New England Primer

A short story

By Donald Hall

In 1937, Depression times, my mother left my father and me. I was seven years old, and she ran away with the town lawyer, my father's friend J. B. Burton. My father was Scytheville's doctor. While my father was in his office one morning, my mother packed a suitcase, left a letter, and walked to J. B. Burton's house. When I came back from school, my mother was absent, and my father stood silent in the kitchen. "Your mother won't be with us," he said in a cracked voice. I didn't dare ask him why.

It was December; the kitchen range was hot as he fried eggs for our supper. I watched him burn a letter in the firebox. When we sat at the kitchen table, he broke his yolks and pushed his eggs around but did not eat them. "Your mother won't live with us anymore," he said. I wept, howled, and clung to him.

"Minerva is leaving town with Mr. Burton," he told me. I was bewildered as well as bereft. I had never heard of a mother who left her family. I asked him why, and he only held me tighter. Anguish and rage began that almost governed my life.

I don't know how or why the love affair happened. My parents did not quarrel in my presence, and I saw them kiss and hug. His office occupied the front room of our house, so he was home most of the time, but he kept busy. He remained in his office mornings, with appointments, and in the afternoons he drove his Model A to visit old people without automobiles. Weeknights he was exhausted, and often went to bed early while my mother read magazines: Collier's, Life, The Saturday Evening Post. My parents were together only on Sundays—if there were no medical emergencies. She must have been lonely, and J. B. Burton could have courted her in the afternoons, when I was in school and my father was making house calls.

After she left, he spoke of her only when he had to. People didn't bring the subject up. I found a neighbor setting a loaf of bread on our porch. She did not meet my eyes but said, "Billy." A pot of beans also turned up. The most anyone said to my father was "I'm sorry," treating my mother's flight like a death in the family.

At school a boy teased me: "Where'd your mother go, Billy?" Most of us were too young to know what men and women did. Our teacher flushed red and said, "That will be enough, Tom!" No one said anything again. For weeks my friends avoided playing with me. When they returned, I was aware of a blank place in our acquaintance.

My mother, as I remember her from my early childhood, was slim and vivacious, with large brown eyes, bobbed black hair, and red, red lipstick. She moved quickly as she cooked and cleaned house; then sometimes she sat staring for an hour, smoking cigarettes. Often she held me in her lap. Some occasions remained tender in my memory, and were therefore corroded by what happened. When I was five, a small circus came to Blue River, ten miles away. My father dropped my mother and me off outside the tent on a Saturday afternoon and then picked us up after he had made his house calls. I remember the heightening buzz of voices, crowds jostling, the animal smells. We sat on pine benches watching high-wire acts and clowns, a droopy lion and its droopier tamer.

My mother wrapped an arm around me and called me "Billy, Billy"; we held hands. She bought me a box of Cracker Jack.

My father, Henry Francis Root, known as "Doctor Frank," was courteous, dependable, devoted to his duties, and decent without being unctuous. He had a nervous habit of cracking his knuckles, which came to irritate me. He was a good man, and above all he was disinterested; he was too disinterested. When my mother and J. B. Burton prepared to leave town, a week after she left us, Burton came to my father's office with a dislocated finger. I remember: We were having supper when someone knocked on the door. I opened it, and J. B. Burton stood there, with one hand holding the other. "Your father?" he said, not looking me in the eye.

My father had followed me to the door. Burton showed him the skewed, swollen finger. My father snapped it straight without speaking. Burton winced, but made not a sound.

"Billy," my father said, "get me that roll of adhesive tape on the table next to my desk."

I brought it in. I could not look at J. B. Burton, and my father concentrated on the finger. He could tape one digit to another without conversation. My father scissored and taped, impassively, behaving as a doctor was supposed to behave. Finished, he pointed to the door. When Burton left, he said nothing; he did not have the temerity to thank my father.

When Burton and my mother drove away from Scytheville, she did not say good-bye. On her journey west she sent me postcards telling me that she loved me and missed me. The cards bore postmarks from Albany and Buffalo. A birthday present arrived from Chicago. Then came a postcard from Reno, Nevada, and two months later my father told me that my mother had divorced him and married the man she was with. He would not say "J. B. Burton."

At first his sorrow and shock were visible only in his silence and a tremor in his hands. I wept when I went to bed, as quietly as I could, imitating his reserve. One night I woke from sleep to hear him weeping also. He continued his daily routine, more slowly, his energy depleted at thirty-seven. He lost weight. In the evenings he helped me with my homework, and on Saturdays he took me in the car when he visited patients. He showed me cellar holes and abandoned smithies, the ruins of a New Hampshire that had been prosperous until the Civil War. Mornings my father saw that I was dressed and made me breakfast. Neighbor women took turns taking care of me after school, but such arrangements could not go on forever. My father looked for a housekeeper who would clean house, stay with me when I came home from school, and cook supper.

Even in the Depression, Scytheville was relatively prosperous. Not every small town had its own doctor. The mill laid off some hands—farmers sharpened their old scythes thin as oak leaves rather than buying new ones—but many citizens had jobs, and Scytheville Academy kept going, with day students and a few boarders. Like many American towns, Scytheville paired itself with a poorer cousin. The shack people lived in Liberty, four miles away. If a Scytheville housewife's arthritis precluded washing and cooking, she went to Liberty for household help.

At that time families were known to be either "good" or "bad." Liberty had good impoverished families (as did Scytheville), who ate from big gardens, canned, boiled maple sap for sugar, kept a pig, cut down trees for heat, and shot a deer every November. They lived with plenty of food and warmth. The bad people in Liberty survived on hard cider, with intervals of seasonal work.

Thus, when my father needed a housekeeper, he looked to Liberty. First he hired Mrs. Willow, a widow who spent the day listening to radio soap operas, fifteen minutes each: Ma Perkins; Just Plain Bill; Mary Noble, Backstage Wife. She talked as if the plots and the people were real: "That Lorenzo! He ought to get a job like anyone else." "I wonder how old Ma is. She sounds old." After school I partook of her habit, and late in the afternoon we listened together to a cowboy singer. Mrs. Willow seldom cleaned or tidied, and dust piled on top of clutter. My father had to let her go.

To replace Mrs. Willow he found Ruby Moody, also from Liberty, who turned fourteen in 1938 and dropped out of school to earn money for her family. When Ruby arrived, she was an awkward schoolgirl, tall, with broad shoulders, who never smiled. My father introduced me in his courtly fashion, and Ruby looked straight into me. "What do I do with him?"

If she was shy, she covered it up with a grudging demeanor. She was certainly gruff with me. Her lower lip stuck out as if it expressed petulance. I liked it that she was a girl—but she scared me. I sought her favor. At first her cooking was primitive: overcooked vegetables, chicken, boiled potatoes, more lard than seemed possible. My father complimented her. She needed compliments. He found her a Fannie Farmer cookbook. After a while she looked more comfortable, and I was pleased to come home to her after school. "What did you do today?" she said, maybe as she made biscuits.

"Nothing," I said. "Can you play?"

"In a minute."

The summer I was eight, my father took me with him on his house calls, sometimes to remote places. Once he stopped our new Packard on an old wood road up Biscuit Hill, nearly to Liberty, when the car could go no farther. Horses, or more likely oxen, had hauled timber here, over great granite lumps that would smash a crankcase. We walked, keeping to the ruts. My father carried his black bag, and I walked beside him, avoiding poison ivy and thorny blackberry bushes. "Where are we going?" I said.

"To Belle's shack," he said. "You remember Belle?"

I didn't know her last name, but I knew who Belle was. Everybody did. The woods were full of old men who lived alone, nature's bachelors; Belle was the only woman.

She was eighty years old. She did not live quite alone, because she had a sixty-year-old son named Gospel, who was feeble-minded and lived mostly in the woods. I'd never seen him. I asked my father about Belle and Gospel. "Well, they say she was born on a farm where her shack is, ran off in a family way when she was nineteen, and came back with Gospel twenty years later. She's got a dug well, a pump, and an outhouse. She sends me a penny postcard when she wants me to look in on her. It's her hips. Aspirin's the only thing."

"What about Gospel's father?" I asked, thinking, of course, of my missing mother.

"Nobody knows about the father." By this time I knew just enough not to ask another question.

We passed dense birches. Saplings rose beside fallen trees. We passed a cellar hole that my father called "the Buzzle place." We walked past stone walls among the birches, past woods that had once been pasture, and through a grown-over apple orchard and a hemlock forest. The trees stopped as we entered a clearing, where we saw a great patch of hollyhocks in front of Belle's shack. An old dog howled once when he saw us; then he dragged himself upright and wagged his tail. My father scratched him behind the ears.

Belle's place was made of unpainted boards nailed upright with deerskin stapled onto them. "She made her shack with what was left of the farmhouse," my father said. "She must have pulled that captain's chair out of the old place."

"Doctor Frank," Belle said. She took her small glasses off, to see me better, and I saw deep red marks high at the sides of her nose, where the glasses pinched. She wore a man's shoes without laces, and she limped.

Belle waved us into her one-room house and took a black pot off the single chair. She filled a kettle, dipping the water out of a pail, and opened the drafts on her rusty wood stove. A shape embossed on the oven door looked like a peacock's tail. Her stomach pushed into the stove, leaving her apron black. She found a jar of Nescafé. "All you have to do is pour hot water over it," she said.

While Belle and my father talked about her miseries, I looked around the shack. I saw a cigar box of eyeglasses like the ones she was wearing. Why did she keep a whole box? In other boxes, nailed to a two-by-four, I saw buttons, beads, knitting needles, a crochet hook. Against the wall I saw shelves of canning: beans, peas, shelled corn, a pint of tomatoes, honey in combs. I saw a Temperance Pledge. I saw a bugle hanging from a nail. A small forest of canes grew out of a milk can.

My father measured out pills for Belle, probably samples from Bayer. "We used to get aspirin from Germany," my father said.

"New war started yet?" Belle asked. "We in it?"

He shook his head. "Not yet," he said.

She looked at me. "I remember the soldier boys come back from the Civil War," she said. "Do you see my bugle?"

I knew about the Civil War; my father read books about it. His grandfather had fought at Vicksburg in the Eleventh New Hampshire Infantry; we had a blue cap he'd worn.

"That's a Union bugle, brought back by a man walked home from Virginia."

The door darkened and the figure of a big man filled it, tall, with a huge belly. He was carrying small birch logs toward the wood stove. When his eyes adjusted from outdoors, he saw my father and me. He dropped the logs and ran out the door into the woods.

"Gospel's a good boy," Belle said, "even if he's not right." I peeked out the door to see if he was lurking somewhere. Belle said, "Gospel and that bugle come from the same place." She made a sound like a giggle. She looked at my father, no longer addressing me. "The whited sepulchre brought it back from the war. When I showed, he fired me."

"Well," my father said, getting up from the chair, stretching, his black bag in his hand, "you've done right by yourself and Gospel. Why did you call him Gospel?"

"When I came back, everything was tumbled down, even the mill. I called him Gospel because his father was a whited sepulchre."

Belle turned to me. "It's like that old primer," she said. From the jumble of her shack she picked up a small square book. "The New England Primer," she said, as she handed it to me. I saw mottled pages with old printing and woodcuts stained with age. "My mother taught me my ABCs from that book," she said.

Then she looked at my father, smiling without teeth. "In Adam's fall," she said, "we sinnèd all."

Ruby slept upstairs in the spare room and returned to Liberty every other weekend, taking her salary with her. My father paid her five dollars a week plus room and board. Ruby changed, became less gruff—disarmed, I think, by my father's courtliness. We were both taken with her.

Along with cleaning house and washing and ironing and cooking, Ruby's job was me. I loved coming home from school. When I was nine, and the war started in Europe, I was in love with her. She agreed to wait and marry me when I was old enough. We played together at first, tossing a tennis ball back and forth, taking our turns on a swing that hung from a stout branch of maple. We pushed each other to get started, and then pumped and soared. I liked touching her buttocks. We walked together upstream past the scythe mill and climbed on stones that had supported other mills. She had heard about Belle but not about Gospel.

She never spoke of my mother. When I woke up angry in the night, I soothed myself by thinking of Ruby.

Once, when she was pushing me on the swing, I fell onto the roots of a tree.

"Billy!" Ruby said. "Are you all right? I'll get your father. You poor dear!"

When I stood and shook myself and convinced her that I was all right, she took me inside to the sofa and rubbed my bruised leg. I didn't want her to stop.

"Once my father fell and broke his arm," she said. "He was drunk." I heard her turn angry. "He hits my mother."

I hated knowing that Ruby came from such a house, such a family, but I knew Liberty's reputation.

My father worried that I played too little with boys my own age, and he encouraged visits from my fourth-grade friends. I had only twelve classmates in our red one-room school. Maybe my father asked Ruby not to play with me so much. It seemed now that when I wanted to toss a ball with her, she had too much to do. Or maybe she just grew older. By the time she turned sixteen she had lost her childishness, leaving me a little lonesome—though sometimes she still let me push her on the swing.

In the spring of 1941 Otto Buzzard, the older brother of my schoolmate Tom, found reasons to drop by the house. He would knock at the door to the kitchen, where Ruby baked and cooked. His blond hair straggled under an Esso cap. He would say, "Corn's up" or "What're you doing?" or "Looks like snow." Half the time his mouth slacked open as he stared at Ruby in her long housedress. She scuttled about, aware of Otto's attentions. At ten I knew enough to be jealous of him.

My father decided that Ruby ought to continue her education. She could read and write, but she hadn't read much of anything. My father wanted to keep her from being a Liberty Moody, or a Mrs. Otto Buzzard of Scytheville. Near us lived a married woman who had been a teacher, and my father hired her to tutor Ruby in grammar, math, geography, reading, and general science. Algebra was hard. Ruby took to her studies reluctantly, but she wanted to please my father. When Otto dropped by, she put him off: No, she could not go out walking with him. She had homework. Otto's visits dwindled, and he joined the Army three months after Pearl Harbor.

Every evening my father and Ruby and I sat together around the parlor wood stove. I did homework or read stories about aviators in the Great War, while another war was beginning. My father read medical journals and history books. I could tell he was really taken with a book when he didn't crack his knuckles. I lifted my eyes from my school book to watch Ruby's face as she worked at her studies or looked into my father's history books, practicing her reading. At seventeen she started to be beautiful without knowing it. Her young face, with its strong features, frowned down on her schoolwork, her lower lip protruding only a little. She wasn't always good-natured. One night my father cracked his knuckles more than ever and kept quoting phrases from the book he was reading. "The Battle of Bennington," he might say, not realizing that he was speaking out loud. Ruby threw her algebra book on the floor and slammed the door of her room.

Ruby was still walking to Liberty. Twice a month she went there on a Sunday, taking her dollars. One night my father and I were eating a cold Sunday supper when Ruby came in the back door. We both cried out. Her eyes were black and her lip was split; blood was on her chin. She wept as we looked at her. My father dampened a washcloth and cleaned off the blood, examining her mouth and her eyes. "I ain't never going back there," she said.

"I'm not ever going back," my father said. "Your father?"

Ruby nodded. "My father. While my mother watched, and my brothers. He said book learning wasn't for women."

"You can stay here. Until you go to college."

Ruby was admitted, by examination, to Scytheville Academy for teacher training her senior year. She did well enough to be accepted at the normal school in Keene, in 1943. She was nineteen, and thought about teaching kindergarten. My father paid for her tuition and room and board, which didn't add up to much. To visit us on weekends she took a train into Boston's North Station and another out to Blue River. My father met her at the depot, at 12:38 P.M. on Saturday. She came every weekend, cooked and studied, and went back Sunday night. Something was changing in her. She had a life away from us. She talked about sociology, or the girl she worked with in chemistry lab. She showed us B+ papers, and my father praised her. Weekdays were lonesome for us, but we made do. A widow named Mrs. Ewell came to cook for us.

One day Bert Bottoms, the RFD man, burst into my father's office to cry out that Belle was hurt. "Bad hurt, up to her shack." When she had not emptied her mailbox for days—flyers, I suppose—Bert had walked in and found her lying in her cabin, half out of her mind. Gospel ran away when he saw Bert. My father called the Blue River ambulance, met it at the wood road, and showed the way. Belle raved that she wouldn't leave Gospel, but the men lifted her onto the stretcher and took her to the hospital in Blue River. She had broken a hip.

She fretted about Gospel until she died, eighty-six years old. The town buried her. I wondered what would happen to the Civil War bugle. By now I knew what she had meant by "whited sepulchre." I wondered if anybody ever found the little square book.

My father and Bert and others looked for Gospel. They only glimpsed him as he ran to hide. Each week Bert left two loaves of bread and a pound of rat cheese for him, wrapped in tinfoil and tied in a bundle against raccoons and squirrels. When he came back each time, the previous week's food was gone.

That same year I saw my father and Ruby kissing in the kitchen when they thought I was upstairs. I was horrified. My father was forty-four years old, and Ruby was twenty! My father was plump and balding. He plodded; Ruby bounced when she walked. I was furious, and hated what they felt. By now I knew what desire was, because I woke with it every morning. Maybe her difficult early life made her seem older than other twenty-year-old girls. Still, Ruby's youthful beauty is clear in my memory. I can find only one picture, taken when she was nineteen, standing beside me. I was thirteen. She is smiling and leaning my way, the light behind her; I can see the curve of her leg through her dress. Her hair is shaggy as it hangs toward me. Her lower lip looks sensual, instead of seeming to pout.

One Sunday they took me aside and told me: when Ruby finished her degree, she and my father would marry.

"We're happy," my father said. "It must be strange for you."

"I'm thinking about starting a nursery school in Blue River," Ruby said, suddenly older and separate. "It's getting big enough. It's prosperous." I remembered when Ruby would not have used a word like "prosperous." I suppose she thought of a private nursery school.

Grudgingly I came to accept the idea of their marriage, though I know I withdrew from my happy father. He withdrew a little from me. I was jealous of both of them, but grateful that Ruby would remain in my life. When I was old enough to attend college, I would come home to Ruby and my father. And I could come home to Miriam, an academy student I was sweet on.

At birthdays and Christmases I received my mother's packages, now from California, with notes signed "Your loving Mother." My father had a Christmas card signed by Minerva but not by J.B. Naturally his hurt had diminished. Then, early in 1945, on a Thursday, I found in the day's mail a thick letter addressed, in my mother's handwriting, to my father. When I handed it to him, he looked troubled and took it with him into his office, closing the door. An hour later he emerged—pale, shaking, eyes red—to Mrs. Ewell's supper. I asked him what was wrong. I knew it was my mother's letter. He blew his nose on the handkerchief he carried in his jacket pocket. "I can't say anything now."

The next day he canceled his office hours and drove away by himself. When he came back for supper, he was silent. I was frightened. He touched my arm. He said, "I'm sorry, Billy," and resumed his silence. Saturday, before he drove to pick up Ruby at Blue River, he told me that he and Ruby would take a ride before they came home. I knew that they would talk, and that they would talk because of my mother's letter. When they returned, Ruby climbed quickly to her room. My father asked me into his office.

"I telegraphed money to California. To your mother. She's coming back."

I could not believe what I heard. "Ruby ..." I said.

"I telegraphed your mother money for the train. She has nothing and nobody. She's sick."

"I don't want her back!"

"She's sick. Very sick. She's penniless. I have to take her back." I saw my father start to weep, and I knew he was not weeping for my mother. "Her husband"—my father still wouldn't say the name—"shot himself two months ago. Bankrupt. Minerva has no place to go. Ruby knows that I have to take her in. Ruby will keep on at college and still come here weekends. Minerva will die, but it might take a long time. I told Ruby that she was free." I ran upstairs to my room, in a rage against both my mother and my father.

My father took me with him to pick up my mother at the Blue River depot. I didn't know the frail, frowning woman with one suitcase who gazed at us. Her illness exaggerated her age, and she was wobbly when she walked. My father said, "Minerva," and picked up her bag.

"Thank you," she said. Her forehead was creased; her mouth curved down. "You look better than me. The trains are worse than ever." She looked at me. "You're big now, Billy," she said. "You're too big for that coat. I knew you'd take me back, though I don't know why you should." When she hugged me, I felt cold coming from her bones. Maybe it was my bones the cold came from.

On the drive back she said little. "It's as grimy here as ever," she said. "In California the sun shines."

Her fingers shook when she lit a cigarette. My heart wanted to stop itself. I loathed this bony whiner.

That night my father cracked his knuckles incessantly. He cracked them incessantly every night. "Stop that," my mother snapped. He kept on. Every night I left them in the dining room or the parlor and went to my room.

Ruby returned four weekends in a row and slept on the sofa, because the spare room was Minerva's, filled with medicine smells. One Sunday morning Minerva's voice rose in a tirade at Ruby. Who did she think she was, her nose in a book when Mrs. Ewell needed help in the kitchen? My father shouted, "Shut up, Minerva!" I had never heard him use such words.

That afternoon Ruby and I slipped out of the house to take a walk like our old walks. When I spoke bitterly about my mother, Ruby did not hush me. On the fourth weekend my father did his Saturday-morning rounds and then met Ruby's train. While he was gone, my mother laughed without stopping, an eerie sound. When my father brought Ruby home, Minerva's laughter turned into uncontrollable weeping. I did not know it, but the intermittent crying and laughing were symptoms of her disease. She had ALS, which people called Lou Gehrig's disease.

The weekend visits became intolerable for Ruby. My father said that she needn't come home all the time. The next weekend, without having warned us, she did not step down from the train—nor the next weekend, nor the next. My father wrote her daily at her boardinghouse in Keene. After two weeks his letters began to return, and then a letter addressed to Ruby arrived at the house. My father opened it and read. The dean of women at Ruby's college wrote that because of Miss Moody's absence from classes, and because Miss Moody had left her boardinghouse, the dean was forced to conclude that Miss Moody was no longer a student. Unless she received a satisfactory explanation ...

My father and I left my mother with Mrs. Ewell. We drove to Keene. Ruby's landlady told us that Ruby had packed her suitcases and moved out three weeks earlier, and that she had stopped going to classes before that. A young man in a Model T had driven her away. We headed to Scytheville in a double silence of anxiety and melancholy. "Where could she go?" I said.

"To Liberty," my father said, and he turned off the Scytheville road. When we parked by the Moody shack, its door was hanging open and the left side of the porch drooped down. The nearest neighbor told us that the Moodys had left town and good riddance. No, they didn't know about the daughter, just the Mr. and Mrs. The other children had moved out long since. One store owner knew nothing except that old Moody owed him eighteen dollars.

V-E Day. V-J Day. I overheard my father on the telephone seeking information from the New Hampshire, and later the Massachusetts, state police. No, he told them, he would not file a missing-person report. He hired a detective, who was unable to trace her.

My mother lay in bed and rose by holding onto furniture when she had to use the upstairs bathroom my father had installed for her. Slobbering, she scolded Mrs. Ewell. My quiet father yelled at her, and she yelled back or went on one of her weeping jags. I hated my house. As she became frailer and more depressed, she sometimes spent days without speaking. She had to stay in bed all day. Bedpans. The visiting nurse helped, but Mrs. Ewell was running out of strength. My father hired a nurse's helper, who drove from Blue River. Some days my mother thanked my father over and over. Once she patted me on the hand and said, "Billy, Billy." I pulled my hand away.

By the time I entered my last year at Scytheville Academy, I had lost all interest in stone walls and cellar holes. They were the vacancy and rottenness of this place. I came home from the academy as late as I could, often not until suppertime. I smoked cigarettes in the woods with other academy criminals. At home I didn't answer when spoken to. If my father spoke to me sternly, I left the house. My father was losing me as he had lost everything else.

In the autumn of 1947, with my mother sinking into paralysis, I went to Boston University, planning to go on to business school. I would be rich and travel the world and never return to Scytheville.

My mother died the next year. After the funeral I saw her buried in the family plot and then hurried back to Boston. I accelerated my studies, hoping for early admission to Harvard Business School, and rarely came home. My father moved with a ponderous slowness, although he was only forty-eight. Mrs. Ewell, now an old woman, could barely keep my father's house in order. He took dinner at the Scytheville Inn, sitting alone night after night until he was joined by Mason Thirlwell, an old neighbor and a widower. After dinner they played checkers.

I let my courses absorb me. I felt superior to my father, with a young man's arrogance, because his exaggerated goodness had wasted his life. I asked him to call me William, and corrected him if he forgot. My father took long naps on Sunday afternoons, although his working week was less strenuous. Old people without cars had died off; the young drove to Blue River to see their internists.

I visited Scytheville a few times a year. One Sunday afternoon in 1951, the summer before I went to Harvard, I paid a call on my old girlfriend, Miriam, and then took my father's 1947 Ford and drove around the countryside, up dirt roads and down, past cellar holes where I had waited in the car as my father visited cantankerous patients. My father had told me that Gospel's food now went untouched. When I found myself on the outskirts of Liberty, on impulse I turned into town to the street where Ruby had grown up. To my surprise the house was standing, the porch made level by stacked concrete blocks. A crone rocked on the porch. After parking I walked up the creaking steps. Maybe this woman was the remains of Ruby's mother. "Are you Mrs. Moody?" I asked.

"Who be you?" she said from her toothless mouth.

"I used to know ... the Moodys," I said. I was afraid to ask.

"Well, I don't know ye ... He's been dead a long time ago."

A girl of about three clattered out onto the porch through the torn screen door, and I saw in the shadow behind her a tall woman's figure.

Ruby's hand lifted to cover her mouth, and I had time to see that her lower lip no longer pouted forward. "Billy," she said. I didn't mind "Billy" from Ruby. "You've grown up." She dropped her hand; some of her front teeth were missing. Many of Liberty's residents were toothless by thirty-five. Her hair was limp; she was ragged in pants and a worn checked shirt. She poked a cigarette into her mouth, and she did not smile. I could begin to see her mother in Ruby.

"I didn't want to tell you, your father, that I was back. It's only two months."

"Where have you been?" I said. "We looked for you."

Ruby shrugged. "I kept myself away. I didn't want to fool myself. I heard your mother died." She held the girl by both shoulders. "This is my daughter," she said. "Dorothy. I wait on table down to the Liberty Tavern. This is where me and Dorothy belong. Don't tell your father I'm here."

"He'll find out," I said.

Ruby and her daughter backed into the dark hallway. "I had her by myself," she said as she disappeared.

Driving back toward Scytheville, I parked the car to walk by the stream where Ruby and I had walked among the ghost mills. I stayed until late, angry at both my parents, at Ruby, at the place where I was born. In two days I would return to Boston, leaving my father—and now leaving Ruby, who had turned back into a Liberty Moody. I couldn't bear to tell my father, who was already so broken. It would not bother him that she had a child, but it would destroy him that she had become a Moody again.

My father was a letter writer, not fond of the telephone. Every Wednesday in Boston, across the Charles River from the rest of Harvard, I received a handwritten letter of some length, his Sunday morning's work. His language was formal in its constructions, but it allowed a show of affection. I wrote him back, not so well or so often. In my mind I continued to see Ruby and her daughter, Ruby with her hand over her mouth, enjoining me not to tell my father.

The summer of 1953 I spent two weeks in Scytheville, seeing old school friends, including Miriam, who was now married, and visiting my father, who worked still fewer hours. One afternoon he and I drove and walked, mostly in silence, on the old dirt roads lined by stone walls. Maybe this would be the last time, I thought. I had come back to say good-bye to everything. Businesses were recruiting and I had already interviewed for jobs in Chicago, Los Angeles, even London. As we walked, my father puffed, although he had lost weight.

Once, while my father had office hours, I drove to Liberty, where I did and did not want to see Ruby. I watched her hanging laundry in her back yard, smoking and wearing shorts on a hot August day, with her daughter handing her wet wash. She was another impoverished young mother of Liberty. I paused on the road to watch, and when she turned to look in my direction, I drove on.

I ate at the Scytheville Inn with my father and Mason Thirlwell, and kibitzed while they played checkers. My father's life was over at fifty-three. Why had no one told him that Ruby had come back to Liberty? The town's manners were silence and reticence.

Not long after I went back to Boston, a letter arrived from my father. Calmly, expressing no dread or anxiety, he told me that he had cancer of the colon. I remembered how tired he had seemed, and that he had lost weight. He had observed blood in his stool, and at Blue River Hospital a barium enema had revealed a mass high in his colon. It would be malignant, he told me, but it was small, and his chances were good that the cancer would not return. He was to be operated on the next day. I was on no account to leave my studies but to remain in Boston and wait for word from Mason Thirlwell. He would stay in the hospital about a week.

The next morning I borrowed a roommate's car and drove to Blue River. When I arrived, my father was in the recovery room. The surgeon confirmed that the tumor was malignant but small and within the walls of the colon.

I was permitted to enter the recovery room, where nurses scuttled among patients just returned from surgery. My father was sedated and in pain, but his usual calmness showed through. I went into town for lunch, and returned to see him in intensive care. The next day I sat beside his bed. We could talk easily when he first had morphine, but he would quickly become sleepy. I stayed with him for two days and then returned to my case studies and left Mason Thirlwell to visit him. When he returned home, weak, neighbors would help, and Mason, and a visiting nurse.

But I worried about him. Mason was a good friend, but I could not see him as a caretaker. Then I thought of an improbable solution, for my father's comfort and my own. When Scytheville needed help, it went to Liberty. The next weekend—my father was due home on Monday—I borrowed the car again and drove not to Blue River or Scytheville but to Liberty. Ruby was in her nightgown at noon, fixing lunch for Dorothy. I saw shiny new teeth. She seemed frightened to see me; I must have looked anxious. She asked, "Your father?"

I told her about the cancer. I told her she must come back to the house where she had lived from fourteen to twenty. My father would need her. She shook her head. "My mother's dead," she said. "But I have Dorothy."

"You loved my father," I said. "You still do. He never stopped loving you. Come back with Dorothy and move in. Take care of him when he comes home from the hospital." She kept shaking her head no. "He needs you," I said. "When he's better, you can go back to Liberty if you want."

By the time Dorothy came in from play, Ruby had packed their things into paper bags. She gave her daughter lunch and then took her aside to say that they were going to Scytheville to care for a sick man she used to know. Dorothy was a solemn child. She nodded without speaking.

Ruby worried about how she looked; she worried about her clothes. In the Kmart at Blue River I bought new clothes for her and for Dorothy. Ruby seemed to pick her new things almost at random in her distraction. She and Dorothy changed into new clothes in a dressing room, and left behind the garments they had been wearing.

As we drove toward Scytheville, Ruby continued to fret: "Maybe I'm doing the wrong thing again. I shouldn't have let your mother drive me out."

She went pale as we approached town. Dorothy was silent, as if caught in a dream. I helped them carry their few things into the house Ruby knew so well, and then drove with her to the hospital. We left Dorothy with Mason Thirlwell, who was clearly uncomfortable with a little girl. Alone with my father, I told him what I had done: I had brought Ruby back from Liberty, with a five-year-old daughter, and I had settled her in our house to take care of him while he was weak. He wept and shook his head. I did not know what he was thinking, but I saw that part of him was both incredulous and overjoyed. He thanked me and asked me if I had brought Ruby to the hospital. I led her from the waiting room to his bedside. They gazed at each other. "Ruby," my father said.

"Will you be all right?" Ruby asked. "Is it all right if I take care of you?" There were no tears in her eyes. "I never finished college."

"Thank heaven for Billy," my father said. "You ..." I think he wanted to tell her that he wished she had come back sooner.

"You know about Dorothy? Billy told you."

He was getting tired and showed it. My father took Ruby's hand. I tried to see the changed Ruby through his eyes: her shiny teeth, her new wrinkles.

After I returned to Harvard, Mason drove my father home to Ruby's care. I telephoned every day. In a week my father was writing me letters again. Ruby added postscripts. Most weekends I visited them. Ruby cooked in the kitchen of her girlhood, tall and reserved and handsome at twenty-nine. She had changed in a decade. She no longer bounced when she walked. Her mouth curved down and looked dour, but she stopped smoking. Gradually my father gained strength and took up his small practice again. After six weeks Ruby no longer occupied the spare room. They were married a month later in a judge's chambers in Blue River.

After graduation I returned to Scytheville to spend a week before taking a good job in Salt Lake City. Dorothy was finishing the year in the elementary school, and Ruby had a new bridge that looked natural. My father at fifty-four was more sprightly than he had been since 1945. Rarely did he crack his knuckles. On this visit I walked with both of them in the countryside among the ruins. Utah began to seem far away. My father told me that deer hunters had found Gospel's skeleton in the ruins of Belle's camp.

Back in Boston I telegraphed my regrets to Utah and looked for work in the Northeast. I settled in Portland, Maine, and married a fellow student from the business school. Dorothy grew tall like her mother and became the joy of my father's late middle age. When my marriage fell apart, I was ready to move from Portland to Boston, with a job similar to my previous one. I liked to visit Scytheville, where Ruby and my father lived quietly and with clear affection. Dorothy was in her first year at the academy and already thinking about college. Life seemed almost reparable. Then I remembered my mother's leaving and returning, Ruby's exile, my father alone, my divorce. In Adam's fall / We sinnèd all.

A year after I moved to Boston, nine years after Ruby's return, she telephoned me at my office to tell me that my father had had a heart attack. I notified my staff and drove to Blue River on the new highway. My father was in intensive care again, and was switched to the cardiac unit a day later. When Ruby left the room to have lunch, he told me that judging from his experience, he probably didn't have more than a year or two. My father was sixty-two, and Ruby was thirty-eight.

He died nineteen months later, with Ruby and Dorothy beside him. We buried him next to Minerva, according to his wishes, with a place for Ruby on his other side.

I go to Scytheville often, to see Ruby and Dorothy. We take walks where Ruby and I rambled so many years ago. The old people have died off. Only Ruby and I can discern, among the stones and the new growth, the remains of the old farms and cellar holes. For Dorothy, now teaching at the academy, we are archaeologists at the site of Troy. Summer cottages and retirement communities are beginning to take over, filled with people who love the countryside but don't know its history. Senior citizens from the suburbs of Boston have founded a Scytheville-Liberty Historical Association and a community center. Grandchildren of the old shack people now mow the lawns and plough the snow.

Driving up Biscuit Hill one day with Ruby and Dorothy, I pulled off the road into some ruts beside newly bulldozed forest. Developers were advertising a new retirement community. The ruts looked like Belle's old wood road, and the three of us walked on flattened sand beside pushed-over birches and hemlocks. Huge yellow engines squatted in the weekend silence. Clearing had just begun, and we walked across the space easily to look into old woods that would become lawns—as, two hundred years earlier, virgin forest had yielded acre by acre to pasture and hayfield. One hollyhock raised a skinny stem. I saw a heap of boards soon to be dozed into a hollow and covered with dirt. I kicked at the leaves, my heart pounding, and nudged into sight a pair of old-fashioned eyeglasses. When I squeezed them onto my nose, the landscape brightened and enlarged. Ruby tried them on, and then Dorothy.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2002/05/new-england-primer/302484/