House for Sale, March 1995
That's the only visible evidence that this old farmhouse in Nelson,
New Hampshire, was once the home of writer May
Sarton. But somehow, her presence still fills its rooms ...
Happy the man who can long roam-ing reap,
Like old Ulysses when he shaped his course
Homeward at last toward the native source,
Seasoned and stretched to plant his dreaming deep.
When shall I see the chimney smoke once more
Of my own village; in a fervent hour
When maples blaze or lilac is in flower
Push open wide again my plain white door?
Here is a little province, poor and kind --
Warmer than marble is the weathered wood;
Dearer than holy Ganges, the wild brook;
And sweeter than old Greece to this one mind.
A ragged pasture, open green, white steeple,
And these whom I have come to call my people.
- May Sarton
She etched that poem into one of the window lights next to the front door," Nancy Stretch told us. "We were afraid someone might accidentally break the glass, so we removed it and had it framed. It should stay with the house forever." She handed us the pane.
The etching looked spidery. We tried to imagine May Sarton, by then in her sixties, pressing her diamond tool just firmly enough to make her letters, but not so hard as to break the glass. Homeward at last to the native source, / Seasoned and stretched to plant his dreaming deep. That is exactly what May Sarton had done some 40 years ago, when she moved in her 45th year to this little hilltop village, before she'd become a well-known writer of poems, essays, and journals. She had been born in Belgium and had rented a small house for many years in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her parents had both died, though, and May found herself haunted by the family heirlooms that she had no room for. She stored them, temporarily, in a nearby cellar. "How long would they stay alive?" she wrote. "And how long would the life in me stay alive if it did not find new roots?"
By fate, with no clear sense of where she might settle or why, she ended up looking at a dilapidated old farmhouse just north of Mount Monadnock. The house came with open fields and a wild brook, next to the church in the remote village of Nelson, New Hampshire. She knew nothing about old houses, nothing about country living, yet she heard an oriole sing, and something in the place touched her. She moved in October, following extensive renovations, and settled into a home where she would write and live in happy solitude for close to 20 years. The place and its people became a part of her and defined much of her writing. It was, in a way, like coming home. In Plant Dreaming Deep, May Sarton wrote, "I have brought all that I am and all that I came from here, and it is the marriage of all this with an old American house which gives the life here its quality for me. It is a strange marriage and its like does not exist anywhere else on earth ...."
We handed the glass pane back to Nancy. A couple of framed, old black-and-white photographs of the house hung on another wall of the bedroom. "Those should stay, too," said Mark Stretch, Nancy's husband. They had bought the house from May Sarton in 1973. It was clear how much her presence still filled the rooms.
Mark recalled the day they first saw the house. "The realtor had warned us not to ask any questions of May, not to say anything. Apparently May had already thrown out a couple of prospective buyers who'd said something she didn't like. So we were nervous when we arrived, but May was very pleasant to us. She asked us if we planned to have children. I was 23 at the time, Nancy was 19. We glanced at each other, taken a little by surprise. 'Yes -- eventually,' we told her. 'Good!' she said. 'This house needs children.'"
We wandered back downstairs, through the corner room where May had done her writing. "I remember when we first saw the house," said Nancy. "She had a little Sheltie in a playpen near her writing desk." Windows face out to the white church and a row of mailboxes in front of the small green -- as classic a small village as you'll find anywhere in New England. Amber autumn light streams in through the old glass, which is distorted just enough to give the illusion of looking through a clear pool of water. May Sarton loved the way light moved through the house. One of the first changes she'd made here was to paint all the walls white. ("Besides making a good background for the Flemish furniture," she wrote, "white would reflect all the light the house would hold.") Among their own changes, Mark and Nancy added pine wainscoting or raised paneling to most of the walls, giving the house more of an antique feeling. But the light is still nice.
We walked into the dining room ("She called this the 'cozy room,'" Nancy said) then back into the long kitchen, where, over a lunch of homemade bread and corn chowder, we looked through a photo album of the work Mark and Nancy had done here: the new dormer along the back of the house; the enclosed back porch; the conversion of the front porch into a sunroom; the new horse barn. All of the work seems to blend nicely with the house's age. "But you have to see something before we walk outside," said Mark. He led us down through the basement to a surprise: dual arched doorways, one leading to a hot tub, the other to a sauna. "We call this the California room," said Nancy, who is originally from Bridgton, Maine. "Either that or the 'Adult Recreational Facility.'" We wondered what May Sarton would make of the room, but probably could have guessed. The Stretches mentioned she'd been disappointed to hear about some of the other work they'd done. "Just as we will be," said Nancy, "when the next owners make their own mark on the house."
We walked outside. The air was sharp, but the sun felt warm on our skin. A newly painted picket fence traces the border of the 50-by-70-foot garden. "I think May would like that," said Nancy, referring to May's love of flowers and gardens. The barns look sturdy and are being used. The fields that had become overgrown in recent years are clear again, part of them fenced for horses and showing a little wear. Next door, the tall church gleamed in the afternoon light. A ragged pasture, open green, white steeple -- a line from the etched poem came back to us, its subject little changed through the years since it was written. It was easy to see what had spoken to May Sarton when she first saw this place, what had spoken to Mark and Nancy 20 years later. Whatever that something was, it is still speaking.
A few days later, we talked on the phone with May Sarton, who has lived with a view of the Atlantic Ocean in York, Maine, since moving from Nelson. She has just completed her 13th book of poems, Coming into Eighty. Her ninth journal, Encore, was published last year. She now counts some 50 books still in print. "I'm beginning to feel as if I've made it," she said.
She apologized for her cold, which made her sound tired. Her health has not been good.
"Leaving Nelson was one of the saddest days of my life," she said. "I will never own another house. No other house will ever appeal to me as much as that one did. I always thought I wanted to live by the sea. The view here is splendiferous, but it's not the same. I miss everything about Nelson -- the neighbors, the town, the mountain ... " Her voice trailed off.
We said good-bye, wished her well. We thought about Mark and Nancy Stretch, who are leaving Nelson to pursue their own longtime dream of running an inn -- a summer-only Victorian resort back in Nancy's hometown of Bridgton. We silently wished them well, too, knowing they must feel the same kind of apprehension May Sarton had when she made the leap from being a renter in Cambridge to the owner of a falling-down house in the country.
In Plant Dreaming Deep, she wrote about the fateful decision: "In the end I knew I would have to trust to instinct, not estimates .... What I came back to was that moment of silence, and the oriole. Everything here has been a matter of believing in intangibles, of watching for the signs, of trying to be aware of unseen presences. In the end the oriole tipped the scales."
Here's to the oriole. Here's to Mark and Nancy, returning homeward at last to their own native source.
The house, along with the two barns, garden shed, and 14.8 acres, is listed with Heather Peterson of The Petersons, Inc., 42 Grove St., Peterborough, NH 03458; 603-924-3321. The asking price is $289,000.
Yankee Magazine, March 1995