Hebard House, Willey Hill Road, Norwich, VT Collection of Jane Ackerman

by Jane Benson Ackerman

tea-colored photograph:
small yard, two folk
she stout, he bent
clapboard cape, shutters skewed

she stands, one meaty hand on his boney shoulder
he sits, their good kitchen chair set in the yard
uses only a look to quiet his mutts corralled for this new thing,
this picture-making, they have so
little to brag

under bright maples, fence hems-in the cow ruminating the dooryard
wooden posts sentry the path from road to rain-rotten sill,
muddied threshold
their modest welcome, their
“this is ours”

the woman, feet square, breathes and blurs, her skirt stirring weeds
when they married Mr. Lewis, town clerk, wrote “Ella” for Etta
she new here – her people up to Vershire way – nearly a
spinster at 21, scant few months after her Ma was gone
of shock, they said

smock hides her breasts, now drooped to belly
breasts that nursed but one child, dead within their time
who can patience a corset
when getting through a day’s
hard enough

his ruined brains were found splayed across a wall, the preacher said
fancy rig and glossy Bible, they believed him mistaken
would forever carry that final moment:
teeth on metal
but never say it

I have pulled apart their rooms, pecked away the plaster to find
knob-and-tube, beams used and reused thrice; seen how re
licked the walls, stroked the ceiling, nearly took it all their narrative
my plain invention

this house stands the same, punk sill replaced, horse hair and newsprint revoked
walls now made tight by blankets of pink glass
my feet walk their floors, my soles smooth their quarter-sawn oak and popple
my palms press their plaster, cool and somewhere pitted
as if I could touch their touch

this small clapboard house holding private all retching sickness, all
wood-smoked sex, buttoned-up worry, unanswerable grief at children lost or missing –
the everyday brutalities, taxes levied against us,
against any life

these same chinked walls hide my sloughed skin, keep secret my gaping mother heart shelter my sparks of joy winding their way up the same brick chimney
high above the same seamed roof
into the same night sky


Photographs of the House at Willey Hill Road

Etta Caroline Richardson (1853—1933) and Sylvester Morris Hebard (1852—1932)

 Jane Benson Ackerman

For as long as I can remember, I have always loved old houses. I am drawn to architectural detail, I love the feel of old boards beneath my feet, and I’m regularly seduced by the invitation to sit issued by any old front porch.

When I found my house on Willey Hill Road, I knew immediately I was at home. But the circa 1837 Cape was in need of some serious upgrading. So while still trying to honor the house’s original style, I set about making what was a dark, cold and drafty space into something more livable. Over the course of those renovations – which happened in multiple phases and took nearly 15 years to complete – walls came down, plaster was removed and lath exposed, windows and doorframes once hidden were revealed. Each step offered more clues as to what might have gone on in the house before I came along, fanning my curiosity about the people who had lived there before I did.

Happily, the Norwich Historical Society had a couple of old photos of the house in its collection. It was startling to see how little the building had changed (at least on the outside) in the 120+ years since those pictures were taken. In the foreground of the photos are two people; someone has written their names on the back: “Etta and Sylvester Hebard.” I wanted to know more about them – this man and woman who had occupied the very same space in which I now live. They too had taken off their public selves, removed their clothes, slept, bathed and fought, hummed and cooked and been ill, sheltered by the same walls that now shelter me and mine.

I set off on a hunt for information about Etta and Sylvester via records in Tracy Hall, documents on line and headstones in various Norwich cemeteries. What came to light was a very moving and sad story. The Sylvesters and I have never met, and of course never will, but in the very same rooms, under the same roof, just above the same foundation and across the same floors, they and I have experienced all the intimate domestic moments that constitute a life.

About Jane: Jane Benson Ackerman lives, writes and runs an Airbnb in an old house on Willey Hill Road in Norwich, VT, which she shares with her husband, Randy Kerr and their beloved dog, Rudder. Kith & Kin, Jane’s events design and management business, is also headquartered there.