A memorable month in Lyndeborough culminates with Memorial Day
The 250-year-old Lyndeborough house where the writer lived during her month in New Hampshire. (DIANE ELLIOTT)
It was early May 2011, and spring in the Northeast was just starting to show itself — from trees in bud to daffodils and tulips in bloom. I drove past wild lilac bushes that promised fragrant purple flowers. The scenery was everything I had imagined. My monthlong New Hampshire adventure had begun.
Earlier in the year, I had joined a website that matches people like me (wannabe travelers with a mean case of wanderlust) with people who need a temporary caretaker for their home and/or pets. Two months later, I got my first job. All I had to do was get from Texas to New Hampshire. It was time for a road trip.
After several days and 2,000 miles on the road, I was ready to unpack and stay put for a while.
The two-lane country road twisted and turned as it cut through thick New Hampshire woods, and I relaxed into a leisurely drive through the countryside. Tall pines stood like sentries along the road. I thought about New England at the holidays when these “Christmas trees” might be laden with snow.
Eventually, I saw a blinking caution light and the sign that announced “Lyndeborough NH.”
Small town, long history
Founded in 1756, Lyndeborough has more people buried in its two cemeteries, some locals say, than the town's living population of about 2,000. A post office, library, town hall, general store, elementary school and village square make up the center of town. I barely blinked and I had passed through it.
My final turn was only a couple of miles down Highway 31. I began looking for my location markers; several mailboxes posted near a stone driveway that goes over a small hill, leading to a green Cape on the right. It couldn't be seen from the road — and I loved that.
I knew I was at the right place when I saw several cats milling about.
The lady of the house (aka, the keeper of “cat heaven”) greeted me warmly, then promptly took me on a tour of her home.
Immediately, I knew I was in a very old structure, a collection of open beams, hand-hewn logs, low ceilings, wide-plank pine floors, and a narrow stairway with well-worn steps that led to a sleeping loft.
The semi-round fireplace in the far corner of the front room caught my attention. It had an old-world, utilitarian feel.
When the house was built, in the mid-1700s, the fireplace was the center of the home. Here, the family gathered for both warmth and food. The handmade brick had been patched through the years, but it was obvious the fireplace appeared as it had more than 250 years ago.
In Texas, we don't have buildings that go back that far, and if we did, they would be dismantled and moved, to be viewed by the public, from a distance and for a price.
The home was, perhaps, built as a temporary dwelling while a larger, more stately, Colonial-style two-story home was built about 25 yards away.
Although it wasn't much more than a one-room cabin, it meant safety and shelter. It was home.
Early on, I explored the yard and garden. An old shed was falling to its knees, but the water that flowed from the original well was still sweet and pure. About 50 yards beyond, a dirt road cut through the thick woods. I had a hiking trail right in the back yard.
One evening, I perused several bookshelves in the sunroom, hoping to learn more about Lyndeborough, and discovered a tome that promised to enlighten me: “Lyndeborough's History,” published in 1906, 150 years after the town's founding.
The pages reported historical facts and local family genealogies, but also portrayed in vivid detail the shifting winds of war, the long, harsh winters and the short growing seasons that presented many challenges but also produced a people of hardy stock and strong ideals, including a strong sense of community.
Although the eight cats in my charge were six or seven too many for my liking, I tried my very best to keep them corralled. I did a kitty head count at the evening meal, then closed the door that led from the house to the connected barn. I had been warned that all cats must be in at night to protect them from an array of critters, including coyotes and fishers on the prowl for their next meal.
One morning, I became concerned when I couldn't find Lucy, the most recent addition to the feline group. Despite a spring downpour, I grabbed a rain jacket and ventured out to see whether I could find the wandering kitty.
If I hadn't been looking for her, I would have missed a visit to the home's basement.
I cautiously walked down several, uneven stone steps, located near the rear of the home. There was no door, but I entered what would have been the original vegetable and grain cellar. The morning light played against shadows on four short, gray stone walls. It was a small, rectangular space, empty except for a furnace.
Lucy was nowhere in sight.
Then I saw the reason this home had stood the test of time.
Long before lumber was hoisted above, huge granite boulders were placed at each corner of the foundation. Moving these massive rocks must have been a daunting task. To the credit of those long forgotten men, the home's four cornerstones remained exactly where they had been placed, still doing their intended job very well.
Memorable Memorial Day
My last weekend in New Hampshire couldn't have ended more poignantly.
I began Memorial Day by attending a service at Lyndeborough's Center Church, the community's first place of worship and virtually unchanged since its construction in 1837. The pastor spoke of the sacrifice our military heroes make for our country and how this military tradition has been strong throughout Lyndeborough's history.
When the service ended, a group of re-enactors in Civil War uniforms led us from the church and to the nearby cemetery. The soldiers, a military band and the Lafayette Artillery — a company founded in 1804 and still active, primarily in Civil War re-enactments — accompanied the congregation.
Before we moved on to the second cemetery, the Lafayette Artillery fired a multi-gun salute in honor of the many veterans buried there — heroes from as far back as the Revolutionary War.
Later that day, I walked to town to watch the parade.
A stranger sometimes stands out in a crowd, especially in a small community. Rather than feeling uncomfortable, though, I met friendly people who didn't mind talking about their town and its history. I talked with people whose families go back hundreds of years, as well as others who were fairly new to the area. They all spoke of their hometown with pride.
The Lyndeborough Memorial Day Parade covers one of the shortest parade routes in New England. In fact, it goes up Center Street twice. But it's also believed to be one of the oldest Memorial Day traditions in the country.
After the parade, participants dressed in period costume congregated on the Village Green to portray the perilous times of the Civil War. Students recited poetry, notable residents spoke, a choir sang, and actors portraying Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant addressed the crowd.
During Lincoln's speech, I learned that the first Union soldier to die in battle during the Civil War, Harvey Holt Jr., came from Lyndeborough. He lived in a house that still fronts Center Street.
It's in our small towns that progress seems to slow, or doesn't take hold at all. It's in our rural communities that history comes alive.
Oh, Lucy, the wandering kitty, eventually found her way home ... as cats are known to do.
And although I had to move along in my journey, I, too, will return to New England, our nation's first home.
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