All history is personal. Some history is grandly dramatic like the day World War II ended. Or it is heartbreakingly traumatic like the week that fire swept through Maine towns laying waste to the landscape. But most history is small, made up of fleeting moments of joy or sorrow or everyday shared life. History is made of the memory of Grandma’s molasses cookies or the time Uncle Joe laughed so hard he fell out of his chair. Those shared stories ripple down through generations, keeping us tied to the past as time marches ever forward.
I was reminded of those moments that make a life as I walked through the rooms of one of Bridgton’s older homes, the Lieutenant Robert Andrews house in South Bridgton. The Federal style house was built for Lt. Andrews about 1805 by local builder John Kilborn. Over the years, the house has seen portions added on, and has seen several restorations, including the current restoration being done on the barn by local craftsman, Ed Somers. It is a comfortable, settled house, rich in history and steeped in family memories.
Usually when I visit this house it is alive with the talk and laughter of good friends. Often it is alive with music as it was recently when my friend Chris Bannon and I sang hymns for our dear friend, Peg Normann, a “woman of years” who has the brightest spirit of anyone I know. But on this day as I walked through the rooms, the house was quiet. Just me and a small cat, my charge for the week while her person was away. As I checked each room to ensure all was well, I listened to the creak of the well-worn floors. In a modern house those creaks would indicate poor workmanship, and an angry call would soon be placed to the contractor. But the creaks of an old house are to be treasured. When a house has sheltered families for a couple of centuries, it has earned every creak and groan. Every nick and bruise tells a small story. The children who went against their mother’s wishes and played ball in the house. The restless housewife never content with the placement of the furniture. The scratch marks of an impatient dog long ago gone to his rest.
I took the old stairs to the second floor, checking for problems. More creaks and groans and nicks and bruises. Floors that sloped just a bit. Chamber doors with old style latches that open in their own particular way. The room with the alcove window that calls to me to sit and write. And there in one room, the chamber that looks out over Adams Pond, I felt a presence. An energy not my own. Perhaps it was a fancy, but old houses have their peculiarities, and I have mine.
As I slowly climbed back down the steep stairs, I ran my hand down the wall to steady myself. I heard the whispers of the many hands that have brushed that same wall. The eager children racing down the stairs for breakfast. The tired farmer climbing up to a well-earned rest. The worried mother carrying a tray up to a sick child. The old “Leftenant,” that Bunker Hill veteran, spryly trotting up intent on some errand. I hear their footsteps echoing with every creak of those old floor boards.
Out in Lt. Andrews’ barn, Ed’s restoration work has shored up that good old structure. New sills and beams and posts. The smell of new wood and fresh sawdust mixes with the lingering odors of the cows and horses that once called the barn home. I stood still to admire Ed Somers’ handiwork. Where a post had rotted from the floor up, he has removed the rot and replaced the post with new wood, marrying the old post with the new, notching them together tightly. The new timber stands in stark contrast to the old post. In time, the new wood will age and blend. Here in that junction of old and new, I see the gentle flow of history. The old giving way always to the new which then in its turn becomes the old.
All those small everyday memories tie us together from age to age. Old houses, like the precious old folks that we know, link us to our past, reminding us of our own place in history as old gives way to new. And like Ed’s post, the place where new meets old is a nearly seamless joint. The Old flowing into the New. One day we will look up in surprise to see that time has slipped past, and we ourselves are full of creaks and groans and whispers of another time.
Caroline D. Grimm is the author of the Voices of Pondicherry series, telling the stories of the town of Bridgton, Maine, originally called Pondicherry.