Next summer, my house will turn 250 years old. I’m at a loss as to how to celebrate this once-in-a-lifetime milestone. I’ve taken part in only 14 of those years, fewer than 10 percent, and yet I feel its protection like a turtle in her shell.
I have no diaries to tell me of the lives that were lived here, and I have only two photos, both of them taken in the 1940s. That leaves a great deal unknown to me. Within this old structure are faces I’ve never seen, fireplaces that have never warmed me, and doorways through which I’ve never passed.
Though they’ve never made themselves known to me, ghosts live here, most especially the spirit of Benjamin Mason, who came here in 1762 from Sherborn, Massachusetts, struck his claim, felled the trees, hewed the beams, carved the pegs, and raised the frame that still holds this house together. According to the Dublin, New Hampshire, town history, Benjamin Mason was a member of the village’s first select board and was “distinguished for his agility, fearlessness, and self-possession.” He must have been all of that and more.
Because we gutted the house after I bought it, I’ve seen these stout, cinnamon-colored timbers, and I’ve left posts exposed to remind me of his considerable work. I regard this carved frame with the kind of reverence I reserve for fine art and the light of the full moon. Still, that hasn’t kept me from making vast changes to the house, which needed much when I came here. Little is as it was when I first walked through the kitchen door, on what seems like such a long-ago August day.
When I was about three years old, my father bought a house on three acres of land, once part of a farm. The war was over, and life could begin anew. The house was just being framed, and we all enjoyed watching it take shape; we often took a picnic to the house and walked through the skeleton of what would one day be our home. I grew up in that brand-new house – a pleasant experience, but one that left me unaware of the legacy a house can hold. In all, my parents piloted that house through its first 40 years.
Some years after my parents had passed away, I happened to be in that area and drove by the house. I was driving slowly, engulfed by a tsunami of memory, and a man, working in his garden, looked up and waved. So I stopped and told him who I was. He grinned broadly and invited me inside. He and his wife had bought the property from my parents, and they toured me through the house as they had shaped it – new kitchen, new master bedroom, bath with Jacuzzi – many changes, and yet they were all necessary, maybe even imperative.
When I got home, I found photographs my father had taken of that house as it was being built. I put them into a small book and mailed it to the address that had been mine all my growing-up years. Living as I do now in a house with such a vast, unrecorded history made me want to, somehow, begin a record. Often we do things inspired by our own desires. I imagine an album of photos showing Benjamin Mason hewing these timbers and raising them into place, balancing agilely on the top beam to place the triumphant spruce bough. Maybe I don’t need to celebrate; maybe I just have to keep gathering the history, when and where I find it, adding to it as I go along.