By Mary Lowengard
TRUTH BE TOLD, I had no business buying the Bucknoll cottage in the first place.
The purchase was flagrantly self-congratulatory, made in giddy anticipation of a lucrative promotion at my then-esteemed-place-of-work. Imagine my surprise when two weeks after I signed the contract for the cottage this offer-of-a-lifetime vanished into thin air.
It would have been easy to kick dust up over the home inspection report. I could have walked away.
But I didn’t. I was smitten. The built-in-bookshelves, the magnificent views, the pond with its backward-sloping waterfall, the tennis courts within walking distance and the year-round bucket of Halloween candy at the Post Office had me at hello. There was the promise that my friends from Philly, the ones who had introduced me to Bucknoll, would join me for weekends. I was already envisioning myself seated at a small writing desk by the front window, scribbling away in a notebook, the Poconos’ own Karen Blixen. Okay, so it wasn’t a farm in Africa, and I wasn’t a Danish baroness. But one can dream.
A little over a year later, in mid-January, I was officially unemployed, let go in a purge I had seen coming months earlier. In a previous writing life, I had ghostwritten a book about personal wealth management. One chapter covered what to do when you sense you’re about to lose your job: squirrel away money to cover three to six months of living expenses, create (and stick to) a budget, apply for a home equity line of credit, cut out credit card debt.
All good advice I didn’t take. I should have put the cottage on the market right then and there. I didn’t. Instead, I went skiing in Colorado, broke my wrist and then did the Scarlett O’Hara thing of putting off thinking about how I’d manage until “tomorrow.”
Eighteen months later, my mother, my sister and I were hit by a one-two-three punch of catastrophic illnesses. Selling the cottage would have been the sensible thing to do. But throughout my life neither sense nor sensibility has defined me.
Instead, the cottage became my refuge. I triangulated my life between New York City, Hartford, Connecticut, and Bucknoll, then back to the city, a seven-hour circuit of nearly 400 miles. Loyal friends took the train to Brewster, New York, where I’d scoop them up for the drive across I-84. Some would even suffer the bus service in from or back to Manhattan. My friend Suzanne did that—twice. And then once she arrived, she took it upon herself to snatch paring knives out of my hands every time I picked one up to cut something. I was on blood thinners and she didn’t fancy a trip to the local hospital if I sliced my hand open while chopping parsley.
By December 2018, I realized that the time had come to concede that, well, the time had come to leave Bucknoll. I resolved to enjoy one last summer before packing up and packing it in. And that is exactly what I did.
I hadn’t sold a house in more than 20 years, but I did recall with absolute clarity the Hobbesian nature of the process: nasty, brutish and, if lucky, short. I astonished myself with how rapidly—overnight, it seemed—I flipped from being an obsessive acquirer to a compulsive divestor. Following Labor Day, I brought back to New York, sold, gave away to friends or Goodwill, sent to storage or otherwise disposed of the lifetime of stuff I had accumulated over my six-year tenure. Per Variation I on Parkinson’s Law, clutter filled the space allotted, and I had nearly 2,500 square feet of it.
In mid-July, just to make things more interesting, my daughter and her fiancé decided to move their wedding up by a year, and I detoured from all-day, every-day cottage-sale-ruminating to help them plan the affair, scheduled for two months hence, in September. How they knew that their original wedding date would have landed them in the belly of the pandemic beast, I’ll never know. It was a magnificent event, the ceremony gloriously celebrated with homemade confetti created from dried hydrangeas I had clipped several weeks earlier from an abundant bush outside a bank about a half mile from the Bucknoll border.
Back on the clock after the wedding, I called in the troops, professional and amateur, to help me spruce things up. I vanquished the Japanese stilt grass that had turned my yards, front and back, into a sub-Saharan savannah worthy of mention in an Isak Dinesen story. There was painting and cleaning and gluing to be done.
I established a Situation Room in the basement. The real-estate team descended and banished all paperbacks. Eleven cartons were donated to the local library. I volunteered to write the listing blurb, and was allocated 800 characters. I penned exactly 800 characters.
Staging for photographs and an Open House in October accelerated an already Mach 2 cleanup. And after that event, the cottage was no longer mine. It had transformed into a real-estate commodity where the paper-towel stand was stowed under the sink and potential owners might envision their books, not mine, in the built-in-bookcases.
I bought four enormous tubs of mums, arranging them artfully in front of the cottage a day before the Open House. I hate mums. They smell bad, are available only in boring colors and attract deer who mill around trying to decide if they are worth eating. The real estate agent insisted. I relented.
A vexatious sales experience made it all the easier to leave. Like a funeral where the officiant mispronounces the name of the recently departed, or the eulogizing is cringeworthy (or both), this took the sting out of the sadness. The silver lining was the generosity of friends and neighbors who helped me make my abode “marketable,” and were at my side as I undertook the tedious and torturous rituals of moving out.
I had a wild and wonderful flirtation, predominantly via email, with a local mason, and not the Masonic Lodge or freemason type. (Nothing free about his work: I wrote him a hefty check for his trouble. And begged him to take as many of the mums as he wanted, for the missus as a gratuity.) There was an issue with my chimney, which he dismissed as poppycock. His booming laugh lightened my mood. There’s a reason why psychologists put “moving” second only to “death of a spouse” on the stress scales. And I had no spouse to lose.
Following the old adage that “Sometimes you don’t finish, you just stop,” I set my Just-Stop for the Tuesday before the Friday closing.
In those final days, everything that could go wrong, did. The toilet flapper broke, there was a screeching in the walls I feared might be Rocky and his flying squirrel pals, a worker off-roaded through my yard leaving an ugly gash. Hired help canceled at the last minute or showed up two hours late. It rained. Hard. Mercury had slipped into retrograde, bringing literal sturm und drang.
A week before the closing I drove a rental truck packed with my great-aunt Ethel’s dining-room set back to New York City. Then, I drove my grandmother’s breakfront back to Bucknoll, where it was set up in the cottage of the family that I’d made a five-year lend-lease agreement with. They’d agreed to take the Lowengard family baby grand player piano. We moved the breakfront into their cavernous living room to store the 348 music rolls that came with the piano.
This arrangement took at least as much planning as the wedding, that happy day that was done and dusted a month earlier. At some point in between, I showed up for five hits of high-intensity stereotactic radiation, which was supposed to be the absolute cure for what ailed me. (It wasn’t, but it was pretty to think so.) And so on.
For weeks I’d been making rearview-mirror-blind pilgrimages relying on my side-view mirrors to guide me, shuttling cartons and Ikea bags to my apartment, to a storage facility I’d rented on a (hopefully) temporary basis, and to the family hangout in Hartford. On the designated Tuesday evening, at dusk, I slammed the liftgate on the Subaru, packed yet again to the gills for this final trip. I looked back at my cottage, at that damn hydrangea bush that never bloomed after the first year I bought it, at the haphazardly lit solar lights along the path to the front porch blinking off and on, and the two L.L. Bean Adirondack chairs my mother gave me for my birthday that just wouldn’t work in my New York City apartment.
I loved sitting in those chairs, watching the Bucknoll world pass by.
I took one last photograph and drove off.
Mary Lowengard really did own a country cottage once upon a time somewhere in Pennsylvania. She changed names to protect the innocent, and thanks KW, JM, JAR and Woody, who made these stories possible. For the full story, click here.