Creative Nonfiction, Tom Sheehan

The Catch of the Day

by Tom Sheehan

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.

~

Creative Nonfiction, Cynthia Close

Becoming a “Vermonter”

by Cynthia Close

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.

~

Creative Nonfiction, Margaret Hawthorn

Farm Boy

by Margaret Hawthorn

“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 with fresh cut asparagus from the garden

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.

Daughter Molly, age 3, and one of Tally’s offspring

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.

Front: Bruce and Margaret, and their daughters, Molly, Sadie, and Ruby
Front: Bruce and Margaret, and their daughters,
Molly, Sadie, and Ruby
Back: the Knights of Camelot

~

Creative Nonfiction, Stephanie Minteer

Beatrice Trum Hunter, Renaissance Woman

by Stephanie Minteer

If you’d been watching public television at WGBH, Boston shortly after Julia Child made cooking shows famous, you might have encountered Beatrice Trum Hunter extolling the virtues and rewards of simple cooking using organically grown, natural foods. She was enlisted by the nascent independent medium to produce a taped show demonstrating healthy living techniques to a skeptical New England audience. Already an expert, she had perfected fermenting vegetables, yogurt-making, sprouting, and vegetarian cooking in order to feed the eager summer guests retreating to her Deering woods. At age 96, and alone now, she is still cooking, writing, creating art, reading, studying, learning something new every day.

Beatrice lives in the same house she and her husband John restored in the 1950s. Son of the world famous photographer Lotte Jacobi, John brought his bride from New York City to two hundred fifty forested acres in Deering, New Hampshire, to embark on a life of self-sufficiency. Though unaccustomed to the natural world, Beatrice took to their new lifestyle like a beaver to a pond. She dug and planted vegetable gardens, became a gourmet cook, invented and developed her own recipes, helped with the house building, and when house and barn were completed, agreed to start a summer retreat for city folk who wanted a taste of solitude.

Beatrice Trum Hunter
Photography by Stephanie Minteer

Today, seventy years later, Beatrice is a diminutive woman with strong hands, salt-and-pepper bobbed hair, loose-fitting clothes, and a ready smile. She lives independently in a few rooms of the house she and John rebuilt at the end of a half mile-long dirt road. Her artesian well provides her with abundant, clean water, which she conserves, nevertheless, by drawing enough for cooking and drinking only once each day. Her pot-bellied woodstove keeps her warm in winter; her screened porch, which doubles as a file room, keeps her cool in summer.

She is the author of more than thirty books and countless articles, a natural foods expert, a researcher of every aspect of our food chain and wrong-headed preferences, from sugar substitutes to soil amelioration to consumer safety. And she is still writing and publishing. She will talk to you brilliantly about our addiction to sugar, and how microbiomes might save the future.

She recycles everything, reuses, repurposes. Her innovation will make you take a second look at scan codes and security-printed envelopes, which she saves and folds into origami shapes. After a health scare, she gave away her art collection and most of her extensive library, but she recovered and moved back home. Now her wildflower and feather collages decorate the bare walls. An old-fashioned letter writer, she personalizes every card she sends with bits of found material. And she still gives away a book once its been read.

After the death of her husband John and with her distinguished mother-in-law in a nursing home, Beatrice turned to photography. Using the camera equipment she inherited, she produced and exhibited her own unique body of work: ice crystals. But the camera is still now. Words were her true medium, and it is to words she has returned.

Although diminishing vision makes reading more tiring lately, Beatrice still reads incessantly, if not as fast. She handwrites her manuscripts and has a friend transcribe her words onto computer discs for her publisher. A loyal friend of the United States Postal Service, she has now met all the criteria for having her rurally delivered mail dropped directly into a box outside her door. And once a month, a USPS envelope appears, bulging with packets of the latest commemorative stamps, her one indulgence. She is saved a mile-long walk to the old mailbox and is assured a visit from the mail carrier six days a week. A one-woman clipping service for any topic of interest to her or her friends, she carefully selects articles from the many journals she receives, dates and files them for future reference or delivery. And when Beatrice sends you an envelope of clippings, accompanied by a perfectly printed, handwritten note, you can be sure it will arrive in a recycled mailer.

Shy and self-effacing, this woman would be surprised to discover her simple, efficient lifestyle inspiring a new generation. A clean-living nonagenarian, her bright eyes twinkle as she freely admits to a few foibles: a bite of something sinfully sweet after supper and an addiction to Downton Abbey and Nature on PBS. A Netflix subscriber, she keeps up with the times. Her approach to aging draws on the same determination she demonstrated when she first came to live in New Hampshire: use your mind, take care of your body, keep busy, persevere. Live every day with intention.

Creative Nonfiction, Sue Ellen Snape

The Road to Here

by Sue Ellen Snape

 

Robert and Margaret Stone and their children, including Sue Ellen in front, with their new Chevy, circa 1950
Robert and Margaret Stone and their children, including Sue Ellen in front, with their new Chevy, circa 1950

Starting around 1947 through the early 1960s , for summer vacation my parents often rented a cabin up on Stinson Lake, New Hampshire. We lived in central Pennsylvania, and in that era before superhighways, the trip was well over a day’s drive. With three children along, it required an overnight stop. The one time we left in the middle of the night was never repeated.

That infamous trip was likely the first, made in our very first family car, a ’38 Packard bought used at the end of World War II. As the youngest child, about five years old at the time, I was put to bed on the shelf under the back window, my sister bedded down on the back seat, and my brother on the floor. Accidently-on-purpose toppling off my assigned perch proved irresistible to me, inciting sneak attacks in return. My brother recalls the car breaking down as well.

Our travel route varied as new highways were built, but all converged on the crossroads at Rumney Village. I’d be on the edge of my seat along the winding road out to Stinson Lake, the final stretch a jarring ride over a dirt road around the back of the lake. My dad would invariably pronounce the road in terminal condition, not liable to last another season, but somehow it always did. A steep driveway led downhill to a small parking lot. From there we descended on foot.

The cabin stood partway down a forested slope overlooking Stinson Lake. The one story, wood-frame structure with its shingle exterior could be described as a cottage, but we always called it a cabin. Out front was a small deck with a view to the lake. Built in the early 1900s, the structure sagged in the middle as if it had tired of holding itself up. To my child’s eye it had always been that way, and offered a reassuring sameness from year to year.

On arrival, at some point we all had to pitch in to lug all our baggage down to the cabin, but as a child I’d pile out of the car and run on ahead. Coming down the path, the first glimpse would be of the rear porch with a door off to one side, which served as the main entry. A screened porch ran along the back of the cabin. This is where we slept.

The back entry opened to a utility room off the kitchen, with an open hall to the living room. The interior always smelled the same to me—an earthen mix of old age and fresh air, a trace of wood smoke. The old linoleum floors in the kitchen and living area had a traditional discolored look, the same cracks and curled edges. When going in or out in my usual rush, the back screen door always slammed shut, a sound I can still hear.

The sleeping porch had beds on each side separated by a free-standing divider, an open closet built into each side. A canvas blind pulled down over the screen for privacy, or blowing rain, but mostly we kept it open. My sister and I shared a bed. We brought sheets from home, but the cabin had a storehouse of wool blankets and handmade quilts stored in a large chest. Each quilt had a distinctive design. My favorite had an array of tiny, bright flowers, resembling wildflowers growing in a meadow.

A door closed off the sleeping porch from the living room at the front of the cabin. A jumble of easy chairs and two long, broken-down couches provided ample seating, with all kinds of pillows—tapestry, needlepoint, what have you—to cushion the lumps. The shelves of old books remained intact from one year to the next, as did the corner shelf with board games and wooden jigsaw puzzles, the puzzles handcrafted by original property owner, Walter Fletcher. People referred to him as Walt. He made the puzzles so they held together when lifted off the table.

A photo of a young, robust Walt Fletcher hung on the cabin wall. I met him as a wizened elder, on my part an awestruck child. He and his wife, Lena, had downsized to a smaller cabin up the hill from ours. A boardwalk ran along the back of our cabin, and branched off to theirs. I carry a mental picture of Walt as having sharp, golden brown eyes, his head cocked slightly in a birdlike pose. Lena had a sparrow-bright eyes and a way of flitting around that may have contributed to that impression. Following Walt’s passing, Lena continued to drive up from Florida until well into her nineties, and stay the summer in that cabin.

Neighbors gather for a picnic behind the Grimes’ cabin

The boardwalk continued past the rear of a neighboring cabin built similarly to ours, also a rental at the time, to a larger summer dwelling at the end of the group, belonging to the Grimes. Ashton Grimes was a professor of music at Oberlin College in Ohio. Both he and his wife, Katharine (“Kay”) Grimes, were accomplished musicians. In addition, Kay was a notable artist, and became well known for her realism still life paintings. The Grimes had built a wonderful playhouse, which their three daughters had outgrown, but in the early years, my sister and I were just the right age.

The Grimes’ eldest daughter had left home by then, and I knew her only as Judy-Who-Skated-In-The-Ice-Capades. The two younger daughters, Patty and Caroline, were still around for most of those summers. Both musically gifted, together with their parents, they put on what amounted to a virtuoso jam session at the Grimes cabin some evenings.

The youngest daughter, Caroline, played flute. Near as I can recall, Ashton and Patty played violin, with Kay on cello. There could a guest musician, or an amateur instrumentalist taking part. At some point my brother played clarinet well enough to perform with the group. Later on my sister made her debut on the viola.

As an aspiring organist my mom had once dreamed of enrolling at the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music, and despite attending a school in her home state (Oregon), and later settling into the role of housewife, she retained a love of music. How she must have cherished those musical evenings.

A fidgety kid not ordinarily motivated by classical music, I’d generally sit on the floor. From there I caught the full sensory effect of the musical vibrations, the thumping feet, the rising intensity of the fully engaged musicians caught up in the beat.

My dad was of a restless nature. A professor of microbiology, at six-four with the inner drive of a turbo jet, he usually walked the two or three miles to his building on the Penn State campus regardless of weather. Musically, he couldn’t carry a tune, but he’d go along with my mom on all things musical. She, in turn, would follow his lead in hiking the rocky peaks of New Hampshire. We kids were expected to follow suit.

At about age five I made the comparatively easy climb up Stinson Mountain. From all reports, I whined the entire way up, dragging my legs. On the way down I ran the full distance, that part I remember. In later years Stinson Mountain became a warm-up hike.

Once past the whining stage, on difficult climbs I mostly kept to a silent, martyred approach on the ascent, focused on reaching the open rock. New Hampshire’s rocky peaks provide ledge-jumping galore for active kids. I had great fun playing mountain goat on that granite landscape.

The Jefferson Caps Trail with its string of false summits, climbed in full sun on a merciless hot day, stood as the exception. Webster Cliff Trail and Mt. Cardigan offered the best ledges and sweeping views off the summit for the least burdensome ascent, and ranked as favorites. A hike up King Ravine on Mt. Adams stands as an all-time best. For me at an awkward age of twelve or thereabouts, surmounting the headwall of King Ravine made me feel like I’d conquered the world.

Driving the old Route 3 north from Plymouth to Franconia Notch or further north took well over an hour, so when hiking those mountains we had to get up early. It’d be dark, when I’d hear my parents up, my dad stoking the woodstove on cold mornings. Chilly mornings out on the sleeping porch made even more reason for delaying the moment when my bare feet hit the cold floor until the last possible second. The rule of thumb for a good hiking day was if you could see across the lake to the peak of Mt. Moosilauke off in the distance. Some morning clouds might lift —bucking those odds got us soaking wet on several occasions. Awakening to the patter of rain meant no hiking that day. From the comfort of bed and a layer of covers, I could drowse off to the cadence of rain on the cabin roof, the sound of dripping foliage in the woods.

Dad liked to fly fish, and would occasionally traipse off to some distant stream with his casting rod. Mom drew the line at fishing. The cabin came with a row boat, and I remember Mom rowing us to secluded cove with enough of a beach for a picnic lunch. Or she’d row across the lake to the Stinson Lake Store, which was also a post office.

The lake front itself offered no end of amusement. A giant, mossy boulder stood at the edge of the beach, large enough to support a gnarled old pine, an array of ferns and the occasional wildflower. A few hundred feet of sandy beach was kept clear of the encroaching vegetation. Other families sat out on the beach, and sometimes I’d sit out, too, and perhaps pass the time sifting through the sand for shiny particles of mica, little bits of quartz, or a coveted rare find in gemlike amber, or garnet red, for my own little bitty mineral collection.

Naturally we went swimming. The lake was teeth-chattering cold when you first jumped in, the bottom mucky the farther off the beach you went. Filaments of water plants created an underwater terrarium harboring small fish and other beasties—namely leeches. My parents said leeches wouldn’t bother you if you kept moving. It gave impetus to learning to swim well enough to make it out to the float and dive platform tethered in deep water.

Stinson Lake and the diving dock in the distance
Photograph by Robert W. Stone

In time I became less ghoulish over leeches, and would float in the shallows where the sun warmed the water. Sunlight created a dappled effect. Mica bits glittered underwater. Close to shore the lake bottom formed ripples from the current. I never did get a leech on me.

Some days we came back late from hiking a distant mountain and I wouldn’t feel much like taking a swim. Nobody said I had to, but my dad always did, and even my mom did, who probably didn’t feel like it either, and she was in charge of putting out supper. I’d go jump in the lake just enough to get wet, enough to prove I’d been swimming. Then I’d invariably stay longer. Once you were in, the water was glorious.

Over time I formed roots here in New Hampshire. Mountain trails that had once reduced me to tears became touchstones in that up and down journey into adulthood, and I made those same climbs many times over. Many of my favorite places and pastimes grew out of those summer days spent at Stinson Lake. Like so many others, I came from somewhere else and found my best place here in New Hampshire.