Monthly Archives: August 2018

Your party is on the line

 

In the old farmhouse where I grew up, our most sophisticated form of communication was a black rotary telephone. For a while, it was on a party line, meaning that one ring (say, three short notes) meant the call was for us, and another (two long) denoted one for our neighbors across the street. This could not have been the most efficient arrangement, given that the phone was vital to my father’s sawmill business and at any one time teenage girls lived in the house.

My mother served as my father’s bookkeeper and secretary, which meant that she fielded most of the calls. If an incoming call was deemed of low import, she would take a message, but if it were vital, she would put the phone down (no ability to put someone on hold, so the receiver would pick up the various sounds of the kitchen – the washing machine rumbling, the iron hissing), walk to the back door, and bellow, “YOO-HOO! Armstrong’s on the phone!”

The sound would travel across the septic tank, over her garden, into the maelstrom of activity at the mill, where it had to compete with the whining saw, the flap-flap of the shingle mill, the roar of the motor, the thud of logs rolling off a truck. From there it would reach into my father’s broad but not especially keen ears. He would raise his hand to signal a halt to activity, then begin his long stride back to the house.

“Yoo-hoo” never failed. Though not an especially loud person, my mother had taught first grade, and she knew how to get attention when she needed to. “Yoo-hoo” also was employed on the rare occasions when my father didn’t arrive for supper at the appointed time of 5 o’clock sharp. Usually this was because a visitor out at the mill was chewing his ear, as he would say. Then she would walk to the back door and yell, “YOO-HOO! Your supper’s getting cold!”

If, on the other hand, some urgent piece of business required an outgoing call, my father would lope into the kitchen, sawdust and diesel fumes trailing in his wake, and say to my mother, “Get Baker on the phone.” (He referred to most of his friends by their last names.) My mother would immediately drop whatever she’d been doing, sit down at the hulking metal desk in the kitchen corner, and pop open the metal address book looking for Dick Baker’s number. She would dial the appointed digits and, when Baker or whoever it was answered, say in an apologetic rush, “Oh, oh, hold a minute, here’s Warren,” and my father would pick up the receiver.

He never said hello, but always started with “Yeah,” as though returning to an interrupted conversation. “Yeah,” he would say, “I got those oak planks you wanted.” (When I was a grown, married woman, he would occasionally call me up himself and start with, “Yeah, this is the old man.”)

All of these phone calls, whether incoming or outgoing, he took standing up, receiver to his left ear, his voice projecting toward the window, as though the listener hovered there on the porch. Although he, too, was not an especially loud person, on the phone his voice boomed, until the conversation wound down and he mumbled a sign-off like “All right, see you later.” Then he would leave the house, through the sinkroom and backroom, putting his hat back on his head.

For now, the phone line was dead, until one of our friends called to “tie it up,” as my mother would say (turning on the kitchen timer), or until it my father returned with another urgent request for his wife.

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Houses’ mysterious (writing) allure

 

It was a house that drew me to Nathaniel Hawthorne, and a house that brought me back to him.

I was probably 10, browsing through the Book of Knowledge, when I first came across a condensed version of The House of the Seven Gables. Who could resist the title? Never mind the pen-and-ink sketches of the house with all its twists and turns, the gaunt Clifford, the dusty shop opened by Hepzibah. I barely understood the story, but its gothic ambience was irresistible.

Years later, my husband and I visited the house that inspired the novel, in Salem, Mass., on a brutally hot day in the summer of 1986. I don’t remember much about it, except for the steep stairs and the nooks and crannies. At some point I read the book entire. I moved on to other writers.

Since then, we have toured dozens of New England houses; some sheltered writers, others merely inspired them. Last week we found another – the Old Manse in Concord, Mass., where Hawthorne brought his bride, Sophia Peabody, after their marriage in 1842. As he recounts in Mosses from an Old Manse, this house that had sheltered many a minister – and witnessed the first shots of the Revolution, literally in its backyard – drew in the couple with a warm embrace of old timbers and the shade of black ash trees.

Set back from the road, the house was fronted by a tree-lined path; in the back, the Concord River slipped peacefully past, near where the old North Bridge had stood on that first day of the Revolution. The interior was rambling and drafty, although its front and back doors afforded a nice cross-breeze in the summer.

In her book about the Concord renaissance, American Bloomsbury, Susan Cheever senses a barely disguised sexual energy in both Hawthorne and Sophia’s writings at the time. Though their stay would be tinged by sadness – Sophia lost her first baby – they used her diamond to etch messages of hope into the window glass in Hawthorne’s study: “Man’s accidents are God’s purposes.”

Standing in that study last week, where Hawthorne wrote the classic short story “The Birth-mark” and Emerson composed the essay “Nature,” I felt the pulse of both men’s creativity beating in the air. I sat in a reproduction of the wide-armed chair Emerson used for writing, feeling a little like I was about to give blood. Hawthorne’s desk, cleverly notched into the wall, is original, as are the books throughout the house.

Notes Brenda Wineapple, author of Hawthorne: A Life: “The Manse is another of Hawthorne’s old houses, fragrant with the spirit of former tenants and, perched on the banks of the past, fit emblem of his imagination.”

The houses, always the houses. After “The House of the Seven Gables,” I was drawn to a series of books in which the house is a dominant character. Just as with Hawthorne, I discovered the Brontes in the Book of Knowledge, where Thornfield Hall looms over Jane Eyre, especially in that pivotal scene when the first Mrs. Rochester stands behind the flaming curtains of the burning hall. I read the entire novel at 12, again not completely comprehending it, but drawn in by those drafty halls and stone-lined corridors.

Later came Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and a host of gothic imitators, including Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, with its doomed Manderley. Louisa May Alcott wrote captivatingly of four sisters in Little Women, but where would the book be without Jo’s garrett, the private escape of which every young (writing) girl dreams?

No coincidence, then, that my first two novels feature houses on their covers, or that the early stories I scribbled always seemed to revolve around intriguing real estate: Tug Hollow, the old Cape Cod house where my father grew up, and what we called Howard’s House, the 1728 Cape in Escoheag that belonged to his stepfather. It didn’t take much imagination to conjure their early residents. Old ancestors’ portraits were piled upstairs in Tug Hollow, and  Howard’s mother had kept a boarding house, with the registers of their guests still extant for my fervent examination. Was it true that my grandmother had made booze in the cellar of Tug Hollow, during Prohibition? (Yes.) And that a guest had died in a mysterious hunting accident at Howard’s? (Probably not.) Already I was learning that authors didn’t write history, they just used it to spark their imaginations.

Hawthorne, Wineapple writes, needed the tangible to kick-start his tales – the red A of The Scarlet Letter, the house that (once) had seven gables, the dusty records in the Custom House where he earned his bread. It’s the past he’s sifting through, and houses are the largest embodiment of it, their rooms so metaphorically akin to our own bodies: the windows as eyes, the rooms our heart and mind, the shutters the masks we hide behind.

Not only did other residents walk the halls of the Old Manse, and peer through this wavy glass, but other writers did the same, imagining the original dwellers’ presence, a tantalizing layer of observers and observed.

Rare, however, is the house that bestows inspiration on its occupant while the writer lives there. Houses achieve their highest magnetism after we leave, and we are forced to bang together their rooms from memory. Hawthorne wrote the introduction to Mosses from an Old Manse while back in Salem, working at the Custom House. The House of the Seven Gables came to him while he and Sophia lived in a cramped rented house in the Berkshires. Alcott was living in Orchard House in Concord when she wrote Little Women, but the house she fondly remembered was the Wayside (so named by Hawthorne, when he later lived there), and the March girls’ garrett came from another house altogether – Fruitlands, the ill-conceived experimental community where Alcott and her sisters nearly starved to death.

Now, staying in a modern apartment while we await the renovation of the house where I grew up, I wonder if I will be able to write once I get there. But all that will remain is a shell, the walls, roof, and floors, for the old house only exists in my mind, the best place for writing inspiration to begin.

 

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