Photo-Journal

Photography and Writing by James McCarthy

Mar 2012

Snowstorm at Olson House

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In a Jan. 2, 1956, letter to her friend Betsy Wyeth, Christina Olson offered a glimpse into her life during the long winter months in the three-story farmhouse she shared with her brother Alvaro in Cushing at the end of Hathorn’s Point.

“We had cold weather for six weeks,” she wrote in the letter quoted within Betsy Wyeth’s coffee-table book “Christina’s World: Paintings and Pre-studies of Andrew Wyeth. “No break to amount to anything. Just a day or two when the temperature rises a few degrees then back it goes to zero and below … We had a lot of wood, but if this keeps on all winter don’t know whether there’ll be enough or not. It disappears very fast when you have to keep the stove full all the time … Al is cutting wood for next year’s supply. It takes about all of my time to keep the fire and get something to eat!”

I’ve been thinking about that quote for several days now, since taking a drive up to Cushing on March 1 during this winter’s worst snowstorm. I barely made it down the 12-mile peninsula to Hathorn’s Point due to the unplowed roads that challenged my low-riding Toyota Prius’s traction abilities. No matter: It heightened my appreciation of the isolation the Olsons must have felt living alone in that weathered old farmhouse set atop a hill overlooking the St. George River and Maple Juice Cove. I only saw a car or two on my slip-sliding drive to Hathorn’s Point.

The farther I went, the more the road narrowed. As I neared the end of the peninsula, with snow swirling in close-to-whiteout conditions, I felt like I was almost at the end of the world.

How much more so would that have been true some 50 years ago for the partially crippled Cristina and her younger brother Alvaro.

Global warming might well be tempering the feeling of hibernation that was a common experience of Mainers who chose to stay put and hunker down for the long cold winters in the mid-20th century. This winter has been largely snowless and downright balmy, with few days even getting within shivering distance of 0 degrees Fahrenheit.

Even so, I remind myself of the famous quip delivered by the late Dudley Rockwell, who used to lead tours of the Olson House during the summer months. “It was like heating a lobster trap,” he said, noting that each winter it would take several cords of wood to heat the gabled farmhouse built in the late 1700s.

Room by room, the Olsons would close down the house during the winter months. They kept busy — and stayed close to the warmth of their wood-fired kitchen stove.
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Their house is empty now. Standing before it with my camera on a tripod, I’m buffeted by strong winds coming off the St. George River, which drive the snow horizontally against the unpainted clapboards and the tall paned windows. The house defies this show of nature’s force — an emblem for the difficult but dignified lives of the brother and sister who lived out their days in its labyrinth of rooms and commanding view of the hayfields stretching down to the water. Doors that would have stayed open in the warm summer months, inviting neighbors to pay a visit, are now battened down. The house is stubborn, independent, not unlike the Olsons.

I walk down to a small apple orchard, the trees gnarled and lichen-covered, wondering how long it’s been since anyone has harvested its apples. I circumambulate the house, appreciating its elegant wood drain-spouts, which once collected rainwater for storage in a cistern beneath the farmhouse. I imagine a spire of smoke rising from the brick chimney over the kitchen. In today’s driving snowstorm there is no such evidence of life-giving warmth within the house. Swirling snow, wind, and cold surround the brown-gray house in whiteness, now as then reducing the landscape to bare essentials.

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Even 40-some years after the deaths of Alvaro and Christina (within a month of each other in 1967 and 1968 respectively), I feel their presence as I freely trespass what would have been their yard, garden and hayfield, eventually making my way to their small family cemetery to pay my respects.

I think, too, of the artist Andrew Wyeth, who over the span of his 30-year friendship with the Olsons painted their portraits and captured the artifacts of their simple homespun lives in hundreds of drawings, watercolors and some of his most memorable temperas (obviously “Christina’s World” and “Wind from the Sea” but also the lesser-known portraits “Christina Olson,” 1947; “Miss Olson,” 1952; and “Anna Christina,” 1967). He’s buried in that cemetery, too, with a simple slate-gray gravestone giving only his name and the years of his birth and death — an understatement true to the Maine spirit Wyeth captured so well, one that allows his paintings to be the living testament of his life, rather than a stone marker over his grave. I whisper a prayer of thanks to him for helping me learn something vital about seeing people in their inner beauty and strength, rather than making a judgment based on the superficial appearances of a crippled body, an unpainted clapboard house and a simple lifestyle.

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For despite the difficulty of their lives and the isolation they no doubt felt at the end of Hathorn’s Point — at least during the long dark winter months — I do not feel pity for this unmarried brother who gave up fishing and stayed on as the caretaker of the farm and companion of his crippled unmarried sister. Nor do I pity Christina.

If Wyeth’s paintings teach us anything — and, indeed, they teach us much about the Olsons and their lives in this more-than-200-year-old house — it is that the human spirit is often stronger than the trials and tribulations of life that an outsider might assume will surely beat that spirit down. Like the house that was their home, the Olsons proved themselves tougher than a winter nor’easter coming in off the St. George River.

Old house atop the hill
— March roars in —
Snow and cold come and go