HOPE VALLEY — Leah Benjamin cannot forget the night of March 3, when she came home to find her historic Main Street farmhouse engulfed in flames. She and her 8-year-old daughter, Greta Pogacar, lost everything, including an art collection that Benjamin, a textile artist, had amassed over 25 years.
The Hopkinton community stepped up with donations and offers of help. The students at Greta’s school, Hope Valley Elementary, launched a “penny challenge” to raise money for the family and collected $2,546.
Now, six months later, Benjamin stands in front of her new house, which she and Greta hope to move into by Christmas.
“It started in June,” Benjamin said, referring to the construction. “They did the demo in May and it was just really hot all summer. I felt really bad for these guys, but they got here early before it got too hot.”
The design of the two-bedroom cedar house, which has a large front porch, was the result of extensive research by Benjamin. As she explained, it was also a kind of therapy.
“I drove around a lot in April,” she said. “Part of it was helpful because I still had a lot of anxiety and a lot of grief, which is normal, and I was just driving around and looking at houses and thinking what would be nice and feel nice.”
Benjamin’s homeowner’s insurance has covered the cost of rebuilding and provides a modest monthly rental allowance, but during the summer, with its higher seasonal rental costs, the family has had to live a nomadic life. They rented accommodations on Thelma drive, behind Hope Valley school, at a boatyard on Avondale Road (the one with the pickup trucks, not the BMWs, Benjamin noted) and eventually returned to Thelma Drive. Settling into a place of their own is something they are both looking forward to.
“There aren’t a lot of long-term rentals in this area, and some of the summer places don’t have heat, so we can’t stay into the winter. So it’s been a jigsaw puzzle,” she said, adding that staying strong for her daughter had helped her get through the trauma of the fire and its aftermath.
“I think it would be a lot more difficult if I didn’t have a kid,” she said. “Sometimes, it’s like ‘oh my God. You have to be a mother and do all this?’ But I think if I wasn’t a mother, I would have gotten really depressed and you can’t do that, because there’s another person you have to look out for and you’ve got to smile, and you’ve got to figure out how to get back on your feet.”
Benjamin has been slowly buying furniture as her budget allows, much of it from the Habitat for Humanity store in Charlestown, and storing it on her property until the house is ready.
“I have things stored in the barns and we’re growing it little by little,” she said. “Just about everything is from Habitat for Humanity or friends.”
Standing inside her new home, Benjamin points out the front corner of the living room near the windows, where her loom will be, and the upstairs room where Greta can do her homework or watch television.
“If my daughter comes home from school with her friends, I’ll be working at the loom and there’s no TV on the first floor,” she said. “There’s a kitchen, but it just sort of feels like being in an old mill. Part of the porch is useful, actually, for hanging and drying the skeins or some of the materials I’m working with.”
Outside in a paddock next to the house, a flock of seven sheep, whose wool Benjamin uses in her art, waited expectantly for a snack of hay.
“They’ve been here since July and they’re comfortable here,” she said. “I have five sort-of adults and two babies. I come here twice a day. There’s no water on the property so I carry two 5-gallon paint buckets from the neighbors’ property and I bring them water.”
Things are definitely looking up for the family, but even standing in front of her new home, Benjamin’s emotions are still raw.
“I really couldn’t think much more than an hour ahead of me and maybe I could get to the point where I could think 24 hours ahead, because I just needed to do what I needed to do at that moment and that day,” she said of the months after the fire. “It seemed like a fantasy or something — ‘OK, you’ll build a new house’ — and now that I’m looking at it, it’s right here in front of me; it makes you want to cry.”