Hilltown Postcards

Stupid City Folk

Years before we moved to Worthington, a hilltown in Western Massachusetts, we lived in another hilltown in the middle of nowhere New Hampshire. We learned a lot from that experience, which helped significantly during our next adventure in the country, one that has lasted a lot longer. 

We left Boston for Wilmot, New Hampshire, where we had to drive thirty minutes to get to a Laundromat and sixty for something more interesting than washing our clothes. We had two kids then, a daughter who was four, and a baby son. Our home was a one-room cabin on a dirt road, twelve-by-twenty feet, with no electricity, phone, running water or indoor plumbing. A portable toilet was in the attic and we hauled the slop bucket to the outhouse. The rent was $35 a month.

We were awfully stupid and lucky that first time in the country. We drew water from a stream beside the cabin. A hand pump was inside the house and when the line to the river froze, we used buckets, breaking first through the ice. We started the fire in our wood stove with kerosene, managing somehow not to blow up the place.

Hank sold our ’55 Mercedes, one of those a nickel-and-dime vintage vehicles that seemed awfully cool at the start, then bought an old pickup truck from a local for a few hundred bucks. Hank was getting into country living, a little carried away as usual, this time about fitting in with the local folk. Certainly an old beater would help, but on our first long ride, the brakes failed, and Hank, pumping the pedal to squeeze some life from them, had to steer the pickup into a field so we wouldn’t crash. Eventually it stopped.

A man, who stopped, crawled beneath the truck. He shook his head when he stood up. The chassis was so rusted it was ready to disintegrate. This truck wasn’t safe to drive. I cursed the man who sold us this piece of junk and Hank’s gullibility that he expected all old Yankees to be honest. We took off the plates, abandoned the truck, and then hitchhiked with the two kids to the cabin. 

Hank searched but couldn’t find a job locally except as a laborer for a man who put in foundations. He lasted one day working a wheelbarrow and shovel. So, he hitched back and forth to Boston, where he drove tractor-trailer, long distance, for a natural foods company until we had enough money saved to buy a VW Bug. During the week, I stayed at the cabin with the two kids.

The neighbors on that hill in Wilmot were exceptionally friendly. One bachelor farmer, Clayton, plowed the top of our driveway for free because he claimed it was a good spot to pull over when two vehicles met on the narrow road.

I also heard that I won Clayton’s approval when I turned away one of the men on the hill who paid me a surprise visit while Hank was away. The guy was one of those doomsday-types who was building a bunker-like home deep in the woods, and I was definitely not interested. Clayton watched the man’s truck pass his house, twice, within the span of several minutes, a detail he reported with amusement to Pat, my fast friend on our hill. Pat invited us to share meals with her family and to raid her library. Sometimes I used her washer. The snow piled up that winter, and I towed the kids on a sled along the road to her home.

The battery-operated radio pulled in a public station after I rigged its antenna to touch the iron skillet hanging on one wall, and weeknights at eight my daughter and I listened to the serial reading of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. We liked The Long Winter the best. In that one, the Ingalls family survived a fierce prairie winter by braiding straw to burn for heat, rationing food, and listening to the music of Pa’s fiddle. We could relate to that story.

I cooked our meals on a two-burner propane stove: soup, and lots of oatmeal and pancakes with Clayton’s maple syrup. We had squash, apples, potatoes, and cabbage we bought at a farm. Stored in the cold attic they kept nearly through the winter.

One week Hank got caught in a snow storm on his truck route in Maine, so he couldn’t make it home. I honestly don’t remember how I found out since we didn’t have a phone. Maybe he relayed a message to my neighbor, Pat.

I was running out of split firewood, so Pat showed me how to use a maul to split the oak and maple logs length-wise to size: raising that heavy tool over my head, then using the strength of my belly and legs to make a good slice.

Chopping wood. Drawing water. Washing cloth diapers by hand. My day was spent immersed in the most basic of chores. Sometimes, it felt as if we were playing pioneer. Certainly, it was good training for the next time we attempted rural living. We would be smarter.

We lasted in Wilmot until the late spring. The two-and-a-half-hour commute one way was too much for Hank.

We did look at another house in Wilmot to rent, a rambling farmhouse with amenities like indoor plumbing and electricity. But I was wary of the rattraps and boxes of poison set around the house.

In the kitchen, the previous renter jotted a diary of sorts in pencil on the white kitchen cabinets. A woman, I guessed, wrote about the miserable weather and her wretched loneliness. She noted the dates of storms. “God, not more snow,” she wrote beside one. The entries stopped abruptly mid-winter and I wondered what became of her. 

We lived next in Boston, Seattle, and then Boston again before we moved to Worthington, and this time we did a better job with country living.

Hilltown Postcards

Wrapping the House

Hank bought a roll of tarpaper and long strips of fir from Bisbee Brothers, the hardware store and lumberyard in Chesterfield, another small town next to ours. That afternoon we were going to wrap the house.

The Bisbee family lived in Chesterfield since before the French and Indian War when the first Bisbee traveled there to cut wood. Bisbee Brothers, owned by Charlie, Bill, Russ, and Henry, had everything a country home needed from stovepipe to kerosene lanterns to toilet plungers. Either Russ, who played organ at the Chesterfield church, or Bill, my favorite brother, would be behind the counter tallying the order and, if we requested, put it on our account. They were soft-spoken men with a classical accent that distinguished them as super-natives. Their store was our main reason to go to Chesterfield although we had to pass through it to get to Northampton, the county seat. 

That day, as I held the tarpaper tightly against the clapboards Hank pulled the roofing nails he held between his lips to hammer the fir stripping that holds the paper in place. He was figuring, rightly, as we found out later when he tore apart the bathroom, there wasn’t much insulation behind the house’s plaster and lathe walls. The windows were loose and old although we couldn’t bring ourselves to cover them with plastic. Too tacky.

We’d been living in Worthington for over a month, and fall slipped in with a killing frost that took most people’s gardens with a quick, white death. The trees fired up large swatches of red, thanks to the sugar maples, among the yellow and orange foliage, a thrilling sight although a true New Englander nods and thinks: winter’s coming, got lots to do.

One weekend Hank helped with the barn Win’s father Zack was building for his heavy equipment. Zack had an excavating business, putting in people’s cellar holes, septic systems, and driveways. Hank worked with Win Donovan and his brothers, for free, of course, because he admired the way they respected their parents and looked out for them. 

Afterward the family had a party. The Donovans were always getting together, asking friends like us to come along, bringing pots of food and swapping stories, and then someone would get out the guitar and they’d start strumming and singing old country tunes. Win’s mom, Crystal, or his sister, Tinker, would say, “Play Steve’s song,” and everyone started singing Roger Miller’s “King of the Road” in honor of Steve, the second son and a vagabond of a guy on the loose somewhere.

When I ask the kids what they remember about our early years in Worthington they mention how it was filled by trees, how green it was, and how much time we spent with the Donovans. We couldn’t ask for better first friends. 

I’ve met many newcomers who didn’t have this advantage. They came to town, lured by a good deal on a piece of country property or a job in one of the nearby cities and, unless they were exceptionally outgoing, maybe, know a neighbor or two. But we got lucky. 

Anyway, Zack’s barn got built properly so he could keep his backhoe and dump truck out of the snow. And for us, the cordwood was delivered.

Hank bought a chainsaw to cut the longer pieces, and he hand-split the thicker logs with a maul so they could fit in the wood stove. Most of the wood was stacked in a neat high row beneath the front overhang. Another row was in the front yard. Hank searched the back lot for dead hardwood, but found none. Anything live he cut now would be too green to burn.

I held the tarpaper steady as we moved around the perimeter of the house. Wrapping the house was not skilled work. We’d have to remove the paper in the spring so the place didn’t look like hell and then we’d have to put up a fresh roll next fall. If we wanted to do the job right, we’d stack hay or bags of leaves along the perimeter, but we only had enough bales for the northern side. That would have to do.

Most of the novels I write are set in the fictional hilltowns of Western Massachusetts, which is inspired by the real ones, including my latest, Missing the Deadline, seventh in my Isabel Long Mystery Series.

Hilltown Postcards

A Yellow Toothbrush and a Box of Food for Christmas

Ah, Christmas: one holiday, so many emotions and circumstances. Happy Christmas. Sad Christmas. Rich Christmas. Poor Christmas. Stressful. Carefree. Lonely. Crowded. Weird Christmas.

I liked the ones we spend with our large family. Great food and laughs, gifts, and even one year, fireworks one daughter bought from the South where she lived.

We had a freshly cut tree with ornaments, many of them made by the kids. Why was one son’s Santa wearing gray and yellow? Because the red felt was already taken. Why did another son’s wooden Santa have a black, bandit’s mask? Just because.

We didn’t have a lot of money then, but we tried to buy thoughtful gifts we thought each child would enjoy.

On the Sunday before Christmas, the owners of the Corners Grocery would host Santa. We adults knew he was really Dave who lived in town, but for our kids who still believed, he was the real thing. 

Santa would station himself in the post office annex to greet kids and find out what they wanted. I recall one daughter asked for a yellow toothbrush. Don’t ask me why but we made sure she got one.

Christmas day was a mad dash for the kids to open their gifts and then we drove to my hometown to spend the holiday with my parents and to visit our extended family. When we lived in Ringville, the very helpful Win Donovan would visit our house to keep the fire going in the woodstove, our only source of heat, so the water pipes wouldn’t freeze.

I remember the Christmas after Hank was hurt on a job site a few months before. He fell 18 feet onto his shoulder because someone didn’t nail a board in place on the floor. He couldn’t work. The people who hired him as a subcontractor wouldn’t pay him while he was hurt.

After all those years staying home with six kids, I found a one-year teaching job. We kept things going with a starting teacher’s pay.

It was close to the holiday when we came home to find a large cardboard box on the doorstep of the house we were renting. It contained food and an envelope with $70 in cash.

We were stunned.

We asked around but no one would admit to it. This kind deed has not been forgotten.

Hilltown Postcards

A Brief Life

My saddest moments as a mother

We followed a nurse as she wheeled Jacob’s incubator into a small room at the hospital’s neo-natal unit. The doctors agreed he could die. Whatever tests they did confirmed our baby’s brain did not function. Only the machines and medicines had kept him going these sixteen days.

I stood beside the nurse as she lifted Jacob onto a padded table. He still had his breathing tube, but she had disconnected the IV drip and wires used to monitor his tiny body. She let me dress him for the first and last time. Hank handed me the paper bag we had already brought once to the hospital, and he returned to his chair, stone-faced, but his eyes gave away his misery. His hand rested on the seat of the empty chair beside his.

I removed the neat pile of clothes Jacob’s older brother wore when he newborn. I slipped the cloth diaper, folded into a small square, beneath his bottom, pinning the sides with pins with plastic ducks near the fasteners. The nurse held the nightshirt, the kind that crosses in the front, then snapped. The soft white cloth hung on him, as did the flannel nightgown I sewed. That baby was nine pounds when he was born and didn’t wear it very long. Jacob weighed less than two because he was born nearly three months too early.

The nurse lifted Jacob as I spread a flannel blanket and the quilt I had made, laying him in its center, so I could pull the corners into a tight package. I always bundled my babies this way, sometimes in several layers, old-fashioned perhaps but I thought it made them feel secure. After being contained inside me for so long, I offered them this transition.

For Jacob, this is the way he would be buried, wrapped in these soft, white clothes. He wouldn’t know or feel them. But these things mattered. 

I told the nurse about the bag that would go with him to the funeral home. It contained toys our other children chose to put in his casket. I wept when they brought me the toys, the smallest ones they had: a stuffed rabbit, a matchbox car, a chew toy, and a rattle.

Jacob was ready, and I sat beside Hank with our backs to the window and doorless entry to the rest of the ward. The nurse removed his breathing tube. I expected a small gasp, but Jacob did not make a sound. She placed him in my arms, and I held him as I had done during my visits here. I looked into his small, still face as the nurse explained that even without the respirator his heart would continue beating. She would come back to check.

The nurse wanted us to know our son could not have gone on, that we had not made a mistake letting him go. “It’s not because his heart is strong,” she said. “It’s from the medicine. I just wanted you to know that.”

I held him and then when Hank was ready, he did. We took turns.

Jacob’s heart beat two hours more. 

This was the first time I witnessed death firsthand. I only knew three blood relatives who died in their old age. I was a child then, and after the news was told, I didn’t know how to feel, except for my grandmother, who I saw every day and would miss. I thought it would make my parents sadder if I was sad.

Now Hank and I waited with our infant son as he died. We cried openly. We talked mother and father talk, kissed his face, and cried and sang lullabies. We talked about his brothers and sisters. We said nothing, waiting, wondering how long his heart would last.

The nurse returned several times, bending over us as she listened to his heart through a stethoscope.

She shook head.

“Not yet,” she said.

Sounds from the other room distracted me. A baby in the neo-natal unite was having a seizure. People were tending to him. No one came into our room except the nurse. They must have all known. This must be the room where parents wait for their infants to die.

I felt Jacob’s body lose its warmth. The skin of his face darkened. The nurse checked again, but his heart beat still.

We kept going, finding new things to say, things that we hope would comfort his spirit. I felt his body grow colder. The blankets or the heat from our bodies did nothing to warm him. His skin was violet. Our baby did not look as if he was sleeping or at peace. He wore the same expression he had since he was born. Empty.

Finally, the nurse confirmed what we already knew. Jacob was dead. She took him in her arms, and we left the room, crying hard, holding onto each other. That was April 23. Jacob lived sixteen days.

Two days later, we buried Jacob at the North Cemetery on Cold Street in Worthington. We invited no one. It would be just our five children and us. The late morning sun shone through the branches, bare still as Hank drove to the cemetery. Daffodils rose through the dried bleached leaves near the headstones. 

The man from the funeral home arrived in a boxy tan station wagon. The director, the father-in-law of the building contractor who Hank worked for, said he would handle the funeral at no charge. The hospital would have taken care of his body, but we said no. It was not enough.

I watched the man from the funeral home walked around the rear of the station wagon. He opened the tailgate. A small, white box was in the back. With its lid and embossed cardboard exterior, it looked more like a gift box than a baby’s coffin.

“Where are the flowers?” I asked.

“Flowers? I’m sorry, ma’am, I don’t have flowers.”

“I ordered a blanket of flowers.”

He apologized again. It was not his fault. I should have asked about it when I called the florist. I felt tears start again. The man’s face was red.

“It’s OK. We’ll get it later,” Hank said.

It wasn’t okay, but there was nothing we could do. I nodded, and Hank bent to pull the coffin toward him. He cradled it in his arms. Our oldest daughter burst into tears. Hank gave me a stricken look. The other children were silent. They had never experienced death, except the one of a pet. They were sad about their brother because we were sad, but the baby inside the box their father carried was some sad mystery.

But our daughter was fourteen. She helped me with the other babies. She was there when two were born. She understood.

It was time to be brave. I lifted the youngest onto my hip.

“Let’s all hold hands,” I whispered to the others, and we followed Hank in a crooked line over the dry grass.

The man from the funeral home stayed behind.

Our son’s grave was in the cemetery’s newest part, up from the tilting gray slabs for Worthington’s earliest settlers, their names and dates worn away by the elements, and the middle where the relatives of the town’s natives now rested. 

The day before, Hank and the two older boys dug his grave. It’s not the custom in our town, but the cemetery commissioner agreed when Hank asked. Work makes him feel better. He couldn’t do anything in the hospital to help our son. But he could wield a shovel to carve a box-like hole large and deep enough for a baby’s coffin from the rocky, clay soil. The three of them were gone a few hours. I stayed home. I could not watch.

Hank placed Jacob’s coffin on the ground. The children clustered close to me, the tops of their heads shining in the sun, as their father pulled a paper from his jacket pocket. He read the words he wrote the day before about Jacob and what he meant to us. 

I listened, stunned by my sadness and the simple but profound words of my husband. Hank ended his speech. Birds, moved by their spring homecoming, called from the trees. He bowed his head. We waited. Then he stooped to set the box inside the hole. He placed the paper on its lid. He stood. Our sad eyes met.

Hank turned to get the shovel he had left near the pile of dirt. We watched as he filled the grave, the dirt and pebbles drumming lightly over the white coffin, until a soft mound rose. Then we walked downhill toward the car. The man from the funeral home came to wish us well.

Hilltown Postcards

Learning to Drive at 35

Strange but true, I didn’t get my driver’s license until I was in my mid-thirties. Until then, I didn’t need one or I made do without. When we lived in a city such as Boston or Seattle, I used public transportation. It was nothing for me to take four kids, including one in a stroller, on a trolley or bus to go shopping.

But when we moved to the sticks of Western Massachusetts, I realized the gig was up. 

My parents, the children of immigrants, were very old-fashioned when it came to their teenage daughters learning to drive and getting a license when we turned 18. As my father explained, they only had one car and couldn’t afford to have a kid use it or worse crash it. (My father was an autobody repairman.) So, unlike my fellow classmates, my parents drove us wherever we needed to go or we walked or took the bus. Yes, my sisters also were late drivers although they got their licenses years earlier than me. Our baby brother? Oh, he got his when he turned 18.

In college, I depended on hitchhiking and friends who had cars. Afterward I lived in those cities I mentioned, where public transportation was easy. Sometimes Hank and I had a car, sometimes we didn’t. On a couple of occasions I ventured to get a license, but my heart wasn’t in it so I let the learner’s permit expire.

But the reckoning came a few years after we moved to Worthington, which had about 1,200 people and no public transportation. The nearest general store was several miles away from our home in the Ringville section. A few friends kindly offered rides to medical appointments and school events, but I was pretty much homebound, except when my designated driver Hank was available.

One night though I had a dream that I was at the wheel of a car. When I awoke, I was convinced I could do it. 

Hank was my teacher and our marriage survived it. We had a vintage VW bus. Stick. My first few attempts I will admit were pretty lousy. One time a couple of the kids came with us and afterward one of them hugged me and begged me not to drive. A big breakthrough came when we bought a car that was an automatic. The lessons went a lot better.

Yes, I passed the driver’s test, barely, because I went a little fast in a school zone before I corrected it. Fortunately, I didn’t have to parallel park. I still never do.

Yes, getting my license was a game changer. It made things easier for our family. We had five kids then, and being a driver would enable me to work outside the home, which led to my becoming a reporter for a daily newspaper. (More on that in future posts.)

I will admit to being more of a small town driver. It wasn’t until I had to drive highways on a regular basis that I felt comfortable doing that. But I still leave long distance driving with heavy traffic to Hank. 

Our six kids? They’re all great drivers who got their licenses as soon as they were eligible. I made sure of that.

NOTA BENE:  Hilltown Postcards is an occasional series inspired by my life in rural Western Massachusetts, in particular Worthington, where we moved from Boston. Those hilltowns are the inspired setting for many of my books including the Isabel Long Mystery Series. Missing the Deadline, number seven, will be released Dec. 21 on Kindle.