When I was a little girl I dreamed of living in an old house, preferably one with one or two ghostly roommates. I was a bit of a strange, macabre child, and something always fascinated me about the old, the relic, the worn. To be in a house or to hold an object that was used in a different time, when the entire world looked different, when people were different, made my little imagination explode with wonder. People died, but the things they used did not. They remained, links to generations past, touched by hands long since laid to rest in the earth.
As a young California girl, I remember the oldest house in our town was perhaps from the late 1880's. My eyes would fixate on that sprawling Victorian every time we drove by. It wasn't until I learned of places like Salem, Boston, or any east coast locale did I realize our country had houses and things that were much older than anything in my young, west coast habitat, and I longed to step foot into places where Revolutionary War soldiers lingered, or to see where a seventeenth century accused witch called home.
Once I finally achieved my goal of living in an old, New England home (complete with those ghostly roommates), I wanted to fill it with old things. There are modern conveniences I wouldn't trade for their antique counterparts. Give me a modern, comfy couch over a horse hair filled settee any day! And have you seen those antique rope beds? No thanks. But other than those things vital for a cozy sleep or sit, I wanted to see my house brimming with old stuff.
Antiques, as it turns out, aren't cheap, and filling a home of four children with expensive relics of the past was fraught with risk. But the older they get (the kids, that is), the more willing I've been to bring in the antiques and fill my environment with those things that make my heart happy.
It's been a slow acquisition of old things. Whenever I get the chance, I add a little more here and a little more there. On my birthday last month, I recognized the opportunity to get my fix, and went to my favorite antique store, my place of supreme euphoria, and picked a couple of aged beauties for my aged house.
I came out of the antique store with an antique portrait. I love antique portraits! And maybe that has a bit to do with the slightly eerie appeal of old portraits, the haunting stare of a soul from another time. I also bought another blanket chest to add to my collection. This is my first one that stands above the ground on feet. We are putting this one to good use housing all of our naughty, yummy goodies.
Each day since we've had our dark-haired, New England gentleman hanging in the dining room, I stop and stare at him and wonder. I want to know his story. I want to know where he lived, what he did, who he loved, or hated. I also want to know the story of the man who stroked his paintbrush carefully against the canvas, capturing a young man and his era. And each day I run my hands along the chipped paint and time-worn surface of the chest and wonder how many hands have opened this lid. What sorts of fashions draped the bodies of those that unlocked the chest? And what did they store in there? Treasures or everyday, sundry items?
I like being part of the story of these things, I like being just the most recent in a long line of many who have admired and used these items. I love creating a depository of the old and worn in my own home, things that still make my imagination burst with wonder and provoke creative speculation. And when given the chance, I will always bypass the big box store and its easy merchandise in favor of the sometimes frustrating, but always exhilarating hunt for the special or odd treasure that speaks to my soul at my local antique shop. I think the strange, little California girl I once was would be proud.
Posted by Alyson (New England Living) at 6:02 PM
"Shall we never, never get rid of this Past? …It lies upon the Present like a giant's dead body."
- Nathaniel Hawthorne, "The House of the Seven Gables"
Turner-Ingersoll Mansion, built in 1668
The steeply-pitched gables of varying heights dominate each side of the 17th century mansion that faces Salem Harbor. A quaint garden surrounds the home, though during my January visit it was in its winter dormancy. I've seen the garden in every other season, and while it is gorgeous in full-bloom, there is something quite striking in seeing the home completely exposed, obscured only by winter's naked branches.
Owned by his cousin Susanna Ingersoll, Nathaniel Hawthorne was a frequent visitor to the old mansion. Its tales and history being recounted to him, must have stirred his simmering imagination. His cousin's home became the inspiration for the title of Hawthorne's story and would serve as its greatest symbol, representing the devious ascension of the powerful Pyncheon family and then ultimately their decline and decay through the generations.
The theme that the sins and choices of one generation being visited upon successive generations is something that has been weighing on my own mind lately. We endure the consequences of our ancestors' choices. It becomes our fate, and sometimes our curse. However, in Hawthorne's tale we discover that fate can be overthrown for free will, if only we can break down our own deeply-ingrained, preconceived limits.
"For, what other dungeon is so dark as one's own heart! What jailer so inexorable as one's self!"
- The House of the Seven Gables
The fencing between the House Of the Seven Gables and the harbor.
In a story filled with such romantic gothic elements as ghosts, a decaying, spooky house, witches, and curses, the theme plays out well. It begins in the 17th century as the greedy Colonel Pyncheon gains some highly valuable property by accusing the poor farmer living on it of witchcraft. Before the poor farmer is hung, he curses Pyncheon with the words, "God will give you blood to drink!"
After the Colonel builds his impressive home on the foundations of the farmer's hut, he is found dead in his study, blood spilled from his mouth, covering his shirt. Every generation after is cursed until the family is fractured, and their once aristocratic status descends to near poverty, evidenced by their need to open a cent shop in their formerly grand home.
The Accounting Room in The House of the Seven Gables, made up to look like Colonel Pyncheon's study
Hepzibah's Cent Shop. There never was a cent shop in the home, though one was added for tours to fit Nathaniel Hawthorne's story.
Over a century ago, Caroline Emmerton bought and restored the Turner-Ingersoll mansion and opened it for tours. Capitalizing on Hawhorne's book, she called the home The House of the Seven Gables. Other antique colonial homes of Salem, in danger of falling into complete disrepair or demolition, have been moved to the property. Hawthorne's birthplace was moved to the property as well.
Nathaniel Hawthorne's birthplace, on the House of the Seven Gables property
In the restoration of the old mansion, and in building up the property, Caroline Emmerton played into The House of the Seven Gables' theme of redemption, of restoration, and breaking of a past generation's curse. The symbolism is perfect, and a reminder that we don't need to crumble to a perceived fate. Homes can be brought back from decay, and so can people.
The Counting House, circa 1830, on the Gables property
One of the main purposes in opening the property for tours over a century ago was to raise money to help those in need in the Salem community, and that purpose still holds true today.
The Hooper-Hathaway House, built in 1682, on Seven Gables property
The House of the Seven Gables amongst its neighbors
The House of the Seven Gables, both the book and the property, symbolize the overcoming of insurmountable odds; the saving of a home, the saving of the soul, the saving of those in need. And beyond those lofty ideals, it is simply a beautiful place to sit, read a book, look out to the harbor, take in the gardens, and imagine life in New England generations ago.
(To read more on my January visit to The House of the Seven Gables, and other Salem locales, read my Yankee Magazine article here.)
Posted by Alyson (New England Living) at 8:00 PM
"If ever I should wish for a retreat whither I might steal from the world and its distractions, and dream quietly away the remnant of a trouble life, I know of none more promising than this little valley."
- Washington Irving, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"
Old Dutch Church, built in 1685, Sleepy Hollow, New York
The Old Dutch Church, fastened from ancient fieldstone, sits on a hill overlooking such modern nuisances as gnarled traffic and a comparatively garish gas station. It is like a beacon that draws you in as you drive by; its stories begging to be told, yet most remaining cloaked and buried within the mute mouths of those who rest eternally nearby. The church is a stubborn guardian of the old days; days when Dutch and French were spoken in this valley and revolutionary battles fought nearby. It is a keeper of old secrets. Perhaps some of those secrets are fused into the stone and mortar and glass and wood. On the grounds are buried not only regular townsfolk, but a witch and a headless Hessian. This is the place where legends and folklore have bloomed and flourished, and all within the shadow of the 17th century copper church bell.
It was when Washington Irving was a child that he first heard the locals talk of a Hessian solider who saved a Sleepy Hollow boy from a burning house, while he was stationed in the area during the Revolutionary War. A few weeks later the Hessian was decapitated by a cannonball and his earlier good deed earned him the the honor of being buried in the old church's burying ground. He did not rest in peace, it seemed. Obsessed in his pursuit to be reunited with his missing head, the locals claimed the the specter of the headless Hessian wandered the hollow at night, on a giant black stead, searching, but never finding, that which he longed for most.
The mystery and magic of this place, its folklore, grabbed hold of young Washington's imagination. So much so that when he grew into adulthood he penned The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, thus assuring this quiet little village would be known throughout the world for centuries to come.
Where the headless Hessian, the inspiration for the Headless horseman, lies is anybody's guess. There was never a marker placed on his grave. Same goes for the witch. You will, however, find plenty of Van Tassel gravestones. Washington was a frequent visitor to the old church graveyard, rambling around the stones that immortalized the lives of those who rested below. The inspirations for Katrina Van Tassel and Brom Bones lie here, as do many others. Washington soaked in the folklore and stories of this place. The old graveyard was his quiet, contemplative place; his place where ideas, fiction mingled with legend, percolated and formed fleshed out stories. Stories filled with cowardly, superstitious school teachers, rich, pretty, young girls, and rowdy, but well-liked alpha males.
Washington would have been well-acquainted with the Dutch soul effigies that are carved into the stones. Unlike the harsh Purtian imagery of skulls and skeletons carved in many Boston area graveyards, the Dutch preferred the chubby-cheeked image of a resurrected soul.
Just beyond the Old Dutch Church burying ground is the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. The two graveyards are connected, though not affiliated. In that cemetery, on a hill overlooking the church and hollow he made world famous, Washington Irving is buried.
It was November when we strolled through the Sleepy Hollow cemeteries. Autumn was in its peak. To quote The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, "It was, as I have said, a fine autumnal day; the sky was clear and serene, and nature wore that rich and golden livery which we always associate with the idea of abundance." I had been there many times before, and each time I am struck at the serenity and awe that settles into my bones. It is a feeling of encompassing stillness, and a deep sense of appreciation for the art of the memorials and the nature that encircles this place. It is easy to see how Washington's creativity was stirred in such a place as this.
Sleepy Hollow Cemetery meanders over hills, with distant views into New York City and the Tappan Zee Bridge. As you come down a hill, you come upon a pretty, little river that gurgles and churns with life, and spanning that river is the Headless Horseman bridge.
Washington Irving described this very place in his Sleepy Hollow tale, "A small brook glides through it, with just murmur enough to lull one to repose; and the occasional whistle of a quail or tapping of a woodpecker is almost the only sound that ever breaks in upon the uniform tranquility."
Whenever I come to this bridge, I try to imagine the clopping hooves of a muscular black stead, the steam shooting from his nostrils. I try to imagine the panicked, quick intake of breath of a cowardly school teacher, as he realizes all of his fears have not been unfounded. And I try and see the horrifying specter of a calm, yet determined solider, seeking a replacement for his long-lost head. For this is the place where Washington wandered, where images, thoughts, and folklore collided in his imagination and new legends were born.
Posted by Alyson (New England Living) at 12:34 PM
I have been a devoted fan of Yankee Magazine for years. My favorite magazine, really. For one as obsessed with New England as I, Yankee Magazine remains the ultimate bible on this region. Having been around since the 1930's, they are expert at covering the history, the food, the lifestyle, the traditions, and the unique, humorous quirks of New England. So when I was asked to write an online article for Yankee Magazine, I was thrilled! I chose to write on Salem, Massachusetts; and to those who know me, I'm sure this comes as no surprise. Instead of concentrating on the witch trial history in this particular piece, I wrote of the author Nathaniel Hawthorne's connection to the area, his deep roots and influence remain in that city.
Please go to my article on Yankee Magazine's website here, and feel free to share or comment. This has been an amazing opportunity, and I really appreciate all those who take the time to read my blog!
Posted by Alyson (New England Living) at 4:14 PM
Walking through Strawbery Banke is like slipping seamlessly through the centuries. Time travel is as effortless as walking into a new doorway, or peering into another window. A new door, a new century.
Strawbery Banke, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire is an outdoor history museum. This neighborhood, named after the wild berries growing on the banks of the Piscataqua River, was settled in 1630, and each house is decorated in a different era from the neighborhood's history, all the way down to the 1950's. None of these homes are replicas. This was a real neighborhood, that housed four centuries of people, four centuries of lives, of births and deaths, of joys and tragedies.
It was a breezy, warm October day when we strolled through this old neighborhood, full of whispers of times long past. It was a quiet weekday, not many other visitors were there, and the mostly empty homes and paths became a blank canvas for my imagination. I could see neighbors visiting in the lanes, spreading news of the Battle of Lexington and Concord or discussing the merits and dangers of the new Declaration of Independence as they borrowed butter or milk from each other. I could see big hoop skirts swishing through doorways as ladies called on one another, hands wringing in worry over neighborhood boys off to fight in the Civil War. I imagined news spreading through this small, New England town of strange, demonic behavior overtaking the young girls in a little place called Salem Village, not too far down the coast. I could see kids playing marbles in the dirt, talking in hushed whispers of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, or singing to the tune of Duck and Cover that they had watched in school.
There is not an era in New England's history that remains untouched here. I enjoyed weaving in and out of the decades and centuries. I relished in the little surprises, like wandering into a home built in the 18th century, but set up as the 1940's home of a Russian-Jewish immigrant family, the Shapiro's; a real family that lived in the house at that time.
There is not another place that I've been that does as good a job of encapsulating the totality of New England's history in a single place. And it is done in one of the most beautiful settings in our region. The spirit of each generation that made this place home, the place they found refuge and comfort in a world that was ever-changing, is strong and can be felt in the turning of a door knob or in the creak of wood floors. It is place where ordinary people lived quiet lives, and watched as this country morphed from a far-flung colony of the British Empire to a mid-twentieth century world powerhouse. And treading on the same paths and hallways of these ordinary New Englanders is a day well spent.
(On a side note I want to mention an article written by Brenda Darroch of Yankee Magazine about the village I live in. Go read it here! I gave her a tour of my little village, and my blog is mentioned in the article. I had a lot of fun doing it. Also, be on the lookout for the upcoming March/April issue of Yankee Magazine! I will be in that issue, and an article I wrote will be on Yankee Magazine's online blog at the same time. I will keep you posted when it comes out!)
Posted by Alyson (New England Living) at 1:37 PM