On the night before Halloween, Mischief Night, I took our children to the Meeting House for a lecture on the Salem Witch Trials. A professor had come up from Massachusetts to give a presentation and since it was something none of us knew much about and because it was that season, we thought it would be interesting to attend. The interior of the Meeting House was an almost perfect match for the subject matter, stark and simple with its lectern rising several feet above the assembly at the rear of the building. The pews, when we arrived, were about half filled and there was no heat so everyone was still in their coats and hats. We took a seat about a third of the way back and after a brief introduction a young woman stood up in the front of the room and began her slideshow. She gave an overview of the events and a little bit of the backstory, but she made a point to tell the audience that the theme of her talk would be centered not so much on the story as it would be on the presumed history — what we think we know, versus what was fact. As it turned out there was a great deal of fiction tied into the story, from the location — it was not the town Salem, but instead Danvers where the bewitchings took place — to the means of execution; hangings in all but one case rather than being burned at the stake as is commonly believed by many. There were the smaller details, she told us, that had become central to the narrative which had over the years proved quite hollow; the location of Gallows Hill, Tituba, a pivotal character commonly believed to be an African slave who was more than likely an Indian and one of the only accused witches to escape punishment and the final words of the only person who refused to confess, an 80 year old, well regarded and successful farmer named Giles Corey. Refusing to admit that he was a witch he underwent a barbaric method of execution called peine forte et dure. Stripped bare the aged man was laid upon the bare ground and a board placed upon his prostrate form. The executioners placed weights, likely stones taken from the nearby walls and stacked them, one by one over a period that is said to have lasted two days while his neighbors stood by and watched as he was slowly crushed to death. Repeatedly demanding that he confess, Corey remained silent until, commanded by the judge, one final time to implicate himself he uttered his last words, “More weight.”
The talk concluded with refreshments at the Veterans Hall across the street. The speaker was taking questions and my youngest son had one — “Why weren’t any children accused of being witches? If funny faces and jerky movements were evidence…” he asked. She told him that no one had ever asked her that before and that she was surprised to see someone so young at her talk, but she never gave him an answer. I thought it was pretty insightful and I told him so. My children sampled the baked goods and drank apple cider and I stood with a cup of black coffee at the edge of the room watching them interact with the elderly crowd. I chatted with several people I knew and across the room I noticed another veteran, a man I had been friends with, briefly. Earlier this Summer he had come up to the farm with a grave look upon his face and a neatly folded piece of paper in his hands. “What’s the trouble?” I asked him and he simply passed the paper to me. It was a photo copy of a newspaper article from 13 years ago identifying me as a racist and calling for my resignation from the Town Council in my hometown. I felt my heartbeat quicken and a slow anger rise, but it wasn’t the first time and I knew that it wasn’t likely to be the last and I kept my calm while I held it in my dirty, calloused hands. I asked him where he got it and he replied that someone had given it to him and he asked if it was true. I told him I’d answer any questions he wanted to ask, but he had to tell me who had given it to him. “I can’t do that.” he said. I looked at his face and for long time and I could see him diminish in front of me, growing weaker and less assured as each moment passed. After a pause I asked him what he wanted to know and he asked me again, Is it true?” I asked him if he had ever known me to be anything like what he had read in that article, if it sounded like the person he had become acquainted with over the course of the past few years and he looked down at his shoes. I told him that I didn’t like to engage in gossip and that I didn’t think much of people who spread rumors while hiding their identity from their targets and that if he had any other questions about my character he should ask my wife or my children, people who really knew me and then I excused myself and told him I had work to do. I remember walking across the lawn with the dogs, leaving him standing in my driveway by his Subaru and except to exchange a hello when we crossed paths, I have never spoken with him since that day. I no longer attend the Veterans meetings either and it is probably for the best. Like Groucho Marx once said, “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as a member.” After awhile the older veteran approached me and asked how things were on the farm and I told him we were busy and inquired about his health. He mentioned that he had taken on too many responsibilities since his retirement and that he was cutting back. He asked me if I would be coming to the Veteran’s Day ceremony and I told him I had other plans. He said he understood and offered his hand, which I shook and then he turned away. Maybe I imagined it, but it seemed as if he made the connection between the whispered accusations in 1692 and the day he stood on my lawn with his photocopied smear, but it struck me that nothing in human behavior changes all that much but the names and the dates and of course the weight. I gathered up the children and we made our way back to the truck and as we pulled out of the lot they rolled down the window and called out thank-you to the speaker as she walked across the street to her own car in the autumnal darkness.
Yesterday after school I waited at the end of the driveway for the kids to get off the bus. The dogs always come with me and the other kids on the bus always smile and wave at them and even the bus driver, an ancient Yankee woman with blue hair, manages a rickety grin. The children had been asking me for weeks to rake up a pile of leaves to play in and that morning after they had gone to school I found a desultory little clump half finished under the maples on the front lawn, rakes akimbo, evidence that they had given up on me. Sometimes I get distracted, anyone would with the world, the worries of life, responsibilities and the passage of time. In this case I let down the ones I love in the little things even if I managed to keep up with the bigger ones. I remember vividly the times my father would rake leaves on the lawn and I would ruin his neatly placed piles by jumping into them, flakes of decomposing matter in my hair and down my shirt, and the sound of crinkling fall in my ears. As we walked up the driveway I asked them if they’d come out to the pasture with me while I finished up my work. I told them I’d do something special for them if they did and they agreed. They ditched their lunch boxes and book bags in the mudroom and met me on the terrace in front of the house. From up there the ground drops off precipitously in undulating waves of grassy hillside, softened by ten thousand years of erosion since the glaciers made their last retreat. I was set up half a mile down the slope installing fence line at the base of the esker. The largest trees on the property are rooted on its flanks, massive oaks and monumental rock maples with trunks the size of the columns at the Acropolis. They had dumped their leaves in a rusty spray at the foot of the hillside and while the kids were at school I had raked them into a pile bigger than I had ever raked before. They caught sight of it as we were walking down the path and they broke into a run screaming with joy the entire way. There are few things in life as moving as the unbridled love of your children and it came off of them in waves as they threw themselves into the pile and disappeared from view. I went back to my work, stopping to watch them play in the leaves as often as I worked, the dogs racing in circles around the pile while the children laughed and jumped. We stayed out there until it was dark and I carried the tools in a bucket as we walked back up the hill, my children thanking me again and again, recounting the size of the pile the whole way home, bigger with each retelling. “It was sooo huge!” “It was this big!” Arms extended above their heads; smiles, bright eyes, happiness. It’s funny with kids, you think they’ll never grow up, but then they do and you wonder where all the time went. You never remember the work involved, only the joy and like the kids it only magnifies with each retelling.
The house was lit up and my wife had filled the kitchen with smells that fed you before you had a chance to eat. Our oldest son dropped by with gifts for his brother and sister, things he’d been given for doing a clean out for a customer of his who was past the child-rearing stage of life and needed to lighten their load. They thanked him profusely and he basked for a moment in the light of their gratitude and took a baking dish of Shepherd’s pie his mother offered before he left. As he drove off the kids ran along the rock wall waving and calling out goodbyes and I joined in, acting like I was one of them.
Later, after the kids had gone to bed my wife and I sat quietly together with just a few lights on and sighed from the efforts of the day. She works every bit as hard as I do and I can’t imagine how she does it without being worn down from the gravity of it all, but somehow she always comes up shining and graceful. We talked about the leaves and how much fun the kids had playing in them and it made it all worth it, how it lightens our load to see them grow up the way they are and that even in our exhaustion at the end of the day there’d never be a better way to live our life. I know that when you look back over your life you think about the things you should have done better or the things you should never have done at all, but all those things add up to not so much when you take the time to do what you should as well as you can and it becomes easier to imagine saying, ‘more weight’.