Tag Archives: Childhood

The Soundtrack of Christmas

Outside, it’s cold. Frigid, the way December nights can be in northern New England. Wind is prowling round our house, searching for a way in, howling when it fails. Every so often when it tries to force its way down the chimney, a little puff of bluish-white smoke escapes from the wood stove at the far end of the living room. The sweet, sharp smoke intermingles with the fresh, fragrant evergreen we just brought in from the garage.

Our Christmas tree.

My mom and I stand back to admire it. “It’s a chubster,” my mom says, smiling. She isn’t fooling; it is a chubster, full and round and stout. A fraiser fir, with compact blue-green needles, dense plumage, and a perfect profile. Fraisers may not be as aromatic as balsams, but they hold their needles a whole lot longer, and with the wood stove cranked, cooking all moisture from the air, the tree has an uphill climb if it hopes to make it to New Year’s.

It’s about time to start decorating, to begin the slow, sentimental process of unpacking each ornament, of looking it over, laughing, and saying, “I forgot about this one!” or “God this one’s ugly!” or “That’s my sled!” (anyone born in the 70’s or 80’s will know that I’m not talking about Rosebud), but before we begin, we need music.

The record player in the corner is dusty with disuse. A meager library of LP’s is stacked on the floor beneath it, and I crouch down to flip through them, searching for the bright red jacket of The Boston Camerata’s Sing We Noel.


Now, I didn’t grow up listening to Bing Crosby and Brenda Lee, to standards like White Christmas and Let it Snow and Little Drummer Boy. I grew up on old music, on ancient carols like Gloucestershire Wassail, Coventry Carol, and Ad cantus leticie. This music was written and first performed as early as the twelve, thirteen, fourteen hundreds, and when the Camerata recorded it in 1978 (the year I was born, coincidentally), I doubt they knew that forever after, it would be for me synonymous with Christmas, with tree-trimming and family and joy. In my house, it was the holiday soundtrack.

I slide the record from its sleeve and carefully position it on the turntable. I start it spinning and, with the concentration of a brain surgeon, drop the needle down right at the record’s edge. For a few seconds, there’s just the soft, hissing crackle of dead air. Then fourteen bright, rich voices pour from the speakers, instantly transporting me to some immense, medieval cathedral where God himself is leading the ensemble. Majestic, it is.

Mom and I set to work, hanging our ornaments, pretending not to notice the faint, musty smell that clings to them, a product of their eleven-month hibernation in the cellar. (It’s all part of the experience.) We sing along with the Camerata when we know the words, hum when we don’t. We smile because the music is like a warm embrace from a dear friend we haven’t seen in far too long.

Finally, the icicles, glass bulbs, and Santas hung just so and our star perched atop the highest bough, we turn down the lights, turn up the music, and stand back to ooh and aah. It’s a real beauty this year, we agree. Maybe the best ever…

Things have changed now. I live in Chicago and my mom and I haven’t decorated a frasier together in ten years, at least. I’m still home for Christmas every year (I’m finishing this post in my childhood bedroom), but our tradition of trimming the tree together has fallen by the wayside. I miss it.

Three weeks ago while my wife, Marta, and I decorated our table-top tree in Chicago, I streamed Sing We Noel from my iPod. I sung along when I knew the words, hummed when I didn’t. Marta’s even learned some of the melodies by now, and when we stand back to ooh and aah at our own little tree, I feel the same giddy joy I remember as a boy. The music brings me right back, just like it always will, and I smile, knowing that this tradition will live on.

Merry Christmas.

The Titanic 2: Molly’s Brush with Death

My cousin, Molly, is lucky to be alive.

I don’t remember exactly how old we were, but I’m going to say ten, eleven, and twelve–Andy the oldest, Molly the youngest, me right in the middle. Growing up on the farm, the three of us were peas in a pod (I couldn’t resist!); designations like “sibling” and “cousin” meant nothing to us. Together, we were brilliant inventors, intrepid adventurers, best friends. We explored, charted, and touched every inch of that farm, and I’m sure if you look closely, you can still see the marks we left behind.

Me, I don’t even have to look closely. All I have to do is close my eyes and I can see them perfectly, as if no time at all has passed.

So this one day, Andy suggested we build boats to sail across the Upper Pond. I don’t actually remember if it was Andy’s idea, but I’m assuming it was. He always had the riskiest ideas.

First, you need to understand something about the Upper Pond. When it was constructed in the 1950’s–one of three irrigation ponds on the farm–it was a pristine masterpiece, a gravel oasis stocked with bass and bluegill, filled to the brim with fresh, clear water. Then thirty-five years passed, and it became a wild, weed-choked mud wallow, its murky depths the stuff of nightmares. Despite the old photos we’d seen showing gleeful farmhands splashing in its sparkling waters, my cousins and I had never dared set foot in it. The Upper Pond was scary.


Just up the hill from the Upper Pond sat our grandfather’s tractor shed. It was a long, brown, corrugated steel structure, home to four tractors–a pair of Fords, a John Deere, and a Kabota–barn swallows without number, and our holy grail: Grandpa’s workshop, with its wooden benches; herds of sawhorses; boxes of nails and bolts and screws; tool racks hung with pliers, wrenches, hammers, and saws; bags of seed stacked in the corners; gas cans milling about the door; and there, beneath it all, the smell of sawdust and oil and earth. I’ve never been anywhere else that smelled exactly like it.


It’s strange–I have no memories of Grandpa working in his workshop (he was too busy in the fields, I guess)–but that didn’t stop Andy, Molly, and me from putting it to excellent use. It became our workshop, our laboratory, our think tank, and on this particular day, our dry dock, too.

We pillaged the scrap wood pile, searching for perfect keels and masts, and it was soon apparent that while Molly and I were on the same page, laying out the pieces to our fine model sailboats, Andy had other plans. BIG plans. His boards dwarfed ours, and the sheet of plastic he’d cut from the leftover bolts of greenhouse sheathing was enormous–a king-sized bed’s worth, at least. Molly and I were intrigued, but despite our pleas, Andy wasn’t revealing his design. We’d just have to wait and see.

I can’t say how long the construction process took. It might have been a few hours, or it could have lasted a few days. That’s the beauty of childhood: time doesn’t matter. You don’t worry about things like schedules or deadlines. You simply create, deftly wielding your imagination while time melts away around you. Then, without even realizing you were gone, that you’d been lost in some make-believe world, you snap back to reality, look down, and see that your boats are built, ready for their maiden voyage.

I was proud of my effort. I really wish I had a picture of it somewhere. (More on that in a minute.) The design was simple: I nailed two boards into the shape of a cross–the longer of the two (five feet, I’d estimate) served as the keel, the shorter (four feet, perhaps?) as an outrigger. We’d found some old styrofoam seed flats in the greenhouse, which I glued to the underside of both keel and outrigger for buoyancy. A long wooden stake, held fast with guylines of twine, was my mast, while I’d fashioned a sail out of the same greenhouse plastic Andy had used (albeit a much smaller piece). 

Andy’s craft had taken shape, too. Not content constructing a model boat like us kids, Andy had built an actual boat, complete with crude scrap wood oars, fully intended for human passage. Looking back now, it was little more than a rickety, oblong frame, the greenhouse plastic wrapped around it, forming a precarious hull. At the time, though, Molly and I thought it was the Titanic reimagined, a luxurious ocean liner compared to our little toy dinghies.

We lugged the boats down the hill from the workshop to the shore of the Upper Pond. Andy needed help maneuvering his through the tangle of cat-o-nine tails at the water’s edge and by now, a small audience (okay, it was really just Andy and Molly’s step-mother, Michelle) had gathered to witness the christening.

Molly and I took turns scooting our boats out onto the water, where they lolled and bobbed like so many pieces of flotsam, adrift on the current, slave to the breeze. We all oohed and aahed in appropriate measure–at least the things floated–but what we really wanted to see was the S.S. Andy’s sea trial.

Andy’s boat twisted and torqued as he slipped it into the water for the first time, and almost immediately, it began to leak. That’s what happens, I guess, when you use staples and nails on a plastic hull rather than rivets on steel.

Then, Michelle said something that made a whole lot of sense to Andy and me: “Molly, get in for a sec. See if it holds you.” Sometimes she had the riskiest ideas.

It required more than a little goading, I recall, before Molly finally stepped into Andy’s boat, a look of mild distress written on her face as the water continued to blub blub blub up from the dark abyss that was the Upper Pond.

Michelle was laughing by now. “Oh my god!” she said. “I have to get my camera. Stay here!” And off she jogged, up the hill, past the tractor shed, to the old farmhouse where she, my uncle, Andy, and Molly lived. A minute or two passed, then she reappeared, camera in hand, jogging back down the hill toward us.

Now, for many years, Michelle was our family’s only photographer (then Charles came along, but that’s another story), the only person who documented everyday moments such as…well, such as the S.S. Andy’s first voyage. To this day, phrases like, “Your eyes were shut!” and “Hold it right there!” and “Wait, one more!” flow from her as effortlessly as breath.

And flow they did that afternoon as Molly slowly sank into the pond.

“Oh, Molly, these are great!” she said, ruthlessly snapping away, the camera shutter clicking with rapid-fire efficiency. Molly didn’t appear convinced.

“Just a few more. Andy, push her out a little farther.”

“Michelle!” Molly protested.

“This is it, I promise! I just want to get a couple without the weeds.”

So with his foot, Andy gave the boat an obliging push, and away Molly drifted, another five or six feet from shore. It might as well have been a hundred miles.

It must have been terrifying standing there in that boat, seeing the inky water pressing in against that thin, diaphanous hull, knowing she was on her way down with the ship as Michelle captured the whole thing on film. Molly wasn’t one to panic, though; she kept her wits. That’s probably why she’s here today.

Satisfied at last with the shots she’d gotten, Michelle beckoned Molly back to shore. By now the S.S. Andy had taken on so much water that it sat low and pregnant in the pond, a dead weight not easily propelled. Molly dug in with one of its scrap wood oars and rowed for her life, moving toward us with grim determination, each stroke drawing her a few inches closer to safety, the flimsy boat threatening to come apart beneath her at any moment.

I gave her a fifty-fifty shot.

It seemed to take forever for her to reclaim the five or six feet Andy’s foot had given her, and even when the boat nudged its way in through the cattails, Molly’s ordeal wasn’t yet over. There were no stepping stones, no safe toeholds. She’d have to splash through the shallows to reach dry land.

Out came Michelle’s camera again as Molly took a deep breath and plunged into the pond.

I can’t speak for Andy, but I think I half expected the water to burn Molly’s feet away like some kind of caustic acid, that she’d totter unsteadily onto dry land, balancing upon two smoldering stumps. Instead, she scrambled up the embankment, her pants soaked below the knees, her muck-slathered shoes each containing an intact, unburned foot. The only thing burning just then were Molly’s eyes. She glared at Andy, who’d built her such a flimsy boat, and then at Michelle, who’d insisted it would hold her. I’m not sure whether she glared at me, but she probably did just for good measure. Then she stalked off toward the house, squelching as she went, no doubt planning a revenge that included tattooing Michelle’s squeaky-clean floors with pond scum footprints.

Later, Andy towed his half-sunken wreck from the water and scrapped it. Not bad for a first attempt, we agreed, but perhaps from now on we’d leave the shipbuilding to the folks up at Bath Iron Works. Besides, we weren’t brave enough to attempt another crossing in one of Andy’s designs, and Molly wasn’t talking to us. It was time to move on to new projects, new ideas. We had a whole farm to explore, after all.

Oh, remember how I said I wished I had a picture of my boat? You might be wondering why I didn’t end up with one or two given all the shots Michelle took that day. Well, as it turned out, her camera didn’t have any film in it–a danger of the pre-digital era–so while Molly risked life and limb for that perfect picture, Michelle was shooting blanks, capturing imaginary photos on imaginary film.

In the end, though, it didn’t matter. The memories of that day live on, perfectly preserved for all time.

Like Molly, they survived.

MacGyver was a badass

MacGyver was a badass. Give the guy a paper clip, some matches, a pocket knife, and a roll of duct tape, and in a minute or two he’d build you a fully functional bomb. Not a bomb for killing, mind you (Mac never killed. He didn’t even like holding guns.), but handy for, say, blowing open a locked door to save the girl or disabling the bad guy’s getaway car. He possessed the uncanny ability to transform everyday objects into powerful tools and, hokey as it may sound, I credit him with helping me see that the whole is often greater than the sum of its parts.

“But Evan,” you ask, “what about that mullet of his?”


Ah, well, no one’s perfect. I’m willing to overlook his style blunders, as I’m quite certain I’m guilty of my own share of fashion faux pas. (My Aunt Michelle would be glad to detail them for you; I’m convinced she keeps a list somewhere of every questionable outfit I’ve ever worn.) So, regardless of whether you dig his dreamy locks, let’s agree that some things just are: summer follows spring, the opposite of up is down, MacGyver was a badass.

Mac isn’t the only one who laid claim to my boyhood heart. Even before he came into my life, I loved Sir David Attenborough, with his melodic British accent and knack for breaking complex scientific principles into simple, layman’s terms. It’s going on thirty years, but I can still picture him standing next to a Hawaiian volcano in his familiar orange slicker, explaining how the lava formed tubes as it cooled. The tubes were like subway tunnels, the lava like freight trains speeding through them on a one way trip to the sea. Awesome, let me tell you!


Some time after the PBS miniseries The Living Planet aired in 1985, while out on an errand with my mom one day (or so the story goes), I thought I might stump her with a bit of trivia I’d picked up from the good Sir. “Mom,” I said, “do you know what we’re driving on?” She smelled a trap, but wasn’t sure what angle I would take. “Middle Road?” she hazarded. When I shook my head, she tried again. “Tar?” Nope, strike two. After letting her sweat for a minute, I declared, quite matter-of-factly: “Mom, we’re driving on molten lava!” Okay, so my science wasn’t exact, but don’t blame David Attenborough for that. He taught me to observe the world around me – to look under every rock, peer into every hole, and study every mystery.

Around this same time, studying one mystery or another, I discovered C.S. Lewis’s magical realm, Narnia. Suddenly, a new world beckoned – one every bit as real and textured as my world, but where anything was possible. Where animals spoke, where winter lasted a hundred years, and where an ordinary boy, not unlike myself, might reign as a wise and gentle king. I devoured the seven-book series and for the first time, found true delight in reading.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

Later, as an anxious thirteen-year-old interviewing for admittance to St. Paul’s School in Concord, NH, I was asked to name my favorite author. “C.S. Lewis,” I answered without hesitation. “Have you heard of him?” My interviewer, as I recall, was a jovial man named Mr. Green (not to be confused with Colonel Mustard or Professor Plum), and he found this question quite amusing. Little did I know that C.S. Lewis was, besides a beloved children’s author, a well known theologian. Whatever he is, to me, he will always remain the master of Narnia, the man who taught me to love books.

In the winter of 1999, I discovered a different sort of magical realm while visiting my cousin, Sean, in Ireland. Having wandered into a Virgin Records store one afternoon in Dublin, I happened upon a lonely set of headphones connected to a sample of Radiohead’s OK Computer. In the blurb above the display, one reviewer had dubbed the album “the Dark Side of the Moon of the 90’s.” I had never been a huge Radiohead fan, but of course, being the semi-hip twenty-year-old I was, had heard Creep, Fake Plastic Trees, and High and Dry about a thousand times each on the radio.

When I slipped those headphones on and hit play, my world changed.

For months after returning to the States, I would drive around with my friend, Chris, in his old Camry wagon (the car in which I learned to drive stick) blasting OK Computer through his Rockford Fosgates and Pioneer 6×9’s, trying to decipher just what in the hell Thom Yorke was singing about. Have you ever tried figuring out his lyrics? Good luck, that’s all I have to say. We never cheated, though, never peeked at the jacket liner for a hint, and when we finally did manage to pick out a particularly garbled word or phrase, felt more than a little proud of ourselves. It was part of the magic for us, and when I think about all of the hours I’ve spent with Thom, Johnny, Colin, Ed, and Phil, I can’t begin to imagine what my life would be like without them and their sonic alchemy. Suffice to say I don’t want to imagine that life.


These days, my hero is a guy named Steve. You’ve probably heard of him – maybe you love him, too, or maybe you can’t stand him. Maybe you just don’t care. Whatever – it’s cool. Everyone’s entitled to his or her own opinion. But regardless, just as summer follows spring, the opposite of up is down, and MacGyver was a badass, I hope we can all agree that Stephen King is a master of his craft, a trueborn storyteller, a cultural icon of our times.


I read Carrie first, which seemed fitting since it was his first published novel. It was a quick read – one hundred seventy pages, give or take – raw and gritty. When I finished, I read about it. I learned that King, after writing the opening scene, tossed it in the garbage, certain no one would care to read a story about a telekinetic teen’s first menstruation. Fortunately his wife, Tabby, fished it from the waste basket and urged him to keep at it. He did, the book sold, and the rest is history. Now I keep a King quote taped to the inside cover of my writing journal:

“I persisted because I was dry and had no better ideas…my considered opinion was that I had written the world’s all-time loser.” [i]

On my worst days, when I’m convinced I’ll never publish any of my work and that it’s all a bunch of garbage, this helps remind me that we all have insecurities, that even someone as accomplished as Stephen King isn’t immune to doubt. And then I pick myself up and move forward, because in the end, whether I’m published or not, I am a writer. It’s in my blood.

All of these men – MacGyver, Sir David Attenborough, C.S. Lewis, the members of Radiohead, Stephen King – have, in their own ways, played a part in my life story. And because I write from my own life’s experience (not necessarily about it, but certainly informed by it), I must give credit where credit’s due. Not only did these men help spark the fires of curiosity, ingenuity, and creativity that burn within me, but over the years, they’ve continued to stoke the flames, inspiring me to pursue my own dream of, in some small way, changing the world, making a difference to some boy or girl, man or woman, who sits down on a rainy afternoon with one of my stories.

And who knows? With a little luck, maybe one day someone who is touched by my work, who’s excited and inspired by it, will call me a badass, too. Until then, I’ve got my paper clip, matches, pocket knife, and duct tape at the ready…just in case.

[i] King, Stephen (February 1980). “On Becoming a Brand Name”. Adelina Magazine: 44

Gee but it’s great to be back home…

For nearly eight and a half years, I’ve lived 1,000 miles from home.

After all that time, New Hampshire is still home in my mind and heart, as I imagine it will always be in many ways. I often wonder what other people think and feel when they reflect on the meaning of home, for I believe my family and I have had a unique and wonderful opportunity to experience a deep sense of connection and belonging to the place we call home by virtue of our tradition and longevity. The farm is not just a place, but rather a member of our family, replete with 380 years of history and memories. It shares its story with me every time I visit, not through spoken language, but by subtler means: a breeze whispering through rows of corn, the smell of freshly harrowed earth, or the crunch of frost beneath my boots as I traverse the pasture below my grandparents’ house.


Now, I experience the strongest connection to the place and all its history on my late-night (or early-morning, as the case may be) walks from my grandparents’ to my mom’s, and this always reminds me of Grandpa once saying: “I get my religion watching the sun come up in the cornfield.” I imagine him cutting lettuce or digging carrots early in the morning, dew clinging to the tender leaves, the silence broken only by sparrows and crows taking flight, as he continues along the path that nine generations of Tuttles blazed before him. And in my own way, as I walk alone through the delicate early-morning silence on the farm, I find a religion of sorts as I marvel at the sheer magnitude of all that came before me and that which, even now, allows me to revel in these moments of joy and wonder.

When I left NH to “head west young man, head west,” I reached Grinnell with equal parts excitement and trepidation. My application essay (which I lament has been lost) told the story of a boy who loved his home, but who now hoped to bloom into a man by exploring the world in the newer, larger cornfields of Iowa. Indeed, my years at Grinnell altered my trajectory in ways which will, no doubt, continue to manifest themselves throughout my life (If in no other way, at least by allowing me the small pleasure of facetiously responding, “Childhood dream” to the query: “How did you end up at school in Iowa?”). Though my intention always was to return to NH and become involved in the farm and business, it was important for me to find my own place and purpose in the world, to test myself.

The ink still wet on my Anthropology degree, I moved to Chicago, the City of Big Shoulders, land of deepdish pizza and those “loveable losers” the Cubs, in August of 2002. What an adventure! Lucy and I found a small apartment, I got a job selling cars, and I imagined that living in Chicago would be exciting for a year or two before I returned home to begin building a life for myself on the farm. Of course, a year or two turned into a few years, which turned into five, which now has turned into the better part of a decade. I’m currently working my 5th job, living in my 5th apartment, and (phew!) only on my 2nd girlfriend, but Chicago has, over the years, become a familiar and comfortable place to me. It’s become my adoptive home as I’ve built a relationship with Marta, cultivated many close friendships, and started a career.

In October, 2009, I learned what I might have suspected for at least a year or two: that Mom and Uncle Will would, born of necessity, be listing the farm and store for sale within 6-12 months if business didn’t stage a dramatic about-face. We had all known, I think, that a tipping point was approaching, but this notion only became “real” to me when Mom and Will sat me down one afternoon in the tractor shed to tell me just how bad things had gotten. My mind churned constantly for the next few months trying to think of something – anything – that would forestall the loss of the farm and the traditions our family has built upon it. No small amount of that time was spent second-guessing myself, asking myself what might have been different if I had returned or even if I had never left. Would I have been able to prevent this? Could I have saved the farm? There are some questions life puts to us that may never be answered – questions like these. I will never know if I could have made a difference, but I will always wonder.

As I sat at Grandpa’s bedside on a cold December evening in 2002, looking upon the shell of a man who had always been a hero to me, I spoke to him privately of how important the farm was to me, how fortunate I felt to be part of something so meaningful, and how proud I was to be his grandson. That night, I promised him I’d return one day and find my place as part of our family’s nearly four-century tradition. This was not a commitment I took lightly, but I knew then, as I’d always known, that my purpose and future were intertwined with the ancestors my grandfather would soon join. Grandpa died later that night, and now that the sale of the farm is inevitable, I will never have the opportunity to fulfill the promise I made to him. I am certain, though, that Grandpa will forgive me, because in spite of the concern he undoubtedly felt about the farm’s future, I know that his children and grandchildren’s happiness was more important to him than the continuation of a tradition which was already fading when he passed.


A yellowed newspaper clipping on my old bedroom door reads: “Gee but it’s great to be back home…home is where I want to be,” a snippet from an old Simon and Garfunkel song hung there by Mom when I returned from St. Paul’s in 1993, a scared and homesick high school freshman. I’ve lived 1,000 miles from home for eight and a half years, but the farm will always be my home whether the name “Tuttle” is on the deed or if, after this incredible run, a new name is signed on the dotted line. We have all made lives, some on the farm, some far from it, but because of our shared origins – our home – we will always be a part of something much larger than ourselves. And that can never be taken from us.