The preachers have never had much luck getting their tenterhooks into me because I’m not all that enamored with the idea of everlasting life. Everlasting life is like Moose Tracks ice cream: After the first bite you never want it to end, but by the time you pack away a quart and a half you start to see a down side.
And everlasting life is about the only arrow the preachers have in their quiver. They never say, “If you lead a wholesome, righteous existence you will have everlasting life — plus you get to date Emma Stone.”
Still, it has to be acknowledged that Ponce de Leon wasn’t the only fan of perpetual youth, and when I was younger I confess to feeling the same way, largely due to a curiosity of what will happen next—tomorrow, and 2,000 years from tomorrow. I have, however, discovered that it is a simple task to live well beyond the average, 78.2-year lifespan. It is no great effort to live for a hundred, five hundred or even a thousand years.
Our mistake, if it can be called that, is that when we look to lengthen our lives we always look to the future. But with an eye to history, we can, with the same sense of curiosity, “live” happily through years, decades and centuries past that we would otherwise miss out on. So if you don’t live to be 500, at least, it is frankly your own fault.
In renovating our Jay farmhouse, for example, we are living an extra century and a half by being sensitive and respectful of the people who have lived there before us. Our contractor, Brian Straight, himself has family connections to the house (he speaks of having Thanksgiving dinners there many years ago, and can confirm that the kitchen floor had a disturbing, 15-degree slant to it even then), so it is meaningful to him to find and carefully preserve the treasures he has found as he has torn the interior down to its post-and-beam bones.
Corn cobs were stuffed into the walls in places, as was a brown, polka-dot dress so old that it would likely crumble with rough handling. People would sometimes wall an old shoe up in the walls for luck, but a dress? Who knows?
The house was built in 1850, but it appears that 10 to 20 years later the owners added a second floor. We can see the notches in the hand-hewn beams where the old cross-members had rested when the house was one story with an attic. As some sort of base for the new upstairs walls, they papered the rough-cut boards with the sacks in which the plaster had been shipped.
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The dates stamped on the bags indicate they were produced as the Civil War was coming to an end. Also notable, and quite readable, are newspapers glued to the rough-cut lumber as a base for the plaster. They tell the story, for example, of a Hallows-Eve celebration in AuSable Forks, and date back to 1868.
The most fascinating newspaper to me bore the signature, in pencil, “Mary E. Wells.” Was this intended to be a time-capsule- styled entry? Did Mary sign her name right before the plaster was slapped on the wall, thinking that at some point, 149 years in the future, some chucklehead from West Virginia would take a flier on her home and in the process of tearing it down to the framework discover her name? I so want that to be true (Mary, hold on, it’s us! We’ve come a’lookin’ for you, sweetheart!) But my cynical journalist self tells me it’s something less romantic. Maybe the clerk down at Sam Drucker’s General Store wrote Mary’s name on that paper to hold it for her. (But when why the middle initial E.? Hard to think there was a Mary S. Wells he was worried about getting her mixed up with.)
Not everything is so tantalizing, of course. Brian and crew had to remove from behind the walls a ton or so of a fragrant, gray crumble that he informed us was 167 years’ worth of mouse poo.
The mice, still quite active, kept ceding ground to the construction crew until, it seemed, they had nowhere else to go and were forced to vacate the premises. This assessment turned out not to be entirely accurate, as they had not left, but only concentrated. When tearing out an old brick chimney Brian’s accomplice Tom crowbarred out a brick and was hit head-on by what he later described as a mousenado.
But my favorite bit of memorabilia was discovered sticking out of the stony rubble by carpenter and next-door neighbor Frank as he was ripping out the kitchen floor. It was a rough, hand-carved back of a fiddle that presumably had not seen the light of day since the administration of Zachary Taylor. Again, all we can do is guess. One of the carpenters was also a musician? There was something about the back that didn’t suit him so he tossed it and started over? Was it a toy for a small child?
I’m hoping that one day some of these mysteries will be, if not solved, at least clarified. I have high hopes of finding Mary Wells (the valley, of course is home to the Wells Library). And although she is gone, she still lives through us. And through her, we will live a few extra years that we otherwise would not have been afforded.
Photo: Tim Rowlands Project Farmhouse.