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.


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