The tiny little house I had to move into after I split up with my ex was only about a mile away from where we had been living together in Freshwater Cove. The thing is, I wanted him gone and he would not leave. So I had to move out. Now he was sitting in the old log cabin where we had lived for the last six years and looking out the window at my twenty three acres. The beautiful land that I had bought with the money my Uncle Wats left me. The land we were supposed to build a house on together. My veggie garden and my pony Ranza were still there so I had to go back and forth a lot. I did not want to leave but I could not tolerate his treatment of me anymore and it was bad for my kids. I have three girls aged two, four and ten, all blonde and blue eyed. I had to protect them from his ugliness. So we moved into Owl Hollow for a time.
Mary and Baylor Thacker owned the farm Owl Hollow was on. They did not have any kids of their own although they had wanted a family. They tended to try and parent folks who rented their little house up the hollow and sometimes that got a little tiresome. I was friends with the last family that lived there and had often wondered how they put up with the Thackers trying to tell them how to run their lives. Now it was my turn.
The tiny house sits way back from the county road, down a long, narrow and muddy lane that hugs the hill it perches on. There are some scary drop offs along the way and you need to be careful, especially when the mud is freshly slicked by rain. I had a VW bus and it was not the best thing for maneuvering in precarious places. Sometimes, we all four of us, just had to walk in instead. It was pretty back up in there and the only close neighbors were the beef cows. We shared a spring with the cows and as Baylor said,
“You had better make sure you don’t take too much water. Those cows get first dibs.They are my bread and butter.”
I told Baylor, “OK, we’ll be careful and we won’t waste any. We’ll take good care of the spring.”
The water ran downhill through a plastic pipe into the house from the spring box up on the hill. There was no pump, it was just gravity fed. There was no hot water until you heated up a bucket on the stove. I was pretty used to that set up, having lived without any kind of running water for a long time. There was electric to the house though, and a little washroom off the kitchen with a wonderful cast iron bathtub in it. The tub was shorter than the usual size and nice and deep. I would heat up two big speckle-ware enamel canning buckets, dump them in the tub, and add cold water till it was just the right temperature and all three girls would share a nice bath out of it. It took all of maybe eight or nine gallons each time. It was a tiny room with only one square of a window and a curtain over the door so it wasn’t too drafty. We kept a pee pot in there too, so we didn’t always have to go to the outhouse. It was really kind of nice having an actual washroom. In the log cabin, we had finally, after four years, put in a hot water heater (a birthday present from my Mom) and set a tub up under the stairs in the kitchen. There was no privacy there though, and if somebody opened the front door it was really cold. Plus, you could hit your head on the stairs if you weren’t careful getting in and out. Still, it was a major step up from bucket baths outside on the porch.
The girls had a bedroom up in the attic at Owl hollow. There was a set of real stairs leading up there from one side of the living room, opposite of where the woodstove was. The heat made it up the stairs and it was cozy up there. There was a window up there and the ceiling was finished off with ceiling boards. My oldest daughter, Carina, needed her own space, away from the little ones, so I built a dividing wall for her out of wooden tomato stakes and stapled up this dusty rose colored cloth I had been hanging on to for years. It kept out most of the light from her reading lamp, so the little ones could sleep, and gave her some privacy. Grace and Robin learned pretty quick not to cross over into her room without asking first.
My bedroom ended up being out on the back porch, which was screened on the upper half and wood siding down below. I added insulation to the wood part, stapled six mil plastic up all over, laid a cheap rug on the floor, and it made a nice room. I had a futon mattress on the floor and the old chifferobe from Carinas Grandpop Talbot for my clothes. The patchwork quilt I made, from the scraps I got when I worked at the garment factory back in Pennsboro, cheered it up a lot. When it was cold I could open the window into the living room and get some heat from the woodstove in there.
There wasn’t any insulation in the walls of the house but it was fairly tight otherwise. My Mama Bear woodstove had no problem heating it since it was so small. And I had a gas cook stove in the kitchen hooked up to one of those small propane tanks you can take and get refilled down at the Southern States store down in Colleen. A fridge came with the house. It was one of those really old, rounded, fifties style ones, that somebody had spray painted to cover the rust, but it ran OK. I was going to replace the gasket on it but that would have cost $50 so that didn’t happen. I bought a used chest freezer for $100 instead and put it out in the mudroom porch off the kitchen. The heat off it kept that space from freezing too badly after I stapled plastic up on the walls. I made a fabric flap in the outside door for the dogs, Geeshen and Possum, so they could get out of the weather when we were gone during the day. We hung all our coats and left our muddy boots out there. Mudrooms are great.
Muddy driveways are not so great. At least not without four wheel drive. The VW bus would easily go sideways in mud and could not be trusted to stay on the road when it was slick. Once when I was driving down the cove road, which was paved, it did a 180 in the road for no reason at all. There was about an inch of snow on the ground, the tires were good, and I was not turning or braking. It just took a notion and turned around all of a sudden. It was just luck that no one was coming right then. To top it off, the long muddy driveway has this gate. A heavy, wooden gate that drags on the ground. It is all I can do to lift it up and drag it open and closed every single time we leave or come home. In the rain, in the dark, whatever. I hate that gate. It signifies everything that is difficult about my life. And heaven forbid if I was to forget to close the gate and the cows got out.
The kitchen sink and the bathtub both had drains leading outside onto the ground. It was not a problem since we didn’t use that much water and never dumped anything bad down the drain. The weeds grew just fine in the runoff and it wasn’t anywhere near the creek. After we had lived there for a few months though, I really wanted to install an electric water heater to make our lives easier. The kids had school and I had work to go to everyday and heating up water takes time. When I asked Baylor about it he wanted to know why I needed it. I told him it wouldn’t cost much and would be an improvement to the house that anyone would appreciate.
He said, “You can’t have a water heater on gravity fed water.”
“Sure you can,” I said. “As long as the spring keeps flowing it won’t be a problem. You don’t need a pump, just water. We have that.”
“No. No. You’ll just end up using too much and the cows won’t be able to get what they need”
“Look, Baylor, I can set up a second tank below the first spring box and only pull off of that. The cows can keep the first tank and it will stay full. I’ll go up and check it regular to make sure. All I need is a water heater and one extra stock tank. I can buy them if you you’ll put it towards the rent, since it is an improvement to your rental. When I go back to my place, the next renter will appreciate it. You might even get more rent.”
So Baylor allowed me to install the heater, and boy, do we like having hot running water again. We still take the laundry into town to wash but washing dishes and taking baths is so much easier. There has been no problem with it at all. Baylor was impressed. He just didn’t realize it could be done. My rent is $65 a month and the water heater cost $130.00 and I got a stock tank for free so I did not pay the rent for two months.
When we first moved in to Owl Hollow, I was thinking it would be too small to set my weaving loom and treadle sewing machine up but I managed to fit them in the living room under the stairs. There was even a window there for light. So I was able to do my sewing and weaving and sold a few pieces now and then. Mostly through my mother down in Florida, who got her friends to order shawls and such. I made some place mats and napkins for my sisters’ wedding present and donated a shawl for the nursery school’s fundraiser. I made a lot of my kids clothes, or we traded hand me downs with friends who had bigger kids. I only had a few chickens so eggs were only enough for us. I left most of them back with my ex where we had a nice big chicken house.
To earn a living, I was working three jobs. The main job was as head cook at the Monroe Institute for Applied Science, about twelve miles away in Faber. Sounds impressive, right? It was a very strange place, a conference center and training center for “out of body experiences”, but the people who attended were all really nice and I met folks from all over the world. I even met Helen Nearing, who along with her then deceased husband Scott, had written the classic homesteading book, “Living the Good Life”. She was great and had come to the institute to see if she could come to terms with Scott’s death, which I believe she did. When people came to the Institute, many arrived by plane and were shuttled out forty five miles to the farm in Nelson County, and they stayed for six days. They ate, slept and did all their training at the site, usually thirty people at a time. I fed them lunch and dinner and had another cook who did breakfast. We had four women who did all the cleanup and maid duties. I was paid about $400.00 a session and was happy with the work. I even managed to sell a lot of my own produce through there, sweet corn, green beans and fresh tomatoes. The menu was usually vegetarian and I adjusted it according to whatever produce was available. I also shopped at the Blue Mountain Health Foods up in Charlottesville, the regular Kroger’s grocery store as well as ordering some stuff from a commercial distributor. I have always been thrifty and saved the Institute lots of money each month and knew I was lucky to have such a good job so close to home.
The other jobs I was doing were more sporadic. I taught basket weaving classes up on the mountain at Wintergreen resort about once a month. I bought the materials, dyed them in pots at home and gave lessons to twelve people each session, who all left with a completely finished egg basket. This paid for my car insurance. I got free babysitting and the kids got free ski lessons too. Another job I did was the final cleaning up on new construction sites. I bought a Sears 12 gallon shop vac for $85 and vacuumed all the floors, peeled off all the stickers and washed all the windows, cleaned up the debris in the yard and removed the trash. Sometimes I helped sand drywall as well. I also cleaned condo’s up on the mountain with a couple who, Tom and Phillipa Proulx, who had a rental company up there. They were a lot of fun to work for and we never had to buy soap at home since we brought home the partially used bars. The reason I had to work so many jobs was that my ex had walked out on a loan that my land was used as collateral on. Against my better judgement, he and the neighbor up the hill had bought a tractor together to bush hog and grade the road with. He got the tractor, I got the bill. Actually he walked out on a loan from my mother as well. Her loan enabled us to drill a well and put in a septic field. I managed to pay off all my loans so I got to keep my land and cleared the title again.
During our time up Owl Hollow there were a couple of interesting events. Luckily they did involve any haunting, although people had warned me about that. One night I was asleep out on my futon when I felt something running around on my bed. It ran right up the blanket from the foot of the bed, and I don’t know how I did it, but I grabbed it as it ran by. I was instantly awake and had to jump up and turn on a light to see what the furry thing was in my hand. I don’t know why it didn’t bite me. I think it was as shocked as I was. It turned out to be a flying squirrel! He had the biggest dark eyes and was really cute. I quickly put him in a half gallon canning jar and took him upstairs to show the kids. Of course, they were all sound asleep, but they needed to see this. It was the first time I had ever even seen one and I was really glad it was a flying squirrel and not a rat. I had heard something scrambling around in the walls for awhile and figured it was rats, which I loathe. I was happy to find out it was a flying squirrel instead. Of course the kids wanted to keep him as a pet, but after we had all checked him out, I took him outside and let him go, telling him,
“OK now. I am glad you are a squirrel and I don’t mind you living in the walls, but please do not come inside anymore. OK? Got it?”
He must have gotten the message because he never showed up again. He was probably scared to death of us.
Another time, I woke up to little scratching noises on my pillow. Feather pillows tend to amplify sound. Have you noticed? Even your own heartbeat can sound loud in your ears if you lay your head just right. So I heard this weird sound and reached over to the lamp and turned on the light. There were a million tiny honeybees walking across my pillow! They were marching in a line about five bees across coming in from a little hole in the wall, walking across my pillow, and marching on down to the end of the bed, down onto the floor, and over to the screen door, and right through the crack in the bottom to the outside. It was the strangest thing. None of them stung me. They totally ignored me and seemed to be on a mission to somewhere. I have no idea why they were walking in the middle of the night. I thought bees slept at night. Why didn’t they wait till morning and just fly wherever they were going? I sat there and watched them go and told them,
“OK, bees. I do not have a problem with you living in the walls. That is fine with me. However, you cannot be coming into the house and walking across my pillow I the middle of the night! Please, just stay on your side of the wall and come and go through the outside wall, OK? I won’t hurt you if you’ll just do that. If you come inside and sting my kids though, we’ll have problems.”
So, they must have listened because they never did come inside again. I heard later though, that the renter after me tore off the siding, retrieved the honey and moved the bees to a hive. Apparently, there was a lot of honey in there. It was a pretty hospitable house for critters.
The third memorable incident happened when the three were sledding down the hill one day. The snow wasn’t very deep, maybe six inches, but the grass in the cow pasture was clumpy and taller than that so the sled runners kept snagging on the grass. Carina, who was the biggest sat in back and Robin, who was only two, sat in the front as they slid down the hill. As near as I can figure, Robins boot got caught up in some of the long grass. They all three came into the house, Robin crying and being carried by her big sister. After they all got out of their snow suits and had some hot chocolate everybody seemed fine. The next day, Robin was fine sitting on the floor, playing, but she would not get up and walk at all. When I tried to move her she screamed. I could not see anything wrong, no bruises or swelling anywhere, so I left her alone to play. The next day she was no better so I took her to the blue Ridge Medical Center, which was nearby, out on the four lane. They took an x-ray of her ankle and it looked fine. I suggested maybe the problem was further up her shin, so they took another. Thank goodness they had a sliding scale fee system. We did not have any insurance. The second x-ray showed a crack running the length of her shin bone so we finally knew what the problem was. They put a half cast on her, kind of a metal splint wrapped with padding and elastic bandages. Now she couldn’t walk at all and boy did I feel guilty for not bringing her in sooner. The payback was quick in coming, of course. Now that winter had set in the lane into Owl Hollow was too snowy and slippery to drive on, so for the next six weeks I had to carry her in and out. It was really hard to get her in the back pack too. Grace and Carina had to help me pull groceries and laundry in and out with a sled the rest of the winter. Robin healed quickly and didn’t seem to mind not getting around all that much.
Except for the dealings with my ex, things were going pretty well. Mary and Baylor were OK as landlords. They let me work off the rent once in awhile. I painted their two story tall grey hallway up in the main farmhouse grey, again. That was boring. They did try and tell me that I needed to stay home more and they tried to get me to phone them each time I headed out, but I set them straight on that pretty quick. I was a grown woman with jobs and responsibilities and I needed to come and go whenever. The two younger kids, Grace and Robin, went to their Dad’s every other week, and we did a weekly switch over. You might think that was terrible on the kids, but actually they seemed to adapt pretty well. I did my best to be civil whenever I had to deal with him and tried not to let the kids get too caught up in our drama. Sometimes he would make poor decisions about girl friends and I had to grit my teeth and hope the kids would be fine. I did have some dreams where he came after me though, and I actually managed to fend him off with a bush axe in one of them. Cut him into little pieces. That was satisfying. Good thing it was only a dream though. All three of my daughters have managed to graduate college, get good paying jobs, and are settled in nicely with good husbands and kids of their own.
The girls and I lived in Owl Hollow for about a year and a half, and my ex finally decided to move into a place of his own elsewhere in the county. I bought an old abandoned house trailer and had it set up on my land, where I had a well and septic all ready for it. After a whole lot of work we ended up with three bedrooms, two bathrooms with indoor everything, and our own space back. I had to rewire and re-plumb the trailer and we had some trouble meeting the inspection requirements of the electric company and the county inspector, so we had to live without power through the first winter, but we managed. It has made us appreciate what we have today.
October 18, 2015
Wendy lee, writing at edgewisewoods.com