Here and Nowhere Else
"BUILT BY a frugal man in a frugal time," my father likes to say of my house, and even now, when the plumbing or heating gives out, he'll mutter that it would have been cheaper simply to raze the place and build a new one. So many surfaces made level with shims, and supports that have had to be supported. Newspapers and The Saturday Evening Post pulled from gaps in the walls, and the back stoop propped up by loose bricks. When a robber kicked in the side door, and I came home to the September air swirling through the rooms, I found two rusted nails in the hingehole where one screw should have been. Such jerry-rigged things turn up as unexpectedly as Indian flints, and like those flints, I imagine I'll never stop finding them.
The frugal man was Ben Prentiss, and the time, about 1920, just after he had married Clara. He boughttwo acres of land from my grandfather on what was then the edge of the farm, though by the time my father bought the house from Ben's oldest daughter, he had also bought up land to the east, and the two acres stood in the middle of our farm. Ben sited his house on a small rise near the road, which gave him a good view of all the surrounding acreage. It's the natural site for any house, even now, though it's a house no one would build these days. Half of it is a ramble of unheated storage rooms leaning down to the shed, and the hallways take up almost as much space as the six rooms I live in, rooms small enough to keep to their singular purpose. In the bedroom there's only enough space for the bed and dresser; the dining room, four chairs and a table; the study, my desk.
I easily take up the place myself, and I have trouble imagining how Ben, Clara, and their two daughters lived here, with the one closet, and even a slight cough carrying through all the rooms. The shallow well must have gone dry summer after summer. In my first years here I had moved to this house when I returned to the farm to live there were months when I couldn't water the garden and take a shower in the same day. The new driven well took no time at all to drill an oversized rig backed in the driveway and bore through three hundred feet of ledge in a scant six hours. The source puts out so much water my brother Sam uses it to irrigate the tomatoes. Drawn out of the deep bedrock, clear, hard, cold, it courses through the skewed elbowsof Ben's copper pipes old pipes, still, and if I am away for a while the water comes up rust.
Of the grace Clara likely added to the house the wallpaper streaming with flowers, the frilled curtains, the china cups not a vestige remains, though much of what she planted in the yard still comes back every spring. She must have loved blues and purples there are two islands of bearded irises among the meadow grasses, and violets spread under the west window. Lilacs bloom come May and soften the frame of the house so upright, white, and unshuttered.
She had died, the two daughters had grown and moved on before I was born, so I have always called this house "Ben's house." As roaming children, in our boredom we would stray here. Most of what I remember now is a dark kitchen steeped in smoke and cooking oil. One of my cousins remembers shards of colored glass strewn on the floor of the shed. My sister, chickadees pecking at the sills where Ben left peanut butter for them. We all remember his pale, lank frame, and a fine nose with steel-rimmed glasses pinched on them. There were few words, though I don't think he was ever unwelcoming.
Most of the evidence of living was in the kitchen by then the chair camped at the wood stove, and a table beside it with the day's paper, a flowered cup and plate, and a steel boning knife. The stove itself could be kept low since it only had to throw off enough heat to warm the one man rocking there. The quiet rush of fire contained in metal. No flame to draw his gaze. My motherwould invite him for Sunday dinners, and sometimes he'd come, but only after long coaxing.
Dust in a slant of light. The grass springing back in his footfalls. Things that must have been stored in the shed while Clara had been living he had moved into the house a good supply of cordwood, bundles of newspapers, empty bottles and cans. After her death he saved everything, right down to wood scraps and string. When he himself died, what his oldest daughter didn't take down to Virginia my father and uncles sorted and cleared away, and they ended up burning much of it on a windless spring morning in 1980.
What in these rooms would Ben and Clara remember as theirs? The plank of bird's-eye maple that runs half the length of the dining room floor surely they'd know that and the rough pine shelves in the kitchen, smoothed now from years of paint. But here is another life, with its own dishes, and no curtains, and a Turkish rug in the front room. The floorboards are sanded and glossy with urethane; the walls, painted a creamy white. On the fine shelves that must have held their keepsakes, my books are a square and solid weight. I think the place would be strange to them, they who had lived here so long their windowglass rippled like quiet water, and their view softened with the distortion.
It was a view that must have had its familiarities from the start both Ben and Clara grew up nearby, and always lived bounded by the Merrimack to the south and the low hills to the north, mill cities to the east and west. At times I try to imagine this house containing awhole long life. It feels small when I think about it, confining, and sometimes comforting as it would, I suppose, to anyone who has lived in more places than she ever could have imagined. I can't gather everything under one roof anymore. Not enough space, enough time, no way to close the distances between all the things I love.
Sometimes there's no sound where I think a sound should be. The air warms unexpectedly, a dense fog slips into the orchard behind the house, and my ears strain for the three foghorns I used to count to eleven between them warning down the bay. And then I think how I should be hearing the drawn-out cries of oceangoing birds, and smell salt on the thickened air, and my chest tightens. How far away they now feel, the old friends who are strangers to the slope of these hills, and the names on the nearby graves.
By the time I moved back to the farm, the windows in this house were shaky in their frames. The ropes on the lead weights had frayed, the glazing compound had gone dry. That first winter I listened to the glass knock against the wood on fierce nights, and to the reedy wind. I could feel the drafts in every room. As soon as the warm spring days came, I replaced all the old windows.
Now that the glass is new, the far hills don't shimmer through it, and the skies don't have their distortions and they won't not for another half-century at least. The glass is so clear, it sometimes feels as if there's nothing at all between me and what I look out on,which is our apples to the north, peaches to the south, a field of corn to the west, blueberries to the east. Or I read the compass again: my parents to the south, my aunt to the east, my brother to the west.
When the irrigation pond turned the color of coffee, my father knew it had to do with the trench Gil Johnson had dug just to the west of our land. Runoff from the trench flowed into the brook, which in turn carried silt to the pond. My father knew this without ever seeing the trench or the runoff beyond his property. He was just used to the habits of the land. They were in his bones the drainage patterns and the cold spots where frost lingered, and where the marginal soil was only good for a side crop of gourds. He knew it was nearly impossible to grow lima beans and that he'd sometimes lose his peach crop. It was the accumulation of his lifetime and of his father's life, too.
All through the growing season, that accumulation was right in front of him. He couldn't move to the right or to the left of it. It told him when to irrigate, and when to harvest, and when to call it a loss. Even after the workday had ended it was there at the dinner table. "You should eat some tomatoes," he'd say, "they'll be gone in a few weeks, there's been so much rain." Or we'd be trying a new variety of corn: "Sweeter than Seneca Star," he'd say, to no one in particular. After dinner he'd tune in the weather one last time and doze in the easy chair until bedtime.
His longest days were during the months of August and September, and in an exhausted hour he'd wish he'd done something different with his life. His brothers had gone on to other occupations electrician, teacher, contractor, mechanic and their lives seemed buoyant in the world, designed orbits. And he: nothing other than his father's son.
But such regrets slowed as the season slowed. November came and the moon rose over bare maples. The boughs of the apple trees were sprung and still. Winter rye was up in the cornfields. Only cabbage and cauliflower remained standing they could be picked even after the first frosts, and then the ground was too hard to turn over. My father had more energy in the longer evenings and began a book that would take him all winter to finish. He liked James Michener and would read Alaska one year and The Caribbean the next. He'd garner a handful of facts out of all the pages, and the more he read the less accurate was his recollection of those facts. What he brought to the dinner table was something half-recalled and misremembered. All the same, he relished such talk, as if he was just singing for the song, since the words weren't tied to silt or runoff or coffee-colored water, since for once his words flew away as he said them.
My mother's ear is tuned to the distance, to a hawk's cry asthmatic, from out of the blue. Or the sound of someone driving a wedge into wood: chink, chink, chinkfor so long, then his arm must give a little since his aim falls off its mark and the sound off its pitch. Of course, there's the engine noise of a tractor making its way across one of the fields. A change in the engine marks a change in the land or the end of a furrow. And every day at noon the truck door yawns and snaps shut, then the door to the mudroom, and my father is there at the kitchen entrance. He scrubs his hands at the sink and turns on the TV to get the same weather he heard at breakfast. Then he turns down the volume on the set and lets the news run on while they have their lunch.
They eat at the kitchen now, sitting kitty-corner to each other at the small round table. They look at the salt, the pepper, the bread, the way in winter they'll look at the fire when they talk to each other. They talk about us children, of course, of money and errands to run, the health of their friends. There's silence, and sometimes one of the old stories.
In other years we ate lunch in the dining room or on the long porch table, since there were four kids and Pete, my father's right-hand man. My father and Pete had their own talk: codling moth, cultivator, rye spreader they were going over the morning's work or mapping out the work still to be done in the day. There was some borer in the next piece of corn, the tomatoes needed water, the orchard should be mowed. My mother served lunch, and the conversation went on around her.
She had never in her life made a pie, so those first Tuesdays of her marriage my mother would walk up the road to watch them bake in the farmhouse kitchen. She'd stand to the left of my grandmother and my aunt with her eyes fastened on their hands as they cut the lard into the flour. The steel tines of the pastry cutter were long off their gleam, and the wooden grip was every bit as smooth as the scythe's. Straight into the flour they'd cut, and then they'd give the bowl a quarter turn and cut again. Again, until all the fat had disappeared into the flour. "It should look like soft bread crumbs," they told her as they flecked the mixture with water. "And the water must be very cold, but don't use too much or the dough will be tough." "Don't handle the dough any more than you have to," they'd say, as they scraped the mixture up to form two rough cakes, which they let rest under a towel as they made the filling.
Since she was married in late spring, she learned first to make rhubarb pies. They didn't measure anything for the filling, but simply tossed in the sugar and spices and cornstarch. "When you roll out the crust don't use too much flour on the board." "Make sure it's not too thick, but don't roll it too thin." "And do it right the first time because it won't be flaky if you have to roll it out again."
In her own home, she added too little water at first, and the ball of dough crumbled under the weight of the rolling pin. She had to patch crusts. She had to finger them into the pans. She had to roll them out again. Fillingseeped through the bottom crusts and spilled over into the oven. Late in the day all she could smell was sugar and fruit burning off the oven floor. She stared down the hours to dinner, stared down all the Wednesdays and Sundays to come. She stared down latticework crusts on the blueberry pies, the star of steam vents on the apple, the fluted edges of the squash pies, and the fork-tined edges of the mince. Easier to pass through the eye of a needle than to learn this.
A house settled. Lines no longer plumb to the design. I remember my mother working without falter. I see her scooping the flour from a canister and leveling the dry measure with a butter knife. She cuts in the shortening with quick, efficient strokes, and the water she uses is as cold as the brook that spangles my wrists when I plunge in my hands. To roll out the dough she rocks the pin on top of it at first and then works out from the center, giving each stroke even weight. She rolls away, then to her right, towards her, and to her left until she is north once more. She lifts and turns the dough, then follows the compass again, rolling in all the directions of the wind.
She'd make rhubarb pies first thing every spring, followed by sour cherry until the birds got to the trees. Blueberry and peach ran down the summer and overlapped the first apple pies made with Gravensteins. She made one or two pies with McIntosh, and then worked with Cortlands. But as soon as the Northern Spies were ripe she used only them so deep is their flavor untilthe last punky ones were pulled from the apple cellar sometime in March. She'd make squash pies in the fall and winter, too, of Blue Hubbard and butternut.
She's making a Blue Hubbard pie today, and after forty years my father still doesn't know that she needs only two cups of cooked squash for the filling. He has brought her the heel of the largest seed squash of the season, which must weigh six or seven pounds, and she has to struggle to cut away its skin and cube the orange flesh. To the steamed, mashed squash she'll add milk, eggs, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and also ginger. It will be the one pie she makes this week now that it's just the two of them, and she'll work slowly, since she's bothered by a little arthritis in her wrists.
It is early March. Old snow in the woods, and mornings, anyway, frozen ground. Just visible in the matted grass is a set of wheel ruts leading down to the orchard. My father has begun to prune the young apple trees a stir at the edge of a long sleep, nothing more. Any spring snow will put an end even to this light work. But the good weather makes him want to start the season, and for now he thinks about pruning two rows every good morning. He can work from the ground, and the young trees go quickly. Each needs only a few cuts, where two branches cross each other, or where a secondary limb competes with the leader. And the branches are slender. A snip, or a few draws of the sawis all. He keeps a pruning hook in the bed of the pickup for the rare branch that's out of arm's reach.
It's the older trees that are a job of work. They were planted so long ago, some of them, not even he knows who first pruned them. Now they've grown almost too large to pick with ease, and to shape them means using ladders and crawling up their slant limbs. Now and again a chainsaw. And a long time spent deciding on which cuts to make. He has to prune around years of wind damage as well as the work others have done some trees are as skewed as homes with seven previous owners.
But the best are a good part trunk. He likes their gray, bull-necked strength. And their turned grace branches spare as antlers contain light and air even in the center of their crowns. They'd show the smallest neglect. He's seen whole hillsides let go apple trees shaggy as hermits, branches turned in on themselves a tangle of nests or flung wide or strayed to the ground and flailing in the simplest wind.
Well, this morning's work has tired him more than he'd thought. The house feels overheated. Maybe a short doze ... He hears my mother making lunch no more than a pin falling and now the morning's work seems far off in another country like tomorrow's work ... the work of sixty years ... He sleeps the same as if he's seeded all the fields with hay. Just sweet hay.
My brother Sam has lived here, only here, for more than half of any long life, and the land is still not his own not his orchard, not his fields, not his to dream on, not his to lose. More than anyone, he's bounded by these stone walls, the pines, these furrows. And no one talks anymore as if there'll be another life for him. "Maybe Sam should have done something different," my mother says, "gone out on his own."
The corn snow draws back to the shadows, and the blue-eyed cold once more has lost its edge. My father finishes pruning the new orchard while fields away my brother burns piles of brush on top of sodden grass. Smudge casts off from his fires. It billows and drifts above the oaks, it smarts in his eyes and throat.
The spots on the tomato leaves have them both stumped. I see them on opposite sides of a trellis, both bent to the foliage, lifting their heads to speak to one another or nodding in agreement. Sam rises and shows the underside of a leaf to my father, who takes it and turns to his left to see in better light. Another nod. It's clear the things they know wash over the same territory.
I don't often see them like this. Usually they keep to themselves. My brother is grading tomatoes or picking the day's corn while my father is checking the color on the apples or cultivating a late field. They agree beforehand that come September my father will oversee the apple picking; my brother, the squash harvest, so if myfather mutters that too many of the Macs have dropped, Sam only says, "If it was up to me I'd have started picking them earlier." My father might answer back by saying something about there being no market for green apples. My brother shrugs, "Fine." And then there's silence.
I know Sam's head is full of ideas. We have a small orchard, harvested the same way it's been harvested all along. There are apple boxes so old the pine is splintering away from the nails. Bottoms give way, and thirty or forty pounds of fruit spill onto the concrete floor of the apple cellar. He has worked it all out on paper a system with bins, and the forklift to go with it. He'll have to enlarge the door of the apple cellar, and grade the approach ... He used to rattle off ideas like this, but these days he simply says, "Nobody does it this way anymore."
I know my father is silently running down all the projects Sam has left undone. The shed half shingled, one of the tractors disassembled ... He is biting his tongue. It's been a long time since he's talked to someone about the day's work what to pick where, or how it's still too wet to plow. Or told someone a little of what he knows say, how best to graft the scion to a rootstock. How the cut has to be clean, and the cambium should match all the way around.
One winter, years ago, Sam went so far as to clean up one of the unused sheds and set up a carpentry shop: trysquares and spirit-levels, chisels, gouges, planes, hammers, and saws; cherry, oak, and maple spaced and stacked to finish seasoning. Bright nails gleamed, and the air was sweet and thick with sawdust and the scent of fresh cuts a promising fragrance above the must of old canvas and leather.
At the dinner table he would talk as if he was born to it. He'd talk about applied geometry and dovetailed joints, and how he was going to build a cabinet of cherrywood ; the clean, broad planks cut easily into a roughed-out shape in his mind. Or he envisioned an oak desk worked from dimension timbers ponderous oak, with the grain dreaming through it, which would deepen under his own hand as he rubbed oil into its surfaces.
For a while we believed he'd found his place at last, but such craftsmanship lives in the patience and work of real time the same as this farm and if his troubles have canceled out anything, they've canceled out an understanding of such time. He's used one drug or another for years, and by now his habit has settled into a rimey life of its own. He goes unwashed and unshaven, and his clothes are ragged. He is sullen and alone. I can imagine his night sweats, with his pillow and sheets soaked through, his eyes shining and feral.
It was no surprise when he began to spend less and less time in the space he'd cleared and set up, saying he was waiting for a certain tool he'd ordered, or for the wood to season a bit longer. And as always, he said, "If you're going to do it, you might as well do it right."Andthen: "You never think I can do anything right ... You think I'm just a screw-up, go ahead and say it."
And sometimes I do. I say it when the apples are unsprayed or the corn is late in getting planted. I say it when the crew is hanging around the packing shed waiting for him while he lies in bed dreaming of building an addition to the farmstand or a new greenhouse in which to grow early tomatoes.
Copyright © 1995 by Jane Brox