Vera stood outside her cabin, a cabin on five acres of land just three hours outside New York. All the rural grandeur she could afford not one minute closer to the city. It was a log cabin, much like the ones her daughters—as children—had built with their Lincoln logs. In front of the cabin, there was a small porch with an overhang. Weather-beaten birdhouses and wind chimes had been left behind by a previous owner. They gave her cabin an artistic look, as if someone who threw pots and painted watercolors lived there. She envisioned summer mornings reading on that porch. She would buy a rocking chair and get a table for coffee. She’d buy new mugs, something rustic and handmade. Her two adult daughters would bring their families and spend summers with her. At least a week. She planned to get a sheepdog and name him Ernest. Now, her daughter Louie was coming for the weekend, a visit Vera had been hoping for since she had moved six months ago.
There was no need to remain in that four-bedroom house in Summit. New Jersey’s rolling lawns and oversized Colonials had been her ex-husband’s dream. So he kept the house. But every time her daughters visited him, with every tread along the family home floorboards, Louie and her sister chose their father. And she wanted her daughters to choose her.
She wanted to host Louie and wear her cabin and its five acres the way she used to wear her mink. Yet she hadn’t walked the full five acres. Of course she had walked around, but without a trail or a destination, she felt foolish. So each day she walked the same familiar loop, walking just out of sight of the cabin and back. Today was no different. She walked. Spring frost was in the air; one could smell the dirt, the trees unfreezing. Even in April it smelled like Christmas. Dead leaves crunched beneath her. She stooped to grab a twig. She peeled back the bark and dropped the curlicues of wood. She remembered a song from her children’s childhood. “This land is your land, this land is my land.” She could have sung at the top of her lungs, she would have interrupted no one. Not the nosy O’Reillys, not the nosy Brechts. She had left them behind. She sang the first line aloud, “this land is your land.” But it came out off key and she stopped. She knew she had been impulsive to buy real estate this way. The young man who helped the previous owner with the cabin’s upkeep had assured her that every inch of her property was beautiful: woods rolling along unfenced into the parklands. She chose to believe him. His name was Henry and she liked the look of him, his earnest brown eyes and aquiline nose. He and his wife had been her first and only guests; she had made a cheese fondue.
Through the bare trees to her right, she saw the house further up the hill, her nearest neighbor. A green expanse of lawn spread before the house like a rug. They had built a statue out front—Michelangelo’s David. It loomed large, a clumsy facsimile. Even from here, she could make out his penis. So tacky, she thought. They must be from Staten Island. She wondered if it were a couple who strove for opulence they couldn’t afford elsewhere. Or perhaps it was a woman building a statue of the man she longed to date. A beacon. Vera felt herself flush. She walked back to the cabin.
She heard the telltale crunch of gravel first. She waved to the white rental car. Louie had arrived. Her daughter unfolded herself from the seat, leaning back into the car before pulling herself, a tote, a cellphone and a large soda from the car.
“You’ve sequestered yourself in the country, mom,” Louie said. She opened her arms and Vera hugged her.
Louie looked good, no different than when Vera had visited her daughter at Christmas. She was tall and Aryan looking, like her father. Her sharp features, unlike her own blunt ones, made Louie look serious. Even with two kids, Louie remained thin. Both she and Louie liked that emaciated look of understated elegance. Even so, for a doctor, Louie always looked harried, her shirt worn untucked and gapping at the waist, her hair tied up in a sloppy mess. She wondered if the patients adored her for this show of humanity or were frightened by the lack of precision with her appearance. She stifled an urge to lean forward and tuck the stray hairs behind Louie’s ears. They didn’t touch that way anymore. Instead, Vera patted her own hair. “It’s only three hours from New York. It’s the next vacation hotspot.” Vera knew she sounded like a realtor. Yet it was true, and she wanted Louie to know it.
“That’s great for all the New Yorkers. It took me four hours from the airport. What are you going to do up here?”
“Teach. Like I did in New Jersey. And I’m going to get a sheepdog.”
“You didn’t need to move to a cabin in the country to have a dog.”
“You always said dogs needed land to run.”
“I said that when I was in high school and didn’t want to get stuck walking the dog as a chore.”
Vera took Louie’s overnight bag from the back seat and lugged it over the gravel. Her daughter had, like usual, been piercing and exact.
“I didn’t mean it as some sort of slur. You should get a dog.” Louie pulled the bag from her and grinned. Vera felt a pang of disapproval—that she had gotten it wrong when she bought the cabin.
Inside, Louie oohed and aahed in all the right places. She loved the unfinished walls, although Vera bristled at the term, unfinished, which implied something needed to be done. They were logs—unfinished was finished. Louie loved the hardwood floors, the stone fireplace. She touched the stained glass window in the bedroom. This was no ordinary cabin. She marveled how well the modern furniture her mother had gotten in the divorce worked in the more rustic environment. Louie loved the main room best—a kitchen, a living room and a dining room all in one, the roof—logs and crossbeams—evident above them. “It looks like a cathedral,” she said.
Vera felt pleased. She made them tea and set out biscotti, ones she had bought the last time she was in New York. She had gotten chocolate chip—Louie’s favorite. Vera squeezed lemon into her tea and stirred. “I thought I would name it La Petite Maison Sur La Mont.”
“You’re naming your property.” Louie said this as a statement of disbelief, rather than a question.
“I’m going to buy a sign and post it by the mailbox.”
“So I’m going to say, ‘I’m visiting La Petite Maison Sur La Mont this weekend? Who are we, the Rockefellers?”
“I thought you and the kids could come up for a few weeks this summer.”
“You don’t even speak French.”
“I’ll put it in Italian then.”
“You don’t speak Italian.”
“But we are Italian.”
“Last time I checked my passport Mom, I was American.”
Vera felt stupid and exposed. She didn’t like this aspect of her daughter who had to clarify and literalize so that all the imagination was sucked from an idea. This had been a girl who colored inside the lines, each color chosen for its realistic depiction. Every dog was colored brown. Every frog green. There was never a purple horse. She squeezed more lemon into her tea and caught herself ignoring what Louie was saying, wondering instead if Ernest was a good name for a sheepdog after all.
They didn’t walk the property until the next morning. Vera hurried to keep up with Louie who stomped along the ground with confidence, her long legs carrying her further away from Vera with every step.
“So you’ll come up this summer? For a vacation?” she asked.
“Mom, I work,” Louie said.
“You can come up on weekends.”
“We live outside Baltimore. That’s a trek by car or by plane, especially with the kids. It doesn’t help that you live so far away from Dad. Now it’s two separate trips.”
Vera squinted to avoid the glare in an otherwise gray sky. “If I’d stayed nearby, you’d have always stayed with your father anyway.”
“I love staying in my old room. I love that my kids get to sleep in the basement like it’s a sleepover. Like when I had sleepovers. I love that it smells just the way it did growing up,” Louie said.
“Yes, why does the house smell like pancakes?”
They walked in silence. Vera wanted to understand that pull of nostalgia. But she didn’t, she felt as if her own influence, the nostalgia of her, their mother, was being erased.
Louie stopped walking and put her finger to her lips. “You can hear the road from here.” They stood still and listened. Sure enough, Vera heard the swish of cars on route 27. She tried to imagine it was an ocean, the whir of a car actually a wave softly breaking on the shore.
Louie then pointed toward a tree. “You have a blind on your land. Look up.”
“I know what a blind is.” Vera looked up and noticed what looked like a tree house. She had never seen a blind. It looked unsafe, as if it had been haphazardly built by elves in the fork of a tree. Dilapidated and sun worn. Two by fours nailed into the tree as a ladder. She touched a rung, slightly afraid she’d get a splinter. “Henry told me they used to hunt bear around here. He told me I should wear an orange vest during hunting season just in case.”
“I guess this is why. Let’s go up,” Louie said.
Vera was disappointed. Louie didn’t even ask who Henry was; he could have been her lover; he could have been the reason she moved here. He wasn’t, he was going to be her handyman, but she wanted her daughter to ask anyway.
Louie was already on the tree, hanging from the little wooden rungs. “Come on, Mom.”
Vera followed, taking care not to scrape her hands on the wood. Inside, there was only a folding chair, metal and rusted.
“What a view you have from up here! Oh my god. Look at the David.” Louie pointed. Vera looked out and saw the David.
“I know. It’s horrible.”
“It’s funny. Like what you’d see in Staten Island.”
“Spring’s coming. With all the leaves, you won’t see it.”
“That won’t change things. You’ve got deer. They eat all the growth they can reach. You’ll never have green below his chest. You’re always going to see his penis,” Louie laughed and plopped down on the folding chair. It squeaked with nonuse.
Vera nodded although she really didn’t see. She didn’t think it funny. She hadn’t known there was a blind on her land, that someone had sat in this tree laying in wait to kill a bear. She felt foolish that she lived next door to neighbors with a David whose dick she’d always see. Had it been a mistake to buy this cabin on five acres? To trust a man she met in town, a person she thought of as the concierge to her new life? She didn’t know. “Let’s go.” She looked down and noticed the curlicues she had peeled off the twig just the day before. It was the same walk she did each day: she had stood below the blind and she had never noticed.
The next morning, they sat in the living room under the crossbeams. They laughed, their talk lighter, mostly stories about the grandchildren. Vera made Louie breakfast: a frittata with grilled asparagus and brie. She had no intention of changing her appetites to something more rural, even if she wasn’t exactly sure what that was.
“Trudie just asked me for a bra. She’s only ten!”
“I think that’s when you wanted one.”
“I told her that story about you, Mom. How you put powder puffs in your dress to make your boobs bigger? And how at a party you were dancing and your date pulled you close and ‘poof,’ a cloud of talcum powder encircled you and your date.”
“I never did hear from him. That was an embarrassing moment.”
“You used to tell me that you had experienced every embarrassing moment so I wouldn’t have to. Remember?”
“Not really.” But she did. When the girls were toddlers, Vera had read all the development books. And while she tried to do all those right things, what she knew she could give them was the benefit of her hindsight. She shared her embarrassing moments like the talcum powder story, and she shared every mistake: the stove-touching story, the staying-out-past-curfew story, the pregnancy-scare story. She had shared so many of her bad moments that she feared she hadn’t shared any of her successes. She had painted a picture of a woman even she didn’t recognize. One who was timid and regretful. A woman she didn’t want to be.
By late morning, after the dishes were washed and the tea sipped, Vera walked her daughter to the driveway. They stood facing each other. Vera zipped her jacket up to her neck. Even in spring, days got cold.
Louie leaned toward Vera and straightened the hood of her jacket. “It looks good on you,” Louie said.
Vera wanted to feel pleased that she had gotten her daughter’s approval, even if she hadn’t gotten a promise of a longer visit. “Not an embarrassing moment, I guess.”
“Our visit? Why would you say that?”
“Never mind.” She had meant the cabin, but she realized as soon as she said it that she didn’t want Louie’s answer. She didn’t need her practical advice. This cabin, for better or for worse, was hers.
Louie seemed to accept the answer. She opened the back door and put her overnight bag in the back seat. “You could have coffee on the porch.”
“I’m getting a rocking chair for that porch.”
“That’s going to be great.” Louie was still bent over, her head more in the car than not.
“I may even learn how to hunt.”
Louie didn’t answer. They kissed each other good-bye and she waved until Louie had driven out of sight. She didn’t think Louie had heard her last comment. Not that it mattered. Somewhere she had read that humans rarely looked up, that in their busy lives, humans walked with their heads down, their backs curved toward the ground. Vera arched her back and spread out her arms and looked upward toward the sky. Her spine popped and she inhaled. The cold burned her lungs. She could learn to hunt. She was the kind of woman who would move to five acres of land on a whim, who would wear an orange vest during hunting season. Who would meet a man in town, rely on his word and hire him to be her handyman. Who would get a dog named Ernest and walk him past the bare trees and past the David. She would not blush. She would live here in this finished cabin, tread the floors, the land and make it her own.
Originally appeared in Red Rock Review, Spring 2013.