This Call May Be Recorded

July 2, 2019

In between mowing and fencing, I have been struggling with paperwork… and automated phone menus. This has been the year of trial by paperwork. Our town taxes, our federal taxes, and our state taxes have all been a mess — each with different problems, none of which was caused by me. In each case my forms were submitted promptly and correctly. It would be hard to overstate the hours and hours and hours I have spent trying to disentangle all the errors. Or to overstate the stress.

Now it is health insurance. With his retirement, our policy must be switched from DH’s name to mine. One would think this would be straightforward, but there has been a problem with DH’s Medicare number — only one line in the long form, but an important one. I have spent more hours on this.

I often wonder how people who are less literate can possibly fight through the modern maze of official forms. I am a person who is comfortable with print. One might even say that reading and writing are my only significant skills. Yet this year has been an unrelenting nightmare.

Thankfully, I had a breakthrough this morning and am hoping I may have figured a way out of the latest challenge.


Last Day

June 30, 2019

Today is DH’s last day of work as head of our school, ending a chapter that began for him in the fall of 1982. He has run the school for the last twenty years.

Because I have been the photographer, we don’t have many photos of us together. My father took this snapshot in the kitchen of DH’s dorm in June of 1984 at the end of our first year of working together. I had arrived as a new teacher the previous September. My parents had come up to help us plan our wedding.

DH has always worked hard. Evenings, weekends; on long car rides, writing in his lap in the passenger seat while I drove. To save money for the institution he has slept on the floors of countless airports; he has fought through snowstorms, arrived home at 3 AM, napped, and gone to work at 8. He has been tireless. However, he turns 67 soon and now he is weary. I am glad he is going to retire.

Still, it is a poignant time for me. Our existence has been centered on the school for most our life together. I will still be teaching there, and I’m grateful to have the job. But it will be strange to be there without him, so many years later.

I know I will get used to it. I am also excited to start a new chapter in our marriage. I’m just not great at endings.  As happy as I am for him, I can feel the edges of my eyes prickling.

retirement dinner in NYC, May 2019


A Good Day

June 29, 2019

Yesterday was a pretty day that gradually clouded over. (The dark spot in the center of the photo above is mold inside the lens. I love the little Canon Powershot cameras because I can carry them in my jeans pocket without concern, but inevitably they develop mold and other problems. These cameras are now so outdated that I buy a new one off Ebay every summer for $25. The 2019 iteration arrived last night.)

I worked on paperwork all morning and mowed all afternoon.

I mowed for a couple of hours with my 2005 John Deere mower, and then for the taller grass and weeds (the undesirable stalks left by the cows), I brought out Allen’s tow-behind brush hog from the 1970s and the blade-less Cub Cadet, also from the ’70s, to pull it.

Both of these machines were rescued for me from junk piles by Allen and both need a little work. Allen had replaced the missing hinges on the Cub Cadet’s heavy steel hood with door hinges and 16-penny nails for pins. One of the door hinges has broken under the stress and both have lost their nail-pins. This is the type of straightforward repair that I can manage. Door hinges, yes! Meanwhile the brush hog probably needs a new engine (not likely to happen) and a new belt (I’ll ask Mike). I had to restart it more than once, and it wants to push over the heaviest grass instead of cutting it. Yesterday I dealt with the latter simply by going over those spots half a dozen times. Tedious, yes, but ultimately effective.

A Connecticut Farm, 1780

I mowed and mowed, talking in my head to my old friend. I find mowing soothing and meditative.

Before quitting to cook dinner I moved the sheep to a new spot in the south pasture. This grass is not very good — mostly wild native grass and weeds, as opposed to “English hay,” what American colonists longed for — cultivated grasses like timothy and orchard grass. I dream of English hay with the same yearning. My progress toward this dream is slow, but every summer my fields are a little thicker.

 

I am not a patient person, but it helps to have the long view. Here’s Allen on this field fourteen years ago.

I’m a believer in the long view.


My Warren Connection

June 28, 2019

I didn’t watch any of the Democratic debates. I never watch. But I have heard about them from DH, Lucy, and Jon.

Today I am reading the many comments in the papers and online about Elizabeth Warren and her “teacherly tone.” This tone clearly doesn’t seem to be an asset.

The use of the phrase brought back something Lucy told me last winter. She said she had watched an interview with Elizabeth Warren and thought to herself, Who does she remind me of? “A bit of a Southern tinge to her voice, a teacherly tone… It’s Mom!”

Oh, dear! I suppose I’ll have to watch Ms. Warren on television at some point, but now… I am a little nervous. Ha ha.


Fun Distractions

June 27, 2019

During Christmas break of 2015 I realized that I needed something to chew on, mentally, aside from my many worries. I decided then to return to some research I had done at age 19 on the American Revolution in Fairfield County, Connecticut. I still had the rusting steel file box with all my files and had always dreamed of writing a novel using that research. Now, before getting started, I would reopen my investigations and nail down all the facts.

Historical research is the perfect pastime for me. I can pick it up and put it down for greater or lesser periods of time. Weeks or months can go by when I don’t have a moment for digging into or even thinking abut the Revolution. Then suddenly I’ll have a free afternoon and I can dive in and lose myself. Whether it’s period newspapers, letters, journals, muster books, or legal trials — with today’s internet access I can track down and read materials in libraries all over the country and the world.

Moreover, historical research is one of the few things I have an innate talent for. DH and Lucy are accustomed to me rushing out of my office gibbering with excitement to report that I’ve found an obscure person or put together obscure facts. They listen as I explain my brilliant discovery and then reply politely, “I’m happy for you.”

My friend Alison has been more concerned. “You do know, right, that people don’t care about facts and you have to actually tell a story?”

Yes, I do know. However as someone who does care about facts it has been important to me to find out, as much as possible, what really happened.  Besides, it’s endless fun.

Naturally, having tracked the lives of a number of the townspeople in southwestern Connecticut, I have come to feel I know them. With no one is this more the case than with a loyalist from Norwalk named Stephen Hoyt. In 19th and 20th century histories of these towns, he is always described as “the notorious Tory Hoyt” or “the renegade Captain Hoyt.” When at 19 I discovered that in 1776 the infamous raider was only 26 years old, I knew I had to put him in a story someday.

Today I know that the exploits ascribed to “Tory Hoyt” were actually an amalgamation of actions by Stephen, his older brother Jesse, and a cousin Joseph. The real story of their lives in this first American civil war is far more complicated and interesting than the Victorian morality tale. Stephen and Jesse (one a captain in the Loyalist military, the other a sea captain) were both pillars of the Anglican church and respected as men despite being hated as enemies. When I found a letter from a Patriot general describing “Captain Hoyt, though a Tory,” as “a man of strictest honor, probity, and truth,” I beamed as if I were their mother.

When the war was lost, both brothers left America in 1783, evacuating with their families to the wilderness of Canada. Jesse never returned. However, after ten years Stephen came back to the United States and settled in upstate New York, where he died in 1809. Last fall, while at a conference in the mountains with DH, I spent a happy morning looking for his grave. His bones had been moved in the 1880s from the church cemetery to the rural cemetery, and now his headstone was one of about forty aged markers in a corner.

I scuffled through the fall leaves, struggling to read the slabs. Most were weather-worn and illegible. Many were, literally, blank slates. Here’s a rare one on which the inscription could actually could be distinguished.

After an hour I was frustrated and ready to give up. I stopped at the cemetery office before I left, to admit defeat. A kind young woman jumped up to look in a file. In the early 20th century, a man had made a list of the stones. Perhaps using that list we could retrace his steps and figure out which was Stephen’s.

We trooped back out.

We tried to imagine the path of our scribe in 1920. Which way had he wandered?

At  last, by triangulation and deduction, we found the headstone. “White marble.”

I traced Stephen’s name with a fingertip. The 1920 scribe had noted the line of a poem at the bottom of the stone. (I think both Stephen and his wife Esther were readers — unlike most loyalists who put in claims to the Crown, Stephen reported that when his house was ransacked by the Norwalk mob in 1776, among other valuable items, he lost his books. And the 1774 estate papers of Esther’s father, a minister, included a library inventory.) I could feel the inscription through the lichen. I could also feel another line below.

In the 140 years since it was moved, the stone has sunk into the ground. Of course I have since found the 1808 poem … and I’m guessing that there may be up to three more lines under the soil.

The cemetery has added Captain Hoyt to their walking tour and has promised to try to lift the stone this summer and clean it. I’ve also offered to drive down to clean it myself. Yes, I know this is eccentric. But that’s me. We shall see.

I have often told myself that I have all the information I need. Then I stumble on something else — and new windows of understanding open. However, three and a half years after starting my research, I reluctantly realize I have to stop. This summer I am organizing all my material and starting to weave my story.

Of course, Stephen Hoyt will be in it.

That’s what I am thinking about when I’m mowing and mucking.


A Maine Wedding

June 24, 2019

Saturday morning DH and I drove to Maine to the wedding of his cousin Valerie. I first met Val at Christmas, 1983. I think she was 14 then. It was lovely to see her now beaming with joy.

It was also great to connect with so many of DH’s clan. We were able to stay overnight with his wonderful Uncle Ed and Aunt Elaine in their house on the Maine shore. Here we are with his sisters, cousins, and assorted spouses in front of the church, waiting for the wedding party to arrive.

The reception was held in the upper floor of an old village fire station.

It is always challenging to get away. I had been in my Carhartts fencing for the cows and moving the sheep at 5 AM. However it was a pleasure to have the hours in the car, talking and laughing with DH, and so very heartwarming to see everyone. Many years and many memories!

We got home at 5 PM last night. DH unpacked, repacked, and left at 5 AM today for a last business trip to Colorado. He officially retires in six days.


Bonfire

June 21, 2019

Yesterday the boy Theo came for two hours and we lit my burn pile.

This was a huge pile of old family furniture that I’d found to be ruined when I emptied our storage unit in the fall of 2017. Tables, chairs, and beds had been damaged by leaking water.

Mice had moved into the stuffings of mattresses and furniture and were not happy to be dislodged.

In 2017 I had trucked the mattresses and dozens of cartons of moldy books in multiple loads to the dump. The ruined kitchen table, chairs, and antique bed I had put on the burn pile. And yesterday we burned it all.

The weather report had said there was a 30% chance of light rain at 10. Theo’s mother was late so we didn’t get the fire started until 9:30. As we lit the paper, the first rain drops began to spatter. Within five minutes it was a downpour.

I looked at my watch, joking: “Thanks, weather man! 30% chance? Light rain?”

Luckily, the dry furniture was already burning well. Theo and I fed the fire with two giant piles of brush I’d cut last summer. The rain pounded down, running off my cap brim in a sheet, but the fire kept burning. As we sloshed back and forth, dragging brush, soaked to the skin, Theo shouted happily, “This is so fun!”

The photo above was taken as we burned the last of the brush.

It finally stopped raining just as we finished.

It was good to cross off another chore from the list — and to remove the stack of ruined childhood furniture that had reproached me sadly whenever I passed.


New Boy

June 19, 2019

Yesterday morning I received two painting estimates. One for the exterior of the house, and one for the unfinished interior. Together they came to a shocking sum, far beyond anything I had ever dreamed in my worst imaginings. I was thrown into gloom, but luckily I could not stay there. My farm help arrived at 8:30 AM for work.

I have hired a new boy this summer. Theo (not his real name) is one of my students. Last year he was a bright squirrel in 7th grade. Theo can be a mischief-maker in school, but by now I’m so old that few children misbehave for me — he had great success in my class. Next year he will be in my 8th grade group and I expect fine things.

As usual, I started Theo out by teaching him how to shift gears and drive the old blade-less lawnmower that Kyle nicknamed “the I-Haul.” Theo struggled to contain his nervous excitement as he drove along in first gear at a stately 2 mph.

Unfortunately the minute we stopped to work on a broken gate, we were swarmed by black flies. I run nature skits at school during lunch assemblies so when he exclaimed, “They’re not biting, they’re just in a cloud around my face!” I asked, “So, are they boy black flies or girl black flies?” (You really can’t stop a teacher.) “Boys!” Theo answered correctly, but the misery in his voice was so marked I went back to the house and found him a baseball hat with a bug net.

After our gate repair, we spent the morning laying out a line for a fence to subdivide the back field. This is a first step to getting control of this pasture. I need to be able to have the cows graze it in small sections, after which I mow, so I can beat back the weeds and encourage the small amount of good grass. Right now, the cows wander freely, ignore the less desirable plants, eat the good grass down to the roots, and the field quickly becomes a mess of waist-high weeds and barren areas.

Theo’s job was to drive the I-Haul down our stretched line and throw out t-posts every 25 feet. I pounded all the posts in with the steel rammer, ripping a giant blister on my palm. Theo then drove back along the line, snapping on insulators and hanging the fence.

By 12:30, when Theo had to leave, we had the beginnings of our fence.

Progress on any front always makes me feel better.


Sunny Days

June 10, 2019

We have had 3.5 sunny days in a row. A friend posted on Facebook that it marked the longest stretch without rain or snow since September. That’s certainly what it feels like. It is due to cloud over this afternoon and rain tonight, but I have felt blessed by the high blue skies.

Anything feels possible when the sun is shining.

 


It’s Summer Vacation

June 8, 2019

… and spring has just arrived! Winter lingered late this year. It snowed May 13. My lilac blossoms have just begun to open and the apple trees are still in bloom.

This was a long, dark, tough winter. I lost my balance for a while. I couldn’t write with anything approaching calm or acceptance, so I stopped writing. Then came the shocking death of our dear friend Tom. (More about this another day.) Meanwhile the goodbyes for DH’s retirement kept me looking back to the past. Everything seemed to be sad and over.

But on Thursday at 2 PM I finished my last student reports, and that afternoon the clouds broke and the sun came out, seemingly for the first time in months.

Everything on the farm is shabby, overgrown, a mess. It turns out DH has unthinkingly made commitments that will keep him gone from July 3 until September 3, and he has to travel for work before then. However, Lucy is home for the summer and for the next twelve weeks I am on vacation, with no boss but myself.

Yesterday I began working on my Vacation To-Do List. Even before I add all the unfinished contractor work on the house, the list is two pages, double-columns, single-spaced. But yesterday I fired up the mower to start to tame the landscape and mowed for two hours. I hung the flag from the porch. I began pulling weeds and did three loads of laundry.

I’m ready! And I’m back!