Unfathomable Feoffees

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Realtors, take note: when you sell a house in Ipswich to an out-of-towner, please warn them. Don’t warn them until they sign on the dotted line, of course; but after the sale is locked in, then do. Please. Warn them.

Because they’re going to find out soon enough, and I can tell you firsthand, if nobody has warned you, it’s very, very disconcerting.

You’ve fallen in love with this wonderful town, from the farms to the beaches, this delightful place with its antique houses and winding roads and a funky downtown; you’ve put up your money and put down your stakes, you’ve decided to make this your home — and then Thursday comes.

The Ipswich Chronicle arrives.

And there on page 1, you encounter the truth, for the very first time.

Ipswich has Feoffees.

The first time you see the word, you don’t even know how to pronounce it silently, in your head.

How do you say Feoffee? Is it Fifi? Like a French poodle?

You stand there in your kitchen, the rest of the mail unopened, as you puzzle over the newspaper headline. Who, or what, are they, these fee-OH-fees (rhymes with three trophies)?

Or is it fee-OFF-ee — rhymes with free coffee?

It can’t be a typo, can it? In a big headline? No. Somebody actually meant to print a story about something called FAYA-feez. (Rhymes with pay your fees. Wait — still wrong?)

Finally you cave in and get a dictionary.

Your hands may tremble a bit as you approach the letter F, as the reality of your situation begins to sink in: I live in Ipswich now, and Ipswich has Feoffees.

Is it a disease?

An infestation of some kind?

Is there an antidote?

A vaccine for my children?

The dictionary turns out to be small comfort. Sure, you learn how to say it: Feoffee rhymes with Jeffy or Stephie. But your relief at learning to pronounce it is more than overwhelmed by the definition of the word.

A “feoffee” is someone who has been granted a fief.

You start to sweat.

We have fiefs? Here in Ipswich?

You’re frantically looking for your realtor’s number. When you get her on the line, you’re going to scream at her: Is my new house in somebody’s fief?

Of course, eventually, you settle down. You read the article, you get some context, you realize that your neighbors out on the Neck have been living with the Feoffee thing for some time. Three-and-a-half centuries, in fact. You breathe a bit easier. You might even go to a Town Meeting, where perhaps you can see an actual live Feoffee, in the wild, without bars or walls.

Over the course of your first several months as an Ipswich resident, you learn to avoid conflict by not speaking this strange old word. In my neighborhood, I do not say the word feoffee at the school bus stop in the morning; it’s too early in the day for combat. I do not utter this term at my wife’s place of business downtown; customers dash for the doors. I shun these two syllables in polite conversation at the Y; feoffee-talk can turn a stroll on the treadmill into a coronary tragedy.

I’m OK with it now, having lived here awhile. I get it. It’s one of our distinctives. Topsfield has a fair. We have … you know.

But realtors, please: you’re on the front lines. Do a good deed. Warn the newcomers. Warn them, and assure them.

Yes, Ipswich has Feoffees. But hardly anybody dies from it.

 

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