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House Magazine - August 2007

A summer rental prompts a big change in one family's life.

By Tina Traster

Summering at a tumble-down lake house in the Catskills liberated me from the absurd notion that I had to raise my family on Manhattan's Upper West Side. The flower-scented air, brooding mountains, and starry night skies inspired me to ditch the co-op and buy a 150-year-old farmhouse perched on a hill overlooking acres of woods in Rockland County. Not exactly the Catskills, but a step closer to greener pastures.

My daughter was two when my husband and I, and our two cats, rented the lake house. Over three summers, the little wooden two-story Arts and Crafts–style house on Ulster Lake ruined my appetite for urban living. Swimming bare-assed in the lake, picking wildflowers, and napping in the grass reawakened feelings I last felt as a teen in summer camp in Delaware County.

My cravings for land, wildlife, and quiet were fast overtaking the thrill of attending Broadway's latest spectacle, having everything delivered in a New York minute, even Zabar's.

I am a city kid. Born in Brooklyn, I hung out on stoops, played kickball in the street with the neighborhood kids, and slept outside during summer blackouts. Happily, I went to sleep-away camp at nine. I pulled a blanket over my head at night because I feared the bats in the rafters of the camp bunkhouses, but I loved swimming in the lakes, roasting marshmallows around campfires, and taking long hikes in the woods. Everything important in my childhood happened at camp. This distant land of green vistas and sweet-smelling grass insinuated itself into my psyche.

Ulster Lake, nine miles from Ellenville near the Sullivan County border, is a remote, hilly community of Ukrainians, summer renters, bungalow colonies, farmers raising goats, sheep, and chickens, and Hasidic summer camps. Abandoned, rotting bungalow colonies along the roads harbor secrets of a thriving Catskills era when it was the destination for New York City's urban dwellers.

Spending time there took me to a physical and emotional place I hadn't visited since I was 18. Weekends at the house, with its leaky faucets, irregular electricity, and violently banging washing machine, were long and seamless. We canoed across the lake to a small strip of sand that you could call a beach, if you were feeling generous. We played Frisbee and I started drawing and painting—something I'd last done as a child. My daughter chased the geese.

During the day, we'd stock up with fresh produce from local farm stands and spend afternoons reading in the hammock or gazing up at the woodpecker peck-peck-pecking at the maple tree.

After my daughter was safely tucked in her crib at night, my husband and I would wiggle into a sleeping bag on the back deck and make love. Later, we'd come in from the chill night air and warm ourselves by the wood-burning stove.

At the end of the summer in 2004, I was inconsolable—the way I used to be when the camp bus dumped us back in Brooklyn and the following summer seemed to be a lifetime away. On the ride back to Manhattan, our car stuffed à la the Beverly Hillbillies, I cried. "Why is mommy crying?" my daughter asked my husband. "She doesn't like to leave the country," he explained.

There it was—the simple truth. I wanted to be immersed in natural beauty, to quiet the noise, to slow down the pace. I had always believed that I could do that only on weekends or if I ever made enough dough to buy a country house.

When I turned 40, I realized the phrase "maybe some day..." is a gamble. Being 40 brings mortality into focus. It begs us to act on dreams.

I did. We started house-hunting in Ulster, Dutchess, Orange, and Putnam counties. We wanted an old house in a rural setting. Ultimately we chose a little piece of the Catskills in Rockland in a little hamlet near Nyack. We live on a serpentine road that is lined with water-fowl filled ponds. There are several 19th-century houses along with two abandoned summer bungalows, ranch-style houses, a condo community, a mosque, and one hideous and newly built McMansion. My neighbor still remembers when trappers lived in these woods.

The old house I bought was a total wreck. It had been on and off the market for five years. We first viewed it on a January day, trudging through waist-deep snow. Covered in cobwebs, there wasn't an unbroken window or an unwarped door. Every wall was crooked. But a great brick hearth, strands of light pouring through skylights, and a wall of windows facing acres of woods won my heart. A little drunk on HGTV, I said I'll take it. "Are you sure?" the broker asked.

It was in that moment of insanity that I had the most visionary moment of my life. It took a four-month top-to-bottom renovation to restore the house. During those months, we lived at our little lake house in Ulster County and commuted 90 minutes twice a day so I could oversee the renovation and keep my work going at an office I rented. Because the beginning of our renovation began in July, living in the lake house was familiar. By September, the days turned colder. The summer crowds were gone. In October, we lost power for three days, making it difficult to keep food in the refrigerator or use the bathroom.

One night, I told my husband that there was a drunk intruder stumbling around outside. We closed the lights in the house and peered outside. He was big, all right—I'd say about 400 pounds—and he didn't give a rat's bottom when we stared into his silver eyes with a flashlight. He just looked up and presumably said, "Hey, I'm eating dinner. Leave me alone."

After the bear sighting in the driveway, I hurried the renovation to its completion. A week later, we packed the car and drove to our brand new country lair. I cried again as we drove down the mountain.

"Why is mommy crying?" my daughter said.

My husband answered, "She's crying tears of joy because we're not going back to the city."

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