It’s a tender one, this week. It’s a tender week, following DPC’s knowing, thoughtful story about Nina Griscom yesterday.
We have all closed family houses, packed up precious family memories … moved on by necessity. And so, yesterday, I closed the door for the last time, at my parent’s beloved, personally constructed, Berkshire home. I’m happy tears don’t muddy computer screens. This text will be unmarred.
My Dad was a doctor, my mother, a nurse, eventually his. He also was a violinmaker and violinist, though he would always remind us his craftsmanship far excelled his playing. He would chip away at blocks of wood in his cubbyhole workshop in our Long Island basement.
He imported Dragons Blood (varnish), ebony and mother of pearl, always inspired by the 15th century Cremona masters — Stradivari, Guaneri, Amati. In fact, he staged a competition between old master and modern violins, judged by the major music critics of the time — The Times, Herald-Tribune and more. The renowned violinist Aaron Rosand played, and when the votes were tallied Dad’s fiddle placed second over a Strad (though after an Amati). It was a highlight of his life, and ours.
Dad’s dearest dream was to find a place where he could chip away, and play his fiddle on the porch in his underwear, and to be in a musical, artistic community. By a fluke, he learned of a huge hunk of land in Sandisfield, Massachusetts in the Berkshires that had come on the market. 60 years ago, we became the owners of 200 acres of land, on Cronk Road in that town. Close to the grand cultural hubs, Stockbridge and Lenox, Sandisfield was still a maze of dirt roads, simple homes and many folks with not many teeth.
He set about designing and constructing his dream house. Farmers by then were wise to city folk who wanted their silver aged barn siding and priced it as such. So dad discovered a ‘grave yard’ of abandoned telephone poles, encased in weathered, silver sides, in Brooklyn. He rented an enormous truck and headed up to the Berkshires.
Dad went to four lumber yards before he found one that would take a chance on carving off the four sides of the nail-filled timber rather than just putting the panels of wood up in the typical vertical way often in geometric design, as straight paneling wasn’t interesting enough. He created a hexagon of panels on two walls. He worked with two local brothers who began to share his enthusiasm for the artistry in home design. He even taught them how to make violins.
Mom would swathe drawers in blankets, made by a European cabinet maker on Long Island. And weekend after weekend, they would travel up, slowly installing their carefully chosen pieces.
This was a long, loving process, over many years. We finally moved in when I was about 10.
It was blissful. I loved the quiet lakes, our little babbling brook, the tiny orange efts that covered our road. I learned to draw at a school down the road, and wandered the woods knowing I’d only seen a sliver and probably would never see more.
Being an only child, I was happy on my own, and with my parents’ company. As time went on I brought friends and (way later) came to know the first farm to table restaurants, the music and theater and best of all, the crisp, clean, quiet beauty of our remote home.
Sadly, my father passed away at 62, suffering a heart attack while climbing stairs to make a house call on an infirm, elderly patient. He ever got to retire in his beloved home, but he did play a lot of music in his skivvies, on his porch. I made a few trips with mom, but it was different without him, and after she descended into Alzheimer’s, travel became impossible.
My kids learned to ski at Butternut Basin. Before they became locked into Southampton with all of their friends, they kind of enjoyed our kooky place. The last time they were there was my son Will’s Middlesex boys weekend, 10 years ago. I didn’t ask, but all was intact.
We became a Southampton family for good reasons. My kid’s friends were there, my husband’s golf club, and yes, my life certainly gravitated east. I always bagged on plans to go up to Sandisfield alone. It’s deep and dark and utterly isolated. I was riddled with guilt about not caring for or using our home. I knew the mice were living there instead of me, and it was haunting.
A few years ago, I bravely went alone to a movie screening and dinner at Shun Lee afterwards. I sat with strangers, but half way though my moo shoo pork I realized that one away from me was Karen Allen, the actress best known for “Indiana Jones” and “Animal House.” I knew she lived on Cronk Road, so trepidatiously I told her that I had the abandoned house on the other end of the road.
Instead, she enthused, “I love that house! My best friend and I walk by it often and we both think it’s enchanted!” My heart swelled and I set about getting estimates on fixing it up. I quickly learned that contractors in the Berkshires are precious and they know it. Time went on.
And so, it became clear that it was impractical to keep our dear house. This week, we drove up in a 15’ U-Haul, and cleared the house. Dad’s doctors bag, my cherished books and records, and many little items that only matter to me.
Things had been stolen and my father’s hand crafted lantern had been ripped apart by someone eager to cash in on the increased value of copper. More reasons to step away and remember better times there.
I looked for reasons to be happy to be gone. The local general stores had closed, the collapsed barn around the corner, last viewed years ago, was still collapsing. I also learned that a fabulous restaurant sprung up in our neighboring town, Cantina 229, owned by Josh — originally a New Yorker – and Emily Irwin.
We used to have to travel 15 miles or so, to dine. This would have been my rathskeller. The food was fabulous, Josh played a remix of Hamilton for me, introduced me to Mezcal, and both made me sadder to leave, but gave me a happy last night in my old neighborhood.