The day after I passed my ninth grade finals, I began a summer job at a country inn. The tips weren’t great, but I liked the way the long, lace-edged apron over the housekeeping uniform made me look older. And I could practice my French; many of the tourists who passed through Bethlehem, NH in those days were Canadians following Route 302 from Vermont down to the Maine coast. My morning shift ended at 2, but I wouldn’t have minded extra hours, and not just for the money. Like other kids who lived out of town, my social outings were limited. When I got home I did chores.
If Daddy hadn’t gotten hurt, I’m not sure what I would remember from that summer. I had made a new friend who lived next to a tennis court and was teaching me to play. A local Smith College alumna had noticed my report card and offered to show me the campus in the fall. I had discovered Loren Eisely’s writing and dreamed of revisiting my mother’s western roots. I seemed to be starting, at last, to find my own way.
July 20, 1972, though, would leave a mark on our lives as indelible as my father’s limp. Although he walked again, after the injury he carried a cane and hobbled, a kind of rolling gait like a sailor on deck in a rough sea. Some people who only knew him as an old man assumed he had been wounded in the war; he had enlisted in the Army in January of 1942. But when such thoughts were shared aloud, Daddy was quick to correct them; he was a grateful non-combatant, stationed stateside during World War II and most of his 20 years’ service.
More often, a visitor who saw our shingle mill might guess he’d gotten cut on that. It was easy to imagine a thousand ways the 19th-century machine could hurt you. Daddy was always splicing the belt, sharpening the saw, oiling and adjusting the gears and levers to keep it running smooth. Mounted in the iron belly of the two-and-a-half-ton behemoth was a huge steel blade, thirty-six inches across, which spun so fast you couldn’t see its shark teeth as it sliced raw softwood into hundreds of neat shingles by the hour. To power the monster, Daddy ran a belt from the engine of his best tractor to the mill’s driveshaft. Between the main saw and where the operator stood was a smaller, enclosed planer, exposed only through a slot just wide enough to insert a rough shingle to be trimmed. The big saw screeched as it consumed the sixteen-inch blocks of pine and white cedar my father fed it, but the hidden blade made a muffled, fluttering noise, like a giant shuffling its cards.
On his Franconia farm in the 1920s and 30s, my Grandfather Davis had owned a Lane Manufacturing mill just like it—possibly the same one. Growing up around such a dangerous machine my father respected its power, and he never got hurt on it. It would be a small, common saw that bit him; the mill actually became part of his recovery. Long after the workplace accident that nearly killed him, Daddy sometimes recalled that July day with a wry joke. He would tap his left knee with his cane and say he had been wounded in the “War on Poverty.” His was a survivor’s laugh.
Afterwards, people said how strong my mother was, how tough. No one thought of trauma counseling, and anyway how would she have found the time? She taught school all year, played the organ at church on Sundays, and worked summers. The three of us still at home were 14, 15, and 17; our big sisters were 22 and 24, trying to finish college and find good jobs. Mama was always driving somewhere for them, and this was long before I-93 was finished.
The fifth of his mother’s ten children, my father was orphaned, or semi-orphaned if you prefer, at age 13; his mother died suddenly of pneumonia, and he was one of the younger children who would be farmed out. He worked his way through Franconia’s Dow Academy as (what was then called) a ward of the state, I believe. His work ethic was ever his ace. He worked his way to Master Sergeant in the Army, promoted until his sleeve was filled with stripes. In 1963 he retired and returned to New Hampshire to find new work, mostly in the building trades. Eventually, the mill helped him make a living from the cordwood, lumber, and shingles he could take from our land on the Bethlehem Moraine. (A vein of glaciated boulders, gravel, and fine white sand ran through our place which once totaled more than fifty acres: twenty wooded, twenty wet, and the rest rocky, old-farm clearings.)
Work clothes replaced his uniform. He could never have enough green twill shop coats, flannel shirts, corduroy coats, canvas coveralls or nail aprons, mostly bought at the Sears and Army/Navy stores over the Vermont line. From an Amish catalog he sent for wool overalls with red suspenders. In the diamond heart of January, they kept him warm cutting up a tree deep in the woods or standing by the mill for hours. In summer he wore a chambray shirt and blue denim work pants or overalls, like James Agee wrote about in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
When I was in grade school, Daddy left the house about 6 am and his Dodge pick-up truck turned in to the drive about the time the school bus dropped us off at the bridge. He would come in, set his black lunch pail on the kitchen table, and set to work at home. In a pinch he cooked supper, usually chowder, omelets, or an Army recipe called “Salmagundi” (don’t ask). When I was old enough, I took my turn packing his two-sandwich lunch, except for the coffee, which my mother poured bubbling hot from an aluminum percolator into his stainless steel thermos by dawn’s early light.
He cut wood for the fire, plowed the driveway in winter, scythed brush in summer, and was always improving the house. Many workaday smells remind me of him: wood smoke and linseed oil; pipe tobacco and two-cycle engine exhaust; wet mortar and lead solder; goldenrod and green hay; stove black, shoe polish, melted paraffin; the pink fungicide from the seed corn only he touched and then only with gloves.
If he brought home the bacon, put bread on the table, and kept the wolf from the door, he drove himself to enjoy life too. We went downtown Friday nights (that was when the banks stayed open late so working people could cash their paychecks), visited our local Davis cousins whenever we could, and went to church most Sundays—always Christmas and Easter. Pine resin, the fragrance of the North Woods, clung to his wardrobe even when he was dressed up.
In winter when the snow was right and the moon was full, he would take us night sledding. He had cut a long toboggan run down our steepest hill and when we flew down it he would whoop; we just hung on to the belt of his storm coat and hoped to land safely at the bottom, where he taught us to turn sideways and ditch the sled before we hit the fence that marked the end of our property. In summer he’d take us to Forest Lake, but it seems like all that fun was before he got hurt, which became, somehow, part of our growing up.
By the time I started high school he worked longer hours than ever, building his own business. Besides doing tree work, he was taking on small residential projects, as well as the odd jobs he had long done for summer people and second-homers. My mother kept his accounts, and made sure the taxes were paid and the bills were sent out. Now you could set your watch by how he appeared for supper at five o’clock, when we were supposed to have it served, piping hot.
Summer always meant time with our Davis relatives, and 1972 looked especially promising, because Franconia was celebrating its 200th anniversary. My same-age cousin Wendy was up from Rhode Island and had been staying with us. It was nearly five o’clock when her mother came to pick her up; Aunt Ginny had hoped to see her brother Eddie, but the hour came and went without any sign of Daddy. We ate supper, changed into good clothes, and waited, ready to go to the first festivities in Franconia as soon as Daddy got home.
Six o’clock, and still no sign of Dad. Any minute it seemed the truck would turn into the drive or the phone would ring.
It was still light when my mother began to make phone calls, calling everyone she knew who might possibly have a clue as to where our father was. “Have you seen Eddie?” she would say into the black receiver on the wall by the window that looked out on the drive.
Between calls she would turn to us. “Where could he be?” she would ask. Did we think he had gone to Canada? People did sometimes. It was only seventy miles away.
Sunset, then dark. Still no Eddie. No news is not always good.
My mother stopped phoning and began pacing. She kept asking, “Where is your father? Where do you think he got to?”
We couldn’t imagine. Except for the time we boiled honey over on her new Corning ware stovetop, my father never asked us to keep secrets from our mother. We looked again and again at the clock above the telephone on the kitchen wall for an answer as it measured our dread.
Just past nine o’clock, my mother answered the phone—on the first ring. “Mrs. Ed Davis,” she said. She wore a homemade flower-print dress with tiny white picket fences running diagonally between blue and red forget-me-nots. She stood still with her back to us, just listening.
I was sitting at the kitchen table, staring at its Formica surface, patterned with silvery ice cubes suspended in water. Bought new in Denver, it had gleaming yellow and chrome accents, and already seemed part of the golden past.
“No,” I heard my mother say. “Do you know where Eddie is?”
A pause while she listened.
“Yes,” she said. “Yes, of course I’m worried.”
She hung up and again turned to us. “Isn’t that strange?” she said. “That was the hospital, asking me if I know where Eddie is.”
Ten minutes later, the hospital called again. “We have Eddie,” they told her. She should come right away. He hadn’t wanted to tell her he was hurt, they said, or they would have called sooner. He had wanted to wait until morning to call, but now he had lost a lot of blood. No one dared keep the news from her any longer.
She put the phone back in its cradle. “He’s gotten hurt,” she said. “He’s lost a lot of blood. They said to come now.” She gathered up her purse and car keys, and disappeared into the dark.
What was a lot of blood? I wondered. At such times, your thinking mind seems to need to keep its distance from your feeling one.
It seems strange now that the hospital didn’t call and tell my mother what was going on. I should explain that my father had worked a couple of years as the hospital’s maintenance manager, and he knew a lot of people there, which was partly how he had convinced them they shouldn’t call his wife. Regardless of the lapse in communication, his friends took good care of him that night, and he survived.
About midnight, my mother got back from the hospital, and she stood in the yard for the longest time. I went out and asked her what she was doing. She was listening to the sound from the drive-in movie and watching the fireflies, she said. That was back when the old Midway Theatre out on the Whitefield Road ran double features. From our yard you could see the screen flickering through the half-mile of woods that separated us, close enough to hear the music come up at the end. But what my mother was really listening for was the sound the world makes when it is going on without you.
When she finally came in, she told us more. Daddy had been cutting boards to fix a porch, somewhere over the County Line, a location that still sounds like a place in a Country & Western song. The guard on the six-inch hand-held power saw had failed and come off, somehow, in the indeterminate way accidents so often happen. But the blade kept working, had gone right ahead into his left thigh at a neat forty-five-degree angle, just above the knee. Where you would naturally press something toward you that was slipping away, Mama said. It had cut into muscle, artery, and even nicked bone. The wound was deep and serious, but it must have been relatively clean.
Daddy’s luck had turned when a combat veteran in the house across the street had seen the accident or seen him stumble off the porch afterwards, holding his leg and bleeding. Over and over through the years we would hear how the unknown soldier had run over and with a towel rigged a tourniquet. I don’t know that man’s name today, but I should. I believe he had served in World War I, because he was much older than Daddy, who had just turned 50. For a long time, when Daddy told the story, he would stop talking after he said “tourniquet.” He had blacked out that day, and I’m not sure he remembered the ambulance driving him to the hospital. Also, it was the end of the first part of his life, and he was still getting used to the idea.
People do strange things to keep their sanity. My mother went back out to the car that night to get a green plastic bag labeled “Personal Belongings.” Daddy’s keys were in it, plus the clothes he had been wearing when he got hurt.
The next morning, when I came downstairs to shower, I found the tub filled with red water, filling the small pine-paneled bathroom with a smell of rust, salt, iron—the smell of blood. Floating in the water with the ruined work pants were thousands of black specks, like black flies.
What’s in the tub? I asked.
Lots of tiny, tiny little pieces, my mother said.
Shouldn’t we let the water out? I asked.
She wasn’t ready, she said. The pants needed to soak.
So, instead of taking a shower I took a bar of soap and a towel to the pond across the road. My mother was enough afraid of us drowning or being molested by a fisherman that if it had been an ordinary day she never would have allowed any of us to go there alone.
When I got back I saw her kneeling beside the tub, wringing out the fabric. She drained the bath and refilled it several more times until the water cleared and the pants were blue again. Then she hung them on the clothesline, as if one-legged work pants were nothing unusual. This was how she got through the day after, and the day after that too. The quotidian tasks steadied her, gave her a path to set her feet in. This was the first lesson.
My mother had not been a worrier. But no one could yet imagine how my father would get back on his feet, get back to work. His Air Force “retirement” was not half enough to cover the bills. (My parents called it “supplemental income.”) Mama was working at the same inn I was, and for the rest of the summer I turned my pay envelope over to her; I’ve been told that should never have happened, but I was grateful there was a way I could help.
My first grade teacher, Edith Stevenson, and her husband Fred owned the Valley View Inn, about five miles away from home, west across Cherry Valley. Mrs. Stevenson had befriended my mother when we first moved to the North Country, and she had become like the grandmother I’d never known. Now I called her “Muffin” like her other friends did—at least when we were out of school. Without making me feel sorry for myself, Muffin understood. Some days she’d keep me on after my mother had clocked out and gone home. I might eat lunch in the kitchen with her and Fred; they were both excellent cooks. While she finished up her work, she would send me to play the piano in the sitting room, water the geraniums on the patio, or dangle my feet in the pool. Then she would drive me home.
Sometimes we went the long way, down overgrown Wilson Road. Narrow and unpaved, it meandered through small old farms and wooded tracts that hadn’t been cut in a hundred years. When we passed her friend Chloe’s house she would tell me what fun they had playing French card games on Saturday nights. Muffin taught me how to play “Mille Bournes” too. Other days we took Cherry Valley Road to avoid Long Hill and would stop at the Prospect behind Lyster’s Farm to look across to Mts. Washington, Jefferson, and Adams in the blue distance.
If the air of home was uncertain, with Muffin I could breathe. She made me look up, made me keep opening my eyes to the beauty that remained. It was like in first grade when she had written Look on the chalkboard. Then she was teaching me to read. Now she was trying to show me that life would go on.
It seemed like Daddy would never come home. When Mama took us to visit him, he would be on the east porch of the old hospital; she would bring paperwork and they would go over it. But towards the end of August he finally came home, pale and quiet. The first thing he did was change into a work shirt and a pair of khaki shorts that he could pull on over the full-length cast. After a few days of hobbling around on crutches, he grew restless and started up the mill. He wanted to “stay useful,” he said. And the garage needed shingling.
The next week, we celebrated my parent’s twenty-fifth anniversary with a homemade three-layer cake, decorated with roses of pressed white gumdrops and the so-called edible silver-coated decorations grocery stores used to sell. The crutches lean against the dining room wall in all the pictures, and my parents look a bit shell-shocked, but by then Daddy was getting better. He had begun putting weight on the leg, to take a few steps each day. It looked like he would walk again. Maybe he would smile again too.
For a while it seemed like the worst was over, like we would regain the lost ground. But my mother knew things would never be the same—what might have gone into launching us into the world went in to Daddy’s recovery. She despaired at sending her three youngest to college. She wondered how the family would afford two vehicles, or finish the addition to the house. Summer trips were out of the question; relatives would have to visit us. Yet how could it have been otherwise? He had always been both our navigator and our North Star—the light and the way. His injury cast us adrift, and would make us vulnerable in ways we had never imagined.
The pressure to choose a vocation and find work intensified, but my parents were distracted. Our middle-class aspirations were falling through the safety net along with whatever had been saved for college. My mother signed my tenth-grade course selections that September without noticing that I had checked “Geometry Two” over the college prep “Section One.” “Studio Art” was offered for the first time at Littleton High, which was wonderful, but I began to spend study halls making pottery and painting abstract series, avoiding other study in the language lab and library.
Things cascaded; the next year my nearest older sister left home right after high school to go to work.
By the time I was taking SAT’s in the fall of my senior year she was barely 19, already married, already expecting a baby. It was only natural my parents hadn’t noticed my growing indifference to such milestones as college entrance exams. My scores were well below my PSAT’s.
But my mother had been following a story in The Littleton Courier. A summer resident of Bethlehem (Jason Somerville) had left our town’s high school students a legacy to pursue higher education. Graduates of the class of 1975 like myself were among the first to benefit. If the scholarship hadn’t landed at my feet, though, perhaps I would have become a nurse, like my father’s youngest sisters Marge and Helen. They weren’t letting me give up on myself. Without this support, my world might have shrunk to the fabric counter at Woolworth’s, my mother was so overwhelmed. She had begun to say “no” to anything involving new ambition, outside influences, or travel further than Burlington; Lake Champlain had become the new “West Coast.”
The garden that was so emblematic of our house and land grew smaller too. That was the last year we planted all three fields, and the first year we did not get all the potatoes dug. Relatives visited. One of Daddy’s lodge brothers (Alistair MacBain) mowed the lawn every other week. Church ladies helped my mother make pickles and jam and put up the garden. My mother’s family probably sent money. Summer had always been a time to sew, but not that summer. My father’s Rhode Island sisters brought us school clothes.
The cast stayed on past Labor Day, and became mottled in gold, bronze, and purple—bruise colors. When it finally came off my mother checked the long scar more than necessary. Sometimes, she would run her finger along it and say, “Eddie. Oh Eddie.”
My parents lived another thirty years. Through that time the shingle mill provided him with steady work. It was a one-man operation, except when Daddy fell behind with a big order, and then we would help him spread them out to dry on the sandbank behind the mill. The fresh cut shingles smelled wonderful, like Christmas trees, with the resin oozing up like beads of dew along the bark edge. They dried to a light gold and then whoever could would pitch in and turn them to dry on the other side before carting them back to the mill to be bundled, which was rainy day, indoor work. Wing Road shingles were first-rate, with the weather edge clear of all knots and flaws, and in demand for as long as my father made them. They kept him useful.
As Christians, we were brought up to privilege the spiritual over the material, but the things people leave behind can haunt you just the same. After my parents passed away, and I was sorting out a closet, I found something that brought me back to that summer day Daddy got hurt.
I recognized the gray-painted box. Heavy for its size, it was made of hard southern pine and lined in lead; it was designed to hold ammunition. You locked it down by tightening two wing nuts on long bolts, the way you close an old-fashioned racket press. The only ammunition my father owned were blanks for a parade rifle, but we used the chest, a relic from his 1942 basic training, the way other families used a safe. For a while we stored matches, candles, and batteries in it; I suppose it might have come in handy in a power outage or the atomic catastrophe we lived in such fear of. Everything would be lit up, we’d been told. I remember as a child wakened by thunder and lightning, certain that the big bomb had finally dropped and the world was coming to an end.
Curious now, I spun the wing nuts off and lifted the lid. I shouldn’t have been surprised to find it filled with cloth; my parents saved all kinds for mending. As I lifted out layer after layer of blue chambray, red flannel, olive Army wool, and khaki twill, I thought of the Bible verse, “do not sew new cloth to old,” a favorite of my mother’s when she was figuring out how to patch a garment.
At the bottom of the box, I came to the clean work pants, neatly folded, and faded to that inimitable pale indigo only denim acquires, with the triple-stitches of the felled seams still gleaming gold-brown. Thirty-four by thirty-two, Dad’s size. The left leg had been shredded off above the knee. The pants had not been further altered nor used for mending. How unlike Mama to have kept something neither useful nor beautiful. Still so potent, so able to return me to that morning when she had knelt by the tub wringing out the blue denim in the red water, the fabric told part of her story. Like a cancelled check or an old deed, it spoke to what she had lived through.
I wished I hadn’t found it, hadn’t seen it, hadn’t touched it. Why did the mutilated cloth frighten me? Because it reminded me of what we can only learn from experience? Maybe worse, I think it reminded me that we are always at the mercy of chance. The fact that my mother had saved the pants has since convinced me that she too was injured that day, and that her recovery was less complete than my father’s.
Though my mother had saved the cloth forever, I wanted to be rid of it immediately. What the hell! We burned quite a few things that summer, and as soon as I had the chance I threw the pants in the fire.
A 1960s social welfare program promoted by President Lyndon Johnson.
 Like Bethlehem and Franconia, Littleton is a small town in the western White Mountains, located north of the Presidential and Franconia ranges and east of the Connecticut River. The largest of these three North Country towns, Littleton boasted the only public high school between 1963 and 1976, when the new Profile High School opened its doors to students from Bethlehem, Easton, Franconia, and Sugar Hill.
 My father was stationed at Lawry Field, the “Strategic Air Command” base in Denver, where we lived during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962.
Image: “ Laundry” by [kajsa] , licensed under CC BY 2.0
- Sugar on Snow - June 13, 2020
- Tourniquet - November 14, 2017