Friday, September 21, 2012

The Tata House

The Tata House in September
We almost sold our house. It’s a house in Nova Scotia my husband and I purchased online, one hot Key West night, dreaming of the green and the cool and the lobster and the yeast rolls of Canada. We had accumulated a bit of extra money through some miraculous alignment of the moon and stars and at the exchange rate of the time our American money was worth 33% more when it crossed the Canadian border.
June with concert pianist and great friend Genie Malek


     Our house, more than  twice the size of our Key West cottage, is in the tiny village of Tatamagouche, where I was born. The address is 13 Maple Avenue. The locals call it Post Office Hill. Our post office box number is 413, my birthday. From the house you can walk to the butcher, the baker and the tourist shop candlestick maker. There is a grocery store called “Mike’s” where lots of high school kids work. There is a pork shop that sells bacon that leaves no fat behind when you cook it to crispy perfection in a black iron skillet. On Saturdays there is a farmer’s market. Just outside of town there is a lavender farm and a sheep farm with a retail wool shop. A winery. Several beaches. The Transcanadian Hiking Trail, built on abandoned railway beds, skirts the shore of the Tatamagouche Bay. In fall, when the trees are bare, you see the waters of the bay from our upstairs bedroom window. In the summertime a forest of ancient maple trees block the view.
Mystery writer Dilys Winn eating Nova Scotia lobster
      The house is almost grand, with a circular driveway and verdant green lawn, a sumptuous array of flower beds, a Japanese Maple tree, a blossoming crabapple tree, a huge garden plot, a tiny greenhouse, and a grape arbor. The grapes aren’t ready till the fall, long after we’ve left for the islands. But still . . . grapes! Rhubarb! Raspberries. Pear trees. And apple trees yielding plump green and red apples perfect for pies. There are raccoons that come out at night with the unbelievable pluck to attempt to push a huge Tupperware garbage bin, secured with bungee cords, across the driveway and into the woods for an attempt at tearing it open. A neighbor once told us she’d seen a black bear amble down our driveway, past a rusty old pump at the edge of the property that yields icy cold spring water if you have the power and the patience to pump the handle long enough. There is a clothesline strung from a tree to the corner of an old garage, where we love hanging out our freshly laundered sheets to sweeten and dry in the summer sun. There is a backyard big enough to hold a great circle of chairs to seat several generations of my Canadian family.

Michael and "Beautiful Sandy" Arena at Skinner's Beach
     We bought our Nova Scotia house because we fell in love with it. Love has nothing to do with reason of course. That’s Love 101. Anyone with any sense at all might have requested an inspection. But we were too far gone for that, rendered senseless with adoration. She was such a beauty. We figured her bones must be strong, too. And they were. Built by shipbuilders a century earlier, you can see their craftsmanship in the thick chiseled beams in the basement. It was her systems that were failing. The wiring and the heating and the insulation were weak. But you can’t see that in pictures. And so we signed the documents and breathlessly faxed them on their way to Nova Scotia. We’d read of the Bohemian writers who summered in seaside towns of the northeast and wintered in the south and we wanted that sort of life for ourselves.  Somehow we’d make it all work, we figured, and somehow, for a while anyway, we did.
Crazy lady waltzing with maple syrup

     The closing was in April. In those days it was around $1000 for Michael and me to fly to Halifax. Today it’s twice that. On the morning we took possession of our house it snowed, thick and wet. I pulled out my camera to bear witness but the shutter was frozen shut. It was cold in the house, too. But we were in love, so we bundled up in many layers of sweaters and slowly explored the space that was finally ours to touch. Making our way through that big old house for the first time was like making love to one you have desired for a long, long while. We bought a card table and chairs at a thrift shop and set it up in the cavernous, farmhouse kitchen. We covered the table with an Indian bedspread and boiled water for tea. Then we went back to our motel room, which was also cold, and prepared for the trip home, a pre-dawn ninety-mile drive up and over a mountain to the Halifax Airport, and a day of little and big planes, in and out of the sky to land in Key West at dusk.
Bouquet from Tata House gardens

     Have you seen a movie called The Money Pit? That was our story, too. The
electrical system needed to be replaced before it was safe to sleep in the house. We needed all new wiring. No negotiating there, but we hoped for some wiggle room in evaluating the ancient furnace. My brother Rocky, an ace furnace repair man, advised that furnaces were unpredictable things. Our furnace might run another 30 years without a problem, or it might expire in an hour. But surely, he told us, were it to die in the dead of winter, our water pipes would freeze, burst and destroy virtually every floor and wall. So obviously, we needed to buy a new furnace, too. The water heater eventually exploded, but that was a bit later.  I bought the book “This Old House” which is all about rehabbing ancient domiciles such as ours. We hired a carpenter.  “Would you please throw that damned book away!” he said to me, with a conspiratorial wink to my husband that ignited in me a red rage many frustrating months in the making.

     Through the years we’ve made our Tata House into a place warm and cozy. We’ve made friends of our wonderful and fascinating Tata neighbors. My mother, who had grown up in Nova Scotia before marrying her New York Italian husband, was able to spend a last summer there, before a fatal degenerative brain disease robbed her of her vision and her ability to eat solid food. That summer we ate like royalty, with Mom, the queen, at the head of the table each night. We wandered a bit, too, with Mom on her walker and her constant companion Pekingese dog ever by her side.  I could probably write a book about driving from Florida to Nova Scotia and back with my mother and her
dog and her needs and the thousand ditties and poems she recited at the slightest provocation. Every time we saw a crow it was this one:

    One crow sorrow
    Two crows joy
    Three crows a letter
    Four crows a boy
    Five crows silver
    Six crows gold,
    Seven crows a secret, never to be told.

I’ll tell you a secret: there are a whole lot of crows on the long road between Florida and Nova Scotia.
Queen Mom and Babe, the princess dog

     There is a Buddhist retreat in Tatamagouche and from there we have found student renters to inhabit our house during the winter months. But not every winter. Often our house sits empty. The last time we were there, two years ago, it was to scatter Mom’s ashes. This summer, another season in which our lives have kept us tethered to this house, we hired a realtor and hung a “For Sale” sign. Saturday the realtor called and said she had an offer. Someone wanted to buy our house, but for far less than our asking price.
The secret to a great garden? A great scarecrow of course. Dig those apple trees!

     So much has changed since we bought that house. Money isn’t flowing as it used to. Our Canadian property taxes have risen quite dramatically and the American dollar is worth a whole lot less today than it was when we became summer residents of Tatamagouche. None of our four adult kids have been to the house. It’s just so darned far away, and now, it costs like the dickens to get up there. Renting a car is prohibitively expensive, and there is a sales tax of 18% on everything. So the dream of sleeping beneath the quilt my grandmother made, in our flowered bedroom in the Tata House, seems to loom ever further beyond our reach.
Michael and Rocky cooking in the Tata House yard

     When the offer came on Saturday Michael and I sat down together and talked about what it meant. I was surprised to find myself crying. It was not a good offer, and when we considered what we’d invested in that house, the money, the work, the years, the love, well, we just couldn’t do it. We couldn’t let our Tata House go. We called back the realtor to tell her what we’d decided. The people offered more money, but not much more. We refused again, and hoped the realtor wouldn’t call again. She didn’t.
Tata House in winter

     Our contract with the real estate company is up in two months. Should we renew it? Or should we take that For Sale sign down? Will it be the white elephant Canada house of our children and our children’s children? Forever at the top of Post Office Hill, an ever empty house, owned by, as one villager once described us, “a nice older couple from the States”? Or should we call that realtor back and let the young family with two little boys pay an apallingly low price for it and cut our losses? I wish I knew what to do. I need a sign. I need a crow or two.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Saturday Morning Fever

Sandy's Cafe. 6 a.m. on a quintessential Saturday morning. A girl running. A girl in shorts. A girl in pajamas. And ER Nurse Susie, heading to the hospital for the day shift, with a con leche almost as big as her, and a thermos. I think maybe Susie, who was riding her bike to work, may live on cafe con leche . . .
     For the past three years I have worked a weekend job with the unimaginable start time of 7 a.m.  I don’t even want to guess how many yard sales I have missed in those three terrible years. The Saturday morning Key West yard sale is an institution, a happy combination of meet and greet and shop till you drop. Quit showing up at yard sales and people begin to assume the worst: that you’ve moved Up North.

Sandy's. Predawn. 
     I have been so starved for secondhand deals I’ve become a regular at the thrift shops, which is not at all the same thing. A thrift shop has its charms, sure, but a thrift shop has nowhere near the charm of the well-mounted yard sale. At a thrift shop you can’t nickel and dime prices down the way you can at a yard sale. At a thrift shop you can’t chat about the history of an interesting piece of merchandise with the good people who once cherished and paid big bucks for the thing you are about to make your very own for a mere pittance. At thrift shops you are not likely to run into the stylish people you can count on seeing at the Saturday morning yard sales.

The managers: Rob and Stacie
    No. Nothing at all compares to a great, rollicking yard sale, where you encounter all the yard sale regulars.  There are the tool and jewelry folks, who yell “got any tools or jewelry?” from the windows
Do you think that early bird in plaid shorts will buy anything?
of their trucks, through the pre-dawn haze, hours before your sale is advertised to begin. (They make me wonder: what are they looking for? A solid gold screwdriver? On a chain?) The merchandisers arrive early, too. They come to pick up stuff at bargain prices which they will sell in their own shops at retail prices. In every town there is a shoal of sharks, sleek and smiley. They examine the goods, find their target, and then, dart in for the kill with lightning quick offers of take it or leave it.  Always there are yard sale observers, who walk around with their hands in their pockets, looking, asking questions, but never buying. And there are tag-alongs, people accompanying the serious shoppers. They watch and wait and appear to be very uncomfortable, standing around in strangers’ yards amid displays of other peoples’ leftovers.

The Minister of Sobriety and Secretary General of the Conch Republic stage an impromptu joint task force meeting in the Conch RepublicMobile. That's coffee in those cups. I swear.
     Nowadays I am working nine-to-five, weekdays. So when my great friends Stacie and Rob announced that they were staging a Saturday yard sale in their gated front yard, I asked if I might share in the party. They even advertised the sale in the Citizen, scheduling it for 7 a.m. till 11 a.m. The first customers, the tool and jewelry folks, arrived at 6:20. That gate came in handy.

The earliest birds: the shopkeepers.
     Among the usual yard sale mavens on that day I met a lady who told me she liked my writing. Her name was Lynn and I’d like to shout out a hello to her now. As she walked through our yard sale, Lynn clutched to her chest a sweet little watercolor painting in a lovely frame she’d purchased at a previous sale. She did not want to risk leaving her find in her bicycle basket outside the gate while she shopped at our sale.  She told me she’d paid $3 for it and I wanted it bad.  I told her many times how much I liked the painting. I followed her around the yard as she shopped. I complimented her on her good looks and her fine taste in books. (She bought five. All mine.)  I told her that the only thing I collected at all anymore is art. I hinted in every way I could imagine, but Lynn did not offer me that painting. Finally she told me that her family had decided to exchange Christmas gifts of stuff they found at yard sales or thrift shops. So I forgive you, Lynn, for holding onto that painting for dear life. And I envy whoever in your family gets it for Christmas.

     We had a lot of stuff to sell, and lots buyers to take it off our hands. We had clothes, shoes, books, and the assorted accumulation of five kids, assorted parents and their crazy Aunt June. We sold out of
Eggers Junior Division, Lev and Georgie.
shoes quickly. It was amazing! Whenever someone examined our shoe collection, which went from size 1 – 10, Rob announced: “Shoes are two dollars apiece, the whole pair for $3.” People tried on clothes and bought lots of those, too. Our sale had nothing big and extravagant, save a push lawnmower that would have been the very first thing to go in our Nova Scotia village. The mower didn’t sell!  Nonetheless, by selling a thousand (or so it seemed) fifty-cent items, we made enough money to feel quite successful by lunchtime. Our yard sale was hot, exhausting, fun, and possibly easier than loading everything into the car and delivering it to the thrift shop. But I’m not quite sure about that.

My beautiful friend Stacie and me, counting up the loot.
Here in Key West, it’s the end-of-summer, paring down season. Unburdening is a healthy response to belt-tightening times. When the going gets tough, the tough go yard sale-ing, because women must shop. My long-suffering husband explains that shopping, for women, is a physiological imperative, programmed into the female gene. And on an island 130 miles from the nearest mall, yard sales are a Big Thing.

     My husband also suggests that a truly great yard sale should begin around 5 a.m., so as to accommodate the earliest of early birds. But I think the ultimate yard sale begins on Saturday morning, or you might say the after-midnight side of Friday night.  Open the gates at 3 a.m. for a nice headstart on the other sales. Offer complimentary mimosas. Brew a pot of coffee. Buy a box of sugary donuts.  Crank up the rock ‘n roll. Turn your yard sale into a happening, a party! Offer deep discounts to whoever carries away the most junk. Label your most desirable items with post-it notes revealing some titillating fact about them. For example, you might note, on that old blue dress: “Once worn at the Clinton White House.” There! That’s a conversation starter!

Here is our son Miguel Perez's homage to Sandy's Cafe, filmed at 4 a.m. -- of course!!
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