Tag Archives: 1960s

The witness tree


The Christmas tree came to us the year there was no Christmas – at least, not a Christmas anyone remembered. This fir was supposed to be high-end, and I suppose for the 1960s it was: a conical shape, like a balsam or a spruce, with lush up-curving branches. Artificial, of course, but a step above the typical tinsel-strewn or aluminum tree that resembled a retractable clothesline. It came from Grants.

For 11 months of the year that fake evergreen lived in a cardboard box in the spare room. In early December my father would haul it and the boxes of ornaments downstairs, and for hours my sister Andi and I would puzzle out how to put it together. Each wire branch was color-coded, red, yellow, blue, according to how it fit into the green wooden pole that made up its trunk. 

My mother mostly sat by and watched, and my father retreated to his sawmill in the backyard. They had grown up with real but scraggly trees that would be adorned with a few presents: an orange, hand-knit stockings, a metal toy.

After getting pricked by the spiky metal branches and removing and replacing those that seemed out of place, we would pronounce ourselves satisfied and hang the ornaments. They were glittery Shiny Brites, green and red bells, and faded balls, most from Woolworth’s. We had one strand of garland that did not quite reach to the fir’s wide bottom, and some colored lights. The bare pole could be camouflaged by bendable wire greenery; a piece of white felt was then bunched around the base to approximate snow.

My parents would never have bought themselves an artificial tree, least of all one this elaborate. It arrived in the fall of 1967 with my older sister, one of the remnants of her brief disastrous marriage. Mary Jane came home with that tree and a few wrapped presents to put under it, though that had never been our custom. My mother always waited until Christmas morning to bring out the gifts.

I don’t remember anything about that Christmas. I can’t recall one item pulled from our stockings, a set of three embroidered by my Aunt Leona, mine with my name misspelled, perhaps because she had run out of room: Mary Jane, Andrea, Betty Jean. Not one gift tag scrawled “from Santa” in my mother’s cursive. Not one pair of socks, Barbie doll, or Milton Bradley game.

I remember Christmases before and after; I can even conjure memories of the days before that holiday and days after. But Christmas itself has been vacuumed into a black hole from which it can never be retrieved. Each time I try to recall it, I know my generalities are mere inventions, the mind taking snippets from Christmases before and after and trying to knit them into a new memory of what must have happened the year I was 7. 

Of course, we had Christmas the year Mary Jane died, though 11 days before she had walked out into the night to meet two men in the Chevy Corvair that would send her to her death.

Everything went on as before. The presents she had left beneath the tree – a blue or black pocketbook for my mother is all I recall – must have been opened. Someone filled two stockings instead of three, wrote Santa’s name dutifully on the gift tags, boxed and taped and wrapped our gifts. For me, especially, they must have made an effort. For what does a child know of grief when Santa has pulled up in his sleigh and dropped off boxes swathed in red and green paper?

Yet, the memory of the day has been wiped clean. A sensitive child, I could not have been immune to the struggles of my mother, my father, and my sister Andi that Christmas morning. And so something in my mind flipped a switch and opened the black hole, extracting that day forever from the clutches of memory. Even a child knows what it can’t handle.

Each year after Mary Jane’s death, we continued to unbox the artificial tree and assemble its metal branches. It stood in the same corner of the living room, a talisman of continuity against the gaudy floral drapes and flesh-colored walls. No one suggested getting rid of it, or returning to my father’s practice of cutting down the spindliest scrub pine he could find. Like everything else in our old farmhouse, from hand-me-down furniture to faded rugs, once that tree arrived, it was assured of living out its days with us.

When my mother died, the tree was still upstairs in its over-sized box, a jumble of spiky green metal branches, though my mother had long ago stopped using it. As we cleaned out the house, I might have picked up one or two of its curving arms. Perhaps I daydreamed for a moment about that first step of laying them out on the floor, painted tip to painted tip. I might have flashed back to all those Christmases it had served us, long after its original owner had vanished into the cold December air.

But one Christmas would remain elusive, a TV screen gone black. I lifted up the box. In the triage of sentimental objects, this one was too big, too sharp, too overwhelming to stay.

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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 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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