011 at 2:23 pm

Winchendon, Massachusetts

I’m gonna leave the city, got to get away
I’m gonna leave the city, got to get away,
All this fussing and fighting man, you know I sure can’t stay
Canned Heat, Going Up the Country

For seven years in the 1980’s we lived on a farm in the country, just one-and-a-half hour’s drive west of Boston. Nikhil was born and spent the first five years of his life there, until we moved a little further west and south to the Connecticut River Valley, where we still live today. But although I think we have a winning combination of rural and urban life in this college town, I don’t kid myself that we are living in the country. Here in Amherst we have town water and sewer, trash and recycling pick-up, a public bus system, three public libraries, two colleges and a university, a movie theater, a weekly farmers’ market, and a choice of four different supermarkets within a five-mile radius. In Winchendon we had a well and septic system, hauled our trash to the town dump (excuse me: sanitary landfill), managed without public transportation, were forced to travel more than 10 miles to the nearest movie theater (and fully 25 miles to the nearest bagel bakery), and—ironically but typically for a rural community—had just one supermarket in town that stocked a meager supply of dubious-looking meats and wilted produce at exorbitant prices. We did have the magnificent Beals Memorial Library, though, which was an oasis for us while our children were young, especially during those interminably long, snowy Winchendon winters. We also had 60 acres of land to spread out in, so that when we moved to Amherst, Andrew in particular felt quite cramped in our suburban half-acre lot, even though it is large by city standards.

We had had some homesteading experience before moving to Winchendon, especially when we lived on White Pond in Concord, where we shoveled our long driveway by hand, kept our food fresh in an icebox, heated the cabin exclusively with wood, and did most our cooking with wood as well. But the farm was another order of magnitude bigger and more challenging, even though we had three more adults working cooperatively to maintain it. The house was an old farmhouse, neither original nor updated, “a thing of rags and patches” (to quote Thurber’s The Thirteen Clocks). The large kitchen had both a woodstove and an electric cookstove, both of them old and inefficient, and wide, worn deal floorboards, which, sweep and scrub as we might, we could never keep clean. Of course Nikhil and Eric, being babies, delighted in dangling and releasing miscellaneous items of food from their perches in their respective highchairs and watching them land with a plop at the North End of the table (as Charlie, our bachelor housemate, called the perennially sticky spot where the children sat); but a still-more-intractable problem  was posed by all the adults who clumped in continually from the fields, tracking in large quantities of mud. Eventually Andrew’s ingenious solution was to rip up the floor in the back entrance shed and install a wooden walkway with gaps between the boards, so that people could scrape their boots as they walked in. The finished product, functional and beautiful, looked like something you’d see in a high-end Vermont holiday cabin in the L.L. Bean catalogue or Country Living magazine.

In truth, the realities of our everyday lives bore little resemblance to the rustic elegance depicted on the glossy pages of Country Living. On first moving to the country, we had imagined that our children would be able to roam free, without the dangers of cars and crime. But we soon realized that country roads had no sidewalks and cars bombed along them with utter disregard for speed limits or pedestrians. Furthermore, the farm was organized on an old New England model with the house on one side of the road and the barn and woods on the other; so we were continually having to cross the road, to collect the eggs from the chicken coop, to empty the sap buckets at maple syruping time, or to go swimming in or skating on the pond. Since every one of those trips was a life-or-death enterprise, we had to make it a cardinal rule for the children that they were never, ever, to cross the road on their own. As soon as they were crawling we had to fence the front and side yards, which soon ran into difficulties because each one of us had a different preference for the location of the garden gate. In the end, we installed not one, not two, but four gates, turning the project into a major operation. But the children were as safe as houses.

It also turned out that roaming freely in the woods was out of the question for the children. Our land abutted the 7,400-acre Birch Hill Wildlife Management Area, a favorite destination for hunters from miles around. Since it was near-impossible to fence and post the entire perimeter of our land with No Trespassing or Hunting signs, it was not illegal for hunters to cross over into it, which they frequently did, guns at the ready, making our own woods practically off-limits during hunting season, even to us adults, let alone the children.

There was another feature of country life I had not anticipated: cabin fever. Before we moved to Winchendon Andrew and I had lived in the Boston area, in Somerville, distinguished by being one of the most densely-populated towns in the United States, and so we welcomed the bucolic peace and quiet of the country. However, we had reckoned without the exceptionally cold and snowy climate that seemed to favor Winchendon over just about every other town in the state. Our first killing frost regularly struck in the third week of August and it wasn’t safe to plant until after Memorial Day, the first weekend in May. In-between, we were effectively snowed in and entirely dependent on private cars, since there was no public transportation whatsoever and a lone bus, plying its way between Boston and Rutland, Vermont, that passed through the center of town once a day. Stuck on the farm with an infant in the dead of winter and my husband in Boston with our only car, I found myself desperate to commandeer any car, burn rubber, and blast onto the open highway, Kerouac-style.

Don’t misunderstand me: I loved living in the country, and will always be grateful that our son spent those crucial early years of his life on a farm. Despite the inevitable hardships and frustrations,  despite the unleashed men with guns and the unavailability of fresh bagels, our lives were rich and full, the air was clear (if bitterly cold), and the wide open spaces were Paradise. I will never forget one late-winter afternoon when Andrew, Maureen, and I took the two children out for a walk in the woods. It was that magically twilit time of day and the temperatures had risen above freezing when the sun was high but had fallen again as it sank in the winter sky. Reaching a small clearing in the woods, we  gasped at the sight before us. The snow had melted into a shallow pool of standing water, then frozen smooth and hard as glass. The waning light filtering through the trees overhead and reflecting on the ice gave the entire scene a silvery glow.  We raced home for our ice skates, returning to glide among the trees in the gathering dusk.

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  1. two gut responses.
    one, i had not fully registered the intensity, and the programmatic character of your winchendon life even though you have kept alluding to it. so thank you for the moving portrait but also: how does one then get back to city life, even if it’s “only amherst”…?
    two, before i had even opened your mail and begun reading your post, just upon seeing the subject header, i started humming canned heat to myself loudly, and happily, but unawares. then i hit your epigraph and realized, oops, i had been singing a song which, of course, to us germans at its time was only one more rock thing with great melody to yell along. goes to show, josna, we ARE one generation, but never quite along the big sea divide.

    • Loved your response, bine. I suppose I’ve continually moved back and forth between big cities and smaller towns all my life. I had lived in pretty rural areas as well, but always in a school or university setting. Winchendon exposed me to rural America for the first time. Amherst also has many features of rural New England, but with the milder weather of the Connecticut river valley and the wealth, amenities, and cultural life of a college town. I was introduced to Canned Heat belatedly, since I arrived in the States the year after Woodstock (where they had performed “Going Up the Country”). I was too young to have been part of the first wave of the Back to the Land movement in the early 1970s. When we arrived in Winchendon in 1983, some of that earlier generation were celebrating their 10th anniversary there. So perhaps we were being belated back-to-the-landers while the yuppies of our generation were going back to gentrify the inner cities. x J

  2. I love the picture you paint Jo, and the Winchendon you all were part of still comes across with a magical aura – despite the relative deprivations you describe!

    I had not realised how cold it was and for how long, Almost everywhere has its ups and downsides. How lucky we all are to have had so much luck, relative choice and variety in where we have been spending our lives.

    • You were with us there during the winter of 1986, Jacky, when Nikhil was just over a year old. Remember his mumps? And yes, you are right—despite the cold, despite everything, how fortunate we are to have been able to choose to live there. I was just talking to an old friend whose son has recently returned from Zimbabwe, and was thinking back on your years in Zimbabwe, also difficult, but also chosen; so rich in terms of the experience of the world it gave you, and of course, it is Jon’s birthplace. Just think, if you have gone to Papua New Guinea (remember you were considering that?), he wouldn’t be here today! x J

  3. I can remember when I first saw the East Coast and heard my great Aunt Duda say that we were going “Up Country” and she meant that we were all going up to their cabin in New Hampshire. It was a fairy-tale sort of mountain cabin with all the comforts of home and was just like stepping into a wonderful novel. Their home was in the Boston area and they had a place on Cape Cod as well, where I learned to sail with my great Uncle George and we drove around Marion and visited another uncle who had a house in Mattapoisett.
    It was a totally new world for me who had grown up in the foothills of the Himalayas and I was always intrigued about going “down” to Maine and “up country” to New Hampshire!

    • You’re right, Marianne, the language of New Englanders is strange indeed. There’s Downeast, which refers specifically to Maine. I looked it up, and apparently it refers to the coast between Penobscot Bay and the Canadian border, but also, more generally, can mean anywhere on the seacoast east of the person speaking. Here’s the Wikipedia link about it: Downeast is all upside down from our vantagepoint in Massachusetts, but Upcountry seems to make more sense. Looking it up, though, I found out that it refers not to places further north or at higher elevations, but places inland, far from the seacoast. I wish I had gotten to know your Aunt Duda. I think I did meet her just that once back in 1970 when you came “Back East,” but only very briefly.

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