Make Your Own Change
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by Nancy Means Wright
Category: General Nonfiction
Description: After you've restored a hump-roofed, rump-sprung wreck of a Broken House, withstood the eccentricities of in-laws, willful kids, offbeat neighbors, obstinent hired hands, live-in ghost and established a craft shop, featuring Timothy, a wooden rocking horse with personality but who can't seem to hold onto his eyes and tail--what do you do for an encore? Wright decided to write a book about her crazy experiences. Memoir by Nancy Means Wright; originally published by Down East Books
eBook Publisher: Belgrave House, 1985
eBookwise Release Date: September 2012
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [251 KB]
Reading time: 153-214 min.
One spring morning between classes at Proctor Academy, the boys' school in Andover, New Hampshire, where my husband and I both taught, I began a novel. It was about a faculty wife, a latter-day Madame Bovary, trapped in a labyrinth of locker rooms full of men and boys. I locked myself into the bedroom to write it while Gary and Lesley, our two young children, bled outside in the hall. "I can't love you any more -- I can't!" my heroine wept as her red-haired husband jogged off in his green sweatpants.
At that time we were spending three months of the year with Spencer's parents in Vermont, and the other nine in a tiny apartment in a boys' dormitory. I tutored remedial reading and put on plays, while Spence taught history and coached hockey or football as the season allowed. Evenings the apartment trembled as his quarterbacks leaped over his mother's horsehair sofa to smash into the rug for a first down.
I was just completing chapter one when we were transferred into the biggest dorm on campus, nicknamed The Zoo. Our living room was divided from the rest of the apartment by a staircase where thirty-five boys swept up and down at frantic intervals. A thin wall separated our kitchen from the boys' Butt Room. In the bath and bedrooms the ancient pipes offered a direct line of communication between ourselves and the upstairs. I was sitting on the toilet one night when a disembodied voice hissed down: "Oh, Mrs. Wright -- I see you-hoo-oo."
"I want modern plumbing or I'm leaving!" I shrieked at my husband (while a dozen grinning ears clung to the far side of the wall).
But where to go? I'd run out of parents years ago. My older sister, Grace, was struggling with an adolescent child in a mini-apartment. One brother was abroad, working for the State Department; the other occupied a single room in Florida, where he pounded out pop tunes for a living on a rented piano. There was no room in anyone's inn for a runaway wife and two brawling children.
When Grace took a cottage at Cape Cod that June the children and I went with her, leaving Spence to make the summer pilgrimage to the in-laws alone. We all waved good-bye as he drove off in the old green Chrysler, his ruddy face set like a sail toward the West, his lower lip sucking in and out the way it did when he had something on his mind -- a play-off game, or a way to keep his marriage together.
In his pocket was our life savings: $250 in cash. He received $3500 a year at school (plus "room" and board) -- a salary low even for the late fifties -- with a quarter of that going toward the M.A. he'd been earning summers at the university. I had just been promoted to Reading Department Head for $800. The car was of dubious vintage: he'd bought it the fall he met me on the ship after a summer of cycling in Europe. I had fifty cents in my pocket then and five hundred colored postcards of ruined abbeys and leaning towers. Six weeks later he married me, he said, because my maiden name was Means. I married him, I replied, because he had red hair, and as I was nearsighted, I could always find him in a crowd. We were poor in those days, but happy.
While the children and I built sand castles at the Cape, Spence searched for a place of our own on Vermont soil. It had to be Vermont. Eight generations of Wrights, descended from Abel Wright, born in Connecticut in 1631, were buried in Addison County cemeteries: he wanted to connect roots. He didn't tell me at the time that Abel's wife had been been scalped, while Abel lived to be a robust ninety-two. He maneuvered the old Chrysler up rocky hills and down rutted roads. He knocked on doors and tracked farmers into the bowels of their barns to ask if they had land to part with. Perhaps it was the monomania in his blue eyes or the mop of coppery curls, but he came up with offers on every hand. He narrowed the search to three towns: Weybridge (his father's birthplace), Whiting, and Cornwall. The last was his preference, a town of some eight hundred souls, of apple orchards and dairy farms. And finally, to eight properties, all of them $4000 and up. The most we could manage at that time, even with borrowing, was $2500.
One morning Ben Field, an octogenarian farmer who had an egg route, stopped by the Wright Sr. manse, where Spence was mending his parents' fence, and said: "You damn fool. You're running up and down the countryside when the place you want's right under your nose!" And he pointed "downstreet."
"You don't mean the old blacksmith place?" said Spence, leaning into the fence, biting down on his corncob pipe.
"The same," replied Ben.
"But that hasn't been lived in for twenty years. The house is in a state of collapse! Anyway, I heard by the grapevine, they wouldn't sell."
The owner was a titian-haired former schoolteacher named Vivian LeDuc who lived beside what was once the Cornwall General Store and Post Office -- the place still held its counters, coffee grinder, and post boxes. It was enough for her to keep up; she wanted to sell the blacksmith property. But her estranged husband, who lived somewhere downcountry, had doubts.
"Ever ask?" said Ben, who, being an eggman, a former selectman, and chairman of the hospital board, had his finger on the pulse of things in town.
That afternoon Spence drove up to Vivian's house in the big green Chrysler New Yorker. It was his first mistake. "The place might be for sale for $3600," Vivian said, her eyes reflecting the shine he'd just put on the car.
"But the house is crumbling into its foundation," Spence argued, "one more big wind and --"
"Thirty-six hundred," Vivian said, her green eyes squinted to meet his.
Spencer drove slowly back up Route 30 to the "Brown House," as it was familiarly called. From the road it was barely visible where it crouched behind a jungle of wild grass and burdock. He parked in the driveway and sat awhile -- his cheeks pink with sun, his eyes glazed over. The tangle of weeds became a smooth green lawn, the house a handsome "Colonial." Beyond, a dozen maple and locust trees stretched tall against the soft swell of Bread Loaf Mountain. The locusts showered fragrant June blossoms on the roof like rice on a bride.
An ancient and used bride, of course. Frank Brown, who lived there back in the late nineteenth century, was a blacksmith who came to work as a day laborer for the owner of the stone smithy across the street. Alert and dexterous, Brown became a prosperous smith, and was able to purchase the house, along with its barn and horse stalls. A widower by then, he raised his daughters May and Jenny, and a yard full of lilac, red chokeberry, and bridal wreath. The menage-a-trois was so close-knit that when Homer Cobb, the town treasurer, who lived in the old Medical College, wanted to marry May Brown, he got two for the price of one. Refusing to part, the sisters moved hand-in-hand after Frank's death into the Cobb House. They stuck together to the end, Jenny succumbing within hours of May, their demise observed by a double funeral. The Cobb house later became the Stanley Wright house, acquired one day at auction, complete with fourteen rooms, outhouses, and crematorium, when my mother-in-law got carried away by the bidding. Jenny's diaries, detailing the nineteenth-century weather, and cancelled checks from the Cornwall treasury, changed hands with it. The Brown and Cobb houses had long been connected in local legend. Now, it seemed, chance might again unite the two.
Spence called me up at the Cape to describe the possible union. Over the wire his voice crackled with emotion. My heart leaped as I envisioned this white manse against a periwinkle sky, more wonderful than any of the colored postcards I had brought home from Europe.
"With an apple orchard across the street?" I said.
"In bloom, every spring. Of course it will take a little work."
"Sure, sure," I said. "And a rosebush by the kitchen door. Pink or yellow, did you say?"
"Yellow," he said. "And $3600. She wouldn't come down."
"Buy it, buy it," I urged. And closed my eyes to imagine the tumble of yellow petals against the turquoise mountains, the children and I barefoot among them.
We went back to Vivian LeDuc -- on foot. Two visits later they settled on a price of $3000; $250 down, $500 in a promissory note, $1000 in a demand note, and the rest forthcoming through a bank loan. He drove to the Cape to pick us up. It was a joyous ride back to Vermont. I pelted him with questions, while the children crooned in their padded seats. He tried to explain why we couldn't move in at once.
"A little restoration," he said, knocking his pipe against the car door. He flung out vague nouns like roof, chimney, walls, ceiling.
"Built in 1796, you said? Ah, ghosts of Christmas Past . . . ."
The first decade of my life had been lived in almost as many houses. When my father died, my mother removed the two of us into a girls' boarding school -- where I spent five long years under the sharp nose of its Presbyterian headmistress. And then there was a women's college, and the all-boys school. At last, I exulted, I was going home!
"Of course we might want to stay with the folks again for the winter holidays while I'm getting it fixed up," he said.
"You think so?" I sucked in my lip.
Of the fourteen rooms in "the folks" house, only two were livable in winter. We spent Thanksgiving and Christmas huddled around the kerosene stove: Spence and I and the children, his parents, his younger brother Dan, and a diminutive Yankee grandmother whose self-appointed job was to split wood for the kitchen woodstove. Through it all the senior Wrights tried to maintain a measure of dignity. After all, Stan Wright was Director of Admissions at nearby Middlebury College; the president and his wife were frequent visitors to the house. The family pride slipped rapidly the evening Stan went sailing across the kitchen floor on a frozen diaper, with a roar that was heard around the county.
The final crisis, though, came on Christmas morning when my mother-in-law, Ruth, who had fought for years to observe the ceremonies of Christmas in the face of the spartan Wrights, stepped downstairs, aglow in a pink wrapper, to find The Tree, dragged home the night before from the Green Mountain National Forest, stripped of its lower ornaments; and below, a third of the presents vandalized. Three-year-old Gary had crept down before dawn and quietly assailed the wrappings. I could only imagine his eyes, as round and bright as the colored balls that hung above the mountain of gifts. When I arrived on the scene he was removing a lacy slip, size 18, from its waxy box: "I love it," said my mother-in-law, a quiver on her lips as she folded it back into the shredded tissue.
"Or we could stay at the lake again," Spence suggested.
"Unh uh," I said. "Lesley's too big now for the bureau drawer."
Back in the twenties, Ruth's father, Charles Ashworth, had built a summer place on Lake Dunmore, a gem of a lake at the foot of Mount Mooslamoo, once frequented by the Green Mountain Boys. The "camp," where we spent two weeks each June packed in with the other in-and-out-laws, was a living illustration of Norman Rockwell's famous sketch that shows the husband grinning good-bye to a station wagon full of guests heading north, while his wife stares with dismay at a carload pulling in from the south.
Behind the big camp was a smaller one, built by Spence and his father to serve as a hunting lodge. The place was to be planted with poison ivy and broken glass, according to Stan Wright, to repel intruders, but luckily for us at the time, he hadn't gotten around to it. We went in, the Christmas after Gary stole the show, with kids, supplies, and toys on our backs. There was a bed for ourselves and Gary; Lesley was assigned to a bureau drawer. We melted snow to warm her bottle, rinsed the rancid diapers in outdoor drifts, gazed through the picture window at the icy lake, and congratulated ourselves that we were at last alone. But when we tried to smile, our faces cracked with the cold. The kerosene heater gave as much heat as a cigarette in a barn. Lesley's voice was a frozen chirp from the drawer. It was too cold even to make love; we couldn't bear to take off our clothes.
The memory of the lake in winter numbed our thoughts, and we settled down to the long drive back to Vermont. "We're here," Spence announced four hours later, skidding to a stop in Cornwall. He flung out an arm to sweep in a grassy vista that resembled a Kansas wheat field.
I squinted. Through the weeds I made out a low-slung, weather-beaten house that looked as if it had been picked up by Dorothy's cyclone and dropped on its rear end in Vermont. The house sloped downhill to culminate in a back stoop like the foot bone disconnected from the ankle bone. In the side yard, near a yellow rosebush that had fallen to thorn, was a rusted pump, full of salamanders -- "Blinded," I was told, "from generations of darkness. But don't worry, we'll drill a new well."
"Mommy," Gary warned. "Gotta go potty."
The inside, my husband confessed, was unplumbed, except for an ancient toilet seat in a tiny closet that connected with a second-floor tank and a zinc cistern, which in turn was supplied with rain water caught off the roof -- "a direct thrust system," according to the proud new owner. At the moment, though, there was no thrust, as the eaves had fallen off the house and the "cistern" was full of holes.
"So it's back to nature," I said, nudging Gary into the weeds. Only his head was visible above the crabgrass.
"It has beautiful lines, though, don't you think?"
"What?" I said, helping the child with an obstinate zipper.
"Four layers of roofing up there." He pointed to what looked like an undulating snake.
"That's good," I said.
"Well, no. That means they were too lazy to take off the old stuff. Just kept adding the new on top."
"Oh. Too bad," I said, watching the stream arc neatly out of the weeds and over a white peony bush.
"Wait till you see the inside," said Spence.
I helped the boy pull himself together, gathered up Lesley, and stepped warily across the shaky porch and through the door. Ahead of me, Gary shrieked.
"What is it?" I cried, plunging in after.
"See-saw!" he hollered, jumping up and down on the teetering floorboards, until a chunk of falling plaster cooled his ardor.
I found myself in a dark, low-ceilinged room heaped with fallen plaster. In it a dead bird lay shrouded; a glazed eye stared up at us. When Gary picked it up, the wing came off and Lesley screamed. Spence lit a kerosene lamp, the only source of light. Overhead, the ceiling bulged ominously as though large objects might suddenly hurtle through the cracks.
"Old-fashioned plaster," Spence said cheerfully. "Made with horsehair. Don't find that around much any more."
"Really?" I said.
"No insulation, of course. Trouble is, they nailed the outside boards directly to the studs, so if the wind blows, it'll rattle the newspaper you're reading indoors." He chuckled.
"Oh ho," I echoed.
"But you haven't seen anything yet."
I followed him through the descending kitchen, with its cast-iron sink and lead drainpipe that went nowhere, and down into the attached woodshed, which had been "splayed off its foundation," he explained, by the '38 hurricane. In one corner was a three-seater outhouse, with splintered holes. The children disappeared into a sea of trash: tin cans, old shoes, newspapers -- the residue of generations. He'd already taken two trailer loads to the dump, Spence admitted, standing knee-deep in what looked like another ten.
I peered through the crooked window frame at the forest of burdock, sumac, and locust trees that hid the mountains. You couldn't see the blossoms for the bees that swarmed around them. Through the underbrush a chicken house with a collapsed roof was barely visible. The last chicken had lost its head twenty-five years ago.
"Mom!" Gary cried, diving up through the trash with a red-plaid cap that he placed on his blond head at a rakish angle. "We gonna live in this broken house?"
"That's the plan," said his father, with a modest grin.
"Hoo-ray!" the child shouted, shuffling up to me in a pair of cracked rubber boots.
"R-ray!" Lesley echoed, her pink cheeks dimpling as she waved a pea-green beer bottle crusted with grime.
I smiled bravely and went in to use the outhouse, tugging the wooden door shut behind. Only it wouldn't shut. And a colony of bees hummed up out of the oval holes to greet me. So I stumbled outdoors behind the peony bush.
In my own space, I sighed, at last.