August 7, 2012

My Mysterious Home: Love, Loss and Continuing Bonds

Mastering the Kubota
Mastering the Kubota

When will the house need a roof? When does the septic tank need pumping? How do I hook up the generator when the power goes out? How many cords of firewood do we burn each winter? Do I have to drive that big orange Kubota tractor?

After Vic died, I knew where he wanted his ashes buried and that he didn’t care about the details of his memorial service as long as it comforted me. I always managed our finances and already relied on our local mechanic to tend the Subaru. I knew how to take Vic’s name off the house deed and bank account, but for some reason I can’t fathom, I failed to ask questions about the hidden mysteries of the house—the plumbing, the back-up generator, and other “manly matters.” I understand why I didn’t ask about the tractor. The roaring diesel beast frightened me and questions might lead to driving lessons.

Matt clearing trails

Within months of Vic’s death, I feared becoming annoyingly dependent on my sons Anthony and David who live in California and North Carolina. If I couldn’t manage the house and land myself, I didn’t want to stay, so I wracked my tear-soaked brain to remember the name of the young man Vic had hired to split firewood. Studying the contacts on Vic’s cell phone, I found a name I vaguely recognized: Matt Hoff. Bingo.

For four years, Matt has tended my forest, maintained trails, and done other jobs that require a chainsaw, a hammer, or his excellent problem solving skills. Matt is a conservation savvy forester whose main goal is to keep my woods healthy, but he also willingly pounded out the bashed in mailbox after it was hit by a snowplow, rescued me from a few snowstorms, and hung new birdhouses.

The first summer on my own, I had the septic pumped and told David and Anthony where I was keeping essential house maintenance information—written in Magic Marker on the stairwell wall with backup details in my file cabinet. I pulled on my overalls, took a deep breath, and learned to drive that orange beast so I could mow the trails and fields and, if Matt wasn’t available, move the firewood. I felt like a cowgirl when I drove the Kubota a mile down the road to have my auto mechanic change her various fluids. I hope the neighbors noticed.

Steve Ryan's crew

I watch this 200 year old house with the eye of an anxious mother. I’ve been initiated into the mysteries of the generator, the spring, and the well. This summer after consulting with David, I hired Steve Ryan and had a new roof and gutters put on the old girl. When was the last roof put on? Another mystery. I only know that her shingles were curling although there were no leaks. Steve cleaned the chimney, too, and checked out the inner mysteries of my wood stove. Now, we’ll stain the decks and porches and do a little touch-up painting. After that, I hope to rest easy for a while.

When I can no longer care for an old house, a wood stove, and 71 acres, I’ll move to town. When that day comes, I’ll leave here empowered rather than baffled, the proud Maintenance Mistress of my well-tended home.


 For other blogs about my land and home, see Coming Home and Angry Faces, Placid Water: Fracking, LPG Gas Storage and Seneca Lake.


  1. August 13, 2012 at 11:43 am

    Fred Weiner


    Yes, beautifully said. Since we find ourselves in this “duality” the work of creating beauty is about balance. Thank you, love, F.

  2. August 12, 2012 at 11:30 pm

    Fred Weiner


    Your post got me to thinking about why the feeling of fracking is so repellant, so rage inducing. “Raping Mother Earth” are words, and there are many other phrases like that, but by themselves, don’t carry the force of my feeling.

    There are forces in the deep imagination that join with the ancient history of the species to make the world we live in. I went with Dotto this evening across the pass out into the Mountain Park, and on the trail we chose there were myriads of caterpillars, bright green with bright yellow stripes down their backs, a few of them several inches long, hurrying along, and lizards everywhere, scurrying away at my approach, super charged in the still-intense heat at sunset. Seeing these creatures evokes the feeling of that creative force underlying experience, akin to the land of dreams, fantastic, formless, and just under the surface of everything. Personal and impersonal at the same time. Fracking represents a violation of that space, and I understand that I am engaging in mythological thinking to say that, and how laughable that is to those who want the product.

    Not long ago I watched the water boiling for something I was making and recalled a time when I stood likewise watching a pot boil with Vic looking over my shoulder, talking about how it took different temperatures at different altitudes and different atmospheric pressures to boil water, which I knew, but the wave of kindness and good humor and friendliness, all of which I still feel, was the takeaway. That’s where the life is. In the imaginal space of memory and timelessness. We don’t want that polluted.

    1. August 13, 2012 at 8:19 am

      Elaine Mansfield


      Fred, lovely to remember that water boiling incident with Vic. You were discussing the right temperature for making coffee, I believe.
      Of course, I agree we are in imaginal space with the anti-fracking work and everything else I experience. I am more sad than angry, but I need to speak for the wounded feminine, in this case for threatened Seneca Lake.
      I love your caterpillar story and imagine you and Dotty squatting or on hands and knees inspecting the creatures with microscopic eyes, scaring away the lizards for a second until they reclaim their space and dinner. My belief in the Creative Power of Life makes it worthwhile to wake up each morning and draws me out the door–this morning to water the emerging two-leaved lettuce seedlings and thin a lettuce row that I planted a month ago, and then for a walk on the dewy trails. Pollution can’t be stopped, in my dualistic world view, but it can be balanced in small ways–just as I tried to notice all the small kindnesses and beauties as Vic was dying of cancer, just as we stopped the government from drilling for gas in the Finger Lakes National Forest some years back, a ban that still holds. With love and thanks.

  3. August 10, 2012 at 5:32 pm



    Once again Elaine, another good piece.
    I am going to visit my 88 yr. old mom today. Her 96 yr old partner of 30 years has always done her finances. He is fading. I will look for a book keeper for her. She will be absolutely unable to pay a bill once he is gone. Good thing you had been doing that job, its a critical one.

    1. August 10, 2012 at 5:49 pm

      Elaine Mansfield


      Thanks, Lauren. So many things to learn and so many ways to become dependent. It’s natural to share and divide the tasks, but it can leave us floundering. Great idea to hire a bookkeeper. Your mom is still planning a move to be closer to her daughters. I hope so.

  4. August 8, 2012 at 8:03 pm

    Patt Wisse


    Elaine, you are an inspiration. how much you have learned and persevered. How proud Vic must be of you!
    After reading your last blog, I thought alot about how I avoid sadness. I don’t like to think about it or read about it but feel that I should and not be in denial that this could be me at any time. I particularly liked your words “frozen feelings” There are many in my family with frozen feelings. I seem to carry the tears and emotions for everyone and of course for that reason, I am not seen as the “stable one” in our family.
    As you may remember, I have practiced yoga for many years. Right after reading your blogs, I came across an article by one of my favorite meditation teachers, Sally Kempton. It was titled meditation in grieving and loss. So much of it talked about how important it is to stay in your grief and your feelings, experience them, feel them rather than denying them. I thought about you immediately and your “staying in your feelings” and therefore being seen as “depressed”
    Thanks for your wonderful writing. I look forward to it and have learned so much from you.
    Although it is hard because I am your age and have had a soulmate for over 40 yrs. it is not good to deny that one of us may leave the other behind. I was talking to a grieving woman of 80 yrs who lost her husband after 60 yrs of marriage. She told me that she had never given any thought to ” one of us may leave the other” I would like to not give it any thought but that is not life. How can you experience joy unless you first experience sorrow. We cannot be afraid of our tears and our grief. It is a learning experience

    1. August 9, 2012 at 8:10 am

      Elaine Mansfield


      Thanks for reading my blog, Patt. I too was the designated “family feeler,” an uncomfortable position that is scorned more than honored by most families. Your words about joy and sorrow remind me of a poem called “Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye. You can find the whole poem at Garrison Keillor’s “Writer’s Almanac”:
      Vic ended his last book with this poem, and I include it in my book, too. The poet’s words were an important guide for us. I’ll quote a few lines.

      …Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
      you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
      You must wake up with sorrow.
      You must speak to it till your voice
      catches the thread of all sorrows
      and you see the size of the cloth.
      Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore…
      –Naomi Shihab Nye, “Kindness,” in Words under the Words (Portland, Eight Mountain Press, 1995), 42-43. (4,8)

      The birth and new beginnings parts of life are delicious (and I’m so glad you’re experiencing this with a grandchild), but this harder part is as ordinary and necessary as birth. For me, letting in loss (not dwelling on it, but letting it be part of the whole) makes me a more vulnerable open-hearted human being. As I do more anti-fracking work, I feel how that effort is fueled by anticipatory grief for the water and earth.

      Thanks again for your thoughtful response, Patt. I think so highly of you and am honored to be in contact in this way,

  5. August 8, 2012 at 12:58 pm

    Lynne Taetzsch


    Elaine, this was inspiring to hear. You have great courage to tackle the beast and other “man-chores” your husband always handled.

    I have been dealing with some of these issues, but on a lesser scale. Got my granddaughter to help me clean out a large garbage container recently after neglecting the task far too long. She found maggots in the bottom! It is now clean and almost sweetly smelling.

    1. August 8, 2012 at 1:58 pm

      Elaine Mansfield


      Thanks for cheering me on, Lynn. There must always be a place or many places where the one left behind has to take up what her partner offered to the relationship and life. For many women, it’s the finances, but I had that one down. I love imagining you and your granddaughter doing this nasty chores together. The two of you may tell that shared story for a long time. Yes, it’s clean! My cellar could use your help.

  6. August 8, 2012 at 9:35 am

    Lori Yelensky


    Beautiful Elaine. I love reading your posts.So gratifying to read about your accomplishments!

    1. August 8, 2012 at 9:56 am

      Elaine Mansfield


      Thanks for reading and commenting, Lori. We are both strong women!
      With affection,

  7. August 8, 2012 at 12:50 am

    Jean Raffa


    This was so good! You go, girl!!

    Boy, do I know how you feel. I love working on the property and interior design of my house, but it scares me to think how much I depend on my husband for all the countless household details: where’d we buy that broken dishwasher? Is it under warranty? Why won’t the remote work on the garage door? Who do we call to fix it?

    This post inspires me to become more intentional about learning these kinds of things. Taking our life partner’s contributions for granted is not only a disservice to him or her; it can also be unnecessarily problematic for us at a time when the last thing we need is one more problem. Thank you!


    1. August 8, 2012 at 9:54 am

      Elaine Mansfield


      Hi Jeanie,
      Oh, I had a few run ins with the garage door remote, too, but a patient woman from the company in Virginia talked me through the necessary steps on the phone and we got things working. Another triumph!
      Even though Vic spent most of his time writing and teaching, he could fix most anything and wasn’t afraid of the thick instruction manuals that came with the equipment and appliances. I let this part of my animus (similar to my father’s nature) rest on Vic, but when the animus came home to roost, I found myself more able than I imagined.
      So nice to hear from you, Jeanie, and thanks for your wonderful blogs and book.

  8. August 7, 2012 at 11:34 pm

    Mary Friedel-Hunt


    I do know. We had only been in this house for 8 months when Bill died. When the furnace did not seem to work properly a couple of months later, I called the furnace guy (at least I knew who he was…as Bill had been sick for a long time) who shyly told me that I have to change the filters regularly and left without charging me for the house call. The list of what I have learned in the past two years about maintenance (in spite of believing I was well informed)…is very long. And as it is with you…it has made me strong…and alert to what I had previously ignored and taken for granted….and pretty much fearless of our stone home. Hopefully, since we already did the move into town, I will be here until I take my last breath.

    1. August 8, 2012 at 9:43 am

      Elaine Mansfield


      Dear Mary,
      I am sorry you lost your husband. “Sick for a long time” makes my throat catch–that grinding caregiver role surrounded by love and anticipatory grief. I love knowing a little of your survival skills and accomplishments and imagine you have many more stories to tell. I’m glad you are in a house where you can stay. A few years ago, I looked at houses in town, but wasn’t ready. We moved to our home in 1972 and spent the next 30 years replacing most everything, so I’ll stay here where I can walk out the back door and be on groomed trails and in my well tended woods. Up the hill and across the road, I’m bordered by a national forest and more beauty. My sons still feel at home here, so that is another plus. When it gets too hard for me to keep up with this place, I’ll move to an apartment in town–one where they allow dogs. My woodsman friend Matt is here this morning, trimming trees and doing some mowing. I’m always thrilled when his truck rolls in the driveway, since his presence means we’re keeping up with things.
      Thanks for responding and best wishes to you, Elaine

  9. August 7, 2012 at 9:36 pm

    Gita Ramamurthy


    “and questions might lead to driving lessons.” heh – good one! And now you’re riding the beast! Wow!

    1. August 8, 2012 at 9:24 am

      Elaine Mansfield


      I am riding her all right, and without fear. Yes!

  10. August 7, 2012 at 9:04 pm



    Elaine, you are amazing! I’m impressed, not only with your mastery of the “orange beast,” but your mastery of story-telling. Much love, Liz

    1. August 8, 2012 at 9:23 am

      Elaine Mansfield


      Thanks, dear Liz. And I’m impressed by your mastery of gardening, making pesto, handling dogs, and other skills our grandmothers took for granted–OK, maybe our northern European grandmas didn’t have the pesto down. With the love of country living!

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