Thank You, Walpole…

Recently, I returned to my old stomping grounds in the lower Connecticut River Valley of northern New England after having relocated to west central Florida seven years ago. Nothing — yet everything — had changed…

When I was 12, my family moved to New Hampshire from suburban Long Island, New York where I’d grown up with manicured lawns, well paved but traffic-filled roads, and easy access to just about everything.

Walpole, New Hampshire had none of those.

The 23-acre property my parents bought with every penny they could scrape together after my father became ill was far away from everything, or as they described it, just “Farenufaway”. Even the nearest grocery store, a worn wooden-floored old-timey place with everything from hand-canned apple sauce to kerosene lanterns was nearly 4 miles away. Down the street from there, a general store supplied me with whatever candy I could afford, and sometimes what I couldn’t afford. There were four churches in a village of fewer than 3,000 people and even a town common where people would gather on Sunday nights to listen to concerts performed by local musical groups — playing Sousa marches, no less. But the charm of the town was lost on me and I was miserable.

Every night for months, I cried myself to sleep as I counted the headlights of cars driving up Interstate 91 across the valley in Vermont twenty miles away. I would watch for an hour or count 30 cars, whichever came first. Eventually, I’d drift off to sleep, dreaming I’d wake up back in New York.

Surrounded by endlessly open fields and millions of trees, my new home smelled of every kind of manure imaginable to my uninitiated olfactory system. My parents had decided to start a small farm, my Dad’s dream, raising cows, sheep, chickens, pigs — and I had been anointed to maintain cleanliness on behalf of the livestock in the barn. “This is a bunch of shit”, I thought to myself sardonically. We plowed up a section of dirt 50 yards long by 25 yards wide and planted vegetables in long rows, fertilizing it with the aforementioned manure. The weeds grew faster than the plants and my sisters and I were tasked with pulling them. Picking bugs off the tomato plants was worth a penny a bug. Our profits went to candy from the general store.

At school, I looked around at my new classmates and in my limited way of understanding the world, tried to decide which ones were Jewish, since the school I’d moved from had been mostly Jewish kids. I saw no Asians, no black kids… only white ones, some of which smelled a lot like my barn. These kids were tan except for where their t-shirts had been. There was a line on their necks that divided white from reddish-brown.

Time went slowly by as it seems to do in small towns, and I gradually became accustomed to my new life. When I was forced to give up playing the cello because the only one available was in pieces underneath the middle school stage, I took up the trumpet instead, becoming one of the people who played Sousa marches on the common in front of the church where my dad served as interim pastor on Sundays. I stopped noticing the smell of manure and began to revel in the heady aroma of freshly cut hay after our barn was filled for the winter and we’d spend hours building forts with the scratchy bales.

I barely noticed myself growing stronger and healthier through the endless work and rewards of the farm — the early morning milking of the cows and the magically rising cream we churned by hand to make butter; the stocking of the huge woodpile that fed the wood-burning furnace in the basement; the building and rebuilding of fences that never seemed to keep the livestock in, resulting in the constant herding of animals that would eventually be our sustenance. And did I mention having to do all this through the winter with three feet of snow on the ground? Life was never dull at the Farenufaway Farm and there was no such thing as boredom.

A couple weeks ago, I sat on the common in Walpole and listened to one of the bands I used to play with while many of the same people I’d known 30 years ago still faithfully sat in their lawn chairs and enjoyed the music and summer air in the company of their neighbors, snacking on hot dogs from the Boy Scouts and homemade pies from the church. We’d had a gourmet brunch in an upscale restaurant that now occupies the space where the old grocery store used to be, and I even had a beer at the tavern that had been the general store where I once supported my candy habit.

Later on, a gathering of old classmates solved a mystery for me. The reason they hadn’t dated some of the most eligible of our peers back in high school was that most of them were related to each other. Families had stayed in the area for generations, many returning after college or military service. They had come back to raise their children in the best environment they could think of.

Today, I again live in a world of manicured lawns, well paved but traffic-filled roads, and easy access to just about everything. There is no snow here, and even the heat is tolerable with the simple flip of an air conditioning switch. It’s an easy life, but I’m not sure it’s a better one.

As I watch the cars go by my neighborhood here at a rate of 30 per minute instead of per hour, I am nevertheless filled with gratitude. Though I can’t go back to the Walpole, New Hampshire of my youth, I can return there again in my memory and be thankful for every single moment of “misery” that blessed little town gave me!

(I found this video by Al Cannistraro that takes you on a tour of downtown — it’s fun!)

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  1. Larry
    August 26, 2010 at 2:50 pm

    Thanks for another terrific column, Ellen. Growing up just 10 miles north of you, I considered myself “the richest little poor boy” I knew. Despite financial hardships after my father’s helicopter accident, I had opportunities to live, explore and learn that were afforded me by my family, my friends and the incredible cultural opportunities in the areas around Claremont, Charlestown, Langdon, Alstead, Walpole, Bellows Falls and Springfield. The more I travel away from the Connecticut River Valley region, the more I understand what a special place it holds in my heart. Thank you for sharing your special place with us.

  2. Mel
    August 26, 2010 at 3:13 pm

    I appreciate your insight as well, Auntie! It is insight like yours that helps me understand what people see in New England and it really is a neat little place to visit. We are moving back to Alabama in a few weeks and I am so tickled to be able to be getting out of here. I can see myself coming back to visit though, and showing my (soon to be) Southern kids the beauty of New England, yet explaining to them how we moved South to create a better life for them.

  3. Kirsten
    August 26, 2010 at 11:51 pm

    You did it again, Ellen….

  4. Tammy Vittum
    August 27, 2010 at 1:19 am

    This is the Walpole we love. We aren’t exactly natives ’cause we grew up in Charlestown (an entire 14 miles away), but after living here for 10 years – it is certainly home for us now.

  5. stonegonemad
    November 16, 2011 at 6:51 pm

    This was pretty wonderful! I drive through Walpole often, but will now take a different view of things! I never knew that your family WASN’T from Walpole! This was really well- written!

    Thanks for sharing

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