By Peggy Strait
One day, when our son Paul was still just a little boy, I suggested to Roger that it would be fun for the three of us to go on a drive to explore the Hudson River valley. Roger was agreeable, so, we packed our VW Beetle with the usual provisions for a day trip and headed north on 9W along the Hudson River. By mid-afternoon we had gone past Kingston and were driving along a densely wooded country road nearby.
It was early spring. The not yet fully-grown leaves on the trees before us were a pale, almost translucent, new green. The soil beneath the wild grasses and shrubs was dark black-brown and wet. Large areas were covered with moss. Sunlight filtered through the leaves of the trees and created intricate patterns of light and shade – just the kind of scene that Renoir would have loved to paint.
We decided to find a place to park our car so that we could hike through the woods. As we were looking, we saw that just ahead was a green-blue lake. It was at the foot of a lush green hill and was surrounded by boulders, bushes and a mixed forest of deciduous and evergreen trees. The beauty of the scene before us took our breath away.
We pulled alongside the road and the three of us got out of the car to enjoy the place more fully. Paul was just as excited as we were when we climbed up a boulder to get a better view of the scene. Then suddenly Paul was very agitated and complained that he wanted to go home. A mosquito had bitten him! We tried to distract him from his discomfort but he could not be persuaded. He would not look at the fish in the lake. He did not want to follow the frog that leapt out of the grass. He did not want to climb the tree by the rock. He just wanted to go home.
Roger and I looked at each other and, with a combined sense of horror and disbelief, our immediate reaction was, “We cannot permit this! No child of ours can be allowed to grow up so deprived that a mere bite from a mosquito would destroy his enjoyment of nature!”
We knew what we must do. We must have a weekend and summer country place so that nature would become a natural environment for Paul.
As an interracial couple looking to buy a country house in the early 1960s, Roger and I knew that the endeavor would require strategic planning, cunning and luck. An earlier experience had prepared us (see October 8, 2014 article: Apartment for Rent). So, this was our plan. Roger (white American) would do all contacts and initial viewings. If a place seemed promising, we would devise a scheme for me (Chinese American) to see it.
We began by looking at places just north of New York City along the Taconic Parkway. We soon concluded that Putnam County, the first region we explored, was lovely but a little too suburban and too expensive. The same was true of Duchess County, even though the rolling green hills and picturesque dairy farms made us wish we could afford a house there. Then we crossed to the other side of the Hudson River. We explored towns in the Catskill Mountains along route 28, all the way past Fleishmanns to Delhi. We found the area stunningly beautiful, especially the massive mountains, the lush green forests and the meandering streams. But still, we were not convinced that anything we saw there had everything we wanted for the one place we would have forever. It was not unlike rejecting the suitors of one’s youth. Remember those offers of marriage from gentlemen possessing qualities that should make them good husbands – some were handsome to boot – yet, all lacked that magical something that makes one say, “I’m in love”?
It was July 1966 when we saw a Hudson River Properties for sale ad in the New York Times. Roger immediately contacted the realtor. The properties were located near the town of Catskill which was 115 miles north of New York City – a little farther than we would have liked. Still, the thought of a place at the edge of the river was exciting. Roger made an appointment for the following Saturday.
As soon as Roger was home from work on Friday, Paul and I were ready. After a quick supper, we climbed into our VW Beetle with the usual provisions and headed north – full of expectations.
We spent the night in a modest one-room-with-screened-porch cabin, in what we discovered the next morning was a middle to lower-middle class resort in an Irish settlement in the Catskills. There was a special gathering there that weekend. Everyone, it seemed, was an Irish policeman from New York City, or a close relative of an Irish policeman from New York City. The women, in particular, took an interest in my presence. I was asked repeatedly, “Are you Vietnamese?” In retrospect, I can understand the logic. To them, I must have been a Vietnamese war bride married to an Irish policeman from New York City. Why else would I be there?
The congenial air of “we are all Irish,” worked greatly to my advantage. Paul, surely the half-Irish child of a Vietnamese war bride, easily made friends with the other children, quickly joined them in play, and I was relieved of the necessity of keeping him entertained.
It was late in the day when Roger returned from his appointment with the realtor. I could tell from the look on his face that he had some interesting news. He wanted us to get in the car quickly so that we could drive to see a piece of property before dark. Following our previously worked out plans, I covered my head with a scarf and wore large sun glasses so that it would be less likely that I would be recognized as an undesirable Chinese buyer.
As we were driving in the car, Roger told Paul and me that the realtor had shown him an old house at the edge of the Hudson River near the town of Catskill. She had told him that it was ideal for someone interested in fishing in the river. Although considerable repair work was needed, the price for the house plus one acre of land was a bargain at only $12,000. She had questioned, though, that his wife would want to live there. The bathrooms needed renovation. The toilets didn’t flush properly. She doubted that there was an adequate septic tank. Water for the house was from a shallow well beneath the house, and she would not recommend drinking it. The kitchen was no more than a sink and a stove in the corner of the downstairs room. There was no heating system – not even a space heater.
We drove past the town of Catskill on Route 23. Then, just before the entrance onto the Rip Van Winkle Bridge that crosses the Hudson River, we turned north onto Hamburg Road – the scenic, wooded country road that meandered along the base of Hamburg Hill and the edge of the Hudson River.
The sun was just beginning to set behind the hill. Its last rays brushed against the white and blue-gray clouds, turning them partially to shades of pink. I was still admiring the scene when Roger stopped the car and said, “Here is the house! When the realtor wasn’t looking, I unlocked one of the downstairs windows. I can climb in and open the door. We could go in and look over the whole place.”
I stepped out of the car, looked past the swaying branches of a willow tree, then past the bright orange rain lilies that ran down a slope to a pebble beach and the flowing waters of the Hudson River – not more than a stone’s throw from where I stood. The water reflected the white, blue-gray and pink of the sky and extended from the pebble beach across to a forested island in the distant shore of the river. I was overwhelmed with the vibrant beauty of the scene. Without even looking at the house, I turned to Roger and said, “Take it! Take it!”
Dear readers, I can go on and on about this place on the edge of the river that we loved so much, but let me close for now with just this note. Quite often, when Roger and I were there, he would say to me, “This is the best thing we ever did.” In agreement, and with fond memories of that day many years ago when we first explored the Hudson River valley with our son Paul who was then a little boy, I would always reply, “Yes, and we must thank the mosquitoes!”