Friday, May 25, 2012

A house by any other name

Home is this New England village, bordering the Sakonnet.
One of my favorite novelists is D.E. Stevenson, who wrote about Britain during World War II and its aftermath. Thirty-three of her books line the shelves of my home office.

Stevenson described the sleepy English and Scottish villages in great detail and gave each of the houses a special name. Consequently, the reader could imagine the structure, the lay of the land, the historic as well as natural setting of the place.

Some of her picturesque names are Well Cottage, House on the Cliff, Archway House, Mountain Cross, Square House, Underwoods, Bridle House, Broadmeadows, Hillside House, Summerhills, Dower House, King’s Lodge, Swan House, Amberwell and Bridge House.

Inside, these homes are furnished with pieces handed down through the generations, and each has a story to tell.

According to Stevenson, “Fletcher’s End is the name of a beautiful old house in the English Cotswold Country; it was built in the days of Queen Elizabeth and the oak beams which support the heavy stone roof are of the same wood as the ships which fought the Spanish Armada.”

Some American houses are referred to by name, and the “summer cottages” of the rich in nearby Newport come to mind: The Breakers, Chateau-sur-Mer, The Elms, Marble House and Rosecliff.

One of my favorite nonfiction American writers, Gladys Taber, called her seventeenth-century Connecticut farmhouse, Stillmeadow, and her Cape Cod cottage, Still Cove. Fifteen of her books grace my shelves.

“The ancient house speaks to us,” she wrote in “The Book of Stillmeadow” in 1948. “Footfalls sound on the steep stairs, doors open softly, floorboards creak, echoing lives lived here long, long ago. And I think echoes of the lives of our family will be here, too.”

Our summer house near Fogland Beach lacks a name (Fog House?) but engenders all the qualities of Stevenson’s fictional homes. Furnished with the old rock maple couch, armchair and rocker that my parents bought when they married in 1950, it is decorated with my grandmother’s lamps and my grandfather’s cherry wood end table.

Sometimes if I listen intently, I can still hear him gently tapping his pipe on the table, emptying the tobacco into the ashtray.

“Your mother wouldn’t like it if we sold the furniture she gave us,” said Bel Brownlee in “Fletcher’s End” by D.E. Stevenson. “It would hurt her feelings to think we didn’t appreciate her kindness. People’s feelings are more important than … tables.”

Friday, May 18, 2012

Coming home to our secret garden

Everyone needs a special place.

The summer house is ours.

A secret place of longing through long wintry days, the beach house draws us home each season.
“The Secret Garden was what Mary called it when she was thinking of it,” wrote Frances Hodgson Burnett. “She liked the name, and she liked still more the feeling that when its beautiful old walls shut her in no one knew where she was. It seemed almost like being shut out of the world in some fairy place.”

This perfect spring of warm sunny days interspersed with drenching rains incited the vegetation to grow.

“Is the spring coming? What is it like?” wrote Burnett. “It is the sun shining on the rain and the rain falling on the sunshine.”

The grass is a plush green carpet, surrounded by a border of wild bushes and flowers. Beyond this lies the salt marsh, a sliver of blue.

“If you look the right way, you can see that the whole world is a garden,” Burnett wrote.
Greeting us is a single bird with a plump white breast, sweetly singing in some very high overhanging branches. Not recognizing the squatter, I pull out the “National Audubon Society Field Guide to New England.”

The white-breasted nuthatch has a white face and a crown of gray. It creeps headfirst in all directions on tree trunks.
With a mid-belly of white and sides of gray, it might be a veery that serenades with a song of flute-like notes.

Or perhaps it is the Eastern wood-pewee, identified by grayish brown above, white below, and a head that often appears pointed. They are hard to see because they stay high in trees.
“Nothing in the world is quite as adorably lovely as a robin when he shows off and they are nearly always doing it,” wrote Burnett.

We begin to nest, settling into this wondrous seasonal space. I can hear the Sakonnet, the cadence of the crashing waves calling me.
But for now, I am content to plant myself on this piece of earth, where I have deep roots. The first time I saw this place it was through child’s eyes, and through the passing years, I grew to cherish it.

“And the secret garden bloomed and bloomed and every morning revealed new miracles,” Burnett wrote.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Arbitrary sewer inspection is the pits

Forty years ago my parents bought land near Fogland State Beach for $3,000, and that single acquisition has brought them great joy over the years, as well as worry.

Last October my husband and his friend winterized the summer house, draining the water from the pipes to prevent freezing; and my parents, now octogenarians, locked the door behind them.

Leave-taking is always difficult, but this year was a trial.

In November, all property owners in Tiverton received a letter from the Wastewater Management Commission:

“As you may be aware Tiverton’s Onsite Wastewater Management Ordinance requires inspections of property owners’ septic systems. … It will be the responsibility of the property owners to pay for and to schedule a First Maintenance inspection. Property owners must contact one of the town-approved inspectors … and complete this inspection by March 15, 2012.”

My father is ailing, and the upkeep of the summer house is a burden that rests solely on my mother’s shoulders. Consequently, the letter sent her into a tizzy.

She called the superintendent, who kindly assured her that the inspection could wait until the summer house was reopened in April. He also offered to send her a reminder.

The urgency was remediated, but then came secondary concerns. On a fixed income, my mother worried about pouring money down a hole if the septic system -- which had been a state-of-the-art design when it was installed – was not up to code. They are summertime weekend residents, and the system had never given any trouble. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” she reasoned.

In 1950 my parents built their Massachusetts home, and they have never received a sewer inspection summons from the town.

Throughout the long winter my mother kept bringing up the inspection in conversations, and she worried. Every weekend we checked the summer house and noticed fresh piles of dirt and holes in our neighbors’ yards.

Two weeks ago my husband and his friend returned to the property. They climbed in the well house, re-primed the water pump and flushed out the pipes.

Last Saturday in the rain my husband dug up the backyard, accessing the tank. My mother called the inspector, who made an appointment for Tuesday afternoon.

Needless to say, her worry mounted until the inspector, who was as kind and professional as the superintendent, approved the system, which passed with flying colors. She gladly paid the fee.

But despite my mother’s elation at the verdict, she acknowledged that six months of endless worry had taken its toll. An arbitrary sewerage inspection is the pits.
A canopy of new maple leaves hangs over the backyard.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Winds of change

Giants tower over us.

From my cubicle at work, I look out over the harbor and see two shiny new wind turbines near the historic Unitarian Church – an anachronism to be sure.

I drive down the highway near my home and a 40-story wind turbine dominates the horizon for miles. Stamped with its brand “Philips”, it is a veritable billboard in the sky.

Sitting in our Dodge Ram at Fogland State Beach in Tiverton, I watch a wind turbine spin slowly across the Sakonnet River in Portsmouth, while the stiff sea breeze whips the water and buffets the windshield with sand.

Like them or not, wind towers are cropping up everywhere. They are the new skyscrapers dotting our landscape and seascape.

Flying into Ontario Airport in California in 1998, I rented a car and headed to a journalism convention in Palm Springs. Seared in my memory is the view of the rocky mountaintops covered by wind farms.

It took them awhile to make their way cross country, but they are now settling in New England.  

Whenever I see a wind farm, I think of Miguel de Cervantes’ literary masterpiece “Don Quixote” and his character’s attack on the windmills that he believes to be ferocious giants:

“Just then they came in sight of thirty or forty windmills that rise from that plain. And no sooner did Don Quixote see them that he said to his squire, ‘Fortune is guiding our affairs better than we ourselves could have wished. Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, thirty or forty hulking giants? I intend to do battle with them and slay them. With their spoils we shall begin to be rich for this is a righteous war and the removal of so foul a brood from off the face of the earth is a service God will bless.’”

"What giants?' asked Sancho Panza."

"Those you see over there,' replied his master, 'with their long arms. Some of them have arms well nigh two leagues in length.'"

"Take care, sir,' cried Sancho. 'Those over there are not giants but windmills. Those things that seem to be their arms are sails which, when they are whirled around by the wind, turn the millstone.'"

Wind turbines are here to stay. Wind power is a clean and renewable source, and turbines convert this energy into electricity emitting no pollutants.

We can embrace this technology, or we can be like Don Quixote battling these giant eyesores setting foot in our quaint New England towns and waterways.

"And so, to sum it all up, I perceive everything I say as absolutely true, and deficient in nothing whatever, and paint it all in my mind exactly as I want it to be," said Don Quixote, the crazed and kindly country gentleman who believes himself called upon to redress the wrongs of the world.
This wind turbine is visible from Fogland State Beach in Tiverton, R.I.