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The Man on the Hill
In Connecticut

In the gathering twilight of an autumn even there was never a sight as comforting as the twinkling lights in the old red barn nestled on the hill. I am grown and the barn is silent, but in my heart I still go back across the years and am once again a child, climbing the little pathway overhung with scarlet and amber boughs, breathing the crisp earth-spiced air, standing before the back door of the barn, knowing that on the other side there will be warmth and encouragement and row upon row of bird feeders and bird houses, the prize inventory of Howes Bird Attractors. The specialty houses in particular will delight me with their little shingled roofs, tiny paned windows, chimneys, and even doors that open and close.. There will be drawer after drawer overflowing with old photographs, drawings, nails, string, wire, bits of paper, pencils, and chalk. The center of the room will feature a platform for the power saws and a big wooden box containing scraps of birch and pine. An ancient potbellied stove will wheeze and sigh in a far corner with a tattered rug, a rusty coal skuttle, and three spaniels reposing before it. There will be the workbench with pipes, saws, files and hammers hanging beside it, and above the workbench will be the long window -- from this vantage point “Uncle Charlie” will look out upon the world and be seen by the world in return.

The magic of Uncle Charlie was captured and held in the wonderful barn. In that barn a child could learn without ever suspecting he was doing so because its arrangement suggested that he could only reach those things which were appropriate for his age. I began with the wood scrap box and drawers and worked enthusiastically with those until I reached the height of the basic tools and on up to the level of the power saws and more expensive bird houses -- the taller I became, the greater the challenges within my grasp. So clever was this layout that it was rarely necessary for Uncle Charlie to say “no” to a child, and many a child did find his way to that place. One such put together a “dog house” in one afternoon’s visit and having had a terrific time (and wishing to keep this new amusement a secret from his brothers in New Jersey), he returned home to inform them that they wouldn’t like the barn at all because “There’s nothing there but a dirty, noisy old man!”

I was fortunate. I didn’t have to guard my territory in the old barn or compete for attention. Whenever I wished I could nestle into the warmth of the place and set to work with the wood box, a few nails, and a hammer. Uncle Charlie would continue methodically at his work bench, a great arc of smoke encircling his head, watching from the corner of his eye in quiet amusement as I chattered about my project. I learned much in those quiet afternoons long ago. I learned all the little mysteries of life -- why the rain came and why it turned to snow, where the frogs went in winter, why a mother duck was brown, why I couldn’t walk on a cloud -- all the crucial questions of growing answered with patience, a thousand uncertainties understood with love. Looking back I realize now the magic he possessed -- he never treated a child as a child because children wish to be adults, and yet he often treated adults as children when the burden became too great or the way too weary.

At the end of those wonderful afternoons, the old stove would be banked for the night, the checked coat put on, the checked hat settled firmly on the hairless head, the favorite pipe tucked in the corner of his mouth, the sleeping dogs aroused, and the sanctuary departed as the last light left the autumn sky. Sawdust and smoke would be cut by the clip of October air, and the brief journey down the hill to the house would begin. In adoring procession we would follow him first to the weather station, a worn wooden cabinet on stilts with a hinged door on the front that could be propped open to reveal a vast array of clicking instruments. The station was consulted twice daily and its predictions recorded faithfully in a large black record book. It was remarkably accurate. In later years the record book indicated that June 15th was a good day for a wedding because it hadn’t rained on that date for twenty-one years, and while it poured six days preceding and four days following, the 15th of June 1968 dawned clear and beautiful. A final check of the bird feeders and the day drew to its anticipated close. Inside the house, a wood fire and a good dinner awaited, and the peacefulness that comes at the end of another day well spent.

It was during the cold months that the barn throbbed with activity, but when the snows of winter melted from the ground and the first warm breezes heralded the approach of spring it was permitted to rest and the planting in the two acre garden down the hill would begin. The garden was another sort of paradise, though, because in addition to being a serious business it was a testing ground for all manner of plants, fruits and vegetables. Melons and berries, corn and tomatoes, flowers of every hue thrived under Uncle Charlie’s meticulous hand. In tan overalls, a handkerchief protecting his head from the sun, he would wend his way up and down the rows inspecting, splicing and pruning . He never hurried, but rather went attentively from one task to the next enjoying each to its fullest, recording results in notebooks and journals which were a vital part of his existence. And always he had time for the children trailing after him asking permission to raid the raspberry patch, to pick a pear, to eat a tomato, persistently questioning, “What are you doing?”

During those summer days Uncle Charlie would set out his art supplies when the gardening was done. Self-taught ( and in later years quite celebrated for his work) he would create captivating paintings of all the things that lived in his world. Trees would move and bend in the canvas wind, small animals would creep forth from the forest, the house and barn (favorite subjects) would become real as only his hand could make them. The secret he once told me was in caring enough to take your time -- to know your subject, to study every leaf on a branch, to observe and faithfully record the world and all that is in it. But, in reality, it was more -- it was spirit of the artist, himself, seeing with a patient and appreciative eye those things which the impatient and critical among us continually overlook.

Those were the famous good old days which were supposed to have ended in the early part of the twentieth century, but which Uncle Charlie kept alive within his kingdom. Never was there mention of a generation gap with Uncle Charlie because he was as necessary to the young as breath and nourishment. Through him one could not fail to see that the old ways not only have merit, they are essential, and the sharing of life with another human being should not be inhibited by a difference in age, or respect for one another diminished by it. I never saw him angry, never heard him speak unkindly, he never failed in personal dignity, never yielded to the temptation of laziness, and never turned away a person in need. Above all, I never saw him greet even one day without the courage to confront whatever it might hold -- when the work in the two acre garden was too much for him as he grew older, he gave it up for a small rock garden, and when that became too much, for window boxes, he gave up painting when his eyesight failed, and he eventually had to give up his work in the wonderful barn -- all accepted without complaint as a part of the passing of time. He asked little of life and much of himself, and continually cast away pretense for the blessing of humility and simplicity. One of his favorite stories had him on the receiving end of a child’s candor in the barbershop -- “Mommie,” said the child, staring at Uncle Charlie, “That man doesn’t have any hair!” then seeing Uncle Charlies’s wide grin he persisted, “MOMMIE, THAT MAN DOESN’T HAVE ANY TEETH EITHER!” And, quite true, he didn’t. With or without teeth he had a glorious smile because it came from the heart -- and it came often.

A man unchanged by the changing times, Charles Howes was a legend while he lived, perhaps because he was willing and able to give something to everyone, young or old and could put the events of life in such eloquent perspective for himself and those he loved. We said goodbye to him over thirty-five years ago and I can’t open the door of the old barn except in my heart, but I feel his presence more and more in these times of confusion and change. I believe, though, that when you have known a truly wonderful human being, everything in life is somehow better for it, and while I can no longer see him and hear him, he is nonetheless all around me in the way he taught me to experience the world. No matter what, that will remain. Never will I see autumn leaves along a country lane, a robin riding the winds of May, a stream sliding seaward, or a hopeful child following a pathway to some other barn on some other hill -- that I will not find him there -- Uncle Charlie -- smiling gently in my mind.

The wonderful old barn is captured in the painting by Charles Landon Howes.

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