On the afternoon of Monday, May 7, 2001, Carter Brown, age 13, started a farm tractor and headed alone up a narrow dirt road running along the limestone ridge on the edge of Cold Spring Farm, his father’s ancestral home, named for the waters that bubbled out from the mountain. Carter’s father, William “Billy” Brown, believed that Carter was going to the spring to clear it of leaves and branches, the way they often did when they came visiting from their home in Hopkinton, New Hampshire.
The farm was seven miles outside Blacksburg, Virginia, and during spring vacations from school, Billy brought his wife, Nancy, and their children, Carter and Elizabeth, to Cold Spring Farm “in search of warmth.” It was always a place of happy memories, but not this time. “Carter had been so attentive to me all day,” his father remembers. “It was the day we buried my mother.”
It wasn’t unusual for Carter, even at such a young age, to be the one soothing others. That’s just how he was. “Sensitive,” “caring,” “full of love,” “full of light and laughter” is how people described him. He loved sports, adventure, the outdoors; he was a builder of treehouses and already was an accomplished rock climber; once he slung a harness over a tall tree in their yard, hoisted his mother up, and then rappelled her down.
After the funeral Carter came back to the farm with his cousins and hopped onto the tractor. Maybe at this time of family sorrow, he wanted to make the spring tidy for everyone. Or perhaps he just needed to be alone on the ridge. No one knows for certain, but Carter’s parents believe that cows might have suddenly crowded the road on their own way to the spring, startling Carter, and in that moment, the tractor’s front tire slipped off the edge. The tractor tumbled off the side, taking with it a young boy and the hearts of his family, and so many friends who loved him.
And this is where another story begins, about what happened next.
“We crumpled,” Billy says. “We were shattered.” An ordained minister and pastoral counselor, he was unable to see clients for months after Carter died. “Family and friends gathered us up and held us until we could put one foot in front of the other,” he says.
We’re talking on a late-spring day in New Hampshire, eight years after the accident. Nancy and Billy Brown sit on a porch, looking out on three acres of lawns and gardens. Elizabeth is home from college and is sleeping in. There are corn, tomatoes, eggplant, peas, broccoli, squash, and much more, because the garden is the source not only of their own food but of the food they feed friends when they visit, which is nearly all the time. “I love to bring people together to eat my food,” Nancy says. In the heart of the yard, a wooden sign carved by Elizabeth reads: “J. Carter Brown Memorial Garden.” A stone bench waits beneath a tree ringed by hostas, Virginia bluebells, wild violets, evening primroses, bleeding hearts. At times their eyes glisten.
“We talked on our walk, ” Billy says. “We knew today would be hard. But one of the things the three of us have pledged to one anther is that we will not run away from the hard work of grieving.” Nevertheless, he still can’t work with adolescent boys. He remembers everything he did with his son and wishes everyone could realize how precious and fleeting their time together really is.
Nancy remembers a day, months after Carter’s death, when she smiled again. There was another day when she and Billy realized that they wanted to see a ballgame. “It’s a struggle to give yourself freedom to do that,” Nancy says. “It catches you by surprise the first time those things happen.” And then there was a time when Nancy’s gift for cooking awakened. Shortly before Carter’s accident, she’d toyed with the idea of selling the salad dressing she’d concocted in her kitchen–a balsamic vinaigrette that she bottled and often gave as a Christmas present. Everyone raved about it. The tragedy had put those thoughts far away, until a friend urged her to take the dressing to the local farmers’ market.
On July 4, 2003, she put 17 bottles on a cardboard table in the parking lot of the local grange. “I made little salads with the dressing,” she says, “and people would taste it and their eyes would light up.” She sold out before noon. The next week she sold out again. “I loved seeing people’s smiles,” Nancy says. “When you go through the death of a child, or whatever trauma you’re going through, there’s always something to pull you back into life. And if you follow that energy, that’s what’s going to get you back.” At summer’s end, a woman said to her, in a near panic, “How am I going to get through the winter without your dressing?”
Nancy knew then that she had to get serious. She found a community kitchen that rented by the day. Billy and Elizabeth and friends filled the family car with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, garlic, Dijon mustard, and spices, and cases of lovely Italian-made bottles. Two days later, they emerged. An artist friend designed a beautiful painting for the labels. Nancy’s women’s group held labeling parties. A friend gave her lists of specialty stores where she could show off her dressing. There were more farmers’ markets. Her phone number was on the bottle, and soon she was getting calls from all over. Everyone who tasted it wanted more.
Five years ago she and Billy set up a booth at the Made in New Hampshire Expo, Billy doling out little salads, Nancy the gently tangy dressing. “It was like stepping out on Mars for us,” Billy says. “But it gave us joy when people put it in their mouths and said, ‘Oh, this is good.’ “
“Our spirituality says we are called to life,” Nancy says, “that we must find the place that keeps pulling us along. So I followed it. And it kept bringing us out.”
A few years ago the Browns remodeled their house, one room at a time. “We started with Carter’s room,” Billy says, “because we knew it would be hardest. It was.” They ended in the kitchen, where they love to gather, where the dressing began.
“When we finished,” Nancy says, “I felt we were back, as much as we could be.” From 17 bottles, her Three Acre Kitchen brand has grown to 1,000 cases a year. She makes a balsamic marinade now, too, flavored with juniper and rosemary, and a blueberry balsamic glaze, all helped along the way by her friends who’d come over and taste spoonfuls of her recipes until perfection.
“Carter would so love this,” Nancy says. She has just served lunch–fresh greens and bits of fruit, all topped with her dressing. Her eyes are smiling. “I can just see him hawking this at farmers’ markets. He’d be so proud. He’d have so much fun with it.”
For more information on Nancy Brown’s products, call 603-223-5985 or visit: threeacrekitchen.com