Continued from Shadow and Light, Braintree, Vermont, Part II
From over a slight rise in the narrow dirt road, a tractor approaches through a collonade of nearly leafless maples. I nod to the driver in greeting, and the brim of his hat dips in return. Slow and steady, the John Deer green continues along, seemingly unperturbed by three women milling about on this remote road.
“I suppose you wonder what we are doing up here,” asks my companion from the historical society. The engine idles, then cuts out.
“Silvia Narma? I’ve heard of her but never met her,” says the driver. “I was a kid when my aunt and uncle bought the place in the sixties.”
I can see he isn’t old enough. But I feel a catch of disappointment. The people of this hillside are now too young, or, like the neighbor I spoke with last year by phone, their memories are too spotty with age. Many are gone.
But in a renewal of hope, the driver says I should talk with his aunt. “She bought the land from Silvia. She would remember.”
Afternoon shadows lengthen as the sun begins to dip behind the crest of the hill. Looking up past the height of carbon-black tires, I tell the driver what little I know about Silvia’s life on the farm. But, having lived in Vermont long enough, each of us at the tractor knows the determination it would take to live on this land alone. Especially in the early sixties. Especially as a woman.
The stark blank expanse of white in the long dark winters. The storms with trees bending low in sheets of rain. The monotony of daily physical work. The isolation with its ever-present loneliness, both beauty and disasters internalized, unshared. The raw vulnerability.
Soon after her divorce in 1962, Silvia wrote a short story, “My Black Horse,” which she sent for publication. Written in the first person, it is a personal narrative of a woman alone on an isolated farm. The story opens on the scene of a leering neighbor and the reactions of a jealous husband who is soon dispatched to a sanitarium for his health. The woman is plunged into poverty as she struggles to maintain the farm. Inevitable difficulties arise only to be further complicated by the return of the neighbor in an encounter that will transform the woman’s uncertainties and fears into a sense of purpose and pride in her accomplishments hard won. Although the story is fictionalized, the emotions and circumstances are detailed, and written with the knowledge of lived experience.
“I was scared of the loneliness, and darkness, and the howling winds. I could not imagine how I would get through the winter.”
Like many women on the hillside, she works in a nearby village. Five days a week, the women step into the scent of a cut-up forest: ash, maple, beech, and birch, picking up the rhythm of a furniture factory: fitting together and gluing, fitting together, and gluing. Their hands pick up speed. Each new piece, fitted together and glued, will be reflected in their paychecks. The older women’s hands tremble. Their faces are “gray and tired.” Yet, when the whistle blows and the women punch out at the end of the day, each will return to the hill to their own second shift of chores.
“The house was icy when I got home, and I never had more than a few sticks ready for starting the fire.”
She lives in two rooms, closed off from the rest of the decrepit farmhouse, cardboard tacked to the walls. Unable to fell trees by herself, she forages the forest floor, dragging fallen branches back to the house, but her wood is wet, and it takes hours of smokey frustration to light a meager fire. Once started, “I dragged another big branch into the house and cut that up to have something to add to the fire.”
Meals are a stew of peas and beans and potatoes, the small package of meat becoming lost in the big pot that she must stretch the entire week. With resolve and hope, she writes, “the time for chops and steaks would come again.” Meanwhile, she digs up the overgrown garden behind the house in the spring. Shovel after upturned shovel, removing the sod and weeds. Planting seeds.
But winter will return, and the horse and cows will need hay. The woman goes out to the field; “I tried cutting some by hand and carrying it on an old bed sheet into the barn.” But after a few days, her aching hands are too stiff to keep up with the piecework at the factory. The money for the mortgage was lost.
On occasion, the neighbor has lent a hand: driving her to visit the husband in the sanitarium, arranging to bring in the hay, or helping her clean out her stove pipe. But his intentions are soon revealed to be less than neighborly.
“After Fred finished his cup of coffee, he suddenly got up, unbuttoned his coat, and started strutting around the room in a strange way. I was afraid he was going to be sick.” Horrified, she moves to the door, thanking him for his help. With arms “stretched out wide and open and his lips making strange movements,” the neighbor circles the room, closer still.
Gratitude insufficient, the neighbor leers, “And is that all?” Her hand reaches out for the door handle.
“What a pity that you must be so coldblooded.”
Her anger builds as she “pieces together the insult.” Day turns to night. She cannot sleep. Lonely for so many months, the neighbor had sought to capitalize on her longing. But in the early morning hours, her outrage shifts to questioning. Why did he think “I would be an easy prey?” By the first light of dawn, she has formulated a plan for greater self-sufficiency. She was certainly not going to be perceived as helpless and sets out with renewed vigor and determination to improve the farm, negating any need for dependence on the neighbors or anyone else.
“Sometimes my hands and back got so bad I was afraid I would not last… but I would not let up. I had a goal, and I was going to reach it.”
Standing at the side of the tractor, I look across the setting of “My Black Horse.” Nothing remains of the cardboard-papered house, and the barn is reduced to a squared-off footprint of crumbling concrete. Only a small milking shed stands. Dilapidated but upright, its clapboard walls are the last to remain, connecting the land to Silvia’s story of grit and determination with enough of its own.
On this autumn day, it is only through the remembered landscape of the driver’s childhood that we catch a wavering glimpse of the hillside as it once was. Sitting above us, from the green of his pastoral perch, he points to structures long since vanished, reconstructing a lost diorama with phantom post and beams. With his words, the door of the long-gone house swings open once again on a blue-bright day in the height of green. Bounding dogs scamper ahead on the path to the spring-cooled barn. Chickens and geese waddle one by one from their coop. Cucumbers are ready to pick, and carrots need thinning. Raspberries burst into bloom in the dooryard, then bear fruit.
Carrying a basket of sun-sweetened red, Silva stands near the side of the house, looking out over the valley, wearing a favorite blue-and-white striped dress, flowers embroidered on the pockets.
With a shift in the light, the farm disappears to the imagination. Only the shed remains, but we soon learn Silvia hadn’t used it for milking. Instead, she had repurposed it into a traditional Estonian sauna: smoke and fire-heated rocks. The door is an opening to the traditions of home.
“Have you been to Estonia?” asks the driver.
In my headlong way, I rush into a tale of my trip as travelers often do, with no small irritation to their audience. Droning on and on. What I didn’t realize was that the driver had spent a summer near Tallinn. He had been to Estonia. He had visited the saunas.
On this narrow dirt road on the edge of nowhere, the driver’s revelation is wholly unlikely. An astonished wonderment encircles the tractor in speechlessness before a burst of joyous curiosity. Even now, as I look back at that moment, I retain a sense of wonderment at the vagaries of life emerging from seeming chaos with improbable interconnectedness.
Since the day of the green tractor, I have returned to the farm in Braintree to meet the driver’s aunt. We sat in the “new house,” built in the mid-’70s, situated well with a view of the mountains through the large-paned windows lining the front. We drink tea and eat cookies, like those once held in the red tin.
Silvia’s flowers continue to bloom on the hill: the iris she favored and the hydrangea with its interlaced branches that appears in the photos, but her pale yellow rose bush is gone. Later we walk down the road where slate fence posts stand like sentinels from the past, and we listen to the timeless trickle of water feeding the ponds.
“Silvia showed us what seemed to be every inch of this property when we came to see it,” the driver’s aunt tells me. Every inch of the hillside known to Silvia as if a part of the self. For seven years, it was her kinship with the land that helped her endure the hardships. It was in the dappled shadows of the woodlands where her loneliness could shift into solitude.
At the end of My Black Horse, the husband returns home from the sanitarium. The woman has managed to pay the mortgage while also improving the farm. Confident and capable, she anticipates her husband’s return, ending the story with the hopeful last line, “A happy home.” But any confidence Silvia may have felt upon her husband’s release from the Vermont State Hospital was short-lived. A month before their divorce was official, he was readmitted. Silvia sold the farm three years later, finding a new house in a distant town whose address she guarded for years in fear of her former husband’s discovery. She continued to write but never again returned to the subject of either farm or husband.
As we prepare to leave the hillside, we are told, “the old house still stands, but not here.” Its post and beams were disassembled, packed up, and loaded on a truck in the early seventies. The old cardboard-papered house in pieces moving down the road through the collonade of maples.
- All italicized quotes are from the Silvia Narma papers.
- All black and white photographs are from Silvia’s red tin. Some were presumably taken for a newspaper article about Estonians leaving New York City in favor of rural life, as one of the photographs from the series appears in an article in Vaba Eesti Sõna, (Free Estonian Word), January 23rd, 1958: https://dea.digar.ee/cgi-bin/dea?a=d&d=vabaeestisona19580123.1.9 Additional photographs from Braintree can be seen in the photo album.
- There are numerous articles online about Nordic saunas, traditions, and their continued significance today. Here is a short article, The History of Smoke Saunas in Estonia that provides information about the sauna as it was used by Silvia in Braintree.