Beguiling but idle speculation on Miss Van Aernam

To the Editor:

There’s a woman on my mind and I cannot rest until I put on paper my thoughts about her.

You will recognize me as the old man who walks his Siberian Husky, “Shadow,” every day along Brandle Road and who waves to you as you pass.

We’ve made this walk every day for almost six years.  Shadow has my everlasting gratitude for forcing me to accomplish this exercise during the months that I otherwise would have remained sedentary.

And make no mistake, he walks me, not vice versa. (Sometimes he fancies that I am a dogsled.)

Often, we pass the ruins of a small house on the south side of the railroad tracks.   Though it is no more than 150 feet from the tracks, and a scant 30 feet from the road, it is easy to pass without notice as it is surrounded by mature trees that have grown up at the foundation line.  

That foundation, no more than 20 feet square, is all that remains of what was no doubt a well kept little house in times long gone by.

There’s a forlornness about such ruins that implores one to stop and take notice.    The sentimental mind will figuratively clear away the overgrowth and mentally rebuild the house to gain some idea of what sort of face it once presented to the world.   

The romantic mind (and I am without blush an incurable romantic) will speculate on its history, the people who lived there, and the events it witnessed.

I have known about these ruins since I was a child but, until recently, didn’t give them much thought.  The catalyst that kindled my interest came in the form of an old map that reached me by e-mail.

The Beers Map of 1866 clearly shows the little house as being the domicile of “Miss Van Aernam.”  My guess is that the house was built before the railroad came through during the Civil War. I can’t imagine someone wanting to build so close to the tracks

Who was this Miss Van Aernam?  Following the patriarchal convention of the era, she was not dignified with a Christian name by the mapmakers. There can be little doubt that she was what the age referred to as an “old maid.”   The small square footage of the house leads me to speculate that it was built just for her.

What was her story?  Did she remain alone, never to enjoy the “connubial bliss” of marriage by choice or by necessity?   What were her thoughts and dreams?

Did she gather strawberries in June beneath the Helderbergs with her friends, and partake in quilting bees during the winter months?   Was she a favorite with her nieces and nephews?

I can picture her reading the latest works of Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, and Wilkie Collins by the light of a kerosene lamp.   No doubt she awaited news from the front during the Civil War.

Perhaps she was treated by my ancestor, Dr. Frederick Crounse, and had tea with the family of my great-great-grandfather, Peter Crounse, in the house in which I now live, a quarter mile down the road.

Did the train engineers hail her as they passed by?   Did they considerately mute the steam-engine whistles when they crossed here at night?   

All this, of course, is beguiling but idle speculation. It is unlikely that I shall ever have a confirmation of these fanciful constructions, and perhaps it is fitting that I should not.

It is to be hoped that her abiding spirit meets with equanimity these probing questions from the 21st Century, a time decidedly less modest and chaste than the period of her existence. 

I have no doubt that she rests in the tiny Van Aernam graveyard just a stone’s throw from the site of her house, now graced with a blanket of the whitest snow.

I shall think of her when I pass by at all times of the year, from the dandelions of spring and the chicory blue of summer, through the blazing fiery colors of the mountains and the grace of winter’s snow.

Rest in peace, Miss Van Aernam.

Frederick Crounse
Guilderland

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