Tag Archives: memoir

Other days, other lives

 

My parents were married 72 years ago, on July 12, 1947. All that survives of that day are a few black and white snapshots – my mother standing awkwardly in her ill-fitting wool suit (I know it was blue only because she told me so); a blurry photo of the couple cutting the wedding cake, in the dining room of her father’s farm; a snapshot of them together. I cannot look at these without thinking: 

Weren’t they roasting? I know she bought the suit out of practicality, so she could wear it later, but … wool in July? (The high temperature that day was 79 degrees, according to the weather station at Quonset Point.)

Is it true my father hated the floral hat she wears? And if so, why does it turn up in her honeymoon pictures?

What happened on July 13? and July 14? and the next day, and the next?

I know they honeymooned in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, a journey they took in my father’s new truck. (The high the next day was 84 degrees.) A few photos of this occasion survive, too: My mother in front of a tourist cabin; my father in front of the same cabin; his truck parked beneath a majestic sweep of mountain. When we were young, my sisters and I loved to point out the primacy of that big logging truck of which he was so enamored.

Their tourist cabin was typical of the time period. It had a front porch with a few simple pillars and an apron wall. I have scrutinized postcards of the time period but cannot place it. The cabin is so like, yet not like, all the postcards I found: The Green Granite Cabins of North Conway, the Chester Lodge and Cabins in Jefferson, Rowin’s Cabins and Guest House in Franconia. It could be any of these, but in each one some detail is off or the picture too obscured for a positive identification.

I don’t know how long they stayed, but I’m guessing only a few days. Whenever they journeyed north, even for their 30th anniversary, they only stayed a day or two. The times I accompanied them on these trips were interminable – long stretches of highway, my father making time, and me growing bored and antsy in the back seat.

The truth is my parents’ wedding and honeymoon belonged to them, and them only, and anything that can be known about that time faded away with their deaths. I can admire my mother’s traveling outfit, a white blouse and jaunty Mexican skirt; I can take a magnifying glass to my father’s face, searching out the inscrutable expression beneath his gangster-like fedora. But I can never know what they knew, or feel what they felt.

This, of course, is why we write. Not to tell about the days well remembered – the anniversaries, for example, or the births or holidays – but the ones that came afterward. To answer the questions: What happened then? What happened after that? How did it all turn out? 

And for that task our imaginations are all we have.

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A return to leisure

 

This time of year leaves me in a quandary. On the one hand, I’m delighted by the end-of-semester freedom: Even if my summer break will be interrupted by two classes beginning June 24, for now I revel in the luxury of no material to prep, no reading to do, no papers to grade.

On the other hand, I miss the routine college teaching imposes. No matter what, during the school year I know I will be in class at 8 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, for example, and that afterwards I will hold office hours until noon, returning home to prep for the next day’s obligations.

It is not as though I have nothing to do. Indeed, I usually obligate myself plenty on my time off: Writing theater reviews, op-eds, book reviews, and fiction; editing work for hire; and, this year, the continuing opus of an institutional history I’m writing for a local hospital. Yet somehow, it is both not enough and too much.

My husband says the words “I wish I had accomplished more” will be on my tombstone, for that’s usually what I tell him when he asks how my day went. Today, for instance, I conducted an interview for the hospital history, finished editing notes for a client, and wrote 1,000 words on my novel-in-progress. Yet here I am, a rodent on a wheel, working on a blog – because always there’s the sense that more needs to be written.

It’s not guilt exactly that moves me. Sure, some might sneer at my cushy schedule – working nine months out of the year, four to six hours a day, etc. I make no apologies for that. Adjunct professors make poverty wages, and when I left journalism – hardly a lucrative profession – I took a steep pay cut. I traded money for time, and it was one of the smartest things I’ve ever done.

When I think back on my years as a newspaper editor, I miss the people I worked with, but little else. The deadlines were punishing, the schedule unforgiving. Sometimes I spent 10 or 11 hours a day at a desk, editing and writing. My health had begun to suffer. I developed ocular migraines, a lightshow my brain would put on when I’d spent too much time staring at a computer monitor. That’s no way to live.

Yes, I wanted that bromide, “quality of life.” I wanted to walk more, to spend more time with my husband and (grown) children, read more books.

My old Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines leisure as “Freedom afforded by exemption from occupation or business” or “time free from engagement.” I am often engaged – indeed, I would want to be – but my occupation or business is my own time, and I am in charge of how it is spent. At least, that’s the theory.

“To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts,” Thoreau wrote in Walden. “Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.” Thoreau built a cabin in the woods and lived there, “deliberately,” for two years, two months, and two days. My cabin is metaphorical, and still under construction.

The root of leisure is from the Old French, leisir, “permission,” from the Latin licere, “to be permitted.” We need permission to enjoy the freedom of leisure, either from an employer (the standard two-week vacation) or our minds (which must let go to enjoy that time, whether it’s two weeks or two months or two years). Perhaps I have only traded one form of servitude – the 40-hour work week – for another – my Puritan work ethic.

As children we understood leisure well. Freed from the strictures of school, we knew summer was meant for fun, not accomplishments. All too soon the back-to-school ads would appear, the buses begin to run.

When I was 9 or 10 or 11, July and August days seemed to unfold endlessly. My friend Debbie and I would stave off boredom with games of Yahtzee and Parcheesi, and then walk to the center of a our sleepy village for a Pepsi and a bag of penny candy.

If I dared utter that forbidden word – “bored” – my mother would declare in her haughtiest voice, “I wasn’t put on this earth to entertain you.”

So we learned to keep ourselves occupied. No one, least of all ourselves, expected us to be productive. There were no summer reading lists back then, no playground programs. We were our own camp counselors. This limitless freedom did not make me anxious – on the contrary: It was the return to school that gripped me in anxiety.

It seems I have forgotten what summer is for. I want the pages of writing to pile up, the to-do tasks crossed out. I want to justify my idleness.

Surely there is room for puttering too – watering the garden and folding laundry and picking wildflowers. This afternoon, when nothing urgent beckons, perhaps I can lose myself for a while in doing nothing much. The cat sleeps in her red chair. Oak leaves stir lazily in the breeze. I sit here in a sudden drowse, forgetting what I’d intended to do next.

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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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Rhode Island born, a Vermonter at heart

For my father, Vermont beckoned.

Although he was born and raised in Richmond, he longed for the mountains and farms of northern New England. Maybe it was the long logging trips he’d taken there with his father as a young man. Maybe it was just that Rhode Island, in his eyes, was getting too built up.

Before I was born, he and my mother had put money down on a house in Putney. He secured a job at the sawmill factory at Basketville. My sister Andi’s classmates even gave her a going-away party. Alas, it was not to be.

In 1947 when they purchased their first house, the owner held the mortgage. Time passed, and they refinanced and paid off the note. Now the man’s widow refused to sign a release.

My father hired a lawyer and she quickly changed her tune – but not quick enough for the Putney deal. My parents lost their deposit.

That did not, however, slow my father down.

Real estate catalogs arrived regularly in the mail. He subscribed to the Weekly Market Bulletin, a N.H. state agricultural publication. The Yankee magazine feature “House for Sale” was dog-eared.

No vacation up north was complete without a tour of for-sale houses.

Inevitably these gems in the rough would be located far from a town, on a paved but deserted road. The house, already vacant (where had the owners gone? How desperate were they to get out?), would have an air of abandonment – tall grass outside, sour-smelling kitchens inside.

He would come close, again, to making his dream come true. There was the rambling Victorian in the far-north town of Sugar Hill, N.H., that we toured in the early 1960s. I was too young to remember much about it, but the “Sugar Hill house” would come up in conversation for years to come.

It’s quite possible that my mother put a stop to my father’s dreams. At some point, he must have realized that, no, they were not going to uproot themselves from family and friends and move north.

This reality was easier for him to accept because of a friendship he developed with a Connecticut man named Frank Clark.

Clark, a friend of a friend, had moved to a 300-acre farm in Peacham, Vt. The house was a run-down Cape Cod with a metal roof and a lightning rod. The outbuildings were falling down. The only road in was rutted dirt.

But the property had a million-dollar location on a scenic rise. At the top of the hill, covered in wild daisies on the June day I climbed it, you could see the White Mountains to the east and the Green Mountains to the west.

Like my father, Clark owned a sawmill. And so it happened that my father began making regular pilgrimages to Peacham to “work.” Sometimes the premise was that Frank needed help on his mill. Other times my father would truck back a load of logs.

The truth, which we all sort of knew, was that the trips to Vermont were his busman’s holiday. He spent the days doing what he loved – tinkering with the mill motor, drawing out logs, or sawing them into boards. At night, the men gathered around Frank’s primitive cook stove to swap stories and enjoy the cooking of Frank’s wife, Carol. Sometimes they would go into town for auctions or community suppers.

It was during one of these trips that he met an old-timer named Ben Berwick. Ben became a friend too, as evidenced by his phone number in my father’s address book. A logger himself, Berwick died long ago. But he is featured in Richard W. Brown’s new book, “The Last of the Hill Farms: Echoes of Vermont’s Past.”

I know this because my friend Alice was recently showing me the volume, a collection of photographs Brown made with a large-format camera in the 1970s, mostly in the Peacham area. I had admired Brown’s earlier book, “The Soul of Vermont,” which captures the hill country of that time.

Imagine my surprise to find within its pages Ben Berwick, with a pile of logs behind him. I almost expected my father to walk out of the page; he could be just out of the frame.

I don’t know if my father ever met the photographer. His status as an outsider probably disqualified him as a subject, although I doubt there was anyone more of a Yankee than Silas Warren Thayer.

Years later, when I was driving through Vermont to graduate school, I often thought of my father. He had just died and I missed him sorely. But I imagined his idea of heaven was an old Peacham farm, where he could pretend, for a week, that those rural hills were home.

 

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