Cover image for The widow down by the brook : a memoir of a time gone by
The widow down by the brook : a memoir of a time gone by
MacNeill, Mary, 1905-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Scribner, [1999]

Physical Description:
204 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
F104.C2 M33 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



An inspirational and charming memoir--stowed away untouched for 45 years--about the death of the author's husband, the home he insists on building her before he dies, and her transformation into an independent woman along the way. 33 photos.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

In the early 1950s, MacNeill and her husband, Wilmot, moved to rural Connecticut. After developing cancer, he spent his waning time and strength on remodeling a barn for them to live in. Wilmot dies halfway through the book, which was constructed from the notes and letters that Mary, a librarian, writer, and editor, had kept. Wilmot was focused on keeping Mary strong and independent in the kind of gruff, taciturn way we might associate with men of the 1950s. Mary, clear-eyed and strong, managed submissiveness and courage in equal measure. Her descriptions of the beauty and terrors of the country are plainspoken but lucid. She is never sentimental but is occasionally cliched. What really strikes the reader, however, is how very different the emotional tone was nearly 50 years ago. Mary is only 44 when her husband dies but sounds--and views herself--as much older by today's standards. Readers will delight in finding that she did marry again and that, at 93, she still lives on her own. --GraceAnne A. DeCandido

Publisher's Weekly Review

This plainspoken, nostalgic portrait of rural New England life was written in 1952, when the author was in her mid-40s, the mother of two grown sons and recovering from the recent death of her husband, Wilmot, from prostate cancer. At the urging of a friend, MacNeill, who is a librarian and journalist, wrote this account of the strange and difficult year when Wilmot grew weaker and finally passed away. With only months to live, he insisted on moving from their home in Hartford and buying a ramshackle barn in Canton Center, Conn., so that he could realize his lifelong dream of owning a house in the country. He justified this purchase as security for his wife after he died. For the next three months, until he was hospitalized, Wilmot and Mary spent every spare moment in the backbreaking labor needed to make the unheated barn livable. MacNeill's episodic prose details her husband's growing reliance on pain medication, which enabled him to continue his hard work. After his death, she accepted her grief and loneliness, intensified by the remote location of her home, with the same stoicism she showed when faced with the physical exertion involved in the restoration. MacNeill vividly describes how she gradually built a new life as the town librarian and became a part of the community. Clearly a woman who always made the best of everything, MacNeill went on to endure an on-again, off-again love relationship with a bachelor friend who still lived with his mother. They eventually married and lived together until his death 24 years later. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Put away since it was written in 1952, this time-capsule memoir recounts MacNeill's husband Wilmot's illness and eventual death and her coming to terms with being a woman alone. Dying of prostate cancer, Wilmot conceived the somewhat lunatic idea that they should build a house in the Connecticut countryside, where MacNeill could learn to take care of herself after he died. She went along with his wish without question or rancor; we are not in the 1990s here. Much of the narrative is taken up with their demented but passionate project, which against all oddsÄlike the story itselfÄpretty much works. MacNeill, a grandniece of Robert Louis Stevenson, has written articles and books on real estate and edited a regional magazine. During the time recounted in the memoir, she was working as a librarian, and her anecdotes about library patrons are timeless.ÄMary Paumier Jones, Westminster P.L., CO (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter Five Another Monday. Another day off at the library. The temperature was still in the nineties, and I was back at my job in the woodpile. As I picked up the pieces and tossed them through the coach house window, a large, black snake with a white belly slithered out from the side of the pile. Too tired and warm to bother running from it, I threw a piece of wood at it. It reared up, hissed defiance and disappeared into its nest. "Stay there, you slimy thing, and don't bother me." Wilmot overheard the one-sided conversation and came quickly to my side. "What's the matter, getting hysterical or something?" "There's a big, black snake here. It went back in the corner." He picked up his old straw hat and passed it to me. "Put this on your head; you've been out in the sun too long." "You don't believe me." "It isn't a question of belief. Some people are affected by long exposure to the sun. Sit down awhile." While I was having my little rest, Wilmot dug through another pile of rubbish. He unearthed an old bedspring made of wooden laths. He wiped off the dirt and put some feedbags on it. Then he went out to the car and got the two old blankets he used to keep the tools from rattling and spread them on top of the bags. He carefully moved his "bed" to the side of the room, lit his pipe and reclined. The day passed without further incidents, and we were pleased with ourselves, the world and, most of all, with the transformation taking place around us. Tuesday's lunch hour was spent buying assorted tools at the nearby Sears & Roebuck, a most unusual deviation from the routine of resting and relaxing on the cathedral patio. It is definitely good for one's soul to devote a few minutes each day to contemplation, in or out of church. For different people, there are different places and different ways to achieve such an end. A short poem by a friend seems to support that viewpoint. I like to watch the shadows cast A net of dusk along the sea, And hear the small waves trolling prayers Upon their pebbled rosary. My church is then a sandy cove Its lofty dome the sky And for an altar I accept The proud moon riding high. The hot weather persisted, but it did not interfere with Wilmot's daily work at the barn. When he stayed until late afternoon, he picked me up at six o'clock. He loved to discuss in detail the progress he was making. Hard as I worked, there wasn't the slightest doubt that he was working harder, and I realized fully that he was doing it all for me. When he finished telling me about his work, he would ask, "How did it go in the library today?" I would tell him about the different customers. They were getting more difficult in the hot weather, and more impatient. No one wanted to wait to be checked out. They would start to walk out with the books under their arms, saying, "Put it on my card." The library was humid, with only the electric fans stirring up the hot air. One woman asked for a book with inter in the title. She said, "I know it isn't intercourse, but I do know that it has inter in it." I took a copy of Intermission, a story about the theater, off the shelf and checked it out for her. Another woman asked for the new mystery by Churchill. She said, "I know I didn't see any other mysteries by him. He must be a new writer." I had to think on that one. Then I passed her a copy of Sir Winston Churchill's new book, Hinge of Fate. She returned it the next day, saying, "That ain't a mystery." It was hard to keep a straight face, especially in these cases, like the woman who asked for a good, spicy book called I Took It Lying Down. I did tell her the difference. I said, "Mrs. Jones, that is not a spicy book, it is the story of a girl in a TB sanatorium." "I thought it was something for my husband." She smiled. All the chatter about customers kept him laughing, and we would be home in a short time, get supper and help him relax. Sunday, July 22. My birthday. A minimum of housecleaning had to be done before we took off for the woods. Wilmot hadn't the vaguest appreciation of that fact as he rushed around fussing, tutting, shaking his head, mumbling. "What in the hell keeps a woman so long?" Finally, the car was loaded and we were driving out Route 44 in Hartford, when I remembered something. "Did you bring the aluminum pot to boil water for our tea?" "No," he replied without hesitation. "Let's go back and get it." "We won't go back for anything. You already spent half the day getting ready." We drove for miles in silence. Then, as we turned up West Road, he stopped by a dairy farm, looked out the car window and exclaimed, "Did you ever see anything so beautiful?" The cows grazed placidly in the pasture. The birds circled against the clear, blue sky. The roadside was covered with wildflowers in full bloom. It was beautiful. Then the scene changed abruptly as the barn came into view. There was more assorted rubbish outside, giving towering evidence of the progress he had made during this week. It looked a lot different inside, almost skeletal. The entire floor had been ripped up. He had a fellow come and chop up the concrete floor and toss all that outside, while he had pulled up the wooden part of the flooring. He took my hand as we walked cautiously on the twelve-inch beams spanning the cellar hole. A serious injury or broken bones would be the consequence of a single misstep; a fall to the cellar would be seven feet. The rest of the building had a crawl space of two feet. It was then that I began to appreciate the full magnitude of our undertaking, the enormous amount of backbreaking, costly labor that lay between us and the day the house would be finished. Was it fortitude or stubbornness that gave him the will to continue? At any rate, he devoted little time to reverie. He was already pulling three- and four-inch nails from the salvaged boards. For a few minutes he seemed unaware of my meditative immobility. I stood there staring at the gaping hole in the ceiling until he demanded, with considerable asperity, "What's keeping you?" "The stairs are gone. How do I get up?" My job for the day was to clean the manure off the floor upstairs. "I have a little ladder for you." He shouldered an old ladder and carried it outside, placing it directly under one of the upstairs windows. Like a captain ordering a sailor to the lookout, he said, "Climb up there." I climbed upward with more temper than timidity, but was unable to get from the top rung in through the window. My clumsiness exasperated him. "Grab the sill and pull yourself up," he hollered and walked away unconcernedly. I renewed my efforts, trying at the same time to ignore the innumerable wasps swarming in the sun. I didn't admit that I was afraid of them. Wilmot despised cowardice as much as ineptitude. Finally, with supreme effort and some skin-scraping, I managed to half scramble, half fall inside. Using a square-edged shovel, I attacked the floor with the ferocity of a Dutch housewife, but without much success. Then I got down on my knees, wielding a putty knife and trowel. The hen manure was as hard as cement. It would take a lifetime to scrape away the twenty-six by forty-two feet of obdurate matter. I called to Wilmot and asked him to bring me some water. Obligingly, he freed a partially covered milk can from the rubbish heap, set it in the wheelbarrow and trundled up to the well. All the way back, the water slopped over him at every bump, and he was wetter and madder than a wet hen. Ill temper intensified his taciturnity. He transferred some of the water to an old bucket and carried it up the ladder. He also passed up an old broom and a bottle of barcolene. I sprinkled a large area, and the manure softened. I swept and shoveled until my hands blistered. When the water was used up, and the wet section looked like mud with little patches of wooden floor showing through, I filled the bucket with the manure, carried it over, and dumped it out the window. Unfortunately, Wilmot had picked that spot to sit on a nail barrel and have a few relaxing minutes smoking his pipe. I looked out to see what all the cursing was about. There he stood, covered from head to waist in manure. He hollered, "I've often been told I was full of shit -- and now I am." As he walked toward the brook he looked back and hollered, "Don't put any more shit in that bucket. I have to put it down the well." Before long I heard a splash. By the time I climbed down the ladder, he reappeared, hurting and swearing. "That damn turtle I stepped on looked like a rock." He changed into some dry things. Even in the ninety-degree weather, he worked fully clothed. He said clothes prevented sunburn. He took a pill, and some coffee from his thermos. He quieted down in a short time, and I climbed back upstairs. It was sweltering, and the perspiration wasps were hovering around me. These insects sting people to get the salt from their perspiration. Before long, Wilmot called, "Lunch." "Come and help me get down." "Put your arse on the edge of the window, and get down the way you got up." "The wasps and bees are all around me. I don't want to get stung." He came to the ladder and helped me down, saying, "Aren't you ever going to learn how to take care of yourself?" There was that phrase again. I realized by now that he wasn't being callous. He was just trying to make me independent. He had borrowed a bucket from the Fergusons' barn and boiled water to make the tea. In spite of the morning's tribulations, we enjoyed our lunch, although I drank only one cup of tea instead of the usual two or three. Squeamishness had inhibited my thirst. Sometimes a too vivid imagination is far from being an asset. In time I learned to accept the fact that temporary hardships give the ordinary comforts of life the appearance of luxury. Perhaps that is why Wilmot's improvised bed was so utterly satisfying whenever exhaustion and pain forced him to rest. He rarely complained. His philosophy was, Do what you can, as well as you can, but do it. He combined the unique qualities of stoic and pragmatist without sacrificing his innate kindness and his recognition of the spiritual side of life. He was in excellent humor after his rest, and he smiled as he filled the bucket from the water in the milk can and passed it to me to tote upstairs. Continuous scraping and scrubbing began to show results. Now most of the floor was clean and sweet smelling. As I needed more water, he refilled the bucket. The barcolene ate holes in my rubber gloves and my hands were smarting, but the sense of achievement was a potent anodyne. Wilmot too was making progress. The stringers were all down for the subflooring. From a stack of salvaged boards, he sawed pieces into various lengths and showed me how to nail them in place. I soon learned how to use a hammer. We toiled until dark, and then sat by the fire watching the moon etch the trees against the sky. Those precious moments of serenity and silence still enrich my storehouse of memories.