Originally published in The American Gardener
“Ahhh,” sighed my friend Dana, with more than a touch of envy. “You know that you’ve landed my dream job.”
Dana and I are both writers. Most of the time it’s rewarding work, but sometimes we both get pretty fed up with grinding out copy on deadline and sparring with editors.
Maybe what we should do, we sometimes joked with each other, is throw the whole thing over and get a job at a garden center. Spend a summer out of doors surrounded by fresh air and flowers, plunging our hands in the good rich earth and getting in touch with our souls.
Now, to Dana’s astonishment, I’d actually gone and done it. “Lucky old you,” she said.
I pictured myself in a big straw hat—maybe a straw hat with streamers. I would counsel thoughtful customers, recommending lesser-known bulbs and perennials for their borders. I would help beginning gardeners discover the joys of texture and foliage. I would share bits of gardening folklore. It would be very peaceful and Zen.
Alas, as I soon discovered, there is nothing even remotely Zen about a nursery in springtime. In spite of appalling May weather, customers stormed the garden center frantic to fill their shopping carts with common-as-dirt petunias. Otherwise reasonable people, seized by the fury of battle, fought over which hanging basket to buy and who got the last white lobelia.
I didn’t have time to share folklore. I barely had time to breathe.
Every 20 minutes or so Annabel, the chief grower, zoomed up from the rear in a golf cart hauling a two-tiered trailer. Annabel ruled eight acres of growing fields and greenhouses, all of it bursting at this time of year with merchandise ready to sell.
She had blond hair down to her waistline, piercing Icelandic blue eyes, a wiry frame fueled by coffee and the mouth of a stevedore. Annabel wouldn’t have recognized Zen if it crawled off the back of her golf cart.
“Help me unload this trailer, sister, or I’m gonna break your fingers!”
Somehow I’d never imagined the back-straining, knee-bending, shin-bruising tasks involved in this line of work. I ran like a rabbit unloading trailers and restocking empty tables. I wrestled sacks of potting soil and rain-swollen bales of peat moss into cars full of groceries and golf clubs. I swept and re-swept the greenhouse floors, then swept them all over again, while messy impatiens and fuchsias laughed and scattered more petals behind me.
“What a great place to work,” at least one customer said to me every day. “There’s nothing more peaceful than plants.”
I had always thought of gardening as a democratic endeavor, a pastime open to anyone with an interest in growing things. But after only a week or two of fielding questions from shoppers I began to suspect there were people who simply shouldn’t be permitted to garden.
“Do you have a spray that will kill all the weeds but won’t hurt the flowers I planted?” These were the folks who wanted to garden without ever bending over. They were looking for hedges that didn’t need pruning, lawns that didn’t need mowing, and trees that changed color in autumn without dropping leaves on the ground.
“What’s wrong with the basket of annuals I bought here a month ago? It was beautiful when I took it home, but now it looks like rubbish.” Some people couldn’t comprehend the fact that plants are actually living and therefore may require at least a smidgen of basic care.
Even the veteran staffers could be stumped by customer questions. “What do you call those little tiny containers that plants come in?” one of our shoppers asked earnestly, and my co-workers gave it their best.
Flower pots? Cell packs? Nursery flats? No, said the customer, she didn’t think so. None of those sounded right. Eventually, exasperated, somebody offered, “Seeds?”
“That’s it!” the woman cried happily. “Have you got any of those?”
In spite of the grueling physical chores and the endlessly goofy questions, there were some sweet surprises. A tattooed man with a ponytail bought six different hardy fuchsias because, he told me cheerfully, they reminded him of his auntie.
A gardener who’d lost his vision, and didn’t give a hang about splashy blooms, fell in love with the sugary candy-box fragrance of chocolate cosmos.
Elderly shoppers often asked which were the best summer flowers to grow for cemetery bouquets—such a dear, old-fashioned request that I always gave old-fashioned answers: snapdragons, dahlias, zinnias, clove-scented cottage pinks.
Best of all were the wild things that lived on the nursery grounds.“When customers really get to me,” a long-time employee admitted, “I go out and pet a frog.”
Dozens of handsome bronze tree frogs, the kind you would kiss in a fairy tale, lurked beneath perennial benches and lounged in our buckets of pond plants. We found garter snakes snoozing in sun-warmed pots, chipmunks behind the gift-wrapping counter, and dim-witted killdeers nesting in the lot where we parked our cars. Miraculously, none were mashed under Annabel’s screaming golf cart.
“Outta my way, little birdie dudes! Geraniums coming through!”
By August we were giving away the last bedraggled petunias, making room for chrysanthemums, fall pansies and flowering kale. By September plump tulip and daffodil bulbs spilled from our retail shelves.
Soon Annabel was shouting for help out back with the Christmas poinsettias—a surprisingly brittle and difficult crop—and threatening us with bodily harm if we busted so much as a stem.
The days grew shorter and colder; finally it started to rain. I wasn’t made of stern enough stuff to slog through a nursery winter. It was time to give up the dream job and find my way back to my desk.
Before I left the garden center I rang up an order of fall bedding plants for a woman who owned a historic inn overlooking the bay.
“I’m so jealous!” she told me. “I’ve always wanted to work here!”
I thought of the grumpy customers, the clogged-up restroom toilets, the day we fried five thousand pansies by spraying them when they were dry.
“Be careful what you wish for,” I said. “It’s not nearly as Martha Stewart as everyone seems to think.”
The innkeeper signed her credit card slip and flashed me a knowing smile.
“Yeah?” she said good-naturedly. “Try running a bed-and-breakfast.”
SAVING THE BIGELOW HOUSE
Originally published in American Heritage
The threat was distant but definite, like cannons rumbling beyond the next ridge. Mr. and Mrs. Bigelow were thinking of selling their house.
I’d lived in the Bigelows’ neighborhood when I first moved to this city, and I knew that their gabled timber-frame house was by far the oldest in town. Built in the mid-1800s by Mr. Bigelow’s grandparents—suffragists, abolitionists and ardent temperance supporters—it was one of the few Gothic Revival homes left in the Pacific Northwest. Though battered by time and weather, and oddly remodeled in places, it was still by anyone’s reckoning an immensely historic house.
No one understood this better than Mr. and Mrs. Bigelow. For nearly sixty years they had lived with the family heirlooms, mowed the last two remaining acres of the original Bigelow land claim, and given tours of the house on request.
But they were both in their 80s, and the house and its antique furnishings made up their principal assets.
Would the City perhaps be willing to buy the historic Bigelow House and preserve it for posterity? The Bigelows fervently hoped so. But if not, there were plenty of builders who would gladly bulldoze the pioneer dwelling for two acres of Puget Sound view.
City officials went into a huddle and emerged with dazzling smiles. This was such an important landmark, such an historic jewel, they were sure private donors would jump at the chance to save the Bigelow House.
The City would therefore be buying just one of the Bigelow acres—the one without the old homestead—for use as a neighborhood park. But the City would happily cheer from the sidelines for any devoted history buffs who wanted to rescue the house.
Why, I have to wonder now, did we all think it sounded so simple?
If the Bigelow House was in danger, then the handful of us who cared about it would just have to roll up our sleeves. Mr. Bigelow’s grandfather had played a leading role in Washington’s break with Oregon Territory and later served as a member of Washington’s first Territorial Assembly. We couldn’t risk losing the family home he had built in the days before statehood. Somehow we would raise enough money to buy the Bigelow House.
“We can do it,” we told ourselves. “We can save this piece of the past.”
It’s the same reaction one has when seeing a lost puppy playing in traffic: grab it and get it to safety. You never think at that moment about what happens after that.
What if no one else wants the mutt, no matter how much you advertise? What if it’s yours forever? If it grows to the size of a buffalo, will you be able to feed it? You love it, of course, and you certainly wouldn’t wish it any harm. But there are times when you wonder if maybe you shouldn’t have left it to play in the road.
The Bigelow House Preservation Association got off to a splendid start. Almost at once the state legislature—impressed, perhaps, that the Bigelow House was built by a politician—gave the Association a grant of $308,000. Unfortunately this government funding came with several conditions.
The money could be used only for restoring the run-down structure after it had been purchased, and not for acquiring the house. Worse yet, it was funding that we would lose if the project took more than two years. We now had just twenty-four months in which to buy the old place and restore it, or the state grant would disappear.
Of course, we couldn’t begin raising money until we nailed down a price for the house. Weeks stretched into months as lawyers, appraisers, surveyors, and grown-up Bigelow children all thought of something to say.
The Bigelows had pictured a life-estate arrangement, where they could stay in their home undisturbed for the rest of their natural lives. But we had state funds ticking like a time bomb in our pockets and needed to put our hands on the house.
Reluctantly they agreed to move when the time came for renovations.
Reluctantly we agreed that, once renovations were finished, they could return to the house. Public admission would be restricted to rooms on the ground floor only and to four afternoons each week.
“Like a stately home in England,” Mrs. Bigelow suggested, “where tourists are permitted to visit the duke and duchess’s house.”
To buy the house and its furnishings, and to run our historic house museum during its crucial first year, we figured we needed to raise $170,000. It was harder than we expected. The public, though mildly interested, was not entirely tuned in to historic preservation.
“For what the state is giving you,” dozens of prospects told us, “you could tear the whole thing down and build two houses from scratch.”
As for those who had moved here from some venerable town back East—well, a home from the 1850s hardly struck them as truly historic.
“You know,” such people were fond of saying, “I was raised in a house in New Hampshire a century older than that.” If the Bigelow House was still around in another hundred years, we were welcome to try them again.
Luckily, the staff fundraiser for a major regional history museum was willing to give us advice.
“You’ll never get anywhere,” he clucked, “if you don’t offer naming opportunities.”
This, it turned out, was a genteel term for auctioning bits of the Bigelow House off to major supporters. In exchange for a large contribution, a donor would be “recognized” in the old home’s formal front parlor or its wainscoted dining room. A much lesser sum would secure the back porch or an unseen utility closet. By the time the fundraiser had finished poring over the floor plan, every alcove and corner had received a suggested price.
“This will be easy,” he promised. “You’ll have most of it pledged by July.”
The fundraiser encouraged pledging. Folks would give more money, he said, if they didn’t have to give it right now.
But “pledged” is not the same as “paid,” and by July we were still far short of the cash we needed. With less than a year remaining to pull off the restoration, our struggling band of volunteers could think of just one thing to do.
We closed our eyes, took a deep breath, borrowed $60,000, and bought the Bigelow House.
From the beginning we’d clung to the notion that, if we could manage to get there, restoring the house would be fun. We would choose lush period wallpapers and pretty Victorian carpets, and visitors would swoon when they saw the authentic job we had done.
“Hold on,” our architect warned us. “With the budget you’ve got, and what this house needs, there may not be any money left for wallpaper and rugs.”
First we would have to replace all the plumbing, heating and wiring that had been added, somewhat haphazardly, to the house in the past hundred years.
We would have to install a staff room, where tour guides could hang their coats. A security system. A fire alarm. Protective film on the windows to block ultraviolet light.
“Not to mention,” continued the architect, “your handicapped parking, your barrier-free entrance, and your wheelchair-accessible restroom.”
Suddenly the grant from the legislature started to sound like small change.
Fitting a new public restroom into a pre-Civil War Era house was not an easy assignment. The only practical option was to convert the laundry room, a shed-roofed extension behind the house with its own exterior door. We would have to demolish the existing room, rebuild it nine inches wider, pour a concrete entrance ramp, then move the Bigelows’ washer and dryer into an upstairs closet.
This would cost, the architect estimated, $25,000—just about what we’d hoped to spend on wallpaper, carpets and drapes.
On a dismal January day, as drizzle turned to ice in the streets, a dozen stalwart volunteers moved the historic furnishings out of the Bigelow House. Mr. and Mrs. Bigelow had packed up their things and departed; as agreed, we were storing the Bigelow family artifacts we hoped to purchase one day.
Out went the Empire-style sofa, and Grandfather Bigelow’s desk, and watercolor paintings in seashell-encrusted frames. Tables made from trees that early family members had felled on the Bigelow acreage. Chairs that Grandmother Bigelow brought west on the Oregon Trail.
Seeing the house without furniture, stripped down to its architectural bones, was both exhilarating and dreadful. Acoustical tile ceilings, installed in the 1950s, glowered in all three parlors. Ancient plaster crumbled in most of the upstairs bedrooms, and extension cords slithered like dangerous snakes throughout the entire house.
It was thrilling to know we had moved at last from thinking and planning to doing. But it was hard not to wonder silently if the house was in fact worth the fuss.
It helped that the construction crew was smitten right from the start. They loved the chance to work on a house with wooden pegs at the corners and a foundation of fat whole logs. Their dashing gypsy king of a foreman studied old photographs of the place until every lost historic detail was burned into his brain.
“You want what the architect called for?” he’d ask when he didn’t like the drawings. “Or do you want what was really here?”
An interior designer, working for us pro bono, scraped off layers of wallpaper and soaked them apart to discover rich Victorian designs. When he showed us new wallpapers he had chosen to approximate the old patterns, we fell head over heels in love. Visitors would be spellbound. By postponing—maybe forever—restoration of the kitchen, we squeezed enough out of our budget to do the parlors up right.
Work on the peeled-log foundation took three times longer, and cost three times more, than originally expected. But as the 1950s ceilings came down and the Gothic Revival porches came back, the Bigelow House began to look like the fabulous landmark it was.
On a blistering weekend in July we moved the family heirlooms back to the Bigelow House. In went the hand-painted fireplace screen, the exquisite rosewood sewing box, the Eastlake dining room table. Our exacting designer spent most of a week straightening portraits, adjusting lace curtains, and arranging Bigelow furniture in 19th-century style.
“Oh,” he said, beaming, gazing around when he’d finished. “It looks like 1871!”
The year that the Bigelows’ square grand piano was shipped from New York ‘round the Horn. The year that Susan B. Anthony, stumping for suffrage along the West Coast, visited Olympia and dined at the Bigelow House. Eighteen years before Washington earned a star on Old Glory.
We had done what we set out to do.
In August, Mr. and Mrs. Bigelow moved back into the house. They had six weeks to get themselves settled before the public opening of the Bigelow House Museum.
“I’ll try to have things ready by then,” Mrs. Bigelow told us.
And then she spent every waking moment rearranging the house. Paintings were moved to places that she found more familiar. Dozens of personal knickknacks exploded out of packing crates and scattered themselves about.
We begged. We reasoned. We pleaded. But ultimately we were bested. She had ruled this estate for sixty years, and she wasn’t going to stop now.
“We can’t live in the 1870s,” Mrs. Bigelow said firmly.
After spending six months in exile, the duchess was back in the house.
To her credit, she left the large pieces of furniture more or less where we’d put them. And there was a certain Victorian spirit in her clutter of trinkets and gewgaws, even if the items themselves were wildly out of line. A lot of our docents-in-training, earnestly learning how to give tours, thought the house now looked “more homey.” Since strict historical accuracy seemed to be out of the question, we would have to settle for that.
The Bigelow House made its public debut on a Sunday in mid-September. For half an hour after we cut the ceremonial ribbon, not a single customer came.
But slowly visitors began trickling in: young families, grandparents, students, a group of traveling Bulgarians, 50 or 60 people in all before the end of the day.
They gawked at the soaring ceilings and the hand-cut wallpaper borders. They peered at the spidery penmanship in Grandfather Bigelow’s diary, and listened to tales of how Grandmother Bigelow had taught school on the Northwest frontier.
Almost all of them seemed to think that new museum was terrific. And almost all of them believed that the City was running the place.
“It’s great,” we heard over and over. “City Council should really be proud.”
Four months after the museum opened, we reached our initial fundraising goal. By that time, of course, it was clear we’d greatly underestimated the cost of staying in business. As our treasurer cheerfully puts it, the Bigelow House loses money each time it opens its doors.
Our relationship with the Bigelows, after a prickly start, has gradually found its balance. They’ve learned to live with a gift shop stuffed into their dining room sideboard. We’ve learned to look past the toy Mickey Mouse perched on the library stairs. Heaven knows what visitors make of the plastic beadwork basket displayed on the grand piano. I’m not about to ask.
Yet if the Bigelow House is not everything that we dreamed of, it is still some kind of miracle.
“You saved the house,” my husband says. “Try not to lose sight of that.”
If we hadn’t been such idealists, if we’d have any clue at all about what we were getting into, a rare piece of regional history might have been lost forever. We grabbed it and dragged it to safety, and so far are keeping it fed. With luck, the Bigelow House will still be standing long after we’re dead and buried, telling its 19th-century stories to children born after we’re gone.
Was it worth all the work, the anxiety, the sleepless nights?
Would I do it again?
Not a chance.
STONE SOUP KITCHEN
Originally published in The Seattle Times and The East Bay Monthly
There’s nothing especially noble about preparing meals for the homeless.
There’s virtue in the impulse, of course, in the wanting to help where you’re needed. There’s a fleeting moment of saintliness when you pick up the phone and place a call to your local charity kitchen, explaining that you’re a decent cook who’s willing to lend a hand.
After that, it’s just cooking. For 150 dinner guests, in the span of less than three hours—without knowing what’s in the pantry before you walk through the door.
The first time I volunteered as a cook for what is now the Community Kitchen, a feeding program and shelter in my small town south of Seattle, I cobbled a meal for 20 out of tinned fish and baked potatoes.
That was 17 years ago, when dinners were served from a private house with card tables in the garage. When the program moved to a new space downtown, too large for one to person to handle, the staff paired me up, delightfully, with a cooking partner named Dottie.
Dottie is utterly fearless, at least when it comes to cooking. Thirty-eight mutant homegrown pattypan squash in the fridge?
“Can’t waste those,” says Dottie.
Twenty-three pounds of blackened bananas taking up space in the storeroom?
“Fire up the oven,” she tells me. “You’re making banana cake.”
We’ve cooked in three different kitchens and run through hundreds of helpers in the time we’ve been working together. Somehow we still show up once a month to empty the cupboards, pick through the produce and hope that a meal materializes before six o’clock rolls around.
“God will provide,” Dot likes to say. But it doesn’t hurt that she and I are scheduled to cook on a Monday, when we catch the wave of donations brought in after weekend events.
A tray of crudités left from a wedding can shave half an hour off the time it takes to wash and chop things for salad. A plate of posh finger sandwiches—cucumbers, cream cheese, tomatoes, and cress—will work as an alternate entrée for diners who don’t eat meat.
Stale cookies and brick-like tea loaves, though, go straight into the dustbin. We’re not about to serve anything we wouldn’t eat ourselves.
Between the kitchen’s minimal budget and fact that the space is used each day by a different set of cooks, we can’t always count on finding even the most basic staples on hand.
Rarely do we have butter. Sometimes there is no flour. Once someone left us five pounds of salt in the canister clearly marked “sugar”—an error we didn’t discover until dessert was well underway.
But there is always bread. Boxcars and sled-loads of bread. It’s one of the things that grocers and bakeries find especially easy to donate, and almost all of them do. It may not be fresh but it’s plentiful, and part of our job is to use it up in whatever way we can.
“Meatloaf,” said Dottie decisively some five or six years ago, and (except, perhaps, for a Monday or two in the sweltering months of the summer) we’ve been crumbling donated bread into massive meatloaves ever since. We are feeding twice the number now as when she first hatched the notion. Dottie, bless her, foots the bill for 40 pounds of ground beef.
I suggested bread pudding. “Sounds good,” said Dottie. “It’s yours.” Old French loaves, hard as cricket bats, are excellent for the purpose, though raisin-nut bread is a bonus if some happens to come along.
I’ve made bread pudding with goat milk from the natural food cooperative, with flats of donated blueberries that wouldn’t fit in the freezer, with free-range eggs whose brilliant yolks turned the whole works marigold yellow. It’s a huge hit in every incarnation, puffy and warm from the oven, though the batch made with three quarts of donated cream was deemed to be extra good.
If finding enough food is challenging, finding enough help is worse. Few people we know are free to assist on a Monday afternoon. Aside from Dottie’s husband, who rarely misses a session, we are left at the mercy of teenage offenders performing community service and high school students who can’t graduate without doing volunteer work.
They’re kids who have never set foot in a kitchen except to make microwave popcorn, who look at me blankly when told to run and get a whisk for the eggs. “Do I peel this?” they ask uncertainly, holding an avocado. One of them blithely added soy sauce to my bread pudding, thinking it was vanilla and never sniffing it first.
Occasionally our dinner guests offer to help in the kitchen, wanting to make a contribution in exchange for a free meal. We are happy to have them. Guys who have served in the army can peel potatoes like blazes and most of the rest have washed pots and pans in diners along the way. On a day when we desperately needed help cleaning two dozen half-thawed salmon, a pair of unemployed fishermen rolled up their sleeves and pitched in.
Sometimes they tell their stories while we’re chopping onions together. There was Eddie, who’d ridden a Greyhound bus clear across the country to make sure his drug-addicted friend checked into treatment on time. Now, having finished his mission, he was stranded out west without any money or any way to get home.
There was hapless Lorna from Texas, a woman who fled to a different town whenever her life came unraveled, whose vision of bliss was “to bake my own cookies in my own kitchen again.”
An edgy young man known as Jason, who was probably 30 but looked 45, helped in the kitchen daily for months before giving in to his demons and drifting away in a haze. Though I still see him out on the street sometimes, he no longer knows who I am.
We can’t put their lives back together. The only miracles we can work are the loaves and fishes kind. What we can do is fill their empty plates with meatloaf and homey bread pudding, offering comfort food in a world where comfort is in short supply.
We may never earn any Michelin stars but our customers go away happy. And no five-star chef can receive higher praise at the end of a busy evening than empty pans in the kitchen, plates scraped clean on the tables and not a crumb left behind.
A HOUSE BY ANY OTHER NAME
Originally published in American Heritage
When I interviewed for a vacant seat on the local historic preservation board, no one mentioned a word to me about intrigue, romance, and murder.
I was told that the board met once a month, that its primary job was to protect the city’s best historic buildings, and that I might have to dress up in period clothes for occasional special events. I would serve with a group of 14 other citizens that included lawyers, teachers, architects, and courtly Dexter Davidson, a former state senator. It all sounded very straightforward.
No one warned me I’d also be asked to avenge poor, dead Captain Flagg.
It began when someone named Alice Flagg, a gaunt woman in her late forties, asked to speak to the board. “It’s the house on Tyler Street,” she said. “It makes me so angry I want to spit.”
The house she meant was a frothy confection of fish-scale shingles and spindlework, one of the rare Queen Anne-style homes built in this buttoned-down town. A few years back the home had been placed on the local historic register and marked with round bronze plaque that called it “The Joshua Martin House.”
It wasn’t the house itself that had worked Alice into a passion. It was the name on the marker.
“Joshua Martin,” she declared, “was a two-faced coward and thief.”
Martin, she claimed, had not owned the house. It belonged to a widow named Clara Flagg, the grandma of Alice’s husband, whom Martin courted and married. He moved in after the wedding but Clara Flagg Martin had never added his name to the deed.
“Why should he be remembered in bronze,” Alice demanded indignantly, “when Captain Flagg never got so much as a decent Christian grave?”
At this point some of our members began to squirm in their seats. As a rule our meetings are pretty sedate. We send letters of commendation to folks who’ve restored their historic buildings, form a few new committees to study some subjects further, and adjourn as early as possible. We do not go looking for trouble.
But Alice Flagg looked like trouble, and somehow she had found us.
Before we knew it, Alice whipped out a sheaf of sepia photographs. “This is Captain Ezekiel Flagg, and this is his tugboat, Cheyenne.” She had a leatherbound ship’s log as well, and a look on her face that warned us she was about to drop a bombshell.
“Joshua Martin was Flagg’s first mate.”
She paused to let that sink in.
One day Cheyenne returned to port without Captain Flagg on board. Martin said he’d been lost in a storm when nobody was looking. Then Joshua Martin married Flagg’s widow, moved into her house on Montgomery Street, and took command of the tugboat.
“I’d say he had quite an incentive,” she said, “to throw Captain Flagg to the sharks.”
You could see why the plaque upset her. The Flaggs hadn’t owned the house for years but seeing Martin’s name on the place was salt in an old family wound. Though Joshua Martin was never actually tried for the captain’s murder, Alice didn’t need a jury to tell her what he had done.
“We’ll pay for a new bronze marker,” Alice Flagg assured us. “Just get his name off that house.”
Of course, it wasn’t that easy. While none of us questioned the woman’s sincere belief in her story, we could hardly begin recasting plaques on the basis of family legend. Under the circumstances, there was only one thing to do.
“I move,” said Sibyl MacDonald, the white-haired matriarch of the board, “that we form a new committee to study this subject further.”
“Second,” said Dexter Davidson. And we all voted “Aye” and went home.
But we couldn’t avoid it forever. Three months later the house on Tyler Street was back in front of us once again—this time in the form of Mrs. Harriet Harrington, who’d owned the Joshua Martin house for more than 20 years.
The place was a wreck when she bought it, rotten with termites and crumbling with damp. Elderly Mrs. Harrington had spent her long retirement nursing it back to health. She’d been as proud as a parent when it earned its historic marker. But now, unnerved by the whiff of scandal surrounding Joshua Martin, Harriet could hardly bear to look at his name on her plaque.
“My old house needs a new name,” she roared. She was, it seemed, slightly deaf. “And I think a good name would be Harrington.”
You couldn’t blame her for trying. But in the interest of historicity, we customarily christen homes after original owners. In this case some further research had turned up an owner named Robert Hoyle, so our decision should have been simple.
But then Dexter Davidson did what Dexter can’t stop himself from doing. He bowed to the lady’s wishes.
“I move,” said Dexter, “that we name this place the Harrington House.”
“Second,” said Sibyl MacDonald, and beamed at her close friend and neighbor, Harriet Harrington.
Perhaps it was the Pandora’s Box of trouble I saw ahead, when all the historic-home owners in town demand their own names on markers. Or maybe I was just jealous. After two years of inhaling plaster dust and scraping layers of wallpaper until my knuckles were bleeding, I wouldn’t have minded a plaque on my own house telling the world what I’d done.
“I don’t like this,” I heard myself saying, acutely aware of Mrs. Harrington seated directly behind me. “It’s going to blow up on us later.”
For a moment the board said nothing.
And then Lisa Tibb, of all people, a woman so timid and quiet that most of us couldn’t remember her name, adjusted her glasses, laid down her pencil and said in a small voice,
It was an electric moment. The discovery that Lisa Tibb could talk shocked the board back to its senses, and within a few minutes we’d hammered out an acceptable compromise.
The house would officially be known as “The Robert Hoyle House,” but Mrs. Harrington’s work would get a nod in the text of the plaque.
“Thank you for coming,” our chairman said kindly to Harriet Harrington, relieved that this issue was settled.
Mrs. Harrington smiled back blankly. She had not, we discovered later, heard a word we had said.
We were two items further down our agenda, racing toward an early adjournment, when suddenly there was an explosion that rocked us all in our chairs.
“What on earth do you mean by this?” It was Harriet Harrington, trembling with rage. The news had just gotten through. “Why can’t you call it The Harrington House?”
“I assure you, madam,” said Dexter Davidson, waxing gallant again, “I’d like to know the same thing.
All 14 board members stared at me, as if they’d forgotten the reason. And then, God bless her, Sibyl MacDonald stepped in and smoothed things over.
“Just let it go, Harriet,” she shouted. “I’ll explain it to you in the car.”
Before I joined the local board, I thought that historic preservation was strictly about saving buildings. But preservation, it turns out, is all about people, too.
It’s tugboat captains and merry widows and dogged descendants willing to fight to the death for the family name. It’s people like Harriet Harrington, who tackle restoration by inches and measure their progress in years. It’s all the people who somehow find time to show up at monthly meetings—the obliging Dexter Davidsons and the gentle Lisa Tibbs—in order to set aside for the future a little bit of the past.
When we phoned Alice Flagg to tell her we’d voted to cast a new marker, she didn’t exactly turn cartwheels.
“It’s your decision, of course,” she said. “But unless you call it ‘The Flagg House,’ we’re not going to pay for the plaque.”
In the end the board had to pick up the cost, out of our own meager budget, of removing Joshua Martin’s name from the house of his boss’s widow.
If Captain Flagg is resting in peace, I guess it was worth the cost.