The barn collapsed during the winter of '69-'70, the infamous year of the big snow. It wasn't the only building that succumbed that winter. The hockey rink, that scene of high school bloodletting on ice, caved the same month. All over New Hampshire and Vermont vast quantities of snow fell, and kept falling, bringing down buildings whose chronic lack of maintenance left them vulnerable. So, the Brungot barn fell after standing for a good hundred years and the countryside lost yet another of its architectural treasures.
I was not around to witness the fall of the barn. At that time I was living in Connecticut. Arguably a New England state, it was as different in climate from the moun tains of northern New Hampshire as it was in the colors and textures of its citizenry. In Bridgeport, the relentless wind whipped off the sound poking damp, icy fingers into window cracks, down collars, and through the heaviest wool coats, but the snow did not fall.
Arriving in my home town in late winter, it was with a kind of bemused incredulity that I found snow banks twelve feet high, birdfeeders seemingly at ground level, and piles of debris buried under mounds of snow where buildings once stood. My father left his car parked on the street once too often that winter. Fed up with Dad's refusal to keep his driveway shoveled, the plow guy buried the car in a few deft passes and Dad said it would late spring before the Caddie was exhumed. That's when the collapse of my uncle's barn began to make sense.
Auntie married Clarence when I was five and took up residence in what was invariably referred to as The Farm. By then it was a farm only by the most marginal definition. My uncle kept a milking cow, but the milk room stood empty, save for a few dusty milk bottles and a sleeve or two of paper caps labeled Brungot's Dairy. From the barn, one could still pass through the milk room to the woodshed, and into the summer kitchen which Auntie claimed dated from the days of the War Between the States.
Auntie claimed all sorts of things of questionable veracity, but I chose to believe this particular assertion. It tickled my youthful imagination to think of ancestral Brungot women pickling beets and putting up piccalilli while the Civil War raged round the Mason Dixon Line. By the time the barn fell, though, the summer kitchen and its companions had long before surrendered to gravity, leaving the old farmhouse all that remained of the original farm.
As I say, I did not witness the fall of the barn, only its aftermath, a huge pile of debris which my aunt and uncle had hauled away at great expense. But back when I first visited the farm, back before Catherine Seaborne, nee Maines, married the widower Brungot, back when they were courting, the barn was stolid and upright, an iconic New England hay barn. There were stalls for the animals, a loft complete with stacks of moldering bales, and a rotating population of swallows, mice, pigeons, spiders and other assorted critters that don't bear thinking of.
Every time I stepped into that barn, my nose twitched with the itch of hay dander and my eyes stung from the astringent odor of manure. Flies were plentiful, great thumb sized beasts buzzing and bumping blindly into anything in their path. I remember sunlight filtering through cracks in the walls and dust motes floating lazily in the still air. The back of the barn was dim and shadowy, but up front where the big doors stood open to the summer, daylight lit the hay-strewn floor. Hanging there, over the center of the lit space, was the rope swing, as ubiquitous to local barns as pitchforks and broken ax handles.
I feared that rope, thick and hairy, with the bulbous knot at the swing end. The mere thought of sitting on its prickly knob and hurling myself off the side of the hayloft was sufficient to turn my insides liquid. As I watched my older cousins soar into the abyss astride that rope my stomach dipped and rose to the rhythm of their flight. Fortunately, my mother had forbad me ever to ride that monster rope, so I was spared the ignominy of trying and failing to stay aloft.
In truth, I was not fully at ease anywhere in that barn. Even the hayloft with its rickety ladder leading up to the hole in the floor, its skittering rodents, and gargantuan spider webs was only slightly less terrifying to me than the prospect of taking a nose dive off that rope swing. I ventured up to the hayloft only on occasions when my uncle or cousins enticed me with the promise of seeing a nest of feral kittens. Cuddled together in their hay hole, their mother curled protectively around them, they looked like any other litter of cats, but even I could read the warning in the mother's yellow eyes. These were wild things and one did not make pets of wild things.
Catherine had always been my favorite aunt and Clarence became a favorite of mine, too. A jovial Norwegian, he had ruddy cheeks and a belly that threatened the buttons of his green work shirts. Kids and dogs vied for lap space when Uncle hunkered down in his saggy old recliner in front of the TV. He tolerated Auntie's bossy ways and far out opinions with respect and gentle humor, even yielding on occasion to her lofty standards of personal hygiene.
Late one summer afternoon during one of my first overnight visits to the farm, Uncle Clarence invited me to watch him milk the cow. We headed out to the stalls and uncle directed me to take my place a distance away from the milking. As it turned out, I was far enough away to avoid a kick from Bossy, but not far enough away to avoid a forceful squirt from a teat aimed in my direction. I let out a yelp. The stream of warm milk struck my chest, soaking my shirt and dribbling onto my shorts. I was indignant, but my uncle's round face pinked with satisfaction.
Another town-grown girl had successfully been baptized into the ways and customs of life in the barn.