It’s a brisk, quiet Sunday morning in March, and I’m driving through a rural area of Eastern Pennsylvania, a couple hours west of New Jersey. A smattering of autumn-colored leaves cling to a few of the otherwise bare, tall trees along the sides of the road, dotted with patches of leftover snow.
I’m on my way to meet Sally and her family. She emailed me a few weeks ago:
Hi, Kristin. I am writing to invite you to our home at 923 Oak Hill Road in ************, PA. We are the ************ Family – Dan, Sally, Taylor and Mackenzie and our four-legged family Chance and Elliott. I was going to attach a picture of our home, but I didn’t know if you wanted to be surprised. Let me know.
My husband travels during the week and I work about an hour away. Hopefully you can plan on coming on a Saturday or Sunday, which will work best in our busy schedules.
Let me know if you need any more information. We look forward to this adventure and pray you will have a safe journey.
Author’s note: I don’t share the last names or city/town names of 923 Oak residents to protect their privacy.
Sally’s kind invitation was music to my ears – one of only a few positive responses received during my last-minute follow-up frenzy with the 923 Oak residents along my road trip route.
I drive by a rustic red barn that is so striking and timeless, I debate whether to pull over to take a picture, but there’s no shoulder along the road or a good place to stop. A few houses are sprinkled along Oak Hill Road, with wide stretches of woods between them. I miss 923 on the first pass, but spot the small sign as I loop back, and park at the top of the long driveway.
This is the sixth 923 Oak I’ve visited so far, and I always feel a few butterflies just before meeting the residents. As I walk down to the front door, a blonde woman opens the front door and steps outside. She’s smiling and welcoming, and I immediately feel at ease. She greets me on the doorstep with a warm hug. She probably had a few butterflies too – taking a complete leap of faith with the stranger about to come into her house and pepper her family with questions. I sense the hug is a sign of relief on her part too, that at least I look relatively harmless.
I follow Sally inside the stately two-story brick home and feel like I’ve entered a scene curated especially for me: a lighted Christmas tree in stands in the far corner of the living room, beside a dramatic painting of horses, opposite a crackling fire. Clearly Sally and I are soul sisters.
It’s March, don’t forget – late for Christmas trees by traditional standards. I love all things Christmas, equine, and am a sucker for ambiance. I don’t have a fireplace in my own apartment, but my Yule log DVD gets a lot of year-round play.
Sally laughs at my expression as I soak it all in. “I just can’t bear to take the tree down after Christmas,” she explains. “I love them so much!”
Them? There are more?
“I have another small tree upstairs. We used to have a Christmas room when the kids were younger – we love Christmas. The Christmas pajamas, all that. We thought, you know, we don’t want to take everything down, so we had a Christmas room with all our stuff in it.”
“Do you listen to Christmas music throughout the year?” I ask, hoping to find someone else unashamed to admit it.
“No!” booms a male voice from out of sight. That must be Dan, Sally’s husband and father of their two children.
Sally laughs. “They are so, ‘No more Christmas music!’ I still have it on in my car.”
She leads me around the corner, where an apron-clad Dan is working in the kitchen. We shake hands and I present him with a bottle of Napa Valley cabernet as a thank you for their time. I had hoped to find a market on the way to pick up fresh flowers, but no such luck. I hope the wine doesn’t offend them.
Sally offers me a seat at the brown wooden kitchen table, in front of big glass doors overlooking the wooded backyard wonderland. “Sundays are our family days,” she says. “We just kind of hang out.” I catch a whiff of cinnamon and spot a freshly baked coffeecake cooling on the counter. As if the ambiance could get any better.
It appears to be a typical Sunday at 923 Oak Hill Road in Pennsylvania. Dan is spending much of the day in the kitchen, preparing meals for the week. As Sally mentioned in her email to me, he travels most every week, and her job is an hour drive away from home, so Dan, a former chef, cooks on Sundays to ensure the family has dinner at the ready when everyone arrives home at the end of a long day.
“How long have you guys been married?” I ask.
“It’ll be 20 years …” Sally says.
“Whatever Taylor is, a year before,” Dan confirms, bringing the coffeecake, plates and forks to the table.
Their son Taylor is nineteen. Mackenzie, their daughter, is a high school senior, a year younger than Taylor. Chance, the family’s Golden Retriever, moseys over to Sally and takes an assertive but polite seat on her hind legs, looking expectantly at her mistress. She smells the yummy coffeecake too.
“That’s actually how Chance got her name. How we met,” Sally refers to her husband as she gently ruffles Chance’s head. Sally worked in the sales office of a hotel, which had windows overlooking the lobby, with a bunch of other women. One of them was her friend Mary Beth, also a single young twenty-something looking for love. Suffice it to say, the women kept a collective keen eye out for hunky male visitors through the office window. “Mary Beth and I had an agreement,” she recalls. “’If he likes dogs, he’s mine. If he doesn’t, he’s yours.’”
“So obviously I wasn’t the first one that this happened to,” Dan gives a wry smile. “This was a normal thing that they did.”
Sally laughs. “So this incredibly handsome man was standing out in the lobby of the hotel. All the girls in the office were like, ‘Oh my gosh, you’ve gotta see this guy!’ So I say, ‘He has a dog. He has a dog!’ And Mary Beth was like, ‘No, he doesn’t!’”
I laugh. “You’re just suspecting that he has a dog.”
“Yeah. He had to! He was so handsome!” Sally’s blue eyes sparkle with good-natured mischief. “So we sent somebody out to ask him if he had a dog. And he said, ‘Well, no, but I love dogs, and I’d love to have a Golden Retriever.’ So then he comes in the office, and we start chatting, and of course Mary Beth was supposed to have him, but we ended up dating and eventually getting married.”
“Thank goodness,” Dan says, “because –“
“Because Mary Beth is a basket case,” Sally finishes his sentence, laughing. “It was serendipity how we met. So in 2004 for Father’s Day, we got him Chance.” Chance is now laying next to Sally’s chair, her soft golden head atop her front paws after the unsuccessful appeal for coffeecake. “But can you imagine?” Sally looks at me. “‘Serendipity … come here! Serendipity!’ So we named her Chance.”
I hear a growl from the other end of the table and see a smaller canine staring at me suspiciously from his perch next to the wall that divides the kitchen and living room. “Hi,” I offer to the dog, extending a verbal white flag.
“That’s Elliot. He’s actually just talking,” Sally says. “He has to strut his stuff. Are you sure, do you want anything? Yogurt? Fruit?”
“I’ll have a little coffeecake. It looks really good, thank you,” I say, taking a plate from Sally. “What kind of dog is Elliott?”
“He’s a Shit-poo.”
I look at her. I’m not great with dog breeds but this I haven’t heard before.
“He’s a Shih-poo. A Shih-Tzu and a poodle. But when we got him, I thought it was Shit-poo. So we were telling people we got a Shit-poo. The kids were telling their teachers, and I was at Petco or someplace saying we have a Shit-poo and this lady behind me whispers, ‘Honey, it’s a shee-poo.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh. Okay!’”
“We still prefer to call it a Shits-poo,” Dan quips.