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.

Hilltown Postcards

People Have to Live Somewhere

Here is the second post in the series I am calling Hilltown Postcards. I write a little more about how we landed in Worthington, a hilltown in Western Massachusetts, after leaving Boston. Win and Joan Donovan, and their extended family, made us feel welcome and helped us adjust to country living. By the way, I post this on the day I begin my next hilltown book, The Unforgiving Town, a sequel to The Sacred Dog.

Our new friends, the Donovans, let us stay at their home until the place was ready. You couldn’t ask for nicer first friends. They knew everybody and everybody knew them, and it was our easy way into town to say we did, too.

Joan was old blood with a fine Worthington pedigreed, the Bartletts and Osgoods. She was town clerk for many years and her father, a selectman. Her mother worked in the post office. Her uncle was the building inspector and his wife, a teacher at the elementary school. Win moved to Worthington when he was a young boy with his parents, a brother, and a sister. He remembered sitting on the floorboards of their pickup truck all the way from Aroostook County, Northern Maine. Other Donovans came, too, including a woman who married into the Albert family, the town’s potato barons.

Win built homes but gave that up when his health suffered and he turned to natural foods and alternative medicine. Some people who had known him all his life found it hard to accept his new ideas. That was why he was so happy about our move to Worthington.

Win and Joan talked about getting along in the small town. Stop if you see someone in trouble on the side of the road. Don’t speak ill of anyone because the person you’re talking to might be related. Don’t bother the neighbors. Be honest. Respect the people who’ve been living here and welcome the new ones. When people complained too many houses were being built, Win would say, “People have to live somewhere.”

They lived by a solid code of country values. And that first week, while Joan watched our four kids and made us food, Win dropped by to check our progress and to give a hand. He worked with Hank to line the chimney with hollow clay blocks so it would be safe to burn wood. Then, he helped Hank get the pump going that drew our water from a spring-fed cistern in the cellar. It was good-tasting water and cold if you let it run for a few minutes, and we were counting on it being clean considering the dank cellar, the sort of place you made a lot of noise when you went downstairs so any critters would scatter. 

After several days, we moved to the house. It was ready enough, and with four kids, ages 1 to 9, we couldn’t stay too long in somebody else’s home. We set up a line of futons in the front bedroom, a temporary sleeping arrangement until we could move into the other bedrooms. The first night the kids were too excited and needed a story to quiet down. I sat with them, telling one of my own, one of those mom stories about insects that act like people. This time it was a family of monarch butterflies, because we saw their cocoons, green with gold-like markings, clinging to leaves of milkweed in the fields behind our friends’ home. Joan put one in a jar for the kids so they could watch it hatch.

My children lay beneath the quilts I made, wearing the flannel pajamas I had sewed. Once again they were in a new home, trusting their parents were doing right for them. I set my voice on a soothing, storytelling tone. They were counting on this familiar moment. The air didn’t have the smells of our family: my cooking, bath time, saw dust on Hank’s clothes, the kids’ dirt from playing. Our furniture was spread out – the crate chairs, the steamer trunks, the book cases Hank built, his first attempt at furniture, the end table from my parents’ newlywed living room set and castoffs like the TV that barely pulled in two stations from Connecticut. The maple table Hank scored at a second-hand shop and refinished was in the dining room. The boxes were unpacked: the kitchen stuff, clothes, toys and the little things that decorate a home and make it your own. I plucked sun chokes and set them in a crock on the tabletop, something pretty to get us started.

For tonight, my story was done. They were ready to sleep. I kissed each one. 

Hank sat outside on the slab stone step for the front door, smoking beneath the overhang. I was smoking then, so I joined him. A pickup truck sped around the curve in front of the house as if nothing would ever be in its way. We’d have to be careful with the kids on this road. I felt cold even with my sweater. The clear September nights pulled the heat from the ground, and earlier, before the light set, moisture from the river settled in misty clumps over the field at Charlie’s farm across the road. I marveled at the quiet, so quiet it made my ears buzz and the sky dark and heavy with stars. The lights were on at the farmhouse, its front rooms only yards from the edge of the road. 

Through the trees we saw the house where other neighbors lived. He worked in social services and she was a stay-at-home mom. Our two school-aged children would catch the bus at the end of the driveway with their boys. We registered them at the school in the town’s center village, named for Russell H. Conwell, a native son who founded Temple University and other Philadelphian institutions. He was supposed to be a great orator, and his most famous speech was called Acre of Diamonds. People spoke with great reverence about Conwell, that he was a big Civil War hero who met Abraham Lincoln. But he was a bit of a fibber, I found out years later, claiming to have been with young Johnny Ring, one of the Rings of Ringville, when he was killed in a Civil War battle, and he used the boy’s sword to attack rebel soldiers. It was one of those small town legends thin on the truth but good for the telling.

The Russell H. Conwell School, covered by white wooden clapboards, had four classrooms although only three were used and grades one through four were doubled up because there were so few kids, less than fifty. The talk in town was the school might be shut and that worried folks. Once you lose a school, you never get it back. It happened in nearby towns. More than once we heard how happy people were a big family like ours moved to Worthington. Our oldest daughter was in fourth grade, taught by Joan Donovan’s aunt, Helen, a woman with a kind grandmotherly face. Our oldest son was in kindergarten. 

Hank and I talked ahead. He had work with Win at least through the fall. After that he didn’t know. It might be tight for a while. We expected that, but I knew it worried him despite what he or I ever said. One big bill, someone getting sick or the car breaking down, and we’d be in trouble. We didn’t have a credit card to fall back on in an emergency. It would take a lot for us to ask our families for help. We had four kids who depended on us, and the fact that we uprooted them once again to a rural town without any guarantee we’d have enough money to take care of them might seem careless or thoughtless. But I couldn’t shake the belief this move was for the better. Here would be our family’s best chance to own a home finally. Perhaps we could buy a fixer-upper or a piece of land to build.

 We had learned it takes three years to get established. The first year, you learn your way around. The second, you recover financially. The third, you get ahead. But we never made it that far. We kept looking for some place that would hold our attention. I hoped this time we’d stay.

FICTION: The fictional hilltowns is the inspired setting for most of my adult novels, including the Isabel Long Mystery SeriesThe Sweet SpotThe Sacred Dog, and my most recent, Northern Comfort