Today I won the First Annual Chili Smackdown for our office, making me two for two in chili championships.
My Facebook friends from Lexington, Kentucky, may recall my first “Gold Cup” victory nearly 10 years ago. And my son’s friends will recognize the truth in the narrative of The Chili:
This chili was first concocted on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, but this is no skinny barefoot surfin’ chili. No, no, no. This chili was perfected in Steel City, where it laced up its storm trooper boots, nodded politely at the vegetarians, and muscled its way onto the palates and into the loyal affections of the mighty Hampton Talbots football team, nourishing the squad through an undefeated season in 2002, nursing its star defensive lineman through two knee surgeries, and mending at least one broken heart, whereupon the team (in reverent tones) dubbed it “The Chili.”
A strong-willed and impatient chili, it believes fiercely in diversity, as evidenced by the variety of meats and beans and complex spices that give The Chili its deep flavor. Full-bodied and opulent in the mouth, it yields rich notes of cumin, sandalwood, and brown sugar, with hints of dusty road and blues guitar that will have your taste buds partying like a freshman Congressman on Bourbon Street. Even though The Chili is aggressive and suffers no fools, all it wants is world peace, a Steelers victory—and for you to hug your grandma.
Just say the word, and I’ll cook it for you.
Spring has finally come to Four Oaks, even if it is having an identity crisis. Snow in April, late-August heat in May, 20-degree temperature swings in 24 hours. But that’s okay, because I love the changes it brings. Having moved here in September, they’re all new to me.
No sooner did the snow (finally) melt away when things started to bloom. Who knew I had a riot of daffodils along the fence line, or lilac trees, or forsythia? The mud pit on the south side of the house has been replaced by a patchy lawn that I’m sure will turn lush in a year or three. The birds that sing me awake early in the morning sound happier now. The rooster down the road starts in with the birds but seems to crow all day long. And one night, as I turned into my driveway, my headlights revealed three deer in the grass, which was much taller than my neighbors’ grass because that was before I bought the John Deere tractor.
Okay, so it’s a riding mower, but it’s still that particular shade of green that marks me as one of the cool kids. And, besides, Nancy and Phil, my neighbors to the east, say I’m allowed to call it a tractor, and they should know because they have two of them, much bigger than mine, with many exotic attachments, one of which Nancy used this winter to dig my car out of 12 inches of snow.
I am foolishly proud of my John Deere. Out here on my little gravel road, I felt like a dilettante having lawn service when everyone else had tractors. Glorious green John Deere tractors.
So now I no longer have to rely on the lawn service guy. But getting the John Deere and figuring out how to use it to actually mow my lawn took a village. Thank God there is a village.
I had no idea how to get a tractor in the first place, even though there is a John Deere dealer five miles away. Fortunately, I am related to chivalrous men. My nephew-in-law, Danny, the Craig’s List King, heard I was looking for a tractor and went on the hunt; in mere days he found the perfect model and negotiated the price. My brother-in-law, Jeff, trucked it over from Occoquan, which took the better part of a day. Then he taught me how to use it to actually mow my lawn. Then Jeff and Therese and I celebrated by drinking wine around the fire pit and toasting to how good my lawn would look when I actually mowed it.
The next day I set out to actually mow my lawn, unsupervised. I was more nervous than I’d been on my last blind date. I approached the John Deere with great respect. I tried to show no fear. I walked around it determined to comprehend its mystery, climbed into the seat and tried to remember what Jeff had told me about the controls. Gear in neutral, lock on, foot on the brake, mowing deck raised. A sense of exhilaration when I realized, I got this. Then: Oh, yeah, the key. Went inside for the key.
And then this pampered city girl mowed her .89 acres. Except for the hills, okay, slopes, which Jeff later weed-whacked for me. And I only conked out once, but Rick, my neighbor to the west, got me started up again and reminded me I couldn’t go in reverse with the mowing deck down. Nancy, my neighbor to the east, later told me that nearly falling out of the seat meant I was mowing too fast. I’m pretty sure they were both keeping an eye out, prepared to dial 9-1-1 in case I ran over my foot.
The second time I used the John Deere to actually mow my lawn, there was a little incident with the oil, but it’s okay because I learned two new things: (1) ALWAYS check the oil because you can really mess up your tractor if you don’t, and (2) STOP filling the oil at that little line on the end of the stick because if you don’t your tractor will billow white smoke and then your brother-in-law Jeff will have to come back out and drain something-or-other.
It’s all good. I get to actually mow my lawn for the third time this weekend. If you’re out this way, punch out 9-1-1 on your phone and stand by.
I’ve moved 22 times since leaving my parents’ home at the age of 19. More than one friend has remarked on my restlessness, but I never thought of it that way. It just took me a long time to find a place that felt like home. But I’m here now, in a tiny jewel box of a renovated farmhouse called Four Oaks, freezing my ass off on the front porch so I can look at the outlines of the Blue Ridge Mountains while I write about moving to the country.
I might be the most unlikely person to move to the country. Of my 22 homes, 21 were in suburbs or towns or—most recently—in the heart of Washington, D.C. I like knowing people are within screaming distance if something goes horribly wrong. I’ve stopped at enough tiny towns off the interstates in West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky to know that some country people can be scary as shit. I’m terrified of mountain lions, which, in case you don’t know, are freakin’ everywhere, people. And I am afraid of the dark.
But I’d had enough of living in the city and I couldn’t face another suburb. Then one Sunday afternoon, heading to an open house suggested by my real estate agent, I drove down a gravel road thinking yeah right, and happened upon Four Oaks. Walked through the front door and felt it as viscerally as I’d ever felt anything: this place was home, and I had to have it.
A month later, Four Oaks was mine: the hundred year-old heart pine floors, the big front porch with the tongue-in-groove ceiling, the metal roof, the tight trim work, the finishes that make the home’s modern comforts feel rustic and authentic. Also mine: the scary cellar, the itty-bitty closets, a half acre of dust where a lawn needed to be, and a plethora of snakes, spiders and stink bugs. Shrieks in the dark I can’t identify—maybe a birdlike thing, maybe a catlike thing. Maybe a ghost. Who knows?
Who cares? Not me. I’m cozy here. Neighbors go by on horses, on bikes, and in cars; they stop and introduce themselves and welcome me to the neighborhood. I go to the spaghetti dinner hosted by the local volunteer fire department. One morning, as I stepped onto my front porch with my first cup of coffee, I found four fat turkeys in my yard. “They were on your porch earlier,” my neighbor called to me across the gravel road.
The other day, her youngest daughter, 10 year-old McKenzie, saw me out on the porch and came over for a talk. She asked my permission to ride her bike on my long driveway. She told me about a scary movie she’d seen. She said her favorite subject in school was geography, because it was interesting to learn about people in different lands. “People have different minds inside their heads,” she informed me.
After 22 moves, I guess I must like geography the best, too. And I’m learning that sometimes a different mind finds its way inside the same old head you’ve always had. Who knew?
In place of that old restlessness, I’m content here at Four Oaks. That might seem bland to you, but it’s a thrill to me. Because I think this might be how it feels when you’ve finally found your way home.