The night before my intrepid daughter left for East Africa for three months we sat in my family room and checked off all necessities: passport, license, cash, stuff sacks, prophylactic antibiotics… the list was endless.
As I said goodnight, satisfied that there would be no panic when we woke at 5:15 am to head to JFK, Grace tilted her head as if in sudden discovery, “Mom, Thanksgiving’s going to be hard for you this year.”
“Aw, I guess so, kid. I’ll be alright.”
I was surprised on that warm September night that with a mountain of adventure in front of her she thought of me, at all. It made me miss her already.
She went on, “I feel bad, Grandma died on Thanksgiving.”
Indeed, thirteen years ago, just past 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving night, my mother exhaled her last breath. From that moment, Thanksgiving was never the same for me. My world became untethered and has remained a bit wobbly ever since.
I looked at the beautiful face of my soon to be absent child and said, “Yeah, honey. Thanksgiving isn’t really my favorite thing, but I’ll be fine.
And, in a strident, my kid is now an activist fashion, Grace waved her concerns away, “Actually, when you think about it, Thanksgiving is really only a celebration of the slaughter of indigenous Americans.”
Yup, my girl was ready to go; mentally prepared to find out what the great expanse of the world had in store for her.
I shared that story with a friend. You know, the “take the bull by horns” kind of friend we all ought to have on our Board of Directors of Friends. Without hesitation, she offered this, “Well, Greg, my mom and I go to Vermont every Thanksgiving. Join us.”
I knew this tradition of Jen’s. Once the Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving’s morphed into too much effort and precarious family dynamic, Jen and her immediate’s turned the holiday on its head and treated themselves to dinner and an overnight stay at the iconic Equinox Hotel in Manchester. I envied her freedom in this and now that I would be unfettered for Thanksgiving, the temptation of it propelled determination.
I found a cabin. A remote cabin in the woods outside of Manchester where I could bring my Labrador and I grabbed it. I threw a gauntlet at the feet of Thanksgiving and booked it for Tuesday thru Friday. That’s right, loneliness be damned, I would write and hike and build fires and feed the rustic woman within.
Ugh…. If you don’t know yourself by 55, well…
My Labrador Seamus and I arrived just as the sun set in Manchester, and then added about 45 minutes to the four-hour journey as I drove up and down route 30 squinting to identify the beaver pond where I was supposed to take a left down a dirt road where my cabin awaited. Beaver Pond? The only beaver I could identify appeared on a Saturday morning cartoon of my youth. Does a beaver pond look different than the other ponds I passed in the shadow of Bromley Mountain?
The owners may as well have said, “take a left at the cow” for what sense it made to me. My bladder inspired me while my impatient Lab panted in my ear and I finally took a chance on a promising dirt road. The second house on the left looked vaguely like the perfectly photographed cabin from HomeAway and the key was in the right place. Loaded down like a Sherpa, Seamus and I tumbled through the door and took in our home for the next four days.
Ah… HomeAway or VBRO or really any realtor can make a place look as charming as your heart’s desire. The right angle of a camera and your Visa number is flying off the keyboard.
I was thinking Rustic, the new millennium. It didn’t take long to figure out that this was 1980’s rustic. Really, it was a box of wood with exposed beams and a magnificent hearth that was promising, but when I spotted the antler chandelier, the decorative corn husks hanging on the wall, Indian symbol lampshade with a tear, and a coffee table wrapped in dead animal skin, I burst into tears. Through the haze of water, I noticed that there were no blinds or curtains on the main windows that faced Route 30.
Rustic? New millennium? More Like Rustic Kathy Bates and James Caan in Misery!
Seamus was non-plussed.
I could turn around, hop in the car and head back. I owned my life now. I had options.
Then I remembered the pictures on HomeAway. There’s a bedroom somewhere; a magnificent bedroom and master bath with a Vermont-y comforter and enormous jacuzzi tub. I scanned the square room and saw no door. Hmm…
Aha! There were stairs leading down. But not your regular stairs. They were split half-log that spiraled. I gingerly headed down, while Seamus began to whine.
“It’s ok, buddy,” I implored as I reached the bottom. “You can come down.” Seamus would have none of it. He turned tail at the top of the treacherous stairway and my dream of a beautiful sleep evaporated.
Here’s the thing about Seamus and me. I am his human and while a bout with Lyme Disease ended his shape next to mine in my king size bed, he still slept on the floor by my side every night. The magnificent bedroom on the lower level? Sleep would be but a dream with a whiney Labrador through the night.
I maneuvered my way back up the stairs, poured myself a glass of wine and thought, What would Diane Keaton do?
True confessions; in the movie of my life, I imagine Diane Keaton as me: plucky, smart, and quirky with just the right amount of toughness and tenderness. One minute she is eviscerating a bad actor in her life with smart dialogue and the next she’s weeping over her laptop as she pours her soul out to her readers.
God, I love Diane Keaton!
I know she’d have a glass of wine and as I took my first sip, the phone rang, “Ellen, It’s Esther! I wanted to make sure you made it to the Honeymoon Cottage safely.
Of course, the name of the homeowner is old-school Esther.
“Oh, Thanks, Esther, ” I said as a dabbed my leaking eyeballs
“Everything okay? We hope you love our home as much as we do.”
My defenses were down, “Oh, It’s great Esther. Just lovely.” I felt a fake smile take over my face.
“Well, just make yourself a big old fire, take a nice jacuzzi and enjoy!”
“Thanks, Esther, will do.”
Diane Keaton, Diane Keaton….
Diane Keaton would make a fire. Anyone can make a fire, right? Sure, A fire would warm the freezing space up and set me in the right direction.
There was wood, lots of it, stacked outside. I grabbed a pile of logs, brought them in the house, and placed them on the floor. Firestarter? Kindling? I know these rustic terms and I scanned the room confident that I could accomplish this one Vermont-y task. Nope, nothing. No sticks, no newspaper, no tools of the trade to be found.
Now the tears exploded out of my eyeballs.
I phoned a friend. A fella I know in Vermont. A rustic type.
“Hey, It’s Ellen.” The sobbing took but a moment to burst.
“Are you crying? What’s wrong? Are you okay?
“I’m just…. I’m at my rental, and I can’t make a fire, and I think Davy Crockett lived here, and I hate it, and, I JUST WANNA GO HOME.”
“Okay. Umm. I’ve never heard you like this before, do you want me to come down?”
“No, I’ll be fine,” I said pathetically.
“Good. No kindling? Get back in your car, go to the local store and by yourself a Duraflame log.”
Of course. God! Diane Keaton would have thought of that!
I chatted a little longer with my friend and found my bearings. Seamus and I hopped back into my Subaru, bought a box of Duraflame’s and the fire has been roaring ever since.
That night, I took the twin mattress off the daybed on the lower level, awkwardly dragged it up the spiral staircase and set it before the hearth. Seamus has woken me each morning at about 8:15 with a lick and my eyes open to a sun-drenched room. We hiked and cooked and my writing has been voluminous.
Yesterday, the very day my daughter so lovingly referred to in September, I met my dear friend and her family at the exquisite Equinox Hotel. I met them in the lobby and clung to each of them as though they were the only humans I had seen in days. It was true! We stuffed ourselves with magnificent food and fine wine and Thanksgiving was good this year.
Seamus and I made it through and today we will say goodbye to our rustic adventure. I will leave a fine review for Esther, with a nod to the fact that while I think of myself as a Renaissance woman, I am not so much a woman of the North Country. However, I now fancy myself quite an expert of the hearth. And that’s okay. Next Thanksgiving, we’ll try something new.
As for my brave, adventuresome daughter. She comes home in just about a month. The fact that she cared at all about my Thanksgiving was enough for me this year!