At Home in Ohio: Spring 2015

I head to my home state of Ohio a few times a year. I go back to see my beloved family, I go back to stay at the farm where I grew up, but mostly I go back because I have to: it is home.

Home can exist as a state of mind, it’s true, but home as an actual physical place has a stronger claim on a person than any abstract notion ever could. This doesn’t even have to mean that your home is a place you even necessarily want to be, but it is still a place, not just an idea. A place that exists in a specific spot on the planet — one that is unlike any other for you, utterly familiar no matter how long it’s been since you’ve been there. That’s how the farm is in Ohio for me. And not just for me; it’s the same for a lot of people in my extended family, scattered across the continent and the globe. We all converge in this particular spot any chance we get. It’s not that our farm is particularly amazing, though it has plenty of amazing elements, it is that it is ours. When I’m there, I think about my grandpa, who died in 2006, the year my oldest son was born. Just as my grandpa no doubt thought about his grandparents every time he was back on the same farm, their farm, long after they had passed away.

Spring came while I was in Ohio for this last visit. We celebrated Easter and mourned the dead and dying Ash trees that cover the property, the work of an invasive species which showed up  in 2002 and has managed to kill millions of trees in little more than a decade. Death and life, as always, go hand-in-hand and even as dead ash trees are cut out of the landscape, the tiny seedlings my sister planted in anticipation of summer sprang from the dirt and cheered us all up each time we walked past this little field of green.

The days are getting longer, long enough for the kids to run around outside to the point of exhaustion, but not so long that there isn’t time for adults to sit around in front of a fire in the wood burning stove on my mom’s porch, hot tea taking the chill off a late evening in spring, at home in Ohio.

Woman to Woman: a Dinner in Honor of the Sargent House

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Bear with me here, because we’re about to go on a wild ride through the field of Women’s Studies. Not exactly the usual fodder for this blog. Actually, it’s not that the ride is wild so much as it is complicated by a thicket of various historical figures of local importance and beyond, who are related to each other not by blood but by inclination. And houses figure prominently in this narrative, which is the usual fodder for this blog, so in the end I’m not that far afield.

Here on Cape Ann, there is a historic house called the Sargent House Museum, built in 1782 for Judith Sargent Murray, a member of a very prominent family of the era, whose life encompassed not only the American Revolution but an attempt at a domestic revolution of sorts. Mrs. Murray was the first woman writer of status and position (even if she signed her essays under an assumed name for the sake of credibility and anonymity) to call attention to the matter of equality of the sexes in her essay, published in Massachusetts Magazine in 1790 and fittingly titled…The Equality of the Sexes.

The importance of Judith Sargent Murray to academics — and the rest of us — seems to be gaining recognition at a rapid pace, and the Sargent House Museum board and staff are working hard to perpetuate this recognition, honoring her legacy through the ongoing preservation of her beautifully intact house. Which brings us to the present day, in which, not long ago, an auction was held to raise funds for the museum.

Heather Atwood, food writer and grand dame (in waiting, since she’s not old enough to qualify just yet) of her own historic house, Howlets, offered to throw a dinner party as one of the items on auction. So the fundraiser took place, and the winning bidder was Mary Ann McCormick, local entrepreneur, founder of Lark Fine Foods — an award-winning company making baked goods that go beyond anything your grandmother made in deliciousness and beauty. I’m sorry, but that’s just the truth.

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Heather, sweeping up in preparation

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David, laying the fire for a chilly evening in November

So here is where we are so far:

Writer Judith Sargent Murray of the Sargent House to writer Heather Atwood of Howlets and businesswoman Mary Ann McCormick, purveyor of Lark Fine Foods.

But wait! There’s more! In between the two hundred years that separate the Mrs. Murray and the Ms. Atwood, two other women figure into the story.

Howlets, the historic home that Heather lives in with her family, was built by in 1911 by Ellen Day Hale and Gabrielle de Veaux Clements, two well-regarded artists who created everything from oil paintings to etchings to sculpture. These women defined independent living, from studying with the world’s great artists to selling their work (never an easy task unless you’re dead or Jeff Koons) to building a summer house and studio of massive granite pieces that could withstand an apocalypse. Ellen Day Hale and Gabrielle Clements lived the sort of lives that Judith Sargent Murray imagined might be possible for women, each succeeding generation building on the work of the ones who came before to create opportunities for us today, granite block by granite block.

Judith Sargent Murray, Ellen Day Hale & Gabrielle Clements, Heather Atwood & Mary Ann McCormick…the Sargent House to Howlets…two centuries of strong women and historic houses. See how this works? If not, here’s a chart that might help.

TRHsargenthousetimeline

This might all seem a little overblown, to make a connection between a woman writing an essay over two hundred years ago and a dinner party I went to last weekend. But it doesn’t take much of an imagination to see a (fairly) straight line stretching backwards between now and then.

Speaking of now, and of this dinner party, which is what I’m really writing about…my role in all of this is that Heather asked me to come up with something for the table. A tablescape, in House Beautiful magazine terms — a made-up name I despise but one I am gradually giving into using, as its ubiquity seems inevitable. Like the word awesome. Not a made-up word but used to the point of meaninglessness, as so few things are truly awesome, other than God and certain cheeses. But yet, since the ’90s, I have said and typed awesome around four million times. But about the tablescape.

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The Federalist period was invoked with lots of gold accents at the table. For place cards I printed an image of a beautiful portrait of Judith Sargent Murray on vellum so the light from the votive candles came through, illuminating Mrs. Murray herself.

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And for the centerpiece: four vintage frames were attached to form a square with the main flower arrangement placed in the center. As part of the arrangement, an image of the Sargent House was printed, again on vellum, and placed inside a few of the frames.

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The flowers were decaying hydrangeas in the most amazing reddish hue and lots of branches, gathered together in an untidy bundle. The colors of the leaves, the ones that are still clinging to the branches, have been so intense this year. I don’t recall a more spectacular fall. Or maybe it’s just that I’m getting older and make these sorts of observations.

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The little handmade book

As a keepsake for Mary Ann, I created a little book that featured portraits of Judith Sargent Murray, Gabrielle Clements and Ellen Day Hale, along with a tiny copy of one of J.S.M’s letters. Just one of her many, many letters. She copied and saved 2,500 of her own letters, putting them into “letter books” with an eye toward posterity.

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The restored window in the studio, set nearly three stories high

At the party, later that evening…

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Judith Sargent Murray, alight for the occasion

MA McCormick

Mary Ann, the generous winning bidder of the dinner party.

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One of the vintage frames

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Heather’s homemade bread, her husband David’s selection of wine

One more note: about the food Heather made for the party… It was unbelievable, from the trays of tiny cold radishes with oyster-something-dip at the beginning of the evening to the quince tart (served as a nod to the old quince tree in yard of the Sargent House) which brought the meal to a close, it was all amazing. Awesome, actually.

If you have the chance to go to a dinner served by a food writer, go to that dinner party. Especially if that food writer happens to be a woman. Because we all know that the ladies can do wonders in a kitchen. And far, far beyond.

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Handmade Wedding

My nephew Andrew just married a girl named Elizabeth, who grew up a couple of cornfields away from him in Ohio. They’ve known each other their whole lives, but it took a change of scenery a few years ago — a college trip to Europe with fellow students — for them to really see each other. Since that overseas trip, they’ve been steadily inching toward marriage, with the whole thing culminating this summer in a wedding in Ohio.

About a week before the wedding I checked in with my sister, Andrew’s mother, to see how things were going. We were traveling from Massachusetts and I wanted to know if she needed help with anything before I got there. Well, my sister told me, she wasn’t really involved with the wedding itself, just the rehearsal dinner. And she didn’t really know what was going on with the planning, actually. As she hesitated while trying to give me the details over the phone, I could feel her trying to lower my expectations. She had good reasons for underplaying things. Among the people who know them best, Andrew and Elizabeth have a notorious reputation for being easygoing. So easygoing, in fact, that they sometimes appear to be enjoying a reality the rest of us are not privy to. An alternate universe where there is, quite literally, nothing to worry about. All she knew, my sister said, was that Elizabeth had been “making crafts”, as my sister put it, for months and months now.

Sun setting through an old oak tree

But as it turned out, Andrew and Elizabeth, floating along in their parallel universe, were right. There was, in fact, nothing to worry about. Because they managed to create just about the loveliest wedding humanly possible — with a little help from their friends, not to mention the heavens, which cooperated in the end after pouring buckets and buckets of rain all morning long. Sometime late in the afternoon, alarmingly late in the afternoon, the skies suddenly cleared, the sun broke through, and everything and everyone was imbued with a golden glow.

The vortex of those months of craft-making resulted in the most thoughtful of handmade experiences, where we, the guests, were treated as if we were the ones being honored, while at the same time we were expected to fully participate in the festivities, to the point of being asked to wash our own dishes at the wedding. Yes, you read that correctly. While it sounds insane to ask your wedding guests to wash their plates — and it is — somehow it suited the occasion, much to my shock and to the shock of everyone else I met in line. Yes, you read that correctly as well. We stood in line to wash our own dishes. And as I stood there waiting to plunge my hands into dishwater, I had conversations with people that I would never have met otherwise, and it felt, altogether now, like we were helping this young couple by taking a quick turn at cleaning up. And in return they treated all of us to a lovely wedding ceremony followed by some awesome food, great music, crazy dancing, homegrown flowers, funny stories and of course, lots of crafts. The good kind.

Those dishes, by the way, were all vintage and collected one by one by Elizabeth and her friends at various second hand shops over the last few years, in anticipation of the day when she would need to find place settings for well over two hundred people. Elizabeth also hand wrote the name of each and every single one of her guests on individual place cards.

How could we feel anything other than loved?

Francie's place card

Francie’s place card

They were married in the front yard of Elizabeth’s parents’ house, under a canopy Andrew and Elizabeth made out of saplings. After the ceremony, which invoked the solemn prospect of marriage across space and time while also managing to make everyone laugh more than once, we all trekked one hundred feet or so to the reception, which took place just behind the house under a big tent, as is the fashion these days. Actually, Andrew and Elizabeth incorporated a lot of ideas that are the fashion these days: mason jars, a photo booth, wildflowers, old windows, pennants — but every single handmade detail felt so imbued with their young love and enthusiasm that it all transcended a cynical scroll through pinterest and became greater than the sum of its parts.

Just thinking about the wedding makes me happy, and (I must confess) half-wistful about my own wedding many moons ago, which was an equally handmade affair but not quite as mellow. Because attending to the details and worrying about the details are two different things entirely. If Andrew and Elizabeth can go on to achieve the same balance in life that they achieved on the day they started their life together, they will be blessed indeed.

You will find as you look back upon your life that the moments when you have truly lived are the moments when you have done things in the spirit of love.

— Henry Drummond

Summer Living

It’s been a crazy summer. From Germany and Canada to the west and east coast of the United States, my family all converged on the farm in Ohio for several weeks. Sometimes all at once, sometimes in succession. A wedding, a family reunion, and a camping trip involving the 47 members of my immediate family were followed just a mere few hours after we packed up the camping gear by the birth of the 48th member, whose mother managed to make it to the hospital in time for the baby’s arrival.

My family completed our month-long homage to the cycle of life by holding a memorial service for my uncle out by the pond at the farm in Ohio, the pond built by my grandpa and recreated, in a way, by my uncle, who put a pond on his own property all the way across the country in Oregon.

A few days after the memorial service, and on the last night most of us were together, the third annual micro Madden Road Music Festival took place at the old brick building at the crossroads of Mutual, Ohio. My mom has an antiques shop on the ground floor of the building, and a few years ago some of the family came together and cleared out the top floor for use as an occasional music hall. With its cracked plaster and old beadboard walls, the music hall resembles a depression-era honky-tonk or small town opera house. Which it probably was — both of those things — over the years. The floor still bears faded painted lines outlining the boundaries of an undersized basketball court from its stint as a sports center for budding young farmers.

For this year’s festival, both floors were put into use. We pushed the old bureaus and benches and side tables to the edge of the antiques shop and placed the tables and chairs in the center, creating a place for the festival potluck.

Potluck beginnings

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Hemisphere Coffee Roasters, a local coffee roasting business run by a family who source all their beans directly, came to the festival and transformed my mom’s shop counter into a coffee shop. Right next to the counter we created a bakery using an antique glass display case, which held goods baked by my nieces, who made everything from brownies to snickerdoodles to chocolate chip cookies. To the shock of everyone who knows her well, my mom spent the day of the festival baking bread to add to the bakery’s inventory. The bread was delicious, which belies the whole idea that only highly-trained experts who spend their youth sweating over commercial ovens as apprentices are capable of baking bread. The motivation for my mom’s baking spree came from the fact that proceeds from bakery sales all went toward efforts to help the friend of yet another sister who lived in Mumbai, a friend who is saving up with her husband so that he can buy his own rickshaw. I know this sounds over-the-top but it’s true. We raised money to purchase a rickshaw in India at our tiny music festival in the middle of nowhere, Ohio. We live in global times, people.

The potluck featured lots of stuff from the garden: corn and cantaloupe and squash. Someone brought a huge tray of macaroni & cheese, which was quickly consumed. And someone else brought a trencher of homemade popcorn. It turns out that popcorn tastes especially awesome when eaten from an antique trencher. And while I don’t know exactly what a trencher is (the people who brought the popcorn told me the name of the thing), I know that I want one for my next potluck.

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Five bands took both stages, alternating between the Antiques Store Stage and the Music Hall Stage, and each one was mesmerizing. Which also sounds over-the-top, but it’s just as true as the rickshaw story. Something about seeing musicians make music in front of you seems both familiar and completely strange these days. Familiar in the sense that making and experiencing live music in real time has been around since human beings themselves. But strange in the sense that most of us take our music in electronic doses, perfected and altered and manipulated before we consume it at random, usually isolated moments. Listening to real music being made by actual people in a roomful of family, friends and strangers, eating popcorn and cantaloupe and drinking coffee seemed almost bizarre. But really comforting too. A personal highlight for me was the music of Bob Lucas, who performed along with his daughter and son-in-law. These three are steeped in old-time music across several genres and decades. And Bob is a composer as well as an actor, director, producer in theater. Just one of those run-of-the-mill geniuses you often encounter playing above a random antiques store in Ohio. (Never underestimate the Midwest. It is full of surprises).

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Daniel Dye & the Miller Road Band

The morning after the festival we gathered outside my parents’ farmhouse to see our nephew David off to college in Chicago, and the summer was complete. It held everything: endings, beginnings and middles, all of it carried out to a sort of soundtrack of music-making at every point, from singing around the campfire to my brother playing his banjo at his newborn daughter’s side at the hospital to singing (and we do sing choral arrangements as a family, some of us more skillfully than others) The Lord Bless You and Keep You as a benediction, moments before David climbed into the van with his family, heading west — just as the sun climbed higher and higher in the east.