Memoir: The Day the Ceiling Fell

A somewhat dubious idea: to think one can move to an elderly farmhouse and escape trouble. Terry’s encounter with trouble was quite dramatic.

A somewhat dubious idea: to think one can move to an elderly farmhouse and escape trouble. Terry’s encounter with trouble was quite dramatic.

In November 1963, my mother bought a farm in upstate New York. Naturally, this farm was far from the beaten track, but she had a vision that this could become a small country inn or bed and breakfast tucked in the Adirondack Mountains. I first saw it during my Christmas vacation in Grade 11. With my mom and brother, I took the train from Montreal, disembarking at Fort Ticonderoga Station across a small inlet of Lake Champlain from the Fort Ticonderoga, a massive, looming presence through the increasing snow flurries. My stepdad, George, picked us up in his cream-colored ’63 Ford Fairlane.

We took Highway 73 West out of the Village of Ticonderoga, then climbed turn after turn through dark evergreens that I would soon learn was Chilson Hill, the site of many fatal accidents. Dropping down past the Chilson Inn, a small bar and grill with weekend country singers, we turned onto a paved road passing a frozen pond. At the end of the pond, a dirt road split off to the left. Muddy and slushy with icy patches, the road twisted and turned past two farms before a small, steep hill and a sharp right turn.

A little valley opened before us, and across, sitting on a knoll, was a white clapboard farmhouse, smoke rising from the chimney into the grey sky. My mother had bought most of the land we could see, over two hundred acres of bottomland, meadows, and forested hillsides.

We arrive at the house and pull into a wide gravel drive leading to a sizeable rambling garage, a bit swaybacked but sound enough to protect cars and tractors from the weather. The garage is separated from the main house by a row of cedars over ten feet high.

I learned and grew so much working the farm, and I learned to deal with the unexpected events that happen on farms, some sad and some funny. But I also realized after three years that this life was not for me.

We enter through a glassed-in veranda on the side of the house facing the garage, through a “whap-whap” screen door. The kitchen has a sink and a large cast-iron wood stove with an attached hot water tank that provided all the hot water for the house before a previous owner installed a new electric water heater in the basement. A door from the kitchen leads to a small sitting room with a fireplace sharing the chimney with the stove. Another door leads to the central part of the house built in the late 18th century. Two stories with good size rooms flanking the main entrance. A steep stairway that starts at the grate above the furnace gives access to three bedrooms and an attic. Unfortunately, the heat from the furnace never fully warmed the upstairs bedrooms on cold winter nights.

In short, it is the antithesis of every place I have lived in growing up in Montreal. Despite my mother’s move to this farm, I remain in school in Montreal, only coming here on breaks and during the summer to work the farm: taking out a horse to check on the fences, taking care of our cows and horses, and putting hay up in the barns for winter. I learned and grew so much working the farm, and I learned to deal with the unexpected events that happen on farms, some sad and some funny. But I also realized after three years that this life was not for me.

I remember the morning it happened. It was a sunny morning, the heat already building, and I was working in the driveway attaching a cutter bar to the tractor. It was an old Allis Chalmers row crop model that I drove every day each summer, cutting, then raking and baling the hay before putting it up in the barn. As usual, I was losing a bit of skin on my knuckles, smoking, and swearing when suddenly a large, turquoise, and gold station wagon pulled into the driveway. A sign on the door says Ticonderoga Paint and Wallpaper. Two men get out. One is tall with light brown hair, the other is a hunchback with dark hair, and both are wearing white painters’ garments. They introduce themselves: the tall one is Fred and the shorter one Billy.

Fred says, “We’re here to fix the ceiling in the living room.” Classic Mom stuff! She is off in town some 14 miles away and has never told me that these folks might be coming or that we needed to have the living room ceiling fixed. I also figured these guys were not here by accident, having come all the way from Ticonderoga! So, I said, “Sure,” and showed them into the house. Then, I went back to working in the driveway.

In about ten minutes, Fred came back and asked if they should move the furniture out of the room and cover everything with drapes, which seemed an excellent idea. Again, I said, “Sure,” even though I had no idea what they were doing. I continued to work on the tractor in the driveway. Then a noise – it wasn’t exactly a crash, it wasn’t exactly a bang, it was more like a thump. Walking around the cedars, all I could see were clouds of white dust pouring out of the house’s front windows. A moment later, two figures emerged coughing and thoroughly covered in white dust with just their now pink eyes showing. I went over with some water and asked them what had happened.

The taller one said that they were pulling away that loose piece of paper in the corner of the living room’s ceiling when the entire ceiling separated from the lath. It dropped as one piece to the floor, breaking into a million pieces and sending up those clouds and clouds of dust. Since my mother was not home, I wasn’t sure what to do next. The repair was now a significant undertaking, not some simple fix to a ceiling.

So, I suggested we let the dust settle, hoping my mom would get home. The two men dusted themselves off as best they could and wiped their faces. It was almost noon, so they broke out their Thermos bottles and sandwiches, and they had lunch under the trees on the front lawn; eventually, my mother showed up. The men told her what had happened. She was calm and said, “Well, in that case, we will have to repair the entire ceiling and probably should do the same throughout the house.” Again, classic Mom.

Fred and Billy were at the farmhouse every day for the next six months. The old horsehair plaster and laths were torn out and replaced with sheetrock, paint, and wallpaper. I’m not sure where my mother ever found the money to do all this work, but that had never been a concern that my mother had ever shown or expressed. When she knew something had to be done, she figured out how to get it done. I think this was an extension of the “carry on” mindset she developed during World War II while working in London during The Blitz.

I said goodbye to Fred and Billy at the end of the summer when I went back to Montreal for school. We said hello again when I returned for the Christmas holidays. They were just finishing up and carpeting the central part of the house. The rooms looked lovely, and the house was a lot warmer for all their efforts, thank heavens. The farm never took off as a bed and breakfast; it was simply too far off the beaten track, although a French-Canadian family did stay and even left their son behind, which significantly improved my French. With me away in Africa, the farm became too much for my mother and stepdad, George, to manage. So, she sold it, moving to an old schoolhouse overlooking Lake Champlain outside Crown Point. My mother was born in a small town in England called Oundle, just about the same size as Crown Point, so her life had come full circle. But she was a force of nature, and I loved that she got up every day anxious to take on whatever came. Ceiling down, simple, just fix the entire house!