When Helen Boldyreff Semler first arrived in the Loudoun County village of Unison, she felt she could not bear to stay.
The wife of a career foreign service officer, the Yugoslavian-born Semler had spent her life in great cities: Bonn, Berlin, Paris, Moscow twice, New York, and, most recently, Washington, where she planned to reside comfortably until her husband, Peter, was transferred to another exotic locale.
But instead she found herself in a country hamlet consisting of one church, one store and a dozen houses, one of which her husband had purchased without consulting her. There was no central heat in the former 19th-century girls' school that became the Semler home. The stove didn't work. The kitchen, she says, had been "left in total misery."
Semler, 57, didn't even bother to remove the fur hat, coat and gloves she wore when she moved in one cold winter day.
"I got into bed, and I pulled the blanket over my head and said I was never going to get out again," she said.
Eighteen months later, Semler is getting out of Unison, the name given to the crossroads of routes 630 and 626. By the second week of September, the consultant, author of a guidebook to Moscow and painter will be settled in Milan, where her husband has just been named the U.S. consul general.
When she gets there, she has a plan. She will go to her new kitchen and hang on its walls the paintings she has made of buildings in Unison, which somewhere along the line became one of her favorite places in the world.
"Just getting up in the morning, to see the pastures and the horses and the sun over the hills was a joy," Semler said. "There was something so hauntingly beautiful."
The bond deepened as she got to know the people. One neighbor sponsored a barbecue so she and her husband could meet the folks. Another helped her care for her husband when he got sick. Still another, a plumber, offered some free expertise.
"I would say, 'My john doesn't work,' " Semler said. "He would jump over the fence, kick something, and it would function again."
And so it went. Tea with the neighbors, Sunday mornings at Unison United Methodist Church, afternoon strolls to Unison Store for sandwiches or sundries.
"I never felt alone," Semler said. "Even when my husband was away, I always felt there were people around. If I needed anything, I could call."
In May, the inevitable happened to a foreign service family. Peter Semler announced his new post in Milan. There would be one last summer in Unison.
Helen Semler made her decision. If she could not stay in Unison, Unison was coming with her.
"All of a sudden, I realized I was going to lose Unison," she said. "I had to put this town on record for myself . . . . I wanted to put together memories of one unspoiled American town in 1990."
She picked up her sketch pad and started a walking tour of the village, frequently knocking on doors to talk with homeowners about a special characteristic of their own 18th and 19th-century houses. When her sketches were complete, she made some of them into watercolor and tempera paintings. Others she copied onto tile, a skill she learned from her friend, artist Joan Gardner, who fired the tiles after Semler painted and glazed them.
When it came time to show her work, which she did July 28, Semler never thought of approaching a Middleburg gallery. Instead, she asked Frank Reid, current owner of the 130-year-old Unison Store, if she could use the room in which he rents videotapes. About 75 people gathered at the store to sip punch, munch cookies and view Semler's interpretation of her beloved village. Villagers say they believe it is the first time the entire village has been painted.
"Everybody was very pleased," Reid said. "Fascinated, I guess, is the word."
Reid, a former employee of a national grocery store chain, was drawn to Unison for the chance to run his own business.
"Love it," he said. "It's a different world all together. Everybody knows everybody. Just about the same customers every day. Not like in a supermarket, where you hardly see the same face twice."
Semler's paintings and tiles are currently on display at Unison United Methodist Church, where they will stay until she leaves the country next month.
"If someone wants me to make a copy of their house, I will," she said. "But I want them for myself . . . so I will always remember Unison."