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The last words Wilmot MacNeill ever spoke, right before he died, were to his wife. He urged her to "keep a home of your own. Don't go live with the children. As long as you have your own home you will be independent." That was almost fifty years ago; today, at ninety-three, Mary MacNeill still has her own home, and has finally decided to share her charming and inspirational memoir of Wilmot's last year, the house in the country he insists they build together before he dies and her surprisingly contemporary journey into an independent life along the way. Mary's long career as a librarian, editor and reader has resulted in a voice that is warm, wise, appealingly straightforward and infused with the same generous sense of humor and composure that has carried her through so many of life's difficult predicaments. With their two children grown and away from home, Mary and Wilmot MacNeill led a simple life together in a tiny house in the center of Hartford, Connecticut. But When they learn that Wilmot's lingering cancer will soon take his life, everything changes, and so begins the transformation of a dilapidated barn on a scrambled thicket of Connecticut countryside into a beautiful, fruitful home, along with the metamorphosis of a proper librarian and wife into a strong, independent woman who's not only making the tea but also shoveling the manure and facing the elements. The inevitable happens -- Wilmot dies -- but the woman he leaves behind is forever changed. With the help of many friends and neighbors, Mary finishes the house, lives there for many years and becomes a vital and happy member of the rural community. Written in 1952 and stowed away with Mary's private possessions for more than forty-five years, this memoir is an illustrious time capsule, complete with more than twenty-five original photos, depicting the simplicity of rural New England life in the 1950s and offering one woman's hands-on experience with the changing gender roles this century has witnessed.
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Mary MacNeill, the grandniece of Robert Louis Stevenson, worked as a librarian for many years. She has published articles in numerous newspapers and magazines, as well as two books about the real estate business, and was editor and publisher of the award-winning magazine, The Lure of the Litchfield Hills. Now ninety-three, she still lives on her own in San Diego, California.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
"How will I tell him? How can I tell him?" Riding home that lovely autumn afternoon, I tried to dwell only on the spectacular beauty of the fall foliage. All the way out from West Hartford, over Avon Mountain, and along Albany Turnpike to Canton, the hills were carpeted with gold, red, brown and yellow leaves. The crisp ones blew and tapped on the windshield. I thought to myself, The leaves from the MacNeill family tree are beginning to swirl around me in the autumn of my life. Will I be able to rake them into a neat pile and start over?
The traffic was light at this time of day. People from the insurance companies were already home, and it was too early for the stores to close, The sky was steel gray, with the last rays of gold sifting through. Dawdling along at about thirty miles an hour, I was aroused from my depressing thoughts when three deer sprang out of the woods in front of the car and ran toward the brook. When we got to West Road, Inez stopped the car.
I couldn't go home yet. There was no easy way to tell him. How would he take it? What would I say? What would he say? He was a stalwart Scotsman, and I admired his strength. But a blow like this -- even a Scotsman can only take so much. I thought I'd go the long way around, to give myself more time. Then I realized if I walked across the two rustic bridges, the noise of the loose, clanking boards would alert Smoky, and her barking would let Wilmot know I was there.
"You're late getting home," Wilmot said as I came in the back door. He was standing by the kitchen stove. "Sorry I didn't get the supper started." He kissed me, and held me a little longer than usual.
"I'll change my clothes, and we'll get it ready in a few minutes. What are we going to have?" It was difficult to control my voice. He fed Smoky and the cats, put some logs on the fire and lit the candles on the dining room table. We ate supper in a strained atmosphere of impending gloom, he wanting to ask, and me dreading to have to tell him.
After supper he lit his pipe and sat in the big leather chair by the fire. "Come sit down," he said. "We have to talk." He pushed out the ottoman for me to sit by his knees. "Did you call Dr. Wahro? I asked you to call, or go see him on your lunch hour."
I started to choke up, but managed a "Yes, I called him. Why can't we talk about it in the morning? Let's enjoy a nice evening by the fire."
"No. We have to talk about it now." He took my hand. "You have to tell me now. I must know. Don't you think it will be easier on both of us to know just where we stand?" He could feel my distress. He patted my hand. "Listen, dear, I know I haven't long to live. Come on now, how long? One month? Two months? Three months? I have to know."
"Dr. Wahro said he will drive out some day and have a talk with you."
"I have to know now. I can't wait for the doctor to come out." He relit his pipe. Then he put one hand under my chin and lifted my face up. As I looked straight into his eyes he said, "You know. So why can't I know?" He got up and paced the room. "You have to be brave and face it. You are not a child. In every couple one has to go first. In this instance, it's me. You will be left alone, and I know you will take care of yourself. You have a nice job. You will have a house of your own. You will get my army pension. Come now, tell me." He too was having a difficult time controlling his emotions.
I sobbed, "Three months."
We sat by the fire until after midnight. I brought him some wine. We talked about all the time he had spent looking for property -- the farms he went to see -- the real estate people and their aggressive ways, and the lovely, friendly country folks, who always had time to talk to a stranger and cheerfully give directions when you got lost up in the hills. By this time Smoky wanted to go out for a run. I let her out, and went to the cabinet to get Wilmot's medicine. I was wondering if the wine would have an effect on the drug, hoping that he would get some sleep. As I let Smoky in, Wilmot asked, "How long has it been since we did all the looking around, do you remember?"
"Yes," I said. "I remember."
Copyright © 1999 by Mary MacNeill
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