Left to the Elements
Barbara Briggs Ward
Left to the Elements
North Country Writers Contest 2019 Honorable Mention, nonfiction
Back country roads intrigue me. It doesn’t matter the season. Each one uniquely tells the story of this place I call home—from creeks overflowing their banks in the in the spring; to farmers working fields in the heat of the summer; to Mother Nature painting the autumn landscape in marvelous shades of oranges and yellows and reds; to snow creating winter wonderlands and crippling blizzards closing 81 time and again. The story is around every curve and up and down every hill, passed Amish homesteads with roadside stands and over bridges spanning streams and rivers. And while the seasons come and go, another story is being told and that’s the one I find most intriguing.
I’ve always been drawn to abandoned houses sitting in silence along those country roads. As I drive by, I try to imagine who lived in those places. I wonder what made them leave their structures to the mercy of the elements that eventually wear them down to the point of despair, with windows broken and boards hanging by threads and doors wide open and bricks crumbling.
It was a particular stone home set way back in on one of those roads that caused me to pull off to the side to get a closer look. My love of old stone homes took over. Seconds later, I was driving down the dirt pathway into the property. Covered in leaves and twigs, even some shingles with a few ruts I tried avoiding, I noted the lack of any tire tracks, leading me to conclude that no one had bothered of late to stop and see how the old place was doing. Some of the many maple trees spread about here and there were still holding onto their colorful leaves. Others were half naked. Others were missing limbs. With my window down, the breeze moving across the river from Canada made me think of the string section of an orchestra as it came shifting through a pine grove. I didn’t get out. I wasn’t there to snoop around. Instead, I sat still and took to heart what most likely was once a fine stone home with a grand old barn and a clump of smaller, wooden buildings scattered around what appeared to be a good-sized chunk of land with No Trespassing signs nailed to fence posts. I rationalized my presence. I meant no harm. If anything, I was there to provide some sort of comfort one gives to someone or something left on its own without a plan of survival. I tried ignoring what was in front of me and concentrate on what might have been in the past but that was impossible to do. The place looked so lonely.
I didn’t notice the front door slightly ajar and broken windows on the second floor until further along the dirt pathway. That’s when the disrepair became apparent. At first, I thought maybe a storm had passed through and caused the damage. Then I became more cynical. Maybe the old stone home had unwelcomed visitors, wearing the place down and opening it up to creatures making nests in closets and in cupboards where fine china might have been displayed behind glass doors. My imagination continued out of concern for the old stone home. Maybe more nests holding more little creatures had been made upstairs in old spring mattresses left in bedrooms with wallpaper now fading and falling to the floor—where rapture once echoed around lace curtains and over mahogany dressers with framed photos sitting in place and drawers full of fine things.
Down the hallway, I envisioned a nursery smelling of powder and baby oil with a rocking chair sitting by the bay window visible from my vantage point. Sweet lullabies were likely whispered under the moon and nursery rhymes likely repeated of cats and fiddles and three little kittens without their mittens and a little girl, who ate the porridge, broke a chair and fell asleep in little bear’s bed.
I was convinced there was a back stairway leading down to the kitchen like the one in my grandparents’ old farmhouse. And in that kitchen I assumed there was a woodstove. In the wintertime, the heat from the woodstove warmed the children I imagined living in that home as they ate their oatmeal before bundling up and walking to school in the bitter cold. In a corner in that kitchen I wouldn’t have been surprised to find a wooden cupboard with shelves full of bowls for cereals and soups and white ceramic cups for coffee made in a percolator sitting on top of the woodstove. A pantry off the kitchen would have provided more space for dishes and bowls and pots and pans. Aprons were probably hung on a hook on the back of the door. Linens might have been stored in drawers underneath a wooden countertop. Scents of cinnamon and nutmeg drifting forth from that kitchen probably led to a dining room where an oak pedestal table welcomed family whatever the occasion.
Sitting in my car, I noted remnants of an old rope swing and a tricycle with a tarnished bell attached to what was left of the handlebars. I wondered why the tricycle was left to decay over time. I wondered if there had been cats and dogs and maybe horses; maybe laughter and love, singing and dancing. There had to have been gardens and lots of flowers and fresh vegetables and pumpkins when in season.
That stone home is still somewhat standing. Now a No Trespassing sign is up at the front of the dirt pathway. Maybe others have stopped and wondered. Maybe others have done more damage. I am well aware life can be hard. Life can be cruel. I was never judging when I sat in my car on that dirt pathway. I was curious.
But most of all, I felt great sadness for that old stone home, tossed aside with other deserted houses and barns and buses and trucks and cars—all left to the elements—all part of a story on those back-country roads.