A Portrait of Life in my Mother’s Personal Seven-Acre Animal Fiefdom and My Journey Towards Accepting It in All its Chaos and Absurdity
1882 marks the year when the widowed Sarah Winchester purchased an eight-room San Jose farmhouse and embarked on a saga of renovation that would span the rest of her life. In a desperate attempt to placate the spirits that tormented her, she tacked on addendum after addendum to her burgeoning home, and still today the Winchester Mansion’s staircases that lead to nowhere and long, winding passageways recall the widow’s fearful descent into dementia.
In 2017, Lisa Kario carries on Winchester’s legacy zealously transforming her seven-acre estate into a sprawling graveyard for bad ideas. Barns, sheds, shelters, and pens litter the property — all erected with high expectations and poor craftsmanship. Each episode begins when Lisa solicits the help of a neighbor, someone among Oxford, Georgia’s blue-collar band of workmen, who either abandons his project wholesale or executes it with such incompetence that it must be redone.
Still, she remains undeterred and readily contributes to the growing list of botched projects. She has imported a chicken coop that has only hosted spiders’ nests and a large dog house that has been fatefully surrendered to a thicket of weeds. A trampoline once hauled in for the amusement of her goats rusts alone, unused, collecting droppings. The finishing touch to her self-styled sanctuary is always just over the horizon.
Freedom Acres has materialized as a half-baked child’s fantasy, a renegade Noah’s Ark that insists on saving everyone. Here horses, sheep, dogs and pigs are brought to happy asylum.
Well, mostly. Rebel, a cream-colored stallion who inherited this sorry name from a neglectful former owner, regularly victimizes a skittish brown mare named Buttercup. Buttercup stands alone shivering in the rain, periodically being chased away from the barn by her malevolent counterpart.
“Buttercup, my poor baby!” Lisa cries, peering through the blinds. She still has a black eye from the time Sally, a donkey, kicked her in the face (“She didn’t mean to!”) and scabbed arms from the time she threw herself into the crossfire of a vicious dog fight to protect a boxer named Baxter (“They didn’t mean to hurt me!”).
Occasionally, Lisa sends a lifeboat to dispossessed humans, too, though these residents quickly lose their welcome. Tina, a petite, blonde woman who looks twenty years younger than she should, set up camp at Freedom Acres two years ago when her own animal sanctuary was foreclosed.
“She can’t keep taking in more animals! That’s how you become a hoarder!” Tina cries.
Tina will be the next person to be booted off the island. At Freedom Acres, you can rip apart the pillows, you can aggress other animals, but you cannot question Lisa’s life choices. Don’t you dare wake her from this fuzzy summer dream.
“Her heart’s in the right pIace, but I worry for her. I really do,” Tina says for the third time in a week.
I am on my laptop, gently shrugging off her complaints. I do not share her anxiety. I don’t want to.
One morning a year before I awoke to a burning smell seeping into my room from beneath the doorway. Once it grew intolerable, I flung open the door to find clouds of billowing smoke seething down the hallway. Of course my presence was an immediate trigger. The entire pack howled hysterically like some shattering thunderous alarm.
I had to scream each word in between dogs’ breaths.
The dogs darted across the room, biting each other, tackling me, a kinetic orchestra from hell.
“I PUT –
LOG IN,” she screamed.
By which she meant she had fed the Amish hearth. The Amish hearth, a metal firebox installation, was another bizarre do-it-yourself scheme that scantly delivered on its original promise.
She was plopped on a reclining chair scrolling through her ipad as the smoke settled around her, a howling dog tucked under her arm. The smoke, the hysterical hell hounds, the nonchalant Lisa Kario — this was her life and it finally occurred to me that she was on a weird trip, too. Whatever outcome awaits this strange flight, gain or ruin, at least she will say she enjoyed the ride. I set down my arms.