One of the many things that makes living in my little village such a real pleasure and delight is the presence of our own genuine small-town movie theatre, located right on Main Street in Wilton's Town Hall. It is a venerable institution, tracing its lineage all the way back to 1912; the earliest days of film itself. Run by movie maven and all-around swell guy Dennis Markaverich, the Town Hall Theatre is a genuine art-house cinema as well as a showcase for the finest of first-run Hollywood. Because it offers a much-welcome alternative to the 3D-Multi-rama-cine-odeon-plex-chock-full-of-noisy-teenagers-$29.95-medium-popcorn experience, it attracts a wide audience from all over the southern part of the state, as well as parts of Northern MA. It is, as you can imagine, a really great place to see a movie -- spacious seats, two separate theatres, fresh-popped popcorn with real butter, and ticket prices that won't force you to take out a second mortgage on the house just to take a family of four to the movies on a Saturday night. What's more, Dennis runs a special program every weekend of old silent films, many times with live musical accompaniment, as well as a "Classic Cinema" screening every Saturday afternoon as a fund-raiser for local charities -- admission is free, and donations to one or all of the charities represented are gratefully accepted.
All in all, The Town Hall is one of the best places there is to really enjoy the experience of going to the movies; even more so when the particular movie in question happens to be one that I'm in. Back in 2010 Dennis announced that he was going to run The Fighter, a really fine film directed by David O. Russell about the Lowell MA-based boxer Irish Mickey Ward, starring Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale and Amy Adams, and including yours truly in a two-line don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-me appearance as a British boxing commissioner. Immediately plans were arranged among many friends and neighbors to descend en masse on the Town Hall to see the film. It's great to have even a small role in a movie; it's even better when the movie is a genuinely first-rate one. I tried, when the film came out, to make it clear to all and sundry how really minuscule my participation in the project was; but I also have to say that their enthusiasm and genuine excitement over the whole business was gratifying to me, heart and soul, in ways that are hard to express.
When I finally appeared on-screen, about 3/4ths of the way into the film, even before my filmic doppleganger could toss out the first of his two lines, my own personal cheering section of about 3 full rows erupted in applause and cries of delight. A tad embarrassing, I have to admit, and I suppose that this must have been awfully confusing to most of the other patrons in the theatre; the mystery only deepened for them when my little claque cheered yet again as my name scrolled by in the closing credits. While we were all filing out of the theatre, a woman turned to one of my neighbors and asked what the heck had been going on; she was told that the person walking just ahead of her, contentedly clinging to his wife's hand, was "that guy" in the movie, here in the flesh. Her surprise and delight were wonderful to see; she asked if I were "really a Hollywood movie star;" I replied that, as far as I was concerned, this was far better -- to experience the authentic, wonderful, dear, sweet, kind expression of joy that I felt in being there with all of them; nothing like this would have happened if I were in LA (or New York, or even Boston, for that matter); I'd be just another minor actor sitting in the dark in a room full of strangers. But I don't live in a big city, I live in a small town where friendship means something real and neighbors take their responsibilities to each other seriously; a place that embraces and cherishes its special little movie theatre, understanding that it is emblematic of a way of life that is rapidly disappearing under the crush of the soulless multiplex. My experience in being a tiny part of this really good movie was amplified a hundredfold by the smiles, the hugs, the shouts of "good job!" by these people I love so dearly. And that, my friends, is what it feels like to be a star.
We begin this journey with a photograph. A young couple stands smiling into the camera, their somewhat formal dress (at least by our standards) a contrast to their location, which appears to be a few steps off a hiking trail. He wears a long-sleeved shirt tucked into his trousers, replete with sleeve garters and a stiff collar, a watch chain dangling from his belt. She is wearing a long, voluminous skirt and a crisp shirtwaist, with a high choker collar set off by a small cameo. The young man holds what looks to be a straw hat in one hand, down at his side, while she has a Sunday-best wide-brimmed great mass of fabric perched almost jauntily on her head. I love her smile in this picture. It isn’t a formal smile, full of teeth and false gaiety, but a sly, knowing smile, as if she had some wonderful secret. He’s got more of an open, boyish grin on his face, and even though she’s some four years younger that smile makes her look the older and wiser of the two.
Here is what I know: It is the late summer or early fall of 1903; his name is Fred, and he is twenty-three, her name is Amelia, and she is nineteen, and they have just gotten engaged. They will wed on December 17th, the same day that the Wright Brothers make their first flight from Kill Devil Hill at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Their marriage will span almost seventy years, during which they will raise four children and live a life that was, by all accounts of those who knew them, remarkably unremarkable – full of both pain and pleasure, joy and disappointment; certainly never perfect but one of care, and hard work, and love. In 1914, Fred will come to work for Mrs. Marjorie Moors as caretaker, gardener and general handyman. Her grand house, which had belonged to her parents, the Devlins, sits in the old colonial center of the town, hard by the church and the vestiges of the town common. Just across the road from the field at the back of her house is the other place that Mrs. Moors owns, the house in which Fred and Amelia will settle themselves; the house that will shelter them and their family over the next fifty-eight years.
A house, in many ways, is only a shell that nurtures and protects the home that is created within its walls; but the home that is created therein can, in its own way, sustain – plaster and lath, wood and stone – the house that envelops it. There is a gentle irony here, in that this house, which was their home for almost as long as a human lifetime, never actually belonged to them. It is a testament to the real significance of what they fashioned here that Mrs. Moors was moved to make provision in her will for them such that, at her death [in 1966], they could continue to live in the house, comfortably and free of worry, for the rest of their lives; which was only right and fitting, since this was their home, even though it was never really their house.
This house in which they lived for so long is my house now; it has been mine for thirty-five years. That fact hardly seems to matter to most of the long-time residents of the town, who still refer to it by the name of this young couple who lived, grew old and died here almost fifty years ago. This too, is as it should be, since you never really “own” an old house, so much as you are simply another name in an ever-lengthening list of caretakers; people whose job it is (if they have the wisdom and good sense to see it; not all do) to safely see the house though another human generation and pass it on to those who will come after. Fred and Amelia themselves, if they knew the house at all before they came to live in it, probably knew it as “the McCarthy place," from Michael and Mary Margaret McCarthy, who bought it when Amelia was about six years old, and lived in it for fifteen years; and in all likelihood the McCarthys called it the “old Putnam place;” and the Putnams, well, Amos and Dorcas Putnam, who were third cousins and direct descendants of Jacob Putnam, one of the original settlers of the town, bought the house from the Widow Burton (related to them distantly by marriage), in whose husband’s family the house had been for as much as eighty years, or more, from the time it came to be built by her father-in-law, Deacon Burton, the town's first Town Clerk, who had fought in the French and Indian War.
A commemorative plaque now sits next to the old front door of the house. It is a beautiful, hand-lettered thing, and it lends the old place a dignified air; here, it says, is something that has endured, something that has remained, something that has seen the sweep of history pass like a ghostly parade through its dooryard. It gives the approximate date of construction and acknowledges two of the prominent early names associated with its origins, names that are not just confined to old road maps or given to geographic features, but names whose direct descendants can still be found in the local phonebook. It is, truthfully, a sign, in the archaic sense of that word – an outward symbol or manifestation of an inward grace, a grace that is the gift of the spirit of this house, as it was embodied in all those who took care of it.
I end this journey, now, where I began; with a photograph. An old couple, their two smiling faces creased and lined by years of work and care, are standing near well-tended flower beds. Here is what I know: Fred and Amelia have just passed their 60th wedding anniversary; their children are having grandchildren of their own. It is 1963, and it is only for us to know that they have almost reached the end of their long lives. They will both die, only a few months apart, in 1972; you do not spend the better part of a century with someone to be content to remain behind when they embark on the final journey. Two pictures, bracketing a life, reminding us all of our own fragile, human impermanence. But now, almost fifty years on after their deaths, the house remains as it has been for 250 years. Trees and shrubs they planted and tended now depend on me to prune and water them; the septic system that Charlie dug by hand in 1941 is still nursed along lovingly with periodic applications of Bacteria-In-A-Bottle and Root-B-Gone. And so it is with the other bits and pieces of this house, added on over time, each of which is a piece of the story of those it sheltered. I’ve replaced a clapboard or two and some sheathing here and there, a room has been added, and the house, the barn and even the chicken coop all sport solid new roofs. It is in those moments when I am planting, or painting, or patching something – when I am taking care of the old place, in some large or small way – that I most strongly feel the connection, running like a cord, binding the present to the past. It links me with Fred and Amelia – and the McCarthys, and the Putnams and the Burtons – in a real, immediate way. It links me to this town, this community; a place where I have spent the balance of my entire life. I have the care of this place, for now. I have the job of seeing it safely into the hands of my child, and her children. I am a caretaker – like Charlie was.
A few weeks ago, I spent roughly two hours a day over about ten days participating in one of the ancient New England rites of Spring – stacking next winter’s cordwood in the shed, something I have been doing every year for the last thirty-five years since I’ve lived in this house. A massive row of green, newly-cut wood sits in the driveway next to the woodshed (I’ve had to move my truck to the neighbor’s for the duration), taking up almost thirty linear feet of space in a pile four feet high and nine feet wide. I try to put away just a bit over a cord per day, a task that takes me about two hours. The State of New Hampshire Agriculture Department distributes a brochure (published by the National Conference on Weights and Measures) titled “How To Avoid Getting Burned When Buying Firewood,” which states (after first establishing that a full, legal cord of wood is one that measures one hundred and twenty-eight cubic feet) that you should “stack the wood neatly by placing the wood in a line or a row, with individual pieces touching and parallel to each other, making sure that the wood is compact and has as few gaps as possible.” I start by picking through the pile and pulling out the larger pieces, laying down the bottom of the first long row across the length of the woodshed, on top of some pallets which raise the pile up off the floor to allow for air to circulate, then placing several other large pieces, one for each subsequent row, in a line down one side of the width of the shed, the last piece of which is almost butting up against the big sliding doors at the back.
I construct each row carefully, stacking the wood close and tight. Doing so serves two purposes; first of all it allows me, when all the work is done, to measure the pile with a degree of precision so that I can track just how much wood I’m using daily, weekly or monthly (I typically burn about one cord per month in the dead of winter, less in the Fall or early Spring); it also means that I can pack a large amount of wood in a relatively small space, while the idiosyncratic irregularity of each piece still allows for some gaps and spaces throughout -- once again, so that air can circulate through the pile through the rest of the Spring, and on into the Summer and early Fall, drying the wood out so that it will burn hot and clean. Then, an armload of wood at a time, I build the row up to about five feet high. When that’s done, and I’m sure the row is steady and stable, I lay down the bottom of the next row and then stop for the day, my sweaty shirt and the aches and pains in my back and in my arms (this was a lot easier on me thirty-five years ago!) a confirmation of the old saying “wood warms you twice; once when you stack it, and once when you burn it.”
Is it coincidence, I wonder, that I find myself doing this during Lent? That realization lends a certain rightness to my task; the phrase “the mortification of the flesh” keeps popping into my head every time I have a hard time straightening up after I bend over to pick up more wood. The monks in the ancient Church understood that physical discipline was both a way to subdue earthly desires during this time of penance as well as a remembrance of the impermanence of earthly life itself – in this case, my sore back and aching fingers are letting me know in no uncertain terms that I am not getting any younger. Paradoxically, though, the time spent stacking wood in the Spring implies a certain forward-looking mentality; an act of faith, if you will -- a Novena to the trinity of maple, birch, and oak. Each stick I lift and put into place is like another bead on the Rosary, an affirmation of the belief that -- despite the reminder of my advancing age that I get from each twinge in my shoulders and back and hands -- I will be here on that day in the late Fall when the evening chill prompts me to start a fire in the woodstove, the first of the many fires that will warm us through all the long winter yet to come.