A Vermont Christmas Carol
As a young child, Martha was the pride and joy of the Skidmore family. She wanted for nothing--having acquired a mail-order dollhouse, pretty Sunday dresses, and a painted pony of even disposition--and as a young woman, she was indisputably the town beauty. Her picnic lunch was always the first one bid upon at the box socials, as the young man was buying not just her fried chicken and biscuits but the pleasure of her company as well. Both were said to be a bargain at $2.50. But chance did not always favor Martha Skidmore. She waited on a proposal of marriage from the young and handsome Phineas Lomberg until it was too late. Phineas finally settled down with a plainer, steadier woman, someone who would make the type of home that neighbors liked to visit for a molasses cookie or a bit of friendly gossip.
Phineas was the village carpenter. He was a tall, thin man who was loosely joined, his arms and legs having only a casual connection to his torso, as if his appendages might take off on their own were they offered half a chance. He lived on the back road next to the Woodcock place, and people had long ago stopped wondering when he was going to finish his own house, the one where his two sons, Eben and Hiram, had grown up long ago and where his wife, Rose, had taken to bed one day and never recovered. She was buried up in the cemetery above the Methodist Church, and on a clear day she still had a good view down the valley, past the ruins of the dance hall and Heard's store. His sons left to pursue their fortunes farther west, where the topsoil is deeper, the rocks are smaller, and, so they say, one needs just a bit less character to make a living.
As the years passed, Martha grew taller and more angular and her eyes narrowed from bearing witness to the ever-present manifestations of sin. The playthings of a happy childhood had long ago been forgotten, and she was now the loudest voice in the small church choir, despite John Wesley's instructions (printed in the front of the hymnal) regarding the importance of not raising one's voice above others. For Martha, everything was judged according to the book, a set of rules from which there was to be no deviation, and judge she did. The miller was guilty of coarse language. The blacksmith was gimlet-eyed for the red-headed teacher from Pawlet. Even the minister did not escape comment, as he was apt to find a deep pocket for an extra doughnut or two to enjoy on his long ride home from coffee hour. And she reserved her harshest criticism for Phineas, a man she reviled as besotted with forgetfulness and lack of respect for the Lord's good works.
The years passed slowly but Phineas's house grew no more finished. The pile of lumber in the yard was finally carpeted with weeds, the front door hung at an odd angle like a broken leg, and the side facing the road remained finished in tarpaper, not clapboard. But as a hired carpenter, Phineas acquired a keen eye for detail, fitting windows and doors until they opened and closed as if greased with butter, fashioning the joints in moldings so fine that they could not be seen with the naked eye. Yes, he might decide to put a window where a door was supposed to go, but one was well advised to simply enjoy the view, for his workmanship was a thing to be remarked upon. And it was said that Phineas had a keen eye for human affairs as well, using his carpenter's eye to sense when the foundation of a marriage needed a bit of stonework or when two people ought to be joined together like two beams of a bridge, one made of hardwood and the other soft, so they would grow strong together over time.
One year, the season of Advent came upon the small village and the minister's wife started rehearsals for the Christmas Eve service and hymn sing. As usual, Martha was in full voice, as if she were trying to single-handedly reach up to heaven to expose the sinners in the congregation. She never smiled, the corners of her mouth having turned earthward and her teeth seemingly sharper, adding bite to her righteous commentary. It was also noticed that Phineas was spending most of his time holed up in his workshop in the barn, working late into the night with no time given to the holiday festivities.
Christmas Eve arrived and the candlelight service was well-attended. The fresh cider had been pressed by the Skidmore boys, the coffeecakes were provided by the town baker, Marie, and there were tins overflowing with saucer-sized sugar cookies. Martha walked home alone as usual, past town hall, the town garage, and the forest-fire warden's house to her small, neat saltbox, set on a bank just above the Green River. It was a cold, crisp night with the sharp crunch of snow underfoot, and as Martha came up to her front porch she could just make out the shape of something unfamiliar.
Upon closer inspection she recognized a freshly painted dollhouse--a good likeness of her own home, but with a window where the front door ought to be. At first she was startled, as if she had glanced in a mirror only to see an unfamiliar face. But then the dollhouse warmed other memories, not just the ribbons and buttons of a happy childhood, but the pleasure of unexpected company, the taste of her mother's baking-powder biscuits, and the happy cadence of life in a small mountain town.
Martha smiled and then looked up past the rooftops and church spire and noticed a lone star in the east. In a small Vermont town, a carpenter had been at work, just like one so many years ago.
Walter Hard, who wrote about our part of Vermont in the 1930s, inspired this editorial. Two stories of particular interest are The Carpenter and Sabbath Keeping.