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A Place on a Map

Note: This is the third memoir in a series. For full context, you might want to read Thank You, Padre Pio and Hole in the Floor, if you haven’t already.



Older, wiser people might have done things differently, but David’s and my next step together made perfect sense to us in 1979. His parents had just retired from New Jersey to central Maine; my divorced parents and brother Mark lived in southeastern Massachusetts. David and I had jobs in Pennsylvania, but little else kept us there. Why not move north to be nearer to our families?


We got out a map of New England—one of those old-school, paper maps printed with spidery roads and folded in a way no human could ever fold flat again. We circled our parents’ locations and literally drew a line between them to see what town might lie halfway. Exeter, in the southeastern part of New Hampshire, looked like a promising place to explore.


Since we had very limited incomes and barely any reserves, we would need to pack a tent into my Subaru DL coupe, drive up from Pennsylvania, and camp somewhere. We found the Pawtuckaway State Park campground on the map, not far from Exeter.


What if we liked it in New Hampshire? We’d need jobs. Maybe we could check the local classifieds once we got up there and apply on the spot! Better pack some nicer clothes and some resumés, just in case. And off we went.

 

Downtown Exeter begged to be on a postcard: the Town Hall and federal-style brick or clapboarded buildings surrounded a small bandstand in the center of town. A creaky-floored restaurant named The Loaf & Ladle leaned over the Squamscott River, which meandered through town. Pawtuckaway State Park proved as picturesque, its crystal lake reflecting blue sky and tall pines. Oh yes, we liked this part of the world very much.


I planned to find a job as a medical social worker, and the local newspaper had an ad for exactly that. David, despite his Pennsylvania job as a geriatric social worker, figured his most marketable skill was fixing foreign cars. He planned to drive around to various dealerships until he found a job.


I remember trying to stand up in the tent as I dressed for job-hunting. White slacks, knee-high nylons, and a navy-blue blazer I’d hung outside overnight to ease out the wrinkles. Far too tall to stand up, Dave lay back on the air mattress to shimmy into a pair of khakis, then sat up to put on a polo shirt. We grabbed our resumés and headed out the campground exit.


He dropped me in front of Exeter Hospital, my prospective employer. I made my way to Human Resources and completed an application, worrying as I did so about the cost of a second trip to come back for an interview. I dared to inquire whether I might be interviewed within the next couple of days, while I was still in the area. They said yes, they could manage that.


David was beaming when he came back to pick me up at the hospital. Apparently, my earlier doubts about his actual experience fixing cars were wrong—at least wrong enough for him to have been hired on the spot at Gil’s Foreign Cars, where he’d repair Peugeots and Renaults. They wanted him to start on Monday!


Luckily, a different person conducted my interview for the social work job, since the white slacks and navy blazer getup was the single choice in my suitcase. And luckily the interview happened the following day, because we now found ourselves in an unexpected hurry to get back to Pennsylvania, collect our belongings, and move!


Back we went, my little Subaru buzzing down the New Jersey Turnpike to Cedar Hill in Pennsylvania. The plan was this: Dave would grab some essentials, drive himself back up to New Hampshire in my Subaru, start his new job, and find someplace for us to live. I would pack up our things in Pennsylvania and work the last two weeks at my job, driving his aging BMW, which could never have made it all the way to New Hampshire. He’d come back, sell the BMW, rent a U-Haul, and we'd be on our way.


David's new friend at Gil’s Foreign Cars let him stay in his apartment for a few days. Dave got a scary welcome there when the sky turned yellow and a tornado came through less than a half-mile away, destroying a nearby mobile home park. He told me this on the phone, just moments before reporting he’d found a place for us to live: a 1959 mobile home in a nearby town called Lee.


At that point in my life, I had rarely seen mobile homes, and the prospect of living in one did not match my vision of a balconied apartment in a modern complex. But David explained that rural New Hampshire had little to offer in terms of modern anything. And I was bubbling with excitement after learning I’d landed the job with Exeter Hospital. So if our new life together was to begin in an old mobile home in a town I’d never heard of, so be it.


They say “don’t blink” when passing through tiny towns, and the advice certainly applied to Lee, New Hampshire. The entire town center extended only a few yards, including a sagging store with a gas pump, a town hall that doubled as a police station, a small library, a shed-size historical museum that sat on blocks, and a white-steepled church. Across from the church lay a small scattering of mobile homes, all of them new enough to be squared at the top corners—except our 1959 model, which had shoulders only slightly less round than an Airstream trailer. Its metal siding might have been white at one point, but age and the pine trees that towered above had streaked it badly.


Undaunted and even motivated by the challenge, we scrubbed the exterior and applied a coat of marked-down beige paint. With a couple of evergreen bushes we dug up from the woods along the road to the dump, we landscaped the front. Once we added some red geraniums, the place looked great. And the burnt-orange sofa and chair we’d bought for the “living room” made it feel downright cozy on the inside.


So our life began to take shape in southern New Hampshire. We lived and loved and made friends there, as David fixed ailing Peugeots and I helped stroke patients work through rehab. We enjoyed wild-rice-and-mushroom soup with anadama bread at The Loaf ‘n Ladle. We swam in Pawtuckaway Lake, watched crewing races on the Squamscott River, and borrowed books from the Lee Library.


An area that was once just a place on a map became as beloved to us as we’d become to each other.


 

NB: That mobile home proved to be the best housing investment ever! We paid $4,500 for it, and sold it for $7,750—a 72% gain in just eighteen months!


Stay tuned for the next episode in our 35-year adventure.

 

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