Sewing with Nancy

Last summer, the producer of the nationally televised PBS show, Sewing with Nancy, got in touch with the Parkinson’s Comfort Project to ask if we would be willing to talk our efforts on the air.

Does anyone ever say no to a request like that?

No, I didn’t think so.

They sent us a mini television studio in a box about the size of a small air conditioner complete with microphones, tiny camera, laptop, lights, wires and plugs with instructions on how to hook it all up and connect with the folks at Sewing with Nancy via Skype.

The interview, which I did, is now available online. And you can watch it here: Sewing with Nancy interview.

Enjoy!

Betcha Can’t Write Just One

True confession—I am so not a fan of the New Yorker’s short stories. To me, and this is a heretical act in the literary world, none of their stories contain anyone to like. There’s just angst, angst and then…nothing.
Peanuts for web
With so many lively, entertaining, thoughtful, and funny things to read, why spend precious reading time on such depressing stuff? And wouldn’t the authors have benefited more from having coffee with a close friend instead of inflicting their psychoses on the rest of us?

I guess my pronounced apathy (antipathy maybe?) to those short stories made me think I would never want to write them.

Oooh, I was so wrong.

With two Carding novels at different stages of development (Thieves of Fire is at the proofreader’s and Dazzling Uncertainty of Life is in its first incarnation), I needed something to finish in a shorter period of time. For my quilting friends, a short story is the written equivalent of a wallhanging instead of a bed quilt.

The more I work in Carding, the more enchanted the place becomes to me, and the more I realize how many stories there are tucked among my characters.

So last month, I wrote my first Carding short story and shared it with my quilt guild, Northern Lights, at our January meeting.

I had such fun doing The Tennyson Free Range Christmas Tree Farm that I immediately started another short story. I posted The Spirit of Aisle Two yesterday.

And now I’ve started a collection because stories number three and four are in the gate just waiting for pen time.

“They’re like peanuts,” I told my husband the other day.

So here’s the plan—ten short Carding stories published here, each one appearing on the new moon (I love lunar stuff) from December 2014 to September 2015. Then I’ll collect them all together for a book, adding an eleventh story to the pot. The book, tentatively called Carding Myths and Legends (though if you have a better title, I’m all ears) will be published in November of this year.

The Spirit of Aisle Two

This is the second story in Carding Myths and Legends, a collection that I will publish in November 2015. In all, ten stories will appear on my website, every month on the new moon.

Have each story delivered to your inbox by subscribing using the button over on the right side or, if you’re on a tablet or phone, down at the bottom.

Enjoy!
Bottle and glass
If you live in Carding, Vermont, sooner or later you’ll walk through the front door of Cooper’s General store. This venerable family-owned business dominates the corner of Meetinghouse Road and Court Street on the southeast corner of the village green. It shares a parking lot with the town hall, a parking lot that’s locally renowned for its frost heaves in March, its potholes in April, and its pond-sized puddles whenever it rains too hard.

Successive generations of the Cooper family have tried to fix these problems by alternately building up the surface of the lot, amplifying its drainage or cramming copious amounts of cold patch into its potholes. Despite all these efforts, the Coop’s parking lot always settles back into its original condition like a corpulent dowager who’s glad to let her diet lapse after the urgency of her New Year’s resolutions has passed.

The only people in town who welcomed this perpetual insistence on parking lot normalcy were the owners of the local auto repair shops—Stan’s Garage on Route 37 and Mr. T’s Auto Repair over on the Carding Turnpike. When the weather conditions are just right, these two places spend a lot of time fixing tires and rims, leading one local wag to speculate that the garage owners prayed regularly to the god of potholes.

Andy Cooper runs the family business now, the seventh Cooper to do so. His younger brother, Charlie the lawyer, lends a hand and advice when asked but otherwise steers clear of “stacking beans and carrots.” Their younger sister, Nancy, keeps the books, pays the bills, and manages the avalanche of paperwork that flows through the office. Andy’s sons, Barry and Nathan, handle the large (and growing) hardware side of the business. That leaves Andy free to tend to his favorite parts of the store—the beer and wine section, the deli, and the coffee corner. He likes to refer to these areas of the store as “the soul of the Coop” but his family knows that Andy just loves to talk more than anything so tending to these parts of the store keeps him out of their way.

Cooper family tradition dictates that the spacious living quarters above the store go to whoever takes on managing it. When Andy finally married Yvette Clavelle, they became the head household among the Coopers. The upstairs apartment was ready for them as soon as they returned from their honeymoon on the Maine coast. Sons Barry and Nathan were born there, Yvette died there, and Andy would have vacated the space long ago but there was no one ready to take his place. Nathan and his wife Tracy owned a house in the next town over from Carding and didn’t want to move. And Barry had never loved any woman as much as he loved downhill skiing in winter and boating in summer. So Andy stayed put though he found living above the store lonely without his Yvette.

It took a while but Andy eventually established a routine that kept him out most evenings. There was the Chess Club at the library on Tuesdays, dinner with Charlie and his partner Agnes on Wednesdays, supper and cribbage with Edie Wolfe on Thursdays. It all helped ease his missing-Yvette feelings a lot.

On the night of this story, a rather chilly Thursday night in late autumn, Andy walked quickly across the green from Edie’s house to the store, his normal pace accelerated by a desire to get out of the icy wind. Since the residents of Carding are renowned for their frugality when it comes to spending their local property taxes, only half of the streetlights were on, casting a pale, fluorescent glow over the evening.

As always, Andy’s eyes scanned the store’s exterior, checking for irregularities—lights left on, open doors or windows, cars in the parking lot that didn’t belong there. That’s when he spotted Evan Eakins, Carding’s night patrol officer.

“I was about to go get you,” Evan said as he lowered his car window.

Andy laid a hand on the car’s roof as he leaned in for a chat. He liked Evan, had given the boy-now-man his first job when he was in high school. “Something wrong?” he said.

“We got a call that there was a light moving around in the store,” Evan said.

“Like a flashlight?” Andy asked, glancing toward the large front windows of the Coop.

Evan shook his head. “The description was that something was glowing inside. Could be electrical.” He put the cruiser into reverse. “Let’s go look.”

Andy picked up his pace even more, pulling a large ring of keys from his pocket as he did so. Thievery was so rare at the Coop, he needed only one hand to count the incidents that had happened in his lifetime. To him, the threat of leaving a coffeemaker on and unattended was far more real than a burglary. Since the original part of the store was more than 200 years old, there was a lot of dry wood to burn.

Andy and Evan stood in the doorway for a minute before stepping inside, each of them sniffing the air like a dog on the hunt. Evan shook his head. “I don’t smell anything. Do you?”

“No.” Andy flipped on the overhead lights. “I’ll check the deli if you’ll take the coffee pots.”

Together, the two men toured the store, checking every electrical device to make sure it was unplugged and cold. Even though his employees grumbled, Andy insisted that every electrical device be unplugged at closing. “No sense taking any chances,” he’d say.
“Everything seems fine up here,” Evan said. “Shall we check the furnace?”

“Might as well,” Andy said. “I have to stock it for the night anyway.”

Andy had always been slow to make changes in the store or his life. He was one of the last people in Carding to get a cell phone, and it took his sons years to convince him that scanners at the cash registers and credit card readers were a good idea. He modernized the refrigeration system when Nancy proved he could save money on electricity, and even installed a new grill in the deli for the same reason. But he refused to convert the Coop’s heating system from its wood-burning furnace.

“I like buying my fuel locally,” he’d say. “I like keeping the loggers in business. They buy my groceries and I buy their wood. Keep it simple, I always say.”

Evan took a deep breath as they descended the stairs. His first job at the Coop had been stacking seasoned wood for the coming winter, and he still loved the scent of split logs. There was always a crew of three assigned to that task, and its repetitive nature guaranteed a lot of storytelling to pass the time. His favorite tales were of the local ghosts, of which Carding had an abundance.
Andy flicked on the hodgepodge of overhead lights, some fluorescent, some still near descendants of the ones that Thomas Edison invented. Somehow, their combined illumination never reached all the corners of the cavernous space. As the electricity zipped through the wiring to wake up the bulbs, the ones in the center began to flicker.

“Ah, there’s your intruder,” Evan started to say. “Or it would have been your intruder if these lights had been on.”

The two men looked at one another, and then Andy quietly picked up a nearby log while Evan pulled a baton from his belt. With a nod to one another, they stepped forward on little cat feet, Andy scanning the woodpile to his left while Evan did the same to the right. The shadowy knots in the stacked wood kept them tense—watchful—but they reached the opposite wall without incident and breathed sighs of relief.

“Mystery unsolved,” Evan said as they turned back the way they had come.

Then the two of them froze in place, and Andy felt the short hairs on the back of his neck prickle as an amorphous green light quivered through the basement.

“Did you see that?” he asked the younger man.

“Yeah,” Evan said. “Reminds me of the northern lights my wife and I saw when we were in Alaska. What do you suppose that was?”
Andy shook his head slowly from side to side then he said, “Something’s been moved down here.”

They probed the nooks and crannies with their flashlight beams again until they converged in the darkened center of the room. Three large barrels and a couple of bushel baskets lay in a haphazard pile. One barrel, the largest of the trio, was on its side.

“Apple Betty,” Evan breathed.

Andy’s glance was sharp. “Do you believe that old ghost story?” he asked.

“Sure. Don’t you?” Evan said. “Wasn’t she your aunt?”

“Great aunt, actually. Elizabeth Cooper. She made the best applejack in this county during Prohibition,” Andy said, and the pride in his voice was almost visible. “My father could tell some stories about her. In photographs, she looks so meek and mild but Dad said she was a wild woman for her times. Traveled all the way around the world on her own. Set up housekeeping in White River Junction with a man she never married.”

Evan laughed. “Scandalous. So why is she haunting the Coop?”

Andy’s mouth flattened. “Great Aunt Betty isn’t haunting the Coop, and I’d thank you not to spread that story,” he said. “It would be bad for business, scaring away the timid and attracting the weird. I don’t need either of those things to happen here, understood?”

“Sure, sure,” Evan said. “There’s no law against protecting a ghost, as far as I know. I’ll leave you to figure this out on two conditions.”

“And they are?”

“First, you get an electrician into this place to fix some of that.” Evan pointed his flashlight toward the ceiling where a variety of wires snaked from one place to the other. “You’ve got some very old stuff up there, Andy.”

“Umm…,” Andy began.

“No umms,” Evan said. “If this light thing we saw isn’t Betty—and you don’t seem inclined to think it is—then you’ve got an electrical problem. And no one in town would thank me if the Coop burned down because of a problem that I knew about, and didn’t push you to fix. Am I right?”

Andy sighed. “Hoisted with my own petard,” he muttered. “OK, I agree. What’s your second condition?”

Evan’s grin grew wider. “Why would Betty haunt here…,” he raised his hands to stop Andy’s protest, “instead of where she lived in White River?”

“I don’t know. Because she was living here when she died, I guess,” Andy said.

“If she was so independent, why did she move back to Carding?” Evan asked.

“For the oldest reason in the world—money.”

“So if you tell me the true story about Apple Betty, I’ll never tell anyone about the green light I just saw, OK?” Evan said.

Andy reached down to right the barrels and arrange the bushel baskets. “There’s a couple of chairs over there,” he pointed. “Drag them over and we’ll sit a minute. It’s not that long of a story.”

Once the two men settled, Andy sighed. “Cooper family legend has it that my great-grandfather—that would have been Betty’s father—was something of a religious nut, a strict Presbyterian or Methodist or Unitarian or some such.”

Evan laughed. “My wife was raised Unitarian, and they’re great liberals. It would be hard for me to believe there’s any such thing as a strict Unitarian.”

“Really?” Andy shrugged. “Well, maybe he was a Lutheran or a Baptist. I don’t know. There are so many flavors of religion, I can’t keep track.”

“What you’re saying is that the reason Betty was so wild was that her father had no sense of humor,” Evan said.

Andy laughed. “That sounds about right. Anyway, when Prohibition got started in 1920, Betty and her friend…” Andy hesitated. “Gawd, what was his name? I only heard it spoken once.” He snapped his fingers. “I think it was Dalton. ”

“Well, given the times, it’s not surprising that your family wouldn’t talk about him,” Evan said.

“Yeah, I suppose. Anyway, Betty and Dalton saw Prohibition as a business opportunity, seeing that we’re so close to the Canadian border,” Andy said.

“So they started bringing booze in from Canada,” Evan said. “I heard there was a lot of that.”

“It’s a long border,” Andy said, “so there was lots of opportunity. I gather they started doing it just for family and friends but the demand grew so they started making more trips.”

“Did someone twig to what they were doing?” Evan asked.

“Yeah. They always used to cross in Derby, and from what I heard, the guards up there looked the other way,” Andy said.

“They were probably running booze themselves,” Evan said. “Hard times. Easy money.”

“Probably. So Betty and Dalton got used to driving across with nothing more than a wave, and maybe a well-placed bribe or two,” Andy said. “My grandfather—that was Betty’s brother—told me they used to pile cases of whiskey in their back seat and even tied it to the top of their car. Then one year at town meeting in Derby, people voted in a new chief of police, and he was a rigid teetotaler.”
“And Betty and Dalton got caught,” Evan said.

“Almost. Everyone who knew her swore that Aunt Betty had this sixth sense about her. She wouldn’t necessarily know what was going to happen but she could feel things coming,” Andy said. “When I was a kid, I remember my parents both paying attention when she’d get uneasy.”

“So she knew something was wrong,” Evan said.

Andy nodded. “Once she got to thinking it over, Betty realized that none of the guards had looked directly at them when they crossed into Canada. She thought that that was what made her uneasy.”

“So what happened?”

“The American border guards were so eager and whipped up by the teetotaler police chief, they started shooting at Betty and Dalton before their car had crossed the line. Betty said the chief kept screaming ‘Shoot! Shoot!’” Andy shook his head. “Zealots. What good are they?”

“Shades of Bonnie and Clyde,” Evan said. “Were they hit?”

“They dove out of the car and ran while the Canadian guards yelled ‘Arret! Arret!’ at the American guards. The Americans shot up the car. Bullets zinged over Betty and Dalton’s heads. By all accounts, it was crazy,” Andy said.

“Did they head for the woods?” Evan asked.

“Yeah, and they’d almost made it when that police chief caught up with them,” Andy said. “He winged Betty in the shoulder.”
Evan leaned forward, his elbows resting on his knees. “I had no idea. Then what?”

“Dalton lunged at the guy. Can you imagine lunging at a nut case who’s got a loaded gun and likes using it?” Andy said. “Betty had passed out so she never got to see it but I gather Dalton made hash out of that police chief. And the Canadians just watched for a while before they stepped in. It made a big stink in the temperance newspapers down here because they literally threw him back across the border.”

“I’ll bet there was a stink,” Evan said. “That guy was gutsy.”

“Yeah, I’ll say. Betty and Dalton stayed in Canada for months after that. My grandfather drove his motorcycle up to see them a couple of times,” Andy said. “He owned an Indian. That’s the gas tank from it up there.” He pointed to a shelf nailed to the side of the stairs. “It was a fabulous bike. Somewhere around here, there’s a scrapbook of Betty’s where she pasted in articles that ran in the Montreal newspapers around that time. Seems that Dalton got to be something of a hero up there. By that time, the Canadians had had enough of America’s Prohibition because of the bootlegging over the border.”

“So when did Betty come back home?” Evan asked.

“I guess she and Dalton came to an understanding because she wanted to come back to Vermont and he wanted to stay in Canada,” Andy said. “Betty’s mother was very ill, and she wanted to nurse her.”

“Did she ever make peace with her father?” Evan asked.

“I don’t know if I’d put it quite like that,” Andy said. “The old cuss was the one that bought the Cooper family cabin down in the Campgrounds. After he moved there, nobody in the family saw him much. His wife, her name was Penny, died surrounded by family. Everyone adored her.”

“I’m guessing the great-grandfather died alone,” Evan said.

“Alone and unmourned, from what I’ve heard,” Andy said. “Do you know he’s the only Cooper not buried in the family plot. No one wanted to be next to him for eternity. Anyway, the ending of the story is this. The Depression started in 1929, and everyone was hurting in Carding. This store was struggling to survive when Betty set up her applejack-making enterprise down here. She’d learned how to make it when she was in Canada. I guess she had quite the reputation because Stanley Wilson, who got elected governor in 1932, ordered a case of it to celebrate his win.”

“So everybody knew what was going on down here?” Evan asked.

“Well, you did if you knew where to look.” Andy aimed his flashlight’s beam at the ceiling. “See that?”

It took Evan a minute but he finally saw the outline of a trap door. “I’ve never noticed that before. Where does it come out upstairs?”

“You know that funny jog at the end of aisle two?” Andy said.

Evan laughed. “Where you stock the wine now?”

“Yeah. There used to be a half-wall there, like a curtain,” Andy said. “You could come into the Coop at certain times with your empty pail or growler, walk around the wall, down the steps that used to be here, and Aunt Betty would fill you up from one of these barrels.” He let a hand rest on the nearest cask.

“So that’s why they’re always here,” Evan said. “For Betty.”

Andy nodded. “She saved this store. You and I wouldn’t be here now if it wasn’t for her. I think of it as her memorial. It’s the least I can do.”

“So you think that she got upset because it was all messed around, and that’s why…?”

“No, I’m sure that what you saw was electrical,” Andy said. “You’re right about it needing to be looked at. I’ll call an electrician in the morning.”

Evan’s radio squawked and he jumped up. “Oops, gotta go,” he said. “Glad nothing serious was wrong, Andy.”

“Can you see yourself out?” Andy asked. “I still need to put wood in the furnace.”

“Sure, sure.” Evan took the stairs two at a time. “I’ll lock the door behind me.”

Andy waited until all was quiet then he made his way to the wood-burning furnace. He hummed what he remembered of the Canadian national anthem as he stacked logs on the pile of pulsating coals then shut the door. He waited until he heard the muted road of flame that let him know the fire had caught then adjusted the controls.

When he got to the shelf attached to the stairs, he reached behind the gas tank from his grandfather’s Indian motorcycle, and fished around until he found a cloth bag that held a bottle and shot glass. He carefully set the glass in the center of the largest barrel and poured a measure of golden liquid into it. He smiled as he re-corked the bottle, and checked that the chairs were in the right place.

“Sorry about that, Betty,” he said quietly. “Some new kids just started in the store and they didn’t know about leaving your stuff alone. Is everything OK now?”

Andy didn’t know what to expect. Betty had never answered him. After a moment, he sighed and reached up to flip off the lights. When his fingers got close enough to the metal face plate, a spark of static electricity arced across the space. The spark was green.
Andy chuckled. “Well, you’re welcome.”

And then he went upstairs to bed.

The Story of the Parkinson’s Comfort Project

Last July, when it was very warm (unlike today), I taped an interview with Nancy Zieman, host of the PBS show Sewing with Nancy, about the little nonprofit I founded, the Parkinson’s Comfort Project.

The interview has been released and I am so excited to share it with you all. And I hope you will share this with others.

The Sewing with Nancy interview

Transforming One Pile of Paper into Another

Did you hear those loud cheers coming from somewhere in eastern Vermont yesterday?

No?

I guess I’ll just have to shout louder.

Notebooks for Thieves of Fire
Notebooks for Thieves of Fire
Proof copy of Thieves of Fire, the 2nd Carding, Vermont novel
Proof copy of Thieves of Fire, the 2nd Carding, Vermont novel

Yesterday, I finally printed out a complete edited draft of Thieves of Fire, ready for my proofreader.

Can you see the date on the notebook on the top of this pile of four? That is when I started writing Thieves of Fire, May 15, 2012.

Let me repeat that. I started writing this book 31 months ago.

At that moment in time, my family was deep in recovery mode from Hurricane Irene. We were involved with building a new structure to take the place of the office and workshop that we lost.

We were scrambling to figure out how to pay for and construct a retaining wall on the river side of our home so that we could save it.

My son had just met the woman he’s now married to two days before I penned the first words of this novel.

Since then, we’ve built the retaining wall, saved our home, constructed the marvelous “cute little building” where I write and sew, watched our son fall in love and get married, lost my brother Mark, seen our nephew Andrew graduate from high school, and worked to grow the Parkinson’s Comfort Project from a tiny idea to a full-blown non-profit that’s now getting national attention.

I’ve produced books by other authors through my company Full Circle Press LLC, conducted a lot of publishing workshops, spent (not enough) time with friends and family, nursed our dog through some pretty serious ear infections, stacked wood, weeded gardens, and even got in a couple of kayaking trips.

Unlike most authors, I have to write my first drafts of fiction by hand. I have to feel the stories. For me, when the writing is going well, it is absolutely one of the most joyful sensations in the world.

My personal euphoria.

But first drafts are just that, first. They’re rough, full of stuff you don’t need in the final manuscript and missing stuff you do need. The sentences aren’t clean and smooth but jagged and sharp. They need honing so that readers never realize where one starts and the other ends.

That’s what editing is for. And editing takes time, lots of it.

So now, at last, I can turn all of my attention to marketing Thieves as well as the first Carding novel, The Road Unsalted. I’m looking forward to that.

Thieves of Fire will be launched to the public on May 19, 2015, just about three years to the day since I penned its first words.

Stay tuned. I’m hoping lots of you will join me on this long strange trip very soon.

Sweet Sixteen?

The Parkinson’s Comfort Project is taking up almost all of my quilting time lately. Between work, the holidays and dealing with some of the challenges life put in our path this fall and early winter, the Parkinson’s Comfort quilts in my care got a little behind.

16 quilts to bind
16 quilts to bind

So faced with the prospect of some “free” time between Christmas and New Year’s, I got myself organized to tackle three piles: Completed quilts that just needed to have their pictures taken and inventory numbers assigned; Quilts that needed to be bound and then photographed and inventoried; and quilt tops in various stages from complete to needs-a-little sewing.

And then I went to make myself a cup of tea because, whew, there’s some might piles in my studio!!

The first and most obvious to tackle was the complete quilts. Here’s a couple of the 17 quilts in that pile just to show you what dazzlers our quilting friends are. The first one was made by Marianne Kotch of Barre, Vermont and the second was made by Joanne Shapp of Pomfret, Vermont.

Quilt by Marianne Kotch
Quilt by Marianne Kotch
Quilt by Joanne Shapp
Quilt by Joanne Shapp

Stunning, aren’t they?

The second pile was the quilts to be bound. I had 15 Parkinson’s quilts in that one plus another that was originally made for my mother that needs to be rebound for a total of sixteen.

I usually machine stitch a binding on the front of a quilt and then hand stitch it on the back. But with so many quilts to do, and because I’ve been practicing, I decided to do all of these by machine.

So far, I’ve been able to whittle that pile down to nine.

Quilt top by Jane Buskey
Quilt top by Jane Buskey
Quilt by Bob Johnson
Quilt by Bob Johnson

 

And I’m happy with the bindings. Here’s a sample of the ones I’ve finished so far.

As for the unfinished tops, **sigh**, those are going to take a lot more time.

The Tennyson Free-Range Christmas Tree Farm

Welcome to the first short story in a collection of tales about Carding, Vermont.

Each new story will be released on the new moon of each month (because I like celebrating the lunar calendar) right here. When there are ten tales, the entire collection (plus an eleventh story because I like prime numbers, too) will be released in the fall as the fourth book in the Carding series.

You are more than welcome to share these stories, and you’re also invited to subscribe so you don’t miss any.

Enjoy and happy solstice!!
Blue Tree in wallhanging for web
As the glower of November settles into the sustained chill of December, the good folks of Carding, Vermont begin to think seriously about the coming holidays. One of the first signs of Christmas-to-come is the appearance of a particularly thick and creamy brand of eggnog on the shelves of Cooper’s General Store. Andy Cooper, the seventh Cooper to own and run the rambling everything-you-need emporium, always gives Benson’s Special Nogg pride of place in the first cooler you see when you walk in the front door, just to the left of Carding’s Creamy Ale.

Word spreads through town when the Benson’s shows up so you’ve got to be quick to get your share of the seasonal treat.
One of the other signs of the approaching holidays are the trays of Carding Crunch Cookies that Diana Bennett makes over at the Crown Town Bakery. The pungent scents of ginger and cinnamon leak right out the bakery’s windows and doors, causing passersby to drop whatever they’re doing to buy a dozen while there are still some left.

But perhaps the most anticipated holiday signal in the whole town is the appearance of a smal sign at the end of the dirt road that goes up to the old Tennyson farm. The sign was once white with a green triangle in the center to represent a Christmas tree. But over the century since that sign was first painted, the white has faded to the gray of a winter sky, and all that’s left of the tree symbol is a faint shadow.

No matter. Generations of Carding-ites, who start watching for the sign on Thanksgiving, know exactly what it means—the Tennyson farm is open for the cutting of Yuletide trees.

Lee Tennyson, the seventh Tennyson to own the farm, will be the first to disclaim any credit for this special plantation of spruce and balsam firs. If asked, he’d be glad to tell you how they were planted by the first Tennysons to live on Belmont Hill. His name was Alfred and his enchanting wife’s name was Elayna.

If you talk to the old timers in Carding, they’ll tell you lots of stories about Fred Tennyson. He wasn’t native-born, first of all. He came from New York City but he left a good job there to come live in the Green Mountains. You’ll hear how he was the only person in Carding to vote for Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the the 1932 election, and how right he was to fight to get electricity in Carding in 1943.
Green tree from wallhanging for web
Fred Tennyson didn’t marry a local girl, though there were plenty who would have been happy to have him. No, as soon as Fred finished building the small cabin that eventually grew into the Tennysons’ large farmhouse, he sent a letter to a faraway country to ask for a certain young lady’s hand in marriage. Her name was Elayna, and she accepted Fred’s proposal without hesitation. No one in Carding ever learned much about her past but Fred always said that when Elayna left her homeland, people wept.

As a general rule, people like to live our lives among people they know. So it’s no surprise that the folks in Carding were prepared to keep Elayna Tennyson at a distance for four or five years while they got to know her. But somehow—and no one was quite sure how—Elayna blossomed easily among them, just as if she’d always been there.

A number of Carding-ites accounted for this by remarking on the pleasant aroma that wafted through the air whenever Elayna was around. The scent was like fresh-baked cookies, one part ginger, two parts cinnamon with butter in the background. But when asked, no one could ever recall seeing her bake.

Another contingent, mostly children and those enjoying the peak of gray-haired longevity, treasured the way Elayna touched them. Some described her caress as soft as the brush of a snowflake on a cheek while others said it felt like the first warm sun on a cloudless March day. But when asked, they could not recall ever being embraced by Mrs. Tennyson.

Nowadays, it’s hard to believe that the green hills of Vermont were once treeless, stripped bare by decades of logging. But that’s the way they were when Fred asked Elayna to marry him. The brown hills made him feel sad, and he promised his wife-to-be that he would replant them with maples, oaks, beech, and “some spruce and pine so the little ones of Carding can have Christmas trees once again.”

The treeless plight of Vermont’s hills touched Elayna’s heart so she arranged for a special wedding gift for Fred—a dozen magnificent balsam firs from her faraway land.

It took the newlywed Tennysons a while to choose just the right spot for their Christmas tree farm. But they finally picked a southwest-facing slope that was protected from the worst of the winter winds yet was open to the light of the summer sun.

One of Elayna’s special balsams was much larger than the others, and it became the center of their tree farm. After they planted the first, Fred collected spruce seedlings from local hollows and copses to fill in the spaces among them, and the tree farm flourished.
And so did the Tennyson family. Elayna gave birth to a girl named Arabella just before they celebrated their second Christmas as man and wife. Little Arabella soon had three brothers—Alfred junior, Cedric, and Wesley—and then she had a little sister named Rose.

The Tennyson children shared their mother’s luminous qualities, and that’s probably why people believed they were conceived in the moonlight under that great balsam fir. Of course, no one but Fred and Elayna could have testified to the truth about that story. But generations of Carding women who were wooed by Tennyson men told stories about walking in the woods with them at night.

The family began selling Christmas trees the year Arabella turned twelve. Fred made the white sign with the green triangle that year, and nailed it to a post stuck in the ground where the cart track up to the farm met Belmont Hill Road.

Only a handful of families made the trek that year but the welcome they received was memorable. The Tennyson children guided everyone right up to the back door of the farmhouse where they were met by Fred and Elayna. Fred was dressed in a dark green jacket while Elayna wore a patchwork apron with deep blue pockets on its front. Fred carried an axe to do any cutting while Elayna directed the selection of “the right tree for the right family.”

She was quite particular about this, asking the Carding families about their lives, their dreams, their hopes and travails before picking out a tree. Some folks may have thought all that chat was unnecessary but the people who walked in the woods with Elayna didn’t seem to mind at all.

As they walked with her, Elayna told tales about the trees. It seemed she knew the life story of each spruce and fir intimately.
“Look at those three here,” she’d say when the walkers reached the top of the hill. “They were planted on the same day but look how the one in the middle is smaller than the others. That’s because its top broke off in an ice storm. But see how the one on the left and the one on the right have moved together to protect it? That’s how life should be, don’t you think, us protecting one another from storms.”
Multi-color tree from wallhanging
Then later on, when the walkers reached a clearing near the big balsam fir, Elayna would execute a little dance step in her heavy winter boots, and laugh in her soft, sparkly way. “Happy Christmas,” she’d say. “Happy Christmas to all.”

And everyone who heard her could smell the tang of spruce and hear the whisper of the balsam firs. Then suddenly, they’d be right back in the barnyard where Fred would help them load their special trees into their wagons, Elayna would give them tin cups full of hot cider, and the Tennyson children passed out the first Carding Crunch Cookies.

“Just bring back the trees when Christmas is over,” Fred said as they drove away. “You can leave them right at the end of the drive. I pile them up for windbreaks around Elayna’s flower gardens.”

And that’s how the Carding Christmas ritual began. Year after year, families in the village waited for the Tennyson Tree Farm sign to appear, and then they’d trek up Belmont Hill, turn right on the old cart road, and then follow Fred with his axe and Elayna with her stories until they found the perfect tree.

Remarkably, everyone’s selected evergreen always fit perfectly in the spot chosen for it.

Remarkably, every Tennyson tree filled its home with the tang of spruce and the whisper of balsam fir, especially on Christmas morning.

And remarkably, on the day after Christmas, all the trees were left in a pile at the end of the cart track that led up to the Tennyson farm.

What stayed behind in the homes and mills and farms of Carding were the stories that Elayna always told about the evergreens. All Carding’s children learned the tale about their family’s particular tree like the one about the spruce with bent branches and a strong heart or about the wispy fir that held a family’s-worth of ornaments with magnificent pride or the pine that whispered words of comfort to people facing grief.

The people of Carding grew so accustomed to visiting the Tennyson tree farm every year with Fred in his green jacket and Elayna in her patchwork apron that it came as a great shock when they learned that she had died.

“She just hung that apron of hers, the one with the blue pockets, on its peg in the kitchen,” Fred said, “and took to her bed. She was gone by morning. She just said it was time.”

The Tennysons chose to bury Elayna in a special place just down slope from the spot where people left their trees after Christmas. You could see all of the Corvus Valley from there—the glittering ribbon of river, the shimmer of Half Moon Lake, smoke rising from Carding’s chimneys in winter, and the sparkle of snow-covered Mount Merino in the far distance.

It was a simple ceremony. The whole town was there. At the end, Arabella and her brother Cedric planted a balsam fir to watch over their mother.

As people turned to go, they told one another that Christmas would never be the same because the Tennysons wouldn’t sell trees now that Elayna was gone.

But they were wrong. On the morning of the winter solstice, Cedric hung out the white sign with the green triangle. The news spread through the village faster than a roll of thunder, and soon a line of cars were turning right up the snowy track to the farm.

Arabella and her sister Rose greeted everyone wearing patchwork aprons of their own making with two bright yellow pockets on the front because that was their favorite color. Father Fred waved from his kitchen window where he was keeping warm by the wood stove while his three sons Al, Cedric and Wesley stood at the ready to help folks cut and load their chosen Yuletide evergreens.

This went on year after year with Carding family elders passing on their Christmas tree stories to their family youngsters. But somehow, in all that time, no one’s noticed that they always find their special tree in the same place they did the year before. And somehow, they never notice that the one they pick has the same broken branches or misshapen trunk as the year before.

What they do remember are the stories they heard as children, and walking up the hill among the trees in the dark. And then, after they gather their special yuletide greenery, they wander to the center of the wood to stand by the great balsam fir that Elayna Tennyson brought to Carding so long ago. Then a little breeze comes up then. Snowflakes drift past their cheeks, and they hear a soft, sparkly voice whisper: “Happy Christmas. Happy Christmas to all.”

© 2014 by Sonja Hakala, all rights reserved