In 1980 a woman named Madeline Blakeley called me to ask me to look at a piece of land with her. She was a librarian in her early sixties whose husband had recently died. They had no children and had always lived in rented apartments. Her dream was to own a piece of property.
She had $7,000 in cash. A realtor showed her a lot priced at exactly that, but all her friends advised her against buying it. The property sloped steeply south to a beautiful little valley, a perfectly matched solar exposure and view. But it was right beside the main road from Vineyard Haven to Edgartown, which was very loud and loomed over the property. Except for that proximity and the fact that the whole lot was a hillside, it was a lovely site. There was nothing else on Martha’s Vineyard within her price range.
I suggested that we could cut and fill and she could build an earth-bermed, partially underground house. “The southern orientation aims away from the road just enough, and the berming would dull the noise as long as the house doesn’t open to that side. We can design the traffic right out of the picture.” She was excited. Even though she didn’t imagine that she could afford to build anything at all, the idea that the land could eventually be sensibly used was appealing. She bought the property.
We learned that the Farmer’s Home Administration had a rural housing program with very low interest loans for low and moderate income people. She qualified. Would they finance a passive solar earth-integrated house for Madeline? We completed plans, submitted them to Farmer’s Home and requested that they raise the mortgage limit from $40,000 to $48,000 due to the promise of carefully analyzed and documented energy savings. After extensive bureaucratic wrangling the increase was approved.
The house was built. Madeline’s dream was realized. She and her dog moved in and lived there for many years.
In the mid 90’s she met an older man named Edwin Heath, re-married, and reluctantly moved to Florida, where he was accustomed to the gentle climate. With a heavy heart Madeline sold the house, but she always stayed in touch with the buyer, a woman named Tillie, because the house was such a part of her. Tillie loved it too. Madeline was glad of that.
I lost track of Madeline after her move, but when my book, The Company We Keep, was published, I tracked her down and sent her a copy with an affectionate inscription. She wrote back – a wonderful letter in longhand about what that house had meant to her.
A few years ago Madeline’s husband died, and she, quite old now too, and somewhat ill, had one dream left – to move back to the Vineyard for the final years of her life. But there was little hope of that. Undaunted, she put her name on the long list of people waiting for housing through Island Elderly Housing. Miraculously, her name was drawn a short time after. She accepted the apartment offered, sight unseen, packed up, and made the trek.
Twenty six years after I first met Madeline, she called me and said she was settled in on the island and wanted to come to see our new shop and office, and the cohousing neighborhood next door where we live. Her neighbor Joyce would bring her. We arranged a time. They drove up to the office. Once inside she stopped, looked around, and sighed deeply. “My god it’s beautiful,” she said. She walked into the main office, with a look of wonder on her face as if she had just entered a botanical garden in full bloom – touching everything, gazing around, taking it all in.
She looked older, of course, but not so much. More wrinkled, and smaller – compacted in a way. She moved more slowly, too, with the help of a mahogany cane. But the eyes and the voice had not changed at all. And her character – observant, candid, emotional, expressive, and vital – was the same as always.
Everyone in the office was drawn to her. Her presence was magnetic. She strolled through like an old master, pointing out things of interest, but humbly, not grandly. She was awed by everything she saw and everyone she met.
After touring, we sat down in my office to rest, to talk, to have a glass of water. She said, “John, I don’t know if I’ve ever told you this, but you and the others didn’t just build me a house. It was so much more. I found myself in that house. I loved everything about it, and everything about being there, and every day I lived there I found myself again, in some other way, and found something else in the house to bring me pleasure.” That’s what she said.
• • • •
Last week I got a call from a lawyer. It said that I was a legatee in a Will. I had never heard the word. I looked it up – it is, of course, a beneficiary. Hey, not bad – I guess you never know what you’ll find when you open an envelope from a lawyer. Sometimes it’s something unexpected. Sometimes it’s actually something you want.
He e-mailed me the Will. It was Madeline’s.
Here’s what it said, in part:
Second: I give and bequeath the following sums to the following individuals for the specified purposes:
A: Fifty Thousand Dollars ($50,000.00) to JOHN ABRAMS (or his designee) to be used in conjunction with the South Mountain Company, Inc. for the purpose of making an innovative and educational renewable energy installation at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School or another appropriate public setting on Martha’s Vineyard. Said sum shall also be used to erect a brass plaque engraved to reflect this bequest came from Edward Charles Heath and Madeline Blakely Heath, with specific wording to be determined by JOHN ABRAMS, such plaque to include a bas relief of my solar house design.
That was followed by B, C, D, and E – four bequests of $2-3,000 to friends. And then this:
Third: I give and bequeath all the rest, residue and remainder of my estate to said JOHN ABRAMS (or his designee) to be used for affordable housing initiatives on the island of Martha’s Vineyard.
We’re not sure what to do with the $50,000 yet. But one of my partners – Phil Forest – has us thinking about making the first electric charging station on the Vineyard, way up in Aquinnah at the extreme western tip of the island. It would be solar electric powered and provide electricity for cars, chilled water for cyclists and hikers, and a shady and welcoming oasis for these several kinds of travelers.
She’d like that.
Whatever we do, it better be good if it’s to measure up to her spirit. And it will have, of course, a bronze plaque with a bas-relief of Madeline’s beautiful little solar house. Maybe the rest of the words will be, “She loved her solar home, where she found her self – again and again.”
And I don’t know how much will be left to support our affordable housing efforts. But I wouldn’t mind using it –if there’s enough – to build a replica of her sweet little house for a young island family who needs stable housing. Community preservation in Madeline’s memory. She would like that too.
John, What a great great story. Thanks for sharing.
Legacy? Yup. You’ve got that covered.
Mike (in Burlington… would love to see you up here some time!)
Thanks to all four of you for your soulful comments.
This From Richard Toole:
Hi John, I remember Madeline’s house from one of the Energy Resource group’s Solar Home Tours and I can still picture her enthusiastic face excitingly showing off her house. You and South Mountain Co. have had great success building sustainable buildings and creating many happy homeowners. It is great to see that appreciation come back to benefit the community.I am so glad you shared that story. We can always use some positive feed back especially now. Richard
This From Ben Brungraber:
I owe you one. This made me cry.
This From Ellen Espstein:
This blog entry made me cry. It’s such a wonderful story. But beyond that, Madeline’s words describe so eloquently how I feel about my own South Mountain house, and have been struggling for way to express. Truly, truly, I find myself in this house. I love everything about it, and everything about being here, and every day I’m here, I find myself again, in some other way, and find something else in the house to bring me pleasure. That’s it exactly.
I think Madeline would be very pleased with the electric charging station idea. I know I would be!
I’ve read this wonderful story twice now. The first time I thought: if I didn’t know better, I might think you make some of this stuff up. But I know better, and I nearly wept. So touching.
The second time I read it I thought: on my next trip to the Vineyard, I’d really like to see Madeline’s earth-bermed home, and, if I’m not too early, the electric charging station (that may be) created in her memory.
What a legacy. Thanks for another affirming post.
This from Connie Williams:
I still remember our trip to see Madeline’s house. Of course we met Madeline. I thought her house was the most magical dwelling I had ever seen or imagined–except for my vision of where Hobbits and such creatures lived.
I think we saw her house in 1986 or 7. What a legacy she has left. To do such a wonderful thing for the Vineyard ( and to honor you) is a perfect ending—actually not an ending–such unselfish gifts keep on giving.
My eyes are misty. Thanks for sharing this wonderful story. – Connie
I just read your post and all of the comments. Truly this gets to the core, the true meaning in life. A house is tangible, so concrete. A home is the intangible part. So wonderful when they perfectly integrate. And of course that’s when we find ourselves. It’s always such a relief. I am grateful for your way with words and your choices of what to share. We are all better for it.