From the Heart

She went dig­ging to un­cover the his­tory and char­ac­ter of her home.


A woman seeks out the roots of her bay­side home.

The two sis­ters were a bit un­usual. Aleda kept her gray hair tied up in a neatly braided bun, but I’d heard it reached well be­low her waist. When she and sis­ter Ma­bel hired my sons to weed, they paid in green beans. They showed the boys how to put plas­tic bags over the dan­de­lion tops be­fore dig­ging so the seeds wouldn’t scat­ter.

They were friendly and wel­com­ing to my young fam­ily, new to our home on the salt­wa­ter bay. It was clear they en­joyed hav­ing us close by. And as I soon dis­cov­ered, they knew some of our house’s his­tory.

“You know,” Aleda told me one day over cof­fee, “We owned your house some years back.” I likely rat­tled my cup as I set it down on the saucer. I knew nei­ther sis­ter had mar­ried. I knew Aleda had been a teacher, Ma­bel a nurse, and that they’d cared for their ag­ing fa­ther un­til he died.

Aleda went on to ex­plain that she, Ma­bel and their fa­ther had taken care of a dy­ing neigh­bor woman as well as the neigh­bor’s home and cow. In re­turn, the woman deeded them her house—now ours.

They told us of Mrs. Ja­cob­sen, who’d lived in the house some time later. She’d sit on the front porch and count the heads of her many chil­dren as they swam in the bay out front.

Our con­ver­sa­tion made me re­al­ize that while I was be­gin­ning to re­search our fam­ily tree, the house

had an in­trigu­ing his­tory of its own. My mother, com­pletely en­chanted with our then 75-year-old home, en­cour­aged me to delve into its roots. In fol­low­ing her ad­vice, I came across won­der­ful sto­ries. And I didn’t al­ways have to go search­ing— they some­times ap­peared right on my doorstep.

Chuck and his wife knocked on the back door one day and in­tro­duced them­selves, ex­plain­ing that he had grown up in this house in the 1940s and ’50s. I in­vited them in to see the home as it was now, but I could tell he was step­ping back into an­other time. He told about hav­ing seen cougars, bears and deer around the house. He re­mem­bered help­ing dig out the dirt base­ment (now con­crete) to make a park­ing space for the fam­ily’s Model T.

Stand­ing in the kitchen, we all looked up at the ceil­ing, its wall­pa­per hung in crooked strips. “The wall­pa­per hanger who came to do it was drunk,” Chuck said. “My mom railed at him the whole time.”

By the time Chuck and his wife left, I felt I’d made a new fam­ily con­nec­tion. He sent me a photo of the house from when he was young, and I put him in touch with the lo­cal his­tor­i­cal so­ci­ety.

Sev­eral years later, an­other knock at the door an­nounced Emery. He had lived in the house for just three years, while he was in high school in the early 1940s. Though he had been here only briefly— he went into the ser­vice when he was 18 and served in World War II—he said he’d loved it, and that those were some of the best years of his life.

Emery re­mem­bered his step­fa­ther car­ry­ing on a feud with a neigh­bor, Mr. John­son. One day Emery watched his step­fa­ther wave a crow­bar at the man. When they were on speak­ing terms, how­ever, the men had raised a pig to­gether. Af­ter butcher­ing it, Emery’s step­fa­ther brought the head home and asked Emery’s mother to make some head­cheese. She put it in a pot of wa­ter on the stove but hadn’t known to re­move the eyes. Ev­ery time she lifted the lid, he said, she saw those eyes look­ing up at her.

I once vis­ited with a friend’s mother, who lived in my neigh­bor­hood when she was younger. She had no sto­ries about my house, but she talked about the tav­ern she and her hus­band had owned nearby. She re­called, too, the neigh­bor­hood women who took pro­duce—berries, chick­ens, eggs and cream—by boat to sell in the pub­lic mar­ket. And she ex­plained how she and oth­ers cleaned the huck­le­ber­ries they picked in the area. “We dumped them out onto a big Turk­ish towel on the ta­ble and then rolled them back and forth,” she said. “The leaves and stick­ers stuck to the towel and left the berries clean.”

Some­times we dug up his­tory quite lit­er­ally. When my sons were build­ing roads in the dirt for their toy trucks, they ex­ca­vated old mar­bles, a lit­tle porce­lain cup and scraps of toys, ev­i­dence of chil­dren who had played here be­fore. When we stripped off the wall­pa­per in the boys’ rooms, we found dif­fer­ent pat­terns in lay­ers like you’d find in the mid­dens of Na­tive Amer­i­can ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites.

My kitchen hasn’t been up­dated since 1970, though I did have some­one paint over the crooked pa­per on the ceil­ing. But the house has now passed the cen­tury mark, not too com­mon for this part of the coun­try. And it has a rich an­ces­try and roots made strong with love.

Mary Ekstrand cap­tured this dou­ble rain­bow from her home’s porch, where Mrs. Ja­cob­sen would sit, count­ing the heads of her chil­dren as they swam in the bay.

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