I got word last night that the old house is being sold. Not this old house in which we live, but the house of my grandmother, a ramshackle Cape Cod in the hamlet of Tug Hollow where my father was raised.
Although I never lived there, the place looms large in my memory. I spent many hours with my grandmother poring over its contents – the piles of bound Harper’s Weeklys, the portraits of ancestors, the letters her sons wrote home during World War II.
I have used its four walls in novels and stories. I dreamed of living there. I dreamed of writing there.
My grandmother, Mary Angeline Woodmansee, and her first husband, Henry H. Thayer, bought the house in May 1925 from James Kennedy and Marie DeVere. They paid a few hundred dollars.
Although rundown then, the house would have been at its best in May. The lilacs must have been blooming, the maples birthing their first fragile leaves. The barn had yet to be blown down by the Hurricane of 1938. There probably was a chicken coop, a root cellar.
They must have arrived with hope, Mamie and Henry.
My father was nearly 2 that spring, his brother Sam 4. Their siblings Leona, Henry H. Jr., and Betty would be born in the house; so too would the youngest, Sylvia Louise, who lived only a few months before dying in her sleep on Dec. 10, 1932.
Most of the land was taken up by a bog. The house perched on a high point level with the road, and the land steeply descended behind it.
The well was almost in the road. That road was dirt, with so little traffic that a passing car would prompt my grandmother to cry out “Hark!” and run to the window.
The old house would remain in the family for more than 70 years. Like the Witness Houses of Concord and Lexington, it saw the boys go off to war, and thankfully return. It watched Henry leave and a new man take his place.
It sheltered my grandmother as she made home brew in the cellar, baked her famous pies, and wove rugs on an antique loom. It saw her age from her comely 20s and 30s to stout middle age and then a stooped old age.
And it watched itself be replaced by a new house on the best part of the property, which my grandmother’s second husband built for her in the 1970s.
This is all externals, the literal house where a family lived, grew up, and scattered. It is not the house in my mind.
I have roamed through its memory many times. Sometimes the rooms are as they were: my grandmother’s white iron bed with the clip-on light; the tiny bathroom made from a closet; the Glenwood range that provided the only heat.
I have imagined myself writing there. Even now, though the house will surely be torn down, I can picture it: a spare sort of cabin, not a place to live, but a destination, an escape.
A writing cabin needs little. A wood stove to take off the chill in fall and winter. A writing desk – any flat surface will do. Windows that let in the light.
But it is not a place for frippery. Henry David Thoreau discovered this at Walden Pond. “I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was undusted still, and I threw them out the window in disgust.”
You can visit a reproduction of his small house across the street from Walden Pond in Concord, and its simplicity is immediately apparent: there are replicas of the famous three chairs, “one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” A cot; a small table; a green desk; a hearth. That is all.
By Thoreau standards, the Tug Hollow house would seem commodious indeed. But it was a tight fit for a family of seven. The real estate ad lists only “one bedroom and one bathroom,” discounting entirely the second-floor space under the eaves where my father and his siblings slept.
But as a writing cabin? A thinking space? It is just the right size. A cozy parlor with a wood stove. A bedroom for napping. A squat kitchen for making a cup of tea or warming up soup.
I will never get to write in that house. My father inherited it, as it turned out, but reasoning that I already owned a house and my sister didn’t want it, he sold his half of the property. I learned of this after the fact.
I already have fulfilled one fantasy of redoing an old house, the one where I grew up, and there is neither money nor spousal patience for another. I have a lovely office with book shelves and a desk and a red upholstered chair.
But the Tug Hollow house will live on in my heart, along with the smell of lilacs, the drumming of rain on the roof, and the crackle of burning wood.