Celebrating a 250-Year-Old House | Mary's Farm
I wanted to share the property’s history with my guests. I thought a self-guided tour would be the best way, so I mapped the high points all around its many acres: the original house site; the site of the pre-Revolutionary English barn (which I’d sadly had to have taken down); the brickyard across the road, where bricks were fired and used, in some measure, to build the mill village just a mile down the road.
The evolution of a house of this age is far more than a short story. I made signs and stapled them to wooden stakes. With my lawnmower, I cut paths to each site and pounded the signs into the ground, so that the significance of that piece of ground would come alive, just for that day. On a special table in the barn, next to the serving tables, I arranged the square-cut nails, the pottery shards, the two old spoons, and a broken brick I’d pried out of the ground–all the little archaeological bits and pieces that I’d collected over the years–and made a little label for each token. I was creating a small, one-day museum.
Inside the house, I printed and posted narratives in each room, explaining how the house had evolved: where once was a living room, now was a kitchen (which, before that, was probably the original kitchen); where now there was a dining room, once were two bedrooms; where once two sisters had lived almost exclusively, now was a separate apartment. On and on.
In the scope of the history of this country, this is not a significant place. This is no Sturbridge, no Deerfield; nothing terribly dramatic ever happened here. The house, a typical New England big house/little house/back house/barn, is quite ordinary and without flourish. My digging turned up no diaries to explore or other caches of historical pizzazz. Plus, I’ve changed the house so much that it’s not historically recognizable. There were only two old photos to be found in the archives, both taken in 1946, so I was lacking graphics and visuals; imagination was all I had to work with. But this place represents the extreme efforts of one man, one continuous family, the fortunes of time and the elements, and the determination of an aging woman, Mary Walker, my predecessor on this land, who wanted to leave it better than she’d found it. It was all worth one glorious day of celebration.
The day before the party, my sister and I were busy in the kitchen, preparing food and drink. The list of things to do was very long, and my brain was scrambled. How could it all possibly get done before noon the next day, when guests would begin to arrive? Around 4:30, we sat down on the lawn out front to watch the oncoming storm. Thick and powerful lightning bolts shot into the trees across the field. We took shelter inside and resumed watching the storm march down the mountain toward us. When it finally arrived, the rain was torrential. We couldn’t see anything except a gray wall of water. The electricity flickered and then went out.
Late in the evening, my cousins arrived, and once they’d all piled into the house, soaking wet, we gathered for dinner by candlelight and exchanged stories of our adventures–so far. After dinner, I put the beans to bake in the oven overnight–and then slept soundly for an early rise.
The day of the party dawned like a stage set. The tent was standing ready. The power was back on. The smell of baked beans filled the house. My sister and I set about to decorate the tables beneath the tent with Mason jars filled with Joe-Pye weed, goldenrod, Queen Anne’s lace, and black-eyed Susans, all cut from the roadsides. In the cool, dry, blue-sky morning, we transported all the platters and drinks and jugs of iced tea to the tent. My friend Jonathan set up a sound system, hanging the speakers from the apple tree, providing music and also a microphone so that I could say a few things. I wanted to thank so many people who had helped me all along, and I wanted to raise a toast to Benjamin Mason and what he had started here so long ago.
A stream of guests arrived, happy in the warm August sunshine. Under the shelter of my barn, food and drink were arranged on several tables. I felt a happy, festive mood all around me. After everyone had enjoyed a good meal, I got up to take the microphone, but as I did so, my friend David came over to me and showed me the weather map on his smartphone. “I don’t mean to alarm you,” he said, “but you might warn people that they have about an hour before this hits.”
The blue skies above us belied what showed on his screen. I didn’t need to look hard at the device to see that a huge storm was headed right at us. So I didn’t get to say all that I wanted to say. I said a few things, most especially the expressions of gratitude I wanted to make, and then I told everyone to hurry and take their tours of the house and grounds–because a big storm was coming.
Everyone fanned out toward the various highlights of the old farm. The hour passed swiftly. Even with our warning, the skies turned black and the thunder rolled in with such swiftness that it still seemed like a surprise when the storm arrived, with bucketing rains, lightning, thunder. I watched as my guests headed for their cars and hoped that everyone would stay safe. The power went out again, which made clean-up a challenge. I kept thinking what it would have been like if that storm had arrived even one hour earlier, while we were serving lunch–and what it would have been like if we hadn’t had that warning.