Goodnight, Louise

Last month, Louise W. Hutchins passed away in Bristol at the age of 89. I hadn’t seen Louise since the spring of 2006, but I thought of her often and felt a distinct connection to her. Why? It was from her and her husband, Marshall, that my wife and I bought the house in which we have lived for over 21 years and have raised our daughter, our cats, and — for a time — our hermit crabs. It is the house in the center of Lincoln in which Louise and Marshall raised their son, Roy, who still lives just around the corner from us.
We bought the 1898 Victorian over Labor Day Weekend in 1986 and moved in on Oct. 30 that year. Among the wisdom Louise offered? We should expect a lot of trick-or-treaters our first Halloween. I’m sure I nodded politely, but clearly I didn’t pay attention. After all, I must have thought to myself, my wife and I hadn’t had a single child come to our apartment door in our two Halloweens in Brooklyn. Perhaps I expected as many as 15 or 20 children in Lincoln. Wrong. We must have had nine or 10 times that many. By six p.m. that Halloween we were out of candy, and we were telling first-graders that bouillon cubes were caramels.
I think Louise worried that my wife and I were too young and inexperienced to manage an eccentric old building that even then was starting to flirt with its centennial. She was concerned that those two kids from New York City were getting in way over their heads (we were), and that they might not appreciate the subtleties of the house and the community (we didn’t).
And so she and her husband encouraged me to visit them weekends that September. I was living on South Union Street in Burlington and working on College Street, and my wife was still in Brooklyn, selling our co-op there and commuting to her job on the 104th floor of one of the World Trade Center towers.
I enjoyed those Saturday visits with Marshall and Louise. Marshall had been a state legislator, and the two of them introduced me to Vermont politics. They showed me where to keep boots for the basement because the basement floor was largely dirt and Louise wanted to make sure that I didn’t track mud through the house. And they warned me that the upstairs would be a tad brisk in the winter because it wasn’t heated. It was indeed: That first winter, before we had begun to heat the second floor, the windows iced over so that we couldn’t see out, and numerous nights we slept in parkas and wool hats.
One day Louise asked me if we were going to keep the house’s exterior clapboards yellow. I said I thought so, and she was relieved. (My mother would ask me that same question the first time she saw the house, though she was a little less enthusiastic when I gave her my response.) Louise had lived in that house almost her entire adult life, and it must have been difficult to say goodbye to it — and to know that its caretakers really hadn’t the slightest idea what they were doing.
Someday, perhaps, my wife and I will be feeling the same way. It must very hard to let go.
And yet among all the advice that Louise offered, all the wisdom that she shared, the most valuable probably had nothing to do with the house. I was sitting in the living room with her and her husband on one of those visits, and I told them that I was hoping to be a writer. Louise nodded thoughtfully and then remarked, “You know, you could find plenty to write about right here in Lincoln.” After 16 years of writing this column — and nearly 850 entries — I’d say she was right.
Goodnight, Louise. Thank you for the house … and the counsel.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on May 18, 2008.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.

One thought on “Goodnight, Louise

  1. neil says:

    …plenty to write about in Lincoln for a man with an observant eye, a big heart and a keen mind.
    Congratulations on the good news about your success, that SKELETONS AT THE FEAST will debut on the New York Times bestseller list Sunday May 25.

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