It came about slowly enough, though I should have known something was up when my parents announced that they were driving from Boston to Kansas City to adopt an abandoned dog. Previously, my parents’ Internet surfing adventures were limited to seeking out the liberal media bidding on eBay for Asian art. In the fall of my freshman year, however, my mother developed a more dangerous obsession: nightly trips to petfinder.com to seek out dogs in need of rescue. Pippi, as we named our Kansas City rescue, was found abandoned and meandering in the median strip of a highway in Missouri, and soon became my mother’s newest surrogate child.
Pippi was just the first in a line of new adopted siblings. Though our dogs, or as my mother would insist “our pulis,” called by their breed, have always been a part of the family, the Pippi adoption underscored her growing obsession. Her potential bid for a spot on the local puli lovers’ club board of directors left her little time to contemplate the empty nest I had left. Then there was my father’s decision to drive to the Bronx and rescue what he described as a “Danish gentleman from the turn of the century,” a white-chested, overweight dog they named Blix. Scuppers, the oldest of the pack, even has weekly appointments with his chiropractor.
Most mornings, I open my inbox to e-mails updating me on the dogs’ appointments with the finest canine heart and dental specialists, or news of Pippi’s graduation from (obedience) school at the top of her class. The e-mails are inevitably signed “Love, Mom, Blix, Scuppers and Pippi the Pest.” A representative sample:
“Blix survived 2 1/2 hours of dental surgery yesterday. Dr Rosenblad is one of only a few board certified dental surgeons in the U.S.—only 4 in New England...Unfortunately Blix lost some teeth that were rotted but now he will be much healthier. Dr Rosenblad thinks Blix is about 6 years old. He did not do any root canals because the teeth were not worth saving, so you can stay in college instead of having to get a job to pay for Blix’s dental work. Blix was rather drunk from the morphine when we took him home but seems good this AM.”
If my mother has her dogs, my father has his houses. Moving from Boston suburbia to the perfect home in rural New England had been his goal for a while, but the route had been anything but straightforward. Finally, after years of house-hunting, a solution arrived this fall.
“We found Guy [my father]’s dream house,” my mother wrote in an e-mail. “Guy went nuts, almost started dancing.” And then another e-mail, subject line “new house etc.!!!” from my father, directed me to a real estate web page with an ominous banner: “Knows [sic] As The Mansion of Sullivan County.” And the mansion’s description: “Too many gorgeous details to mention!”
My father, an artist with a keen aesthetic sense, was adamant that his dream home purchase be no multi-gabled McMansion. In fact, anything built within the last century would not suffice, and I’ve always lived in good-natured old houses, full of the creaks, drafty windows and unexpected quirks. Beyond my father’s fussy desire for a house with lovely antique details, my mother insisted on a rural setting with plenty of property (good fences make good neighbors, etc.). And so the last few years have been filled with frequent trips to western Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire in search of the perfect place.
For a while it seemed like the solution was to build their own house somewhere remote, based on my father’s hand-drawn plans. Whenever I would drive somewhere with my father, he’d point out the newest building that was instrumental to his architectural thinking: a church whose arches particularly inspired him, or a house with striking shingle patterns.
The Mansion of Sullivan County changed everything. After a three-year quest, they had finally found the one, and promised we would move into it soon enough to have Thanksgiving dinner with stuffed haddock, a compromise my parents had to make when I turned annoyingly pesco-vegetarian on them. Evidently, the fact that the property was called “Dream’s Landing” on the deed was irresistible to my father. It blinded him from the property’s very un-mansion-like faults: broken windows, malfunctioning heating, ancient plumbing, peeling wallpaper and even holes in the outer wall. He was captivated, and I was continually regaled with new stories of the house’s eccentric former owner or the uncharacteristic peppering of Howard Dean posters in this liberal pocket of an otherwise conservative state.
So they bought it, and announced it to me in an e-mail on Oct. 27 at 10:46 p.m.:
“You are now a part owner of the family mansion formerly known as the Mansion of Sullivan County. We signed the papers today at 2:30. Our real estate lady gave us a pumpkin pie to celebrate and our heating man gave us his own maple syrup and a cup with his company’s name on it… The house is furnished with the 3 chairs we bought at auction and a blue rug. ”
That is why I found myself, a couple of weekends ago, standing at the general store in a little village in southwest New Hampshire. My parents—as well as a few locals who heard about this piece pre-publication—insisted that I redact the town’s name from this article lest swarms of Crimson readers flock there for leaf-peeping or house-buying. This was probably unnecessary as most college students are not in the New England real estate market. Moreover, my new hometown is one of the smallest in the state and would-be passersby are deterred by the fact that no major roads go near it.
Any initial reservations aside, it proved a magnificent house in an amazing, untouched town that could easily define “quaint.” The general store is staffed by volunteers and sells penny candy and locally baked goods. There’s a one-room schoolhouse still in use. The library is only open three days a week. Everyone seemed to know everyone else, and my parents, always antisocial in suburbia, already were greeting locals by name.
But the one key description missing from the web page I’d received months before was that it was actually formerly known as the Mansion of Sullivan County, with formerly being the key word. The wallpaper was ripping off and most of the radiators had never been connected. But it’s a lovely place, with a gorgeous curving front staircase, eight intricately detailed fireplaces, and plenty of doors and nooks and crannies. As with any new house, there’s the fun in discovering the hidden secrets. The bathroom wall had a torn yellowed piece of antique newsprint pasted above the towels, with a poem entitled, “A Guest Towel Speaks.” “Please use me, Guest: / Don’t hesitate / Don’t turn your back / Or vacillate / I’m here to use / I’m made for drying / Just hanging here / Gets very tiring.”
It’s very charming—for a museum. To live in, it needs a lot of work. Now, on top of the canine medical updates, I am regaled with regular accounts of house repair. “Guy swears he hears the house breath ‘thank you’ each time he removes one of the ‘carbuncles’ with which they disfigured it,” my mother wrote last week. “I don’t know how funny a piece about our house purchase will be. Can you change our identities and location? You might have found some humor in the house today, with windows that don’t shut, broken panes, peeling wallpaper, no heat, etc., and driving rain outside.”
My father hatches a new plan every day. The back room, which housed cows a few hundred years ago and has wide gaps in the wall, will somehow be transformed into a studio for his painting. He’s torn down the ceiling in the old keeping room to reveal the original hand-hewn beams and joists (not to mention a few century old mouse droppings). He’s even fallen in love with the hinges on the barn, which he says played a pivotal role in his decision to buy the place, and thinks he’s spotted one of the missing hinges on a neighbor’s house.
Initially, I had been a bit skeptical of the purchase, never having seen this former Mansion of Sullivan County and having heard enough about its quirks to know that it would be cold and old. As most coddled only children do, I worried about how my parents could possibly manage their lives without me around and was naturally a bit reserved about their exploits into both canine matters and real estate. But though the car ride to the new house and its dysfunctional plumbing may prevent me from having them do my laundry every few weeks, I’m looking forward to helping renovate a 200-year-old house this Christmas break. After all, my parents haven’t moved on, they’ve simply moved.
J. Hale Russell ’05, an English concentrator living in Adams House, is Arts Chair of The Crimson. He was ecstatic to discover a pay-per-pound laundry service on Mass. Ave. this weekend.