Here in New England: Hard Work
On the afternoon of Monday, May 7, 2001, Carter Brown, age 13, started a farm tractor and headed alone up a narrow dirt road running along the limestone ridge on the edge of Cold Spring Farm, his father’s ancestral home, named for the waters that bubbled out from the mountain. Carter’s father, William “Billy” Brown, believed that Carter was going to the spring to clear it of leaves and branches, the way they often did when they came visiting from their home in Hopkinton, New Hampshire.
The farm was seven miles outside Blacksburg, Virginia, and during spring vacations from school, Billy brought his wife, Nancy, and their children, Carter and Elizabeth, to Cold Spring Farm “in search of warmth.” It was always a place of happy memories, but not this time. “Carter had been so attentive to me all day,” his father remembers. “It was the day we buried my mother.”
It wasn’t unusual for Carter, even at such a young age, to be the one soothing others. That’s just how he was. “Sensitive,” “caring,” “full of love,” “full of light and laughter” is how people described him. He loved sports, adventure, the outdoors; he was a builder of treehouses and already was an accomplished rock climber; once he slung a harness over a tall tree in their yard, hoisted his mother up, and then rappelled her down.
After the funeral Carter came back to the farm with his cousins and hopped onto the tractor. Maybe at this time of family sorrow, he wanted to make the spring tidy for everyone. Or perhaps he just needed to be alone on the ridge. No one knows for certain, but Carter’s parents believe that cows might have suddenly crowded the road on their own way to the spring, startling Carter, and in that moment, the tractor’s front tire slipped off the edge. The tractor tumbled off the side, taking with it a young boy and the hearts of his family, and so many friends who loved him.
And this is where another story begins, about what happened next.
“We crumpled,” Billy says. “We were shattered.” An ordained minister and pastoral counselor, he was unable to see clients for months after Carter died. “Family and friends gathered us up and held us until we could put one foot in front of the other,” he says.
We’re talking on a late-spring day in New Hampshire, eight years after the accident. Nancy and Billy Brown sit on a porch, looking out on three acres of lawns and gardens. Elizabeth is home from college and is sleeping in. There are corn, tomatoes, eggplant, peas, broccoli, squash, and much more, because the garden is the source not only of their own food but of the food they feed friends when they visit, which is nearly all the time. “I love to bring people together to eat my food,” Nancy says. In the heart of the yard, a wooden sign carved by Elizabeth reads: “J. Carter Brown Memorial Garden.” A stone bench waits beneath a tree ringed by hostas, Virginia bluebells, wild violets, evening primroses, bleeding hearts. At times their eyes glisten.
“We talked on our walk, ” Billy says. “We knew today would be hard. But one of the things the three of us have pledged to one anther is that we will not run away from the hard work of grieving.” Nevertheless, he still can’t work with adolescent boys. He remembers everything he did with his son and wishes everyone could realize how precious and fleeting their time together really is.
Nancy remembers a day, months after Carter’s death, when she smiled again. There was another day when she and Billy realized that they wanted to see a ballgame. “It’s a struggle to give yourself freedom to do that,” Nancy says. “It catches you by surprise the first time those things happen.” And then there was a time when Nancy’s gift for cooking awakened. Shortly before Carter’s accident, she’d toyed with the idea of selling the salad dressing she’d concocted in her kitchen–a balsamic vinaigrette that she bottled and often gave as a Christmas present. Everyone raved about it. The tragedy had put those thoughts far away, until a friend urged her to take the dressing to the local farmers’ market.