The saga begins one summer in the 1960s in an old New England farmhouse, aka “a handyman’s special.” The weight of more than one hundred Maine winters had worn down the house’s auxiliary chimney until it threatened to cave in the roof.
My father, being the putterer he was, “planned” to take it down “when he got around to it.” This promised to be a difficult, unpleasant job. The chimney was wide and tall, stretching as it did from the cellar through two floors and a peaked attic. In some places, the mortar had crumbled, but in other sections it held as fast as it had a century ago. My father, who enjoyed working outdoors in his garden this time of year, didn’t relish crawling along the pitch of the roof in the hot sun to pry the bricks apart one by one. Neither did he look forward to ripping the walls out of two rooms inside the house to retrieve the bricks. The final chore, hammering apart bricks in the dusty, dank cellar, pleased him least of all. Needless to say, vital jobs kept popping up to prevent him from starting the onerous chore.
My father’s assurances that the job would get done did not satisfy my mother, who was a “do-it-now” sort of person. After one last plea (nagging is probably more accurate, but she would call it a “reminder”), my mother decided to undertake the task herself. She was well familiar with basic tools. She had her own hammer, which she employed with spirit on her balky Studebaker whenever it stalled in traffic. The blows must have jarred something, because her method usually remedied the situation.
While my father thought things through, sometimes for months, my mother tended to act now and think later. She was a much faster worker than he was, which was good since she often had to do the job more than once. This had never dampened her enthusiasm, however; it simply gave her one more story to tell to the delight of her audience.
The summer day my mother decided to tackle the chimney began uneventfully. My sister and brother and I spent most of the morning outside, playing in our tree house, swinging, or chasing each other through the fields. My father worked in his garden, weeding the carrots that were just beginning to sprout and hoeing new rows for another crop of lettuce. He puttered in his workshop for an hour or two, then went in for lunch.
His hair nearly stood on end at what confronted him when he stepped inside the house. Sitting on the dining room floor surrounded by chunks of red clay, her hair white with mortar dust, my mother blithely pried bricks from the hole she had hammered in the wall. She had made good progress: Almost the entire right side of the chimney that passed through the first floor had been removed. Through the hole in the wall, he could see the left side of the chimney buckling under the weight of the bricks above.
My father was what people refer to as a quiet-spoken man. This day he bellowed. We heard him from our tree house.
“What are you doing?” he yelled at my mother. Fear and disbelief edged his voice. “The whole roof, chimney, bricks, are going to come crashing down. Are you crazy?”
In telling this story, my siblings emphasize how surprised and chagrined my mother was when she learned what she had almost done. Sometimes I wonder, though.
My father had no choice, of course. He could delay the project no longer. Within minutes, he was up on the roof, hammering mortar and tossing bricks onto the lawn.
The job got done in record time.