Hilltown Postcards

The First Winter

Here is the next Hilltown Postcard, which focuses on our first winter in Worthington. Luckily, we had good people to advise us and we had experienced another winter in a more primitive rural setting. We did get smarter and better prepared for winter the longer we lived in the hilltowns.

It got cold then colder that first winter in Worthington. The weather had been harsh in Boston, with the wind coming off the ocean, but at least the apartment we rented in the Jamaica Plain section had reliable heat and insulation. That wasn’t true of the house we rented in Ringville. 

We seriously doubted the walls had any insulation, maybe crumpled newspaper, so we wrapped tar paper along the house’s exterior on its north side to seal it along with the snow that would collect there. One of the locals, probably the helpful Win Donovan advised us to do that.

The windows were single-paned. Our only source of heat was a wood stove we bought that really was just a box of black metal that gave off enough heat for the first floor. The windows on the second, where the kids’ bedrooms were, had thick ice on the interior. The Donovans gave us rectangular blocks of marble we heated on the wood stove and wrapped in flannel to place at the foot of their beds before we piled on the blankets. 

We had a washer, an apartment-sized one, but no dryer. So, I used to hang the laundry on a line with a pulley from the back door. The clothes would freeze one day and the water would evaporate the next. We did have a wooden drying rack near the wood stove. It was a bit of a challenge since our youngest kid was still in diapers.

This wasn’t our first winter in the country. Five years earlier, Hank and I moved with two kids to the sticks of New Hampshire, a town called Wilmot. We rented a house 8 by 24 feet. No electricity. Water came from the stream running beside it. We had an outhouse and a woodstove. 

A farmer on the road sold us cords of firewood that we stack between the trees in rows. Being rookies, we used to start our wood stove’s fire with kerosene, I swear it’s true, and it’s a miracle we didn’t blow up the house. But once the stove got going, the house was indeed warm, especially since we chose to live only on the first floor. 

We had a battery-operated radio that managed to bring in one National Public Radio station. At eight o’clock we looked forward to hearing a reading of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s ‘Little House’ series on the Spider’s Web show. Her book “The Longest Winter” had a special meaning.

Hank was driving truck for a natural foods company in Boston. After the pickup truck we bought turned out to be a lemon — we had to abandon it in a field when the brakes gave out and someone who stopped said it was a rusted piece of junk — and before we could buy a VW Bug from good neighbors, he had to hitchhike. He was gone for several days, sometimes longer, and when my supply of split hardwood dwindled to nothing, I asked a neighbor to show me how. I placed one log on top of another and with the swing of a maul, I got it done. I actually became quite good at it. 

But I didn’t have to do much of that in Ringville. Hank used a chainsaw to cut down ash trees, which we were told can be burned green. 

The snow was serious. The VW Bus had decent traction. All we had to do was shovel it out. We didn’t need another vehicle since I didn’t have a driver’s license in those days. That’s fodder for another post. The main road was State Highway 112, which was maintained well. We’d see the plow truck’s strobing lights as it passed.

Hank found some work with people he knew in Boston. Due to the repairs done on the house, we were paying hardly any rent. We somehow managed to keep up with electricity, food, and gas for the car. The phone was cheap in those days. (We only had to dial four numbers then to reach anyone within Worthington.) There was no such thing as the internet. All of my correspondence was done by mail and the landline.

My mother would send boxes of clothes for the kids. One time she included a copy of Midsummer Night’s Dream that had been owned by my teacher during my high school freshman year. 

That winter we got to know what the town had to offer, like the small library that I visited weekly to stock up on books, the general store, and a monthly food co-op held at the school where our kids went. We became familiar with the people who lived there, including the neighbors, and what they did for fun in the winter.

Worthington seemed to be a good place to live.

INSPIRATION: The hilltowns of Western Mass. are the inspiration for much of my fiction. You can check out my books, including a mystery series, here.

Hilltown Postcards

Ralph Knows What’s What

I am skipping ahead to one of the profiles I wrote about people who lived in Worthington. After publishing my last two posts, I decided there is a lot more I could write concerning those early years when Hank and I moved our family to that hilltown in Western Massachusetts. I plan to post one a week but first I have to write them. So, I dug this profile from my computer’s files about the late Ralph Moran, who was 95 when he passed in 2007. A real character, I interviewed him and wrote this piece two years earlier.

Born in 1912, Ralph Moran has seen, did, and heard a lot, and he doesn’t mind sharing it. I told him I wanted to interview him for a book and now he’s ready. He’s sitting in his living room, snacking on cheddar crackers and taking a peek at the financial news on the Bloomberg network. He’s got an inquisitive face, smooth soft lines, and earlobes as long as Buddha’s.

Just checking, Ralph assures me in his buzz-saw voice.

I’ve known Ralph since we moved to Worthington in Western Massachusetts and his bus company drove our kids to school. Sometimes he did the kindergarten run and drop off our oldest son. One day my boy came home with a trilobite fossil and a science magazine. They were gifts from Ralph. Later Ralph and I served together on the library board.

Whenever we run into each other, I greet him as “the dangerous conservative.” He calls me the “dangerous liberal” because I am a newspaper editor. It’s all in good fun, and now as he relaxes in his easy chair, he talks about how he and his family moved here in 1951 and why he is still here. I ask: When did you feel it was your home? He chuckles. “I never gave it any thought,” and then, “People were cheerful, gregarious, and good-natured. I could make money. Living conditions were satisfactory.” 

Ralph’s a busy man. Mornings, he hangs out in the back room of the general store where the real news in town, who’s doing what and who’s seeing whom, gets swapped over coffee and doughnuts. Tuesday nights, he might swing by Town Hall next door to his home to keep tabs on local politics. He serves on the Finance Committee, drawing up the town’s budget and keeping an eye on how Worthington spends its money. He claims to handpick those who serve with him although they are elected positions. At Town Meetings, Ralph, a former moderator, will give his two cents and more about how business is progressing. Then, he hosts his weekly think tanks, a gathering of 60-plus men who like to talk over what is happening well beyond this town’s borders. Ralph puts it this way: “I still have my nose in it.” 

People might think Ralph is a native, but he’s one of those near natives, moving here with wife, Marge, to the hunting lodge he calls Toad Hall. Ralph has sold the house and the eight acres to the town for $80,000, an offer he made. He remains tenant for life.

Ralph came for a business opportunity with Henry Snyder, one of the town’s super-capitalists. He wanted to be a college history professor, but when he graduated from Dartmouth in ’35, it wasn’t a wise career choice. So, as Ralph puts it, he reinvented himself as an industrial engineer and worked for petroleum companies. After doing that for years, Ralph, another super-capitalist, went to work for himself, first building service stations, then getting involved in construction and busing schoolchildren, who he calls “kiddlies.” The transportation business suited him. He let the drivers, his ladies, take care of the buses while he and Marge got to travel and play golf. Ralph played golf for 78 years, but gave it up finally because of a bum shoulder. He says he used to be an above-average golfer, adequately competitive, but not outstanding.

Ralph says the town wasn’t significantly different then it is now although he once had a clear 150-degree view from his house to the hills in other towns. “I was disappointed that the trees grew,” he says. 

His daughter, Catherine, who lives in New Jersey, visited this weekend. Not much of Ralph’s family is left. Marge died several years ago, and their son, Allen, earlier. In his practical way, Ralph say life goes on, people do die. His son’s death was a particularly hard one, however. He used to read something in the paper, and then pick up the phone to tell his son this story proves a point.

Ralph acknowledges winters in Worthington are hard on the elderly. But it suits him. The town has a health center. He has numerous friends and acquaintances. “People feed me, pat me on the head, and say nice things. Why go somewhere else just because it’s warmer? I’ve lived long enough anyway. I’m not anxious to die off, but on the other hand I’m not particularly anxious to live much longer.”

Here’s one more thing about Ralph. He’s not really the oldest person in Worthington although he holds the cane the town gives to mark that honor. In 1901 the Boston Post newspaper gave every town and city in the state in Massachusetts a cane with a 14-karat solid gold handle and a shaft of African ebony, to bestow on their eldest as a gimmick to sell more newspapers. The paper no longer exists, by the way. Over the years some places have managed to hold onto their canes, but many got lost when the family didn’t give it back after the oldest-timer died. That’s what happened in Worthington, and sometime in the ’80s a cabinetmaker in town made a new one.

It’s supposed to be a great honor being the oldest. This town and others typically have a ceremony and the newspaper always does a story. Some people are in sad shape, not really knowing they’re the most senior of citizens. Some spry folk accept the cane with gusto. But sometimes people don’t want any part of the cane. It carries a hex: you get it, and then you die. Several years ago, the cane went to the third-oldest resident because the first and second, two women, turned it down. Harry, an old rascal who lived in the town’s senior housing, proclaimed in his acceptance speech, “Maybe this cane will get rusty before you get it back.” The same happened with Ralph. The oldest man wanted nothing to do with it, but Ralph being the good sport he is went along with it. 

Now about his think tank. There are about seven regulars, all men, although a couple of Ralph’s women friends will stop by. The living room with its long couches can accommodate ten nicely but any more, people just sit back and let others do the talking and that’s not the purpose of these gatherings. Ralph says the night begins with the group hanging onto something that transpired during the past week, and then it runs its own course. A discussion about the Balkan Peninsular leads to the Byzantine Empire, pleasing the inner history professor in Ralph. The hurricanes in the Gulf Coast bring up global warming. Every now and then he shouts when the discussion degenerates into old men discussing their ailments. There’ll be none of that, he says.

The night starts at 7:30 and occasionally he has to boot them out at 11. People get wound up. Sometimes discussion gets a little more raucous than it needs to be.

“It often swings around to the wretched Democrats and the wretched Republicans,” he quips.

One fellow, a devout Republican and a good friend, will stomp out when the liberals in the group start bad-mouthing the Bushes and their war policies. Ralph laughs gleefully at the thought.

HILLTOWN POSTCARDS: Interested in reading earlier posts? Just search for Hilltown Postcards on my website.

The Unforgiving Town

Starting a New Book

I was feeling a little lost after sending Missing the Deadline, no. 7 in my Isabel Long Mystery Series, to my publisher, darkstroke books. Then, I realized I needed to get cracking on another. And so I have. It’s actually a book idea that’s been buzzing inside my brain since The Sacred Dog was published in December. I wanted to write a sequel. And so last week I began The Unforgiving Town.

That’s certainly an ominous title for a book. But if you’ve read The Sacred Dog — and thank you if you did — you will understand what this book could be about. For those of you who haven’t, I am not going to be a spoilsport. What I will say is that one of the characters from the first book returns home after doing time for a despicable crime. The character has nowhere else to go but the same town where it happened. It appears this character learned life lessons while in prison and is a changed person, but is the town willing to accept that? Except for a cousin who reached out, I seriously doubt it, which will set up a lot of tension. Of course, this book is set in the fictional hilltowns of Western Massachusetts like most of my books.

But first I had to do research about sentencing and prison. I reached out to two lawyers who do criminal cases and got no response. But then I remembered I had a valuable resource in my brother, Tony, who worked in the prison system for many years until he retired. Our conversation plus the research I did online gave me such useful information. I was ready to move onto the next step.

The big question in my mind was how far into the future would The Unforgiving Town take place. I decided on fifteen years. The first book took place in 1984. The second would be in 1999, which also works given the uncertainty many people felt about what the turn of the century would bring.

Next, I needed to decide which of my characters would still be alive. How old would they be? What would the characters from the first book be doing although that will play out as I write this book.

Then, I got my paperback copy of The Sacred Dog and put bookmarks in the chapters involving this character in case I need them for reference.

All of the above took place over a couple of days. I was ready. I created a new doc in my laptop with the slug The Unforgiving Town. I wrote the first five hundred words Thursday, April 10. The next day, I did the same, and given that’s my pace for writing, I will continue, with exceptions like a camping trip. 

I like what I’ve written so far. The first chapter is called Back Home. It feels right in the telling.

LINK: Curious about The Sacred Dog? Just click on the title and it will send you to Amazon. Thank you if you do.

Northern Comfort

Only Days to Go for Northern Comfort

Northern Comfort, which has a July 19 release, is my next book set in the fictional hilltowns of Western Massachusetts. That’s only days away. Perhaps you’re wondering why I continue to choose that setting. Frankly, it’s because I have had a long fascination with the real ones. Let me explain.

After living in a number of cities, Hank and I decided a better place to raise our family would be in the country. And with the encouragement of new friends, we found ourselves moving to the town of Worthington, population around 1,200. Before the move, we checked out the town, camping in our friends’ yard. That night the sky was alive with Northern Lights, which I took as a positive sign.

We rented a funky, little house for $150 a month. Actually it was less than that for several months since we helped clean and fix up this house, which had belonged to the owner’s grandfather. Just like those Northern Lights, we got a welcome from the people who lived in town, in particular one of its largest families, the Donovans. Hank and I immersed ourselves in the town. Two of our six kids were born here. They all went to the local schools. Hank established himself as a skilled woodworker.

Eventually, we were able to buy a small piece of land and build a house, thanks to the generosity of so many people in the local construction industry who gave us great deals and even worked for free.

I got a job as a freelance reporter, a correspondent, actually, who reported on Worthington for the local newspaper, the Daily Hampshire Gazette. I covered selectboard meetings, fires, storms, accidents and other emergencies, basically anything I thought readers would want to read about. I wrote features about people and the things they did like truck pulls, hunting, farming, maple sugaring, etc. I was paid by the word.

Eventually I expanded my coverage area to two more hilltowns. 

Hank and I also enjoyed the nightlife, which meant drinking and dancing at the town’s watering hole, Liston’s. (Before that, it was the Drummer’s Club.)

As a reporter, I listened to the way people talked and how they behaved. I heard so many stories, some of which weren’t printable, but they gave me insight and inspiration. I am also grateful for the experience because it broke a 25-year writer’s block. But it wasn’t until I was hired by the same paper as an editor, that I turned my newfound writing skills into fiction. Among those is my new book, Northern Comfort.

So what’s Northern Comfort about? Willi Miller and her son are a charity case in a NE town that holds dear to the traditions of making maple syrup, playing old-time music, and keeping family secrets. They live in a cabin left to them by their grandfather, who took them in after Junior Miller abandoned them. Then, on a snowy day, Cody’s sled sends him into the path of a truck driven by Miles Potter, a man of means. Willi and Miles have known each other since they were kids, but until the moment her son dies, they are separated by their families’ places in town. 

This is a story about the haves and have nots in a small town. Over the next couple of weeks I will share more posts about the book in my attempt to entice you to buy it. As of July 19, it will be available in Kindle for $2.99. (Paperback readers will have to be patient.) My thanks if you do.

Here’s the link: https://mybook.to/northerncomfort

Northern Comfort

Why I Chose ‘Northern Comfort’ for My Book

My next novel, Northern Comfort will be released July 19. It’s a dark drama in which the accidental death of a child changes the lives of those involved. No, it’s not part of my Isabel Long Mystery Series. (Another is not the way.) But, yes, it has a favorite setting, the fictional hilltowns of Western Massachusetts. Why did I give it that title? As I so often say, I take what I know and have my way with it.

One of the great pleasures I had as a reporter living and working in Western Massachusetts was the start of maple sugaring season. That would happen in late winter when the weather was warm enough during the day to get the maple trees’ sap flowing and cold enough at night, that it would stop. There’s a lot of work that goes into getting those trees ready and for boiling the sap into delicious maple syrup. Every year, I tried to find a new angle for a story, and the maple sugarers were very accommodating. One of my go-to guys was Paul Sena, who still makes maple syrup in my former town of Worthington. Hank and I still drive there to buy syrup from him. It is one of my favorite foods. Here’s a link to an earlier post about that topic: https://www.joanlivingston.net/uncategorized/pauls-sap-truck/

Since this book is set in winter, I wanted to capture the process of stringing lines, tapping trees, and even boiling. Miles Potter, one of the main characters, helps his buddy, Dave, a relative newcomer to this hilltown, who is enamored by the old-time ways including sugaring. For Miles, the work is cathartic. He was the one driving the truck when little Cody Miller’s sled slid into its path. Miles knows Cody’s mother, Willi Miller. They grew up in the same town, but their places were separated by what their families had or didn’t have. Will and Cody were dirt poor. Miles grew up comfortably.

The excerpt below tells you a lot about the tradition of maple sugaring, including the history of why it was called ‘northern comfort’ before I used it as a title.

Given the drama of this case, the title Northern Comfort fits so well. We have a mother grieving for the young son she raised by herself. It hasn’t been easy considering he was brain-damaged at birth. Then, there is Miles who feels remorseful for his role in the accident, and finally, Junior Miller, who uncomfortably must face the fact he abandoned his former wife and son.

What kind of comfort can any of them find in the cold north?

As promised, here is an excerpted from Northern Comfort. The scene takes place at Dave’s sugarhouse. Miles is there as well as Dave’s family, including his pregnant wife.

Sap flowed into the metal holding tank at the sugarhouse, sweet music to Dave, who threw up his arms and did a jig next to the evaporator. “I knew it, I knew it,” he sang. “I just knew it.”

Dave’s little girls danced with him, although they didn’t understand what their father was shouting about. 

His wife, Ruth, whose belly was too big to dance, laughed and shook her head. “You gotta love the man,” she said.

Miles laughed as he stoked the fire beneath the evaporator’s pan. He was doing as Dave taught him, putting the slabs of hard and soft wood, bark-side down, inside the firebox. His goal was to get its cast-iron doors hot enough to glow red. Now the firebox’s ears, or hinges, were another thing. Dave, who learned to sugar from an old-timer long dead, said he only did it once so far.

Miles stripped to his thermal shirt. He couldn’t work bare-shirted because sparks flaring from the firebox’s opening would burn his skin. The shirt and jeans would be useless by the end of sugaring season, bit through with so many holes they’d look like someone had fired birdshot at him. Miles reached inside his jeans pockets for the coins and keys. He took off his belt. He had learned from Dave their metal would heat up enough to leave red marks on his body.

“Hey, Dave, you might want to forget to tell the doctor about emptying his pockets when he comes for his ceremonial boil. We’d get a laugh watching him jump around like his pants were on fire.”

“Yeah, that’d go over big,” Dave said flatly.

Yesterday, when the temperature rose into the forties and everyone’s houses dripped melted snow, some sap collected in the vats at the bottom of each sugar bush. Today, the run was full-blown with two thousand gallons ready to be boiled into syrup.

Dave was full of local lore as he moved around the sugarhouse after Ruth and the girls went home. He talked about how farmers in New England used to make maple sugar, forming it into hard cakes. Maple syrup became popular in the late 1800s when someone invented the evaporator, which resembles a flat-bottom boat when it’s empty.

Miles glanced up from the firebox’s door. He raised a gloved hand. 

“Dave, you’ve told me this story six years straight. Why don’t you tell me this on the third week when we’re so sick of this stuff and pulling all-nighters we vow never to do it again? Or better yet, save it for the doctor. I bet he’d love telling his buddies back in New York all about it.”

Dave studied Miles.

“Shit, you can be such a spoilsport sometimes.” He reached for his leather gloves. “Anyway, around the Civil War people up North began using maple sugar instead of cane sugar and molasses from the South. They used to call it northern comfort.”

“Yeah, yeah, I remember that from last year.”

The sugarhouse, only yards from Dave’s house, was unheated, except for the evaporator’s fire box. Step a few feet outside at night, and the cold had a punch, but next to the evaporator, all was humid and hot like a woman’s mouth. The swirling sap in the pan gave off a bank of steam, which rose to the sugarhouse’s vented roof.

They fired up the evaporator about an hour ago. It’d be another two before Dave could pour the season’s first syrup. As Dave reminded Miles, the first boil sweetens the pan, so it takes longer than the next firings. They’d be here until ten or so and resume boiling the next day.

Miles helped Dave build his sugarhouse seven years ago. They took measurements from an abandoned shack in South Hayward that had collapsed from heavy snow the year before Dave’s was built. Rough-hewn boards nailed vertically covered the rectangular building. On the wall near the shelf for the radio, Dave penciled the starting and ending dates for each season, and how many gallons of syrup they had made. Today’s date was Thursday, March 5. 

LINK FOR NORTHERN COMFORT: The book will be released July 19 for Kindle readers. Here is the link: https://mybook.to/northerncomfort. It only costs $2.99. I hope you will preorder as it helps with ratings. Thank you if you have already done that.

Paperback readers will have to be a little patient. I will let you know when it’s available.

PHOTO ABOVE: A half-gallon of the delicious maple syrup created by Paul Sena. Forgive the crusted drips of sap.