Food, Clothing and Shelter, Part two


After writing about where it all started in that space-challenged apartment in Brooklyn, I could march you chronologically through all the subsequent places I’ve lived in the 60+ years since I moved on to my charmless cinder block dorm room at Harvard.

 Among the many way stations that followed were the one-room apartment on the San Francisco panhandle, complete with Murphy bed that folded into the wall every morning of the first six months of our marriage; the chilly attic apartment in Brookline, Mass where I completed my dissertation while Rosellen began her writing career in earnest; the tiny faculty apartment on the campus of Tougaloo College in Mississippi; the shotgun shack on stilts across the railroad tracks from campus where we could hear our neighbor’s pigs rooting under our floor boards.

However, I’m going to stop there because the list is too long to be accommodated in the tiny container that the blog offers. Instead, I’m going to jump across decades to tell the more detailed story of one home that provides perhaps the sharpest contrast to my Brooklyn apartment, and which left its mark on me in notable ways.

The scene shifts to Peterborough, New Hampshire, an idyllic small town which provided the model for Thornton Wilder’s iconic Our Town. We landed there when I was hired to direct the teacher education program at a branch of Antioch College. Peterborough was the closest town to campus that had a day care center where our younger daughter Elana could be well cared for while Rosellen wrote. Her big sister Adina was ready for first grade in what looked like a very welcoming public school.

We thought we had struck gold when we found a farmhouse down a half-mile long driveway which bordered on a 1400-acre state forest. I won’t burden you with a detailed account of the wonders of that house because our stay there lasted only a year; our landlord’s wife decided she wanted to live there herself. I should note that up until then and for many years after, we were renters, subject to the whims of owners who could send us packing without cause. We were crushed by the expulsion from the Eden of Far Over Farm, as it was known, but what Rosellen calls our good housing karma saved us once again.

In a different part of town, a minister and his wife were being reassigned to a church a few hours north. We heard that they wanted to leave their house in the hands of reliable renters until they could retire into it when the minister’s work was done. The house presented a stunning sight. Around a bend and up a steep incline there it was, the bright red exterior of a perfectly proportioned 18th century farmhouse with a tiny well house in the driveway and a barn of the same color close by.

One entered through a side entrance that opened into a mud room, almost a necessity for the changing seasonal needs of its residents. (According to New England lore, the “main” door on the front facade was only used to remove the coffins of deceased residents.)  The mud room, in turn, opened into the kitchen, the beating heart of any country house. It was there that we were greeted by the minister’s wife on our first visit who delivered the welcome news that one simply couldn’t live in such a house without a dog when we were braced for a prohibition of pets. She showed us the beautiful butcher block counters they had installed, which stood in contrast to the primitive wood stove which was nothing more than a modified 55-gallon oil can. I learned to feed it as if it was my third child and it reciprocated by warming us through the 8 punishing winters of our stay.

If you don’t know it already, you must read Robert Hayden’s magnificent poem, Those Winter Sundays which begins:

Sundays too my father got up early

and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold.

then with cracked hands that ached

from labor in the weekday weather made

banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

The most dramatic room in the house was the long living room dominated by a huge stone fireplace, complete with a roasting spit and an adjacent bread baking oven built into the side wall. When you descended to the basement, you could see the enormous base which supported the chimney which carried away the fireplace’s smoke and which required regular servicing by a chimney sweep who had to be jockey-sized because of the small space he had to crawl into. It wasn’t worth a damn for heating the room but oh what visions of colonial days it conjured.

A large picture window brought light into the far end of the living room and looked out on a side lawn where one could see the outlines of swimming pool which had long ago been filled in for the protection of the young children who lived there. The grave site of that pool became the grounds for Adina’s bat mitzvah celebration six years into our stay there.

There was a dining room and a tv room off the living room and upstairs so many rooms that we joked were beyond our capacity to count. In addition to our bedrooms, there were guest bedrooms and many rooms we used for storage which we did our best to close off in the winter because they were too costly to heat. The open area at the top of the stairs became the site of a stage and mini-theater where our daughters produced many plays to the delight of their parents and adult visitors.

There was a back door that opened out onto 11 acres of woods which may have been farmed at some point until its rocky soil defeated even the most dedicated farmer. Undaunted, we planted a garden behind the house that was ridiculously expansive, and which required almost a full-time commitment for 3+ months every year.

We never could have afforded that glorious house, but we lived there by the grace of its well-to-do owners who were too oblivious to bother raising our rent during our eight-year stay. But the four of us cried and hugged as the moving trucks left, hauling our belongings to the uncertainties of our next stop in Houston. The owners, having decided to divorce, put the house up for sale at a point when we were ready for a new adventure

I feel like I grew a foot taller in that house to fill the persona of someone deserving of living in such grand surroundings. I was a country squire overseeing my holdings, firmly rooted in the natural world on which it sat. It committed me to gardening, which has been an important counterbalance to my cerebral inclinations ever since. It was also the place where my future work as a teacher and teacher educator was firmly set in place. Many of my graduate schoolclasses were taught right there in front of that majestic fireplace.

When baseball players whose careers spanned more than one team are inducted into the Hall of Fame, they must decide which logo will adorn the baseball cap on their plaque. Of the many places that make up my autobiography of dwellings, that sprawling red farmhouse is the one I most want to be identified with. Every summer when we return to Peterborough for our all-too-brief visit, we drive by the house and wonder what it would have been like if instead of living sixteen flights up with an elevator separating us from the ground, we had decided to end our wanderings right there.

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Marv Hoffman

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