“Who are the women who brought my great-grandmother tea
and straightened her bed? As anemone in midsummer, the air
cannot find them and grandmother’s been at rest for forty years.
In me are all the names I can remember–pennyroyal, boneset,
bedstraw, toadflax–from whom I did descend in perpetuity.”
—Ruth Stone, from “Names”
On a summer afternoon, fresh from college, I was scrambling eggs for my grandmother. A thunderstorm was beginning. In Goshen, Vermont the wind tends to make amazing noises, the thunderstorms reverberate off the sides of the mountains, the nights are pitch-black, while all around you the Green Mountain National Forest comes alive. It’s rural living, which of course insists on a comfort with nature—be it in the form of insects, mold, fisher cats, spiders, or mere, actual, darkness; living in Goshen requires a comfort with darkness. The realities of a haunted house. And being half an hour from any convenience store.
My friend Liana was staying with us too, then. And she and I were also making bacon. Grandma was in one of her sporadic vegetarian default modes, refusing to eat much of anything but Keefer. She had insisted on setting up her bed in the middle of the living room floor, and shouting demands from there.
When we brought her brunch, she got very close to the plate with her bad eyes to inspect. “I DIDN’T GET BACON.” She said. “We already ate it, Grandma. You said you weren’t eating meat!” She looked stricken. “YES, BUT I DIDN’T KNOW YOU WERE COOKING BACON!”
Her way of looking at the world was full of wise contradictions and incredulous assertions. Thinking of her, laying there on her mattress on the floor, with her books-on-tape surrounding her, and my now dead, also blind dog, Niente, pawing for a scrap, I realize those were the last nights Ruth Stone spent in her beloved farm house.
There was no doubt, ever, for anyone that knew Ruth Stone, that Goshen was an extension of her personality. They way she spoke about it was the way one might speak about “my people” or “my kingdom.” It’s like I’ll go back to Tara! in Gone with the Wind. Scarlett O’Hara, starving, eating carrots out of an abandoned garden, hitting bottom—and the dawning on her: Tara!—Her asylum, her home, waiting for her to save, and be saved—that’s what Goshen was like for Ruth.
We know it’s not quite literal, don’t we? We know that when big souls live, create, and thrive in space, it leaves a mysterious residue so powerful that it takes on its own, very real, personality. You love the physical, but it’s the phenomenon of the nonphysical, the resonance of something, that gives power.
In the late 40’s-early 50’s, Ruth Stone and her husband, the poet and scholar, Walter Stone, were desperate for financial stability. After serving in WWII, and then getting a PhD at Harvard, Walter worked without the security of tenure, teaching at the University of Illinois, and then Vassar College. Providing for his three children and his wife on a teacher’s wages was clearly (from all I’ve gathered) a deep, dark struggle. One that would no doubt contribute to his suicide a few years later.
Living in barracks, or university housing, because they couldn’t afford a house, the family felt transient. While going through my grandmother’s things in Goshen recently, I came across a devastating letter, addressed merely “Dear Sirs,” in which she lays out the situation and aftermath two years after her husband’s death, pleading for help of some kind—any kind, in an almost cathartic, desperate attempt to make the situation succinct for the institutions that failed them:
“At Vassar it was the same old story. Our checks never covered the cost of living…It was while we were at Vassar that I received the Kenyon Review Fellowship in Poetry which enabled us to buy a house. It is true we didn’t dare buy one in Poughkeepsie for who knows where a teacher will be who has no tenure? We decided to get a place in Vermont where we could at least go in the summer and hope to retire to after the teaching years were over. That grant provided us with a house which now that my husband is gone is the only home the children and I have.”
One thing that has always struck me, as someone looking at this from two generations later, is that Ruth is the one who was able to buy their house, not Walter. And with poetry nonetheless. They only owned the house a handful of years before he committed suicide while on sabbatical, (there’s simply not enough space here to go into all of the complicated details of that catastrophic event), so it is no wonder that the house then took on a protective symbolism for Ruth and the children. Crippled with grief, the small family’s projection for the future could rely, at this point, on two factors: Ruth Stone’s poetry, and the house in Goshen.
Never remarrying, or reconnecting with any lover (except books!), my grandmother somehow managed to raise her children without sacrificing her passionate career. She continued on in pretty much exactly the way her and Walter had left off: teaching wherever she could get it. She wouldn’t have the security of tenure until she was in her seventies. But she always had Goshen.
Her house became a haven for writers, musicians, and artists. Colleagues, devoted students, friends-of-students, boyfriends of her daughters—they all would swarm in, some staying for months at a time. (“I want to tell you something with my hands. / I have been weeding the garden. / Many young people come here / Playing drums, picking strings, / Holding their wooden hearts.”) During the peak of the hippie-era, when my mother and her sisters were young women, Goshen flourished as a full-blown commune for creativity and intellectual freedom. Ruth took on the larger mother figure—not of practical nurturing, but one of creative nurturing.
Ruth Stone’s house has a sort of multifaceted aspect to its whole layout. There is the “main house” on one side, and a “little house” on the other side, separated down the middle by a dirt road, and run through by a babbling brook. Both are weather-beaten, ramshackle, 19th Century farmhouses. And there is also, up in the woods, a really cool three-tiered chapel built in the 70’s. Surrounding the houses, are a few acres with apple trees, plum trees, berries, flowers, and gardens. The houses are unusual in their shapes: old New England farmhouses that have been patched up and added on to over the years. With wood heat, tin roof, pine beams, a scary dirt and concrete hole that is the basement, filled to the brim with books and memorabilia—I’d argue that the epic “writer’s retreat atmosphere” was developed by the actual lay of the land.
My grandmother, my mother, and my two aunts, never had much money growing up. But they managed. Weirdly, despite her bohemian outlook, my grandmother was good at making money. Even if they all had to pile into the car and drive across the country to a teaching gig. She was a hard worker, a product of the Depression, a survivor of the Second Great War. And her whole life was a time when women had to work even harder for barely-equal opportunities. A time when the poetic and academic world was an overwhelmingly “man’s man” world. Not a particularly welcoming place for an eccentric, single window with bright red hair piled high on her head; a woman with a fearlessness in speaking her (sometimes incendiary) mind, and all of this wrapped up in a deep-seeded emotional anxiety due to her husband’s violent death.
When I was in college, backpacking around Italy, working on organic farms (like you do…), I was faced with my first true, intense experience of homesickness. While plugging away on these amazing villas in Tuscany, weeding other people’s gardens and plucking their olives, all I could think about was Goshen, and how stupid it was that I was here doing this, instead of there doing it.
Yes, in the stunning vista of Italy I started fantasizing about Vermont. I thought about bringing Goshen back to what it was in my family’s heyday. But more so, and with intent. I wanted get grandma at the center of it. To celebrate a supernatural space, and let other people still write under Ruth’s infectious passion for poetry. My sister, Hillery, and I began to talk endlessly about what we could do to make grandma’s house a writer’s retreat and live-in-museum-like space. When I returned from Italy, I went straight to grandma to tell her my ideas. She was into it, but I could tell she was also a bit like, “Well, fuck. I’m not dead yet.”
In the last years of my grandmother’s life, it became dangerous for her to stay in Goshen alone. (Despite all the camaraderie I’m displaying here, Ruth actually spent much of the time completely alone on that mountain.) She had retired from SUNY Binghamton, and had to live in an apartment in Middlebury, where she could be looked in on more regularly by her daughters. Goshen sat alone and untended.
It was the year after college when I went to her lonesome house to see what I could do. I wanted to make it so grandma could live there again, so I spent most of my time making it habitable (a continuous job with this sort of house). The house has always needed a lot of work. But it has never been this bad. It became clear it was too dangerous for an elderly woman without a caretaker. And I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. Ruth was now legally blind, practically deaf, and had all but given up on mobility. (Hence sleeping in the living room on the floor). While her mind was sharp, her body was not. I cursed time. We put the project on hold, she moved back in with my aunt who could take care of her, and I moved to New York City to get my MFA in poetry. It was 2007.
When Ruth Stone died in 2011, she didn’t have a will. She never was someone who could deal with the implication of making a will, much to the family’s chagrin. She had no money to leave. But with some help at the end, from the poet and her friend, Chard diNoird, she did manage, it turned out, to make a Trust. And I was one of the three trustees. In this document, she had left instructions to make Goshen into a place for “the furthering of writing and the arts” and that all proceeds from her writing would go toward that.
We buried her in a natural “green” grave in Goshen behind the house, so she could become part of the land she loved so much.
Where to begin on this new story?
My own relationship with Goshen is one of the biggest relationships of my life. PERIOD. It’s complex, cavernous, and not up for debate. I could make a really solid pitch for an inverted Downton Abbey-esque show. (Or maybe Winterfell from Game of Thrones is a better analogy…) It’s not just a house that someone lived in. Not just the structure. It’s an entity. It’s a shell of a human life. A ghost we can touch.
I was very close with my grandmother, and spent nearly half of every year of my life with her. In a family of single women, mother and grandmother work in tandem. I also was uniquely passionate for poetry and reading right from the start, and grandma guided me from very early on in that direction.
Goshen was important to all of us in our little family. Fraught with emotional and physical memories, Goshen is immortalized in Ruth Stone’s poetry and her descendants’ writing.
When I bring people there now, there are a few typical reactions. Your average carpenter will say, “Why in the hell are you trying to save this? Tear it down! Build a new one!” My in-laws walked gingerly around in stunned silence, noting finally that one would need a “gun” to stay there for the night.
Some people I’ve brought there at first feel afraid. Then they look with wonder at all the artifacts—the precious books with inscriptions from writers, or ones my grandfather and grandmother exchanged.
Some caution me on liability insurance.
Mice rule there. I peal an envelope—with a poem scrawled on it—from a mouse nest make from chewed books.
Everything is mixed together: the random refuse of a writer’s desk drawer dumped into a box long ago, and overlaid with another desk drawer, from another year. A photograph stuck in a book riddled with mildew, that hasn’t been opened for 50 years. The wild, incredible artwork of my Aunt Phoebe in a broken frame under a box. Scissors, tweezers, eye glasses, pens—thousands of Bic pens. Poems mixed in with the endless unopened bills. University fliers and Po-biz paraphernalia. Ruth’s father’s books, her mother’s books, her husband’s thesis and careful notecard, manuscripts by old friends—everything left just as it was…but with the onset damage that happens with old houses left alone.
Animals move in. Mold moves in. Thugs break in, steal copper piping. Windows break, and snow comes in. Someone’s got to raise money to fix the doors. Someone’s got to raise money to get a storage container to keep the papers in.
Once, my husband opened the linen cabinet and mice flung themselves into his arms (“[the widow] feels the mice may / dwell in the linen closet”). With masks over my face and rubber gloves on my hands, I look through box after box after box, gently separating the scraps of treasure from the faded trash.
When I bring people to Goshen, they look at the house and are shocked. There’s something shocking about it: a beautiful, abandoned relic, with sagging floors and crumbling ceilings. I bring them into the “tool room,” which has never in my life been cleaned out, but is filled with old rusty iron tools, a huge Victorian roller-top desk, and Vandercook letterpress machine with all its accessories hung on the wall, its 1950’s manual sitting serene amid chaos. I bring them to the study. To the other study. To the “women’s library” at the top of the stairs.
All the specific wallpaper on the walls, the chairs in the living room, the slope of the classic screened-in front porch, and the quiet wonder of the screened-in back porch. The little house, with its one-room downstairs, and one-room upstairs; fireplace, brook, and orchard.
Some people I bring love to point things out to me “This door is really old!” “Don’t throw this wood away!” “These beams are hand-hewn!” They open books and show me the inscriptions. They admire the cast iron stove in the kitchen. They comment on the old-fashioned light fixtures. They tell me it’s beautiful. Some people see the poetry in this place. If you open a Ruth Stone book at random, you’ll see the place in the poetry. Everything of the poetry of Ruth is connected there, ragged as a cobweb, but there, waiting to be saved. Like a house with chicken feet in an old Russian fairytale, Baba Yaga.
The Trustees, (me, my cousin Nora Swann Croll, and the poet Chard DiNoird), joined together to create the Ruth Stone Foundation, to save the house with feet. The house with the brain, and arms, and no face. The house that now, as it sinks deeper into the ground, mingles with Ruth Stone.
How can you get someone to care as much as you do about something? What does it matter to other people? It matters because that soul that made up Ruth Stone was one that comes once in a lifetime. And its residue is still all over that land, in those houses. Because if we can’t honor, hold up, and continue that complex genius of her art, which she spread wide to include everyone around it, then what is the point in being an artist? Being alive? If we can’t follow-through with our dreams that we know are the right thing to do, then why do anything at all? If there are women that come before us, who overcame obstacles merely by staying true to their art, their passion, then it is up to those of us who benefit from their work to continue it.
Bianca Stone is a poet and visual artist. Her books include the poetry collection Someone Else’s Wedding Vows (Tin House/Octopus Books 2014), and Antigonick, a hybrid collaboration with Anne Carson (New Directions 2012). She is co-founder and editor of the press Monk Books, and she runs the Ruth Stone Foundation in Vermont and Brooklyn. the Selected Poetry Comics is forthcoming from Pleiades Books. http://ruthstonefoundation.org/