January title If you had the right plug-in, you would be hearing nice music now.
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     Now in our New England valley we begin the year with the big snow. We have an appointment with winter, and we are ready. The woodshed is stacked with seasoned applewood and maple, the snow shovel leans at the back door, the shelves are jammed with supplies. when the first innocent flakes drift down, we put out more suet and fill the bird feeders. (The grocer says he can't keep enough suet for everyone simply snatches it.)

     When the snow begins to come in all directions at once and the wind takes on a peculiar lonely cry, we pile more wood on the fire, and hang the old iron soup kettle over it, browning the pot roast in diced salt pork and onions. As the blizzard increases, the old house seems to steady herself like a ship against a gale wind. she has weathered too many winter storms to bother about a new one! Snow piles up against the windowpanes, sifts in under the ancient sills, makes heaps of powdered pear; on the ancient oak floors. But the house is snug in the twilight of the snow and we sit by the fire and toast our toes feeling there is much to be said for winter after all.

The Stillmeadow Road

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     It takes an open mind and a ready heart to appreciate winter in New England. The wind blows, the snow piles deep, the car gets stuck, and pipes freeze. It is easy to dream of the south Sea Islands, with coral beaches and sapphire water and strange tropical fruit dropping in your hand.

     But under the hard and bitter rind of winter, there is much loveliness. The white mystery of snow is a splendid thing; all the landscape is muted to deep silver laced with blue shadows. The meadow is a sea of pearl with scattered dark masts of brier riding the foam. The cool, clean smell of snow is in the air, a special fragrance known only to winter country.

     The sounds are fine too. The ring of skates on black ice on the pond, and the laughter of children making snowmen, and the soft thud of hoofs as the horses stamp in the barn on a frosty morning. The crackle of apple wood in the fireplace.

     January is drama in the season. Driving against the pane comes the sleet, and wild is the sound of the wind from the fierce heart of winter. The sky can be black as anthrecite and the drifts roll under it.

     In the house, there is a special sense of security. The house is as tight and snug as a ship. In the black kettle swinging from the crane, Cranberry Island stew is simmering. The range glows in the back kitchen, and beans are baking for Saturday-night supper. A few cockers are dripping on the hearth, and the cats are asleep on the hottest radiator.

     Dark comes down early, and in the country we eat supper by the time the night settles in, which means we are through early and have some time to read. The books we never got around to in the summer come into their own. I finally read Stendhal's le Rouge et le Noir, which gives such a picture of a different period and different emotions that it is like a journey to a new land.

     And all those vegetables and fruits we put down in the heat of summer in the freezer come out now, like new-picked treasures. Asparagus and sweet corn and the glowing ruby-red raspberries and strawberries taste like summer herself.

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Stillmeadow
Weather - terrible!

 

Dearest Barbara,
     This is a good day to sit small and snug by the applewood fire and hope the demon winter will miss the electric wires. Sleet laced with snow, a thundering wind, no sky at all, the old house like an early whaler riding it out. You would probably be out in it in your scarlet jacket and navy ski pants, but I am content to watch the chickadees and woodpeckers and blue jays and brown creepers and the two un-named little birds as they dart in from the pines and battle over the peanut butter and suet.
     When Jonquil and Teddy and Sister go out, their small cocker bodies skid over the crust, their ears fly, Sister comes right back in rolling like a snowball. The two blondes have a go at the birds and get a strong scolding from the hardy chickadees. " Chick-a-dee-DEE-DEE!"
     Teddy is almost a year old, and our very youngest cocker. I wish he could stay a baby rushing about with his rubber rabbit and rubber elephant both in his mouth: his grown-up coat is in since you saw him, all the delicate fuzz is gone and he has a shining smooth coat the color of a frosted maple leaf. Jonquil, his mother, has been trying to steal the toys all afternoon and getting nowhere.
     I have been writing letters, and every few minutes Teddy arrives plus rabbit and elephant and leans against me and asks do I STILL love him! Then Sister nudges him away with her compact black and white body and looks at me so earnestly. I love her too, I say. We all love everybody in the house. Maybe even the Guppy does for all I know.
     When the weather settles, we must get a Mrs. Guppy to keep him company. He looks so very small and lonesome winding his way around in a canning jar.

     Yesterday the men banging away in the cellar gave a horrible whack at a rotted sill and he and his bowl shot into the air and came to earth. He landed in one of the big cracks the old black oak floors are full of. Jill, who in all the years we have lived together has always risen rapidly to an emergency, scooped him out with a match folder and rushed him to a jar. She opines that fish really are a problem. But I told her it wasn't his fault, he was minding his own business in the water plant at the time.

     We saw the New Year in the very best way. Sitting by the fire and playing our favorite records, just six of us, and talking between times and feeling somehow secure in the steadfast house and the quiet fields and woods outside. I never was much of a horn-blower or confetti-thrower even before we moved to the country, and a roast goose on the old trestle table is better than a sliver of chicken at a night club for my money.

     After the New Year came in on the midnight, Jill and I had a few chores to do -dogs out, dogs in, Guppy moved to a warmer spot, the dishwasher to turn on, the heater to fill. Then a few minutes conversation. You'll be surprised to know we decided it was a fine thing we moved to the country just when we did and that the children had grass under their young feet so much of the time. Even when the mortgage reared its ugly head, we never regretted it and now it is fine to know everything is paid for, our forty acres -although how can man own God's earth? -and the 1690 farmhouse, and the barn, even the pond, and presumably the cricket chirping endlessly on the hearth is also ours.

     It seems only yesterday that we first came down this winding country road, knee-deep in ice water, leaving the real estate man to dig out his car. We had to get in through the cellar and the steps were half gone. We emerged into the coldest bleakest room in the world. And there was the fireplace with its hand-hewn stones and rusted iron fittings.
     "It's our house," I said firmly, through chattering teeth.

     I may tell you that those people who sail on rafts to Peru are not a bit more adventurous than we were at that time. Two women and three young children and three cocker spaniels and no well-heeled husbands to turn over their pay checks! It is still an adventure and the children are on their own, more or less, and the roof is tight and the freezer is full and the furnace is modern now.

     I just know a lot of people ask you why you moved out to the country and if you don't get bored in winter. I don't think anybody could get bored in the country. For one thing you can't sit down long enough. Things happen. Pipes bust, well goes dry, heaters go off, dogs get sick, mice arrive in the back kitchen. Japanese beetles swarm on the special roses. Company drives up; in the end, all the world comes to the country for weekends. and you hope there's time to do the laundry before the next batch comes round the mailbox corner.

     The house has smelled of wet cocker fur and lentil soup all day, a nice combination. I woke up to a much more violent smell and leapt to my feet and rushed to the kitchen.

     "No, the house is NOT on fire," said Jill calmly, "I only burned up the fat for the dogs' breakfast. It just flamed up."

     The whole house reeked with smoke and particles of soot sifted on my breakfast tray. But the only casualty was the stove asbestos mat which now looks like a barbecue grill. And Jill had sprayed everything with the fire extinguisher which left a white chalky silt all over.
     But the house was definitely not on fire!

     Your stone house is not such a fire hazard, but when you think that the old clapboards of Stillmeadow were hand cut over 200 years ago and the old batten doors, painted and painted down the years, and the wide floor boards, oiled and waxed and oiled and waxed, are not   exactly fireproof anywhere, you do think about fire.

     But fire is everywhere. when I make a maternal visit to Connie, who has an apartment near Columbia where she teaches, I often leap up in the night and watch the great massive fire engines swish past the stop lights at the corner and wonder just who is tumbling out of bed and running for the street. City folk never know where the fire is, but we in the country listen to our siren and know. And the volunteer firemen drop their ploughs or saws or let the cows stand in the stalls waiting to be milked and fly over the roads. George, the one you met who is our neighbor and helps with the kennel and furnace, is a top fireman. He works a full fourteen-hour day but often jumps up at two in the morning and starts his old car and dashes off to fight the common valley menace, and gets at his chores at six the next morning without any thought that he is a homespun hero.

 

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2.

You must know George better. Although he is the son of a Lithuanian refugee from a long-time ago, he is the Yankeeist of Yankees. cheerful always, hard working, close-mouthed, he goes his way. If he does something extra special for us and we thank him, he blushes and looks at the ground and says, "Must help neighbors -" He has only one day off a year, and that is the day he rises early, plucks chickens, drives to the Firemen's Clambake and cooks and serves all day. for this he wears a new blue shirt and dark pants and looks handsome. Once in three years he and his wife go to Danbury Fair. And that is all. Whenever he comes stamping in to get the dog food for the kennel and I see his wide and shining smile, I think of all the neurotic people in the world who believe they have a hard life! He will always stop to bring in extra wood or fuss with the water pump which is making wild sounds downstairs, or get the car started on a sleety morning, or shovel a path to the gate or go for the mail.

     And if we are in trouble, we simply go to the gate and scream and he materializes from the barn or the upper fields, on a swift bending lope. Quite a guy.

     A few months ago, a dog warden phoned him that a stray dog had turned up and he would have to shoot her-so George now has this odd blonde mongrel along with his old farm shepherd. Naturally, in course of time, the blonde presented him with eight mongrel puppies. Bedded in sweet warm hay in the cow barn, they grew and grew, all different shapes and colors and sizes. Now when I look out in the morning, I see George in his thin jacket and old pants and worn boots walking across the yard in that curious gait that farm men have. He is followed by five assorted puppies, and about ten mixed cats and kittens. On the way to the barn, he sets down his milk pail and scoops up a handful and nuzzles them. If I go out, I can hear him talking small squeaky baby talk to them.

     George is in his thirties, but his face is as rosy and his eyes as bright as a tee-ager. Now and then he tells me that he feels his age when he has caught cold from some really silly thing like wading in ice water half the day. I measure out two aspirin tablets and make him swallow them. He always thinks that "medcine" does good.

     He knows every one of our ten dogs by personality. "That Blazer," he will say, "he don't eat so good if Tiki is there. I better move him. That Jerry he eats his all up and takes Hildegarde's. I gotta watch."

     He feeds the dogs in the kennel in the morning and refills the heaters. Jill gives them their afternoon snack and checks again. The house dogs take their turn being kennel dogs, as we have decided five are all we can have in the house at night. The beds aren't big enough. It is a good thing you aren't raising Danes. duke is big enough for a whole house by himself. And one thing about cockers, you can have more of them. I won't argue about the Irish. when Daphne runs through the house, everything falls down.

     Life with the Irish is not easy. It has color, excitement, great charm, but presents problems. for one thing, Daphne is so much smarter than we are. We have given up spelling words out in front of her, we even try not to think anything we don't want her to sense instantly.

     Just let the idea pop in my head that we might call on a neighbor and Daphne is already at the door, standing on her hind toes and firmly turning the knob with her teeth. She then unhooks the screen with a casual paw and clears the high picket fence in one shining leap, and by the time we are collected, she is in the car.

     On the rare occasions when we just can't take her with us, she is perfectly aware that Jill is going to put her in the kennel. She stays just out of reach, waving her beautiful plume of a tail amiably but never letting Jill catch her. No ruse succeeds. Jill may mount to the haymow and Daphne follows with her usual curiosity. At the door she turns and bounds away. Jill calls her in the house. Daphne gets just as far as the door, draws back and gives Jill a knowing look and is off to the pond to chase frogs.

     "Well we just can't go," says Jill wearily after an hour of this. We sit down and have a cup of coffee. We say hard things about the impossible Irish. Presently a very soft velvet nose nudges us. There is Daphne, sweeter than a June rose.

     "You," says Jill, "why do we keep you?"
     Daphne kisses her warmly.

     Then we   feel guilty shutting her up and as we drive away, the betrayed look on her face is hard to bear.

     When she has had enough Obedience Training, she will be so much easier to handle. She hasn't had enough yet to carry the effect over into her social life.

     You will be surprised at how much difference it makes in your life with Duke, giving him a course in Obedience. There is nothing to compare with it.

     Connie was here for the weekend. Do you ever feel surprised at how your Ned has grown up? Surely it was only yesterday that I was buttoning her into her fuzzy pink bunny suit! Now she is reviewing her Anglo-Saxon and getting ready for the German Ph.D exams.

     A year in the country seems like a small unit of time. Or is it that we are growing older?

     I seldom stop to count back to the time when Jill and I began to dream of a house in the country where the children could spend the summers in the sun. Now and then on a Monday morning we are thankful all over that we are not packing up and rushing back to jobs, she to the Welfare Department and I to Columbia. but usually we are too busy living to look back.

     Even the natives have stopped calling our place "the old Oxford Pheasant Farm" although there were times when I thought it would always be that. So I believe, on thinking it over, that we are just part of the community for as long as we live.

     This is a fine thought to go into a new year with.

     Now I wish you all the blessings a New Year can bestow, and plenty of those fabulous guinea hens for the pot.

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Stillmeadow and Sugarbridge

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     What the new year will bring, we cannot know. I think of the year that has been folded away in time. There has been much good in it, although some sorrow. but here are always, in any year, many lovely memories, and I shall cherish them. Life is not, for most of us, a pageant of splendor but is made up of many small things, rather like an old fashioned piecework quilt. no two people have the same, but we all have our own, whether it be listening to Beethoven's Fifth with a beloved friend or seeing a neighbor at the back door with a basket of white dahlias. Or after a long, hard day having the family say, "That was a good supper."

     As the clock moves irrevocably from yesterday to today, I go out on the terrace and fill my heart with the intensity of the winter moonlight. This is the time when the heart is at peace and the spirit rests. I think of the words, "Be still, and know that I am God." Far off a branch falls in the old orchard, and sometimes a plane goes overhead bound for a far destination. I wish the pilot well, in that cold sky, and hope the passengers come safely home. Silently I say, "Happy New Year to all of us, all over this turning earth. and may we make it a year of loving-kindness and gentle hearts."

Stillmeadow Calendar

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Back to January, Part One

Gladys Taber Page One / Gladys Taber Page Two

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I created the background,  title,  matching graphics, 
and painted the picture of Gladys as a child -especially for this site.
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Copyright 1997, 1998. Susan Stanley.

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