Degrees of social distance

1784 Main Street, Bovina Center, NY

Mike and I have had our home in Bovina—the Ernest and Marilyn Francis house, a.k.a., Art Russell’s house—since October 1987. We’ve regularly spent long weekends here and, now and then a few weeks stretch, usually in the summer.  But it’s fair to say that we’ve only truly lived here since March 12, 2020, when self-quarantine eerily coincided with retirement. Our son Henry has stayed in the city. (Someone in the family still works.) We have come up for the duration—duration of quite what we still don’t know. The second coming of Covid? The third? Or just through summer?

We are well suited to the quiet and even welcome it. More creatures of nurture than nature, neither of us have spent a lot of time outdoors. Strenuous exercise, hunting, fishing, skiing, hiking, and camping weren’t a big part of our childhoods, which I’m certain is why our adult pleasures are largely sedentary. I write and Mike paints. He cooks and I bake. I knit while Mike sets the Roku to MHZ, the streaming platform that takes us to crime scenes Germany, France, Italy, and Scandinavia. (Beats flying.) Very little has changed for us since we were already accustomed to sheltering in place. And that is why this reflection is not going to be about virus-coping but, instead, a patchwork of meditations on our thirty-two year experience of and in Bovina, written by someone whose vocation has already made her socially distant but whose sanity nonetheless is dependent on friends.

Correct social distancing

1986-87.  New Year’s Eve. Linda Dunne invited us to join her and her husband the artist John Egner in Andes for New Years. They’d just bought their home on Tremperskill Road about halfway to the reservoir. At the time (and for 15 more years) Linda and I worked at Cooper-Hewitt Museum. She, on the operations side of the house; I, on the content side. As in all small museums, everyone did at least two jobs and put in investment banker hours at a minute fraction of their salaries. For his part, Mike was working for clients who thought nothing of calling at all hours of the night about a bathroom renovation. In short, we were frazzled.  So when we got to Andes that day late in December, the quiet was shocking. As happens with a black-out (or in this case a white-out), we were jolted by silence. It was bliss and it proved addictive. 

We came back in July for a couple of weeks to house hunt. Luck struck in September when John Egner saw an owner-for-sale sign in Bovina. By October, we’d signed a contract with Ernest and Marilyn Francis and 1784 Main Street was ours, or would be in 30 years when we paid off the mortgage in 2017. 

In the meantime, Bovina would be there as a refuge—not so much from the city we loved (and love) as from the tensions of the workplace that always get in the way of working. In other words, people. Or at least some people, the ones that always seem to have an outsized claim on our thoughts. 

Not surprisingly, we became a little insular. The truth of it is that we were a bit insecure about our presence as newcomers in a community where families can count back six generations. Though one of those in particular—the extended Hilsons—seemed not to mind and welcomed us. Christine Batey still laughs about the time Henry rode their horse, shouting “Ride ‘em Ninja cowboy.” Even though he was only three when we came to Bovina he was already a confirmed city kid. For him, the real novelty of ‘the country’ was the Oneonta shopping mall. He’d never been to one before.  Plus the mall had movies (and we didn’t have a television then). We took an embarrassing number of trips to the northern metropolis in those years. We didn’t spend every weekend in the car, though; and certainly not sunny ones. There were Super Mario games with Evan Hilson. Kevin Brown would come over with his sisters to play, as later would Sarah Doe Osborne whose parents Kip and Margot had just renovated the mill on Creamery Road. 

In any case, partly out of shyness and mostly out of the need to decompress, Mike and I largely kept to ourselves. We were both working full-time and we wanted (like everyone does) to be in control of our time. You would think that being three and half hours away from the ‘office’ would have given us that. In some ways it did. We were free to spend more time with friends and family when they came up for weekends; we were also free to weed, move rocks, keep up with housecleaning, homework (ours and Henry’s), baking, and cooking, usually for the aforementioned houseguests and their kids.  It took me (less so Mike) a few years to realize it that my enthusiasms (and determination to get as much done in two days as possible) were threatening the very peace of mind we were after.

Henry at the Margaretville 4th of July carnival, 1989

Which isn’t to say that we didn’t have fun. The great thing about having a child is that you have to play. Though I confess I did try reading to 4-year old Henry with a book in one hand and a gardening spade in the other. The Andes pool provided swimming lessons in the mornings; Bovina had S.O.S. on Wednesday evenings; and Margery Russell sold penny candy and popsicles. We saw smoke-filled demolition derbies at the Delaware County Fair, rode the Tilt-a-Whirl at the Margaretville’s 4thof July carnival (where my stomach paid for it), watched the ax throwing contest at the Lumberjack Roundup (Chuck MacIntosh was the odds-on favorite), and rarely missed the Schjeldahl’s annual firework extravaganza. (Mike was one of the volunteer foot soldiers charged with setting them off, so his presence was all but required.) 

Fourth of July Fireworks at the Schjeldahl’s

Then there was the great escape when Chief and Baa-b came clattering down icy Main Street all on their own. Chief was the Hilson’s horse, who wanted to be a cow; Baa-b was their sheep who wanted to be a horse—or at least run away with one. (The exact date eludes me but I’m pretty sure it was the early 90s.) The pair had clearly bonded but we didn’t expect them to elope so dramatically.  Needless to say, their plans were foiled by Tom Hilson.

Adult entertainment was furnished by Chuck MacIntosh’s auctions in the Bovina Creamery and Brooke Alderson’s emporium in Andes. (Between them, they furnished most of our house.) The Bibliobarn was always a source of unexpected book bargains. Trips to Cooperstown were annual summer treat. Our social life, such as it was, seesawed between the Egners’ in Andes and our house in Bovina on Saturday nights. It gradually expanded, mostly thanks to John and Mike’s time at the Delhi Golf Course and to Linda’s ease in making friends. The beneficiaries of their more outgoing personalities, we now knew more people in Andes than Bovina. But that would change on August 3, 1993 when Bovina’s bravest and their brethren in Andes and Delhi would convene at our house.

That night, I woke up at 2:00 a.m. to see what appeared to be flames coming out of the toilet in our upstairs bathroom. The flames were real; the source was actually in the basement three stories below. What we thought was a defunct electrical junction box had chosen that night to spark. After rousing Mike (who had the flu) and telling seven-year-old Henry to stay on the front lawn, I called the Bovina Fire Department from the phone in our dining room, watching the kitchen go up in flames just a few feet away from where I was standing.

Dining room after the fire in 1993

Within minutes, firefighters from the tri-town area were charging up the stairs inside, cutting through the roof, and hosing down the house. They saved the front half—something close to a miracle. (One wit on the squad told Mike that night that the fire department’s reputation was based on saving foundations.)

Meanwhile Mike was out on the street helplessly watching their progress in whatever he’d been sleeping in, prompting Mike Batey to give him pair of pants and shoes. Henry and I retreated across the street to the Osborne’s rental and spent the rest of the night watching “Princess Bride” (at least three times) until he fell asleep. I don’t think I slept much but I do remember having to go out walking in the early hours of the morning because I was so allergic to the cats in the house that I couldn’t breathe–either that or it was plain and simple panic. The next morning we went back to what was left of our home and sat on our deck staring at the charred kitchen, wondering what next. 

Laundry was what was next. When Barb Brown offered to let me use her clothes washer, little did she know I’d be over several times a day for days.  I must have done 20 loads of smoke-saturated clothes, sheets, and towels. Scrubbing down the furnishings that made it through the conflagration (a grand word I know, but it really felt like one) was more of hand-laundry affair. What couldn’t be salvaged were our paintings: Mike’s, his brother Pat’s, and mine. We do, however, still have a couple of blackened canvases around as well as a two paint-blistered doors. (They hang in the upstairs bedrooms even now, suspended in the doorframes, which we enlarged. The house’s first occupants were much shorter, as was everyone a century ago.)  

1993 Bovina fire report, courtesy Kevin Brown (2020)

Insurance forms were next–and days of tallying losses. We were young and stupid. We had fire insurance but we didn’t know enough to have replacement insurance. That meant I had to figure what each item cost when I bought it. Chuck MacIntosh kindly looked over my estimates for the furniture I had bought at auction, but of course, I was on my own to figure out how much the beds, household appliances, plates, dishes, forks, knives and spoons and all the rest had cost when we bought them five or six years earlier. So while Mike was slogging through the debris, I was compiling lists of the stuff we lost and entering them on a primitive laptop, which was frustratingly prone to crashing. To add insult to injury, after submitting our accounting, the insurance company (which will go nameless) tried to suggest that we started the fire. It took months to settle on figure. 

Rebuilding, 1993-94

Rebuilding was next. Mike is and was a general contractor but had never done house building. So he hired Leland Stein for the job—an excellent choice as it turned out. The insurance settlement was just enough for Leland and his crew to deal with the exterior. That left the interior to Mike—the kitchen cabinets, the window and doorframes and sills, and the painting of every room. Our best ‘souvenir’ is our kitchen table, built from fragments of the house’s original floorboards.

Meanwhile I was asked to apply for the job of director at the Building Museum in Washington, D.C. I went through the interviews; and we even did a little half-hearted house hunting. As flattering as the eventual offer was, we weren’t ready to leave New York—not the city, not Bovina. Being creatures of habit, we stayed put. As of October 2020, we will have lived at the same addresses, in the city for 43 years and in Bovina for 33. Apart from the fire, our lives have been incredibly stable: I worked for 25 years at Cooper Hewitt and 15 at Parsons School of Design and Mike was always his own boss.

Starting over, 1994

Once the house was livable—sometime in the early summer of 1994—we began the process of furnishing it all over again. That summer’s Bovina Day was a goldmine for plates and glasses and various other kitchen sundries—to the point that if anyone were to inventory our house now, they’d find fragments of other Bovinian homes in every single room. As we were approaching Thanksgiving, I was making plans to have an open house to thank everyone (especially the firefighters) for all their help. But a week before the holiday, I got hit hard with the flu, practically passing out in the Price Chopper. Much to my embarrassment to this day, we never did throw that party. We continued to live in Bovina, but largely apart from Bovina.  

The mid-90s through the early oughts was an unusually intense period of our lives. In 2002, Henry left for college; I was ‘restructured’ out of a job I’d held for 25 years; Mike was renovating apartments with little time for his own work.  Happily, 2002 was also the year I learned I’d won a six-month fellowship at the American Academy in Rome. Mike came with me and, as it happened, so did Bovina: Towards the end of our stay, we got a letter telling us that as part of a water management plan a sewer system and a storm drain would run through our yard. 

Our going-to-Rome party in 2003, showing the ‘lost’ gardens

After a suitable period of mourning the (necessary) loss of my now 18-year old garden, I realized that this was a good thing. For not long before we’d left for Rome, the run-off stream that went through my iris garden turned white one day—opaque white. Ed Rossley was washing a paintbrush loaded with white paint in his sink and didn’t realize where the water was draining. (Don’t ask me why I thought to cross the street and investigate but I suppose I figured the water had to be coming somewhere above us.) On the strength of that episode alone, water management was just fine with me. But I did, and still, take issue with the idea that the drainage pipe installed wasn’t angled more into the stream.  Now when there’s a big rainfall, the water hits the stream at 90-degree angle and bounces over to our neighbor’s yard and floods it.

Storm drain 2004, 2014

For the next fourteen years, Bovina remained something to look forward to.  ‘Bovina’ in our house meant trips to the Green Thumb, the St. James Church tag sale in July, the Margaretville Hospital sale in early August, Bovina Day, Andes Community Day, the Delhi Golf course annual tournament, and barbeques on Saturday nights. Things happened, but none were as cataclysmic as the fire (except for the loss of our dog Louie who adored Bovina).  In 2007, a storm hit our big black willow destroying the tree house Mike had built inside it. Rather than wait for the rest of the tree to land on the house in the next storm, we asked Richard MacIntosh to cut it down. Its massive stump became an excuse to plant a new garden, with it as its central feature.  (As I write this today 13 years later, said stump is barely standing, its soft wood hollowed out with age.) 

‘stump’ garden

There was a major flood in 2011 whose effect we escaped by virtue of being on high ground; and the invasion of the red squirrels in the summer of 2013. They burrowed into the walls of the house—the sounds of their scratching were very unsettling, especially to houseguests who were surprised at our tolerance. It was actually more like ineptitude. Several ‘have-a-heart’ traps later, we found the only thing that worked were the silent sonic deterrents. We think that they worked, but it’s just as possible that the squirrels got tired of messing with us. 

Jillienne LaFever, Linda Dunne, Susan Yelavich; Apple Pie Contest winners, Bovina Farm Day, 2015

On the brighter side, 2015 was the year I won first prize in the apple pie baking contest at Bovina Farm Day.  I made it from the apples on our tree, which in August were the size of small plums. I’ve never peeled so many tiny orbs of fruit before but apparently it was worth it. I can’t say, as there wasn’t much of any of it left to taste after the judging.

2016 and 2017 are a blur, mostly because I was doing a lot of traveling for work. (The biggest perk of working for museums and academic institutions is that if you’re willing to sing for your supper, you can see a lot of the world.) It was during those years that my neighbor Peter Manning introduced me to Catherine Roberts, the best helper I’ve ever had in my garden. She took on the painstaking challenge of extracting the grass from the mesh of vinca surrounding my choke berry tree. Score: Grass 0, Catherine 100. I also know that 2017 was the year Joyce Haut, one of my oldest and dearest friends, moved to Andes to live there year-round. We can often be seen walking on Bovina’s roads together–lately at six feet apart, talking about thing like whether the Andes pool, another favorite hangout, will open this year. (Suspect not.)

Dubious social distancing

2019 was the year of the wedding. The Egners’ daughter Julianna was getting married to Athan Tsakalakis.  The couple enlisted Mike to marry them and me to make the wedding cake. That summer I baked four versions of the cake, each time learning how to keep the layers from toppling, how much butter was needed (16 sticks), what pans worked the best, and how to hide mistakes with extra butter icing.  

2019 summer of the cakes

The trial cakes weren’t wasted though: one went to celebrate the opening of Brooke’s Putt Putt van Winkle mini-golf course, another to the Bovina Bicentennial Cake and Pie Auction, and one sat in the freezer of the General Store in Andes as my insurance policy in case the real cake flopped. (Both made it to the wedding venue.) Meanwhile Mike got his license to wed the couple from the Universal Life Church and worked on his remarks, which he delivered with eloquence and grace—and not a little emotion.

2019 was also the year I finally availed myself of Deidre Larkin’s horticultural expertise.  By now my gardens were pretty established and so were the dandelions. Her tutorial Weed Wise was timely, to say the least. Not that I actually did much about my crop. Instead, I spent the last weeks of summer moving white lilac volunteers from the side of the house to the bottom of the yard to be a foreground for the weeds that line the stream. Much better than ripping them out. 

August, living up to its Latin root, proved especially auspicious.  That was the month that I started paying attention to the upcoming Bovina Bicentennial celebrations (now on hold). I now had the time to come out of my cave and get involved somehow—gingerly, since my civic-mindedness was a bit Johnny-come-lately compared with the decades of effort others had been putting into the life of the community. 

Bovina Bicentennial logo; designer, Samantha Misa

Before I proposed anything, I tested a few ideas out with Chris Batey. I’d just seen a project that inspired me to think about using textiles to create some kind of bunting to line Main St during the parade, but quickly realized that it would be too difficult to hang and wouldn’t withstand a summer shower. We settled on the idea of asking local knitters to knit squares for a commemorative afghan that could be auctioned for the benefit of the town. Ray LaFever gave it his blessing and word was sent out. Chris Batey, Jan Bray, Linda Dunne, Lori Glavin,Peg Hilson, Susan Muther, Sangeeta Pratap, Carol Smith, and I formed a loose band and chose our squares. We met once at Russell’s and then again at my house a couple of times more, until the COvid virus put an end to what were becoming really enjoyable hours. People I’d waved at over the years (Jan, Lori, Peg, Susan, Sangeeta, and Carol) were now people I was getting to know.

Bovina Bicentennial Afghan in progress

Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, more friendships seem to be developing during the shutdown. Thanks to Instagram, I find myself ‘chatting’ with Peg Hilson’s daughter Julie and really enjoying her inventive homeschooling posts. I knew Fred Dust and David Young from teaching at Parsons but now we talk more frequently than we ever did in the city. They stop by our house on their long walks over Russell Hill Road. Our conversations have led to a collaboration between David and me, of which I’ll say nothing until we see if it bears fruit. In any case, it’s the doing, not the showing, that matters right now. More to the point, I doubt it would have happened had we not been sheltering in Bovina for so many weeks.

No longer isolationists, but not quite social butterflies (we never eat out), we are becoming more in tune with Bovina: our neighbors, its vistas, its flora and fauna. Mike’s studio is packed with the latter. There may be no cows in the field outside our kitchen window but they roam contentedly on the canvases inside Mike’s barn, alongside his Roman landscapes.

I think it is in the nature of artists and writers to be observers, like photographers who have to step back from a scene to capture it.  But what scenes! 

Mike in the studio

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