Ruth Doan MacDougall
The Snowy Series: SITE FIDELITY
A 2017 addition to The Snowy Series!
“SITE FIDELITY is a contemporary novel centering on the importance of “place” in a turbulent, changing world. The title refers to the ornithological term for birds’ instinctive migration back to their place of origin.
The year is 2008 and the Great Recession is looming, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are vying for the Democratic presidential nomination, and the winter is hard, especially on people who aren’t so young as they used to be.
Twenty-three years ago, Henrietta Snow—known as Snowy—and her husband bought a general store near her hometown in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire. Ever since his death, she and her daughter, Ruhamah, have been running the store. They recently bought a second general store in a neighboring town, and now Ruhamah wants to acquire a third. Scared, Snowy wonders if Ruhamah wants to rule a general-store empire.
What Snowy wants is another site, a fresh start. She hankers for what she calls a Maine-style Bali Ha’i, an island she has visited with her friend Puddles, where the scenery is “the ever-changing ocean, not the motionless mountains.”
Is this longing for change a part of aging? How can she leave the responsibilities that are tying her down?
Frigate Books (© 2017)
Foreword by Ann Norton Holbrook; Saint Anselm College
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Snowy thought: this could be getting dangerous.
A ridiculous thought, because she was only in her snowbound backyard in the hazy dark before sunrise, shoveling a path through the latest foot of snow brought by yesterday’s New Year’s Day snowstorm. She was just aiming toward the pole from which hung two tube feeders for sunflower seeds and a suet feeder. A pole! She wasn’t on the North Pole, the South Pole—or Mount Everest. The thermometer had told her it was twenty-six degrees this morning, a balmy twenty-six above zero. Central heat and safety were close by in the gray barn where she and Tom lived, where the outside light over the snow-clogged screen door of the back porch glared at the narrow slot she’d already shoveled from the porch steps. She was bundled up in her L.L.Bean gear, navy-blue parka, baby-blue fleece cap, and insulated boots. The fresh snow smelled like ozone, which should energize her.
Still, the snowfall had weighted down the trees and bushes, with a white pine’s floppy lower boughs pushed so low they’d frozen into the snowbanks, and she felt smothered, fragile. The poor lilac bush was more bent over than she was as she chopped yet another square of snow, slid the shovel in to lift the top half, being prudent, not lifting up the whole twelve-inch chunk—
A banging on a barn window made her turn. Looking up at the lighted kitchen window of their upstairs apartment, she saw Tom, white hair once curly but now thinning, white beard neatly trimmed. Tom Forbes, whom she, Henrietta Snow, had started dating when she was a sophomore and he a junior at Gunthwaite High School. She waved a mittened hand, her fingers within cramped and cold.
Despite the storm window and the inside window, she heard him bellow, “For Christ’s sake, come indoors!”
She bellowed back, “The birds!”
“Fuck the birds!”
“ I’m almost to the feeders, I’ll be in soon!”
“I’ve got the coffee made!”
She repeated, “I’ll be in soon.”
He gave up, left the window, and she continued shoveling. When men are scared or sad, they can’t cry so they tend to get angry. Usually Tom cleared the paths with his snowblower, but his knees had given out during a similar session in the last snowstorm. His son David had volunteered to do the snowblowing, but right now David would be busy digging out his own house. Sunrise was about seven-fifteen today—the days were getting longer!—and with sunrise the birds would come zooming to the feeders, which they’d almost emptied yesterday during their frantic efforts to keep stoked throughout the storm. She couldn’t let them find nothing this morning. What if a chickadee keeled over from starvation? So, after her shower, while Tom was taking his shower, she’d hurried downstairs into his workshop, the North Country Coffins factory on the ground floor, gone out to the porch, and started shoveling.
The problem was, they were getting old. Hell, they were old. Today was Wednesday, January 2, 2008. On his birthday in May, Tom would turn seventy. Sooner, in March, she’d be sixty-nine. And what jokes her dear friend Jean Pond Cram Hutchinson, aka Puddles, would make about that number!
Chop, lift, throw. She always did the tidying-up shoveling after Tom did the snowblowing. She could do this. Yet a sudden fear stabbed her. Had she used up all her courage, the daily courage necessary for daily existence and the courage for emergencies, for big stuff? Or was she maybe saving up any smidgen she had left of the quota of courage she’d been born with? Saving for the inevitable. She and Tom were old.
The black haze overhead had begun to lighten, pink. She heard a pickup truck set to work plowing. Ryan Hopkins, who had a home-services business, had arrived to plow out the parking lot of the little white clapboard post office next door. Beyond the post office was her store, the general store, whose parking lot Tom would be plowing out with his pickup after he did their driveway. The store opened at seven, and although people understood if she didn’t open on the dot during or after snowstorms, she started shoveling faster. Chop, lift, throw. Her mother had died of a heart attack at age sixty-three, but while asleep, not while shoveling. (That strange milestone, reaching the age at which a parent had died, then living onward, older than they. A mixture of feelings: relieved, victorious, guilty, grief-stricken.)
Triumphantly she arrived at the pole. A chickadee zipped past to alight atop it and yell at her.
“Hold your horses,” she admonished.
The suet feeder still held some scraps. She would do the messy job of refilling it later. She ran back along her path to the porch, into the workshop, where next to the back door stood a small garbage can with a metal scoop balanced on the lid. Instead of garbage, the can held sunflower seeds. After pausing to reach under her parka and into her jeans to adjust the waistband of her silk long underwear, she scooped up seeds. As she ran out toward the feeders trying not to spill, she felt as if she were in an egg-and-spoon race in a P. G. Wodehouse novel—and then she slid, slipped, and in a shocking split second landed flat on her back on the path.
Sprawled there, scared, she didn’t move. Had she broken any bones? Had she broken her back? She knew what Puddles would say at this moment: “Now will you listen to me? I keep telling you to spend the winters in South Carolina!” Well, actually, since Puddles was a nurse, the first thing Puddles would do would be to minister to her wounds.
Chickadees darted down and grabbed the seeds scattered on the snow, then flew away. Slowly she tested her arms and legs. She was okay. She might have some bruises. The surprise of the fall was the worst part. And the most difficult part would be sitting up and getting to her feet. She flailed around, seeking purchase, hoping that Tom hadn’t been looking out a window, hadn’t seen her comeuppance. When she did her morning exercises on the living-room floor, she had to haul herself up with the help of a nearby chair. No help here. She rolled onto her knees, picked up the scoop, shoved it into a parka pocket, and crawled on her hands and knees to the porch, then grabbed the screen-door handle and pulled herself upright. In the workshop, she refilled the scoop. She walked carefully back to the feeders, taking baby steps, remembering that Dorothy Parker had named her canary Onan because he spilled his seed upon the ground.
The sunrise was becoming gorgeous, a deep rosy flood of color.
She heard Tom’s Ford Ranger start up out front, and thus as she returned to the barn and stomped snow off her boots, she knew she would have the apartment to herself. She and Tom could still feel an exultant contentment about cohabiting these past twelve years after all the years apart, but some solitude was welcome too. She crossed the workshop, where two coffins were being built. Tom had mentioned that coffins were getting bigger because people were fatter as well as taller. She climbed the inside staircase and at the top removed her mittens, flexed her knobby arthritic knuckles, unzipped her parka. Into the kitchen she hurried, into the fragrance of coffee.
The apartment was small, built by Tom: this kitchen-and-living-room area, two bedrooms, a bathroom. Simple and practical, walls painted white, pine-board floors. She didn’t have time for coffee, she would be making some at the store, but she was so cold! A compromise; she lifted the Gevalia coffeepot and poured coffee only halfway up a black Bennington Potters mug.
Tom had traveled light after his divorce and his move from Newburgh in northern New Hampshire here to Woodcombe in the Lakes Region. He’d bought some basic furniture and built the rest, including the kitchen trestle table. He’d built cupboards, shelves, bookcases. When Joanne, his ex-wife, remarried, she shipped him a bookcase and a record-player-radio cabinet he had made in high school shop and had given to his parents, who years later, retiring to Florida, had given them to him and Joanne. After his mother died four years ago after his father’s death nearly twenty years before, he and his two brothers had chosen shares of her treasures, including his father’s souvenirs from the Philippines during World War II; Tom had got a handmade knife with a carved handle, a wooden plaque with a carving of the Philippine government seal, and a coolie hat (there must be some politically correct term for this nowadays).
But mostly the apartment seemed to Snowy packed to the ceiling with her own past. When in 1985 she and Alan, her husband, had bought Hurricane Farm and the Woodcombe General Store, the furniture they’d accumulated for their young-marrieds apartment in Eastbourne and their first house down in Pevensay, on New Hampshire’s seacoast, had been transported here. But two years later, after Alan committed suicide when the general store was going bankrupt, she’d had to sell the house to save the store, and she’d also sold most of their furniture, only keeping enough for the apartment over the store into which she and her daughter, Ruhamah, had moved. Most of that had remained with Ruhamah in that apartment when Snowy moved into Tom’s apartment in 1996, but after Ruhamah married and began furnishing her own home, Snowy and Ruhamah divvied things up. So Tom’s living room now held the Martha Washington chair and glass-fronted bookcases that Snowy and Alan had found in secondhand and antiques stores. Snowy had also taken her grandmother’s braided rug, now on this floor. Ruhamah had hoseyed the wing chair that had been Alan’s and the Oriental rug. On that rug, Snowy suddenly thought, baby Ruhamah had crawled, and this morning she herself had been crawling on a shoveled path.
Ruhamah would be thirty-seven in July. This seemed impossible. Well, a few of the houseplants throughout the apartment were nearly that old, such as the spider plant and Christmas cactus brought from Pevensay.
Snowy could see, across the living room on a wall in the bedroom, another of Tom’s mother’s treasures, the framed blue butterfly amid dried flowers and milkweed fluff that she had first seen in the living room of his parents’ house in Gunthwaite the night of his junior prom. The night they’d begun going steady.
Going steady! Unmarried, they were going steady all over again.
The spare room had become her office when she moved in, and it was filled with equipment, including a computer desk on which elegantly reposed a new Mac laptop, a Christmas present from Tom to replace her big green iMac. Also filing cabinets, bookcases, the little fireproof safe in which she kept the poems she was working on, and her old mahogany veneer desk given to her by her parents in junior high. For reading, there was a sun-faded aqua butterfly chair she’d discovered in an antiques store, just like the one she’d had at Bennington except that one had been orange.
Everywhere, the past.
The two place mats arranged upon the table had been woven forty-seven years ago, a wedding present for her and Alan. Around the kitchen on shelves and countertops was her mother’s collection of roosters, ceramic and otherwise, which in her teens she had despised, yet now she felt—well, the roosters were treasures. She had even started to add to it, most recently the rooster clock over the fridge.
The wall phone began ringing. Caller ID told her it was Bev Lambert (Beverly Colby Lambert), her best friend since elementary school, whose mother had woven those place mats. Bev wasn’t using her cell phone or calling from her real-estate office; she was calling from her home, Waterlight, a big old winterized summer cottage on the lake in Gunthwaite, so Snowy pictured her in her kitchen, which held many more loons than her own held roosters—loon curtains, loon dish towels, loon pot holders. Bev, green-eyed, her naturally curly short white hair once auburn, would be looking beautiful even first thing in the morning at age sixty-eight, and she’d be having coffee in a loon mug. Her loon kitchen clock would soon herald the hour with a loon’s primeval and maniacal yodel that could stop your heart. Snowy had made sure the rooster clock was a simple silent model before she gave in to the impulse purchase. But she knew she was on the lookout for rooster mugs. “Hi, Bev.”
“I just had a call from Ruhamah.” Lately Bev’s voice over the phone jiggled with a hurried haste, as if she were constantly in a rush. The Christmas rush, Snowy had thought, but now that season was over. Bev asked, “You know I was going to show her the Oakhill General Store today?”
“I’ve been trying to repress it.”
“Well,” Bev said, “she says that something’s come up, she’s too busy, she had phoned Rita and got her to fill in for both of you at the Woodcombe store.”
“Both of us?”
“Well, she asked me to call you and tell you this—and to show you the Oakhill store.”
Snowy cried, “What? She knows I won’t approve! She knows even the second store still makes me panic!” Three years ago Ruhamah had talked her into buying the general store in the neighboring town of Thetford. It was managed by a Thetford resident, Donna Welch. Now Ruhamah had taken a notion to buy a third store. The newscasts were reporting that last year had been the worst real-estate market in decades, but Ruhamah saw this as an opportunity. Did Ruhamah want to rule a general-store empire? “Besides,” Snowy said, “I’m well-acquainted with the Oakhill store—and so is she—and it’s a disaster. Moose Jackson got worn out and let it go to hell.” Moose was a widower in his seventies, once hale and hearty, now wizened and cantankerous. He had closed his store with a slam last September on the day after Labor Day, put it up for sale, and moved to his daughter’s place in Florida. The realtor with whom he’d listed the store had had no luck, so last week Moose had decided to give the listing to Beverly Lambert, Realtor. (“As,” Bev had said when she phoned Snowy and Ruhamah to report this before e-mailing them the details, “he should have done at the outset.”) He’d also lowered the price from $120,000 to $90,000, which grabbed Ruhamah’s attention. Snowy asked, “Have you been in it yet?”
“Of course,” Bev said. “And I know what you mean, but come have a look anyway. I think it really might have possibilities. And it’s a bargain!”
“There’s no apartment upstairs to live in or to bring in rent. No gas pumps. A general store needs both.” In bewilderment Snowy added, “Has Ruhamah taken leave of her senses?”
“Humor her,” Bev said. “This will be a chance to see each other.”
Yes, for almost a month they’d only been catching up by phone and e-mail, not in person. The last time she and Bev had got together had been in early December to attend Hillary Clinton’s visit to the Gunthwaite Conference and Convention Center, the first time they’d ever gone to any presidential candidate’s rally during the New Hampshire primaries. Then the holiday frenzy hit, with Bev and her husband, Roger, readying Waterlight for their family. This was what Bev loved, and the grandchildren now numbered four. Down in Connecticut her older son, Dick, and his wife, Jessica, had five-year-old Abigail and two-year-old Felicity. In Massachusetts her younger daughter, Etta, had finally married Steve, her veterinarian boyfriend, and produced one-year-old Jeremy. In Gunthwaite, Leon, her younger son, kept his count to one, ten-year-old Clem. Although in nearby Leicester her older daughter, Mimi, with husband Lloyd, resolutely remained at zero, Waterlight had brimmed with grandchildren at Christmas. As for Snowy’s Christmas, her roommate, Harriet, had come up from New York to spend the holiday with her Woodcombe boyfriend at the Gunthwaite house she’d bought for getaways, so of course there were visits to and fro fitted into the work schedules of Snowy and Tom and Ruhamah and her husband, D. J. (Dudley Washburn Jr.).
Seeing Bev would be good. Yet Snowy hesitated, fretting as usual. “But that’ll leave Rita handling the store alone.”
“The snowstorm’s aftermath should keep things slow.”
Not necessarily. Storms could make people head for the store, seeking company as well as groceries. However, Snowy suddenly, urgently, wanted to shove aside the daily routine, to escape, and she said, “Was it at nine that Ruhamah was going to meet you?”
“Yes. I assume the roads have been plowed. I’ve called Chip Bates, the man who plows and shovels out the store, and that’ll be done by the time we get there. God, a New Year’s Day storm—we’ll be receiving another barrage of e-mails from Puddles ordering us to borrow her Hilton Head home.”
During the six years of their marriage, Puddles and her second husband, Blivit Hutchinson, had driven from their home on the Maine coast down to South Carolina, to have Christmas with her twin daughters and her grandchildren, staying in the house in which Puddles had lived with her first husband, Guy Cram, and had kept after he died. Puddles and Blivit went back for occasional visits throughout the year, and Puddles repeatedly offered the house to Snowy and Bev, harping about it exasperatingly, maybe because of frugal Yankee guilt over an unused house. Snowy always told Bev almost everything, but she hadn’t confided a desire that had been brewing within her in recent years, a vague and confused longing for a fresh start in a new place, a wish that Puddles would instead offer her a place to stay on Quarry Island. Year-round. This Maine island was home to Blivit’s family, where the Hutchinsons’ famous ice-cream company had begun.
Bev was saying, “I’ll see you at the Oakhill store at nine.”
“Okay,” Snowy said and heard Bev’s loon clock begin its yodel.
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© 2017 by Ruth Doan MacDougall; all rights reserved