It does feel ironic to use a most modern and unfocused mechanism for reacting to a late Victorian text. But it’s more fun to read in company. https://twitter.com/hashtag/StevensStoneham?s=09
I woke this morning at about 6 am and couldn’t fall back asleep. For those of you who know me, that’s a statement bordering on absurd. I do not awaken at 6, unless there’s a plane to catch, and when I do happen to stir I turn over and quickly fall back asleep. But this is not a normal morning. The time before last that I laid my head upon a pillow, it was in Singapore. I am profoundly jetlagged – enough to wake me for the day at 6 am.
This early November has introduced itself warm and wet to New England. Last night as I readied for bed the temperatures were clement and the rain tapped beguilingly on the roof and windows. I was alone in the bright, clean bedroom we’ve created – my husband being up in Vermont for a gaming convention. I cracked a window open and felt a familiar, forgotten sense of peace steal over me. You’ve heard so much about the attic project – the bathtub, the flooring, the way the house looks when it’s nothing but bones. But we all have secret agendas, and for me one of the great hopes was for the rain. You cannot hear the rain on the roof from the 2nd floor. But here in the eves of the attic, I hoped it would sound like when I was a girl. The very best sound of rain at night had come when we lived in a trailer in Mineral (you know, the trailer park type – but it was a double wide!). We spent only about a year there – a cold and snowy year. It was actually the manse for the church (housing provided to the pastor) – but the church was without a pastor and we were without a house, so it worked out for a bit. That was my 5th grade year, when I got chicken pox and had run-ins with my reading teacher. I walked across an abandoned baseball diamond to school through vast, spectacular forests of frost that rose 2 inches tall. The ice rose in columns of crystal, elevating clots of dirt skyward. I always felt bad stepping on them, even knowing they’d be entirely destroyed by mid morning and rise again the next day. I was young enough then to hear the rain and not the overwhelming thoughts of a busy mind.
There was a day, as spring edged into summer, when there was a knock at our trailer door. A lady we did not know stood there. She had heard we were looking for a house, and they were planning on selling theirs. Did we want it? That is, no joke, how my parents ended up in the house they live in to this day.
That house is a vast frankensteinian construction. It began life as a company house, alike in size to its neighbors. Those houses are very small. But over time new additions had mushroomed on various sides without any sort of plan or cohesion. A dining room popped out the front. Two bedrooms off the side. An inconvenient solarium off the back that was always too cold or too hot, depending on season. And most spectacularly a two story garage-and-cathedral-ceiling-living-room. The living room is made up entirely of window and is truly vast. My parent’s church easily all fits inside for worship service when the furnace fails to start at the church down the street (a more frequent occurrence than you might guess). But those vast windows overlook on the dark, ominous, steep sides of Stormking on the sunset side. To the North you overlook the town of Mineral up to the waters of Mineral lake, which would curl with fog in the mornings as the waters bequethed their warmth to the air. On the sunrise side of the house, if you can look past the wires and abandoned cars and abandoned houses, Mt. Rainier rises in all her glory above Round Top. I loved both of them with all the passion of my young heart.
Mt. Rainier is unbearably splendid in all seasons (when she can be seen through clouds). I loved the alpenglow of her pink shoulders when the sun had slipped behind Stormking. I loved her pale shadow against the rising sun – one cloud among many on the horizon. I loved her white and blue and green – like the wedding quilt my sister made me – in the bright days. One of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in my life, which struck my heart to its very core, was one quiet morning in high school when I arose while it was still dark and saw Mt. Rainier glowing with new snow in the predawn, a crescent moon rising above her and hanging brightly off the tail of that moon was the brightest gem of the night sky – Venus. Such loveliness can never be forgotten.
But for all my passion for Mt. Rainier, I loved Roundtop too. When the rains came, as they so often did, Mt. Rainier would vanish, but Roundtop would remain. The Northwest is an interesting place for a history lover. Gazing at the cliffs – golden or hoary depending on the light – you could sense the vast and boundless weight of history. But Washington does not know her history. The town was founded at the turn of the 20th century as a logging town (still is) and a stop on the railroad. My mother has mentioned with shock that she is the longest serving pastor in the history of our small white church. My parents have lived in Mineral, which seemed old before we came, for nearly a third of all the time it has existed. Before that, the lands had been the home of native peoples – likely nomadic in that region. I once found a hand adze in a stream, and I know that there was history in those mountains. Stories. Names. Legends perhaps. But I did not know them. It is possible that no one does – that they were forever lost.
When I went from girl to teen, I loved those quiet rainy days. I discovered an LP, and on those days where Mt. Rainier was hidden and Roundtop shrouded mysteriously with scraps of fog, I would put that record on the record player (entirely anachronistic – I also had the CD of the same album) and listen to the scratch and warmth of the vinyl. I would gaze at the mountains and wonder what their unknowable history was. My gaze would linger over the cliffs that had bested my attempts to climb them (honestly I’m lucky I didn’t die…). And my heart was filled with such unquenchable yearning and joy and longing and perfectness. The album was “Sounds of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel. And when “Kathy’s Song” came on, “I hear the drizzle of the rain, like a memory it falls…” I was in unrequited love with the whole world and there was nothing short of poetry, song and mountains vast enough to contain it. It’s still one of my favorite songs. Better yet, it’s Grey’s favorite too.
Such passion is harder to come by for an ancient person like me. Forty knows much more than fourteen ever did. I probably have the tools now, if I so chose, to find out what legends are actually known about those views. My days are full of Things To Be Done. My heart, in these days of fear, is so full of anxiety and guilt and horror that there is little room to be slain by beauty.
But this morning, in the dark before the sun rose, I heard the rain on my roof like I did when I was a girl. There was no Roundtop waiting for me at the top of the stairs, but when I cast my eyes out the window they land on the 150 year old slate-roofed Hawkins mansion. The golden-glowing fountain of leaves falling like snowflakes from a gray sky lands on soil whose history half a millennium back is known to me. On the headboard of the bed above me, wrapped in a brown cloth backing with gilt letters, is the “History of Stoneham Mass” by William Stevens – a gift that made me feel profoundly known. (If anyone lands their hands on Silas Dean’s history I will very gladly pay for whatever it takes to obtain a copy!)
And for just a moment I can reach back through the veil of time and burdens, through the sludge of fears and sorrows, and touch the same inarticulate, joyful yearning in the rain.
I hear the drizzle of the rain
Like a memory it falls
Soft and warm continuing
Tapping on my roof and walls.
And from the shelter of my mind
Through the window of my eyes
I gaze beyond the rain-drenched streets
To England where my heart lies.
My mind’s distracted and diffused
My thoughts are many miles away
They lie with you when you’re asleep
And kiss you when you start your day.
And a song I was writing is left undone
I don’t know why I spend my time
Writing songs I can’t believe
With words that tear and strain to rhyme.
And so you see I have come to doubt
All that I once held as true
I stand alone without beliefs
The only truth I know is you.
And as I watch the drops of rain
Weave their weary paths and die
I know that I am like the rain
There but for grace and you go I.
This is a fantastic time of year for thinking. We think about what we really believe. We think about the folks who are close to us – or maybe not as close as we want and intend. We think about what we did in the year past. And then, at the end of our thinking time, we think about what we want to do in the coming year so that when our thinking time comes again, we’re satisfied in retrospect. New Year’s resolutions get a bad rap, but if you view them as the annual tradition of thinking hard about where we are and where we want to be – and what we need to do to bridge that gap – it seems more like a virtuous tradition than an exercise in futility.
Here are some of the things I’m looking forward to in the new year.
We are finally for reals I swear this time kicking off our attic project. When we brought our drawings to contractors the number they agreed on came back, uh, much higher than we were expecting. More saving was in order to afford it. So after a few false starts and stops (and having cleaned it out and refilled it a bunch of times) we’re now planning to really actually do this thing. Our original start date was in January, but I’m guessing it’ll be more like February given the lack of start date from our contractor. I’m a little nervous. Fun fact – I am not abundantly supplied with taste. I know home renovations can be really disruptive and tiring. And it’s another project to manage. But on the flip side, Grey is a tween. Not sharing a bathroom with him will be great! And our new bathroom will be amazing. And it will finally clear the logjam of projects so we can also do some of the smaller things I’d like to have accomplished. And insulation. And a clawfoot tub and steam-shower. So much awesome.
Adam and I are both getting started on the new roles we landed ourselves last year. It’s always the phase where you need to prove yourself by working extra hard. You have to learn fast, work hard, be patient and show up early. The rewards are great, but there will be no mailing it in during 2018!
They’ve had a great year so far. I’m looking to help them find good strategies to be 100% on the ol’ homework turning in (my mom has a plan to help with that!). I’m also continuing to try to expose them to things that might inspire passion in them, and when they find it to support them. They’re a huge and joyful part of my life!
I usually plan out all our vacations for the year this week – and this year was no exception. It’s not as ambitious as last year. We have three camping trips (one without kids, possibly). We’re headed to Mexico in February and Washington State in August. I really want to go backpacking AND go to Ashland. I’m getting another week of vacation this year (Adam is not) so in my contemplations on how to do this, I’ve struck on the idea of doing a guided backpacking tour after he’s gone back to work. (Don’t feel too sorry for him – he usually does about a week of gaming conventions while I stay home with the kids.)
I have two things I’ve been planning to do here for a while. One is run a fund-raiser to put up signs for the Nobility Hill Historic district. I’m not in it, but I can see the cool kids from my house. This is just a matter of getting a design finalized, canvassing the neighborhood to let folks know what we’re doing (and ask for $$$$) and then getting it installed. It’s already a Historic district. I’ve also been saying for a long time that I’d consider being on the Stoneham Historical Commission. I should probably actually get around to doing that. It’s just hard with the timing. But now that the kids are more independent, I have a little more time to do stuff like that. Finally, I’d really love to finish the story I was working on set in Stoneham. I’m like 10k words from done. But I have a hunch they’re the hard 10k. And I haven’t really been able to work up any momentum.
I don’t think it’s lame that after the indulgence and excesses of the holiday season, we all take a moment to reset ourselves to a healthier baseline. I did ok in 2017. I ran 107 miles this year, usually in 5K increments. I did a very rigorous climb. I’ve kept pretty active. I eat a lot of healthy food, but I also eat a lot of unhealthy food. I’d like to make at least an incremental improvement on my health and fitness. We’ve talked about putting a treadmill in the abandoned basement laundry room (once it’s been moved to the 2nd floor). But I think I need to find a few more ways to sneak healthiness into my life.
A few people noted that I wasn’t in the Christmas Card picture we sent out. It’s true. And it’s kind of lame. I signed up for another round of digital photography classes, to refresh what I learned two years ago. I’d like to do a good job of documenting our life in photographs, since they mean a lot to me afterwards. And I want to make sure I’m *in* plenty of the pictures, however I think I look.
What are some of the things you’re looking to do in the coming year? What are you looking forward to?
When we were in the house hunt, one of the houses we looked at was a house in Woburn that had been built in 1720 or so. It had a weird layout and a rather disastrous crack in the chimney that ran up the center of the house, and we didn’t end up offering on it… but I thought it was awfully cool. Paul Revere would have ridden past that house when it was new built. So when we found this house (with a lovely lack of disastrous masonry), it didn’t seem all *that* old. The decor was dominantly an 80s horror (helloooo shag carpet and paneling!). The date on the paperwork said it was ~1900. I had hoped we might find some cool old treasures when we moved in, but the prior occupants did an exceptionally good job of clearing out the attic and basement. There were no boxes of old letters we might find, and no ghosts have haunted our sleep. (Well, except the ghost of fraudulently uninstalled insulation.)
But as we have very gradually updated rooms, we’ve found these hints of how old our house really is. Most of the walls, under the ugly paneling, are plaster and lathe covered by some truly hideous wallpaper. We had a very brief oral history from the prior owner, which mostly told us the house had been in the same hands for nearly fifty years and they’d raised seven children here. Also, her late husband had done all the “improvements” himself, with his two left hands comprised entirely of thumbs. (Ok, maybe that was my interpretation…)
And then she was gone to Florida, and the history of the house felt like a blank slate.
But as I got a little more involved with Stoneham – as part of the bikeway kerfuffle and got to know the Historical Commission folks. One of them came by one morning with a full writeup on my house. We spent the morning in fascinating discussion of the building.
It was built in 1898, and the funds to build it were provided by the guy (Lorenzo Hawkins) who built the beautiful white mansion right up the hill from me. That lovely house is a anchor of the Nobility Hill Historic district (which I learned about at the same time). The house, at nearly 120 years old, has been owned by ten owners, and four of those ten were in the 40s. The builder was a man named Parker G. Webber, who also lived in the house for two years after he built it. It changed hands for $100 in 1944. There was also this really cool list of the occupations and names of the people who lived in the house on various dates. In 1943 the house was occupied by Eleanor Keenan (34, housewife), James Keenan (36, bus driver) and father-in-law Joseph Keenan (69, shoe worker). Likely there were a passel of kids then too.
Glancing up and down the list for 1948, I noticed a 96 year old resident in my dear neighbor’s house down the street… a 96 year old named Parker G. Webber. He lived with what must have been a second wife, Alice F. Webber (77, housewife). So fifty years after he built my home, he was living in close sight of it. He must have spent the greater part of his life on this block – perhaps he built most of the houses in it, and not just mine. It’s this wonderful connection to imagine the care that must have crafted my home from a man who was proud enough to live in it and willing to look at his work every single day thereafter.
By the way, the list of occupations is fascinating. There are tree surgeons, a “dier”, a “grinder”, a “burner”, someone mysteriously in the “egg bus.” (A house on Franklin Street has a prestidigitator. Now that would be some exciting history!)
After the visit (well, some time after) I got around to signing up for a Historical Marker for the house ($55 is the bargain of the century, and they’ll help you fill it out). In New England, this isn’t a particularly old building, but 120 years old is not pathetic, either. The commission says anything over 50 years qualifies, and this most certainly beat that. I settled on the name “Parker G. Webber” to grace the sign, in honor of the man who had built the house with such craftsmanship a century and a score ago. The signs are all hand made (and come with the research!), so it took a little while before I got it. But I just found it on my porch this week, and I can’t wait to get it placed in a prominent location on my house!
The weekend before Thanksgiving, the Stoneham Historical Commission held their annual two-hour opening of the Old Burying Ground. For years I’ve wanted to go, but that was usually the time I’d hold Thane’s birthday party. It also coincides with the town Trick-or-Treating. This year, Grey and Thane decided that they were too big/cool/old to do that. I have mixed feelings about that, but grabbed the chance to go visit the cemetery I’ve long wanted to see. It’s usually closed since it’s not quite safe for wandering. There are leaning tombstone and depressions (marked off with yellow caution tape on this day). While this makes for good daydreams about the haunted cemetery, it’s less good for someone who really would like to wander it.
One of the first gravestones I checked out was one of the most dramatic. It stood higher than my head, and had outrage practically dripping off the chiseled headstone. It detailed the 1819 murder of Jacob Gould “who was barbarously murdered by some ruffians in his own dwelling”. There were deaths heads and warning epitaphs and poignant poems (all the things I love best of old graveyards), but this was one of the most intriguing headstones I’d seen.
When I got home, I looked it up on Google. You see, November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I decided to do it this year. (Because I’m crazy. That’s why.) So I was on the prowl for a good novel premise. Murder by ruffians seemed like as good a place to start as any. So I had a reason for my investigation.
My very first search on “Jacob Gould murder” hit the biggest paydirt imaginable; namely “A Brief History of Stoneham, Mass, From Its First Settlement to the Year 1843: with an Account of the Murder of Jacob Gould, on the Evening of November 25, 1819” by Silas Dean. Silas (I feel like he and I are on a first-name basis now) wrote an absolutely hilarious and riveting account of Stoneham. It includes ancient ruins, naked dudes, wolf attacks, haunted houses, Indian raids, aggressive bugle players, people who died of stupidity, mysterious springs, ne’er-do-well pranks of the first water… I could hardly tear myself away from reading in order to start writing. It’s possibly the most entertaining primary source I’ve ever read.
I felt like I won the novel-writing primary source lottery. And I started to get really into the research of the early history of the town (before the boring shoe-making bits). Once I started pulling at the thread of local history, I pretty easily uncovered more fascinating details.
Boston commuters pass Wright’s Tower every day. I’m standing next to it in this picture. Well, Elizur Wright for whom the tower named was kind of amazing. He:
- Was an abolitionist, who was arrested under the Fugitive Slave Act for
- Basically invented actuarial tables, which make life insurance possible for all of us. He read life insurance literature for fun.
- Invented and manufactured two new kinds of faucet fitting type things
- Ran a newspaper, which got sued for calling out liquor manufacturers
- Translated La Fontaine’s Fables and wrote a foreward to a book of poetry by John Greenleaf Whittier
- In his copious free time, also pushed for the eventually successful passage of the Massachusetts Forestry Act, which is why we get to hike in the Fells and why they erected a tower in his honor
I mean, I’m impressed with myself when I get my blog post out on time. I didn’t make major contributions in four or five totally different spheres. And yes, he did find the time to marry and beget children too. I’ll admit – I’m kind of a fangirl now.
Anyway, I have these wild and crazy thoughts about how to get this really awesome information about this town out there. Who, living in a town founded in 1725, wouldn’t like to hear about some of the hijinks that happened nearly 300 years ago where they currently stand? I’m going to contemplate that question while I see how many other really cool things I can uncover in my research.
I’d also like to beg your indulgence. I’m attempting to turn all these cool facts I’ve uncovered into a novel. NaNoWriMo requires about 1668 words a day if you’re going to write a 50k novel in the month of November. I’m already well behind. But it’s going to be extra hard to write a thousand word blog post on top of the 1600 words I need to write every day to have a hope at completing this thing. So I might be… terser than usual this month (and/or obsessed with Stoneham town history).