Rita ‘Toni’ Pease Has ‘Kept at It’
Jerry and Rita “Toni” Pease at their home in Orford. She has written two self-published books. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
Rita "Toni” Pease of Orford has written a book about her reaction to the 9/11 attacks and another about maple sugaring. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
Rita "Toni" Pease sits with her husband Jerry at their home. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
Rita Pease, author of Maple Sugaring and Me: 150 Years of the Pease Family Maple Sugaring in New Hampshire, grew up in Exeter, N.H., the middle of three children, with an older sister and younger brother. Her given name was Rita Antoinette O’Brien, which posed difficulties when she had to write it out in grade school. Rita was easy enough; so was O’Brien. Antoinette was another matter. “Try spelling that in first grade!” said Pease.
There was another issue, of which she and her family were unaware. She’d been born with Meniere’s disease, a chronic disorder of the inner ear which affects hearing and balance. Its symptoms are numerous, but the most common ones are debilitating vertigo, hearing loss and such flu-like symptoms as chills, nausea and vomiting.
Until she was diagnosed and treated for the disease, which didn’t happen until she was 50, Pease never realized that she was deaf in her left ear, and she didn’t understand why, as she got older, she suffered dizzy spells so intense that it felt like, she said, “you gotta hang onto something or else you’ll feel like you’re going to fly off somewhere.”
Because the disease affects brain and ear function, Pease, now 73, had some early difficulties in school and was, she said, labeled dumb, both by some classmates and by some in her family. But then, “in 6th grade I decided to go in the front seat at school and study harder.” And she thought about what a nun in her Catholic school had told her: “Life isn’t meant to be easy.”
“I follow that in my mind and try to do the best I can,” said Pease, who lives in a bright teal-colored house in Orford with her husband of 40 years, Gerald Pease. He goes by Jerry, while she likes to be called Toni. “If I wanted to succeed or be respected or be counted as one of the family I had to keep at it,” she said.
Pease began writing in earnest when she joined a writers’ group about four years ago in Plymouth, N.H., then led by Roland Bixby, a retired teacher. This led to her publishing her first book, We Survived 9-11-2001, an account of how she and Jerry happened to be in New York that day, on the last leg of a train trip back home from visiting family in Colorado. It won a first prize in a competition held by the writers’ group.
Pease has a tangle of curly gray hair and a round doll-like face with bright eyes, although her left eye droops a little as a result of Meniere’s. She is loquacious and expressive, rolling her eyes, scrunching up her features when she’s talking, leavening her conversation with significant pauses or sighs to indicate subjects it’s best not to dwell on.
She sits at a small table near the kitchen window that looks out onto some of their land. The property dates back to 1866, when a man named Luther Sherburne, Jerry Pease’s great-grandfather, bought 110 acres and started farming and sugaring.
Has Jerry Pease lived here all his life? “No, not yet, but I want to,” he said, smiling. He likes to crack jokes, and there’s the suggestion of a perpetual wink of his eye. “I’ve lived in four different houses in my life and have gone nearly 1/4 of a mile,” he said.
Toni Pease got the idea to write about sugaring when, as a member of the New Hampshire Association of Maple Producers, she participated in a New Hampshire program called “Ag in the Classroom.” Someone, she doesn’t remember who, suggested she do a book about it, and the more she thought about it the more she liked the idea, although she’d already been mulling over writing something on the subject.
She and Jerry and their nine children (his five from a previous marriage, her four from a previous marriage) had been sugaring since their marriage in 1972, and it had helped to bond them together as a family. She also noticed that tourists who stopped by their sugar house “didn’t know how maple sugar was done. One of the reasons (she did the book) is to educate people about maple syrup. So I decided if I write a book about maple syrup I should tell it all.”
Most important, she said, “it shows them that it can be a nice family project.” You can see the most recent sugar house, built by Jerry Pease in 1980, across the road, and the old Pease farm is beyond that. The Peases pride themselves on sticking to the tried-and-true methods. They still use a wood-fired arch, and they still use buckets rather than the tubing that runs the sap down to the big holding tanks you see in some sugar maple stands. “I tell people you can put maple sugar in anything,” Jerry Pease said.
He grew up on maple sugar as a household staple. His grandmother, he said, could remember the first white sugar she ever saw, it was that unusual. Toni Pease brings to the table a mason jar of maple sugar granules that come from cooking down the sap way past the point of syrup and way past the point of candy. They look like large grains of sand and have the distinct maple flavor.
In a way, sugaring brought the two together. When they first met at a summer square dance in Dorchester, Toni Pease said, “(Jerry) said you have to come up north to see how we do sugaring.” She was, after all, from near the seacoast and unschooled in the ways of the woods. She and a couple of friends had gone camping in Dorchester, bringing their respective kids with them: Toni’s four and the couple’s four. For fun one evening they went over to the square dance, which was being called by Jerry’s father, Glenn Pease.
Jerry asked her to dance a number of times. She wasn’t that eager at first but her friends told her, why not? You’ll never see that guy again. In fact, they used earthier language to describe him but she took their advice. And Jerry was nothing if not persistent, staying by her side the entire evening. When her friends asked him to come back to the camper for a drink, he accepted. Toni wasn’t too happy about it but she comforted herself with thinking that as soon as he saw the eight kids in the camper, “that’ll fix that.”
Only it didn’t. “She had a spell on me, I guess,” Jerry Pease said. “She was just a down-to-earth person, someone I could sit down and talk with, and she seemed to have the same interests I did, even if she was a city girl.”
Early in their courtship, Jerry took Toni up into the woods with the family to show her how sugaring was done. They used a team of big horses to pull the sap tank. “All I know is dogs and cats,” Toni Pease said. She made kissing noises at the horses, not knowing, she said, “that that was a sound to make horses go.” The horses took off, pulling the wagon behind them and leaving the Pease men fuming and cursing.
“They ain’t supposed to be going, they’re supposed to be waiting,” Jerry Pease said.
“I ain’t talking, I ain’t telling,” Toni Pease said. “Six years later I dared to tell them, Remember that day?”
A good year, Jerry Pease said, would be 175 gallons of syrup; an exceptional year, such as the one they had in 1995, would produce about 225 gallons. Last year they managed to eke out only 70 gallons. The weather was too warm. What counts, he said, isn’t the weather before sugaring season but the weather during: cold nights and daytime temperatures in the 40s.
“When the wind is in the west, the sap runs the best,” he said, quoting an old saw.
They now have 14 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. “He keeps count, I gave up on the count,” Rita Pease said. And they all participate in the sugaring, one way or another. “If you see our family they’re all working together,” she said.
Rita Pease will give a reading from her book on Feb. 21 at 7 p.m. at the Orford Social Library.
Nicola Smith can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3211.