A home away from home.
Sal had prepared mashed cauliflower with a hint of garlic, fresh steamed asparagus drizzled in butter, baked sweet potatoes, and roasted chicken. The table had been set for eight people, with some of them already on their second glass of wine.
No, it wasn't Christmas. And New Zealanders obviously don't celebrate Thanksgiving.
For the Hoggs, it was just another dinner at Mingiroa Farm. But for me, it was a lavish welcome, something even a foreign dignitary would be lucky to experience.
“Alas,” I cried out, “I am but a plebeian!”
Just kidding. I kept that thought to myself.
Dinner conversation began to the tune of, “This is the best asparagus I have ever eaten in my entire life.” While I scrambled to make sure no one caught on to how overwhelmed I was, Tess carried on with her distinctly elegant manner, the likes of which you don't see that often nowadays. Really, when was the last time you met someone whose soul was as beautiful as their face?
Seeking lighthearted banter, I approached Sam, the youngest child. But much to my surprise, he was just as serious, intelligent, and well-mannered as his sister. As we exchanged thoughts I can't recall in front of a fireplace I'll never forget, I thought, he can't possibly be in his early 20s! He's so interesting and multi-layered! Moreover, He has barely laughed at any of my attempts at being funny!
By the time everyone moved into the lounge, I was surrounded by cheery conversations among family and friends, the kind usually found at holiday parties. Rich would have a good chuckle at something someone had said. Then we would all have a good chuckle at the very notion of him chuckling. It's hard to explain how comforting that was.
It was the a night like I'd only experienced a few times in my life, and probably only during my childhood. Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined it would be like that almost every day for three weeks.
Night after night, I went to bed in a pleasant haze, truly bewildered by the magic of it all.
My first few days working at the farm were a whirlwind.
I was busy, and happily so. Rich put me to good use wherever I was needed, and probably a few places I wasn't. I didn't care. I was motivated by amazing meals, good company, and lots of laughter.
I was also swept up in the excitement of never really knowing what was next. It was getting stuck in the mud, it was stumbling upon a hidden factory from a bygone era, it was discovering the poplar forest down by the river flats, it was breaking the oven for the umpteenth time, it was realizing that Fred the cat was not a he, but a she. It was the hilarious delivery of every outlandish Hamish story, and the tacit compliance of everyone else in the room. It was finding out that a man called “Ally” can be an ice hockey player AND a farmer AND a freelance accountant. It was meeting a high schooler named “Gordon” who was infinitely professional, curious, and fascinating.
Four days alone in the farmhouse gave me a chance to get settled in; I familiarised myself with the pantry, the laundry room, the location of cleaning supplies, the deck banisters, the marvellous quantity and quality of food in the house, and of course, the family dog Joby, who is actually a human-bird-poodle. (Everyone agrees he is very mature for his age).
At this point in the story, the critical reader may be wondering how I got to Mingiroa Farm, and why on Earth a Kiwi family would trust an American alone in their house for four days with not only their belongings, but animals and food supplies as well.
I wondered, too. Was it my small and non-threatening stature that made everyone comfortable with the idea? Or maybe my straightforward personality that instantly instilled trust?
No. Although I hadn't realised it yet, I was already part of the family.
“Families are funny things,” Sal said to me one night.
I haven't forgotten that conversation, which seemed to happen at just the perfect time. In getting to know the Hogg family, I was coming to terms with my own.
No doubt about it; it takes age and experience to understand how your family works. Or in my case, how your family doesn't work.
The weekend before I left Mingiroa, I stood on the hills with Rich. We were looking out across the entire farm just as the sun sank behind a blanket of clouds. I remember feeling blown away by the scale of everything. The landscape, the view, the stories, and the legacy.
In my family, there is no legacy to speak of. There is only a cycle to be broken, with the hopes that the pieces can be reassembled into something worth protecting.
Tess, Hamish, and Sam have a vision for the future of the farm. In going organic, they are moving away from anything that would harm the environment, making Mingiroa even more beautiful and sustainable. Our main project during my stay was to plant baby trees that could one day grow to become a natural border around the farm, and I'm so proud to have been part of that. Really, I'd be proud of having planted even one tree toward that goal, knowing someday I could come back and see it, and hoping that it serves the farm well. (Luckily, I planted more like a billion trees, so I'm not too worried.)
Planting the trees felt like investing in my own future somehow. Just as house-sitting for a few days felt the same as watching over a house that had been a part of my life for years. Every dinner must have felt like Christmas not because of the massive spread of food, but because it felt like I was with family every night.
While I'll never have the chance to share meals with my parents and brother as an adult, or even sit around the fire and chat--I now know have some idea of what it might have felt like. And though I've grown up without a family legacy to be proud of, I have had this incredible chance to contribute someone else's. I gotta say, that's an amazing gift to give a plebeian like me.