To one growing up in the oldest continuously occupied house in New England, time seems not linear but circular—patterns repeat, and everything becomes a mirror of something that has happened before.
By Sarah Messer
Feb 21 2016
The Red HousePhoto Credit : Doug Mindell
Hear how the story happened:
In the living room of the house where I grew up hangs the framed will and testament of Walter Hatch, the original owner and builder, dated 1681. Written in legal English, the yellowed parchment proclaims that the house should always be passed on “to heirs begotten of my body forever from generation to generation to the world’s end never to be sold or mortgaged from my children nor grandchildren forever.”
Built in 1647, it is the oldest continuously lived-in house in New England; and true, the bright red shingles seem to pulse from the 35 acres of fields and white pine, a living entity. In 1965 Richard Warren Hatch went against the weight of three centuries of tradition and sold the house to my parents, Ronald and Patricia Messer. In 1966 I was born into the shelter called fondly by my parents and eight generations of Hatch family before, “The Red House”—the only house I have ever known.
As a child, I’d often wander at night through the connecting rooms upstairs that circle the central chimney, touching my way along the walls in the dark as if through the arteries of a huge heart, past the rhythms of my sleeping sisters and the tick of old clocks. The stairwell wound steeply down from my room, nine steps in a half curve to the heavy door at the front entryway, the north side of the house. To the right I’d find the dining room posed cold with chairs and a table, to the left my father’s ramshackle study, a desk of layered papers, bills. Each room circled me back to the south side: a living room four windows long that stared out to the backyard—two big apple trees, a pear tree, and a cherry tree where the mockingbird lived—all visible through the small fragmented panes, 12 over 12.
From the outside, the house would stand clearly defined: an early Colonial, four windows over four windows, that had been expanded east and west into other chimneyed wings—a large kitchen and a master bedroom. It has the quirky posture and dress of most New England houses of this style except for the red color—a paint most commonly used on barns, originally made of lye, milk, and animal blood, indicating here the working-class owners: shipbuilders, mill workers, farmers.
Because of its thin walls, the house was nearly impossible to heat. My father bought us electric blankets and goose-down booties for Christmas, exclaiming we were going to have to “rough it out” as they did in the old days. So for a few years I went to bed watching clouds of my own breath form above my head and woke to bare feet on icy floors in morning. “Think of all the years that people lived here without electricity,” my father would say. My parents were always saying things like that, using the house and its history as coercion.
One November they even had the brilliant idea to copy the first Thanksgiving at Plimoth Plantation. We had to wear traditional Pilgrim garb and use only utensils the Pilgrims would have used. At first we were enamored of the costumes, especially my father’s silly buckled shoes and top hat. But the day began to unravel when one of my sisters asked for chewing gum. My mother responded, “No, silly, gum isn’t going to be invented for another 200 years,” and we all had a doomed feeling.
The doomed feeling stayed with me mostly at nights when I fell asleep to the clattering windows and the creak of crossbeams; it was a feeling of being stuck in a time or a place that I did not deserve or understand. It stayed with me subtly for eight years of college and graduate school, resurrected with every brief visit home, until one winter when my perspective changed. I had finished my degree in poetry at the University of Michigan and, during a break from my teaching job, found myself at home in the big old house again. Looking for material for a poem, I asked my father if there were any old documents in the house besides those framed on the living-room wall. He showed me an entire closet filled with old letters, bibles, and family trees—all documenting the lives of those who had lived in the house before me. These documents, my parents told me, were given to them by Mr. Hatch with the specific instructions that they stay with the house, as if the house itself were their rightful owner.
To some it may seem incongruous that a house so long in a family’s tradition would be suddenly sold along with the personal family papers, yet consistency works in strange ways. The more I research the history of the house, the more intimate I feel with the people who have lived here; Deacon Joel Hatch, Rebekah R. Oakman, Israel Hatch, and Richard Warren Hatch become, through their words and belongings, old acquaintances of mine. Time seems not linear but circular: Patterns repeat, and everything becomes a mirror of something that has happened before.
Last year I found this letter on top of a box of documents at the bottom of a small closet in my father’s study:
Marshfield Oct 30th, 1853
. . . Mrs. Stoddard had lain down with her little girl to get her to sleep, and when she got up she found the light growing dim for want of fluid in the lamp, and thought she would fill it up for fear she should want a light in the night, and that was her only lamp. Accordingly she took the fluid can containing about one quart at the time, and was filling the lamp when the fluid can caught fire and exploded . . .
Mrs. S. was enveloped in flames, and probably stunned, as she ran for her child, (which was safe and would not have been burned had she let it alone) and then went out doors immediately. And they had to take the child from her by force, she was so beside herself, probably by fright. Mr. Abijah Rogers (Mrs. S. lives in the house with him) was just coming up to the door (having been to one of the neighbors) when she rushed out all on fire
. . . he instantly got a bucket of water and poured over her, the second bucket full put the fire mostly out. . . . They have more hopes of their recovery now, though it is still doubtful. From the time of the accident ’till Thursday morning the child never cried or spoke but laid as if stupefied, excepting when in fits, of which it had several. And of course no one thought it could live. But Thursday it came to, enough to cry, and can now talk, and seems more likely to live than her mother.
This letter was undoubtedly written in my own house, the event happening to neighbors nearby. As I read the letter, I remembered another fire, this one when I was five years old. When my mother found us, Bekah and I were banging on the walls trying to feel our way out of the smoke that stung our eyes blind. My mother appeared blurry before us, a light shining behind her as we were led down the stairwell and out onto a crusted layer of snow that stung my bare feet. I was told not to move, so I stared up at the red house that billowed smoke and orange light like a dragon. Six kids and a fire in the house.
When it seemed that we were all out, my father yelled, “The baby!” and my parents ran back, back upstairs to my room, the one I had tried so hard to escape. It looked as though the house had swallowed them whole. They found her still asleep in the crib an inch beneath the smoke. As I stood in front of the open doorway, I watched my father toss Jessica, a perfect bundle, over the banister and into my mother’s arms, which in turn took her so easily, as if they were one person, as if that gesture had been choreographed and rehearsed a hundred times before, the way that action can be in a crisis—without thought and with the faith that the action must be the right one.
The entire house was smoke damaged, the kitchen wing burned. A fireman said that paint rags spontaneously combusted on the back porch, but nobody really knows how the fire started. We were luckier than the Stoddards: All our children survived unharmed.
During my next visit to the Red House I searched for the answer that the letter did not give: Did the mother and child survive? I walked down the half-mile dirt path past the Hatch Mill and one mile up Union Street to the Hatch family burial plot—a cemetery I must have passed over a thousand times before, bicycling to my friend’s house, but had never noticed. I did not find the Stoddards’ graves (perhaps they were too poor for tombstones, as the letter indicated). But I did find familiar names: Deacon Joel Hatch, Israel Hatch, Thomas Oakman, Roxalina Hatch, and near the back of the cemetery, Rebekah R. Oakman, the woman who wrote the letter. I found before a line of hedgerows the graves of her children, two of whom died within six days of each other at the ages of four and six, their small headstones as unformed as their lives must have been, like buried hat rims, white granite laced with lichen.
At the house, in the closet in my father’s study, I found Rebekah Oakman’s bible and— in the back—inscribed in steady penmanship, the names:
Lizzie Agnes Oakman
Born April 7th, 1857
Died Aug 27, 1863
Ellen Richmond Oakman
Born Dec 6th 1859
Died Aug 21st 1863
On the next page of the bible she had written her husband’s name: Thomas R. Oakman, died Dec 26th, 1867. At the back of the diary there was a pressed leaf with the inscription: leaf from a tulip tree Jan 23rd, 1879, Geary St. San Francisco. The leaf was perfectly preserved: the size of a silver dollar, five-pronged, the palm of a tiny hand. I imagined this widowed woman on the streets of San Francisco, pinching off a leaf with her fingers and placing it between the smooth pages of the bible.
As I dug deeper into the closet, time unraveled in layers, each a membrane of ghosts folding backward and forward. Beneath my father’s old stethoscope, I found two printed sermons from 1766 and 1753; a proposal to build a bridge; a thumbprint in wax, 1778; my father’s arithmetic tests from 1940; a book of maps belonging to Rhoda Hatch; a photograph from 1976 of my sister Kerry sitting on a bleacher; a letter from a sailor in prison in Peru; a silver bracelet inscribed “Shirley”; a diary from 1857 recording the wind direction and temperature four times a day for a year; a picture of a turkey that I drew in third grade; an inventory of Marshfield’s Civil War dead; a box of party gags; my mother’s childhood copy of Winnie the Pooh; and six Hatch bibles dating back to 1701.
Finally I drew out what I expected to be another collection of children’s primers and catechism books. Instead I saw the faces of Rebekah, Thomas, Israel, and Deacon Joel Hatch layered in inked glass, staring out at me from the dusted shells of their covers. In one photo, Rebekah is posed next to Thomas, holding an infant, Lulu, their first child, who escaped her sisters’ illnesses. On the stuffed silk opposite the glass was a braided wreath of infant hair. In their faces I could see my own, reflected in the flaked ink, the shifting mirror of the image.
During this time at home, a friend came to visit, and I showed him around my house. “These are the people who used to live here,” I said, showing him the daguerreotypes, the old photos. I showed him the “coffin rest” rising above the third step in the stairwell, where the edges of coffins were placed when taking the dead down from the sickroom upstairs.
“Which room is the sickroom?” he asked.
“My old bedroom,” I said, “the one you will be sleeping in tonight.”
“Oh,” he said, grimacing slightly.
I showed him the parlor, the parson’s cupboard, the “Bride’s Towels,” which, like a string of wedding photos, were left in the house by the daughters who married. Each towel was woven from flax on the property and taken out of the bride’s dowry that she took with her “to housekeeping” and her new husband. The earliest towels, dated 1701, were identified by name in the steady penmanship of Rebekah Oakman, and after her, the more coarse curvature of Richard Warren Hatch’s script. I showed my friend the secret passageway in the closet that led down to the wine cellar and at one time out to the barn. The basement is now a family room, complete with an old player piano.
When the tour was over, he asked why I had never written about the house before.
It was a good question. To me it was just my house, and it had a lot of problems. Until that winter, it had never occurred to me that I slept, dreamed, and played in a room that had existed more than 300 years earlier, a room in which many spirits had entered and left the world. Or that Jessica’s room was once a corncrib filled with winter staples, or that Patrick played his stereo in the attic where the hired farmhands slept in thin plain beds, or that Suzy slept on one of the original Hatch beds under a milk-paint and lantern-blackened Jacobean ceiling—one of the only remaining examples of that earliest form of interior decorating.
To me the house had always been somewhat embarrassing; it seemed large, cold, and gangly in comparison to the neat ranch houses of my friends. It was an eccentric relative, and I spent most of my teenage time trying to avoid the relationship. I longed for wall-to-wall shag carpeting, a TV room, and a linoleum kitchen. I hated the cold, wide floorboards that creaked with every step, betraying every attempt at secret escape or late arrival. Sometimes they creaked for no reason, and doors slammed open and shut; every room was intertwined with every other and there was no privacy, or silence, or sealed personal space. I longed for it to appear plain and modest in the landscape, not red like the color of blood.
In 1839 Joel H. Hatch moved away from Marshfield to Michigan to start a new life. In 1989 I moved away from New England to Michigan to improve my writing career, never thinking that my move would only take me back to Marshfield. Perhaps it was that move away that helped me see with another perspective what I had left behind. Ironically the documents that I found in the house have now become the center of my work. My handwriting has become part of the series of historians before me: Rebekah Oakman, Deacon Joel, Richard Warren Hatch. As if by fate, I repeat their task of gathering and translating history, adding my own pieces to it.
Recently my mother telephoned me in Ann Arbor. My cousin Nate and his family were visiting the Red House, and Diandra, six, was spending the night in my room. Curious, she explored the forgotten drawers of my night table and the recesses of my old Snoopy dollhouse. She brought my mother her treasures: a gimp key chain, an “I love horses” pin, a small pixie doll, and she asked the question, “Whose are these?” Some of the items were over 20 years old—things I had completely forgotten about—but I could tell by my mother’s description that to Diandra, finding them was as miraculous and fascinating as my discovery of the documents in my father’s study. I suddenly saw myself and my old things as part of the continuum of history—like part of the collection, the study of what is left behind.