A Day at Pickity Place

In the years just following our country's war for Independence, a little red cottage was built in the sheltering woods of New Hampshire. On this sleepy little hilltop, time has left this cottage and its surroundings nearly untouched.

The little, red, storybook cottage with the old ash tree towering high above it, called Pickity Place, was once the inspiration for the illustrator of a 1948 edition of Little Red Riding Hood.

Today Pickity Place is a gourmet lunch spot, located in the small southern New Hampshire town of Mason. With its herb and perennial gardens, gift shop, and garden shop, it is also a lovely place to stroll, relax, and stay the afternoon. When I went with a friend in May, it was a rainy, misty day. The spring colors were bright against the mist, and though my toes and sandals became wet in the saturated grass, I could not resist the desire the explore the beautiful grounds, made almost haunting in the foggy storm.

Inside the gardening shed

Barn converted into a shop

Lunch was delicious, made using local ingredients and herbs from their own garden. The menu is limited, changing monthly, for one fixed price. The five course meal was perfectly filling and yummy. I chose the Four Cheese Ratatouille Quiche as my entree. I highly recommend reservations, as this place fills up quick.

Big, bad wolf in grandmother's bed

Pickity Place is a magical little place, where you feel completely hidden from the world. It is classic New England - an historic cottage and bucolic farm set against the New Hampshire woods, like a fairy tale. I can't wait to see this place in autumn!

Also: Check out my newest article on Yankee Magazine on the gingerbread cottages on Martha's Vineyard here.

Upcoming Events in New England:

Louisa May Alcott's Orchard House in Concord, MA - Welcome To Our House house tour on June 28, 2014. Actors will be dressed as members of the Alcott family and will tell tales of the family. 

Longfellow's Wayside Inn in Sudbury, MA - CountryFest and Barbecue on August 8, 2014.

The House of the Seven Gables in Salem, MA - Taste of the Gables on Sept 21, 2014. An evening of amazing food, drinks, and silent auction on the gorgeous seven gables property. I have been in on one of the planning meetings for this event, and it looks amazing!

* if you have any upcoming New England events you would like me to add to the list, please email me at alyson@newenglandliving.org

In Search of Beauty

"Behind every beautiful thing, there's been some kind of pain."
                                                                                         - Bob Dylan

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Walking along a New England harbor, smelling the ocean and its many, hidden creatures, feeling a cold blast of sea air tangle my hair and sting my eyes. My feet sink into the coarse and cool sand, gritty between my soft toes. I let thoughts both deep and superficial come over my mind in waves, as I hold my camera to my face to frame some view that strikes me. This is when I am most happy; and I feel the same when I am looking through the lens at a small New England village, or at a bustling Boston scene, or in a mossy and worn graveyard, or deep in an autumnal forest. I am rooted to this place of New England in some deep, mystical, unbreakable way. When I look through the lens of my camera, I am forced to acknowledge the beautiful, to pay attention, to seek it out, and to remember what brings me peace.

And when I am in the midst of battling my demons of anxiety and depression, I can take the tiny image that meets my eye through the glass and zoom in on it, forcing myself to focus on something interesting or stunning, to frame it, to perfect it. I click the button, and looking down at the tiny screen at the back of my camera, I inspect it to see if the image is clear, if the lighting is right, and when it aligns with  what I envision my heart warms and all is right in my world. I created my own form of instant art, my own instant gratification. There is something about creation and beauty. We humans were made for it.

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For me, depression is not a stranger. It is not a frequent visitor either, but it is recognizable, and I know the sound of its heavy footsteps as it approaches my door. When it does come, it does not gently knock, patiently waiting for me to answer; but rather it blows the door off the hinges, instantly enveloping me without warning, as my whole being is filled with overpowering apathy and hopelessness. It does not manifest in me in any way that is obvious to the outside world. I continue to care for my kids, I continue to engage with others, I continue to eat, to get up every morning, to clean and to feed my family. I survive. I exist. And that's it.

Depression and anxiety are so insidious. They can spring up, like a poisonous weed, quick and unexpected. My genes combined with childhood experiences conspired against me, and there was little doubt I'd be wrestling with these issues for a lifetime. I know few survivors of childhood sexual abuse who do not carry the dark stain of worthlessness on their souls for years. It is something I have continually battled to overcome. Add to that the expectation of perfection and purity inherent in my Mormon upbringing, and the battle for my sense of worth and hope would be perpetually waged. As a child, I was taught in Sunday School that we should die rather than to allow ourselves to be raped or to have our virtue stolen. Virtue was something that could be taken, without being given, and once it was gone it was gone. The message was clear to me, I was already ruined, already broken. I had also in some way sinned, though I was a child, because I didn't defend my virtue with my life. I was a guilty accomplice in my own destruction because I was still alive. Shame became a constant companion, and a sense of impurity and irreparable brokenness grafted into my bones and soul.

These sorts of demons should not be allowed to roam, unchecked, in our minds for long. They tend to grow in power and darkness if we let them. For me counseling has always been helpful, medications not so helpful. I know medications are a lifesaver to many, so I do not downplay or discourage them, but for me they do little. And I'm ok with that since my depressions do not last long, nor are they frequent.

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Melancholy is something I battle more often than full-blown depression. But it can be the precursor to true depression, and I find the most effective way for me to counteract the misery is to go find beauty, to create beauty; to express myself in writing and in images caught from a moment in my viewfinder and kept forever. My own little creations. My own form of validation that I'm here and I matter and my pain can be turned into beauty.

February and March were difficult for me. I made a big change in my life several months ago. It's a good change, a healthy choice, though difficult, and the transition made me sink into that dark, despairing, familiar place. I did battle with my old specters of shame and guilt. Old wounds were reopened. I had moments of weakness. I had moments of strength. And when my husband gave me a new camera lens that I had been coveting, it gave me fresh reason to go out and search for beauty, even in an abnormally cold and bitter March. I searched for beauty. And it was healing.

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I have found that there are gifts in being a person who, due to trauma and genetics, has known deep despair and hopelessness. Simple pleasures and beautiful moments are heightened and made magical. You can't fully appreciate hope and joy until they have been absent. The desire to create and to express myself in writing and in photography takes on an importance that would be unknown had I been a person of steady contentment, a person who lived an eternal spring in my soul. For when you endure a bitter winter, the spring is all the more magnificent.

Old Things

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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

The House of the Seven Gables

"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"

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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.

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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

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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.

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The Accounting Room in The House of the Seven Gables, made up to look like Colonel Pyncheon's study

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Hooper-Hathaway House, built in 1682, on Seven Gables property

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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.)

Legends of Sleepy Hollow

"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"

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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."

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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.