Tag Archives: memories

Pet cemetery. No horror.

 

Gypsy entered our lives in the early 1970s, showing up in the backyard with a waddle in her walk and a defiant look in her yellow eyes. We voted on what to name her, with my father scrawling Owl on the paper I passed out to him, and it wasn’t inappropriate, given that steady, appraising gaze, but Gypsy prevailed – fitting for the tortoiseshell cat who roamed into the yard carrying nothing but her prenatal baggage, clearly the reason someone had dumped her on the road next to our house.

The kittens came a few weeks later, five of them, two orange, two black, and one multi-colored like her mother. Andi and I named them: OJ and Pumpkin, for obvious reasons, JT and Panda for the tuxedo-clad urchins and Crackers for the tortoiseshell. They would be only the first in a feline clan that would multiply exponentially over the next few years.

She wasn’t our first cat. We’d had many over the years, including Smoky, who can be seen in my first birthday photos, swishing a tail away from my clumsy baby fists. His name had something to do with the floor furnace in our first house and a singed tail. Then came Jimmy Durante, a rather ugly looking white cat whose appearance degenerated when he contracted a mouth tumor. We were in the Shannock house by then, and my father called Ray Richards, the police chief, who pulled out his service revolver and smoked a hole in Jimmy Durante’s peach-pit-sized head.

I don’t know who named him after the Cyrano de Bergerac of vaudeville, but Blackjack got his name from Andi, a reference to Jackie Kennedy Onassis’s father, John V. “Black Jack” Bouvier, a socialite and rake so called because of his perpetual tan. Andi was fascinated with celebrities and kept a scrapbook of Marilyn Monroe, Jackie O, and Natalie Wood, who she claimed I resembled. In the era before Wikipedia, she had a deep knowledge of the most arcane cultural references, gathered from reading Photoplay magazine and movie-star biographies.

In a similar way she came up with an outrageous name for the deformed little kitten who showed up at my grandmother’s house in Tug Hollow one day. This little girl also had been dumped and had spent some time in the wild. One eye was crusted over and infected, and she walked with a hitch in her gait, as though she’d never recovered from a kick. We took her in, of course, and as she bumped into table legs and walls we realized she was at least partially blind.

In a moment of perversity, Andi named her Nadia Comaneci, after the graceful athletic powerhouse from Romania dominating the Olympics that summer of 1976. “Nadia” stuck, but the kitten lived only a year or two before succumbing to her various handicaps.

When it came to pet naming, I had neither the imagination nor the sly humor of my sister. When my sister Mary Jane produced a white rabbit for me one Easter, I promptly named her Mary. I had also named my favorite teddy bear after my glamorous older sister.

Grown up, I would have many felines of my own – Swifty, named by someone else; Perry, a name put to a later and much more important use; Gloria, for the 1985 hurricane; and, perhaps the finest of all, Dauber, who came with that awkward name from the animal shelter, where he stuck his head out of a cage and demanded to be rescued.

My mother, after years of Andi’s wicked humor, rebelled after we left home by naming every cat she ever had Kitty. Going to the vet and having to explain that Kitty was the particular, not the general, name grew tiresome, but my mother would not budge. When she passed away we took in the last Kitty and renamed her Misty, but it never stuck; my mother was right, she was Kitty, and now at the vet I would have to rack my brain for the name I’d told them was hers but never used.

Our late cats reside now in eternal rest in the northwest corner of the Shannock property, in a cemetery my father created under the pines, without the frightening connotations of a Stephen King novel. Each one grew into its name and left behind an indelible impression, and if I close my eyes I can remember their particular faces, their warm fur, and their stubborn determination to survive.

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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 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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