Thanksgiving was the perfect season to be in New England, even after a death. On the weekend before Thanksgiving in 2006, I flew with family to Exeter, New Hampshire, for my Aunt Bonnie’s memorial service. Those few days basted in the love of family and the beauty of a New England autumn were as delicious as the aroma of turkey and the warmth of hot cider.
As children, we had always visited Aunt Bonnie and Uncle Jim in Exeter in the summer. Now, in the fall, Exeter, then 368 years old, was stunning. The oaks, maples, elms and birches, stripped of foliage, stood tall and proud and elegant among venerable Exeter homes built before the Declaration of Independence was signed.
On Saturday morning, we family members gathered at the Congregational Church, to which Bonnie and Jim belonged. We met with the pastor and followed her outside to inter Bonnie’s ashes in the columbarium in the shady church yard.
That church was a gem. The building has stood since 1798, but the congregation was established 160 years earlier, in 1638. Its classic, 208-year-old two-story white exterior was as fetching as a wedding cake. Its white-walled sanctuary was a beauty, too. It had no altar; instead, steps led up to a platform with a single pulpit. Candles and autumn foliage adorned the sills of its high multi-paned windows.
Early in the afternoon, we drove over to Rye Beach, that tiny sliver of New Hampshire that touches the Atlantic Ocean, and walked on the beach under pearl-gray clouds. The biting wind off the ocean whipped at us, and angry waves slammed toward us, but we slipped off our shoes and waded into that icy water just for the joy of it.
On the way back, we stopped on High Street to look at the house Bonnie and Jim bought when they moved to Exeter in the early 1950s, when Jim became treasurer of Phillips Exeter Academy, an exclusive boarding school.
Officially, it was the Samuel Tenney House, a three-story federal-style landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Built in 1800, the original house had a fireplace in every room, including the two upstairs bedchambers. Aunt Bonnie still had a candle-lit chandelier in the dining room.
The back half — and a second staircase — was added roughly 100 years later, along with a sprawling upstairs screened-in porch with bunk beds where we cousins would sleep in the summer.
History nipped at our heels all weekend. Just 95 miles south of Exeter was Plimoth-Patuxet, where the first Thanksgiving — “1621 Harvest Feast” — took place exactly 400 years ago.
Exeter was founded just 17 years later by the Rev. John Wheelwright on land where the Squamscott people farmed and fished in the summer. Wheelwright had been banished from the Puritans’ Massachusetts Bay Colony for his religious beliefs, so he headed up the Squamscott River to the falls at a place the English called “Exeter.” He and his followers built crude shelters and settled in.
Historians in Exeter say that in April 1638, the Squamscotts returned, as they did every spring, so Wheelwright negotiated with their leader, Wehanownowit, and formally established the town’s government on July 4, 1639.
Sunday morning, we worshipped inside that venerable Congregational church. We sang traditional Thanksgiving hymns like “Come Ye Thankful People, Come” and “We Gather Together.” Sunday afternoon was Aunt Bonnie’s memorial service, held at the retirement home where she and Uncle Jim moved a few years earlier.
Sunday evening, my twin sister and I wandered around Exeter. As we passed stately federalist homes with lights gleaming from inside, and dark shops around the village green, we recalled vacations here, swimming in the ocean and exploring the bucolic campus of Exeter’s academy. Now, we knew, our visits to Exeter were numbered. Uncle Jim was now 97. We returned for the last time in 2009 for his 100th birthday. He lived to be 103.
As November snuggles in, I think of that Thanksgiving-season visit to New England, when the world was curling up for the winter like a an old hound in front of a roaring fire. Those recollections of autumn and family have aged like fine wine.