A month after we both retired, my husband Phil and I embarked on a nostalgic journey to New England to visit our respective birthplaces. For the initial phase of the trip, we explored the factory town where Phil grew up. After a week immersing ourselves in traffic, brick buildings and concrete, we venture a hundred miles west to the rural farmlands where my ancestors settled a community in the mid-1600s.
“Does that overgrown footpath lead to your grandfather’s homestead?” Phil asked.
“Yes. That’s it. Wow.” My eyes welled. Mother Nature had reclaimed the once elegant driveway, now invaded with brush and weeds. “Park here. We’ll have to walk to the house.”
I slid out of our suburban into the driveway, and my feet sank into knee-high, native grasses that had overtaken the once weed-free gravel road. All that remained was a footpath up the incline to the front yard.
Bushes heavily laden with blueberries draped over the edge of the first few feet of stonewall that lined the entrance. I raked a handful careful not to pick the green ones.
“Try these.” I handed Phil a few ripe berries as I popped the bulk of them into my mouth. The sweetness of the fruit’s center tempered the tartness of its deep purple skin. “No two berries ever taste the same.”
“Delicious.” Phil imitated my move and picked a handful, but lacked the finesse to release just the blue ones.
“The green berries aren’t ready.” I picked one from his palm. “Don’t they look like little green heads with puckered red lips?”
He popped one into his mouth before I could warn him, and then spit it out immediately. “Whew! Sour!”
Smiling, I led him along the trail to the front of what remained of my grandfather’s farm.
A cluster of massive oaks obscured the house entrance. Their roots had lifted the granite entry steps that fascinated me as a child. Remnants of wood siding, now greyed from exposure, clung to the studs and sills. Some enterprising person had salvaged the windows and the three-inch, oak front door. All that remained was the shell, gaping holes, and the toppled granite steps I’d secretly played on as a young girl.
“It doesn’t look safe to enter,” Phil said.
“Umm.” What could I say?
I circled the dilapidated structure, remembering the family gatherings. Nobody missed Sunday dinner at grandmother’s house after church.
In the winter when there was sufficient snow, we would toboggan down the back hill into the field of corn stubbles left from the harvest. Or when the ice on the stock pond froze thick enough, we’d shovel off the snow and skate.
In the summer, we’d play baseball or kickball until we heated up, and then we’d join the cows for a swim in the stock pond. I wasn’t fond of the ugly brown, water snakes, but the boys splashed enough to keep any self-respecting serpent from showing its fat head or beady eyes until we’d refreshed ourselves.
“Look, the basement is open.” Phil peered in through the dank bulkhead. Boulders formed the footings for the stone cellar walls. “It smells musty like a mushroom farm in here.” He pinched his nose.
“It always did. That’s from the dirt floor.” I smiled. “It stayed cool in the summer. My grandparents used it as their root cellar. They stored bins of fresh vegetables and shelves of canned goods.”
“Do I dare enter?” Phil disappeared for a nanosecond before reappearing. “Too dark. I need a light.”
“I doubt you’ll find anything of value. Scavengers tore off the half-rotted siding. If the family left items worth keeping, they’re long gone.”
“Probably, but I’ll check.” Phil retrieved a flashlight from the suburban and reentered the basement to investigate the wall’s cracks and crevices. Sometimes folks would stuff old bottles or implements into a convenient hole or crack in the wall. Not necessarily to store for reuse as much as to save and repurpose. They never wasted a thing.
While Phil explored the basement, I returned to the front steps. As sturdy and beautiful as they were, my grandparents never used them. In fact, my grandmother had blocked the door from the inside with a credenza years before I was born. She would scold us kids if we climbed on the cold gray stone.
The tree bark scratched my arm when I squeezed past for a closer view of the quarried granite. The heavy top-stone had worn smooth from the elements. Three granite hitching posts supported the table. Small chunks blocked the remaining side. Visible scars grooved the posts from the shims and wedges used to split the mother rock.
I’d never used the front entrance. When my mother filled my wagon with freshly baked bread, cookies, and beans to deliver to Grandfather’s house, I would enter through the side door directly into the kitchen. Once, I asked my mother why my grandparents never used the front door, and her clipped answer “they had their reasons” puzzled me. Her serious look indicated I’d best not press.
I closed my eyes and drew in a deep breath.
“Are you getting tired?” Phil touched my arm.
“Oh, not at all. I used to deliver bread to my grandparents. I was thinking how strange that I was never allowed to use this door. I never figured out why.”
“Maybe the door wouldn’t open.”
“True. But, my grandmother had furniture barricading it.” I reached down and touched the cold stone. “Look how the tree root has lifted the steps.”
I knelt and peeked into the cavity formed by the breach. “Phil, there’s something shiny in there. Maybe an old jar.” I didn’t want to reach in and find the shimmer was from the eyes of an ugly pond snake. I shuddered thinking about it.
“Here use the flashlight.”
When I shined the area, I spotted three broken greenish-blue jars, pieces of ceramic dishes, and what appeared to be a clay pot. I mustered courage and grabbed a glass shard. “Canning jars.”
“Let me look. You hold the light, and I’ll retrieve the pottery.” Phil scraped the debris from around the pottery and pried it free. “It’s heavy. I think its full.”
“Pottery’s heavy. But it could contain dirt.” I said. Phil gripped it while I attempted to remove the lid. The cover had sealed tight over the years.
“Give it to me.” Phil ran the thin blade on his pocketknife around the edge. “Now try.”
“I got it.” I dumped the contents onto the ground. The pot contained an object wrapped in fabric, a mummified carcass of a small animal. I poked the cloth apart with a stick.
“Stop!” Phil said. “I think it’s human.”
“Oh my God!” I recoiled in disbelief. An infant’s remains had been wrapped in cloth and stuffed into the crockery pot.
“I’m calling the police.” Phil dialed 911.
A dispatcher picked up immediately.
“Thank you.” Phil raised an eyebrow. “She’s sending an officer once she finds one.”
“This small town has a part-time police force. She’ll locate someone who can get out of work or who works an off-shift.” I knew because my father served on the force for years.
We returned the tiny body to its container and waited.
A car door slammed, and within minutes the officer sauntered into the yard. The only indication that he was law enforcement was the dark-blue police cap with an official town insignia above the visor. “Is that you, Hope? My dispatcher tells me you’ve made a discovery.”
“Dennis. Nice to see you.” My second cousin had grown up.
Phil handed over the pot.
Dennis removed the lid and glanced inside. “Ah. A winter birth.”
“What do you mean, a winter birth?” My legs wobbled as I remembered my grandmother words, ‘stay off those steps,’ and how I’d creep close to the house and crawl onto them when nobody was looking.
“Remember, this is New England,” he said. “Finding the remains of infants beneath steps, under porches or sometimes even in cracks in the stone cellar walls is not uncommon. During the winter, the frost hardens the ground for three to four feet and makes digging impossible.”
“I never knew about infants,” I said.
“Neither did I until I became a cop.” He chuckled. “Since then I’ve learned a bunch.”
“Why didn’t they bury the body later?” Phil asked.
“Who knows? Hard times. Or maybe they didn’t own a cemetery plot.” Dennis furrowed his brow. “They didn’t name the babies for months, sometimes for close to a year. Didn’t expect them to live, especially the ones born in mid-winter.”
“You mean this baby could be my relative?” I stared at the steps.
“My grandmother forbade playing on the steps. Was that her reason?”
“I’m sure,” Dennis said. “Women back then believed walking on a stillborn baby’s grave could result in a similar fate for themselves.”
Phil and I stared at each other. We’d lost our first child.
Writers’ workshop and writing group