Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Should be packing...

One of my favorite spaces in our New Hampshire home is the herb room in the barn (as well as the kitchen, the pantry, the playhouse). Sadly, the gardens have suffered from benign neglect this summer as I have not lifted a trowel.

...but I'm not. July has been a whirlwind. It started, July 1st, with an offer on our house and progressed from there. Now, just over two weeks since the tea party on July 12, our house is a warehouse of boxes and furniture in various states of arrangement. My husband was right: no need to hire a moving company when he can do most of it. He is a whirling dervish (I help but it is one box to his twenty--I'm just not equipped for this but maybe it is because I have moved so many times before, in larger and larger increments from dorm to apartment to this house, but nothing like this). We have friends who have helped lug things and have hired a teenager who is an efficient packer, too. Our own children help where and when they can. In August, after melon season ends, Temple will be bringing back a car full of Mennonite friends who want to visit New England and also help here. I am sorry I will miss their visit in this house.

I have so many things I would have wanted to blog about this summer but I will tuck them away for August. They will at least still be seasonal and bear with me as I'll be writing more about New Hampshire, as well as Kentucky. I will need some writing time when I get settled in again and the boys start school (very early down there--something that will take some adjusting). And book projects beckon and are on the table (well, or in a box right now, as is most everything not nailed down or sat or slept upon).

So we will leave this house--two boys, our daughter, an elderly aunt, our very old and frail dog, and two weary middle-aged parents--on August 1st. My husband will soon return for the closing but we will not. It is a bittersweet time and I wish we had August to plod along with the rest of the packing and to take some more time to enjoy the summer. But we couldn't ask for a better window of opportunity to sell our home especially as, once it was listed last fall, we had no idea of our time line for selling it and moving out. We have been fortunate in all realms.

Perhaps it is best to leave when the sun is still high in the sky, before the Big Dipper has tipped below the barn, and well before the sad, plaintive song of the crickets in August. We will return to high summer in Kentucky, even though school will begin soon. There another life awaits us. I see our new home as the start of an adventure. The first time either of us has really been away from home in any great capacity, or too far from the "mother ships" that have been our family homes. Kentucky is a place where, like the early pioneers, we knew no one but have already made good friends and neighbors.

Transitions. This "odd uneven time." The poet Sylvia Plath mourned the end of summer in a journal entry on August 8, 1952:
Three years ago, the hot sticky August rain fell big and wet as I sat listlessly on my porch at home, crying over the way summer would not come again--never the same. The first story in print came from that 'never again' refrain beat out by the rain. August rain: the best of the summer gone, and the new fall not yet born. The odd uneven time.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A Little Libation...

Last night I had a mixed drink for the first time in well over a year, since a Cinco de Mayo celebration last year at our house. It was a weird sort of summer drink: ice cold Grey Goose® vodka, Juicy Juice® fruit punch, and a splash of Tom Collins-style mixer. It was like what I might have had at a college frat party (I think I went to only one and it was dreadful) and was made by a friend who, many years ago, was in a frat-like club at one of the nation's most elite institutions. The drink was refreshing and I was feeling jolly enough going into a dinner with our old friends who we see once or twice a year. I didn't really need or want it but I thought, why not?

Now alcohol is not my poison by any stretch and it is something I usually avoid altogether (too bad I can not say the same of most food concoctions). I much prefer a good cold glass of 100% Welch's® grape juice to a glass of wine any day. However, I did notice how comfortable it made my speech. As I said, I was already "on"--not always the case--and this was probably the pent up adrenalin of days watching my husband and a small crew of teenagers pack and move boxes while I sort of spin around and putter here, putter there, finishing nothing. Major Moving Attention Defecit Disorder. (That's MMADD--not Mother's Against Drunk Driving.) So after watching the house collapse into heaps and boxes, I felt entitled to a bit of a nip. Just once.

My point in saying all of this is that I can take or leave alcohol. In Kentucky we live in a dry county, with only one exemption at a marina restaurant on Lake Cumberland. It's not a huge hardship. A new neighbor friend heard that I've never tried moonshine so he brought me some in a little glass jar. Fiery, gut-melting stuff. One sip. Wow. It sits in my cupboard and I could probably use it to clean paint brushes. Our neighbors on an adjacent ridge make peach brandy every summer and have invited us to partake sometime. Funny thing about Kentucky is that Bourbon County is "dry" (no alcohol served or available for purchase) and Christian County is "wet." This is a new experience for us. We have a stocked liquor cabinet but rarely "imbibe" ourselves: it is mostly full of old bottles of Scotch, half-drunk bottles of wine (all gone bad) and cooking sherry. My husband is partial to Maker's Mark® bourbon on occasion and this was well before we even considered moving to Kentucky.

In New Hampshire it looks like it will be a banner Concord grape year on our granite arbor that my husband built 20 years ago. At first he tried some varieties better suited to New York wine country. Only the Concords have been proven winners. They ripen in early October and hang in fragrant pendulous clusters of purple warmth and sweetness. We have a small pamphlet published by Storey publications years ago on grape growing that was written by Annie Proulx, author of Brokeback Mountain. I have it packed with my farm books as we plan to plant grapes in Kentucky. Almost every year for the past twelve of our marriage I have made huge vats of grape jam. There are is a blog entry in my archives about our grape harvesting and jam-making (and Annie Proulx's pamphlet). If things go right with a potential house sale, our new owners will have them to enjoy this fall.

While the grapes are thriving on their own, I have neglected the gardens all summer. Only the mint grows well in its own bed apart from the weeds. I'm having the hardest time leaving plants behind and this might be, psychologically, why I have ignored them. (Is this what we do to friends, as well, when we are about to separate? Put some distance in or neglect and not feed the friendship? I felt I have done that this summer with some old friends and it was not intentional.)

Next week I will dig a few heirloom clumps here and there--some rhubarb from the Gray Goose Farm via my apartment and then to our home when we married, some apple mint (also from the farm) via the Sawyer Farm from a clump from my grandfather. When planted in Kentucky they will be third generation pass-alongs from the original plants from my grandparents. Wild peppermint also grows in abundance near the creeks. Maybe I will try some nice crushed mojitos or some mint juleps next spring at Derby time in Kentucky. But I will mourn leaving the grapes my husband planted here, before we were married, before this house was ours together.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The David Hubbard House

As many readers know, I am enamored with homeplaces--both the idea and the reality of them: what does the term mean, particularly in our new Kentucky land, and how are they treated? In Kentucky a homeplace is often a ruinous old late nineteenth century structure in a field or wooded spot. Rarely are these houses torn down and more often are just left, unoccupied, to fall into the ground over time. But rarely, either, are they restored. They are more like unkempt monuments to another time or person and are regarded as such. [See my blog, Appalachian Homeplace, among others on the topic.] Benign neglect factors in, but so does family reverence.

The same status could be said of the David Hubbard house in Hancock, New Hampshire. It was purchased by the Nylander family in the 1950s and used as a summer home for many years (and never plumbed or electrified). The Nylanders have always been an historic-minded family. Richard Nylander was curator at SPNEA for about forty years until his recent retirement (and even worked alongside his wife, historian Jane C. Nylander who was SPNEA president for a time in the 1990s). Among books the Nylanders have written, I particularly like Jane's Our Own Snug Fireside-Images of the New England Home: 1760-1860, now back in print with Yale University Press.

SPNEA was a long-time acronym for the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities--or "really long names" as we used to joke--that in recent years has become Historic New England. Based in Boston, the organization was founded in 1910 by William Sumner Appleton, curator and accumulator of old New England homeplaces, so many in fact that over the years the organization has had to deaccession many properties to study houses or private homes under easement. I worked for the organization twice: briefly in 1985 as a tour guide at its headquarters, the Harrison Gray Otis House, in Boston and from 1993-1997 as site manager of Barrett House, a grand old Federal manse in New Ipswich, New Hampshire. Sadly, the house has been more or less mothballed by the organization since my tenure. [In an historic coincidence, Charles Barrett, a prosperous mill owner and original occupant of Barrett House, gave his sister Mary, and husband David Hubbard, the land in Hancock on which to build his farm.] I have digressed, as usual, into back story but this is a blog.

In 1959, Robert Nylander, Richard's brother, wrote an article for the Society's publication, Old-Time New England, about their new "old" Hancock home. At the time he was a senior in high school and his love of the place was evident in this article which can be found in its entirety, in the on-line searchable archive [the photographs in this blog, all I have, are from that article]. The Nylander family left the house more or less as they bought it, a preserved New England farmhouse. One of the oldest houses in town, and also one of the more remote, the house was often visited by trespassers over the years who peered in the windows, like myself, or even entered the building. Over the years we have heard of various tales and scenarios about the house but for the sake of not outing anyone, they are best left where they are.

Last year the Nylander family sold the property to a young twentysomething son of Hancock who has made a good career start as a lesser known Hollywood actor. His original intention was to restore the house. The other day I drove down the road, thinking about the place and wanting to just get a glimpse of it again. I was struck to find a reclaimed field, the cellar hole filled in and grassed over. Large house beams appeared sticking out of a container. Only the barn, barely standing, remains.

Ironically, Roy W. Baker, a longtime preservation carpenter at SPNEA (and who also did some restoration work on our Hancock home when my husband's family first bought the place--you see, there is proof of the often incestuous nature of the historic preservation community), wrote an article three years before Nylander entitled "To Keep a House in Good Standing," [Vol. 146, No. 164, Spring 1956]. Baker's article began:

Acquiring an old New England house brings with it definite and special responsibilities of preservation. To the potential owner some of these problems may appear at first discouraging, but the reward in restoring and preserving one of these old landmarks far outweighs any initial difficulties.

In the past few years the Hubbard house has been linked with some unsavory activities, which another reliable source said contributed to concerns by the new owner for "bad karma" there. Beyond any karmic stigma was the enormity of the restoration efforts. My husband saw Robert Nylander in the store today (our village store is one of the focal points for all information!) who said that the sills had rotted and that the old house was being stored in containers. What may have seemed less daunting for some old house buffs likely was overwhelming for the new owner. Nevertheless, in less than a year, the house is gone: after weathering storms, benign neglect and near abandonment at times for over 200 years. Whatever the circumstances is a piteous end for a fine old place.

I can not speak for either the new owner or the old but I do know what it is like to sell a homeplace out of the family, as I have done with a family farm in Jaffrey. Apart from the land there which we are presently in negotiations for a conservation easement, and have already protected the rest by selling it to the town for water resources, I realize too acutely that the fate of the house and barn is no longer in our hands.

Sadly, Robert's own words at left, in conclusion of his article written when he was an idealistic budding historian in 1959, were not to come true. The house that his family purchased in his youth would only stand for another half century.

NOTE: For a PDF of the complete article ["The David Hubbard House," by Robert Harrington Nylander, Old-Time New England, Volume 49, No. 175, Winter 1959] do a search on Historic New England's archive for Old-Time New England.

Friday, July 18, 2008

VeryFine Packing

A used VeryFine box trailer "packed up and ready to go": phase 1 of the Pond Do-it-Yourself Moving Plan (and that's just the barn and yard stuff). Good thing we have a stretch of time this summer to implement this affordable moving operation.

Right now we are packing--putting in, taping up, shoving our life into boxes. Not just our life but seemingly the lives of all who have gone before. And what do I want to do? Revel in it all: oh, there's a photo I haven't seen for 20 years because I never did up those albums; here's the dress our daughter wore to our wedding; our first son's favorite Madras plaid pork pie hat that he wore until it was faded when he was a toddler; the layette of our third, and youngest, child. My father's organ shoes. My first typewriter (a relic on which I banged out every college paper except my thesis on the campus mainframe in 1984). My father's typewriter--even more of a relic. And on and on it goes. Some stuff is already in Kentucky but the rest is here or in transport.

Why is it that clothes are the hardest to part with? I shoved bushels of old outfits from Boston years into bags for the dump. Classic clothes in many sizes that will never fit again unless I become anorexic (three kids, remember?). I gave myself a box: one large plastic lidded box. I filled it with clothes that might one day fit. I put "CSP clothes--2010" on the top of it--if they do not fit by then, out they will go. These are realistic sizes. Good clothes that I can see myself in again. And that was just the storage closet in the cellar.

I won't even mention how many bins of children's clothes I am not ready to part with yet: and that is just the favorite stuff that I've already culled down in recent years, the memory makers: the cute and lovely little pants and shirts and dresses of childhood (we only had one daughter and the collection seems to be dress-heavy). So maybe that's what it is: old clothes remind us of other lifetimes, of different selves, or moments with our children. First day of school. Life's occasions. "I wore that when..."

Why do we become so attached to stuff? Linens, letters, ephemera. Unfinished projects. Stuff for future projects. Foodstuffs put away and never used. Myriad collections. If it is in a closet or a box, or a drawer, it is easily forgotten. So why when it suddenly sees the light of day do we want to hold onto it again? I am too sentimental for my own good. It is my undoing. We have a museum here: of our own inheritance and our own making. What were we thinking? We know we don't need it all so why do we box it up anyway? Some has gone to auction but not enough.

Books are another thing: you either have beloved tomes or pass-alongs. The pass-alongs are going to a local library sale or directly to friends. Some are long overdue returns to friends or family. I can be more decisive about books--and we have many in this house, again from generations. I would rather donate the ones we don't want to a library sale that could use them. Let others find such treasures. But giving away a book that you love is almost like giving away a part of yourself. So I don't do it. And all of those children's books--mine and my children's, some from children long ago. Another kind of sacrilege to give away any of them, really, or to even think about it. Besides, we love books, the kids are reading, surely they will love these books as much as I have?

And china. Let's just not go there right now. I will either open up an eBay business or a small booth at a Kentucky antique mall. I'll let you know.

The problem is that when you move yourself--into purchased box trailers that are towed for $5 a mile (still cheaper than a large moving company)--you tend to say, "oh well, we might as well FILL the truck, given that it is the same freight half or full." So much is going down to be sorted later. Furniture and other things will come later when a possible real estate deal is finished. For now we pack up closets, knee walls, a barn and the stuff and chaff of our lives. This enormous house just proves that space absorbs stuff: lots and lots of it. Time has a way of doing the same thing: absorbing little bits and pieces until there you are and it's months later and really nothing to account for the time passed (at least in my world, sometimes).

My husband is tolerant of my wavering and is an expert packer. "Just fill the box. Tape it up. Mark on it. Give it a destination and I will move it." His energy makes up for my lack of it. "No lists. Just do it." The kids bring in more empty liquor store boxes, the best kinds for books and other things: easy to fill, tape and grab. We have cases of box tape from an office supply store and thick black marker pens that fill the hot summer air with their inky smell.

It is daunting. This is my first major move ever from a house, not counting moving from Ohio to New Hampshire at age 11 when most stuff was done by the movers and I carefully wrapped up my Blue willow collection, Breyer's horses and my childhood books. Just one bookcase back then--and our entire house was no more than 1,000 square feet: a small Greek Revival post-war box, but in that childhood home and yard resided the whole world. I'm humbled to remember that many of those North American moving boxes were never unpacked and sat in a New Hampshire barn for over thirty years. I believe several even went unopened to my mother's new home up the road. I imagine our children will open many of the boxes that we are packing now, many years into the future. So we are likely packing up many mini time-capsules, future headaches in a box.

Someone I know, who I believe may still read this blog, told me that when they moved into an old farmhouse they had some boxes in storage. I don't recall the details except that after a year they decided they didn't really need what was in a given box it if they hadn't opened it or used it during the course of the year. So out they went. Unopened! I've watched programs on television where organizational consultants come into your house and give you five minutes to go through a box and decide: keep, chuck, give away. Box after box. If pressured, that process would probably give me a nervous breakdown. The whole idea, while ultimately liberating, is like a perverse kind of game show. Here's your life in stuff: pass or play.

I know we lived for five months without all of it so why are we packing so much of it now? Perhaps we need to cut the cord slowly, one box at a time. So much is for research or future projects (books and collections and archives). Other stuff is just nostalgia-driven. That's what happens when you are moving a museum. We know we will never live in a house this size again and yet we are not ready to part with all that is in it. So I'm starting to envision a climate controlled Mennonite-built barn: a storage facility for our things, revolving collections. It's madness when I stop to think about it. Small easy-to-tend house, large barn museum. [I won't even suggest it to my husband but I'm guessing he's already thought of it himself.]

Perhaps I'm just delusional. Perhaps my husband is dealing with the reality and I'm still in fantasy land: after all, he will be tending to the major portion of the move when I am in Kentucky with the kids in school (early August start) but for now there is much to do together. I have a visual inventory memory and if I recall where it was before it was packed, it will make some sort of sense when I see a well-marked box.

Physically it is exhausting and emotionally, well, let's just not go there right now, either. We have been back in our New Hampshire home for almost two months, after leaving it (but not really) to settle into our new place in Kentucky last December. For months I've been straddling two distinct, beloved places--a comfortable double-wide and a New England family manse--trying to be loyal, trying to be realistic. I was back in this house by myself during the winter on two occasions and it was so quiet and lonely and it didn't feel like "home." Back here again with the whole tribe it does, and yet it does not: we've already left in a way and being back in the midst of move stress and real estate ups and downs does not a quiet, restful summer make.

Our dog Lucy, who will be 12 in August, sleeps most of the time now. She looks at me and seems to say, "just let me know when you people are done with all of this craziness and wake me up in Kentucky." I want to say, "Beam me up Scotty when we're back on the ridge." Our youngest son, the poet in the family, said the other day: "I wish that our time in Kentucky was just a dream, that we'll wake up from it and be here." Like me, he did not want to leave Kentucky in May but now here we are again, back in love with our old house but knowing it's really just a rental right now.

Both the male and female robin tend the nest and feed their young, often spotting each other on two nests at a time. A pair of robins made their nest on our west porch in 2007 and returned this summer to have two more hatchings. How I envy their ability to fly and travel without baggage!

Meanwhile our two resident robin families have flown: this summer one couple returned to their nest on the west porch, with two hatchings, and another built a new home on the east porch. (I find the symbolism of the natural world to be uncanny.) Is there a rule for unoccupied robin's nests? We are quite certain one family was the same as last year because they were immediately comfortable with our presence. This summer we could open our kitchen door and they would not fly off. I hope the future owners of our house will allow these carefully placed and constructed nests to stay and that "our" robin friends will feel as comfortable with them. I wonder if robins conduct real estate transactions between families or just sublet?

Either way, it is time for my own family to leave this great, lovely, precious well-tended nest of ours. Our own "memory house," soon to be Cath's House of Dreams.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Tea for Forty with Emily and Friends

On Saturday, my novelist friend Nancy Clark and I threw a tea Emily Post-style (right out of her Etiquette book, published in 1922, which was considered a Bible of manners for many decades). It began as an invitation to Nancy's group of Questers, an historically-minded club with chapters all over the United States, which I extended after I spoke to their group on The Pantry before Christmas. Then in June, with a book we are planning together, it quickly morphed into an event specific recreation, but more about that in another blog when the time comes. Nancy and I decided that events such as these in Emily Post's era often had a special guest so we invited Jan Whitaker, author of Tea at the Blue Lantern Inn--A Social History of the Tea Room Craze in America, to speak on tea rooms in New England. [Well imbibed with tea fare, there was an eager audience.]

Hu-Kwa, still imported and sold by Mark T. Wendell Tea Company in Concord, Massachusetts, was the tea of choice for proper Bostonians and also for our tea party: it is a smoky Lapsang Souchong variety and is lovely hot or iced.

We also wanted to honor local authors and among the assembled were Howard Mansfield, author of evocative books on place and New England history, and most recently the children's book, Hogwood Steps Out; Susan Williams, author of Savory Suppers and Fanciful Feasts--Dining in Victorian America; and of course, Nancy Clark, author of The Hills at Home trilogy of novels, including her most recent and concluding novel, July and August, which came out in June.

A groaning board of tea fare in the dining room

It was a grand occasion and lots of fun--once the nearly 500 tea sandwiches were prepared, cut and put out--and something I've always wanted to do in the house. We've had open houses and dinner parties and barbecues and birthday parties over the years but never a good old-fashioned afternoon tea party, billed, correctly, as an "at home" on the handwritten invitations. [Linda, at far right, with her own brown Betty teapot, which I borrowed for the occasion as it brews a gallon at a time, even brought a calling card! But I had no tray to place it on. She caught me!]

One thing we realized, rather quickly, was that Emily and her ilk would have had waitresses and likely a hardworking cook back in the kitchen. This would have allowed for proper, seamless hostessing. But catering and hostessing in combination do not make for a completely relaxed venue for the hostess(es), something Emily would have frowned upon. But we were rescued by women like Diane, who gladly poured. This job, if not done by the hostess herself, was often designated to a distinguished guest. Diane was perfect in the starring role!

Days before one of the intrepid Cupcakes, who prefers anonymity but is a mean hostess herself (and I mean that in the nicest way, of course!), had told me about a method for polishing silver, something long overdue in our house. I had raided the pantries for enough flatware for the party and this was quickly and easily cleaned with her method, of which her chemist husband had reminded her: find an aluminum roasting pan, put silver flatware in it, sprinkle liberally with baking soda, add boiling water to fill. Et voila! Gleaming, gorgeous silver! Next just rinse well in hot water and rub dry. All of the hard work has already been done by the chemical reaction and what a great alternative to chemical polishes.

Our two boys helped polish up silver, by hand and aluminum pan, in no time. And it makes a great science experiment. [Yup, that's me, caught going into the off-limits silver drawer as a little girl in Akron, Ohio with my friend from the crib, Mary Beth.]

Buttermilk bread awaits baking: Emily Post advocated simple, uncomplicated fare like bread and cakes to be served at afternoon teas

Nancy spent the week before the tea experimenting with several sandwich fillings including a chicken paste (recommended by Emily Post), sliced cucumber and mint with orange butter, a shrimp butter with watercress, and the crowning glory: squares of tomato aspic on buttered bread squares. She also prepared loaves of freshly baked homemade buttermilk bread, served with butter and salted fresh radish slices. While I was readying the house, Nancy did most of the cooking but on the morning of the tea I whipped up some old brownie standbys from my mid-70s version of The Joy of Cooking (Brownies Cockaigne) and two kinds of shortbread (same recipe, different additions): dried lavender blossoms and candied ginger chunks. I also made some easy lavender lemonade.

Nancy and Catherine toast each other with chocolate frappés

Sadly, Nancy's planned finale of chocolate frappés, another Emily suggestion at a summer afternoon tea, were not ready in time for the eager crowd. But the remaining few guests, family members, and clean-up crew happily devoured them after we figured out how to work the ice cream maker (thanks again, Cupcake).

So there you have it: tea for 40, easy, breezy, and lots of fun! Of course, did I ever want to back out of it? Oh many times (sorry, Nancy)--including the day before when our realtor called and wanted to show the house at 10am on the day of the tea party (I convinced him to show the house on Sunday instead)--but a good hostess commits and sticks with the program. I would gladly do it again--but probably not until next summer.

A special note of thanks to Jeanne at www.BlueHouseMarket.com for her lightning fast shipping of a cache of vintage gloves--before I had even paid her! I found them on eBay just two days before the party and we used them in our dining room displays. Now, you'd think a former eBay addict would have thought of this place to find such things a month ago? Clearly I'm in recovery.