Monthly Archives: June 2018

All the springs that came before

 

I bought four peonies last weekend. I had forgotten how they smelled: rich, aromatic, but not as cloying as a rose.

When my mother was in her 90s, I brought her outside one day. We were headed to the doctor’s. Before she would get in the car she thrust her head into the lilac bush and breathed deeply.

She couldn’t really see those lavender blooms, but she could smell them, and they must have carried for her the rich association of all the springs she had lived before.  

Peonies, of course, remind me of her, because she grew them – pink and white – in the perennial garden outside the kitchen windows. Peonies bloomed first, then the phlox. I loved all of her flowers, the day lilies next to the clothesline, the borders of jonquils and tulips, the garden full of dahlias, gladiolus, and zinnias.

There were few weeks in the spring and summer when we didn’t have flowers for cutting.

The forsythia came first, clipped and brought inside to force into bloom. Then the daffodils bobbing their happy faces. May was lilac time, which always carried with it a twinge of melancholy, because they always flowered the weekend we visited the graves for Memorial Day.

By June, the stone wall was covered in rambling red roses, ready for one of my mother’s milk glass vases. She had a container for every bouquet: Small brown baked-bean jars for the short stems of marigolds; a tall glass covered in a wheat design for taller stalks like pussywillows or the leggy glads; narrow bud vases for a single rose.

Not all of her flowers were for picking. ‘Heavenly blue’ morning glories climbed the trellis on the side porch. Petunias, bought as seedlings, filled out the corner by the propane gas tank. The ubiquitous yucca – that native Western flower that dug into our sandy soil and refused to let go – sent up white spikes that would prick you if you weren’t careful.

By late summer her cutting garden would be a riot of oranges, reds, and yellows. I loved the zinnias best, and kept a vase of them on the desk in my bedroom. On the years when she grew dahlias, we enjoyed them through September, their floppy stems tied to stakes by strips of old pantyhose.

Each season is stamped with the memories of the years that came before. Not matter how old you are, there is really only one spring, one summer, one winter, and one fall. Each time a season returns, we experience our memories of what it means. This is what T.S. Eliot meant when he called April the “cruelest month.”

When my mother inhaled the lilac’s scent, what associations did it evoke for her? Did she remember growing up on the Crandall Homestead, where lilacs abundant with blooms can be seen in old snapshots? Or did she inhale the same melancholy memories as I did?

Few of my mother’s flowers have survived. The yard of the Shannock house is overgrown with Japanese knotweed, briars, and wildflowers. Only the stubborn yucca continues to send up its white spikes, impervious to the construction around it.

But the landscape survives in my memory. I know where the peonies once bloomed, the roses rambled, the morning glories climbed. I can still see the shapes of my mother’s gardens – the circle of phlox, the hill where the lilies lived, the rectangular plot that held annuals and vegetables.

When I take in all those scents again, it will be memory I’m breathing in, memory of the seasons that came before.

 

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My father, the douser, the diviner

 

My father was a douser. He could cut a V-shaped stick of willow or cherry, grasp each end in his hands, and walk the land until he found water.

He had a calling. “Electricity in the veins,” as he said. To prove it, he would stand over the septic tank and that stick would point straight down, while the muscles in his arms popped from the strain of holding it steady.

People knew this and sought him out. Old Ben James, who was more Swamp Yankee than my father, had him walk his potato farm in Wood River Junction. Others asked him to work his magic before they called the well driller.

Our own well went dry off and on after we bought the house in Shannock in 1965. That year, and the year after, one of the worst droughts in the state’s history choked off the springs that kept our dug well full. In the winter we melted snow to wash hair. In the summer we collected water in a rain barrel.

Finally, in 1971, the task could no longer be postponed. My father called the well driller. He must have walked the yard first, but I don’t recall it. I was 11 years old that fall and reading the “Little House” books of Laura Ingalls Wilder, which didn’t seem all that far from how we were living.

All of this has been on my mind because last week they tore down the corn crib. It was about ready to fall down, anyway, and we had salvaged what tools we could – the potato digger, the post-hole digger, spades and rakes and hoes, a cross-cut saw.

With the contractor’s attention turned elsewhere, the roof lay flattened atop the floorboards. I picked up a rusty metal rake and began poring over the contents. Most of what littered the floor was empty walnut shells left by squirrels, but a few artifacts remained: A brake light. A commercial license plate. A Nehi soda bottle.

Then I saw it. Stretching, I was able to hook the metal tines around one end and pull it forward.

My father’s dousing stick.

How easy it would have been to mistake this for a piece of brush. I held it to my chest, amazed I’d spotted it, grateful I could save it.

He had hung it on a hook in the old shed. Its end looked freshly sharpened.

I grabbed each end, thumbs up, the way he’d taught me. The wood trembled at my touch. I aimed its pointy end outward and began to walk.

I crossed the driveway, passed over a patch of lawn, and paused at the septic tank. But after that first vibration, nothing happened. My father had long ago given up on passing his magic to me. I didn’t have the electricity in my veins, he said.

But he was wrong about that.

I might not be able to find water. The ancient Yankee art of dousing might have died with him. But I have a different sort of power in my veins. Like his, those veins rise under my skin, blue highways on a relief map.

My father told me about other wells, other springs. Boiling springs: “There used to be one at Mame Thomas’s. She had a house over on the Mooresfield Road … up behind the barn was this boiling spring. … they used it. Fine water.” The well at Tug Hollow, where he grew up: “One year we had a drought. I’ll tell you, people from all around were coming to us for water. Used to put a trout in it [to kill bugs].”

I jotted his stories in notebooks large and small, in diaries and journals. They still give rise to sketches, and stories, and novels.

As sure as a dousing stick, I wield my pen. I pace these pages every day, looking for water, remembering my father. Like his blood in my veins, his electric voice runs from my head to my hand to the ink on the page.

No coincidence that divining is a synonym for dousing (sometimes spelled dowsing). For what are we doing when we search for water but telling the future, portending, showing the unseen? Surely a man who can reveal what lies underground has some powers of prophecy.

And what do we do when we write, but discover, guess, explore the unknown? Consider this meaning of to divine, from my old Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary: “to perceive through sympathy, or intuition; to detect; to conjecture.”

Walk the land, my father told me. Cut the branch of a willow or a cherry. Hold that stick fast and pace. And you will find the water that runs beneath, the subterranean vein, the well of creativity.

 

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The power of the personal library

 

It’s hard to overestimate the importance that owning books played in my development as a reader and a writer. Although we had books in the home and went to the library regularly – by age 10 I was walking to Clark Memorial Library by myself after school – there is a difference between borrowing books and purchasing them.

The borrowed book is read, enjoyed, and returned to the library, perhaps imprinting a few lasting images on our memory. The purchased book is read, enjoyed, and returned to its shelf in our homes, a lasting reminder of the reading experience and available at any time for rereading.

By age 12 I had a small library of my own, mostly paperbacks purchased through the Scholastic Books program. Baby boomers and millennials alike will remember the colorful newsletters that were passed out in class, with their long order form inviting student purchase. Although money was always tight in our household, I can’t remember my mother ever saying no to my book requests, and a typical order might be two or three paperbacks.

Soon I had built a library of maybe two dozen books. I favored Lois Lenski’s stories of regional America, like “Prairie Girl” and “Strawberry Girl”; classics like “Little Women”; and stories of strong working women, like “Nellie Bly, Reporter.”

Sometimes, I would buy a book based on its description in the flier, only to find it too difficult or dull to capture my interest. For some reason I bought, but never read, “The Secret Garden,” for example.

The never-read and the well-thumbed books shared space on a makeshift board shelf in my room. Taking the idea of a library literally, I decided to turn my modest collection into the Thayer Free Library. My mother, again never one to stint on the educational, bought me white stickers and a due-date stamp. I fashioned by own due-date slips out of index cards and cardstock, and used my mother’s old Royal manual to type out call numbers on the stickers, which were then affixed to the book’s spines.

By this time I had begun working in our elementary school library, where I became familiar with the Dewey decimal system. I don’t recall ever actually letting someone borrow books from Thayer Free Library, however. It was the cataloging I loved.

Sometime in my early teen years, the library book sale replaced the Scholastic flier as my primary source of reading material. The first book sale I probably attended was at the Washington County Fair, where every August Clark Memorial Library filled a booth full of library discards. What riches! While my friends were riding the Tilt-a-Whirl or eating fried dough, my sister and I were browsing this pop-up bookstore. Here I filled my arms with old sentimental novels, reference books, and trashy paperbacks like “Nightmare County” and “Forever Amber.”

But for every Jacqueline Susann novel I brought home (my mother was less sanguine about these, calling them “trash” and “filth”), my library began to fill with classics, books that would remain in my library for decades to come and shape how I viewed the world. I was 15 when I bought a Harvard Classics edition of “Walden,” which still occupies a place of honor on my writing desk. Plays by Luigi Pirandello and Anton Chekhov, the short stories of Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor, poets from Walt Whitman to Sylvia Plath, and the novels of Faulkner, Steinbeck and Sinclair Lewis – these I consumed as avidly as an Agatha Christie mystery or pulp paperback.

Without realizing it, I was beginning to develop a reading aesthetic. I discovered regional novelists like William Humphreys (Texas), Shirley Ann Grau (Louisiana), and Ruth Moore (Maine). One writer led to another – Welty to O’Connor, O’Connor to Carson McCullers, McCullers to Truman Capote. All of these books began to form a web of impressions in my mind, that I tested against the reality of my own family life – the tragic, the grotesque, the comic, the pathetic. Not yet certain why one writer enthralled  and another left me cold, nonetheless I began to apprehend my own taste and to trust it.

Over the years, I’ve carried these books with me, occasionally scuttling some over the bow, as it were, to make room for more. I collected Sinclair Lewis for years, but eventually had to sacrifice most of his ballast for more contemporary writers.

Each time I moved, my father would call up his sawmill helpers and enlist them to carry the heavy boxes from one apartment to another. Doing his part, he made me two bookcases out of rough pine, perhaps optimistic that two bookcases would be sufficient.

A few months ago, my library was packed up again. My now it has grown to hundreds of books. I still have some of the original Thayer Free Library volumes (“The Schoolhouse Mystery,” “Mr. Pudgins”) and library book sale acquisitions from long ago (“Autumn Comes Early,” by Howard Breslin, a romance set against the backdrop of a hurricane). To them have been added dozens of novels, biographies, nature books, poetry collections. My husband claims he put 68 boxes into our Pod, and it’s probably not a exaggeration.

Maybe it’s because I still remember the thrill of acquiring those first volumes, the pleasure of marking them as my own – Thayer Free Library – and having them at hand to thumb through, over and over, that I have kept buying, and keeping, books. Certainly, keeping books carries a certain price, but weighed against the joy they have brought me, I would buy them all again.

 

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A writing hangout with a long history

 

It takes me 20 minutes to drive to Dave’s Coffee in Charlestown from our apartment in Wakefield. To do so I leave our complex, home to a coffee house frequented by college students, and zip down Route 1 south past another coffee shop that offers music on Sundays. Not to mention all the Dunkin’ Donuts along the route.

There’s nothing wrong with these other places of business, mind you. They’re just not Dave’s.

At first blush you might not see much in the old house on Route 1, located atop a hill just past the Wilcox Tavern (built circa 1739) in Charlestown’s only historic saltbox house (1855 or earlier). The building, home of the trendy Galapagos boutique since 1989, began hosting a coffee house as an amenity for shoppers. Dave’s Coffee now includes a coffee bar in Providence and a wholesale coffee bean and coffee syrup business.

Did I mention I don’t drink coffee?

So, while people rave about the locally roasted and ground coffee beans, I’m not driving 20 minutes for a great cup of joe. I’m an iced tea woman all the way and that’s what I drink at Dave’s. I am also a choco-holic, and if you get there early enough in the afternoon you can try one of their melt-in-your-mouth chocolate chip/sea salt cookies.

But this blog isn’t about coffee, tea, or even cookies. It’s about finding a good place to write. And Dave’s Coffee is where I go to bang out a book review, work on a novel chapter or send out agent queries.

Inside the red saltbox house are many signs of what was once the Wilcox farmhouse: deep fireplaces, wide-board floors, low ceilings. The floors could use refinishing and the windows appear original. In short, this is not some over-decorated, modern hipster hangout.

Yet this quirky old farmhouse, with its stylish boutique in the back, has a vibe to it. The servers are friendly and hard-working. Everyone seems to be in a good mood. Yesterday, a rainy Monday afternoon, so many people were hanging out – hunched over laptops or sharing a coffee break – there was only one seat left when I arrived. On weekends a steady stream of people come in and out of the coffeehouse, some arriving on bicycles or in hiking attire.

Of course, had it been a sunny day, I could have taken my iced tea and cookie outdoors to one of the many seating areas. There are the white wrought-iron chairs under the grape arbor, where my husband and I like to watch the song sparrows eating leftover crumbs. In the back is a water feature with seating, the side hill has a cozy settee, and picnic tables overlook Route 1.

This time of year the property is ablaze with flowers: the pink peonies are budded, the white ones have burst forth, and purple and yellow iris wave in the wind.

The effect is such that you don’t want to leave.

I practice three kinds of Dave visits – weekend sojourns with my husband, when we share the cookie; visits with writing friends; and solo visits on my time off, when I usually stay an hour or two, depending on how the work is going. Last summer, my friend Patti and I went to Dave’s every morning to work on our manuscripts under the arbor.

Sometimes we run into people we know, and sometimes we chat with people we don’t – such as the retired doctor who’s reading the Iliad. Sometimes, yes, we eavesdrop.

You hear a lot these days about how disconnected we all are. Certainly, a lot of people sitting in this coffee shop are staring at their phones. But just as many people are having genuine conversations or deeply immersing themselves in reading, writing, or studying. And I’m convinced that it’s the place that makes the difference.

The old salt box on Route 1 – what used to be Post Road – has character, a rich history, and a welcoming atmosphere. That’s why I drive 20 minutes, past many other similar hangouts, to get there, and that’s why so many pages have been written at its cozy cafe tables.

 

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