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.