Sunday, September 29, 2013

A Traitor's Ghost

New England cemeteries are living history.  Interactive, open air museums that boast of colonial revolt, romance, lives lived and lost.  As some of the earliest records of our nation, eighteenth century graveyards house the strongest roots of the American story.  Whether you are a history buff, a taphophile, a ghost seeker, nature lover, artist or a photographer, the graveyard welcomes all without prejudice. 
The key to the best New England cemeteries is a good story.  New England loves local lore!  One small cemetery in Norwich, Connecticut is a prime example.  Located just off Norwichtown Green, at the dead end of Cemetery Lane, the Old Burial Ground rests peacefully along a babbling brook and green meadow footpaths.  Revolutionary War soldiers’ remains mingle with early folk art death angels under lichen and moss.  There are headstones so crudely carved it takes a few tangled looks to read the epitaph.  Some stones stand hilltop in graceful repose- having withstood harsh New England elements for more than 200 years. Here, fearless sea captains rest alongside key players in the Declaration of Independence.   But it is the graves that are missing in the Old Burial Ground that get the most attention.  To this day, Hannah Arnold, a grieving mother and wife, is rumored to walk these grounds looking for her husband and sons. It is said, her most infamous son, Benedict Arnold, returns every Halloween on a ghostly white horse to ask his mother for the forgiveness of his sins.
Benedict Arnold, famed traitor of the Revolutionary War, was born and raised in Norwich.  Though he would be a very successful Continental Army General he felt he was slighted in both recognition and money for his service. He traded sides and gave key information to the British that cost the lives of many colonists.  In one particularly bloody battle in New London, Connecticut, a ship named Hannah exploded fueling the fires that would destroy the town.  Benedict’s mother, Hannah, and father, Benedict, died before these acts of treason took place.  But once the Norwich colonists heard of Benedict’s betrayal, an angry mob formed looking for revenge.  Angry citizens descended upon the Old Burial Ground and destroyed the gravesites.
In New England, legend and fact often mix to create campfire stories that are anchored in truth.  Playing in this graveyard as a child I heard both sides of the tale.  Some say the bodies of Benedict Arnold’s father and brother were dug up and destroyed by the angry mob. Details of the destruction depended on the storyteller and the tale grew longer with every new narrator. Others say only the headstones were toppled.  I remember one vivid story about the houses where he served as apprentice and the home where he was born were both burned to the ground. Details of the destruction depended on the storyteller and the tale grew longer with every new narrator.  The one certainty we all counted on: Never be in the graveyard at night, especially not Halloween night. 
No matter where one travels in New England, an early cemetery is in every town.  Ask a local and they are sure to share a haunted or intriguing tale. 
This story was originally published in Folk Magazine Summer 2013.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Empty Nest Newbie

I entered into the empty nest with the highest of hopes and guilty anticipation of new found freedom.  My daily Mom duties would subside.  The days would be full of creative bliss and cupcakes, and all that other happy crap. Yeah.... That was how it was going to be!  All sweet icing and sunshine.
Somehow I have ended up head first tangled in the briars and thorns of emotions, financial strife, heated arguments, and a stress level that hums at non-stop high frequencies.  Go ahead and try to be creative in that!  My studio still remains clogged with the clutter of moving out.  And with Kev in Bangladesh we get to spend the one hour we are both awake in different time zones arguing about who is more off center in the change.  Awesome. (By the by- Dads feel the emptiness far worse than the Moms!)
Most parents say they are sad in the empty nest- a longing for youthful cheer to be all cherub-like at the dinner table again.  Whatever.  Our house was full of free spirits with very big ideas and a tendency for wanderlust.  So when college move-in day came around I thought there might be a chance to stand still for awhile.  A chance to settle.  A chance to live in the moments that previously were filled with the chaos of parenthood and putting out fires.  I am still waiting. 
Funny thing is, we raised a child to be a free spirit, to embrace the world, to travel, and never settle for ordinary.  So why are we so distraught with the result?  Is it the old adage that we find annoying in others what we don't recognize in ourselves?  Looking at everything that has turned my empty nest upside down in the first trial run, I see me at a younger age.  I was never content to be still, I needed more, craved more of this world: to be where life hummed and buzzed.  I married a man who shared this view and together we have been roaming the world seeking new experiences.  Our daughter came with us and learned by example.  Now she is ready to fly.  Sort of.  Maybe not so much- more like she has her training wings on.  And I am in my nest, hiding my head, trying not to micro-manage her life.
So for now I will be still.  I will shed my preconceived ideas of what my empty nest SHOULD be like.  Nothing has ever been normal, routine, or "as expected" with the family I have created and that is what has brought me the most joy over all the full nest years.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Great Wide Open

The Great Wide Open
  I wonder if all women long to be free?
 To hop the fence and charge the horizon!
Where the great wide tears open
                     And clouds float like lazy rivers;                                             
Where greens grow brighter
From grass to reed to leaf
To reach summer's sky.
Where hawks fly circles
Steady like clock hands;
Far overhead, never seeing
 Still spiders silent at my feet
Just outside my steps
As I walk through doorways
Worn out by winds and winter rains
 Of decades passing, decades decaying.
 Nature reclaiming spaces she had lent.
I look through jagged broken panes
seeking souls who once settled here.
Women who raised families here.
Who loved and lost here.
Who sought the great wide open,
Longing to be free.


Tuesday, September 3, 2013

A Restoration Life

After my recent visit home, many people have asked about living in an old house.  Here is my article published in FOLK Magazine's Summer 2013 issue.  Because the issue was only digitally released, it missed many of my usual readers. So here it is in its entirety. 

 A Restoration Life

The gem of New England architecture is undoubtedly the iconic colonial home.  Stark lined salt box houses wrapped in primitive color clapboards. Stoic and serene, their simplicity speaks to their origins in an austere new world. New Englanders and visitors alike marvel at these beauties, sometimes voicing how cool it would be to buy one for themselves. But ask anyone who owns such a beast and has attempted a quick fix-up project and they will tell you there is nothing simple about these homes.  Ask the maniacs who devote their lives to restoring these confounded structures, and they will weave a tale like that of an early whaling expedition. (Using my best sea captain voice…) The waters were rough, often unfriendly. Many a foe were encountered.  At times it seemed all would have to abandon ship, but in the end the whale succumbed to the will of man. Reluctantly.
My parents were two such restoration maniacs.  They possessed the Yankee ingenuity, the iron wills and perseverance necessary to spend fifteen years restoring their 1759 Connecticut colonial.  My brother and I would be the unwilling deckhands in their quest for historical accuracy.  Weekends were not meant for relaxing when I was a kid.  My friends knew not to call or knock for fear they too would be drafted into service.  On any given morning, I could wake to the sound of a buzzing table saw sometime before sunrise.  The battle cry of the “Great Restoration” declaring another Saturday would be spent holding up sheet rock, hauling debris, and sweeping up dust held captive for centuries.  This scourge for preservation would last throughout my childhood.  It was a war my parents appeared to enjoy, much to my dismay. Though I didn’t know it at the time, the days working with my parents would build a strong foundation for my future.
When I was in elementary school I regarded my home like a dangerous lair with wide planked floors, low plaster ceilings, and skinny staircases leading into dark crevices.  Any visitors taller than six feet left with a cramped neck and a bruised forehead from a low flying beam.  One bedroom’s floors sloped so badly my brother and I could roll from one side of the room down to the other.  At times we had to watch our feet as we navigated repairs between the bedroom floor and dining room ceiling.  Complaining was not allowed.  If we fell through, it was because we weren’t watching our step. There were no hallways.  Each room connected to the next and the only bathroom was the very last room on the second floor.  Anyone needing to use the toilet, had to go through my room to get there. Privacy was often a luxury surrendered when one wishes to live authentically in a colonial house. Our home was in a constant state of architectural chaos as one by one, each flaw was corrected.

Cerberus, as I affectionately referred to my childhood home, was also pure magic.  For every wall that came down, or floorboard pulled up, treasure waited to be found.  Colonial coins, papers, signatures on wooden beams spelled out the mystery of the home’s earliest residents.  Digging foundation supports or gardens yielded thick old glass bottles, clay tobacco pipes, flatware and discarded pottery.  Part of our backyard was an 18th century dumping ground.  As a child, summer hours were whittled away under the oaks, trolling away layers of dirt on archaeological digs.  Using giant old antique encyclopedias, my parents and I would research china patterns and coins to identify my finds.  It was like growing up in a museum.  Every day was an opportunity to learn from an artist, an expert in hands-on history.
My father hand-planed fireplace panels, plastered walls, wood shingled the roof, re-wired, re-plumbed, and restored original floorboards.  Wooden planks too far gone were re-purposed into period furniture and trinket boxes which remain in the home today. Only when the chimney needed to be replaced were outside professionals brought in.  Otherwise the entire home was meticulously restored by my family.  
My mother weaved her own baskets, participated in a quilting circle, dipped her own candles and strung miles of greens into wreathes and garlands for holiday celebrations.  I remember years of watching her hands work small tools around a white painted banister until the original finish was revealed- a deep maple syrup brown flecked with age, smooth from centuries of hands securing their steps down the narrow stairs.  These same steps would carry me through seventeen years until I was ready to leave for college. 
My life would take me far from my beloved home, but I am lucky that my parents still live there.  I can go home and see their years of hard work still standing strong.  Somehow I also still here that distant whirr of a table saw! The lessons I learned in the restoration years have become my own guiding principles.  The beauty is in the details.  Never do shoddy work thinking no one will notice.  Every small stitch is vital, every hand forged latch necessary.  Never turn away from your heart’s desire, no matter how daunting the road to attainment. Never quit what you have started.  Know it is okay to ask for help. Most importantly, never underestimate the power of teamwork.  With the right people by your side, even the mightiest of whales can be captured.
To read the original article and see more from FOLK Magazine click on the link below.