In preparation for my move to Columbia County I sent an e-mail to friends. It had my new address and phone number, reassured them that while my new house didn’t have garbage pickup or mail delivery it did have running water, and tried to convey enthusiasm about my imminent move to the country. “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere!” I quipped, borrowing the line made famous by Frank Sinatra. It expressed cockiness, optimism, even a healthy dose of respect for the challenges awaiting me. It made me sound like I knew what I was doing. But I had been a city dweller for seventeen years, and underneath, I was scared as hell.
That first summer passed in a giddy haze. This is great!, I kept yelling at myself. Driving to the bank meant passing three farm stands. A traffic jam was more than two cars at an intersection. We’d bought a four-bedroom 1898 Victorian farmhouse on three-quarters of an acre, located on a quiet side street in a hamlet where the sum total of commercial offerings was a post office, a gas station, and a deli. It had an inground pool that was broken and full of frogs—their nighttime chorus was a welcome replacement for sirens and car alarms. My daughter quickly morphed into a nature child, running around the yard half-naked, catching baby frogs and naming them Buddy. I signed her up for swim classes at the lake at a cost of $20 per session—$2 per class! Our car-insurance premium dropped in half. Target was eighteen miles away, and it took exactly eighteen minutes to get there. My first favorite thing about upstate life was the math.
In retrospect, I can see that the downsides were there from the start. I just couldn’t acknowledge them. I was on a mission to acclimate, to assimilate, and in my driven, imported New York way, nothing was going to stop me. Our home was in an economically mixed neighborhood. The very first day, I marched my daughter up the street to a house where I’d seen kids playing. A passel of them tumbled around a yard strewn with bicycle parts and sun-faded toys. When they saw us, they fell silent and stared. I introduced my daughter, and an older boy offered to drive her around the yard in a red plastic motorized Jeep. She climbed in, and he careered around the yard, bashing into things and screaming at anyone who tried to climb in or displace him. I fought the urge to extract her, to discipline the kid’s reckless driving. After about fifteen minutes of this, she got out of the car and we thanked them and walked home.
The next day, they stood at the end of our driveway.
“How many people live in your house?” asked a girl.
“Three,” I said. “How many people live in your house?”
“Eleven,” she answered.
In the fall, I enrolled my daughter in a publicly funded preschool, a Head Start–like program that met five half-days per week. I chose it because all the private preschools met just three half-days per week. I got off to a bad start with the teacher. Maybe my helicopter parenting style rubbed her the wrong way, or maybe the fact that I showed up brandishing glowing reports from my daughter’s progressive nursery school seemed uppity. Whatever the reason, I had a hard time communicating with her. At the end of the first week, I asked how my daughter was doing. She shrugged, said, “Par for the course,” and walked away. I reeled. What did that mean? I asked for a conference and was blankly told, “We do conferences in January.”
I had better luck with the assistant teacher. She occasionally yelled at the kids and talked straight with the parents. It was from her that I learned my new social standing. I overheard her mention that she had New York weekenders living on her road. She said her husband called them “citiots.”
“Hey!” I protested. “I’m a citiot.”
Apparently, I was the only one at the preschool. Most of the parents either worked full-time or juggled several kids. One mom had, in addition to her 4-year-old, a 9-year-old and a 24-year-old. This was a form of upstate math I had more trouble grasping. I tried without luck to set up a few playdates. As the autumn stretched on, I grew increasingly isolated. My husband, a contractor, was still getting jobs in Hoboken and Jersey City. He’d leave the house Monday or Tuesday morning and return Thursday or Friday night. There was a playground down the street from us, but it was stocked with restless teens after school. People didn’t need playgrounds; they had their own damn swing sets. The weather was turning colder, anyway. I started to get a little desperate for friends.