By Jesse Halsey, c1938
The East Riding of Yorkshire. Thus it was called in the early days. The name has changed but the savor of the old time lingers.
Farmhouses low and sturdy with gray weathered shingles punctuate the flat countryside. Shingles three feet long, rived from red cedar that grew in the swamps, worn thin now where they have defied the east-wind-driven storms of two hundred winters and the bristling heat of as many summers, but with butts still thick enough to cast healthy shadows in endless parallel windows where the long sweeping roofs on the north side slope almost to the ground.
“Regardless of the direction of the highway those houses were set by their builders always facing the south—and the sun and the sea. Farm houses like that, gray and weathered but trim and tight against the weather, were built, some on village streets and some at the hub of the surrounding acres.
Tiny windowpanes peek out, diamond, and square and oblong, most from the days when glass came from over the water and was priced in shillings and pence and is bubble-scarred and blue streaked and is enchantingly distorting as one peers out.
Lanes there are that wind as one did the cow-paths. Lanes with names like this: Job’s Land, Gin Lane, Loylsome Lane, Hither Lane, Further Land, Middle Lane. Some lead through the woods and some across the meadows but all come at long last—or short—to some water, great or small, fresh or salt—any one of a dozen bays or ponds, or the beach banks and the Ocean.
Squat and square brick chimneys anchor the houses to the ground. Within, these chimneys are fed by fireplaces, one in each and every room. Floorboards creak when you enter, boards half as wide as puncheon head. Low ceilings, paneled woodwork, musical H and L hinges on gently squeaking doors.
Leaning barns and wood sheds where eel-spears and clam rakes and harpoons prod the latest agricultural machinery. A discarded seine is sometimes seen, used now for a net for tennis or volley ball, but a swift reminder of days when corn was grown with fish for fertilizer—“two bunkers to a hill.”
By trim white Churches, surmounted by pointing spires, one comes upon ancestral burying rounds where rhymed epitaphs quarrel with life’s adventures to attempt to perpetuate the excellence of some village worthy—or mayhem his idiosyncrasies.
Names nostalgic attach to the villages, reminiscent of Old England—Southwold, Maidstone, Southampton. The music of the Indian words echoes in geographic designations –Quoque, Quioque, Ponquogue, Kumsebog, Shinnecock, Amagansett, Montauk, as the New Yorkers say. Or as the natives say, Montawk. (I am a native.)
Hamlets, two house or a dozen, a mile apart, or two, the names come back as you flash through, remembering the days when in the springless farm wagon it took half the day to take a grist to the mill. Littleworth, Good Ground, Scuttle Hole, and Hecox. Tuckahoe, Seabonac, North Ben, or Hog Neck. Towd and Cobb and Little Cobb, Flying Point, the Sea Poose, and Wickapoque. Then there was—and is—Scuttle Hole and Wainscott, Sag and Sag Harbor, Water Hill and North Sea and Canoe Place.
Captain’s Neck is there, and Cooper’s Neck, First Neck, and Halsey’s Neck is there, and Cooper’s Neck, First Neck, and the Great and Little Plains.
Windmills, a dozen or so, some in wreck, some in good repair, one, or maybe two, still grinding! And Whalebone Landing, Sandy Hollow, and Coopers Hill, The Twelve Acres or Reeves’ Orchard. In each of these my grandfather owned parcels of woodland. They furnished fuel aplenty for his many fire-placed house. He had inherited the woodland from his father, and he from his, for seven generations since the settlement date. I own it now. It is worth little, that land, but it has furnished fuel for Halsey households for nigh on to three hundred years, one generation after another—ten of them now. A cutting of new growth, is ready, say, once each thirty years.
Some of the wood from those parental acres I heap upon the fire tonight—steady burning hickory with a back of fragrant cedar—and in its glow of memory many things come back some out of the dim past. For I have lived a long time. Sometimes I think it must be close on to two centuries. What I mean is this—in fifty years, and odd, I’ve seen in the village where I was born the change from colonial simplicity in belief, in practice, and in custom to the usages of modern mechanized today.
I can remember for example when one family in our community kept Sabbath from Saturday sundown to Sunday evening, when everyone kept Sabbath in some strict form, when many people had candle moulds and some used them. When the few cottagers were called Yorkers. When most families raised and cured their own pork and canned their own fruit and dried their own vegetables. When potatoes and turnips and cabbage were the sole and staple vegetables for nine months of the year. Salt pork, salt codfish, steady diet. Carrots were for horses, pumpkins would keep only up to Christmas and were never canned, hence the untiring profusion of “pumpkin” pie this time of year.
It is as it were, a sprightly evening in early winter and a fire is burning on the hearth. It seldom snaps; it never smokes for grandfather was a skilled mason and knew his trade. Supper is over and the dishes cleared away, from the kitchen come the sounds of cleaning up and the stirring of buckwheat cakes being “set to rise” for breakfast. A Kerosene lamp burns on the erstwhile dining table now covered with a turkey-red damask cloth. In a Boston rocker by the fire sits and old man and on a foot-stool, toasting his shins, stretches a little boy. Whether he is six or eight or ten I cannot quite tell—no it is not the smoke, grandfather was a capable mason—it must be my eyes. Against the wall, so near that the boy can lean on it, is a seaman’s chest. The old man is reading, the boy listening, when he gets drowsy he leans his head on the chest and dozes off, waking with a start as Napoleon leaves Moscow, or Alexander reaches Babylon.
We must open that chest. Its stout rope handle smell of oakum, its battered exterior betrays its history knocking ‘round the seven seas in more than one forecastle. We should like to see what’s inside. The hand-hammered strap hinges gently protest but the boy turns back the lid. I’ve read in William James that smells quicken sure remembrance—well, they are here in urgent suggestions of far Cathay, the Moluccas, of the Celebes and other spice islands. The old people call it “cassia,” though we say cinnamon; this chest must have brought home cassia on occasion: at any rate its lined with strips of red cedar and San Domingo mahogany and sandal wood. It has fragrance when opened that to me is pleasant, though pungent and pervasive.
The boy explores the contents while his father holds the lamp. A broken backed leather bound Bible, with s’s that look like f’s, an old log book, some maps and charts, a volume of town records, a bunch of yellow letters tied with a faded blue linen rag, a copy of Pilgrim’s Progress, a Bodwich’s Navigator and a box that used to hold a sextant. These and some sea shells from the south seas, (the boy holds one to his ear to hear the throbbing ocean), a few small nuggets of gold from California, more books—a lot of junk, so the boy thought—then. Now—with reverence he closes the lid realizing that the chest is empty—except for memories.