s far as I know, Uncle Ellery never had a car. His big plunge into the modern era was his tractor, a jalopy made from the front end of a Model T Ford and the rear end of a truck. His sagging house had gray clapboards that showed no signs of ever having been painted, and steps made from slabs of granite led up to the porch. Every spring the dooryard filled with the scent of lilacs and crab apple blossoms. Trees overhung the brook behind the house, and inside he kept a beautiful pump organ and stolid piano that never got played.Although I am in my mid-fifties, these memories could belong to a man two generations older. In Rumford Point, where I lived, time moved slowly enough; but in North Rumford, where my great-uncle lived, time seemed to move in reverse.
Uncle Ellery farmed land first settled by his great-grandparents in 1823. From his house he could look out on big hay fields, a large garden, and a babbling stream, while off in the distance was the unchanged Ellis River and a used-up mica mine. He dipped water from a wooden barrel in the summer kitchen and cooked with wood. Despite having added a bit of knob-and-tube wiring, Uncle Ellery owned almost nothing that required electricity.
A series of three sheds, starting with the summer kitchen, formed the long part of the ell, turned at the outhouse, and entered the barn, which leaned precariously against several large poles set at an angle. He and his ancestors had filled the sheds with a veritable museum of thrilling objects, including dozens of deer antlers — a testament to my uncle's seemingly magical skills as a hunter.
As Uncle Ellery got older he needed more help, so my cousin Eddie and I got to stay with him in North Rumford for several days at a time. Our main jobs were pitching hay and shoveling manure — chores we had plenty of at home. But at Uncle Ellery's we felt like his hired men, and we loved it.
Our bachelor uncle had a housekeeper, his cousin Florence, who, like generations before her, transformed frugality into something approaching art. Florence fed us "men" a huge breakfast very, very early every morning — meat, vegetables, potatoes, and pie — putting food on only one side of our plates — we had to keep the other side clean for supper. Dinner didn't require a plate since we took it with us — two doughnuts, often stale. She may have just cooked a new batch, but nobody, including Uncle Ellery, got a fresh doughnut until the old ones were gone. Her idea of a kid's treat was the peelings from her pie apples, so Eddie and I were understandably leery about dessert the first time we had supper there. "I know you modern boys like sweets," Florence said as she set out two bowls of maple syrup, cooled to a sickening slurry.
Florence's frugality fit neatly into Uncle Ellery's life and home. Talk itself sometimes seemed reserved for special occasions. Despite his habit of gently teasing children and his exceedingly dry humor, my uncle remained a man of few words. He and my father visited by sitting in rockers in companionable silence as tiny Florence flitted around like a sparrow, simultaneously chatting with my mother, eavesdropping on the sporadic conversation of the men, searching for pieces of quilting material, and generally demonstrating a breathtaking genius for multitasking.
Eddie and I went to Uncle Ellery's wake when I was twelve, the first for each of us. Our parents, thinking that we would be unable to remember our flesh-and-blood uncle after seeing him as a corpse, had reluctantly given in to our pleas. They needn't have worried. No matter how hard we tried, we could not make the clean-shaven, well-dressed man lying in that casket look like our hard-working, stubble-faced, kind and modest uncle. A short time after he died, his barn collapsed, the property was sold, Florence moved into a ladies boarding home, and the house was torn down.
I saw Eddie the other day, at the interment for his mother in a tiny cemetery on Whippoorwill Road, where we'd been children together — along with my two siblings and his ten. After the service there was a family cookout, and as we often do at such occasions, Eddie and I stood in his mother's dooryard reminiscing about Uncle Ellery and Florence. I noticed that some work had been done recently to the barn. It turned out that one of Eddie's brothers and a couple of their nephews were getting the place ready for some cattle, and it occurred to me that Uncle Ellery's great-great nephews might also grow up, like Eddie and I, with memories that could belong to much older men.