Moving to Skaneateles

Aug. 31 – Sept. 10, 1998

It started, I think, with a feeling of being stuck. Abbie was in a school where crowd control was the priority, and violence was frequent. My advertising job looked tenuous, and the owners spoke of retiring in five years. As I explored my options, a local competitor offered me $8,000 less to write all of the copy, do half of the account work, and serve as Creative Director; this did not bode well for a future in Syracuse.

But when we looked into moving to climes more palmy, it became clear we couldn’t afford the real estate. But I’d had a call from a design firm in Skaneateles, a village to the south and west of Syracuse. They were not offering me megabucks, or palm trees. But they were gently, politely persistent. They told me I could work there until I retired. And I could see that if we moved to Skaneateles, Abbie could go to a better school, I could walk to work, we could all live in a village. Yes, housing would cost twice as much, but it was only twice as much, not three or four times as much.

I loved my house in Syracuse. I loved my neighbors. But things were changing all around me, and not for the better. We’d thought of making a change for at least a year. In June, we gulped, and went for it. We wanted Abbie in her new school by fall, to start the ninth grade.

I accepted the job and we put our house on the market the next morning.

The guy who cuts my hair raised his eyebrows when I told him about selling the house. “Shouldn’t you see first if this is going to work out?” he asked. And I said, “It has to.” Fortunately, it has. Terrific, talented co-workers, fun things to work on, national accounts, a growing company with positive managers who understand everything and never miss an opportunity to thank and compliment. In a Dilbert world, it’s some kind of miracle.

Our house on Crawford Avenue sold in three weeks, in spite of the unbelieving, ineffectual efforts of our real estate agent. (Another agent sold it while he was on vacation.) Now we needed to find a new house quickly, or face living in the forest with the birds and squirrels. In Skaneateles, we looked at homes in our price range, all suffering from character flaws, and then found one that was just 50% more than we wanted to spend. But it was the right house. We sought funding and learned the alarming amount a bank will loan you without blinking, no doubt estimating how much they can get for your organs if you run behind.

For maximum drama, the move and both closings were scheduled for the same day. A thunderstorm blew through at 8:30 in the morning but as the movers arrived the sky turned blue. Our possessions, which we had boxed in advance, were marched out by a legion of hearty lads, and by the afternoon had arrived in two trucks in Skaneateles. The closings, at 10 a.m. in Syracuse and 1 p.m. in Skaneateles, were draining. Blueberry, the parakeet, was the calmest member of the family; he attended the second closing (but did no signing) and spent most of the ride from Syracuse on the bottom of his cage playing with his toys. I kept up an encouraging line of patter, but I think he was in better shape than I was. There is a benefit to having a brain the size of a dwarf cashew.

Our mover was a soft-spoken man in shorts, a tee-shirt and heavy boots, a child of the sixties with calves of granite, close-cut white hair, Clint Eastwood blue eyes. During a break, he told me of a visit to Big Sur, a religious experience. I concurred. Laurie returned to Syracuse after the second closing to cleanse the old house of dust dunes for its new owner while Abbie and I directed traffic.

The new house yielded treasures. While sweeping up dirt, ashes and black lint from the basement floor to clear a site for our washer and dryer, working with my gloved hand as a dust-pan, I felt something hard, and held up an antique cameo pin with diamond chips on the border.

Abbie, a resident of the Village for one hour, went to her first soccer practice at 3 p.m.; she returned drenched in sweat at 5 p.m. Laurie arrived at about 9 p.m., looking like a miler who had gone the Derby distance, and we had a soggy family hug. I put the beds together during a thunderstorm, Laurie produced clean sheets, and we slept the sleep of the deserving.

Already, I love coming home to this house. It has a single digit number, a life-long dream fulfilled. It is less than two miles from my office, walking distance. Built in 1933, it faces a park, is surrounded by beautiful old homes, and is just four blocks from the Village’s main street and the lake. The lake is beautiful, the seventh cleanest in the U.S., and one of only four to still have a mail boat delivering letters to the cottages along its shores. I walk by the water every morning and afternoon; it’s choppy some days, softly rippled on others, always changing.

The village itself predates the automobile, and so there are many houses with carriage entrances, and barns with haylofts intact. The Village has more than its fair share of wealth, and thus there are some spectacular houses, if you like pillars and porches, turrets, shutters and shingles, hitching posts and slate sidewalks, sweeping lawns and lake views. Beautiful old trees tower above the homes. Church bells ring. The air is fresher. The library is like something out of an old movie, wood shelves, golden lamps, a card catalog, worn but comfortable chairs. As my friend Mikey said, “Kihm, it’s a postcard village, and you’re a postcard kind of a guy.”

No two house lots in Skaneateles are the same size or shape, and the backyards often flow together; small, polite children ask permission to cut through on their way to a friend’s house (granted). And all of the people I’ve spoken with appreciate what they have here; there is a real sense of gratitude, and unspoken memories of other, earlier stops that were not so special. Neighbors on both sides came over with warm plates of cookies. A former co-worker appeared with a bouquet of sunflowers.

And throughout we have been lifted up by our friends. House guests from England, who arrived a week before the move, helped us pack. A friend came over to pack boxes, and tossed them about so easily that Abbie burst out with, “Mrs. Kolbe, you’re so buff! You’re diesel!” My friend Peter, who I’ve helped move four times, finally was presented with the opportunity to reciprocate, which he did handsomely. Our friend and former neighbor Tana escorted Laurie to our new home with one last load. And Laurie’s sister Lee drove up from Virginia to pull order from chaos during the first three days of our residence. Our heroes.

Abbie survived the first days of soccer practice. It was miles of running at first, but when she finally got to play, her coach pronounced her the “predominant” player on the field. “I couldn’t wait to get home to look it up,” she told me. She plays defense, ‘sweeper,’ has a great new uniform, and the season is filled with promise.

We’ve been to the high school for a ninth-grader orientation; it looks wonderful. Abbie has found people she can talk to, after an initial fear that no one would talk to her. She loves her room at our new home, which begins modestly on the second floor and sprawls over the entirety of the finished third-floor attic. More a suite really. A penthouse. A falcon’s lair.

There is a higher class of litter in Skaneateles. I found a dew-drenched dollar bill on the roadside the other morning, no doubt cast there by someone whose bulging wallet was ruining the line of his slacks.

As for our own garbage, you either hire someone here or drive your trash to the transfer station, as we did on our first Saturday, four loads. But you meet people there. I saw a woman I hadn’t seen in 15 years, a former co-worker now living in Rochester who was spending the week at her great-grandmother’s camp down the lake. “Barb?” I said.

“Kihm?” she said. Neither of us believing our eyes. “I thought it looked like you,” she said, “but I figured you’d never live in Skaneateles.”

At that moment, my former boss drove up with his own bags of trash, laughing and saying, “You’re in Skaneateles now!” He introduced me to the man in charge, referring to him as the King of the Transit Station. “Are you the lord of all you survey?” I asked, and he replied, “Yes, I am the Lord of the Flies.” When the man at the dump engages in literary allusions, you know you’ve landed in a good spot. Speaking of literary classics, for reasons I cannot describe I am reading Gone with the Wind, which is a wonderful surprise. How foolish of me to have shunned it as a potboiler all these years.

The lawn, overfed and undershorn, ultimately yielded to my push mower (a machine upon which all my male neighbors have commented), but only after three and a half hours of cutting, raking and sheaving. My white sneakers are dyed green now and smell of chlorophyll. Laurie ripped out the previous owner’s pink flowers, put in yellow and white mums, assembled a new compost bin and gave it a hearty first meal of grass clippings.

People ask me if I miss my old house, a house we spent 18 good years in. I don’t, at all. I think I’ve lost my rear-view mirror. Walking home from the high school the other night, under a moonlit sky, Laurie turned to me and said, “Well, Kihm, it looks like you pulled this off.”

And so we have.

* * *

On Labor Day, at 1:15 a.m., the most violent storm I have ever experienced roared through the Village, slamming all our upstairs doors, blowing the window shades horizontal, soaking the floors and attic steps, prompting some wild running about in the crackling light and inky darkness. Some of the stately trees I mentioned are now history. The Labor Day parade and fireworks were canceled; the previous evening’s horizontal lightning, green skies and exploding transformers were probably too big a show to top. In parts of Central New York, the winds hit 110 mph. We were grateful to have escaped unscathed. Our power returned 48 hours later. Laurie took the contents of the refrigerator and freezer to the transfer station. Except for the beer, which did not spoil. Obviously an important thing to consider when planning for emergencies.

Just returned from Abbie’s first soccer game, a Laker’s JV Victory, 11-0. And Abbie commented that at her first day in the lunch room, they were allowed to leave the room after they ate, and talk in the halls. She was thrilled.


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