It's 1945. Private First Class Howard Elman returns from the war, and with the help of the GI Bill, modest savings, and a bank loan at reasonable rates, he buys a worn out farm in the town of Darby, New Hampshire. He's very young but already a father. His wife Elenore, like Howard, is uneducated and without a family. She and Howard met as foundlings in a foster home. While Howard was away in the Army, Elenore worked in a laundry and cleaned houses. She was able to save a little money. Howard was surprised that while he was gone, Elenore discovered religion and converted to the Catholic faith.
The main reason they could afford this place and its 50 or so acres was that the rocky soil was played, any valuable lumber had been cut down and sold off, and the house and barn were in a sorry state. Howard took a job in textile mill. He was handy with tools and on weekends he worked on the house to make it livable. Howard liked bargains, so instead of painting over the distressed clapboards he covered them with purple asphalt roofing shingles. Concrete building blocks served as front steps.
Howard almost killed himself climbing the big maple tree beside the barn to fasten a hemp rope to a limb for a swing for the kids. With a hatchet he hacked out a seat from a red oak firewood billet. As soon as one of the kids was old for the swing, he carved the child's name on the seat. Years later, it occurred to him that the father is no longer necessary once a child learns to pump for herself.
Elenore? Well, she didn't like the house, she didn't like being in the country, she didn't like the way Howard went about repairs, like he was color blind–purple shingles on a house? But she never said much. He was a domineering man but not a slapper and a good provider. She offered up her minor suffering to the blessed Virgin Mary, the way Sister Felicitous had taught her when she had counseled her at St. Bernard's parish in Keene when Elenore was converting).
Elenore painted over the faded wallpaper in all the rooms. Above the TV set she installed a crucifix. She nailed up prints of holy people she admired: Pope Pious XII, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, and Sister Felicitous. Above the couch in the parlor she put up a framed picture of Jesus exposing his "sacred heart". Other pictures on the walls included the blessed Virgin Mary with the baby Jesus, Mary standing bare feet on a snake in obvious discomfort; the Holy Family of Jesus, Joseph, and Mary with a desert background; and St. Sebastian full of arrows, funny look on his face like .. like … like when you pull a man's rutabaga. And then there was a statuette of her favorite saint, which she bought at Ike's Auction Barn for six dollars. Overpriced, but it was worth it.
Howard built her a little wooden shrine to hold the 18-inch high plaster likeness of the saint, who stood in a brown robe, sandals, girly face with rosy cheeks, bald head but with a gold halo.
Howard watched while she placed the saint in the cubby.
"Who is that guy," Howard asked.
"My patron saint, St. Anthony, patron saint of stuff you lost."
"What did you lose, honey."
"You know, my mother, my father, and all my relations down through the ages. Doesn't it weigh on you that we don't know where we come from?"
"Naw, I don't care about any of that."
"Never give it a thought?"
"Maybe half a thought."
"Just what does it take to produce a full thought in your head?"
Howard paused for a moment. "The thought of dinnah."
These were the kinds of conversations the Elmans had in those early years.
Driving by the Elman Place, taking it in at a glance–the junked cars, the lurid color on the house, the ramshackled barn, the upturned wheelbarrow on the edge of the driveway–you might think: the inhabitants of this place have no taste. You'd be right if you meant that the Elmans tastes do not correlate to conventional tastes. But you'd be wrong if you thought that the Elmans do not have an esthetic sense. They do, but it's in their own non-conformist package. Because of the way the Elmans grew up, shuttled from orphanages to foster homes, no adult mentors of any consequence, they formed their sense of beauty and order helter skelter. As they matured into adults, they–in the local parlance–made do. For Elenore it was in the quilts she made, the way patches of color and texture in fabric can create meaning; for Howard it was in the way the natural world–flowers, tall grass, snow, sunlight, and weather–combobulated with his collection of junked cars.