Gladys Taber, a Stillmeadow Primer

For those of us who are agrarians, wannabe agrarians, or just enjoy good writing about country living, the Stillmeadow books are a source of quiet joy and good pleasure. I do not remember my first introduction to Stillmeadow, but I know The Stillmeadow Daybook was one of my earliest adult literary possessions, and it has survived nearly a quarter of a century of regular book purges. Recently I picked up Stillmeadow Road at a library booksale and I’ve been reading it with pleasure.

As best I can piece the story together, Gladys Tabor graduated from college in 1921 and taught college courses, and her daughter was born in 1923. She and her college professor husband lived in New York City. Her childhood friend and college room-mate, Eleanor (called Jill in the books), was married with two children and also lived in New York City. Both of them loved and owned Cocker Spaniels. Their apartments were tiny, the streets noisy and busy, and Gladys’ apartment was on the fourth floor with an elevator only occasionally functional. They tried going to parks and for walks together so the children and dogs could get some fresh air, but there wasn’t much of it to be had.

“What we need,” said Jill one day as we breasted the traffic back to the brawling, roaring, fume-ridden city, “What we need is a place in the country. Fresh air,” she added, coughing as a truck ground past. “We could put up tents and spend lovely summer week ends.”
“And the children could play in the brook,” I said. “And think of all the money we would save.”
This was a remarkable statement to which we both referred often in subsequent times.

So they searched and searched. They couldn’t find what they wanted at a price they could afford. They thought about looking for an abandoned farm, or even just a barn that ‘Jill’ would do up on weekends (her husband was a doctor). Gladys wrote,

I consulted all the magazines and found out that for ten thousand dollars we could do over a barn and make a charming home of it. All we would have to do would be add plumbing, floors, windows, a new roof, fireplace, etc,, etc, etc. And dig a well. Put in a septic tank. Afterwards you furnished such a home with priceless antiques from your aunt’s attic. We had neither aunts with attics nor any attics at all.
At this point, when sensible women would have given the whole thing up, we started hunting for an old house. We looked at houses in which you had to be wary or you fell into the cellar. Houses with plaster falling in chunks. A house with a dead pig on the parlor sofa. It had no front steps so you went in through the woodshed bothering the rats no end.

They searched for two years. On day in February they were going to a dog show (‘we drove in a blizzard in the worn-out car with no heater. We had Rip [the dog] tucked up in blankets and with a hot-water bottle. We just got numb’), and decided to stop on the way and look another place that ‘Jill’ had seen listed.

The agent had not expected anyone so foolhardy as to look at houses in such weather. In fact, he got stuck and spent his time shoveling out while we waded through snow and ice to see the house. We had no key so we crawled up from the cellar.
“Well,” said Stillmeadow, “I’ve been waiting for you. What took you so long?”
There it stood, half-buried in the snow. Built in 1690 or a bit earlier, it had withstood the years. It even had plumbing, and how were we to know it was all cracked? It had floors pegged with square hand-cut nails. It had fireplaces. Twelve-by-eight windows, some with the old bubbly glass panes. It had what must be maple shade as giant sugar maples overhung the roof. (Planted too close, said Jill.)
It had some furniture, tables with broken legs, chests that sagged sadly, an old iron cookstove. It had, also, a wellhouse. And a frozen brook. And forty acres of land.

The previous owner had shot his wife and killed himself, so the price was lower than market value. Excited about the house and the furnace, Gladys looked forward to winter week ends and Christmas in the country and yule logs.

The furnace was broken but we didn’t know it. It had kind of rusted away, we were told afterward. We also did not know how hard it is to manage a Yule log with a dull axe. In fact there were many things we did not know. Even if we had, I think we would have gone ahead just as recklessly…. our basic equipment… consisted of a staggering fortitude and no common sense. But we didn’t know it then.

They took time off to work on the house, painting, papering, repairing, and they learned

“the fatal truth about every sink, toilet, and tub in the house. “Well, one could not expect a man to drain the pipes before shooting his wife,” said Jill. “He didn’t think of it.”

Their children were not very impressed, and we are never told what their husbands thought, though I understand they didn’t spend many weekends there, which is sad and disappointing and makes what happened later not much of a surprise. It’s not a perfect agrarian story, though it is a common one. One spouse has the vision, the fire, the passion and the dream for the pursuit of a country life, but the other spouse is not on board, and eventually the marriage breaks under the burden. This is not wise. I love living in our house in the country, I love our woods, the meadow, the creek- but no matter how beautiful country living is, it is never worth the sacrifice of the marriage. So it’s sad, but the writing is lovely, and it was years before I learned that Gladys husband had not died, as Eleanor’s had, but that they were divorced in 1946. She never talks about it. I think even before the divorce for a few years Gladys and her daughter lived alone at Stillmeadow, with Eleanor and her children coming down on week ends and summer vacations. After the death of Eleanor’s husband, Eleanor left New York city for good and moved to Stillmeadow.  (Updated to note, if you read the comments, the problems in the marriage predated the move to the country and were not of Gladys’s making).

Meanwhile, Gladys wrote her books, including The Stillmeadow Cookbook, and they were overwhelmed by the lawn, which Gladys said was a hayfield growing right up to the front steps. The talked about sheep, but decided on a lawn mower instead, because it didn’t need to be dipped and wouldn’t have babies. Gladys wrote that

“the lawn was about the size of a college green. And Connecticut soil is passionate about growing grass. By the time we got around one side of the house, it was time to mow the other. And aside from hay, it consisted of dandelions. The first few springs we ate dandelion greens until the children went on strike. Jill felt sad, because dandelions were for free. And it turned out not much else was.”

The well went dry, naturally, and when the rains filled it up again, the roof leaked. They dealt with snakes, rats, wasps in the attic and bats in the kitchen.
From the beginning, Gladys says she wrote down what they were doing and the journal of the life of Stillmeadow to share as a letter to her friends. These journals became books, because, after all, said Gladys, she had a typewriter.

From my desk I can look out through the old bubbly glass panes in the window. There are twelve panes above, eight panes below, and it is very hard to wash clear to the corners of them. But since the house was built around 1690, I can only be thankful that the old windows were never ripped out.

I look out past the great sugar maples that overshadow the little house, and on to the meadow and the hill where we planted the Christmas trees. The bottom of the meadow is a wild tangled thicket, half swampy, and there grow the wild cranberries and the dark wild iris and at the edge the wild red grapes with their sweet musky flavor.

Pheasants flash up from the meadow, and the rabbits and woodchucks live there, and the little velvet field mice, and now and then a secret otter follows the course of the hidden brook. The deer do not venture so near the house, but sometimes a red fox streaks up the hill.

Further Reading:
A Biographical Outline of Taber’s Life

Everything ever written by Gladys Taber

Gladys Taber’s Kitchen– lots of her recipes and samples of her writing.

More Gladys Taber, including pictures of Stillmeadow.

Updated to reflect the time of posting rather than the time of drafting.

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