I had gone to visit Maggie at her western Schenectady County property where she and Joe were building their dream house. "It's a construction site, you know," Maggie had told me on the phone. "I know," I had replied, but I admit that I was unprepared for just how much was left to be done. Long ago Maggie had explained that Joe was building the house himself, and did not take out loans to do it. He worked, saved money, bought building materials, worked on the house until he needed more money, worked, saved money....
Now after a number of years, here Maggie sat in her wheeled walker, while I pulled up a plastic outdoor chair, amidst buckets and boards in what would someday be a kitchen. The house had fabulous potential--the beginnings of a great room with fireplace were taking shape, the back of the house went into the hillside for storage and energy efficiency, and all the building materials had been chosen with environmentalism in mind.
"But it's not a dream anymore," Maggie explained after I arrived. "I can't live here. Look at me, I can't walk around outside. And for Joe, the ongoing work here has become a burden."I remembered the first time that I had come here, Maggie and I had walked the property, crossed the road to the waterfall, and expected days ahead in the woods and meadow. Lipidema had taken over her health; now she looked towards retirement and moving to a dryer climate.
"Anyway," Maggie said after we had spent an hour catching up from our last visit, "what should we do? Do you want to go eat at the diner? Or should we visit the Amish farms? Take a ride?"
We drove down her wooded lane, framed in lush green, and into the adjacent rolling farmland of Montgomery County. In minutes we saw signs by the main road advertising fresh produce, homes and barns free-standing without connecting power lines, and buggies next to the barns. Maggie pulled into the Yoder's farm, where a sign said "fresh corn." "We'll wait a minute," she said. "They know my car and pretty soon a group of children will come out of the house."
In fact, one teenage daughter came out in her plain navy blue dress and lace bonnet, and leaned in when I rolled down my window. "What do you have, today, Laura?" Maggie asked. "Do you have bread?" Maggie turned to me and said, "they make the best whole wheat bread."
"Aw, no," Laura responded in a sing-song voice with an accent part European and part Southern twang. "It's too hot. We can only make what we need. It's too hot to make bread to sell." After more discussion of what was available from the garden, I decided that I would take some beets. Laura tramped off and pulled up four beets for me. Fresh produce, for sure! I got out of the car and walked to a picnic table, covered with tomatoes, and brought a few back for Maggie. A child's face peeked out between the curtains of the house window and I waved to her.
With her gift of always finding a level for friendly conversation, Maggie asked, "Hey, do you still have that dog I gave you?" In animated discussion Laura told the entire saga of how the dog did not like girls and women but was doing well with a man and his son who lived nearby, finally ending her story with, "but do you know an English woman came here, and the dog liked her!"
We drove a few miles to another Yoder farm. In the cellar entryway, a half dozen children in plain clothes, bonnets or straw hats, ages about 2 to 13 were playing. All but two boys, one about 7, the other about 13, scattered as we pulled up. Very businesslike, the older boy approached the car and asked what we would like. I got out and picked up two cucumbers. Maggie requested 3 green peppers which the little boy promptly picked from the garden, and a dozen eggs that the older boy brought straight from the hen house.
In her usual easy manner, Maggie asked the younger boy, "Isn't this a hot summer? Is this the hottest summer you've ever seen?" The little boy responded, "no." "Really? This isn't the hottest summer? It sure is the hottest summer I've ever seen." He remained quiet and serious. Maggie began to tease the boys that the cow sounds we heard had to be one of the boys bellowing. Neither one played along. Finally, in the car, Maggie pulled out her wallet to pay, and said, "oops I don't have any money!" At this, the older boy caught her joke, and exclaimed with a broad smile, "Well, then we can't let you have any food!" We all shared a laugh, Maggie gave him her money, and we drove away. "You wait," she said, "the next time they get together, they will all be talking about the English that came to their houses!"
Our third stop was Yoder's Woodworking. A 30-something young man, Bennie, with full red beard, hurried to the car and offered a hearty welcome. After some pleasantries, Maggie discussed business with him, telling how Joe would be over to get the wood he had requested, but not until he had earned more money. Bennie, in suspendered pants and straw hat, smiled, laughed easily, and chatted about business, about what crops and animals he had, about growing spelt this year as something new, and how they ate their main meal in the middle of the day and then could work well into the evening.
"They like me," Maggie said. "Bennie probably saw me drive by on the way to the farm, and was hoping I would stop back through. You saw how he came right over as soon as he saw my car. Bennie likes to talk and he likes us to understand how they live." She hesitated a moment and added, "and so many of them are hot!" In fact, all of the Amish children were adorable and the adults reflected the good looks of their German heritage, clear white skin and pink cheeks, blond, red, or black hair, and bright eyes.
As we continued through the pastoral countryside, Maggie said, "I love this. The farms and rolling hills. This is my favorite kind of terrain." Her dissheveled home seemed far away.
Our last stop was new to Maggie. The roadside sign read, "baked goods and candy." We drove about half a mile on a dirt driveway to the farm. Evidence of horses and cartwheel tracks confirmed that this was an Amish farm. As we approached the house and barn, it occurred to me that all of the houses we had seen needed work. These were not the calendar-photo homesteads, with freshly painted white clapboard and lilies by the foundation, of the Amish farms in Pennsylvania where tourists gawked every day. These farmers lived quiet lives under the radar, and clearly the barns held priority over the houses.
A shop built in fresh wood stood next to the barn. We opened the door and were greeted by a matronly middle-aged woman, in plain dress showing wisps of white hair at the edge of her bonnet and whose soft creamy skin and plump figure seemed the perfect image of a storybook grandmother. She had the same musical gentle voice that we had come to expect as she described the items she had for sale today. Maggie quizzed her about fruit pies that would be available on the weekend and how early she would have to arrive to get one.
I perused the chocolates and the homemade linguine-style pasta. I bought "barbecue" pasta, which the woman told me should be cooked and served with just a little butter. I also bought a bag of chocolate-covered peanut butter balls. Maggie got chocolate-covered cashews, and cherry "million dollar" fudge. "A bit steep for me," she said. The woman laughed and agreed. In fact, everything was two dollars or less.
Having tried both kinds of candy in the car, we headed back to Maggie's house with our remaining chocolates, our produce from all of the farms, and a feeling of satisfaction. Satisfaction that comes from visiting good down-home folks who responded with friendship to Maggie's comfortable way of bringing out the warmth in people. A satisfaction from buying whole foods fresh from the garden and appeasing all of our senses in rural countryside that had no rough edges or ruggedness, along with the satisfaction of having time together laughing, visiting, catching up on each other's news, and sharing an adventure.
I left Maggie in her rolling chair at the house. She had a couple of hours to mull over ideas for her next book, and to enjoy the respite from her full-time job as a Methodist minister in Saranac Lake, before her family would arrive. They would build a fire outside in the cool of the evening and roast the fresh vegetables on it. I pictured Maggie with her back turned to the unfinished dream house as she faced the meadow of Queen Anne's lace and the woods beyond, joking with her granddaughter in the firelight, and arranging a meal with her daughter and husband.
"I'll be back in the fall to go to the Amish farms again," I called, and she waved me off.