A Simple Life

Growing up, I loved Little House on the Prairie. I loved it so much, I thought I wanted to switch places with Laura Ingalls Wilder. I loved the idea of making everything you used, and there seemed to be a simplicity to their lives that doesn't exist now. Once I got older and learned to appreciate things like penicillin and voting, that wish vanished (now I'd settle for a Time Machine for the occasional visit),

Searching through town records and shared family trees, it's clear rural life was definitely simpler back then. You were born. You lived. You struggled. If you were lucky, you made it to adulthood and struggled some more.

We struggle with bills and schedules. We struggle with chores and parenting, but when I come across the all too-frequent pairs of dates indicating the existence of a child who died as soon as he or she drew breath, I know I don't really struggle at all.

That struggle is one any parent can imagine. To imagine it happening one or two times in a row – sometime five or six in a lifetime – and still keep fighting just so you could keep parenting the children that managed to draw a next breath, however, is to begin to understand what real strength must have been (and still is where this story continues to plays out around the world).

It is also to begin to appreciate in earnest that a complicated life is actually a fortunate one.


Must See His-tor-y

In a graveyard in a small Vermont town sits a headstone belonging to a woman, Joanna E. Houghton. who is named as the mother of Alice Fox. She was married to Moses Fox, the man who was listed as Alice's father, and, at the age of 37 had a baby – her last child – the year she was married.

It was a second marriage, and only one of her three children from the first marriage survived infancy. It's a sad start to her life, but not an uncommon one. What was uncommon was the absence, in the scanned records of Wiimington, show a long tap root for Moses's family tree. Joanna seems more of a leaf.

There are many Houghton's in the area. There are a few Johnsons (her first husband was named Johnson), but the first record with her name is her marriage to Moses. All of Alice's, from what I can tell from town records, descend from Irish and English immigrants. Her picture tells a different story, however.

The soap fan in me is already speculating. Could Joanna have been adopted? Could Moses or Joanna Fox's roots belong to another tree altogether?

The mystery is just beginning. It's a volume of a story so many people are writing for themselves, and for me, it's already better than any soap or must-see realty-TV scenario.


Are We There Yet?



One of the ironies of our life is that our resident social butterfly, six-year-old Thing2, needs an enormous amount prodding to get in the car for any weekend outing.  And so it began on Sunday morning.  

Freshly exercised and showered, and ready for our weekly breakfast at Bob’s diner in Manchester, the Big Guy, thirteen-year-old Jack, and I had one more hurdle to leap before we began our Sunday adventure – convincing – rather, ordering – Thing2 to get in the car.  Pouting and mumbling about his desire to stay put and eat the sugar cereal du jour, Thing2 finally shuffled to his booster seat and got his seat belt on.  Anyone watching would have thought we were taking him to look at military schools (the idea did cross our minds).    Instead, he was pulled out of his cocoon.  

Something about the smell of bacon and coffee temporarily banished Thing2’s grumpiness.  But when breakfast was behind us and we hit the road again, the ride took on a different character for all of us. 

The Worlds Fair in Tunbridge – our destination – is  about 90 minutes from Manchester, and Thing2 kicked off the first half hour mumbling a litany of things he’d rather be doing.  We had mentioned the word ‘fair’ a number of times before, but I had made the mistake of telling the kids it was historical, and the only part of the day Thing2 could focus on was the driving.  Finally, the Big Guy and I caught Thing2’s eye and ears to make it clear that the rest of the ride did not need a serenade of complaints.  He adjusted his tone.  The last sixty minutes were mostly quiet, punctuated only by the occasional refrain of  ‘Are we there yet?’

When we reached the muddy parking lot at the fair ground, Thing2 had zoned out, but the bump between road and muck got his attention.  The smell of manure permeated the air.  Well-groomed, uniformed students from the nearby military college cheerfully directed us to a parking space.  There were no formal ticket booths – just a few more college kids (who didn’t look old enough to shave, let alone wear uniforms) taking admission and shepherding patrons through twine-lined ‘gates’.  

Thing2 clung to my hand, then the Big Guy’s, then mine.  He had already spotted the typical fair midway.  We headed up a muddy hill away from the typical and toward the heart of the fair.  

The heart of the fair is a permanent collection of old buildings – long log cabins, a metal foundry, a carriage barn.  The first log cabin contained artifacts of Vermont home life from over the last two centuries.  Period-costumed demonstrators brought the display – and Thing2 – to life as they showed us how quilts were (and are) made or how country stores used to operate.  The second building displayed a collection of tools, and the carriage barn contain, naturally, carefully preserved carriages and wagons once used by local farmers.  But, while the quilting demonstration and old-fashioned donuts had sparked the beginning of a sincere attitude adjustment in Thing2, what was outside perked up his wings, long before we got to the midway.

Alongside the carriage barn stood pop-up tents that, instead of the usual fair t-shirts and novelty souvenirs, sheltered antique engines.  All of the engines were running, producing little pops when air bubbles went through them.  A few of the displays encouraged visitors to try their hand at grinding corn, or winding thread or pumping water the old-fashioned way.  The whirring motors and spinning gears made their own music, and Thing2 began his dance.  

The rest of the afternoon we shuttled between rides and exhibits.  We stopped for maple-flavored cotton candy (it is Vermont after all) and ‘pour-your-own’ freshly-pressed cider, and Thing2 continued dancing until long after the Big Guy and I had exhausted our reserves.  The dancing and accompanying chatter continued until we were back in the car, rolling through the muddy field again.  

“We have to do this again,” said Jack before he nodded off.  The fair was still causing Thing2’s wings to flutter, however, and it was a long time before he slept.  The excitement of seeing something different would keep them moving even when he did close his eyes, and when I heard him singing softly to himself in his sleep, I knew we were there yet.

Worth Waiting

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It was supposed to rain that Thursday, but as the time for the parade drew closer, blue took over more and more of the sky. The Big Guy was working, as he does most years on the Fourth of July.  As they do most years, our plans for the day included chores and little else.

The little else – a homemade, hometown parade along a mile and a half stretch of the main road of our town of 300 – is the highlight of our Independence Day each year. Comprised of a small collection of tractor- and horse-drawn wagons, festooned with flags and flowers from nearby fields and filled with singing townsfolk, the entire train passes by in less than a few minutes. Some years we ride on the wagons. This year we decided to wait and wave, and, this year, the waiting made all the difference.

We decided to head out to the parade a little early this year. The bridge at the bottom of our road is closed, and we planned to watch from the Town Hall a mile and half away at the other end of the road. The 150 year old school house across from the Town Hall (which, along with the nearby church are the town’s center) was the site of an art show hosted by a friend, and six-year-old Thing2 wanted to bring her flowers for luck.

With twenty minutes to spare before the parade got going a mile down the road from the schoolhouse, we took our time visiting with our artist friend and helping her setup. We browsed the paintings and prints, glancing out the window for approaching flag-wrapped horses, but none appeared. I checked my cellphone, and, noting that ‘hitching time’ was past, ushered my twelve and six-year-old out the door and across the road.

A few other townsfolk were arriving at the schoolhouse and making their way from art show to parade stand, stopping to patronize a lemonade stand that two boys had strategically placed next to the road. A few people brought chairs, and, as we each searched for a patch of shade, we began taking turns walking into the road to scan for the parade leader.

Ten minutes passed, and our small group concluded that hitching time had been delayed. The smaller boys began making miniature forts with bits of bark scavenged from around the oak tree that shaded us. Neighbors finished talking about the weather and began catching up in earnest. At forty minutes past hitching time we were certain that the lead rider was just around the bend, and the conversation turned to parades past. But the green at the bend in the road remained uninterrupted.  The younger children now conceived a world in a grassy curve carved by the roots of the oak tree, and neighbors began to discover each other in earnest.

Almost two hours had passed after the first horse was scheduled to leave the parade starting point, we heard hoofbeats and the hum of the first antique tractor.

A bunting-wrapped Kubota backhoe pulling a hay wagon loaded with singing townsfolk, prodigal children and grandchildren and other out-of-town guests led the parade this year. It stopped every few feet to let children on and off, and from the center of the wagon, candy and gum came flying at my kids. A few minutes later a pair of horses appeared, their riders carefully balancing flag poles on the toes of their boots. There were a few other tractors and wagons, and then two flag-bearers on foot came into view from around the bend. An ancient tractor pulling the last wagon appeared. This one was loaded with singers and one participant who had turned his attention to a magazine he brought along. The entire procession lasted less than ten minutes. 

The morning was gone. I was still in visiting mode, and it seemed too late to start the chores I had assigned myself and the boys. I checked my watch and noticed that it was almost time for the Big Guy to leave work.

Deciding strange forces were converging to put us on a different course for the day, the boys and I decided to go get the Big Guy and take him to lunch. Chores and to-do lists were forgotten. The reason for the season was officially our nation’s independence, but it was the waiting that had forced us to free ourselves from routine, if only for a day. As always, the tiny parade was worth the wait. The wait, however, was priceless.




Pictures of Us


My sister-in-law’s been going through her attic and stumbling on ancient family photos along the way.  She’s scanned them and emailed them to us in groups.  Most of the photos are of individuals or groups posed carefully and solemnly for a camera that required the subject to stay still for several minutes.

The clothes and the hair are different, but the stories they tell are very familiar.   There’s a great-grandmother who once wrote and published short stories.  There’s a great-grandfather who owned a music store.  I’m hoping to see a photo of a great-grandmother who was a Mohawk and the story of whose union with the family I hope to discern someday.

I’ve always been a history buff, and especially a family history buff.

It started one summer when my aunt and uncle were visiting and my uncle was relating the story of how they had met and married despite strong objections from my aunt’s mother (my grandmother).  He was German, and she was American, and my grandmother was very unhappy at the idea of my aunt moving so far away in an era when long-distance phone calls were still extremely rare.  My uncle was not so easily deterred and, after having received a reluctant refusal, had flown from Germany to Chicago and then driven 6 hours to find my aunt and make his case.  As he told the story, remembering how their 50+ year marriage had almost not happened, a tear ran down his face.  I, like all the other females at the table, decided this was the most romantic story that had ever been told in our family.

The next day, I began to wonder if there were other stories that had simply not been told.  Subsequent trips to our annual family vacation spot became research opportunities, and when a knowledgable aunt was visiting, I began tape recording them as they related the family stories.

In that time I’ve learned about another pair of star-crossed lovers whose parents, a generation ago, had objected to their marriage on the grounds that they were different races and from different countries.  That couple is still married.   I learned how my grandparents, despite Grandmother’s summers spent near Grandfather’s home town never met until they were adults because they lived in completely different worlds.  And I’ve learned that I love the stories of how people come together.

We live in a world where the stories that make the headlines are about people being driven apart.  They’re about lives being blown apart.  Often, the even the storytelling becomes a wedge, breathing distrust into every disagreement until the participants hardly recognize each other as members of the same species.  Over the past year, I’ve made more of an effort to look for the other stories – the ones that bring people together.  I used to be embarrassed about my love of romantic stories of people overcoming odds to be together, but now I think they’re an expression of faith that people can actually do that.

I’m looking through the photos and stories of my husband’s family, one photo stands out.  It is a picture of a husband and wife, the husband staring at the camera while the wife leans her head on his shoulder.  They both have wistful smiles on their faces.  It’s from the late 1800s, and their clothes date the picture more than the aged sepia.  I know their world was a million miles away from mine.  When I look at the serenely happy and casual pose, however, I realize that they look a lot like us.  It’s a story worth pursuing.