Monthly Archives: May 2018

Out of the past: A 14-year-old’s look at 1965

The scrapbook is standard issue – antique white cover, broad pages, tied binding. Before scrapbooking became a hobby, with special pens and supplies and adhesives, before Pinterest and Instagram, this is where a teenage girl kept her mementos. I had one myself.

But this one has been hidden away for more than 50 years. When I pull it out of the upstairs closet, I realize – and it seems impossible, given the number of times I’ve combed through this house – I’ve never seen it before.

The year is 1965. My sister Andi is 14. This is a record of one year of her life, and of one year of cultural change.

The Beatles are on the first page.

Although she had a few of their albums, Andi was not a big Beatles fan. At least, I didn’t think she was. But at age 14, the end of Grade 7, she had yet to move on to Motown. And here are the Fab Four, George Paul John and Ringo, each holding a bouquet of flowers.

Sharing that first page are advertisements for two movies – “Dr. Zhivago” and “A Patch of Blue” – and the folk duo Peter & Gordon, appearing at the Albee Theater, wherever that was.

The scrapbook is full of movie ads. I don’t know whether she got to see any of these movies – I vaguely remember my parents taking us to the drive-in: once – but Andi was fascinated by movie stars and moviemaking. “Cat Ballou.” “Ship of Fools.”

And famous people. The queen of England smiles in a garishly retouched photo. “Jackie is 36 Today,” reads the headline on an AP story about Jackie Kennedy – a widow, but not yet Mrs. Onassis – celebrating her birthday at Hyannis Port for the first time since the assassination.

Jackie and Queen Elizabeth share space with dead relatives. “Aunt Martha Dead at 102,” reads the obituary of Martha Crandall, who really was some sort of relation to us, and who, according to the story, had been “formally recognized as Charlestown’s oldest resident about ten years ago when town officials called at her farmhouse and presented her with the Boston Post goldtop cane emblematic of the honor.”

I wonder what Aunt Martha would think to know that my Aunt Ruth, also a Crandall, is very much alive at 106.

There’s my cousin Frank, with a flat-top crew cut, who “was presented the Outstanding Achievement Award at a special assembly in Euless Junior High School recently.” Frank, who lived in Texas briefly while his father worked for Cottrell, recently released his fourth book, on global warming, at the Haversham in Westerly. The press, alas, did not cover this most recent achievement – more of a comment on the state of newspapers than on my impressive cousin.

She took care to clip out an end-of-year story, “Charlestown is Center of Newsy Events During 1965,” by the Westerly Sun’s Leo Dotolo. Among the highlights were an attempt to stop trailers from parking at the beach (“Members of the Rhode Island Beach Buggy Association were up in arms over the regulation,” Dotolo reports), angst about the future of the Naval Auxiliary Landing Field, and a drought that brought “conditions … as bad as they have been in 70 years.”

Her interest in true crime narratives is already evident here, with a picture of Lee Harvey Oswald and another AP story about two missing brothers, ages 17 and 3, on Mt. Katahdin. Their mother feared they had been kidnapped.

There are pages devoted to personal milestones. The year we lived at Watchapay, a farm on Old Mill Road, complete with snapshots. My sister Mary Jane’s wedding, with two souvenir napkins and Andi’s handwritten inscription: “Dearly Beloved … The marriage of my sister, Mary Jane, to Joseph Tennis Charland, Jr. Nov. 20, 1965.”

Andi saved Christmas cards, magazine covers, and clippings from catalogs. There’s an icy glass of Coca-Cola, women with mod bangs, pictures of horses.

As the pages mount, the news becomes more serious. The world is changing and so is my sister.

She has headed one page “THE VIETNAM CRISIS,” with clippings about bombers and missiles and mortar attacks. Photo after photo appears of men enlisting in the military or being sent to war. And these were only the ones she knew.

And there is the eerily prophetic clipping, “Youth, 18, Charged After 2-Car Crash,” about an

young man from Exeter charged with driving to endanger after striking another car and seriously injuring its occupants. The clip and the subsequent court appearance are presented without comment.

There’s a lot of real estate between that first page, of the Beatles in their mod haircuts, until those later pages filled with scared soldiers and bombing campaigns and reckless youths. The context of the time cannot be removed from the personal story chronicled here. Vietnam leached its way into everything. Andi and Mary Jane’s classmates were headed off to war, trying to avoid the draft, and feeling the pressure to live while they could. Mary Jane’s estranged husband had served a stint in the Air Force. The driver who killed her, two years later, was a Marine veteran of the war; the man who was in love with her had already served two tours of duty. When he learned of her death, he volunteered for a third mission, not caring whether he lived or died.

Is it any wonder these young women were quitting school to get married? And these young men were driving down the back roads of Chariho as though chased by the devil himself?

Andi started out the year clipping pictures of a hunky man with a pack of Pall-Malls, girls in knee-high skirts, the Four Seasons. Before the year was out, she could no longer look away from the headlines. And that’s probably why she kept this scrapbook tucked away in the eaves of an upstairs closet, between the folds of her bridesmaid’s dress and the wedding gown train of the sister who would not make it out of the decade.

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The lost shoes

 

Of course, these aren’t the original steps. The wood has rotted and been replaced a few times since 1965. But the space they occupy, the purpose they serve, and the sounds they make are all the same.

There must have been a first time I walked up those steep wood steps to the side porch and entered the house. I don’t remember it.

I do recall sitting on them one day in the hot summer of ’66, holding a new Barbie doll, a gift from my Aunt Dot. My mother thought six was a little young to own a Barbie, but she would have to pry the statuesque 9-1/2-inch figure from my hands if she thought I would give her up.

She was bubble-head Barbie, blonde, and she came with a red one-piece bathing suit and high heels. After many years of taking her head on and off, I split open her chin, so my sister christened her Cleft-Chin Barbie, which we shortened to Cleftie. It stuck.

But her facial deformity was far in the future. What immediately concerned me were those high heels.

They were white plastic, open-toed, spike-heeled slides, standard issue for Barbie at the time. And somehow I managed to drop them between the steps and porch floor.

Short of taking an ax to the steps, the shoes were beyond retrieval. So before she ever lost her smooth chin, before her hard rubber legs grew grungy, Barbie became barefoot – perpetually on tip-toe. No wonder, in my play, she would evolve into the beleaguered mother of a passel of castoff Barbies, Kens, Midges, Skippers and Scooters.

I’m sure other treasures disappeared behind the porch steps over the years. I would sit on those steps and eat my mother’s Big Boy tomatoes on a Popsicle stick like they were candy, or whole cucumbers doused in salt. We spit watermelon seeds from the top step.

On the day of my grandfather’s funeral, I stood there and announced importantly that I didn’t know why Howard – my grandmother’s longtime companion – had showed up, repeating something I’d overheard from the adults. “Uh, how’s school?” my normally quiet uncle asked.

When it rained, my father stood on the porch looking out toward the dirt driveway we shared with a  neighbor, beyond to a row of brush and the Smiths’ hay field. “Send her down, David,” he would say.

Years later, when he was in his 80s and still manning that lookout on the porch every rainy day, I asked him what he meant. I had an idea it had something to do with David and Goliath.

“I don’t know,” he confessed. “It’s just something my father used to say.”

For a while, we had an old Cleopatra couch on the side porch where I would lounge on muggy summer days, reading books that my mother said were “too old” for a sixth-grader – novels like “Marcy Grows Up” and “Fifteen,” about girls attending proms and waiting for their first kiss.

The steps took us in and out of the house. Clomp, clomp, clomp, down the porch steps; clomp, clomp, clomp, back up.

Returning home, my mother would grab the railing with one hand and, in the other, carry the pillow she sat on when she drove. Her hair would be freshly styled from a visit to a beauty parlor owned by Lois or Maxine or Brenda.

My grandmother, with her perpetual dowager’s hump, would struggle up the steep steps, balancing a sheet cake for someone’s birthday.

Those steps took us to places we shouldn’t have been going. My sister Mary Jane slipped down the porch steps one December night, and she never came back. A horn honked and my sister Andi slammed out of the house, across the porch and down the steps, to the older man waiting for her in the driveway. She came back, but with something missing from her eyes.

The stairs took me out in my Dr. Scholl’s sandals – clomp, clomp, clomp – and my platform shoes – clonk, clonk, clonk – and my Jox sneakers (without a sound). Coming home after curfew, I would slip back up them as quietly as I could, but once one child has been lost her parents will never sleep soundly again.

And all the while, those white Barbie sandals lay underneath the steps. They were there when I came home from college, and when I brought my husband-to-be home to meet my parents, and when my own boys, daredevils as they were, took turns jumping off the top step into the dirt.

So far as I know, they are still there, tiny artifacts of a childhood long gone. When the contractor rips out the steps, I wonder what he’ll say when I ask for an hour to sift in the dirt for a lost pair of Barbie doll shoes.

 

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The power of ‘Little Women’

 

I read “Little Women” for the first time at age 12. It was the Scholastic abridged edition with the pink cover – the four girls in an oval frame. A few years later I was ready for the long version.

It’s a cliché to say I identified with Jo. Of course I did. Every young girl is meant to, whether or not they dream of being a writer. It wasn’t about scribbling in the garret – it was being an independent, feisty young woman who isn’t afraid to defy authority or convention.

Although she’s not the eldest, Jo is the sisters’ leader – organizing their theatricals, boldly racing the boys, standing up to the icy Aunt March. In fact, she is more of a family leader than moralizing Marmee or their feckless father. Just as Louisa May Alcott did, Jo becomes the March wage earner, whether selling her stories or chopping off her hair.

I didn’t have a writer’s garret, although I knew what a garret was; instead, I wrote at an old waterfall vanity we’d picked up at a yard sale, sitting on a castoff piano stool. First, in tiny five-year diaries, later in five-subject notebooks I decorated with pictures of wildflowers sent by my Aunt Dot, the biology professor. From my bedroom window I could see my father’s sawmill and all of its comings and goings – trucks rumbling in with towers of logs, men tossing slabs into piles, sawdust flying through the air like snow.

I was the youngest, the Amy of the family, but I was nothing like Amy, being neither blonde nor insipidly vain. Besides, there were not four of us sisters, but three, or rather there had been. Our “Beth” already had died. Still, that part of the book came as a rude surprise, and I’m sure I cried when the fictional sister made her selfless exit – not dying so much as slinking away, afraid to be a nuisance.

Of course, my sisters had probably identified with Jo, too. Who wants to be sensible Meg, even if she does get to marry Mr. Brooke? And who would admit to being like self-centered Amy? No, Jo was the sister who had it all figured out.

Which made her fate all the more hard to accept. Not only does she not get the European trip with Aunt Carrol, she refuses the impassioned proposals of Laurie. Mr. Bhaer, the German professor horsing around with his nephews, seems like a poor substitute for the next-door neighbor we’ve expected her to marry practically from page one.

It would have made more sense for Jo to make good on her threat to become a literary old maid. Even at 12 I could sense authorial invention.

None of this ruined the book for me, however. To read “Little Women” is to enter a different world, in which a child’s powers of imagination, invention, and self-sufficiency are strong enough to confront the greatest of adult terrors. War, scarlet fever, poverty, and hunger are among the 19th-century scourges the four girls face, and they vanquish all of them in their fashion. Beth may die, but she does so bravely. And each of the girls in turn must conquer her moral failings – greed, vanity, and selfishness among them.

What is most remarkable about this is that all the problems, internal and external, are solved by the titular women. Consider the men in “Little Women”: Mr. March is missing for the first half of the book, moldering away in a Civil War hospital. Laurie’s grandfather is a crabby shadow, quickly melting in the presence of Beth’s godly goodness. Laurie, even when he marries Amy, is a perpetual boy; Mr. Bhaer is just another grandfatherly figure. The only real “man” would be Mr. Brooke, and he could hardly be said to be a paragon of dominance and authority.

It must have been reassuring to read “Little Women” that spring of sixth grade, in the drafty house where my mother fretted about money, swept up my father’s trail of sawdust, and refused to say my late sister’s name. I could take comfort that the March sisters, too, knew what it meant to dress in hand-me-downs and long for things they could not have. For a few hours, I could believe again in the type of childhood I thought I would have, where sisters trade clothes and put on plays and braid each other’s hair – and where a young girl writing at an old desk might someday make something of herself.

 

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Rhode Island born, a Vermonter at heart

For my father, Vermont beckoned.

Although he was born and raised in Richmond, he longed for the mountains and farms of northern New England. Maybe it was the long logging trips he’d taken there with his father as a young man. Maybe it was just that Rhode Island, in his eyes, was getting too built up.

Before I was born, he and my mother had put money down on a house in Putney. He secured a job at the sawmill factory at Basketville. My sister Andi’s classmates even gave her a going-away party. Alas, it was not to be.

In 1947 when they purchased their first house, the owner held the mortgage. Time passed, and they refinanced and paid off the note. Now the man’s widow refused to sign a release.

My father hired a lawyer and she quickly changed her tune – but not quick enough for the Putney deal. My parents lost their deposit.

That did not, however, slow my father down.

Real estate catalogs arrived regularly in the mail. He subscribed to the Weekly Market Bulletin, a N.H. state agricultural publication. The Yankee magazine feature “House for Sale” was dog-eared.

No vacation up north was complete without a tour of for-sale houses.

Inevitably these gems in the rough would be located far from a town, on a paved but deserted road. The house, already vacant (where had the owners gone? How desperate were they to get out?), would have an air of abandonment – tall grass outside, sour-smelling kitchens inside.

He would come close, again, to making his dream come true. There was the rambling Victorian in the far-north town of Sugar Hill, N.H., that we toured in the early 1960s. I was too young to remember much about it, but the “Sugar Hill house” would come up in conversation for years to come.

It’s quite possible that my mother put a stop to my father’s dreams. At some point, he must have realized that, no, they were not going to uproot themselves from family and friends and move north.

This reality was easier for him to accept because of a friendship he developed with a Connecticut man named Frank Clark.

Clark, a friend of a friend, had moved to a 300-acre farm in Peacham, Vt. The house was a run-down Cape Cod with a metal roof and a lightning rod. The outbuildings were falling down. The only road in was rutted dirt.

But the property had a million-dollar location on a scenic rise. At the top of the hill, covered in wild daisies on the June day I climbed it, you could see the White Mountains to the east and the Green Mountains to the west.

Like my father, Clark owned a sawmill. And so it happened that my father began making regular pilgrimages to Peacham to “work.” Sometimes the premise was that Frank needed help on his mill. Other times my father would truck back a load of logs.

The truth, which we all sort of knew, was that the trips to Vermont were his busman’s holiday. He spent the days doing what he loved – tinkering with the mill motor, drawing out logs, or sawing them into boards. At night, the men gathered around Frank’s primitive cook stove to swap stories and enjoy the cooking of Frank’s wife, Carol. Sometimes they would go into town for auctions or community suppers.

It was during one of these trips that he met an old-timer named Ben Berwick. Ben became a friend too, as evidenced by his phone number in my father’s address book. A logger himself, Berwick died long ago. But he is featured in Richard W. Brown’s new book, “The Last of the Hill Farms: Echoes of Vermont’s Past.”

I know this because my friend Alice was recently showing me the volume, a collection of photographs Brown made with a large-format camera in the 1970s, mostly in the Peacham area. I had admired Brown’s earlier book, “The Soul of Vermont,” which captures the hill country of that time.

Imagine my surprise to find within its pages Ben Berwick, with a pile of logs behind him. I almost expected my father to walk out of the page; he could be just out of the frame.

I don’t know if my father ever met the photographer. His status as an outsider probably disqualified him as a subject, although I doubt there was anyone more of a Yankee than Silas Warren Thayer.

Years later, when I was driving through Vermont to graduate school, I often thought of my father. He had just died and I missed him sorely. But I imagined his idea of heaven was an old Peacham farm, where he could pretend, for a week, that those rural hills were home.

 

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The house lives on in my mind

In 1960, my birth made our already crowded house unbearable for a family of five. My parents had bought the three-room shack on Route 2 in Charlestown when they were married in 1947. It had no indoor plumbing. My father eventually added a bathroom and two bedrooms, but even then, the only place they could find for my crib was a kitchen corner.

They explored a number of housing options. In 1961 we moved into a farmhouse on Old Mill Road in Charlestown, house-sitting for the Whitford family, whose father was in the Navy and had been transferred to Iceland. For some reason my father demurred when they offered to sell him the place for $10,000, a bargain even then.

Instead my parents bought a rambling house in Ashaway near the Connecticut line. Its owner, a bachelor named Waller Lewis, was bed-ridden, dying of a degenerative disease, and glad to be rid of the place. He left behind bookcases stuffed with gilt-edged volumes, bags of blue ribbons (from showing poultry at local fairs), and an assortment of antiques.

This was 1964. My two older sisters were in school, so my mother would cart me over to Ashaway House – as it would forever be known in family lore – while she cleaned, papered, and painted. The house needed extensive remodeling, and, my parents discovered, a new well. A neighbor’s diary that Waller left behind recounted him stopping by every day to get water.

The well was not the only problem. Behind the house, where once were fields, a subdivision was springing up. My parents had purchased only a small plot of land, and my mother didn’t like the idea of neighbors so close by.

At least, that was the story. Shortly after completing the purchase, my parents sold the house back to the bank. It seemed we were to remain in the tiny two-bedroom cottage on Route 2 for at least another year.

I don’t know when or how they found the Shannock house. A widow, Mrs. Sisson, was living in the old place alone. The selling price of $10,500 included nearly two acres where my father could set up his sawmill and my mother could plant a large garden. The location was far more rural than its address, 18 Main St., would imply.

More important, we would have four bedrooms, plenty of room for all of us. I would no longer have to sleep in a crib in the kitchen. My sisters wouldn’t have to share a room.

The house, however, had seen better days, and my parents had neither the will nor the money to do an extensive renovation. The kitchen was divided into two rooms, a sink room and a pantry. The interior needed painting, and the wallpaper borders had begun to peel. The wood floors were painted or covered in linoleum.

We had barely any furniture – my parent’s maple bedroom set, a bookcase from the Lewis house, my sisters’ bunk beds, and a Sears couch and chair in sad condition. At a used furniture store in Wood River Junction my parents purchased a green Formica table with five chairs. It would become the centerpiece of family life, where we ate supper every night at 5 o’clock sharp, blew out birthday candles, and played cut-throat games of Parcheesi, Monopoly, and Yahtzee.

They bought old bureaus and beds. In the kitchen my mother hung new cotton curtains and valances. They spread new linoleum on some of the floors.

But Mrs. Sisson’s drapes and venetian blinds stayed up on the living room windows for what would turn out to be years. My parents also left alone many of the walls, which probably hadn’t been painted in decades.

The smallest bedroom, which we dubbed the Little Room, became mine. The walls were pink with a border of matching roses. On the floor was a rug-sized square of floral linoleum. I inherited one of the bunkbeds, which seemed huge compared to my crib.

Andi, who was 14, moved into the blue room. It had a closet, but also a door that led to a frightening crawl space above the kitchen. I loved the room’s morning glory border, which Andi tried to strip off in a fit one day.

For now, the main bedroom upstairs would be Mary Jane’s. My oldest sister was 17 and busy preparing for her wedding in November, but my parents wallpapered the room for her anyway. In just months, Andi would inherit her room and I would take the blue room. When Mary Jane’s marriage collapsed two years later, she would return, a stay that also would prove to be short-lived.

But when we moved in on that June day in 1965, we felt only the optimism that accompanies any move. We did not know that the well would run dry and we would have to melt snow to wash our hair, or that a year after moving in my father would have to auction off his sawmill. We could not imagine Mary Jane’s grisly death, in a car accident just minutes from home.

Now I am the only one of them left, the sole vestige of a family of five, roaming the rooms of this old house in Shannock. The pink room is still pink and those same faded roses trail along its walls. The blue room is still blue, with just a patch of morning glories here and there. But Mary Jane’s room was painted over long ago.

In a few weeks, the house will be empty and the contractors will start work. They will tear out the plaster and peel off the linoleum. Mantels will be lifted from the kitchen, the living room, and two of the bedrooms. The wainscoting in the kitchen will be ripped away, as will the crude cupboards my father fashioned from paneling and the tile ceiling he never quite finished.

Down will come the chimney in the kitchen. One fateful afternoon, when my mother was wringing her hands during a thunderstorm, Andi announced, “Stop it. Lightning will never strike this house.” Seconds later it did, raining down bricks and plaster.

Also to go: The chair rail where my mother lined up her cobalt-blue bottles. The shelves where she kept her milk-glass vases and Pyrex bowls. The grate in the upstairs hall, which sent woodstove heat up to my bedroom, along with my parents’ hushed talk.

Maybe a mantel or two can be saved. But the rest of it will end up in the Dumpster, in piles of plaster, wood, and metal.

Years ago the house at 18 Main St. was given a new address, a new street name. One by one, its original occupants have died, until I am the only one left. My father went first, of pneumonia complicated by his cigarette habit, at 82. Then my mother, who hung on quite independently until having a heart attack at 92. Finally, in 2016, my sister Andi, dying suddenly and painfully of cancer at age 65.

Whatever life was lived on this land, I am the only one left to remember it. And, despite the losses, they are mostly happy memories. My mother bending over her garden, weeding the green beans or clipping zinnias. My father at supper, stirring his coffee and laughing at his own stories. Andi, her hair in a kerchief, lobbing a badminton birdie in my direction. Even Mary Jane, sitting at that green Formica table, smoking a cigarette and whispering confidences to my mother.

No, 18 Main St. and the lives we lived there are long gone. But the memories will remain with me as we bring this house into its next life.

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