The Whole Story

A new beginning in Andover

By Nancy Heden Clayman

“The house is big – four bedrooms – one for each kid or maybe the girls in one, so we might even have a guest room.” David smiles to himself, “How American.” He wonders if Ellen, sitting in the passenger seat beside him, is thinking the same. How fun it would be if Lotta and Birger, Swedish friends in Worcester, came to visit, or even more exciting, some family from Sweden.

David continues his description of the home in New Hampshire they are on their way to see together, the property he saw last week and hopes today to buy. David believes Ellen will love it as well, but there are a few negatives he is not anxious to reveal.    

David decides, for now, to stay with the positive. “It’s real country – so much land just ready for a big vegetable garden, hay fields and pasture for a couple koosa, a barn for some chicks, AND so much sunny space for your flower gardens, maybe that lily pond or fountain you’ve been talking about.” David rushes on; Ellen wonders why, having heard all this many times through the previous week. “And the pine grove, so perfect for our little restaurant and a couple cabins in the back – on a main road but so quiet.  You know, last Sunday, Miss Nettie threw in the pine grove just as I was leaving – maybe to sweeten the deal – imagine that! Oh, she’s really ready to sell now.”

More quietly and cautiously, David continues, “You do need to know, my dear, that parts of the house need work, like paint and paper in the bedrooms, maybe a cement floor in the cellar. But what Roy and I will start on first thing is getting some plumbing up and going into that kitchen, then a bathroom; there’s already a room for it, but I guess it just never got finished. Crazy, huh, the house is 30 years old and just never got done!  We’ll get the power hooked up too; there are plenty of poles right on Route 11.  Roy and me can do all that before fall – I promise”. David knows his fellow traveler is probably really disappointed and upset with this news, but at least she knows now.  And, no matter what, David thinks, ‘I know a good deal when I see it.’

“You know, min Ellen, it will be just like going back home to Sweden. Just like Atten where you lived your whole life. The water pump just outside the kitchen door, the “ut hus” a few yards away in the trees.  At least in Andover the “ut hus” isn’t “utsida”. David chuckles, feeling clever with his words. “It’s attached, no walk outside in the rain or freezing cold, aye?”  David can’t say, “It must feel like a step backwards from what you now have, in Dedham, and waited so long for. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you all this before now. I hope the big picture of what we can have in Andover will be worth it! I really feel this is a great deal with so many pluses”.

Ellen IS disappointed, let down, furious – ‘Why now, why did he wait until now to tell me all this?’  Exhaustion overwhelms, just contemplating the move – three children, one a toddler – now this. His comment about Atten — so far away, so long ago – igniting that old homesick feeling. ‘Ugh, just like him!’ she fumes in silence.

Passing through Concord, then a town called Boscawen, soon the rolling hills of Salisbury come into view. David loves to coast these hills, sliding the gear into neutral, sailing down while gathering some serious momentum for “Bessie’s” next climb, coaxing her up with a pat on her dashboard, imagining the gas savings. Beside him, Ellen rolls down the window to feel the rush of air, surprisingly warm for early April. Seeing the stubs of grass poking up through the crusty earth, and the yellow-green baby leaves on the trees reaching toward the warm sun, lightens her mood.  When they reach the winding road along Blackwater River, water rushing and high with melted snow, David breaks into the silence, “Just a few more minutes.” Ellen’s heart jumps, but she doesn’t say, “I’m sorry I got so moody back then. If I had known everything earlier, maybe I would never have given this Andover a chance. I can see why you love it here, why you’re excited; it reminds me of ‘home’, too.”

Upon arrival, Miss Nettie Glines yells, “The door’s open; you’re late, take the missus around, will ya?” David gives Ellen a quick tour of the house, from the attic, “Be careful, weak boards here” to the cold, musty dirt cellar – more slowly pointing out “all these rooms” in between. They walk the outside perimeter of the house and barn; David reassures, “Just look at all this land; we’ll take a ride later so you can see all the other acres.” Ellen feels it; she, too, sees the possibilities, but she still sees all the work before them.

Back in the kitchen, Miss Nettie has pushed aside a pile of papers, some empty food cans and the oil lamp that lights up her evenings. David and Ellen take the open seats across the table from her; separating them is a full ashtray, a half-eaten breakfast and the agreed upon price.

Miss Nettie proudly announces she was born in 1872. Now in her mid 70s she brags, “I look good for my years, aye? I’m alive and kicking, in fact, I’ve outlived them all!”

Despite her bragging, Miss Nettie looks her age – her long gray hair, needing a wash and a brush, is tied up in a messy knot; under the well-worn shawl wrapped tightly around her, a too-large-for-her house dress meets heavy black stockings rolled to the knees. Slippers cover her swollen feet. Tiny in height and stature, maybe malnourished, Ellen almost feels sorry for Miss Nettie, but her piercing dark eyes, lit cigarette hanging from her lips and brusqueness suggest some cunning not associated with a ‘little old lady’.

Miss Nettie and David begin the dance of negotiating a deal on the price and “other considerations” in the buying/sealing of the property David desires and Miss Nettie owns.  David had a price in mind, of worth and what they can afford, and Miss Nettie, of course, has announced her expectations. They zig and zag while Ellen quietly observes. Ellen has her own reservations and ambivalence but knows this will be David’s call in the end.

During the dance Miss Nettie takes charge of the rhythm with an unrelated conversation, “Born just up the hill in Salisbury, I’ve been in these parts forever – long before you two was even born”. “Tasks” take her away from the table. Meanwhile David reappraises the kitchen, in fairness through Ellen’s eyes; his gaze lingers longest on the kitchen sink with its hand water pump, the wooden trough that carries dirty water through a hole under the window to the back yard, then the small wood burning stove that is used for cooking, baking and heating the whole house. Ellen’s dismay is not lost on Miss Nettie.

To regain some confidence, Miss Nettie looks at David and Ellen, immigrants from who-knows-where, challenged by the language, shy and quiet. With three children now, they have outgrown their home in the city, and have a little extra money saved from “war work”. David is definitely excited and anxious for all those acres, especially that pine grove and a bigger house. Miss Nettie is banking on David being the decision maker, but just in case, one needs to be careful not to push too hard. Ellen does not seem to share David’s appreciation for this great deal.

After an hour of back and forth between David and Miss Nettie – the pine grove, the pasture, the lack of indoor plumbing, the dirt basement – Ellen touches David’s arm, “I’m worried about the kids; we need to get home”. 

Whether this ‘ready to leave’ moment is tactical or just happenstance, it moves the negotiations to a conclusion and within a few minutes, a deal is struck: $400 in cash now with the remainder of $2600 due when the deed is legally transferred.

David, with his neat block printing on the pad of paper Ellen produces from her pocketbook, writes out a receipt for the down payment that Miss Nettie signs as well as an agreement, layman style, short and to the point.  When all three have added their signatures, an envelope of money is placed on Miss Nettie’s side of the table.

With her hand on the doorknob, Ellen gives the kitchen a final look hoping her David, now grinning in triumph or perhaps relief, is simultaneously making out his to do ‘first’ list.