When I happened upon the real estate ad, I was living in Knoxville, Tennessee, an insular, melancholy little town that I loved. I wanted to stay in Tennessee, where I had lived before, just out of graduate school, and where many of my dearest friends were mere blocks away. But my husband, Nick, an Aussie who had only ever resided in major international hubs, wanted to be back in New York City. Nick had moved to the South for me, gutting it out for two years in an environment he found stifling and alienating, and now the bill had come due.
The farm, a couple of hours up the Hudson River, was our great compromise. Close enough for a sporadic urban commute. Grassy enough for the kids and the dog. So what if the place had no functional upstairs bathroom, and the kitchen counters were rotting, and the neighbors included a guy who practiced shooting his crossbow in night vision goggles. "It has acreage!" Nick had exclaimed when I showed him the listing. "If we're doing the farm thing, let's really do it!" Our property was lovely, storybook, and so too would our lives be once we moved.
Then again, perhaps not. Six months after we moved in, Nick moved out. He fled our green acres for Manhattan, abandoning the farmhouse for a posh one-bedroom apartment with floor-to-ceiling views of the Empire State Building. I assume there was no "acreage."
The reasons for my husband's departure vary with the person queried. (I blame us. He blames me.) Our marriage, less a nurturing partnership than a convenient way to split a mortgage, had been unhealthy for years. But I preferred attributing the crippling malaise to incompatible geographic needs. If we could just find the perfect place to live, I thought, we'd both be happy again. I was a big believer in the influence of environment, the energy of landscape, the healing power of a sunny day. Which may explain why in eight years together, we'd moved six times. It was easier to point the finger at place than to admit that our marriage was broken. Suffice it to say, the farm was to us as a baby is to many other couples—an unspoken and ill-considered last attempt to force a bond where there no longer was one.
Once Nick left, a peculiar release settled in. The fog lifted. Yes, there was pain. Deep and hobbling, in the muscle, the gut. But there was some peace mixed with it. A sense of meant to be. The Band-Aid at last ripped off, I thought I would be fine. I would not begrudge him his exit, or even the girlfriend he subsequently got in record time (who just happened to be at least a decade younger than my 38). About those developments, I was surprisingly sanguine. I was, however, a little pissed off about the farm.
In Tennessee, surrounded by the Great Smoky Mountains and old friends, I could walk my daughters to school. I rarely locked my doors. My monthly mortgage payment was under $900. It didn't concern me that there was no good sushi or that you heard "Rocky Top" roughly a dozen times a week. Knoxville felt like home.
Upstate New York felt like Jupiter. Cold, remote, and full of people who eyed me with misgiving when I smiled at them at the gas station. It wasn't that they were unfriendly, per se. Just socially economical. More often than not it was freezing outside. Body heat was not to be wasted on frivolous fraternization. It didn't help that I was a stranger in town, a suspected "citiot"—the local term for folks who escaped the city after making their dirty fortunes and proceeded to muck up the upstate arcadia by raising property values beyond what locals could afford and demanding organic arugula at the neighborhood deli. When I took pains to explain that I was not a citiot at all but a transplanted Southerner, the remoteness turned into disdain.
"You ever had a real winter?"
"Well, you will now."
No wonder I began spending more and more time inside my farmhouse.
It was on one of those many long, gray days that I decided if I was to be stuck in my field of nightmares—I could not leave the state with my daughters until my separation agreement was finalized, a process that in New York takes about as long as evolution—I was going to make the place spectacular. I would install a bathroom with a vintage claw-foot tub large enough for my 5'10" frame and a stand-up shower lined with subway tile. I would replace the decaying kitchen countertops with brilliant marble. I would regrade the creek bed so it flowed with an ear-pleasing trickle. I would chuck out every leaky toilet. I would hang chair rail. I would revamp every inch of the house and land, decorating it in my style, and in the end, force myself to fall in love.
Living in the house of divorce is never easy. With any divorce, even one years overdue, there's a hollowness that follows, an unbidden emotional accounting that occurs. Here's the couch where he told me he never liked my sister. Here's the toothbrush he used to leave on the sink. Here's the kitchen where he baked me the best bread I've ever tasted. Here's the bed where we tried to bury our emotional problems in a tide of physicality. I was tired of living in the museum of my marital failure. The goal was simple. I intended to rip out everything tired and broken and replace it with something pretty that worked.
I started with paint. Tasteful neutrals were covered by lemon yellows and enamelware blues and pinks. Lots of pink. On the guest tub. On the girls' floor. In the formerly beige master bedroom.
"Aren't you worried that you'll never get another date?" my friend Connie warned of the Mee-Maw makeover. "Your house is starting to look like a B&B. An AARP B&B."
I was too busy sewing chenille pillow covers to answer her.
After painting every wall and floor in every room, I turned to the big-ticket items. I converted the kitchen into a girlie paradise, installing shelves for my cake-stand collection. I hung old-timey aprons on wooden hooks. I had the marble countertop installed, a creamy, speckled white. I tacked up a Tammy Wynette poster. Right beside the giant, retro-pink refrigerator.
"It looks like a cupcake," my younger daughter said giddily when the fridge arrived.
"I love it!" her sister squealed. "Can we put it in our room?"
The bathrooms got a similar makeover. So too the previously unfinished basement, which I converted into an office with French doors that opened onto a rose-covered trellis and patio I built with salvage brick found on the back acres. I laid the bricks in the shape of a giant, rustic heart. Deliberately and diligently, the entire property was purged of masculinity.
"You should rename it Estrogen Farm," my friend Melina quipped.
Maybe I will, I thought. After eight years of marriage, it was exhilarating to break free of the impulse to accommodate, heady to make every decision myself. Even if those decisions were only about cabinet hardware and which Martha Stewart color to paint the wainscoting.
Ten months into the renovation, after I'd spent three weeks researching gazebo wood, I realized I had a problem. I had become obsessed. My remodeling projects were consuming me. I had no social life, unless you counted my relationship with Sherwin-Williams. I had drained my savings and was thousands of dollars in the hole. Restoration isn't cheap, especially hurried restoration. In a little under a year, I had achieved the look I wanted. My house was stunning. Perfect. Down to the last doorknob. I'd made my house exactly what I thought I'd always wanted, only to discover that, while it mattered, it mattered less than I imagined it would. The hollowness was still there. I was just hollow in an exquisitely decorated place.
Instead of processing this insight, I went gazebo shopping. Wandering around the sale lots, walking in and out of the structures, I imagined gazebo picnics with my girls on warm fall nights, and lolling on a gazebo sleeping cot during the heat of summer. But agreeable as those images were, they did not fill me with the expected tranquillity. Instead, I was overcome with dread. I stood there, encircled by wood and white lattice, and felt, for the first time, completely alone.
Gazebos are like miniature houses. Having finished mine, I was already unconsciously trying to start on another. This epiphany was rapidly followed by a series of even more unpleasant realizations. Like: If I had a real life, I probably wouldn't care so much about the perfect schoolhouse light fixture with original glass. Like: If I had the self-esteem I thought I had, I probably wouldn't need to design my environment like a set. My house had become my alibi. How could anyone leave someone who was able to make a home this handsome? And then there was the hardest truth—that I had, in the great feminine tradition, used the lure of homemaking to distract me from dealing with the ugly stuff simmering inside. The ugliest of which was guilt.
I'd been unable to stay married to the father of my children. Sure, I was a better, less bitter mother alone. I was alive and hopeful and bright—and this matters. But where my daughters were concerned, a pink refrigerator and a cheerfully painted floor would never make up for their father's absence. The pain would persist, no matter how beautiful their house looked.
I'd made the same mistake in my marriage—focusing on appearances. Spending my time arranging flowers when I should have been taking a long, hard look at what we were. And what I had become. I had latched onto domesticity to fill the holes in my relationship. I couldn't connect emotionally with my husband, but I could feed him. I could not make him love me more or better, but I could cook and clean and decorate. I could fold his shirts and pair his socks. In time these choices made me tight and joyless, as I fretted about thread counts and piecrusts and all manner of things that did not bring us an inch closer.
I did all this, then resented my husband for turning me into a wife. But this time around, there was no husband to blame. There was only me, and the unhappy truths I'd been trying to avoid.
I'm fairly certain the gentleman who was detailing the insect-repellent virtues of cedar versus oak had never witnessed crying on the gazebo lot. Which must explain why, when I sniffled and said "allergies," he mumbled something about paperwork and exited the scene. I was left by myself in a 10-foot octagonal, screened gazebo, sitting on the dusty floor, sobbing. I cried for the untarnished life I wasn't going to have. I cried for the year I'd spent isolated and lonely. I cried because despite all my efforts I had not fallen in love. With my marriage. With my renovated house.
"I don't belong here," I whispered. "This is not my home."
The tears stopped. Just acknowledging that plain fact made space, finally, for light to creep in. I knew that I would have to move, would have to take my children to a place that felt like home to me, that no amount of paint or primroses would alter what I felt inside—disconnected, adrift, and most of the year, really, really cold. I wasn't blaming geography this time. But I wouldn't be a prisoner to it, either.
After some time, I got up and drove back to the farm. A few months later, I ended up buying the gazebo. I think it will be good for resale.