Mi familia

young EM - Version 2I am a Stealth Latino. By this I mean that although my ethnicity is Hispanic—specifically, Mexican American—I don’t look the type (or fit the stereotype), so I don’t show up as Latino on most people’s ethnic radar screens. A Germanic surname completes my ability to evade detection. Does this situation mean that I willfully avoid being “spotted” as Latino? Not at all. I’ve always been proud of my multicultural heritage, just as most other people are proud of their own backgrounds. I haven’t made a big deal of it; I don’t hide it, either; it’s just part of who I am. Over the years, however, I’ve often felt amused when people who don’t know me well express astonishment about my ethnic origins. The usual comment: “I never would of guessed!” True. Most people don’t. Except perhaps during my boyhood, I’ve never looked particularly Mexican American. And except for a few incidents during my youth, my looking non-Latino has spared me the full brunt of ethnic hatred.

The situation feels different now. At a time of widespread ethnic tensions and growing anti-immigrant attitudes, when Americans of many different minority backgrounds are being viewed with suspicion and animosity, I find it difficult not to feel somewhat paranoid. A Stealth Latino like me rarely ends up the target of ethnic abuse, but I find this personal exemption cold comfort in our current sociopolitical climate. Precisely because I’m not easily identifiable as Latino, I overhear white folks expressing derision, contempt, or hatred toward Latinos precisely because they don’t spot me as “one of them“; and I overhear similar, very offensive expressions of derision, contempt, or hatred toward Americans of African, Asian, or Arab descent. Vermont is still a fairly civil place compared to many others . . . but I’m deeply troubled by the trends I see taking shape.

I don’t want to wade into the quagmire of the current debate on immigration at this time. I do, however, want to describe what one Latino family experienced in the not-so-distant past. Will my commentary illuminate any aspects of where immigrants fit in American society? That question isn’t really mine to answer.

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My maternal grandparents were Gustavo Montemayor Dávila and Elvira Villarreal Vidaurre. (Mexicans, like most Latinos, use two surnames: the father’s first, the mother’s second.) Both families were long-time residents of a town called Múzquiz, located about 100 miles south of the Texas border in the Mexican state of Coahuila. Members of the landed gentry, both Gustavo and Elvira grew up in middle-class comfort. Born in 1888 and 1892, respectively, they married at some point around 1910. The Montemayor family owned ranches, warehouses, and a dry-goods business. During the decade that encompassed the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), however, both families lost their land and businesses in the ensuing strife. Gustavo and Elvira emigrated to the United States during that decade—tentatively in 1913, then permanently in 1920. They lived first in San Antonio, Texas; then in Chicago; and then in Janesville, Wisconsin. The family story is that Gustavo—who, as the patriarchal “decider” typical of Mexican culture, called the shots—felt so outraged about the family’s losses that he rejected everything Mexican: the country itself, the Spanish language, and the Catholic Church. I recall asking my mother why her father chose Janesville as the community for starting over. Her answer: “Well, he wanted a place as unlike Mexico as possible.” 1920’s-era small-town Wisconsin fit the bill. Gustavo was a classic example of the immigrant who fully disengages from the Old Country rather than romanticizing and longing for it. In any case, he and Elvira were intent on starting a completely new life in the United States.

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677708 Myers_0011_011Gustavo found employment as a mid-level executive at the Parker Pen Company and worked there until his retirement in the late 1950’s. The early and middle decades of the twentieth century were an era in which high-quality pens held as central a place within the business world as high-tech gadgets are in our own time, so working for Parker Pen was a good post. Gustavo headed up the department for Latin American sales. Elvira, meanwhile, gave birth to six children and raised what all relatives and family friends have described as a loving, harmonious brood.

Elvira #1

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The Montemayor domain: a Victorian-era house in the white-bread town of Janesville.

RCG - Janesville house #2

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The Montemayor kids were two girls and four boys. In a photo taken around 1940, five of the six offspring posed with a young man who had married into the family. Pictured here from left to right are Bertha, Román (nicknamed Rummy), George, Estela, and, in front of Estela, Charles (“Charlie”). Not pictured is Gustavo Jr. (“Gus”). The tall, shy-looking fellow standing next to Estela: a philosophy Ph.D. candidate, Francis M. Myers, who hailed from a German/Scottish-American family rooted in Kansas City, Missouri. They had met while both were attending the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and had married in August of the preceding year.

Montemayor clan

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All of the Montemayors of that younger generation went on to complete college degrees. With one tragic exception, they proceeded to successful careers and raised families. My mother, Estela, specialized in Romance languages and taught Spanish in a variety of roles over the years, including as an instructor at the University of Denver. In addition to her linguistic abilities, she had a great love of Mexican traditional dance. Her frisky intelligence and irreverent sense of humor made her somewhat controversial in suburban Denver during the buttoned-down Fifties, but her warmth and lack of pretense won over almost everyone who met her. She was a patient, loving mother who somehow managed to retain her sanity while raising three sons. Following many years of struggling to control her high blood pressure, she suffered three cerebral hemorrhages in 1980 that proved fatal about a year later, just a few days after her 68th birthday.

Estela #2

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Bertha, the second daughter and the third-oldest among the Montemayor siblings, possessed both great beauty and a strong gift for languages. She taught for many years at a private academy in Indianapolis, Indiana, and simultaneously raised three children. Bertha died in 2007 at the age of 86.

Bertha #2 - Version 2

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According to every account I’ve heard, my four Montemayor uncles were all smart, kind, thoughtful men. I knew Charlie best—he was always my favorite, and he outlived his brothers by many years—but I also have fond memories of George and Rummy. I never knew Gus (for reasons I’ll explain in a moment.) All four Montemayor sons served in the American armed services during World War Two, and three of the four went on to successful careers in their chosen fields. Gus joined the army and served honorably for several years. He died on September 16, 1943, when the military plane in which he was a passenger crashed during a training exercise in advance of the D-Day invasion that began nine months later. Gus was 28 years old at the time of his death.

Gus #1

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George joined the Navy, survived the war, went on to become a successful patent attorney in Wisconsin, and helped to raise three daughters. He died in 1968 at age 42 shortly after receiving a diagnosis of acute myelocytic leukemia.

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Rummy was especially close to my mother. Along with his brothers, he joined the war effort and served in the U.S. Army. I can’t recall his post-war profession, but he may have emulated his brother George by training as a lawyer. I have warm recollections of this gentle, playful man only up to when I was six. At that time, in 1956, another family tragedy cut his life short: Rummy, age 32, died in a car accident.

677708 Myers_0009_009

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The youngest of the brood, Charlie, joined the Army during the final years of World War Two, served in Korea, then returned to civilian life and trained as an urban planner. He was the executive director of the planning commission for Dane County, Wisconsin, which  encompasses most of the Madison area, and he held that position for several decades. Charlie was warm, funny, and the most optimistic person I have ever met. Following a long struggle with prostate cancer, he died at age 80 in 2008.

Charlie #1

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Estela #1When I view these and other photos of the Montemayor family, and when I reread the handful of letters I’ve acquired that describe their formative years and adult lives, I’m aware of both how lucky I’ve been to know my Mexican American relatives and also how little I know, ultimately, about them. Even my mother, whom I knew far better than I knew her siblings or their parents, was in some respects a mystery to me. It’s not clear, for instance, whether her intermittent struggles with depression were a consequence of biochemical factors or a side effect of the difficulties she faced because of mid-century gender roles—or because of being Latina within American culture. Maybe all of the above? In any case, I believe that her combination of shrewd intelligence and girlish vivacity—not at all uncommon among Hispanic women—prompted some non-Latinos to find her puzzling, even exasperating. I’ll never know the answers to my questions about her or her family members. As a youth, I was too self-involved to inquire about their interests or past experiences; about their difficulties, delights, victories, and defeats; or about their relationships to one another and to people in the wider world. Now they’re all gone.

What I do know is that the Montemayor clan was simultaneously remarkable and ordinary. All the members of this family were intelligent, talented, and loving. They excelled in their professions and in their relationships. They thrived in many ways and contributed to their communities. Of course the same is true for most immigrant families. Which means, ultimately, that the same is true for all of us in this nation of immigrants.  So, when some people ask, “Who knows what will happen when they come over here?” all I can say is:

Who indeed?

Who indeed.

Autumn Already?!

autumn #1Help me figure this out.  The situation:  spring arrived, the snow melted, leaves erupted everywhere, and flowers bloomed.  Warm weather quickly became the norm.  Edith and I had a splendid summer—hosting guests, working in our gardens, exploring Vermont, playing our instruments, and writing and reading.  What seemed like a few weeks came and went.  And now, suddenly, it’s October.  Hence two questions:

1) How can six months have passed so quickly?!

2)  Is there a tear in the space-time continuum that’s letting all those days, weeks, and months leak away into some other realm of the universe?

If you have any answers to either or both questions, please let me know ASAP.  Just dial 1-800-TEMPUS-VOLAT.  Operators are standing by.

autumn #2On the plus side, the autumn has been wonderful so far as well.  Edith and I have enjoyed visits from several couples.  We also had some splendid family time with Cory and Robin, abundant time to write and play our instruments, and good weather for hikes and outdoor work.  The gardens have provided us with lots of flowers and vegetables.  One strange bounty was simultaneously a flower and a vegetable:  the always bizarre, always wonderful, always otherworldly artichoke.  I’d never tried growing these before, but my first effort somehow succeeded.  (Beginner’s luck?)  We managed to harvest two mature artichokes before a series of hard frosts killed the rest.

My labors in a much different garden—writing—also led to an unexpected yield.  After
almost four years of attending to other commitments, I started finding time to revisit three old book projects.  The oldest and most difficult of these suddenly showed signs of life.  Three autumn #3months of strenuous effort led to my finishing a first draft.  The book in question is Seven West, a memoir-like novel about the six years I spent working on a neurology/neurosurgery ward during my twenties.  I began writing this book in 1974; I’ve struggled with it off and on ever since; and now, following more than 41 years of intermittent work, I’ve completed a plausible draft.  In the meantime, I’ve also made progress on a second novel, and I’m continuing to write essays about aspects of living in Vermont for a book provisionally titled On Hyland Hill.  (The semi-snarky, still-tentative subtitle:  A German-Surnamed Mexican-American Buddhist Moves to Vermont and Contemplates Life, Literature, and the Pursuit of Enlightenment.)  All of these projects have benefited from the isolation and inspiration possible when I leave the house and walk down to what Edith and I now call The Writer’s Shack or simply The Shack.  (In addition to the benefits of cozy surroundings, the view, the light, and the silence, note the Belgian beer evident on the right.)

And the visits I mentioned?  We’ve had lots of wonderful company.  Among our out-of-town guests were Jim Barszcz and Jane Seiden, good friends from Maplewood, who spent a weekend with us in early October.

Photo credit: James Barszcz

Photo credit: James Barszcz

The only shadow falling over Hyland Hill in recent months was a terrifying close call on October 5th:  Cory happened to be a passenger on the Amtrak Vermonter that derailed that morning.  By sheer luck, he and 90 other people on the train escaped injury when the engine and three cars went off the tracks.  Seven people sustained injuries, none of a life-threatening nature.  Typical of Cory, he stayed level-headed about the accident even in the immediate aftermath and, along with several other twenty-something passengers, he prepared to offer assistance to other people who had been evacuated from the train and had gathered nearby.  Then the first responders arrived quickly and started attending to everyone.  Right after the accident, Cory had texted to alert us of the situation; Edith and I drove fifteen miles to the town of Northfield; we waited among the firefighters and police until the situation clarified; and we then picked up Cory at nearby Norwich University, where the Office of Emergency Management had transported the passengers following the evacuation.  We were all relieved to have such a speedy and uneventful outcome rather what could easily have been a genuine calamity.  When Edith and I asked Cory how he felt, he replied, “Okay but a little tense.”  He seemed pretty damn cool to us!  (Cooler than his parents, certainly.)

Photo credit: The New York Times

Photo credit: The New York Times

As for the tear in the space-time continuum that’s leaking Time into some other realm:  I’m still worried about what’s happening.  In fact, I find it scarier and scarier.  This problem needs to be fixed.  Could NASA maybe send some astronauts out there with a roll of duct tape and patch it up . . . ?  Or maybe we just have to cope with Time’s swift passage.  (Buddhists, among others, would have a few things to say on this topic.)

Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks as view from Shelburne Farms, Vermont; October 6, 2015. Photo credit: James Barszcz

Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks as view from Shelburne Farms, Vermont; October 6, 2015. Photo credit: James Barszcz

A Shed of One’s Own

“. . . a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”
—Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

Right.  Fair enough.

But what about men?  What must guys have to write fiction?

A shed.  Money wouldn’t hurt, but definitely a shed.

The American novelist John Gardner states in The Art of Fiction that when writing a novel, an author’s goal is to create “a vivid and continuous dream.”  For me, at least, dreaming the dream requires almost complete isolation.  A Himalayan cave would do nicely.  An off-season shack on a beach near Tulum might have possibilities.  An 1840’s-era farmhouse in Vermont comes mighty close.  But even in our calm rural setting, distractions of any sort are a threat to the process.  Even the ordinary activities of my nearest-and-dearest (Edith making business calls downstairs, for instance, or our son, Cory, listening to Tudor polyphony while he writes computer code) can pop the bubble and jeopardize the process.  I lose track of the plot.  My characters stop talking to one another.  The spontaneous, intense, sometimes torrential flow of words from the mind to the page—what I call “white-water thinking”—slows to a trickle.  To dream the dream and, especially, to get the dream down on paper:  this requires solitude.

The answer?  Purchase a cheap ready-made shell, have it transported to our property, and fix it up.  This is exactly what I did this past summer and autumn.  The project coincided with many other tasks and family activities, so the work ran long, but the time and effort will surely pay off in the long run.

Here’s how it happened.

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First, two local carpenters, Alfred and Eugene, constructed the shell in nearby Chelsea, Vermont.

01 - building #2

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On the Fourth of July, Alfred and Eugene towed the shell to Hyland Hill on a flatbed trailer and carefully backed into our meadow.

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Winching the shed off the trailer got kinda touch-and-go for a while . . . but somehow it all worked out.

02 - arrival #4

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The result:  an austere little shack with lots of potential.  Jacked up on cement blocks and properly shimmed, the shell was now level and stable.  Not ready for prime time . . . but it certainly possessed the virtue that realtors tout:  location, location, location.

03 - early work #1

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Then my work started in earnest.  The goal was to create what Hemingway called “a clean, well-lighted place”; and, first and foremost, that meant installing lots of windows.

03 - early work #2

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Properly inserted and trimmed, they would let in the sunshine but keep out the rain and the cold.

03 - early work #3

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I wanted the shed to be comfortable year-round, so I added a thick layer of insulation to retain the warmth from a little heater I planned to use during cold weather.  Rigid foam insulation three inches thick seemed adequate and affordable.

04 - insulation #4

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A series of intricate tasks followed:  1) adding circuitry for two electrical outlets, 2) paneling the walls with tongue-and-groove wainscot boards, 3)  trimming the windows with sills, 4) sheet-rocking the ceiling, 5) adding a pine floor, and 6) painting the whole interior.  Like a Pentagon battleship, the project ran late and over-budget.  The payoff, however:  a cozy space conducive to turning inward.

05 - almost done #3

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Putting down a rug, moving in some furniture, and plugging in a heater completed my labors . . .

05 - finished #1

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. . . just in time for winter.

05 - finished #2

File this whole experience under:  “If I’d Known What I Was Getting Into, I Never Would’ve Bothered.”  Still, the deed is done.  The little shed sits out there in the meadow.  It’s cozy even now that the temps have plummeted.  And although it’s certainly the result of my own obsession, and though I hope to go out and work there several times each week, it’s an equal-opportunity shed—accessible to any member of the family and to our guests.

Now comes the hard part:  writing books.

Surfacing . . .

tree in fog To my amazement, it’s now April.  I apologize to my many readers (all eight of you!) for the long silence.  The lack of posts here doesn’t reflect a disinterest in the blog or its audience; rather, I’ve just had too much going on over the past few months.  Frankly, it’s been a tough winter.  This difficulty has been the norm throughout the entire Northeast, and much of the U.S. got absolutely clobbered, so here on the hillside we certainly don’t feel singled out.  We managed to cope just fine.  Still, it’s been a complex and sometimes strenuous season. The irony, of course, is that from a global perspective, the past three or four months have been unusually warm.  For the earth as a whole, January of this year was “the fourth-warmest January on record,” according to The New York Times [February 20, 2014], as well as being “the 347th consecutive month with temperatures above the 20th-century average[.]”  Not good news!  But that’s another story for another post.  Temporarily setting aside the profoundly worrisome issue of climate change, I want to revisit the winter of 2013-2014––and to wish it a not-so-fond farewell.

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The view from Hyland Hill.  Typical for central Vermont, the first major snowfall arrived in November and was light enough to inspire a delusion that Winter Won’t Be So Bad. 

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tree and fence

The plot thickened.  December wasn’t awful, either, but the flakes starting coming down more and more often and in far greater quantities.

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R&E - Xmas

The holidays arrived . . . and so did the Prodigal Daughter, providing the older generation with good cheer and splendid company, as well as assistance during our annual trek into the woods to harvest a bantam Christmas tree.

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lawn furniture

January brought more and more snowstorms––not to mention weeks of frigid weather, often in the mid-teens below zero.  The lowest of the low temps (arriving one night in early February) hit minus-22 degrees Fahrenheit.  On the plus side, the snow was often light and fluffy.  Here’s a shot of our lawn furniture.  (We love dining al fresco, but doing so wasn’t a frequent choice on Hyland Hill at this time.)

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EP in snow

The deep freeze didn’t last forever, though a nearly three-foot snowfall in early March made us think it might.  HOWEVER:  the days grew longer, the sky turned blue (now and then, at least), and the many feet of snowpack started to compress.  Venturing outside began to feel like a rational option once again.

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Sammy in snow

Really?!  Even certain skeptical observers of the local Homo sapiens decided that staying indoors 24/7 was no longer necessary.

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Enough already.  Even this winter didn’t last forever.

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Now, onward to spring.  Warm wishes––literally and figuratively––to all of you.  And special greetings to Allison, Jon, and Jack.  Allison, feel better soon!

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Autumn Postcards

Mid-October!  How is this possible?!  It seems just a few weeks ago that Edith and I made our full-time move to Vermont . . . but in fact almost four months have passed.  Now winter is just around the corner.

We’ve been so busy over the past several weeks that I haven’t posted a single entry here. Even now we’re engrossed in the mid-fall effort to complete several outdoor projects, put the gardens to bed, finish stockpiling firewood, and do all the other tasks we have to do before the weather turns cold.  So, rather than write anything detailed, I’m going to offer a scattering of autumn postcards and semi-sorta-kinda random remarks.

(These photos are in honor of Mike Fonner and Leslie Weed-Fonner––friends and once-and-future neighbors currently living in Nairobi, Kenya.)

HH early Oct #2

The view from Hyland Hill.  The foliage peaked by October 7th, but even post-peak the leaves could give Fort Knox a little competition.

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Next year’s birdhouses . . . painted, mounted, and ready to install in the meadow.

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The Tunbridge World’s [seriously!] Fair––an annual event in central Vermont since 1867.  Events include horse and ox pulling, cattle and horse shows, tractor competitions, agricultural exhibits, and 4-H events.  Many thousands of Vermonters visit this fair each year, and occasionally a few city slickers (even transplants from Maplewood, N.J.) manage to disguise themselves in mud boots, jeans, and Carhartt hoodies, all the better to sneak unnoticed into the fairgrounds.  Hence the following several photos.

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Fine swine.  Edith and our friend Julie (visible at bottom-right) ended up unofficial judges of a junior “swine event.”

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Capricious brethren.  Next to a box of puppies or kittens, what could be cozier than a stall full of young goats?

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His Highness in captivity.  Yet another self-impressed, arrogant male . . .

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Li’l guys.  Perhaps some of his royal Highness’s many offspring?

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oxenBig ‘uns.  Since the man standing between these oxen is probably six feet tall, the oxen must measure at least twenty feet at the shoulder.

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tractor pull

Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in the New York metro area any more . . .  These folks are watching a tractor pull––farm machinery competing to drag heavy sledges.  The man seated on the red McCormick tractor is Scott B., a friend and neighbor in our town.  His college-age daughter is seated on a green John Deere just behind him.  I found watching the watchers far more interesting and fun than watching the Event.

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Happy autumn to all!

Leslie and Mike, warm greetings and best wishes
for a safe, happy stay in Nairobi!

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House History — Part 1: A Tip of the Hat

Paul & Doris

Paul & Doris – September of 2010

When Edith and I bought our property on Hyland Hill, we knew we were acquiring a house that many people had lived in before us.  The original owner built the place in 1840.  My initial guess was that in the 160-plus years since then, perhaps a dozen families had resided here, each making it their own—adding, tinkering with, improving, damaging, or in other ways changing the house—until Edith and I unexpectedly but eagerly stepped into the queue to take a turn in the process.  When people speak of old houses having charm, they obviously refer to the visible or tangible quirks and anomalies that have accumulated over the years.  Charm also includes the non-material consequences of the lives lived in a house—the inexplicable “feel” of the lives lived.  A hundred and sixty years can make for a lot of change.  (Lots of charm, too, if you’re lucky.)  But it turns out that my guesstimate about the past owners was off by almost a hundred percent.  This house has, in fact, changed hands twenty-three times.  Most of the owners were probably married and probably raised children here.  So many lives lived . . .

Edith and I are now exploring the history of this house, and a series of future posts will describe what we discover.  A visit to the local town hall has already kicked off the process:  we managed to reconstruct the sequence of ownership.  Later, we met with the town historian, a local teacher who has graciously offered us access to documents and photos in her care.  We also hope to track down some of the prior owners’ descendants and find out what they know about their ancestors’ time here.  Where will this process lead us?  Not knowing feels like half the point.

Here are the two things that Edith and I know for sure:  first, that our immediate predecessors are Paul and Doris; and second, that this lovely couple has treated us with great cordiality and generosity in all respects.  We bought this house from them as a “FSBO”—For Sale By Owner—which friends warned us at the time would be a risky process.  According to these warnings, the absence of realtors to mediate between seller and purchaser would create all sorts of problems, misunderstandings, and resentments.  But nothing of the kind took place.  Paul and Doris were unceasingly gracious and patient throughout the whole process; the transfer of the property took place with a sense of great mutual respect and appreciation; and they remain our friends to the present day.

So:  this first post about house history is a tip of the hat to Paul and Doris—both for their entrusting Edith and me with the house they owned for almost three decades, and for all their hard work in improving and protecting the place over those many years.

To Paul and Doris:  thank you GREATLY for all you’ve done to make this adventure possible!

The Empty Nest

Edith and I had heard many accounts over the years describing how difficult many couples find the Empty Nest stage of life.  When the last son or daughter leaves for college (people told us), everything changes.  Hands-on parenting ends; domestic routines no longer focus on children’s needs and routines; the house grows quiet.  A relief, surely—but potentially a shock to the system as well.

We had already observed the consequences among many friends, neighbors, and acquaintances.  Sometimes the effects have been creative:  marriages strengthened, career vistas broadened, physical and intellectual energies renewed.  Sometimes the outcomes have been much less positive, especially in terms of marital side effects:  several couples we know split up within a year or two of their kids’ departures.

Did we feel concerned that we would experience a negative outcome?  No, not at all.  And whether presumptuous or not, we have been fortunate that in actuality, our own Empty Nest has become a locus of much more good than bad.  We knew there would be some downsides.  Yes, we would be wistful about Cory’s absence, just as we miss our daughter, Robin, who had left home for college five years earlier.  We would also surely feel some sadness about the end of parenting; would miss the opportunities to witness the constant and often astonishing mutability of children’s development; would miss the richness, complexity, humor, and “thusness” of day-to-day family life.  But we anticipated benefits as well:  more time for each other, less manic activity, less pressure, more rest, and more opportunities to pursue our own interests.  Among other things, we would surely be able to devote renewed energy to artistic pursuits.

So, when friends would ask, “How do you feel about the empty nest?” our answer was essentially:  “Just fine.”

Best of all, the Empty Nest isn’t always so empty.  Robin and Cory may have flown away as fledglings, but they return from time to time, now all grown up.  Friends and family come up to visit.  The nest may be empty, but life is full.