Several historic homes we visited in New England offered reminders of the omnipresence of death in earlier times.
In one house, a large marble bust of a young man stood in the corner of the living room, the likeness of a son, age 19, who had gone upstairs after dinner and died. The same family had lost a 26-year-old daughter to colitis, sitting up with her in her bedroom in the final weeks of her life.
Loss and the possibility of loss dogged the everyday, making people perhaps more comfortable with death than we. On the grounds of the home of the sculptor Daniel Chester French, I encountered this funerary sculpture of a boy, with an arched path leading up to a bench for meditation nearby. I can imagine the husband and wife sitting on this bench, recalling their dead child, and pondering God’s nature and human love.
Each summer contemporary sculpture is installed in the park, and this summer a modern sculpture resembling a pregnant woman has been placed in between the bench and the boy.
Our vacation house in Michigan contains a dangerously irregular set of stairs, which I fantasize about having rebuilt one day. My brother tells me that only smart craftsmen can build good stairs because of the complex calculations involved.
This staircase, which I saw during my trip, inspires, not only by being beautiful and well-proportioned, but because its technique is plain to see. Every stair is a box, stacked in a modular fashion, producing stairs of uniform height and depth. The underside of the staircase is fully exposed, but the detailed molding on the boxes makes that agreeable, accentuating the underlying geometry. Even the corner landing is marked off this way. Meanwhile, the curving bottom stairs and curves in the handrail keep the risk of visual monotony at bay.
This house, which belonged to a family named Buttrick, was built in Concord in 1911. Components of the stairs were no doubt made by machine, especially these fancy spindles, which add an element of fun. The alternation of the three different patterns is visually engaging—I ended up staring at them for a fairly long time!
I come home from trips like this full of ideas. I love seeing how other people lived, the ways they came up with to do everyday things. Out in front of this house were the foundations of the tiny homes of their ancestors, which had stood there some 300+ years ago.
At the end of our first day in the Berkshires, we turned on Game 6 of the Stanley Cup final, just in time to see our home team’s last-minute comeback over the Bruins to clinch the trophy. “You can put it to rest,” I kept saying to the set while Chicago trailed. “It’ll all be over if you can just get a goal.” Suddenly it was, as the Hawks surprised everyone by scoring two.
The Bruins, their fans, the announcers fell quiet. The jubilant Hawks lifted the gleaming Cup high. We whooped with delight, naughty as children, conscious of being in Bruins’ territory.
There was a time when I crossed Massachusetts often by train. When passing through the western part of the state and admiring its rugged yet picturesque scenery, I would promise myself to visit it one day.
Finally, today, the occasion came. Twilight found us in the Berkshires, where it treated us to this splendid sight.
This morning, the wedding over, my family left Concord, where we’d been staying. Some of us headed to the airport, others out to Worcester for a final visit with my sister. She took us to a locally famous deli, the Bushel ‘n Peck, where we bought sandwiches and said our good-byes. My parents and younger sister’s family were headed back to Pennsylvania. My husband and I were headed for the Berkshires, to kill a day or two before flying back to Chicago via Albany.
The deli was crowded, though its appearance was modest, on the verge of dumpy. There were nine in our party. Counter staff took our orders abstractedly, without writing down a thing. Customers came and went. Sandwiches began appearing, were as quickly claimed. Despite our efforts to convey to the cashier what we’d ordered, it never came right, and I’m pretty sure we ended up underpaying. But we got the food, and it was yummy.
‘The bomb.’ A delicious wrap made with prosciutto, seafood salad, and cheese.
I had a seafood wrap called ‘The bomb.’ As sandwiches go, it was a beauty.
The bomb was misnamed, because it went down easy. It was filled with fresh seafood salad, prosciutto ham, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles, and mild cheese. Everything about it was perfect—perfectly prepared and assembled, tightly wrapped, and every ingredient noticeably cold—a quality I look for when eating in a deli.
Photograph of Teddy Kennedy and Edward McCormack, Jr. with local businessmen; a handwritten note conveys the shock of JFK’s assassination.
On our way out, we noticed some vintage photographs on the walls. We were deep in Kennedy territory. This one memorialized the assassination of JFK. A young Teddy Kennedy shakes hands with local businessmen, their sentiments telegraphed in a handwritten ‘Why?’ Meanwhile, Kennedy’s onetime rival, Edward McCormack, Jr, the nephew of a powerful speaker of the US House, stands by. A poster of Audrey Hepburn in the background caught my eye. Back then, too, she was idolized. . . . By now, of course, everyone in the picture has gone to their graves.
More restful than the most luxurious spa are the ordinary hotels of some Massachusetts towns. Many sit on large tracts of land, with mature trees and perennial beds, lawns mown with the precision devoted to baseball fields.
A morning stint by the pool might include the songs of real birds or a turtle-sighting. Precisely because the hotel’s interior contains little of interest, it is relaxing to inhabit. There is little stimulation, little to provoke thought, setting the mind at ease.
The hotel is a silent community, where the density that might produce bustle or camaraderie neutralizes and separates. Repetition tranquilizes and subdues. Occasionally a guest will appear on one of the lawn chairs or balconies, to gaze out at the still and empty scene.
A rest here of a night or two will drive a body off, in quest of clamor.