After they were burglarized for the seventh time in a year, Rebecca and Regis Lilly decided they had had enough of urban ambience. The thieves even stole the needles that Regis, a diabetic, used to give himself insulin.
So the couple put up the disability insurance settlement that Lilly, 40, had received after the diabetes and chronic arthritis forced him to quit construction work in 1987, to buy a small farm in Cattaraugus County far from the city's mean streets.
They looked forward to a peaceful, safe life -- if not exactly an abundant one -- with their four children, Joseph, 11, Michelle, 10, Regis, 8, and Samantha, 6. They planned to raise a few dairy cows to help pay the mortgage.
That was more than a year ago, before unexpected setbacks darkened the pastoral dream.
First Mrs. Lilly, 29, a housekeeper at a Buffalo children's center, suffered a disabling back injury at work in early January. She underwent surgery to repair a ruptured disc later that month.
In March, the Lilly family suddenly grew by three when the children of a relative came to live with them -- the result of a marital falling-out. The newcomers -- Frank, 5, Sarah, 4, and Darlene, 2 -- turned out to be malnourished and mildly retarded -- an apparent consequence of lead poisoning.
Mrs. Lilly immediately sought medical and educational help for the youngsters and now is trying to win permanent custody in an ugly court battle pitting family member against family member.
In June, after paying the mortgage on the farm for a year without being able to live there because of the disruptions, the Lillys packed up and left the city.
But their troubles weren't over.
They bought calves to start a small dairy herd, but the animals soon contracted a bovine disease and died.
Although her disability benefits ran out months ago, doctors still have not cleared Mrs. Lilly to return to work. So the family is getting by on a combination of welfare and disability payments and food stamps.
They have no money to replace the aging wood-burning stove that heats most of the house, and the small kitchen range is "on its last legs," Mrs. Lilly said. That's good in one sense because the inefficient appliance is the culprit behind sky-high electric bills; on the other hand, it yields hot meals for the family of nine.
The good news is that Samantha and Sarah have grown to normal weight, although Frank is still a bit underweight. The lead content has fallen, and they are learning at a normal pace, which is no surprise to Mrs. Lilly. Sarah has responded to emotional therapy, while Frank
has been helped by speech therapy.
None of this will comfort the children, however, if their Christmas prospects don't take a turn for the better in the next few days.
Mrs. Lilly has scraped up enough cash to buy a gift apiece, "the one thing each of them most wanted," for five of the seven children. She's counting on help from relatives, or some unexpected source, to take care to the rest.
The young mother tries to look at the bright side of the family's struggle to build a new life in the country.
"People ask how we can live in the boondocks," she said. "You know, we never have to lock the door, it's so quiet, and my kids like going to school here. They even belong to 4-H.
"Lots of good things could happen down the road. There's quite a bit of open field for planting corn and hay, and we might try raising pigs -- no more calves.
"It's been rough," Mrs. Lilly added, "but we've managed so far."