Robert LaValle

Editor’s note: This is the third installment of a three-part series based on the author’s experiences on a family-owned property on Mambert Road in New York, east of the Hudson River. Here is the first installment, published on Aug. 21 and the second installment, published on Aug. 28.

It was mid-1960’s and early summer when we completed the trench digging for the cabin’s foundation. We fully intended to do the work by hand but again, good Old Percy wouldn’t have it. Soon after laying the cinder block, the first framing nail was set. Dad was especially energized to have the cabin livable by fall so as to accommodate what would be the first of many memorable Thanksgivings upstate. Once enclosed but still without any household comforts, our Thanksgiving deadline was accomplished. Lots of food, fun, friends, family, and newfound simplicity filled every minute of the fall holiday.

The excitement for our Thanksgiving ventures upstate always ended all too soon, at least for me.  During the last hour, prior to leaving late Sunday afternoon, with only countable hours to the next school day, we’d close and prepare the cabin for winter and hope that by spring’s thaw it was still standing.

I had experience building backyard forts, but prior to our alternative life on Mambert Road, no one in my family had ever built anything or for that matter, ever lifted a hammer. Constructing a cabin took every bit of money, strength, energy, and ingenuity we could conjure. Dad’s old friends and new building buddies, Percy and John Deere, made it all possible.  

No country cabin is complete without a fireplace. Since it was easy for me to imagine a magnificent floor-to-ceiling structure of native shale I became project foreman and chief stonemason. This was cool since the closest thing we ever had to any kind of fireplace was the fake mantel we would assemble at Christmas for Mom to hang our family stockings. The “Bobby Built” real fireplace soon became the focal point of dad’s dream come true.

Mambert Road

Rock-hunting expeditions were a top priority, but finding the beautiful stones I imagined proved impossible. Each stone needed my stamp of approval, but since there were very few if any type simply lying around for the taking, I had to settle. The few shapely rocks we did find were immediately prized as cornerstones. We took what we could find from the pond excavation, along the streambed, along the road and from digging the foundation but needed more, tons more. Searching high and low, up and down Mambert Road, we were still short. Once again, as fate would have it, Old Percy noticed our search and descended from his hilltop castle. Adorning his angel wings he directed us to a pile of hefty-sized rocks his ancestors collected while clearing his land almost a century ago. Rock hunting days were finally over. Old Percy reached into his overalls pocket, tossed me the keys to Mr. Deere, and said, “you know what to do.” I then scooped up and delivered a wide assortment of stones directly to our front entry. They were worth their weight in gold.

Dad delegated himself to the difficult chore of mixing cement. My younger brothers schlepped stones while I scratched my chin, reaching into my Italian ancestry (and artistry) to become for the very first time, a stonemason. Holding and studying each stone, they spoke with a voice I clearly understood. “Put me here! Put me there!” Cornerstones had the most say. Placing those brought the greatest satisfaction. In the end, though perhaps not a “masterpiece.” the fireplace was my creation, and a monumental tribute to all that was good. Love, family, dreams, hard work, intuition, dedication and devotion made it happen. If and when this humble home’s wooden frame structure should rot away or burn down, the stones we hunted and placed so diligently will remain ever-present, cementing a special time long gone.

Though the fireplace became a main feature, attached to the center of the beam supporting the second floor’s sleeping loft, directly adjacent to the entryway, was an even greater attraction. Burned, carved or etched into this 1” x8” x8’ slice of rough-cut lumber is a proclamation of friendship.  Big and small, some horizontal, a few vertical, but most on a diagonal were the names of every one of dad’s friends who made the long trip north to offer a helping hand. Any friend of dad’s was a friend of mine. Most helpful were Reginald Pouqette, Gordon Windsor, Frank Mauro, Johnny Hines, Joe Colombo and Matty Ferrari. Each had an open invitation to use the cabin.

The first of the finishing touches included the replacement of the green, army surplus canvas that served as our front door. Once upstate had a real door and a real lock and key it became official. To avoid the possibility of ever forgetting the key on Long Island, a spare was stashed in the old New York City fire hydrant Dad picked up along the way and stuck in the ground.

Soon after, a new utility pole supplied electric service and telephone party lines as well. Since Mambert Road had only two homes, we saved some money sharing the existing line. Once fully enclosed, things moved fast. Mom was especially thrilled, but with all that we had gained, I felt somewhat dismayed by a sense of loss. As its rusticity faded my infatuation with simplicity gradually slipped away. Candles and oil-fired lanterns were replaced with electrical switches and electric bulbs that effortlessly brought light into each of the rooms.

Hauling water along the well-worn path to the deepest section of the creek was over. This weekend waterboy was relieved from his duty. Though reeking of sulfur, it was now on tap, flowing freely into the sinks with just a turn of a faucet. Instead of dumping a pail of water, flushing the toilet required a simple push of a lever, and the electric hot water heater meant we no longer had to wait for the campfire or portable propane camp stove to heat water for washing. There were far fewer in the meantime.

With the new well, water pump, and a fully operational electric hot water heater, water became like air, easily taken for granted.  Candle lit and the purposeful pioneering days of the past were over.

Owning land and a country cabin was certainly my father’s dream, but I don’t believe any of my three brothers, sister or mother ever shared his appreciation or enthusiasm. As far as I was concerned, life without the comforts of suburban living slowed things down to a pace that was far more simple, understandable, interesting and meaningful. Banging nails, finding and laying stones, digging holes, cutting, splitting and stacking cordwood and even hauling water taught valuable and special lessons.

To this day, among the many challenges of adult life, when I find it difficult to sleep, I reach into my strongbox of Mambert Road memories to find my most prized possession: my first transistor radio, the one that I carried everywhere, the one that rescued me from many adolescent trials and tribulations. So as not to miss the few available stations I’d slowly roll the tuning dial to one of the two available upstate stations. Its soothing lullaby blending soft static (white noise) and country music lulled me to sleep. As I lay listening, the sun dipped into its early evening phase. If I should sneak a peek I’d see a faint summer breeze gently persuade the sheer curtain away from the loft bedroom windowsill. I could feel, taste and smell the simple, cool breath of country as it caressed my exhausted young body.

Though my parents eventually moved to Mambert Road from their suburban Long Island home, it wasn’t long before upstate became too lonely and cold for them. They packed their stuff and headed to a much more populated area and compliant climate, Florida. Thanksgivings of overloaded (three-hour) car trips (each way) in a jam-packed station wagon, along with years of hard work and good times were, for some reason, rarely talked about or even mentioned. However, not one Thanksgiving or apple picking season goes by without my urge to return. That’s when I’m reminded of Old Percy supplying each of us with a burlap sack, giving us free rein of his orchard. Little did he know we often helped ourselves. These fresh, hand-picked and sometimes stolen samples were by far the best-tasting apples on earth.

There have been many occasions when I’ve craved and caved for the taste of a freshly stolen upstate apple and the long lost sense of Mambert Road. Turning off I-84, upon entering the wide-open and beautifully scenic Taconic Parkway, about an hour from my Connecticut home, a chemical change immediately begins to overtake my mind, body and spirit. Upstate-specific endorphins seep into my brain. Replacing unnecessary incessant mind chatter are memories of a glorious time. The deliberate pace of life that permeates the air gently fills my lungs and creeps its way into my bloodstream. A warm, easy, peacefulness captures my heart. I begin to feel more, to see more, breathe freely and think differently.

In fact, I nearly stop thinking altogether. Everything slows to a pace that allows me to once again appreciate the simpler things in life. The closer I get to the cabin the more I am forced to drive evermore slowly not just to accommodate wild animal crossings and slow-moving vehicles on the farm populated backcountry roads, but to absorb each moment, as much as possible. And … as odd as this may sound, nothing better triggers a warmer sense of simple than the fresh scent of cow dung wafting from neighborhood farms.

Approaching Mambert Road I slow to a crawl to savor every second as the scent of crisp country air flows in accord with earthy truth. Then, equally slow through the forbidden but not forgotten dark forest I go. Lucky once again, I’m not snatched out of my car by lurking extraterrestrials. As I make my way beyond the towering black walnut tree into the driveway, I can easily smell and even taste Mom’s specially cooked Thanksgiving meal floating through the crisp autumn woods, and though Dad isn’t out mowing, raking leaves, splitting wood or sitting on the deck (the one my wife and I built) I feel his dream and his sense of pride for a job well done. Once again, all is well on Mambert Road.

The End

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