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Comfort in strange places December 27, 2011

Posted by Jenny in history, memoir, travel.
Tags: , ,

A gnarly cedar stood over the old tombstones.

Update, January 3: Betsy is being discharged from the hospital today! Hooray!

On the day before Christmas, I had occasion to spend a few hours in Deerfield, Massachusetts. I had flown up to visit my sister, who lives in nearby Northampton. Nothing about my visit turned out the way I expected, but the short time I spent in this very old town proved restorative in the face of great difficulties.

Followers of this blog may remember that last August Betsy had a mastectomy—her second. When I visited her back then, I was deeply impressed by her resilience. We laughed together about silly things—we laughed so much when I saw her at the hospital that the nurse became concerned that the post-surgical dressing would be disturbed.

Betsy has been dealt out a hand that most people would find very hard to play. Not only has she fended off breast cancer twice within 16 years, she has struggled for many years with mental illness. I have so much respect for her courage.

A few days before Christmas, I tried to reach Betsy about the details of my flight up to New England. When there was no answer, I knew something had gone wrong. A bit of detective work gave me the information I needed: Betsy had been admitted to the locked psychiatric unit of a hospital in Holyoke.

The agency that’s been helping her out follows a stringent privacy policy. I understand the reason for this, but it has made things difficult for me. They do not call family members when something like this happens, and they do not give out information. They only told me the name of the hospital.

I was able to talk to Betsy on the phone before I flew up.  Even that isn’t so easy—you call a payphone in a hallway and let it ring and ring until someone finally picks it up, and then you ask that person if they will go find her. At any rate, Betsy sounded okay but said she’d been feeling overwhelmed and had made the decision herself to go to the hospital.

First thing Saturday morning, I went to see her. With a few difficulties caused by a bad set of directions, I found the hospital. It did not look like a regular bustling sort of place—the high-rise building stood in the center of a vast, bleak, empty parking lot. Nobody was coming or going, and a security car was stationed at the door.

I went in, expecting a reception desk. There was none. At length I noticed a telephone on the wall. I called up to her unit and was told that I couldn’t see her—visiting hours were from 5:30 to 6:30 that evening. So, how to spend the day until then? As I drove north along the Connecticut River valley, I remembered having passed once before through Deerfield, a town first settled in the 1600s.

Among people interested in history, Deerfield is best known for what is either called “the raid on Deerfield” or “the Deerfield massacre.” That event occurred in February 1704, when a force of French colonists from Canada joined with Abenaki, Iroquois, Pocumtuc, and other native groups to attack the town. Fifty-six villagers were killed by fire in their burning houses or by weapons such as tomahawks. The attackers took 112 others prisoner and marched them through the snow toward Canada, killing those too weak to keep up—mainly women and children. (However, some accounts say the captives were on the whole not treated badly.) One of the women, Eunice Williams, was later adopted by a Mohawk family and married a Mohawk man. The story of Eunice was told by her father, Rev. John Williams, in a famous book titled The Redeemed Captive, published 1707.

"Deerfield Return," by Howard Pyle, 1902

My account of this interesting subject is very superficial, for lack of space. You can read an introduction to these events here.

Deerfield (well, just down the road—South Deerfield, actually) is also, incongruously, known as the headquarters of the Yankee Candle operation—just the thought of all those scented candles and colonial-style decorations makes my head ache. And Deerfield is known as well for the prestigious Deerfield Academy, a prep school. I point these things out because America of the year 2011 is full of these different layers of culture bumping into each other with great dissonance, and that’s something I often notice.

Why would Deerfield turn out to be a good place for me to go that day? It was cold with a chilly wind blowing, it was devoid of tourists other than myself, it was pure somehow, and severe. As soon as I started walking around the village, I felt the comfort of deep human experience whose suffering has been transformed over time. I saw the boulder with a plaque commemorating the family of Godfrey Nims, whose wife and seven children were either killed or taken prisoner in 1704.

Monument to members of the Nims family killed or taken prisoner in the raid.

The monument stood next to the red brick Memorial Hall, a building of a later period. In the center of Deerfield, structures from the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries stand together harmoniously. Such a contrast to the jarring jumble of stores and gas stations and restaurants just down the highway.

Memorial Hall

I liked the way the shadow fell across this great clock face.

The clock told the correct time.

I had not dressed warmly enough to spend time outside on this day of brisk wind and cold sunshine, so I would hop into my rental car, drive a short distance with the heater going full blast, then hop out again. I visited the graveyard.

Mrs. Thankful Shelden

A ghost seemed to emerge from the headstone of Mr. Ebeneezer Wells.

I wonder if the angel's face and hair were meant to depict the departed Mary Lock.

Dorothy Ashley was an "agreeable companion."

I walked down to the Deerfield River. My view of the river was improved by my memory of having hiked near its headwaters, which lie just east of Glastenbury Mountain near Wilmington, Vermont. That is a wild, high-elevation area that I came to appreciate through my friendship with Bob.

Deerfield River not far from its confluence with the Connecticut.

I’d noticed this brown frame house near the graveyard, and I stopped to take its picture.  It had a wonderful weathervane on the roof.

This is a nice shade of brown.

The weathervane had the image of a bullfrog on it.

At last I decided to retreat from the cold. I drove back to Northampton, where I bought myself a couple of good books to read in my motel. I visited Betsy that evening and then again on Christmas afternoon, about a half hour each time. I can draw no conclusion from those visits, I can only hope to offer Betsy my support. Betsy, I suspect you will read this at some point, and I want you to know that I think of you often.

Sunlight on the Deerfield River


1. Thomas Stazyk - December 27, 2011

I hope for all the best for Betsy.

A truly fascinating post. I hadn’t heard of the Deerfield massacre and the related stories. And your pictures are fantastic–great eye.

Jenny - December 27, 2011

There is a lot of interesting history about the 17th-century wars between New England colonists and Indians–King Philip’s War, King William’s War, Queen Anne’s War. Each one consisted of extended skirmishes and raids over periods of years. A harsh time.

I appreciate your good wishes for Betsy.

2. Brian Reed - December 27, 2011

Wow, that hospital is incredibly restrictive. My fiancee works with the mentally ill and while I appreciate many protections were needed to prevent the abuses of the past it seems overdone and counterproductive sometimes. Had to laugh at Mrs.Thankful. I get a kick out of some of the old optimistic puritan names like Increase Mather. One of Smokies interest is Return Meigs (as in Christ’s return) who was from Connecticut I believe.

3. Wendy - January 2, 2012

Jenny – I am so happy to have found your blog, which I never realized you had! My prayers and best wishes go out to Betsy.

I do love old cemeteries, whether they be here in the Smokies or in other locales. Old colonial-era cemeteries have such interesting inscriptions and names on their tombstones – and like Brian, I loved Mrs. Thankful. Thanks also for the overview of the Deerfield massacre. I’d heard of it but never knew its history.

Jenny - January 2, 2012

So glad to have you visit, Wendy! Yes, I find the old cemeteries of various regions fascinating in different ways. I’m fond of the ones in the Smokies (in fact, the Hannah cemetery plays a role in my forthcoming book, Murder at the Jumpoff). Hope all’s going well with your investigations in Swain County.

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