I bought my first home at 26, romantic, wide-eyed, and ridiculously ecstatic. My husband and I had looked for months for a place in the rapidly gentrifying farmlands around Nashua, New Hampshire, a city that was considered one of the best places to live in the country, and one we couldn’t wait to leave.
We found our love cottage (yes, that is actually what we called it) in Lyndeborough, a gateway from the suburban Nashua sprawl to the Monadnock Region of southwestern New Hampshire. The property had everything we’d coveted: an apple orchard and ten acres for my husband to putter around in and an unspoiled antique cape with a beehive oven and wainscoting that I adored.
What we didn’t know when we bought the house could fill a notebook, of course. A spring stream gushed through the basement, resident porcupines munched on our barn sills, and a rutted, one-lane dirt road sharpened my driving skills during mud season.
Not all of the surprises were unhappy ones. We bought the 1830s cape with its three-story shingled barn built into a sloping hillside in November and moved in January, so we had no idea that it was home to riotous perennials. They started cropping up in April like small sentinels. I didn’t know what they were at first. I couldn’t tell the difference between lilies of the valley and daylilies, bearded iris and Siberian iris, rose geranium and flowering sedum. They all announced themselves like old friends that first spring, happily taking whatever our land had to offer, while reaching straight up to the sun.
Our rich soil on Mountain Road grew nearly any plant or tree: raspberries, rhubarb, asparagus, cherries, grapes, peaches, and, of course, apples. The orchard consisted primarily of McIntosh trees with a smattering of Cortland and Baldwin trees, and a Northern Spy, whose pear-tinged flavor was my favorite.
I was most captivated by the flowers though, those hardy New England perennials and their changing palette of colors. Over time, I learned how to work with them. I transplanted them to shade or sun, and paired their tones and textures, penciling them in against stone walls, white clapboards, and weathered shingles.
The growth flourished everywhere. There was a flower bed beyond the breezeway filled with tiger lilies, black-eyed Susan, and daylilies in lemon and burnt orange. Our front garden pivoted on purples, pinks, and whites with phlox, irises, rose campion, and daisies. The snowy hydrangea and lilac bushes occupied large swaths all their own.
But it was the flower patch out back, behind the house, which was my favorite. Turns out that our outdated (yet grandfathered) septic runoff fed a cloud of wild roses in varying shades of pink. Those flowers were so fragrant that when I threw open my kitchen windows, their scent did more than waft in, it settled in our bones.
Those brambly roses grew with the abandon of an unschooled toddler. I liked their princess colors, but it was their spicy-sweet fragrance I loved best. The creamy rose scent seemed laced with cinnamon. I couldn’t wait until they blossomed each year, starting at the end of June.
When the first buds popped, I’d gather all my vases on our picnic table and fill them with the thorny goods, bringing their silky fragrance into every room of the house. I didn’t care that the blooms lasted only a day or two. I’d throw the old ones out, gather new ones, and make the season linger as long as I could. There were ten days or maybe two weeks of luscious rose blossoms.
Today, I live thirty minutes and a lifetime away from Lyndeborough. I find myself in another sweet cottage, this time on my own. This spring, my yard was filled with lavender wisteria, scarlet and white peonies, ice blue Siberian iris. In the last week of June, I was surprised by four curving strands of wild roses within sniffing distance of my screen porch. I found myself gathering rose blooms again and filling small vases: one for the kitchen, one for the dining room, one for my bedroom.
I noticed, this time, when the petals curled up and started their hasty decay, their fragrance deepened with a final intense push. I picked the rumpled petals off all the surfaces they touched: tabletops and dressers and floors. I hated to throw them away. Instead, I collected them in handfuls and tossed them out the back door like wedding rice. They were still tissue soft and stained with cotton candy colors when they hit my stone patio. Sometimes I waited to watch a breeze take them on a rambling trip across the lawn. Most times, it was enough to send them gently into the summer air and walk away.
In 2006, as we prepared to move from our 1863 farmhouse in Swanzey to a much smaller house seven miles away in the city of Keene, I began to experience a profound sadness. The house had been our home for thirty years, and although I sensed, realistically, that it was time for us to scale down, I also knew how much we would miss the home that had sheltered us through our many stages of growth and development as a family. In a moment of reflection, I imagined our house as a nurturing parent, and created this portrait as a tribute.
In spring my doors begin to swell, shoots poke through the earth in the garden beds around my porch, and skunks emboldened by the cover of night do a lumbering dance to the high-pitched clamor of peepers. In summer squirrels tickle my roof with their toes, bats sleep behind my shutters, rabbits and woodchucks and stray cats live beneath my barn, birds nest in the corners of my porches, spiders spin their webs inside and out. In autumn mice creep from the barn, using the crawlspace as their conduit, making their nests in the walls and above the ceilings, scurrying from one end of my frame to the other like crazed Lilliputian bowlers. Ladybugs clump in the corners of my windows, seeking refuge from the cold. In winter children slide and ski on my hill, and grownups toboggan there at midnight to usher in the new year. In January I ride the crest of drifted snow, a frigate moored on whipped white seas, facing storms without dread, proud of my ability to survive.
I am House and I revel in my uniqueness: at any time of the year, you can enter my barn and smell horses, although it’s been half a century since any horse lived here.
In 1863 when I was built I saw my owner go to war healthy and whole and come back a sick and broken man. After that I told myself I wouldn’t fear anything, but over the years, daily perils have offered threats: chimney fires have roared and termites have gnawed their way through hefty beams. Winter tests me. Heavy snows have threatened to destroy my roof. After brutal storms, men chip away the ice with axes. I’ve been nicked, but my foundation is made of granite, so I tolerate the insult.
Over the years what’s happened within my walls hasn’t harmed me either, although I’ve felt each tragedy as if it were my own. When one of my women was hit by lightning while standing at the kitchen sink I suffered, my walls scorched from the strike, my air tinged with the faint, acrid odor of burning flesh. On the night a neighbor raised a shotgun to his head and pulled the trigger you could hear the keening of the wind through eaves all up and down the street.
In this neighborhood, the ghosts of former owners hover like wood smoke. All I can do is testify to their existence. Thus, when houses change hands, they’re known by the name of the former owners, or known as the place where this or that event occurred. A quarter mile away stands a contemporary of mine now known as the Murder House because a former owner was stabbed to death on the kitchen floor.
Do you think I don’t bleed when branches scratch my panes? My sighs are creaks which frighten the children. Nightlights glow in halls to reassure them there’s nothing to fear; all is well until the next time twigs rake glass.
The years pass. A girl grows into a young woman who brings her sweetheart home. On a porch swing that girl tells a boy she doesn’t love him, then changes her mind; there’ll be a wedding, after all. Father and daughter will walk to the church across my field. The bridesmaids, dressed in pink, will gather in the garden, their golden hair blowing in the gentle summer breeze. I’ll have a new coat of paint that year, white clapboards and black shutters, and everyone who sees me will sigh, How Beautiful, the same words they’ll use to describe the bride, the girl who used to climb my trees and play gypsy in my barn.
The day will come, as it always does, when my current people will talk of moving to a smaller place that’s more energy efficient, a place that doesn’t require much upkeep. As I’ve done so many times before, I’ll do my best to hold them here. I’ll sift the glorious daylight through my panes of glass and hold the paint on my clapboards as long as I can. Why move?You’ll never find a house you’ll like as much as this one, I’ll tell them in a thousand different ways. Stay. I love you.
And they will stay, because we are one, even though I am made of granite and wood and they are made of flesh and bone. We pass through the seasons together, astounded by the stark beauty of a January night, enduring mud season in March, anticipating greening grass and looking for shoots that push up through the still-hardened soil in April. Together we enjoy the longer days. We hang our laundry in the back. Together we stack our wood and rake our leaves and put away the lawn furniture and flower pots. Together we settle down and wait for storms, lighting candles when the power fails. We set up the tree and decorate the rooms and welcome the grandchildren home, and for three days we are all glowing with love and merriment. Face it, I’ll hear them whisper to each other in the softness of their flannel sheets. We like it where we are. We’ll never leave.
But leave they will. Circumstances change and people age, requiring a simple life without a lawn to mow and a driveway to plow. And I, who have sheltered so many since my birth, will become a part of their past, captured in photographs for future generations to see and say, So that’s the house you grew up in.
Look. The new owners are arriving with all their clutter, and soon every inch of me will be overflowing with happiness. Already a youngster has discovered the huge rock in my back field and is climbing to the top, toeing the footholds that nature has conveniently provided for such a purpose. The mother stands at my front door, smiling. She knows she is home. I am House, and I welcome her.
One of the things about living in the country is you need a motor vehicle. Everything essential is well spaced out in all directions. You can’t just walk out the door and cross the street to the corner bodega to grab some groceries. Or walk a block or two and buy a new shirt at the haberdashery. Or take the bus to work. Chances are good you’ll need to put a few miles on the old buggy to get much of anything done when you live out in the sticks.
One part of country living I’ve never quite adapted to is the knack of recognizing people by their motor vehicle. People are forever asking me why I didn’t wave back to them the other day out on Route 202 or 119. The answer, of course, is I didn’t see them—maybe because I was looking at the road and where I was going. And maybe I did see them, but failed to recognize their vehicle because it pretty much looks like all the others. Picture me driving down the road thinking: who the hell was that? after seeing an outstretched arm and a handful of twiddling fingers.
I have enough trouble remembering people as it is. Remembering cars, vans and pickups is just a bit much. But I’m trying—because it’s important to all those people who wave at me. Although I do have this sneaking suspicion that there are some people who do this just to perplex other motorists—or maybe it’s because my vehicle resembles someone else’s.
When you always have to drive around to get stuff and get stuff done, you learn to multitask. With the price of gas what it is, there’s nothing more aggravating then to find yourself retracing the same route several times in a single day. Multitasking requires some thinking ahead. So when I go out to library I make it a point to think about what else needs doing or getting that can be done or got along the way.
In my hometown one of the dump days is Tuesday…oh, excuse me—one of the Trash Transfer and Recycling Center days—is Tuesday. Tuesday is also a voting day in all those elections throughout the year. So whenever it’s time to vote I load up the pickup with trash and head for the…er, Trash Transfer and Recycling Center. Because I’m trying to become more adroit at recognizing motor vehicles I’ve noticed that many of the vehicles I see there, I also see minutes later at the elementary school polling place.
Then I see some of them at the post office, and more of them at the grocery store. So it appears to me that this type of multitasking is a rural ethic of some kind.
Is there a point to this, you might ask. Well, you bet there is. Now that I’ve captured your attention I want to take this opportunity to encourage everyone to do their civic duty. Go to the dump and vote.
Make sure swimming is somewhere in your memoir. Why? I don’t know. It seems a memoir needs a splash of water.
The thwack of the wooden screen door. The ping of June bugs hitting the rusty screen trying to get at the porch light. The sounds at my Maine camp are spectacular and symphonic. Nature provides quite a concert, especially in the evenings. Crickets trill and bullfrogs provide the bass to their chorus. In the woods behind the camp, coyotes howl, answering each other’s cries over the swamps and hills that make up the game preserve that surrounds me. The loons provide the vocals, of course, yodeling across the water. Once before dawn I awoke to these sounds and I heard a rooster crow somewhere across the lake. A rooster, mind you, and I have no idea of the location of a nearby farm, but there must be one.
You remember one thing, and that suddenly reminds you of something else. From my childhood at my family summer camp in central Maine, I guess I remember clearest of all the early mornings, when the lake was cool and motionless. I remember how the bedroom smelled of the lumber it was made of and the lake scent that entered through the screen. I remember lying in the bottom of the red wooden rowboat my family owned—floating in the middle of the lake, looking up at the clouds.The best part of being at camp—then and now—has always been engaging with the lake.
A few years ago, I bought a pair of bright orange 1-person kayaks as a birthday present to myself. The opening in my kayak is large enough to carry a medium sized dog as a passenger, and on hot days, my old dog Oliver and I like to go kayaking on our end of the lake. Oliver and I can glide through the water swiftly, but not fast enough to wreck my hair do. Once I tipped us over in deep water and wasn’t able to turn the kayak right again. Oliver and I had to swim back to shore. We both wear life jackets.
A good kayaking excursion is an early morning close circuit of the shoreline, including exploring the coves that are not visible from the middle of the lake. In the early morning the water is still and calm. It is not unusual to spot ducks, loons, cormorants, and ospreys. We see many turtles, and twice, a pair of muskrats. One time, I heard a piercing screech and saw a shadow sweep across the water ahead of me. I looked up to see a bald eagle circling overhead between the sun and water, and suddenly the water boiled with frightened fish.
By afternoon, the water is changeable. Wesley McNair described his pond as bearing “the print of the wind changing its mind, swiftly dimpling the water in one direction, then the opposite.” I’m lucky enough to live on the water, at least during the summer, and I like to engage with the lake as well as the woods. The kayak is the perfect watercraft for me—no engine, no registration needed, and I can practically lift the boat in and out of the water with one hand. I shouldn’t even get started on motor boats (we have two) because it will turn into a rant. Every year it’s the same thing. After we open up and prepare camp for the summer, my husband puts the motor on the fishing boat. Then he goes to the hardware store (again) to get parts to fix the motor that never starts on the first try. But he can fix it himself eventually. Our other boat is delivered straight out of storage to our driveway sometime around the fourth of July. It is named Sunken Treasure, having spent much of its first summer with us under water. Our family fleet of boats has a jinxed nautical history.
There are many rocks that lie just beneath the surface of our lake and they are anathema for boaters. Hitting a rock with a motor often results in a lost pricey lower unit that takes the rest of the summer to replace (just one chapter in the jinxed nautical history). But for those who like to fish or snorkel, these rocks harbor perch and eels. Boat owners often throw anchor off the rocks so that swimmers can explore these underwater islands. To those in boats or ashore, it sometimes appears that the swimmers are walking on water.
I like to swim on hot days because I can be both warmed by the sun and cooled by the water. During my childhood summers at camp, my sister and I used to stay in the water until the ends of our fingers wrinkled up like pale prunes. I remember that I used to suck the lake water out of the ends of my braids. A good summer day at camp for us meant spending more time in the water than out of it. Nowadays, I sometimes lie on an air mattress and float on top of the water, but when I was a child, I always needed to be fully immersed. I remember running down the length of our wooden wharf and cannon balling into the lake time after time until I was worn out. Where has that girl gone? Did she leave—or is she still in here, just pushed further down? I liked that girl. I should get in touch with her again.
When Roger and I moved from Lawrence, Kansas to New Bedford, Massachusetts in the early 80s, New England was just a tangle of lines and labels on the US map to me. The cluster of six tiny states has a total area that is smaller than the size of Kansas itself. I thought of Boston as a center of intellectual life, and I knew Massachusetts was famous for the Pilgrims and the beginning of the American Revolution. The rest of New England existed in my mind as vaguely romantic names, with great fall foliage and white steeples. I imagined it to be like the Midwest, but not as flat, with better views of the ocean.
You take the high road
My first wakeup call was as we drove through the streets of New Bedford—so narrow that they would have been considered alleys in Kansas City. New Bedford was incorporated as a city before the territories that became Kansas were part of the US. We drove by buildings old before Kansas finally became a state. But peeling paint and tilted silhouettes spoke of better days—it was hard to believe that this was once the richest city in the world—back when oil meant whales instead of wells.
That weekend, as we drove along the Cape Cod Canal on our way to explore the Cape’s National Seashore, I saw a sign that said, “Rotary ahead.”
“Wow! Business must be really important here if Rotary Clubs get such big billing!” I said.
“Strange,” Roger said. “This doesn’t look like a very built up area. Why would they—What is that!”
Ahead of us the highway opened into a gigantic asphalt circle packed with two lanes of cars driving round and round at a dizzying rate. We came to a dead stop. Fortunately it was the slow season for tourists, and there was no one behind us.
“Now what?” Roger said. “How do we squeeze in there?”
“I’m just glad you’re doing the driving. Interesting. This loop of road looks round—do you think this is the Rotary?”
Somehow we survived the Sagamore Bridge Rotary after which all other rotaries seemed doable. I felt a twinge of sadness when the gigantic traffic circle was finally replaced with the Sagamore Bridge Flyover in 2006. Instead of dumping the drivers from Route 3 and the drivers from US Highway 6 into one huge congested traffic morass, the Flyover allows Route 3 drivers to continue via overpass directly to the Sagamore bridge and the Cape. US Highway 6 flows smoothly under Route 3, and drivers can take an exit to cross the bridge. The Flyover simplified traffic, reduced gridlock and increased safety, but the Cape lost a place of distinction and high adventure.
When I feel nostalgic though, I can always drive through what my friends call the “Rotary of Death” on Fresh Pond Parkway in West Cambridge. It is a relatively small rotary which nonetheless is heavily travelled, containing two lanes and joining three major roads. Although there are clear rules of the roads regarding who has right of way, many drivers seem not to know them or, worse, follow totally opposing ones. Discussions on the internet have proposed the best way of travelling through this rotary is to take some other route entirely.
Do your own thing
Traffic in New England often has a metaphysical feel rather than a logical, analytical one. In Boston, I was once given directions that included driving down a certain one way street.
” Isn’t that the wrong way on a one way?” I asked, feeling confused.
“Don’t worry,” my guide said. “It’s only for a block. Everybody does it.”
Another time, while driving in the heart of Boston with a friend, I signaled that I was changing into the right lane.
“What are you doing?” he said in horror. He reached over and flipped off my turn signal. “If you signal, other drivers will cut you off! Just get into the lane you want—they’ll get out of your way.”
Then there was the night somewhere in Massachusetts when under the orange glow of a harvest moon, I sat at a stoplight and watched as a driver backed his van quickly and expertly up a highway entrance ramp. Since then, I’ve become quite alert when entering highways.
Possibly my most confused moment was when I came to an intersection with a stoplight in a small city in Massachusetts and saw a sign that said, “Obey Traffic Signal.” As I sat in the left lane waiting to turn, I pondered the reason for posting a sign that seemed so unnecessary.
When the signal light facing me turned green, I saw that the lanes of oncoming traffic were packed with cars. Patiently I waited for them to go through the intersection before I made my left turn.
But the cars didn’t move. Instead the cars behind me began to honk. Then the cars facing me began to honk. Red-faced, I made my turn, trying not to see the upright fingers of drivers in the surrounding cars. How was I to know that “Obey Traffic Signal” meant to make an apparently suicidal left turn in front of oncoming traffic when the light turned green?
The “delayed green signal,” where the signal light facing one direction turns green before the signal light facing the other direction does was fairly common in New England, though I had never encountered one in Kansas. I quickly became adept at this, turning left briskly whenever the oncoming traffic remained stopped after my light turned green.
Several years later, I returned to Kansas City for a visit. To my surprise, I was deafened by the screams of my passengers as I turned left in front of an oncoming car. It turned out that the driver had just been dawdling when the light changed. We all survived thanks to a well-applied bit of acceleration, but when I tried explaining the concept of delayed green, none of my passengers were sympathetic.
Another road sign that I found confusingly indirect was inscribed “Thickly Settled.” These signs seemed quaint and poetic until I learned that this actually meant that I would receive a ticket if I drove faster than 30 miles per hour. It indicates houses and other buildings are located on average less than 200 feet apart.
When Roger and I finally drove to Maine for a well-deserved vacation, we found the signs to be refreshingly to the point. In fact, we were surprised to find signs at the entrance to the Maine Turnpike explaining the rules of the road. “Signal when changing lanes,” “Dim lights for oncoming traffic.” We joked that Mainers believed outsiders needed a drivers’ education refresher course.
The Maine Turnpike is the main North/South thoroughfare in the state. It was the second superhighway built in the US when it opened in 1947. It was dubbed The Mile-A-Minute highway, because at that time, Mainers were astounded to be able to drive at 60 miles per hour.
It is quite a revelation after the highways in Kansas, which are often flanked by endless, rolling cornfields.You can literally see for miles on either side—all the way to the horizon. Not so the Maine Turnpike. Here dense walls of tall pines are broken by tiny glimpses of twisting brooks and sunlit ponds. It is a magnificent, scenic road to travel—but for people used to driving in the Midwest, it often feels a bit claustrophobic.
Separated by a common language
The various Massachusetts accents were sometimes difficult for me to understand, but it was in Down East Maine that I met my match. Roger and I had gotten lost wandering the back roads, and he finally agreed to stop for directions if I did the asking. We saw two older gentlemen sitting on a park bench, and I hopped out.
“Excuse me,” I said politely. “We seem to be lost. Which way do we go to reach Bar Harbor?”
One of the two men then went into a long dissertation on the best path, gesticulating emphatically and occasionally joined in by his companion. The sounds were clearly English. I smiled, thanked them, and walked back to the car.
“Well. Which way do we go?” Roger asked.
“I have no idea. I couldn’t understand a word either of them said. Let’s just keep driving. Something will turn up.” I waved and smiled at the two friendly gentlemen.
Home at last
Roger and I finally went our separate ways, but New England and I bonded permanently. Some years later, I moved to New Hampshire. I now live near Peterborough, New Hampshire in a peaceful area, quiet except for the occasional sounds of planes on a flight plan for Manchester Airport. I’m a member of a local CSA, which I explain to my Kansas relatives as being “Community Supported Agriculture.” CSAs allow people to buy a share of the farm harvest at the beginning of the year so that they are supplied with fresh organic produce throughout the growing season. My home is not far from one of the two original CSAs in the US—the Temple-Wilton Community Farm. I buy my eggs and milk from a local farm and shop at the nearby Farmers Market.
My car has become stuck in the snow several times—each time people soon stopped, helped me free myself, then drove off, content with a few words of thanks, knowing that they have helped a neighbor they had not previously known.
I’ve grown used to the forested coziness of New Hampshire, and when I travel to the Midwest, I miss the low, ancient mountains that dot the landscape. I like the plain-spoken directness of so many New Hampshire residents, their feisty independence, and determination to make their own way. My Midwestern relatives have started to grumble about the way I pronounce my words.
Still sometimes I miss the vast vistas of the Midwest. When I do, I go to the ocean and look east. I imagine that if the air was only clear enough, I could see all the way to Ireland.
But when I look landward, instead of corn fields, I see deep woods of pine and oak, sometimes white-washed capes and the occasional mansion, sometimes granite outcroppings and glacier carved lakes. I’m not in Kansas anymore.
“Ah,” I sigh as peace fills my heart. “It is good to be home.”
Three of us were tight as a fist, and Eddie’s call came at 4:00 in the morning. His whisper, not wanting to wake his wife, said “Great storm at sea last night. Want to check the beach?” I knew he had called Ray already. Eddie knew false dawn practically every day of his adult life, his internal clock telling him not to miss anything the dawn brought along behind it. An awakening grace on my end also told me it was Saturday. That’s all it took in the darkness beside my wife, turning, stretching, eyes blinking, rolling over, going back to sleep. She knew it was Saturday too.
Once before, after a storm out on the Atlantic, we had found a dozen quahogs at Nahant Beach, picked them off the sands with an assortment of sea clams on the mile of curving beach along the causeway linking islanded and insular Nahant to the City of Lynn. For years we swam at Nahant Beach, celebrated with evening cookouts, and watched the girls on long summer days.
In silence, in darkness until I reached the kitchen, I left a note for my wife: “Storm at sea last night. Will be at Nahant looking for quahogs to stuff and bake. Eddie called. Ray and I are going.”
The morning was special. A summer nip climbed in the air, saying, as ever, that Saturdays are full of expectations—all you have to do is keep your eyes on the faintest line of the horizon where sky and sea make their ocular mix.
We did not bring baskets or bags (that would call for too much organization), but hurried to view the scene, not to be left out of the treasure yield the storm and Father Atlantic might have tossed onto the beach. On the way, in Ray’s car, an old green Studebaker that smoked and made strange noises, we talked about grinding them up for baked stuffed quahogs for munching during TV hockey games, or for freezing them, after being ground up, to use in Thanksgiving turkey stuffing. Some would be earmarked for adding to the menu of a corn and lobster clambake classic in one yard or another, and large copper pots loaded with seaweed sitting atop several joined camp stoves.
In our five mile ride to Nahant there was little traffic, the sun just burping over the horizon, all of Europe halfway through its day. We hit the beach, and were stunned; in front of us was the mother lode from Father Atlantic. As far as we could see, along the strand stretching away from us in a long curve, the beach was littered with quahogs and sea clams, all sizes, tossed like stars, fragments of an inordinate explosion. In joy and surprise we screamed at each other for not bringing baskets or plastic bags to carry off the loot. Hunger tantrums made way on us. The forgotten taste of baked stuffed quahogs came back in a hurry. Tabasco sauce, a glass of wine or a glass of beer, a kiss from the wild Atlantic. Wives would bustle, demanding condiments as varied as kitchen wallpaper, tastes born of hunger, experience, aromas brought back from mothers off on the long forever ride.
Scrambling for anything to carry them in the trunk of the car, we found an old pair of wading boots and two old work jackets. We rushed up and down the beach, filling all the limbs of those boots and the jackets, lugging them to the car. We filled the trunk and then the back seat. It was exhausting work, running back and fro, waiting for the hungry crowd to come over the horizon, to get their share.
We thought the morning was as complete as it ever could be, the three of us, Pine River fisherman, trout fisherman, who were mesmerized by sea food…lobster, clams, shrimp, the catch of the day stuffed and baked, broiled in the back yard over an open fire and matched with August treasures taken from our own gardens.
But, in another wake-up call, along the paved walk of the strand, on an old-fashioned skinny-tire bicycle, which might be next seen in the Antique Roadshow, going slow, studying the beach, came an elderly gent. He wore a shirt and tie, on a Saturday, and a blazer. His shoes shined like a car bumper just out of the car wash. Clean, creased, neat as rows of peas in the garden, he appeared as if he was ready to perform a ceremony, judge a criminal case, present the future to any audience looking over its shoulder. He was thin and wiry, but not squirrely. Something told me this straight-standing man was on the same hunt that we were, but likely it was more of a mission, a command he had accepted. The neatness came from long habit.
We asked him if this was his regular morning constitutional from Nahant, to pedal the causeway out and back, to keep fit what was an 80-year-old body, at least.
“Not really,” he said with a soft smile. “My wife Mirabel, she’s sitting at home waiting for me, we’ve been married almost 60 years, sent me out to see if I could find a couple of quahogs she could stuff and bake tonight. She knows her weather patterns, the tide climbing and leaving the rocks of Nahant, what happens out at sea that she can read sitting back here in a house she’s lived in for more than 60 years; I’m not sure how many years. I know if I’m successful on my search, she’ll pull like magic out of her hat a nice bottle of wine from some place in the house, and we’ll have ourselves a grand evening. Rich salt air, a little wine, music from a favorite old opera, and baked stuffed quahogs.”
The lip-smacking was in order. “It can’t get any better than that.” He smiled the soft smile again.
He was not out to beat anybody. The old man, we believed, at that moment between the tides and forever after, had found Nirvana and Utopia.
Ray, quick to spread his wealth, opened the trunk of the car. Quahogs, like huge coins, spilled onto the pavement. We filled the little basket sitting across the handlebars of the old gent’s bike. A dozen quahogs, loaded with promise, sat like the riches of the Orient. The air was special. Saturday was special.
Eddie said, “Do you want us to follow you home and make a special delivery, a big delivery.”
“Oh, dear, no,” the old gent said. “That would only spoil it.”
To a man we knew what he meant.
We never saw him again. We never saw the beach littered like that again. We never made that trip again, time having its way, and mortality. But I think about it often, and all the players on that special Saturday.
How long does it take before it’s OK to call yourself a “Vermonter”? I am not from here. Not only that, I had always described myself as a “city girl”, born in Manhattan, lived most of my adult life in or near Boston (except for a 5-year stint in Europe) and never owned a car. When I informed my friends and colleagues that my big plan was to retire to Vermont, there was a universal outcry and questions regarding my survival: “How can you live THERE? You don’t drive, you don’t even have a license, you don’t ski, AND you hate camping!”
Well, I had my reasons. I focused on Burlington. By Vermont standards, it is a city, and I found its culture and politics very similar to Cambridge, Massachusetts where I was living. Cambridge had Harvard and MIT, but Burlington had UVM, Saint Michaels, Champlain College, and Burlington College. It also had the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts, and the Burlington City Arts Center on Church Street, which reminded me so much of Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art when it was housed in a converted firehouse on Boylston Street. Those were the days before they occupied their daringly contemporary building that hangs precariously over Boston Harbor.
Burlington was practically a sister city to Montreal, and that is where my daughter and grandchildren live. Another goal on my checklist was to move closer to them. They are bilingual, and Burlington makes an effort to make French speakers feel at home. In the summer, most of the license plates at the North Beach Campground are from Québec, and when you sit on the dock, sipping a glass of wine at Splash, the sailboats and cruisers that pull up usually claim Québec as their homeport.
Then there is simply the breathtaking beauty of this state. In years past, I took the bus from Boston, and headed north, sometimes to attend the Vermont International Film Festival. (I was in the documentary film distribution business.) I sat by the window mesmerized as lush green mountains gave way to soft valleys dotted with cows and white steeples. I imagined myself living here. The sky was an ever changing dramatic backdrop to my thoughts as the bus lumbered along, season after season. I love the cold. The stark outline of a bare-limbed Maple against the snow stirs my aesthetic sensibilities as much as the first daffodils in spring. Burlington is Vermont’s glittery tiara that perches gingerly on the shore of Lake Champlain. With the Church Street Marketplace lit and glowing in winter and its jewel of a bike path drawing locals and visitors alike year round, I felt at home before I even lived here.
Given that the last few years were difficult for anyone selling a home, I figured I could get something of comparable size to my house in Cambridge, for half the price. With the help of some solicitous Burlington-based realtors, I found what has proven to be the place I am proud to call home. An 1880’s carriage house, set back from the road, surrounded by a white picket fence. There is an ample yard for a gardener who has only known clay pots set on concrete, and for this non-driver, the pièce de résistance was the bus stop at the end of my driveway and the Hannaford’s shopping center a fifteen-minute walk away.
On June 17th, 2016, I will be celebrating my fifth year as a homeowner in Vermont. To those who were born here, I am just an interloper. But, I am surrounded by neighbors who welcomed me from the start. I’ve become close friends with the Albanian family next door, who brought a chair for me so we could sit together on North Beach and watch the city fireworks on my first 4th of July, or another neighbor who told me about signing up for Front Porch Forum. The grassroots political engagement of Vermonters is legendary, and I was pleased to discover the excitement surrounding the campaign of our now new Mayor Miro Weinberger. I started volunteering, working for his election when I first came to town. It was an eye-opener, and I learned a lot about the political history of the city and the state as a result. Bernie Sanders, a homegrown Vermont native, lives a few blocks from me in a modest colonial and could be the next President of the United States.
I regularly walk with my constant companion, a 100 pound St. Bernard/Golden Retriever rescue pup named Ethel, from my house to the bike path and on down to the shore of Lake Champlain. The water is still lapping at its banks, but last year at this time you could walk across the deeply frozen expanse to New York and the Adirondacks on the other side. In the summer, the lake is always warm enough for my granddaughters who never tire of swimming at Leddy Beach, or interacting with the science exhibits at the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center. I know they are happy grandma moved to Vermont. I feel like a “Vermonter”, and I don’t plan on leaving, so perhaps it is safe to now call myself one.
While this former city girl has been seduced and transformed by a place of extraordinary and ever-changing natural beauty, I am not blind to the evidence of poverty, recent increases in drug-related crime, and homelessness that also exist, often in the shadows cast by the state’s magnificent mountain peaks. In the frenetic, people packed cities where I have lived and worked; troubled, beleaguered citizens clinging to the ragged remains of civility became invisible while in plain sight. In Vermont, I found a pervasive feeling of community responsibility, woven into a strong social safety net, supported by trust. Burlington City Hall is a concrete example; its doors are unlocked and unfortified. There are no metal detectors or security guards demanding that you empty the contents of your purse or leave your backpack outside before entering. The bathrooms are on the ground level and are open to the public all day. When in town shopping I frequently duck in there to pee, sometimes with my dog in tow. I also bring her into City Hall when I renew her dog license. It’s in the same office where you register to vote and they always offer dog biscuits to let you know that your canine friends are welcome.
This openness and accessibility may seem naïve to an outsider, like a throwback to an earlier time and place. But in the face of so much rancor and ugliness thrust on us every day in so many parts of our country and the world beyond, Vermont offers respite. For a restless baby boomer like me, it is an ideal place to settle and reflect on, and write about the past, while enjoying the present and looking forward to the future.
“Gordon’s eyes are up,” Everett announced. Everett, we would find, liked to be the bearer of news, especially if it was bad.
My husband Bruce cracked the last egg into a bowl. First morning on the job, he planned to serve scrambled eggs, pancakes, and bacon. “What does that mean?” he asked.
On cue, Gordon groped his way into the kitchen, his arms stretched out before him to locate the refrigerator or any other obstacle in his path. His irises had rolled up under his top eyelids, leaving two eerie strips of white showing.
Bruce called Ulysse, the man who had just sold us this place.
“I forgot to tell you,” said Ulysse. “Gordon’s eyes go up when he gets tense. They’ll get back to normal in a while.”
Gordon and Everett were among the thirteen men who came into our care overnight with our purchase of Camelot Farm in Winchendon, Massachusetts. Built around 1850 as an inn on a well-traveled stage coach route between northern New England and Boston, Camelot had seen a number of incarnations. It was called Sunnyside Acres in the 1940s and ’50s, when it served as a summer hostelry for lady school teachers who came out from Boston and Cambridge to paint and enjoy the fresh air. Yvonne Harrington, an elderly neighbor who still lives on the common, grew up in the old parsonage next door and worked in Sunnyside’s kitchen in her teens.
Over time the building fell into disrepair, becoming so derelict in the 1960s that the forty-room house, barn, and forty-five acres sold for $7,000 to a man from town who had long dreamed of owning a house on the common. He called it his Camelot.
After couple more changes of hands, a military veteran named Ted Messier moved in with his wife and thirteen children. Once their children began leaving the nest, the Messiers took in disabled veterans who were psychiatric patients at the Veterans’ Administration hospital in Bedford, MA. Ulysse bought Camelot in 1972, continuing to run it as a veterans’ home. By 1978 Ulysse knew this wasn’t his calling.
Bruce and I thought it might be ours. On an unseasonably warm day in October of that year we arrived with our infant daughter Molly, two cats, and all our possessions tucked into an old Volkswagen van.
We knew to expect anxiety among the residents with the handover; we didn’t know someone’s eyeballs might disappear. Establishing trust in us could be a stretch for a group of men who were mostly our parents’ age. In the meantime, there would be testing and comparisons, often with grating comments like, “Ulysse didn’t do it that way.”
Gordon’s handsome, youthful face with piercing blue eyes and rosy cheeks belied his fifty years. He was one of the few non-smokers in the house, and had no history of alcohol use. In constant motion, he paced or shifted his weight from foot to foot any time he wasn’t going from point A to point B.
He liked to help around the house, but struggled with voices in his head that scolded him for never getting anything right. Before we arrived, he had taken on the job of wiping the dining room tables after meals. When he felt well, he was proud of his work. When the voices gripped him, he got confused and fretted that he shouldn’t have accepted such a big responsibility. Sometimes, like a needle stuck in a record groove, his mind would catch and he would wipe one spot with the same circular motion over and over. “Looks good, Gordon,” was enough to break the spell so he could move on.
His roots were in farming. His family ran an apple orchard and produce stand on the last working farm in their eastern Massachusetts town. He hadn’t made it through boot camp—he was a sweet country boy who never belonged in the military, despite his family’s hopes that the Army would be good for him. In a way it did help, because it qualified him for the lifelong medical and psychiatric care he would need for his schizophrenia. Gordon had two goals: to return to his family farm, and to live to the age of one hundred.
The big wooden barn behind Camelot had housed dairy cattle at one time, but it stood empty and rundown when we moved in. I saw past the rubble, and imagined the noises and smells of farm animals. In the field, an old claw-footed bathtub that once served as a watering trough waited to be filled again.
October was too late to start with livestock that first year. We could make plans, though, about how to best use the space inside, what kinds of animals we wanted to raise, and where to put a garden. With Molly in a front pack, I spent crisp fall days clearing away broken glass.
I had lots of help. In our early years at Camelot, more than half of the men who lived with us had grown up in rural New England and served during World War II. Even those who didn’t have a direct connection with farming loved country life. Most of them jumped in on the project, sharing my enthusiasm for putting the barn back to use, but Gordon was my right hand guy. He carted wheelbarrow loads of trash to the dumpster, growing ever more animated about where we would get the animals, what we would feed them, and how they did things on his family’s farm.
The men were turning out to be a handful, more than the doddering old shell-shock victims originally described to us. We found out about the practice of lipping meds (keeping them in your mouth until you leave the dining room and then spitting them out) when a resident punched out a window on the second floor late one November night because he saw a face staring in at him. EMTs arrived in a VA ambulance, strapped a straight jacket on him, and took him away—the only time I ever saw a straight jacket put to use. In the man’s closet Bruce found a coffee can half full of meds he had lipped.
Winter swooped in with a Thanksgiving Day blizzard. We didn’t see bare ground again until the following March. Work on the barn stopped as we settled into learning how to care for the men and raise a baby. In just three months we had become parents, moved to a different state, and taken on a new, potentially high stress kind of work. We needed time to regroup.
During the day Gordon sometimes pushed Molly in her carriage, circling between the kitchen, dining room, and parlor. His greatest pleasure, however, was helping Bruce, to whom he developed a powerful loyalty. As Bruce tackled the endless repairs and renovations involved in keeping an old ark like Camelot afloat, Gordon was on hand, fetching supplies, handing him nails, and helping with clean-up. To Gordon’s delight, they discovered a cosmic connection—they shared a birthday, twenty years apart.
In the spring, they left off on house projects long enough to equip a barn stall with a heat lamp and a brooder box for twenty fluffy, day-old chicks who would grow into our first laying hens. Then they cleaned out another stall and built a milking stand.
Through the winter I had experimented with drinking goat milk, which more closely resembles human milk than cow milk does, making it easier for sensitive stomachs to digest. Molly’s colicky tummy fared better when I switched over. Soon I was making goat yogurt and goat cheese as well.
By spring we had become friends with several goat owners, whose social lives revolved around milking schedules. I was taken with the personalities of goats and their owners, and drawn to the daily rhythm of milking. We made a trip to a goat farm in Epping, New Hampshire, to pick up Tally and Nina, two Toggenburg does.
We set off for Epping in a Checker Cab we’d tracked down in Vermont. The Checker had close to 200,000 miles on the odometer when we bought it, and was going strong. Besides being sturdily built, it had good carrying capacity, with roomy bench seats in front and back plus two jump seats behind the driver and front passenger. Gordon rode along, buckled into the jump seat behind Bruce.
Nina was a yearling who would be ready to breed the following fall. Tally, having just freshened for a second time, came with excellent production records. Before we left Epping, the farmer put Tally on a stand so we could practice milking. She showed us how to squeeze from the top down, to trap the milk and press it out instead of backing it up into the udder. Tally’s teats were easy to hold, and the milk flowed in thick streams.
Recently, I came across a photo taken in the driveway the day we brought the goats home. Still anchored in the jump seat, Gordon has his arms wrapped around Tally, whose head sticks out a back window. Nina’s tail end is visible as she appears ready to leap from the other side of the car.
Twelve men watched us unload Nina and Tally and lead them into the barn. Life at Camelot Farm was getting more interesting by the day. That evening, with Bruce behind me holding Molly, I coaxed Tally onto the milk stand. Gordon stood next to Bruce. I filled Tally’s grain dish, placed a shiny stainless steel bowl under her belly, and squeezed her teats. Nothing happened. I massaged her udder, talked to her, and squeezed again. Nothing. She let out a mournful bleat.
Bruce had no better luck than I. Poor Tally. In the hands of bumbling novices she was scared to let down her milk, but her swollen udder needed relief. I thought of calling one of our goatherd friends to come bail us out. Bruce looked at Gordon.
“Your family used to raise dairy cows, didn’t they?”
Gordon shifted his weight from foot to foot. “I…I only milked cows, not goats,” he stammered.
“Gordon, you can milk the goat.”
There’s no telling what the voices in his head were shouting at him, but his desire to help Bruce won out. “I’ll try.”
With a robotic movement, he grasped Tally’s teats. The way a body remembers how to ride a bicycle, Gordon’s body held the memory of how to milk an animal, using sure, steady strokes. When he stripped her teats out a few minutes later, Tally’s udder was soft and pliant, and the bowl was filled with frothy milk.
We didn’t put him in charge of milking—the responsibility would have been too much. Tally relaxed, we relaxed, and barn chores became routine.
Gradually, we added turkeys, ducks, pigs, sheep, a couple horses, and a miniature mule to our menagerie, and two more daughters to our family.
We’d been at Camelot about ten years when Gordon’s voices got worse. He gave up doing the tables and his eyes rolled up frequently as he wandered about the house. None of the medications helped. With huge regret, we conceded that we couldn’t keep him safe or provide the kind of care he needed.
We would have to make this call many times in our three decades at Camelot. In time the decision to re-hospitalize someone became clearer, but not easier. Three members of our original crew lived with us until they died in their late eighties, early in the twenty-first century. They were the exceptions; few of the two hundred or so other men who came into our care lasted that long.
Gordon never recovered enough to return to Camelot or his family’s farm. He didn’t make it to one hundred either, but he accomplished other things. A New England farm boy to the core, he helped restore life to an empty, unused barn. He did more than that, though. His enthusiasm in those early days for joining in whatever projects we took on, spurred us on to turn Camelot from a bare bones boarding house into a lively community. Like Gordon, most of the men who lived with us over the years felt they were part of something special, even when the outside world didn’t necessarily tell them that.