The Earth Eventually Reclaims What We No Longer Have Use For
As a child growing up in downtown Biddeford, going to visit my aunt and uncle in Hollis Center was a major excursion, made even more special by the fact that neither of my parents drove, and so we depended on the generosity of relatives for any of our more distant outings. On those occasions, another of my mother’s sisters who did drive would arrive, at which point we’d pile happily and with great anticipation into her car and head up through Saco toward what my father always called “the country.” He never accompanied us on these little drives, preferring to stay home to enjoy his Sunday-afternoon double-headers in peace.
Rose and Perley Haskell lived in a small cottage that sat back from Route 202 just outside the village on a small rise, which their youngest daughter Shirley eventually christened with the name of Holly Ridge. There, surrounded on all sides by lush stands of trees and other wild growing things, they literally lived off the land, subsisting on what they could grow in their gardens and what little they could afford at the general store. Lacking any sort of plumbing, the family’s bathroom needs were supplied by a double-seater outhouse attached to the back of the cottage, and water for drinking and washing was hauled in several times a week from a nearby spring. Rose and Perley bore and reared four children in that little cottage, which over time became nestled in a tangle of climbing roses and other perennials they’d planted through the years. Not far from the tiny house, blackberries grew in thick and prickly profusion, and at the foot of the hill out back, an abandoned railroad track was still visible beneath the slash and windfall of several decades.
I remember my mother telling of how, during the 1930’s, she’d go up to Hollis to help her sister out with the children, and hear rustlings coming from the kitchen downstairs in the middle of the night, as well as the door, which was never locked, opening and closing. In the morning, food would be missing, and Perley would always say, “Oh, some hobo must have been hungry.” For it was common in those days for vagabonds riding the trains to jump off in the middle of nowhere to sneak food, of which they always had plenty to share with those who needed it most. Years later, as a little girl roaming those woods, I’d stop to look at the tracks and imagined the sound it might have made as it stopped and the bedraggled figures, hungry and desperate, hopping off the boxcars in the shadows to make their way quietly up the ridge toward the little house whose inhabitants slept through their clandestine comings and goings.
Decades after hobos raided their larder in the middle of the night, Shirley bought and placed a new mobile home, complete with plumbing, on the property in an effort to make life a little easier for her aging parents. In subsequent years, she and her husband also built a ranch house along the back side of the property where the cabin had once stood. After Perley’s death in 1984, Rose continued to live in the mobile home until her own death in 2000. All that was left at that time of the original homestead was Perley’s workshop, whose few remains can still be seen resting prone amongst the weeds that have taken the place over. The property has since passed into different hands, the house is in the throes of remodeling, the mobile home is sagging from age and neglect, and all that’s left of the cottage are the memories that Shirley has of it.
I went there recently and turned up the narrow driveway made even more so by the encroaching shrubs and low trees. There was not a soul around except perhaps Perley’s maintaining an eternal vigil over the place, nor were any “No Trespassing” signs visible anywhere to deter me. Tall tufts of yellowed grass protruded between the sections of asphalt along the two separate drives that led to the trailer and the house. Many of the jonquils and daffodils that Shirley planted still poked here and there through the rubble and the refuse, testimony to her efforts to keep the place as her mother had all those years. I peeked into the trailer stripped now of all furnishings, and an image flitted briefly through my mind of Rose sitting there in her rocking chair, her telephone on a small stand on one side, her Bible on a stand on the other, and her dog Mitzie in her lap. Progress on the house seems to have come to a halt, and there is no sign that anyone’s been there in quite some time. I could be wrong about that, or else the imprint of the past is still too strong and too deep in my mind to allow for anything more recent to leave much of a mark.
The years came flooding back to me that day as I stood there looking across to where the little workshop once stood, and not far from it, a chicken coop. Memories of dipping water from a galvanized tub on the kitchen counter returned, as did sitting on a small quilt-covered daybed in a corner of the cottage’s living room listening to Auntie and my mother talking and hearing Uncle coming and going from working in his gardens and shop. To a city kid, my aunt’s place was a wonderland of sights, sounds and smells, a cornucopia of textures, sensations and experiences foreign to my cosseted urban life. The air was different, lighter somehow, more golden and unearthly, refracted as it was by the billions of leafy surfaces that surrounded me on my serendipitous explorations, my mother’s voice ever cautioning from Auntie’s front porch to “not go too far.”
What stories the land would tell if it could to anyone who would listen! And listen that day I did to tales I hadn’t heard in years, all emanating from a pile of ancient rubble and from the silken throats of jonquils and daffodils! Stories of a simple man and woman who took what they could from the land to feed their offspring, who lived plain and honest lives beneath the trees and close to the earth which provided for them all that they needed. The record of it rests now under the newer house whose kitchen stands where the cabin once did and the dense growth that has reclaimed the place as its own, a place now stilled and sleeping in the sun that was once a paradise and an inspiration to at least one little girl. It will remain so as long as there is someone left who remembers and beyond that, for the earth never forgets.
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