I grew up in a house that was old – old in the New England sense of the term. It had history and a plaque on the front to prove it:
On this site 1750-1885 stood the Minor Bradley Tavern. Here stopped the stagecoaches which traveled the Post Road from Boston to New York, which ran diagonally across the Green. General Lafayette was a guest here at one time.
Dr. Elisabeth C. Adams lived here 1950-1987, friend & physician to the people of Guilford.
The house faced the town Green and featured its green shuttered, white columned façade as the backdrop in several yellowing photographs of grazing cows kept in the town archives. Besides being old, it was much too large for our family of three. The unfinished two-story attic once hosted basketball games and later served as limitless storage for sports equipment, furniture, fossil rocks, and grade school art projects. At nearly four stories tall, 1 Whitfield was the largest house on the street, made humble only by the Congregational, Episcopal, and Catholic churches that bounded the Green on each of its cardinal sides excluding south.
Growing up at 1 Whitfield Street had its advantages: the Green in all its splendid seasons, the attic, the quiet, the proximity to everything in town – I have many fond memories of the place. But I vividly remember the disadvantages, the most striking of which was somewhat of a seasonal disorder. Recalling it now makes me understand why the number of houseguests and sleepovers dwindled during the winter: the house was frigid. The central heating system was ancient. The furnace, the system’s lungs, could barely muster enough strength to force a tepid breath up through the ducts to the 2nd story bedrooms. That, coupled with turn-of-the-20th-century insulation and sieve-like window cases, made the temperature in our house inhospitable to winter guests. But, somehow, my parents thought it was perfectly acceptable for us.
During the winter months it wasn’t uncommon for us to walk around the house with winter jackets on – sometimes we donned gloves and hats. Typing at a computer for extended periods of time was dangerous for one’s fingers. Clumps of snow we tracked into the mudroom from outside would often outstay their welcome.
It could be very cold at night, even under two quilts with pajamas on. The fact that I woke up on January mornings without frostbite is almost certainly a miracle owed to two of my closest childhood companions: Jos and Josie. At around 38 degrees Celsius (100.4 Fahrenheit), the body temperature of a Jack Russell Terrier is slightly higher than that of a human: they’re perfect mini-heaters. With the two small bodies radiating all night at various places around my bed, I was kept at a relatively healthy temperature.
But there was a time when Jos and Josie hadn’t been born yet, when we had only one dog – Flora. The bed I slept in at that age wasn’t dog friendly – too high or too narrow – and I had to rely on my own internal dynamo to keep me warm under several layers of blankets. On many memorable snow-white mornings, I would wake up before my parents, freezing cold, and run down to the first floor with my blanket to take refuge under the table next to the stairs. There, I would make a tent with the blanket and inflate it with warm air flowing from a heating grate on the wall. I would camp there, thawing, until my parents came down to make breakfast. I later realized this was the strongest, warmest vent because it formed the shortest connection to the furnace lying directly below my little improvised shelter.
I had read about families that didn’t have enough money to keep their house warm during the winter. But my parents were doctors, so why was I freezing at night? I didn’t really understand back then, but I did have a notion that it had to do with the fact that it would take a small fortune to winter-proof the old place. I vaguely understood that even if we replaced the heating system with something more powerful and modern, most of the heat would escape through holes, cracks, seams, and chimney shafts. Lots of things, like entire walls, would need to be ripped out and replaced, and tanks of insulation would need to be injected. And, as I eventually realized, it also had to do with the fact that both of my parents worked part-time for most of my childhood, and didn’t work as the types of specialized doctors that could make tons of money for specific surgeries and operations. They were front-line doctors, doing the largely routine tough work to help those in dire need. They spent the other half of their time doing things they truly enjoyed like spending time with their son and their dogs.
The house itself had come into their hands before I was born, a windfall via a family connection: the Adams family. (According to my mother, the Adams, she and I are distantly related to the second and sixth presidents of the United States, John Adams and John Quincy Adams respectively. But who knows.) Anyhow, the woman who owned the house before my parents, the Elisabeth C. Adams mentioned in the plaque, immediately took my parents to be family when she first met them. My parents liked her house, and when she offered it to them, thought they couldn’t find a more ideal place to raise children while commuting to work. The only problem was they didn’t have nearly enough money. In their mid-thirties, my parents were only a couple years out of their medical residency and were still paying off their student debt. Luckily, Dr. Adams wanted the house passed on to such a nice couple, especially since they were part of the family.
My parents took out a mortgage and got the place in 1987. In 1988, I was born and started my annual tradition of freezing during the winter.
The reason I write about the house in the past tense is not because it has been demolished or burned down. It is because it has recently changed hands. The sale was a real boon for my parents, who had had the house on the market for several years with few nibbles. It was recently purchased by an older man and his wife from the waterfront part of town as a secondary property. The husband didn’t give us or anyone we knew many solid hints as to what he’d do with the place, only some vague mutterings about law offices or a rental home. As a longtime resident of the town, he told us he’d always admired the place.
About a month after the sale cleared, a friend of my parents sent them a cellphone picture of our old house wreathed in a large poster declaring the place “GOP Headquarters.” My parents forwarded me the photo and I was so stunned I quickly took to the digital streets of Facebook to display the shot and publicly make light of my horror:
After a quarter decade of suffering under the tyranny of liberal/semi-socialist/progressive owners, all the hopes and dreams of Guilford’s historic 1 Whitfield Street have finally come true…
It’s too bad that in 2012 this historic home didn’t appeal to another young family, as Dr. Adams might have wanted. But at the end of the day, it’s just a structure on a property, and my parents and I are happy that it’s off our hands – happily living in other places we’re making feel like home.
And although we’ve made our exit from the town, an artifact remains: a brick we purchased at the new library sitting directly across the Green. The inscription thanks those friends who kept me warm during the 18 years I lived at 1 Whitfield:
DEDICATED TO MY