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The Interior

ISSUE:  Spring 1980

“But the development they’ve begun down the road is the worst yet,” Catherine Smith wrote in her letter to Ruth Greening, back home in Maryland. “I’m glad you can’t see the Point now. Not much like the place you loved so when you visited me, all bayberries and wild roses and sweet fern! Now it’s a cloud of dust—two bulldozers working night and day (or so it seems) on this new road they’re pushing through. Fifteen houses, they’re putting on it. No, units, that’s what you say now, dear! And they look like units. Three stories high, with the main entrance on the second floor. They look as high as cliffs, and then an idiotic little overhang halfway up, as a kind of sop, I suppose, to old New England. If this continues at the present rate there won’t be any old New England. Not what I call—”

Catherine broke off, stuck her ballpoint pen between her teeth, and stared across the charming little morning-room, into which sun flooded from the curved bow-window, let into the fabric of the old house, remodeled in her father’s day. Beside her lay a pile of letters already written, with stamps affixed, on blue paper with the heading in dark blue. It was the very dye her father used in the days when this was his house and she was a blissful little girl with pail and shovel.

Now that she was long grown up, grandmother of six, she still followed his custom of attending to correspondence in the mornings. He always said, “If I don’t answer these now it’ll never get done! Once I leave this house I’m a goner.” He meant swimming, blueberrying, going out in his motor launch the Cachalot—every time they went out in her he always announced, “The Cruise of the Cachalot!” Nowadays nobody even recognized the title. That was a childhood worth preserving, Catherine told herself when the children accused her of being set in her ways. It was a childhood worth reliving. But what happened if the place it was lived in became irreparably marred?

“—New England,” she continued her letter to Ruth in firm, slanted, inherited handwriting. “To see that, I have to drive for miles and miles! You should have been with me the other day. I took lunch and drove across the border and picnicked—all by myself—in Francestown, New Hampshire. That’s what I call New England. Exquisite village, quiet and decorous, with early 19th-century houses. And peace! You would have loved it, Ruth. I went into the beautiful, classic white church and the organist was practicing! Bach! I sat listening for a while, and then I stole out and wandered around that old, old graveyard. I could still hear the music—Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. It was heavenly.

“What I started out to say was, if these ghastly developments continue to proliferate at the present rate there’ll be nothing for me but to leave. Move to—well, where? The children have been after me for years to sell the house, they only ship the grandchildren to me when they don’t want them, you can imagine what a treat that makes it. . . . But what can I afford, that I’d be willing to live in, today? Francestown? Maybe. I may just have to go in search, of the old New England.

“This letter is far too long! I hope you’re not exhausted. But you asked how it is at my “lovely place” and I’ve told you!
                                        Yours devotedly,”

Catherine Smith sighed and worked the fingers of her cramped hand. She looked at her watch: twelve. Time to drive to the post office before lunch. Her mind, before returning to the day’s occupations, flicked back a moment to her father, finishing his morning’s correspondence. Licking all the flaps and affixing all the stamps at one time. She did that differently—she was, after all, herself. Taking his letters in one hand and his checked cap in the other and going through the patio to the garage to take out the Pierce Arrow touring-car, top laid back. It was only a mile, he never failed to point out, but he wasn’t going to spend his summers walking in the dust, when there was the ocean to sail and the open moors to explore! And so they would tool along the shore road to the post office each day about twelve, Mr. Headington and his motherless little girl, Catherine, perched in bliss beside him on the warm brown leather seat, which had agreeable cracks to be investigated with a finger. In those days the road was unpaved, and as they drove along Mr. Headington waved and called to the Yankee fishermen they passed—Mr. Bates; old Mr. Doucette, pronounced Dowsett, from whom he’d bought the house, about whom he never failed to comment “French blood, doubtless”; Mr. Addison Babson. . . Albert Headington was a popular favorite with them. He always was, wherever he went. How she’d adored him, and how long ago it all seemed! How calm!

But the man to mow the grass arrived, and the letters did not get mailed then. He had been due last week, the grass was getting long and close to unmanageable, and Catherine wanted to explain about the edges of her herbaceous borders and to point out, as tactfully as she could, that last time he’d mowed down a seedling golden chain tree and, while it was not dead, it must not be further discouraged. She made it pathetic, to appeal to his sense of preservation; but had she? Maybe he liked to destroy things! Horrible fancy. Impossible to tell. “Okay,” was all he said. Old Mr. Worley, the hired man, would have said “Ayuh,” in the old days. Why was “Ayuh”—equally laconic—so much more reassuring?

Then the laundryman came. She heard him as she stood at her desk, after returning to the morning-room to get the letters. “Laundryman!” she shouted as loud as she could, and hastened out through the living room and pretty modern kitchen to the entry, where he was just vanishing through the back door—leaving it, Catherine noted with resignation, unlatched as usual; flies would get in. Mosquitoes. Somehow a bat got into the house last week. “Laundryman,” she called again, panting as she came up to him. “I just wanted to say—I won’t be here next Tuesday when you come. Can you leave it with the McMullens down the road—the red-painted house, you know. You do know?”

He said nothing. Embarrassed for him, she hurried on, “And I’ll leave the new wash with them for you to take and” —the thought struck her, now he knows that the house is going to be empty. Would he—”I’m just going for the day,” she interrupted herself. “For lunch in New Hampshire. Or maybe Vermont, I—” She could hear herself, suddenly; a figure out of Helen Hokinson. Not that he would ever have heard of Helen Hokinson. “You do understand, don’t you?” she said pleadingly.

“Okay,” he said, like the man about the tree, and left, the bag of laundry slung over his shoulder. These days she had it all sent to Boston. Expensive, but otherwise she would have to buy a washing-machine, and they did pick it up, and besides—”I don’t mean to spend my summers standing over mechanical contrivances,” she told herself firmly, and retraced her steps through the house.

But now it was time for lunch.

In the midst of it the telephone rang, and it was her older daughter in St. Paul. “Mummy,” she said without preamble, “I have a proposition I want to put to you, and all I want you to say is Yes or No, You’ve got that clear, have you? Just Yes or No. . . . Gilbert and I want to buy this house, down the street from here, and it’s a good investment—don’t interrupt—we’ve had it checked by a real estate man and a builder, and it’s in pluperfect shape. All I want to know is, are you able to lend me five thousand dollars toward the loan? Yes or no, Mummy?”

“Alberta!” Catherine cried. “How can I say Yes or No yet? There are a thousand other considerations besides the physical fabric of the house. Like—Oh, Albertal How can you even consider going into such an obligation with somebody you are not even married to? Suppose there is trouble about the loan in the future. Are they going to consider it sound legally? Have you considered the children? No, you haven’t. What does Timmy think, for instance? What does Kitty? A child of nine has a very sound sense of values. Have you—”

“Mummy!” Alberta broke in angrily. “Will you quit reading me this lecture? Don’t you suppose I’ve thought—don’t you—I know what I’m doing, thank you, and when I want advice from you that’s what I’ll ask for. All I asked you, if you will remember, was just a plain Yes or No as to whether you are financially able to advance me five thousand. As usual, you launch into my morals, my maternal duties, my—Will you answer Yes or No, please?”

“How can I say No?” Catherine cried. “How can I?”

“If you can’t say Yes you mean No.”

“No I don’t! I mean—”

Catherine’s daughter hung up.

So one more letter had to be added to the waiting pile. A very difficult letter to settle on and to write. In the end, Catherine copied out the draft she had made, in which she tried not to sound emotional, pointing out the legal advantages of marriage and the special requirements of children from broken homes. She ended with the promise to advance the desired sum if Alberta could honestly say she felt she was doing right, by herself and by her children. Sealing the letter, Catherine realized Alberta wouldn’t like it; might throw it into the wastebasket after reading the first sentence. It was, however, the best she could do.

Not till after four was Catherine ready to mail her letters. Passing, in her dark-blue Audi, the dreadful new development, she saw the contractor, whom she knew at sight—Mr. Perkins—supervising the end of the day’s work. She bowed, cordially; no point in antagonizing the natives, had been her father’s slogan. She was glad to uphold the tradition of cordial relations. Parking the car in front of the little shingled post office—why had the old one, in half of a shop, not been good enough?—she went in. Mr. Hodgkins, the red-haired postmaster, took her letters from her. “You feeling under the weather, Mrs. Smith?” he said. “Look a little peaked, today.”

Catherine gave him the brightest, warmest smile she could summon. “No,” she said, “I’m fine! Maybe a little tired—it’s been a hard day.”

“That’s the way it goes,” Mr. Hodgkins said. Although he was a new man, who came from somewhere down the coast, Manchester or Salem, Catherine was so unnerved by his kindness that, as she came out of the post office, the landscape before her blurred. She shook her head, angry with her self-pity.

The landscape cleared; was visible: first the street where the post office stood and then, on the other side, a road running at right angles to it, up a long, gradual slope between big old trees, around a bend, and into the trees. She must have seen it all her summers but today the opening vista beckoned. Away! Escape! her pulses urged. Catherine put the car key back in her purse and crossed the street.

She strolled up the slope—under spreading maples and oaks, she noticed, instead of the sherry-glass elms there would have been 50 years ago. Or perhaps there would not. She had never been here in her childhood. —Never, she realized agreeably, investigated the interior.

A school on the left; she didn’t know there was another school. Three houses on the right, pleasant, ordinary, with large, well-tended gardens. She paused to admire an herbaceous border. A man bringing his mower out of his garage glanced at her, nodded, switched on the motor, started cutting a swathe of grass. Catherine strolled on. She must, she thought, have needed badly to get away; she felt, however, a little apprehensive. What about getting lost? German shepherds?

A young woman came rounding the corner above, and Catherine crossed the street to her. “Excuse me,” she began. Then she visualized herself—elderly, white-haired; looking, she hoped, pleasant. “Can you tell me where this road leads to?”

The young woman smiled. “Oh, it goes way back in there. You know, up to Curtis Street and Page, running parallel to Rowland Street? Until it reaches Beacon Hill, then it begins to go down on the other side, to Beacon Point and Triplett.”

Catherine nodded. She had never heard of this Beacon Hill, or of any of the places, except Triplett; there was a sign on the main highway to Boston that said “Triplett.”

“Were you looking for anything special?” the young woman said.

Catherine shook her head. “I’m just taking a walk,” she said.

The young woman smiled again, interested. “Have a good day,” she said, for all it was so late. She walked on.

The slope continued, after the corner on the hill had been rounded, and here the houses were much, much older.

A white one, Greek Revival, set back in wide green velvet lawns, had a swing hung from the horizontal bough of a comfortable old apple tree. Beds of flowers edged the grass. Across the street was a house painted dark red, its yard kept up with the old scrupulousness as to edges and clipping. An occasional nameplate at the approaches, bore names that were those of the streets in the town proper; one read, “F. D. Curtis, Attorney At Law.” As far as eye could reach the houses were exquisite, their lawns immaculate, the atmosphere one of calm, old-fashioned peace. The best kind of long-ago village street, Catherine thought wonderingly, as if walking in a dream, in a vision.

Letting impulse be her guide, she followed one side road that led to the entrance to a big square brick house, half-hidden behind shrubbery, like a Newburyport house. An ecstatic tourist, she stood admiring at the foot of the short drive. Another side road continued up, then downhill, threatened to return to the post office. Catherine beat a retreat, walked on along the first road, noting a sign as she passed, “Curtis Street.”

And there Curtis Street had been, with its lovely houses, all her life, unrenovated, unknown—at least by her. She would not, she thought—hardly daring to disturb the spell by any reflections—have to go to New Hampshire next week. Or ever. What she was searching for was right here, had been here, all along: a state of grace that she had fallen into.

Further along she came to another signpost: “Page Street.” After she had taken the new direction, she began to feel less disembodied. The houses here, though old, were not so big and not so perfect. A woman with her back to Catherine was down on her knees weeding, in a rose-bed in front of a small, brown, late 19th-century house with gingerbread trim, just after the turn. “You’ve got wonderful roses,” Catherine called, glad to rejoin the human race.

The woman skewered around on her knees, squinting into the sun, “They’re not so much now,” she said with a strong Yankee accent. “Shoulda seen “em earlier. They were doing fine.” She had a plain face, with dignity. The real thing; what Catherine’s father had called a real Yankee lady. Her graying, dun-colored hair was done up in a knot, and with the back of one work-gloved hand she brushed at a strand that was falling into her eyes,

“I envy you your Hugonis rose,” Catherine said, nodding to it.

The woman smiled, then. “Got her well-established, now.” she said, shifting about on her knees and supporting herself with one fist against one of the round granite markers on either side of her front walk. “But she gave me a hard time. I tell you!”

Perhaps this woman was going to ask her in to see the house. Perhaps Catherine would make new friends, up here in this undiscovered territory. Country friends! A new life might be opening—old New England, by the grace of God. “My name is Smith,” she offered.

But the woman, with perhaps Yankee diffidence, only said, “Pleased to meet you. Tourist?”

Catherine hesitated. “Yes,” she said. In a manner of speaking she was. She would have to explain later if—”These are wonderful old houses, up here,” she went on. “You’d never suspect it was here, with all the development going up along the coastline, would you? Those bulldozers I passed! It could be any ugly, modern resort.”

The woman shook her head in sympathetic agreement, and glanced down at the roses at her side. She must want to get back to weeding.

Catherine could not bear to have the encounter end. “I hate to see the old New England disappear,” she went on feverishly. “As if they’d suddenly taken it into their heads to go to work and spoil the way it used to be.”

“It’s not so sudden,” the woman said, sniffing. She gave Catherine a sharp look.

Abruptly she sat back on her heels, balancing herself with the hand that was on the boulder. “It’s been going on for years. First it was a pack of summer people, started coming before I was born, even. Pushing out the fishermen. Like my grandfather, he was here from the start, you might say. The summer people, they took over the coast houses, turned ‘em around, built on to ‘em, made ‘em into estates. I remember. I was only a shaver, but I remember. Next thing you knew there had to be a marina. And when you’ve got your marina, what’s the difference? You might’s well have the bulldozers move in. And the developments. I call it ruination.”

The woman rubbed her gloved hand against her nose, flicked again at the strand of hair, went on with her outburst. “I told my husband last night, I said, “If you’d ever raised a finger to stop it, you could talk.” Or if Grandpa had. One word! But he never said one word. Mighta helped, some. But oh, no. Made it easy for ‘em. He was all smiles, “Good morning, Mrs. Wheeler. Good morning, Mr. Headington.” I woulda given ‘em the sharp edge of my tongue. But oh, no! I was only a girl. Strong words, that’s what was needed.”

Through mists of time the woman’s face swam at Catherine, playing on the beach when they were both little. Doucette’s grandaughter fell silent, perhaps regretting unaccustomed heat. Or perhaps not. French blood, doubtless . . . She had still another word to say.

“Men. They’re always great ones for talking about progress. Development, that’s what they call it. I call it ruination!” She sniffed, loudly, and skewering herself around, turned unmistakably toward her weeding.

Catherine seized the moment to escape, before the woman could recognize her. Though, no doubt, she had recognized her all along.


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