I read a piece recently written by a man who lives in a rural town PA. He wrote that he dreads going into a city, even if it is to meet a loved one because of the cold strange feel to city life and rushing passersby. While I related to that feeling (which I might also trace to a syndrome caused by nine kids sharing two bedrooms,) I recalled the summer when I spotted a page in a magazine and planned the "dream getaway" from the congestion of city life. That little trip altered my understanding of "the better life."
After my husband and I were married and began a family, we moved from our small apartment in Brooklyn to a larger one in the Richmond Hill section of Queens, New York. Most of the houses on our block were attached, and, with few exceptions, neighbors were friendly or at least cordial.
Spring was a gentle reintroduction to outdoors and the sight of human life. When summer was in full swing, though, humidity rose with oppressive heat stroke force, in sync with bumper-to-bumper traffic, honking horns, car fumes and booming music that made trunks rattle and heads explode. I wanted to run in the house, kids underarm, flip on the air, pop two Tylenol and hide until November. But by evening, I was outside again, watching the kids catch fireflies and enjoying a chat with Caroline, a proud member of the African Violet Society.
That was the rhythm of city life as I knew it.
One day after I was hit in the back of my ankles with a shopping cart and while I waited on an extra long line in the supermarket, I pondered our next getaway. I picked a magazine from the rack and mindlessly flipped through until my eyeballs sprang from their sockets, and I zeroed in on the quintessential family vacation -- a real working farm in Pennsylvania! Children were able to experience farm life, milk the cows, feed the animals, you know, authentically chew the hay. I bought the magazine, and without delay, I phoned the farm.
Drat! The featured bed and breakfast farm was booked for the summer, so the nice folks recommended another nearby farm family who decided to host vacationers. We booked our vacation for mid-August. I was excited that our young sons would get a taste of farm and country life, hear the cows moo up close, instead of pushing a button in a children's book.
I beamed with pride. This unique vacation would go down in the annals of vacation memories as the most clever and edifying, yet educational!
It felt doomed from the start. The woman of the house was very kind, but her hands were full with two young sons and the demands of making everything from scratch. The older of her sons signaled "hands off" their attractive assortment of bright yellow Tonka trucks that dotted the dirt driveway. My sons did not ask to play with them, but it sure looked like a missed opportunity for outdoor fun to me, and from a quick scan of the property, the only one.
Next we were led to our bedroom that featured lovely antique furniture and a beautiful hand-pieced quilt. "If you need anything at all," the woman said, "just let me know." She lingered in the doorway, watching our reaction.
For starters,where's the soda machine, the ice maker, the sink, the coffee machine, the air-conditioner, the bed for our kids to jump on? For gawd's sake, where is the restaurant?
I slipped the diaper bag off my shoulder, jaw dropped, while I noted my husband's serious expression. Oh, gawd! I looked at my two sons. Now what? We found the town and stayed in a pizza place until it was bedtime.
The following morning, breakfast was served at dawns early light. We were two families, the farmer's and ours, seated before a hearty breakfast at their kitchen table. Yes, it was awkward. But the men broke it up. They learned we were Catholics; we learned they were Mennonite. They asked a few questions about city life and appeared relieved that they did not share it. Then the man disappeared for the duration, working another portion of the property, the farm, we supposed.
Turned out the cows were not grass grazing, milk cows. They were in the shade of a barn, runny noses and all. (Think hamburger.) And there were no other animals around and no itinerary for a tour. It was quite awkward, as in, GAWD, IS THIS IT?
That would be it.
I'd booked a vacation in a farmhouse. Period. Instead of the commotion of cars and kids outside our window, there were mocking moos and crickets... reminders that we were in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do. If I was alone, I would have lost my mind.
The one magnificent show we saw took place at nighttime, like God's "Psssst, over here" display. The sky was dark and we stood under an immense dome of bright lit stars and they twinkled so clear and close that when they shot across the sky, I felt if I had a baseball mitt, I could have caught one. That was heaven. Other than that, for two days, we stayed out of the house and took in the local attractions, which was pleasant.
We went to a family style restaurant (because breakfast wasn't awkward enough), in which we were seated with strangers at a long table. There were people from other small, rural towns. And we could have said we were from Aspen, Ireland, Nepal, even Mars, and everybody would have been fascinated. When we said we were from New York, the woman seated across from us was aghast. "Then I guess your sons never had real mashed potatoes," she said. (Emphasis on real.) Her female companion said, "Well, now. I am sure they have had French fries." It could not end. It did not end. "Well, French fries are not real mashed potatoes," the first woman said.
The African American couple from the Bronx looked happy to meet us fellow New Yorkers. And I wondered, why were the people surrounding them, doing everything but spoon feeding them? Why did we get stuck on the cranky end, afraid to ask our dinner neighbors to pass anything? And why, why, WHY did we think family style eating with complete strangers was a good idea?
After that, we decided we'd leave a day early and go for Dorney Park, also in Pennsylvania.
At daybreak, I packed. And before we loaded the car, I met my husband down by the covered bridge that we'd admired. As I approached, pushing my toddler in the stroller, I saw him speaking with a cute elderly man. How sweet! We made a friend. It was a warm, memorable way to end our stay in cricketsville.
I neared the bridge and paused in the light of the early morning and breathed in the sweet fragrance of what smelled like a mix of fresh cut grass and honeysuckle.
I woke from my aroma therapy trans when the man cleared his throat and his eyes met mine. "Did you know that Jesus was flown in by spaceship and implanted in Mary's womb?" he asked. I looked at my husband. It was quiet except for the cows mooing in the distance.
No, I had not known that.
It grew more peculiar by the minute until we excused ourselves and began the walk back to the farmhouse to say goodbye. We turned and eyed the road behind us for the man, who I thought would have made it to the path on the other side of the covered bridge by then, but he was gone (as though he'd gone under it and not through it.)
Later that day, we arrived to an air-conditioned hotel room, where I drank cold bottled water and nursed my dehydration headache and our sons jumped on the other bed. It was heaven. We met our friends and their two children and went to an awesome vacation spot: Dorney Park.
On the long ride home, I considered the difference between city life and country and pondered our experience. Perhaps the only difference between horn honking traffic and the rural landscape of the dream vacation was just that, horn honking traffic and the landscape, not the people.