Thursday August 23, 2012

‘Here's the name," my mother said, closing the book gently over her hand. The letters stamped into the dark red hardback cover read: "Old Paths and Legends of the New England Border."

"And here's the writer," she said, opening the book to the page she had marked.

Katharine M. Abbott wrote this history in 1907. She has signed the preface from Bel videre, Lowell. We spell our first names differently, but almost I have a namesake who explored back roads and local histories a hundred years ago.

We were in Yellow House books in Great Barrington, peacefully looking through the stacks, be cause this is what my family does when we go exploring. We had come from Project Native with maidenhair fern in the back seat and from Biz allion's with Catalan olive oil -- and made straight for the second-hand book store.

When I opened Katharine M. Abbott, I found the "Old Paths and Legends" extended from Berkshire County to the Con necticut coast, from the town where I live to the town where I grew up (and the small city where I was born). I started reading passages to my mom. In these old legends, names from my hometown's public buildings became families who lived just off the green. (Our town green is a National Historic Landmark now and a lovely spot, and we've often walked there past the field of goats and the vest-pocket park along the tidal river, and up Fair Street, which my mom told me was once called Pet ticoat Lane.


Advertisement

)

My dad, who used to take me on "expeditions" on Saturday mornings when I was small, came up from browsing to see what we were poring over.

He once spent most of a day with me in the minute town hall near my grandparents' farm, helping me to trace the land records as far as we could.

So on the way north to Wil liamstown, sitting beside the yellow-flowering coreopsis, my mom read to us from the Connecticut chapters. We found out that Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher were brother and sister -- and used to spend summer days in my old hometown, at the house where their mother, Roxana, grew up.

I can now imagine Roxana studying French from a book tied to her distaff as she wove, and her father coming home with books in his saddle bags. And the young Harriet and Henry, who became two of the most famous people of letters in their day, spent warm afternoons in this atmosphere, cracking hickory nuts and floating a wooden skiff on the stream.

Henry Ward Beecher fought for women's suffrage and the emancipation proclamation and against slavery and championed Darwin's theory of evolution. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote more than 20 books, and "Uncle Tom's Cabin" sold more than 300,000 copies in the year it came out.

I wonder whether these two forceful abolitionists ever walked to the green with their mother and her French book. Maybe they played games in the hardware store where I pretended to be a mouse when I was five, or saved pennies for rock candy, like the kind I used to get at the toy shop, or made syrup from checkerberries. as the corner drug store used to do.

The diner used to sell checkerberry ice cream sodas there; the tiny grocery store will still sell you a bottle of the syrup. It tastes like wintergreen.

I'm looking forward to rambling with Katharine M. Abbott. (I want to know more about her, though it may take a trip to the archives of the Lowell Sun). The book is a gift.

And curiosity is a greater one. I'm feeling thankful this morning for the walks to the green, the picnics in the cemetery with the worn and tilted graves, the county fairs where we watched the cattle shows, the house museums and living history where we would come back to the same places, where my parents would ask questions, and my mom would notice the apples made of pie crust decorating the apple pie, and my dad would find the chamber built into the chimney for smoking meat.

Maybe it goes back to the birthday parties. We remembered over dinner the time they spent planning celebrations for my brother and sister and me. My parents made chocolate cake and seven-minute frosting -- and they made games. We found some of the clues to one not long ago: Riddles about stars and constellations led to everyday things like the white half-moon painted on the barn door.

Every year, they turned the house and the lawn into treasure hunts.