By Mary Lowengard
THROUGHOUT THE SUMMER of 2013, I harbored a secret hankering for a country house.
This was a very private manifestation of a very public theory I’d articulated over almost the entire four decades (give or take) I’d lived in Manhattan. That is, if you don’t feel the urge to leave town at least three times every two weeks, you’re not really living in the City.
When I arrived in New York to attend a college that today I could neither get into nor afford, getting out of town was easy. I just went “home.” My parents’ home became my country house manqué. Yeah, West Hartford, Connecticut, isn’t exactly “country,” but compared with University Place in Greenwich Village, and then East 90th between Park and Lex, it was good enough. There was always a car available, a family friend’s pool to dive into in the summer, crickets chirping and barbecue. In winter, my dad kept the fireplace going, and I could even day-trip to the slopes a state or two away.
This was followed by other country-home substitutes—beach-house rentals and mooched weekends at the genuine weekend retreats of friends. And un-genuine country weekends at friends’ places in Moorestown, New Jersey, and Tarrytown, New York.
But this hankering was the real deal, an itch I just couldn’t scratch away, and I was gearing up to act on it. Sure, college tuition for my youngest was still on the books, but the fantasy festered, fed by the prospect of an intracompany promotion that would likely result in excess income and so much stress that a country retreat would be a medical necessity to preserve my mental health.
Measuring Spoons and Dysons
I surreptitiously started a country-house trousseau with the impulsive purchase of a set of measuring spoons at Bed Bath & Beyond. I began perusing real-estate listings, keeping an eye out for the perfect two-bedroom, 1.5-bath cottage with perhaps an attic loft space to bed down overflow guests.
It also had to be under two hours’ drive from Bloomingdale’s flagship store on East 59th Street and, if possible, could be vacuumed entirely without unplugging the cord to the Dyson I planned to buy.
The next-to-last weekend in September I pulled up a listing I’d found for what was basically a shell of a house on seven acres in the middle of nowhere in upstate New York.
I showed it to my friends Danielle and Gene, married architects (to each other, that is) who had left their stately home on the Main Line in Philadelphia for a City weekend. They were polite but skeptical, pointing out that the structure not only lacked interior walls and also was missing a septic system; moreover, the closest tennis court was 12 miles away.
When they returned home, they emailed a thank-you note with a link to a house someplace in Pennsylvania called Bucknoll Falls. I immediately assumed it was in Bucks County, which was way too expensive for me. (And still is.)
A Very Small 5th Bedroom
A week later I sent them a note saying I’d made my way to this “Bucknoll” place (nowhere near Bucks County) and found a house that was:
- In more or less move-in condition (i.e., walls, septic)
- Great views
- No major lawn to mow
- Wood floors and built-in bookshelves
But what really had me at hello was that when I inquired of the agent where the tennis courts were, she cheerily said, “Oh, let’s walk over to take a look.”
Minuses included a fuse box that only “Antiques Roadshow” would treasure, a Frankensteinian oil-eating furnace and a few pesky mold and asbestos issues.
Four weeks later I had a contract on this cottage of five bedrooms and four baths, a tad bigger than I’d envisioned, requiring unplugging and re-plugging the vacuum. I justified the increase in size by noting that one bedroom and bath were in the basement, and quite small.
December 13, 2013 (yes, it was a Friday) I moved in, and that evening discovered the benefits of the community’s private security service after a celebratory dinner with the real estate agent that I paid for as she accidentally left her wallet at home. After she dropped me off, I realized I had locked myself out of the house. I contemplated sleeping in my car. Then I phoned the agent, who called security, who drove over and instructed me in the proper way to open my own front door, i.e., pull the doorknob while turning the key.
And the security service had a copy of my key! From that day forward, I never again locked my front door. My rationale was, Why would I want to buy a place in a place where I had to lock the doors? Also, my brother pointed out on a visit a few weeks later that if he wanted to break in, he would just walk around the back and kick in the picture window.
The Joys of Homeownership Rediscovered
The next five months were spent rediscovering those joys of homeownership that I’d abandoned 15 years earlier for the joys of New York City apartment living (as in “just call the super”). When it rained outside, it rained inside. I restored the term “ice dam” to my vocabulary. The gas company came and disconnected the lines to the antique stove, calling it a “suicide machine.” The driveway became a luge run. Toilet issues.
I gave lots of business to a restaurant called Ham & Eggs Served in a Pan, where you were served a hearty breakfast in a beat-up pan, then were suckered into buying the pan. Spring thaw came and, with it, mud. A pipe burst in the basement, creating an indoor swimming pool I hadn’t paid for. I learned what “shut off the main” means.
Friends and family came every weekend. We made big fires, put on boots and tramped down to the falls. I bought appliances for the kitchen, got a sofa to replace the mattress I’d plopped on the floor in the living room and a remote thermostat to turn the heat on as I left New York.
I traded up my BMW 330xi for the official vehicle of the American Canoe Association and the Bucknoll community, a Subaru. (Apparently, it’s the Official Escape Vehicle of the Zombie Apocalypse, as well.)
The Sacred Signs of Spring
At the end of April, Bucknoll started to resemble that scene in “The Wizard of Oz“ when Dorothy first lands over the rainbow and the Munchkins emerge from under the foliage. Look! People strolling down Fales Drive! With kids and dogs!
Introductions were made, and I immediately forgot everyone’s name (except yours, CJ). The golf course opened, it seemed, the day after the snow melted, made possible, I suspected, by the purchase of several truckloads of green spray paint. I kept an eye on the tennis courts for signs of life.
I became addicted to purchasing something every single weekend from a charming “antiques” shoppe in the village (pit-stopping before I reached the cottage, with the cat in the car) and introduced houseguests to the sample bowl at Cindy’s Candy Kitchen and turkey-avocado wraps at Candy’s Country Diner.
Memorial Day weekend I met 397 new people at the four parties I was invited to. Bucknoll turned into a Buckabrigadoon. I became addicted to Niall’s tennis clinics. Mid-summer, at yet another social gathering I recoiled in horror to learn I was no longer the newest cottager on the block.
The most thrilling discovery I made all summer (in a summer of daily thrilling discoveries) was that the patch of parsley, sage, rosemary and basil growing in the community garden was not for the Bucknoll Grille—it was for members of the community. That included me.
By the end of that first, magical summer I learned how to answer, far more succinctly than this article has, the three questions everyone asks of the newest Bucknoller. First, “Where are you from?” Then, “Which cottage?” Next, “How did you find Bucknoll Falls?
And my friends Dani and Gene, who steered me this way? After many weekends as my honored houseguest-lodgers, on Labor Day weekend they bought their own cottage, just down the street.
Mary Lowengard really did own a country cottage once upon a time somewhere in Pennsylvania. Names have been changed to protect the innocent. She is grateful to KW, JM, JAR and Woody, who made these stories possible.