SUNDAY, MARCH 13, 2005

Leaving LA

I leave LA for the weary trek to Pennsylvania, my seventh in 12 months. I wonder when I will stop thinking of LA as home. For 35 years I have been here, and I have enjoyed it, but I do not hesitate to say good-bye. Five years ago, when we made the decision to leave, I thought about what I would miss, and the only thing was the weather. So I bought a convertible.

Leaving was inevitable the day I met my Dawn. She told me of her grandparents’ house, built in 1760 and vacant since her grandmother died in 1988. She told me of the farm, and the house she grew up in, and her dream to restore the mansion and live there. Not having one of my own, I think a dream is a very precious thing, and so I supported hers. But dreams need money, so we stayed in LA.

In 1998, her father passed away. I remember my first visit, although 12 years have passed. We flew into Philadelphia and drove to Lancaster (getting lost along the way), past the farms and small towns. In LA, I have to drive two hours to get out of the city, and then there is a clear demarcation between city and desert; there are no rural areas, only suburbs. Here were fields and forested hills and people comfortably integrated into the landscape. I saw my first Amish buggy. Like most city folks, I dismissed it with cynicism. But I have a photo I took, with the sun breaking through the clouds and shining a spotlight on a barn in the distance, that I titled “God’s country.”

Then we arrived at the farm, taking the right fork in the driveway to go to her parents. The driveway, I later measured, was two-tenths of a mile. I’ve never measured distances between houses in miles. We parked in front of the Wolf Sanctuary, a 22-acre enclosure her parents built in 1983, right behind their house. The entire farm was 120 acres, a figure that still defies me. I’ve never walked the entire farm.

Dawn took me in via the greenhouse, filled with flowering cacti, which led directly into the living room. The house was dark and small and filled with five wolves, the impetus behind the Sanctuary, who let me pass inspection after a few tense minutes (tense because of my asthma, not because of the wolves). On the wall across from me was her father’s gun collection, which included several machine guns. I’d never seen a gun in person before.

Then Dawn took me to her grandparents’ house, across “the circle” – a quarter-mile race track used for training race horses a hundred years ago – and opened the door with a skeleton key. It was years before I believed the house was built in 1760; that number was simply beyond my comprehension. In LA, some streets lay claim to that age, but certainly no buildings.

I remember this all clearly, but it all seems quite normal now; I’m sure I didn’t think so then. I’ve adapted. Being there now feels the same as being in LA, except at night. In LA, I long for dark skies; in Pennsylvania, I’m afraid of the dark. I will continue to adapt, and in so doing I will learn much about myself.

The guns are gone now; the cacti are mostly gone, too. The original wolves have passed away, but their progeny, and some rescues, are still out back. Dawn’s father spent most of his 70+ years on the farm, and his presence can be felt everywhere. (Like the magnolia tree, which has no right to survive so far north, but he made it.) But his absence can be felt, too. I hope that when I am gone, I will be remembered that way as well.

To ask Dawn of the history of the place, she would tell me how her grandmother always wore pearls, or of the pony her grandfather gave her when she was four. That was her history, and the house was worthy of preservation for no other reason. Eventually I gathered some of the details–built by an ironmaster, etc. I learned a lot about period details — the Georgian layout, the Federal staircase, the Victorian windows, the Colonial Revival cupboards. Dawn’s grandparents had added only electricity and two bathrooms. But the stone, the trim, the soul of the house had remained intact. Only the Summer Kitchen, which was used as a rental house, had been broken; everything but the stone walls and tin roof were contemporary.

Dawn’s parents did not move into the mansion; there were too many memories, and it was too far from the wolves. So it sat, gathering the ravages of time. Each year we’d visit, and each year Dawn would note the latest indignities — fallen plaster, peeling wallpaper, a fresh leak, a patch of mold — and each year she got a little sadder, and her dream died just a little bit. Still we needed money, so we stayed in LA.

In 2003, it was time. We’d saved enough money (we thought), we found a good contractor (we thought), and we got the zoning permit (we thought). We submitted a National Register nomination, took a B&B workshop, and cleaned the mansion of sixty years of accumulation. By the end of 2004, we still hadn’t started renovations, we had to change contractors, and the estimates have gone up exponentially. We need more money, so I stay in LA, making monthly visits to Dawn.

The project is overwhelming, and there is no light at the end of the tunnel; indeed, we openly question our sanity. We do not feel chosen to do this; we feel burdened by the responsibility. So we stand at the base of the mountain, the crossroads far behind us, committed now only through resignation. But in my quiet moments, of which I have many now that I am removed from the action, I remember this was Dawn’s dream, and a dream is a very precious thing. We need it much more than we need money, and so someday I will leave LA.