Thursday, December 30, 2010

Idora Tucker: Christmas 1944

 This piece was written to read to the residents of Joslyn House, where many in our audience would have their own memories of this time. 

Christmas of 1944 was unique in my lifetime, and totally unlike any Christmas in my experience up to that time.  Our country was involved in WW II.  My husband was an army doctor, assigned to a troop transport, whose home port was San Francisco where I was living in order to be with him when his ship came into port from the Pacific War.  I was 23 years old, married for a few months more than three years.  My younger brother Charles, eighteen at the time, was in the Navy and stationed down the coast, close enough that he visited me fairly often.

It was common knowledge that our servicemen and women in all branches of the armed services would be a part of the invasion of Japan.  They were gradually fighting their way, island by island, toward Japan, with huge loss of men and materiel, so huge that we couldn’t bear to discuss the numbers.

The invasion of Japan was expected to be tremendous slaughter on both sides.  My husband, my brother, and my sister’s husband would all be a part of it.  That thought was always there, although we didn’t talk about it.

As Christmas approached, Charles and I realized that we would be a gathering of two.  There was no question of getting together with our family on the east coast.  The difficulties of the travel involved made that impossible.  All public transportation was needed to transport troops.  It also looked as if Ransom would be at sea. So Charles and I hunkered down to do the best we could, given our circumstances.

I am surprised that I remember so little of what we actually did to acknowledge that it was Christmas.  About all I remember is feeling rather lonely and lost, with that constant, underlying worry about what the future held.  Charles and I were accustomed to happy anticipation of Christmas.  At least, I was.  We were with our large family, often augmented by visiting relatives.  There was a large Christmas tree with gifts under the tree.  Did Charles and I have a tree in San Francisco?  I don’t remember.  We always had a feast that included extra goodies.  What did Charles and I eat?  Did I cook a nice meal?  I don’t remember that either.  Nor do I remember whether Charles bunked in for the night.  Sometimes he did, though he had to sleep on a couch not designed for sleeping, or on the floor. There was no extra lighting as that was strictly forbidden on both coasts during the war.

I was glad that Charles was there to spend Christmas with me.  It helped.  All in all, not one of the better Christmases in my memory. 


Monday, December 27, 2010

Charles Cooley: The Best Tree Ever

Christmas at the Randolph Center elementary school, 1930-something. The little red schoolhouse is now part of VTC. This piece is one of several that were read by the authors at a get-together at Joslynn House in Randolph last week.

“Tomorrow,” Mrs. Knight reminded us at the end of the school day,“you boys who are going after the tree must bring what you will need so that you will have it here when you start out. Don’t forget.”

We had been preparing for Christmas since Thanksgiving and for Herb and Bob Farnsworth, Olin Bradbury, Allen and Harrington McMurphy, Nelson Chadwick, Buddy Sawyer, Joe Lawsing and me this was one of the highlights. The rehearsals for the theatrical production that we would subject our parents to had become tedious and boring to most of us. The yearly allotment of colored paper that we called “construction paper” was nearly used up on the cutouts that we had stuck to the windows and hung from light fixtures. The week following Thanksgiving Peggy Bickford had decorated one section of the blackboard at the front of the classroom with a gorgeous rendering of a wreath drawn with colored chalk. The McMurphy boys had made arrangements with one of their neighbors to cut a tree from his woodlot for the school. What would ordinarily be considered extra curricular activity had gradually crowded out the primary tasks of elementary education by the last week before Christmas vacation. Getting the tree and setting it up for the girls to decorate would consume most of our time on the last two school days before Christmas vacation.

The next morning, when the last bell summoned us we rushed in to the classroom. Sleds were not permitted so they were left at the bottom of the steps but there were no rules covering saws, ropes and hatchets so we kept these as evidence that we hadn’t forgotten Mrs. Knight’s admonition of the day before. After the Lord’s Prayer and the salute to the flag Mrs. Knight sent the “tree detail” with a few stragglers off, reminding us that we should try to be back before noon. We set off in a noisy cavalcade down the East Bethel Road.

The McMurphy boys had done some scouting so when we got to the woods they led us to a tree that they represented as the best one for our purpose. “It’s not big enough,” Bob Farnsworth said. “Let’s look for a bigger one.” It was only fifteen feet tall and we were looking for a candidate for Rockefeller Plaza. Harrington said, “My dad said it was plenty big.” “Fathers always want to get little trees.” Joe observed. “We should look for a bigger one. We’ve got plenty of time. Mrs. Knight only said we should try to be back by noon. She didn’t say we had to.” As we looked at the tree it shrank before our eyes and the image of our classroom allowed for cumulus clouds floating below the ceiling. The discussion made a lot of sense and the weather was inviting more sylvan adventure. Herb stashed his Flexible Flyer sled near the entrance to the woodlot and we dispersed to explore.

Our activity began to stimulate our appetites after an hour of searching for the perfect tree and we began to think about what remained to be done before lunch time. Bob Farnsworth had located a tree that appeared to be a hybrid including some Sequoia heritage but it was near the back of the woodlot and the task of cutting it with the tools we had brought looked impossible even to us. We reconvened before the fifteen-foot specimen recommended by Mr. McMurphy. It was near the entrance to the woodlot and it did look well filled out and symmetric so we attacked it with a saw.

When it was down as many of us as there was room for got under it and tried to carry it. It was apparent that it was impossible to carry the tree on our shoulders as the branches tangled our feet and we couldn’t walk. We decided to drag it. Fortunately we had brought some ropes and we attached them to the trunk close to the bottom of the tree and commenced the march back up the hill to the school. Joe thought we should use the Flexible Flyer to support the bottom branches and protect them from wear and tear but after trying it out we decided it was too much trouble. The boys pulling the sled kept pulling it out from under the tree and after putting it back a few times we gave it up.

The road was nearly bare but the surface was frozen. We had good footing once we got to the road and we could take turns dragging the tree so we made pretty good time getting back to the school. But our search had consumed so much time that the other students had been reconvened following lunchtime. Our arrival with the tree rendered any semblance of order null and void.

No one had brought anything with which to fashion a stand to hold the tree upright but a reconnaissance in the basement yielded some scraps of board and a few nails. While Joe and I were looking for those the tree was ascending the stairs to the upstairs classroom. During the ascent it was noticed that the contact with the road had scraped one side of the tree down to “the bone.” “We’ll have to turn that side toward the wall,” Buddy said.

While the stand was being built and attached the cumulus clouds blew away and some skeptics began to comment that the tree was too tall. Nelson suggested that we should stand it up to see how much to cut off, if any.

After struggling with it for a few minutes Herb said, “We can’t stand it up unless we cut some of it off.” Olin grabbed a saw and took hold of the trunk of the tree a couple of feet below the top, preparing to cut off the top. “No, no Olin!” said Allen. “We have to cut it off at the bottom.”

“Then it won’t stand up.” But Herb was already prying the stand off and Olin began to see the light.

By the time we had made two reductions of the tree’s height and rebuilt the stand twice the tree was more or less upright and the worn side was rotated toward the wall so the girls could have at it. The first thing was finding enough string to guy the tree into a more vertical position. While the girls did this and started decorating, the lumberjacks ate their lunch it being nearly three o’clock. Tomorrow we would complete the decorations and come back in the evening with our parents to do what the adults referred to as “celebrating Christmas.” Poor Mrs. Knight had earned a Christmas vacation. But the most fun was getting that tree!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Merry Christmas

Yesterday a bunch of us went to Jocelyn House in Randolph for a Christmas reading and carol sing with a dozen-plus residents and staff members. One of our writers lives at Jocelyn House, which is a stone's throw from my house, and we love to go there because the atmosphere is so convivial, thanks in part to the kind and friendly staff. We were welcomed with a punchbowl and big plates of home-made cookies. A couple of friends from the River Bend chorus helped us out with the caroling, and John Jackson played Father Christmas. Charles took some pictures but I don't have them yet—the one above dates to the 1950s; it's my cousin Johnny, looking very starry-eyed, and his mother at the farmhouse in Randolph Center.

The readings were wonderful—I don't have time to post them now, because I need to finish up my Christmas shopping and visit with Ellen and Susan Reid, old friends who are stopping by this afternoon for tea.

Thank you, Jocelyn House, for a lovely party. Next: Valentine's Day.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Estelle Therrien: Television Comes to Town

In 1952, TV came to town. For four years we had tried different TV people and checked various salesmen in an attempt to receive a TV signal at our farm. Nothing! There were hills on both sides of us, so the experts kept saying we would never get TV at our house. Of course, people in the surrounding hills were able to get a signal just fine. The experts would come, see the high ground all around us, and give the same verdict: No way would the signal come through. Each time my husband would suggest that they should try putting an antenna on our garage roof, and each time they said it would be of no use, the signal could not come through. After several of the experts had pointed this "fact" out, my husband finally stood his ground and said, "Try it anyway."

Watching from the kitchen window and seeing what was going on, I decided to invite them all to come in for coffee and some fresh doughnuts. I didn't have to ask them twice. Several doughnuts and cups of coffee later, they went back to work and decided to try the garage idea, and voila! It worked! It was four o'clock and one of my favorite female singers, Kate Smith, was singing "God Bless America." The workers had warned us that if we did get a signal, we'd only get New Hampshire. My husband didn't want New Hampshire, he wanted NBC, which was coming in just fine with our antenna on our garage roof! We were delighted, but looking back, it wasn't altogether a good thing: The day the TV came was the day the family circle was broken; from then on the TV had precedence.

We were only the second family in Brookfield to get TV, so it wasn't too surprising that it acted as magnet for kids and adults, too. Our kids had chores to do after school, but the neighborhood kids who didn't live on farms came over to watch afternoon TV while our kids did their chores. Our girls had chores as well as the boys, but their household chores took less time than the boys' barn and farmyard chores. With my "the quicker you get them done, the quicker you can watch" echoing in their ears, chores were done in no time and they were free to enjoy the soaps, which at that time each lasted only fifteen minutes.

Our whole family enjoyed watching Ed Sullivan on Sunday evenings and Lawrence Welk on Saturday nights. The kids got to stay up to watch these shows, but as soon as they were over, I'd say, "Kiss your father good-night and off you go to bed." We all broke up when one night as they were trooping out Little Roland went over and, putting his arms around the TV, planted a big kiss on the announcer's face.

Thursday nights, wrestling was on, and most of the folks on our road arrived, popcorn in hand, to enjoy watching it with us. It made for quite a roomful. The schoolteacher, indicating the crowd, commented, "You're getting pushed out of your house, aren't you?" Seats were at a premium but, never at a loss for ideas, my husband created a little theater. He built a sturdy wooden platform, brought it into the house, and fastened down on it . . . three back seats reclaimed from old cars. Problem solved, comfortably and at little expense.

Sometimes I miss the old shows: Hit Parade; Have Gun, Will Travel; Dodge City (Matt Dillon): I Love Lucy, and, later, when we got more channels, Across the Fence. After a few years, our TV got a little temperamental and we had to whack it once in a while to make it behave. Ten-year-old susan, responding to the flickering TV as she had seen the adults do, gave it such a good whack that the TV light shaped like a tiger that sat on top of the TV, took flight and crashed into pieces as it landed on the floor, no great loss.

Photos: From top, Paul-W/Creative Commons; John Atherton/Creative Commons.

John Jackson: Christmas Memories

John and Cynthia Jackson.

Looking back over seventy years, I often have trouble separating Christmas stories from Thanksgiving stories, but some things stand out. One involves presents. There were many wonderful things about Christmas at the Jackson house but presents weren't one of them. In common with most of my working-class friends, it seemed like we got nothing but clothes. That's not entirely fair. There was usually a package of little metal figures, sometimes cowboys, sometimes soldiers—very useful for battles fought over the patterns on the living room rug. I say not entirely fair because I know that there were years when I got a wagon, or a bicycle and even, one year, the best and most wonderful Flexible Flyer sled in the world. But what I remember most is the clothes. After appreciating the clothes as best I could, I would go out and walk up to Bucky Bartlett's house.

George Robert Bartlett, Bucky's father, was Walden's most prominent lawyer. He was also a major figure in my father's circle of friends. I've mentioned in previous memoirs that Pop had a remarkable intelligence and a personality that made him many friends, crossing class boundaries in our small town. "Bob" as he was widely known, had built a small office building in town. It had his office on the first floor, which I remember as being wonderfully classy with an atmosphere like an English club with dark wooden Venetian blinds. In the back was a dental office for his father-in-law, Dr. Ward. Upstairs was an apartment for his executive secretary. My mother and father had a job maintaining the first floor, working many nights and weekends. During the depression, my father had occasional work serving legal papers for Bob, usually borrowing his car since we didn't have one. That sounds like he was an employee, which he was, but their relationship extended to fishing trips to the Adirondacks and the seashore. He even offered to help Pop adopt a daughter if he really wanted one.

What drew me to the Bartlett house, just a short walk away, were the wonderful presents. It seemed to me that anything Bucky wanted, he got. It not only included the most wonderful toys but even extended to an aviary in the back yard when Bucky got interested in pigeons. Not just ordinary pigeons but fancy pouters, rollers, and ones with fancy plumage. And there was the boathouse on the bank of the river. It was the only structure on the entire riverbank and it contained two canoes, the only ones I had ever seen up close. I remember a small pointed tower with a wire to a little airplane that flew in circles around the tower. Somehow you could make it speed up, slow down and even go up and down a little bit. There was always the best of assorted sports equipment. The Bartlett side lawn was the sight of vicious games of tackle football, of course with no pads or uniforms. Bucky was smart, an outstanding athlete, handsome almost to the point of prettiness, and of course the apple of his father's eye. As you can well guess, I fantasized about being Bucky instead of poor me.

Fast forward ten years or so. Because of a small difference in our ages, Bucky was one year ahead of me in school. In his senior year, he was captain of the football team and president of the student council. The night of his senior prom, he went home early feeling quite ill. It was 1945 and long before the Salk vaccine. Many people had mild cases of infantile paralysis, sometimes not even realizing they had it. Bucky's was a severe case. When I first went to see him in the hospital, he was in an iron lung. That was a large metal cylinder pressurized to help the patient breathe when his diaphragm was paralyzed. Fortunately, he recovered enough to breathe on his own, but he was in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Contrary to what you might think, it didn't completely ruin his life. He went on to graduate from law school, take over the law firm, marry, and have a family. But, as you might also guess, I stopped wishing that I were him.

Cookie Campbell: "N" Is for Noël

Idora Tucker, Cookie Campbell, and Mary Jacobs. Photo by Jack Rowell.

Sometimes we all need a good rant. Last week it was Cookie's turn. I think we all kind of appreciated the following--Christmas being the way it is. The "two books" Cookie mentions are those she is reading for the two different book groups she attends monthly, "My Kitchens" is a reference to the piece she's working on for the writers' group, and the books she's wrapping as Christmas gifts are copies of the one she wrote (My Annie).

"N" Is For Noël

No. It’s for right NOW. And now is running over. My plate is full. I’m running out of steam. I’m trying to read two books, find one for a future read, finish “M” is for My Kitchens. I must write, print and mail a Christmas note to my children and grandchildren (after I track down a few addresses). I need to wrap the books (this year’s Christmas gift) that haven’t been passed out yet, buy mailers and trudge to the post office. I’m supposed to be selling raffle tickets for the senior center - Vermont Castings gave us a gas grill as our main lure. If every member just bought one book and sold one book we’d be over the top. I’d like to decorate some but everything needs dusting or polishing before it can happen. And how much should I do? I don’t know when I’m going to Delaware or coming back, for that matter. Or exactly how I am going or coming. Three parties - Randolph House, Senior Center and NFSBank PPClub. I’ll try to beg off the Upper Valley Services one. Oh, and a special birthday party that I wouldn’t miss for the world … unless someone comes to take me south. Herb’s partner is having major surgery in a couple of days and my niece sent me a place I can Google and stop all the unwanted catalogues. I’m trying it. Hope it works. I hate to wear anything that I think I should pack for the holiday, but I hate to run around looking like a bag lady. I went to Chandler this afternoon for the Christmas concert. The first half was great. The second half was very classical and in Latin - I think. It was dark when we came out and I hadn’t thought that far ahead. Did a quick scan of the crowd and latched onto Pat, and she led me home. I’m so in the habit of going with Mary (who opted out for this one) that I forgot about my habit of “drifting.” That’s another story that Mary should tell. I haven’t done any cards. I bought them when Rite Aid had a great sale a couple of weeks ago. Very few go snail mail nowadays, but I leave one at each apartment here. And if I find a card that does not have a Christmas wish, just a holiday wish, I write one in. I do have some shopping to do. Five great grandchildren (three are biological and two were acquired) plus an eight-year-old grandson who belongs to my ex-daughter-in-law and her second husband. Annie needs things - actually she doesn’t need a thing, but she needs things to unwrap. At least she always has and I’m going on that fact. I did manage to sew Velcro on her robe this afternoon and I’ll give it to her at her ISA meeting tomorrow. Remember them? The review of last year’s accomplishments and the long and short term goals for next year? I have just turned on the printer. I don’t want to think about next year and goals. Jeannette just called from Waukesha with her granddaughter’s address and e-mail address in Ireland. Clayt’s Lizz is going hiking in Ireland and Clayt and I think it would be nice if the two met - providing the hike goes anywhere near where Meghan lives. So we need to get dates and itineraries and heaven knows what more they’ll think of. One of Jeannette’s friends came to Vermont - New Haven - for Thanksgiving and made her homesick telling her about Middlebury and Burlington and Stowe and the Trapp Family Lodge. Now that I’ve bored you to tears with this harangue I think I will print it, shut down for the night, finish the wine I poured for dinner and toddle off to bed. At least I hung up or put away all the laundry so I don’t have that to wrestle with.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Hale Street Gang Goes to the Statehouse

"Portraits in Writing" will leave Middlebury on December 18 and re-open in Montpelier on January 3. Jack Rowell's portraits will be hung in the Statehouse Cafeteria, a great place to be seen by people from all over the state. There will be a reception on January 11 at 3 p.m. IMPORTANT: You'll need a photo I.D. to get in. The audio portion will be delivered via cell phone. The handheld listening devices will accompany the show to the Chandler Gallery in Randolph, which opens on February 26.

Bonnie Fallon: Responsibility

"My mother queried my father: 
'Do you intend that your daughters
 grow up to be warriors?' 
I'll never forget his response."

Is taking responsibility a personality construct present at conception? If not, Mom and Dad got it embedded in me at an early age. Being the oldest daughter of three may have pressed the cognition. In any case, I have watched with amazement throughout my life the people who have no instinct for responsibility. Their inaction, when faced with the need for immediate decision making or effective preplanning, seems to stem from abject fear, or apathy.

One day during the winter of the fifth grade (my sisters then being first and third graders), we were walking the mile to school. Up rose, from behind a stone wall, a group of boys from my grade, pelting us with snowballs. The girls were scared.

When Dad got home from work, I told him about it. He took us outdoors even though supper was ready.

"George! Not now."

"It won't take long. They can't put up with this."

As he fashioned a target out of cardboard, he told me, "You have to meet boys on their terms and beat them at their own game."

He showed my sisters how to quickly make small, hard snowballs. He worked with me on my throwing ability. The idea was to focus my energy on efficient speed and accuracy. If my projectiles didn't get those boys in the kisser, I wasn't going to have any effect. About an hour's instruction on arm positioning and body stance to gain the most velocity was enough to have me hitting the bull's eye most of the time. The girls were so busy making snowballs for me that they hadn't time to think about their fear.

Several times mom called out, "George! Supper's getting cold." Once she queried, "Do you intend that your daughters grow up to be warriors?"

I'll never forget his response. "Yes! They need to be able to handle things."

The next day we trudged down North Road with alertness. I don't remember if I was afraid, but I was ready. Susie, the first grader, was scared. Leila was her stoic self.

"All you have to do is make me good snowballs fast," I coached.

There they were, behind their wall. We crouched down on the road side of the plowed low snowbank. The battle was on. The girls were great, and I was totally focused on blamming every one of them in the head.

Sixty years after the fact I don't know how many there were. Maybe six? It seemed like a phalanx. In fairly short order, they crept away from their wall. We were all late for school and had to stay after. Mom was furious. Dad was gleeful and congratulatory to all three of us. After all, a battle can't be fought without ammunition.

We never had any more trouble from boys. Pete Gilman and I shared leadership of our small class pack after that. How my delight that day in subduing the "enemy" jibes with my adult hatred and disgust with war in general is a mystery.

Charles Cooley: Humility

"I have always thought of myself
 as a humble person
 and sometimes I brag about it."
—Charles Cooley

Anyone who thinks that memoir-writing must be very serious business should see the Tuesday group in action. It's all I can do to maintain even a loose sort of order. (This classroom videos on our YouTube channel were all made by the Tuesday group—the Monday group meets at 8:30 am and is marginally more sober.) The following doesn't exactly qualify as memoir, which is the first thing Charles said when he read it to us last week. We didn't care; we were too busy laughing. You have to hear Charles reading this to get its full effect. Maybe one of these days I'll have time to record this and other readings. Patrick and I are opening up a little gallery and press on Merchant's Row in Randolph next year, and one of the things we want to do is record walk-ins, like StoryCorps does. Maybe Charles will assist us (he has a video camera, and we don't.) Here's his essay on humility:

It seems to me that since we can’t depend on candidates for government office to tell the truth consistently while they are campaigning we should look for indications of good character in their behavior. Contrapositively, we can reject bad behavior. Arrogance is bad behavior. I hope this is not a fleeting opinion that I formed during the Bush administration because I have in mind a solution. Modesty and humility are antidotes for arrogance. They are not quite the same thing because modesty can be cast to the four winds with your clothing, as it is in the Miss Universe competition, whereas humility doesn’t depend on your clothing.

I have always thought of myself as a humble person and I sometimes brag about it. To paraphrase Mark Twain or Max Schulmann, I conceal a great deal of intelligence and wisdom with a cloak of humility.   Maybe they put it the other way around but that’s the way I think it best describes my virtues. The evidence of my humility is overpowering. There are so many things that I might have done if I had been willing to acknowledge my potential instead of trying so hard to be the humble person that I would like to know better if I were someone else meeting me for the first time. I might have been a great warrior conquering all the bad arrogant dictators and setting their oppressed subjects free but great warriors have great enemies and few friends. They usually don’t even try to hide their arrogance.   In my formative years I intentionally behaved in such a way that I was considered stupid and lazy rather than smart and ambitious. That’s how humble I am.  My older sisters and parents tried to have me grow up to be a well organized, intelligent contributor to society but because I saw so clearly that this was not the way to be humble I successfully resisted and became what I am today much to their dismay.

If I were not such a humble person I would become a lobbyist and do what I could to promote an annual national competition to select the most humble person in the country.  The program could be modeled after the National Spelling Bee and would be called the National Humble Bee. The winner would travel around the world promoting humility in public appearances. High schools would adopt humility competition as a varsity sport and give up football as too dangerous and expensive. Universities would give scholarships to especially talented competitors in humility and form conferences to foster competition. I can even predict international competition in the Olympics. There is a great potential for a new industry to develop around such competition and I would become famous in spite of what my sisters think of me.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

About Our Anthology

Opening reception at the Vermont Folklife Center.

Yesterday I spoke for the first time with Val Perry of the Bloomingdale Writers' Connection in Florida. Val contacted me after seeing our exhibit at the Vermont Folklife Center, and we spoke for an hour; we could have spoken for another hour if I hadn't been late for a date with my sister at the Berlin Park & Ride. Anyway, Val's group has been thinking about publishing an anthology, and she had some questions for me about how we did ours. I told her that we used an online print-on-demand publisher (in our case,, and that we raised the money through and old-fashioned fund-raising. The Vermont Community Foundation and the Lamson Howell Foundation gave us a substantial portion of our funding, and the rest was donated by individuals and small businesses in the community. Donors saw great value in our project as a means of building community and preserving local and family history. To read about our Kickstarter campaign, click here.

We are selling the anthology through our local independent bookstore, Bud & Bella's, and at book-signings, workshops, and online through out blog (click on the cover image at the top of our home page and it will take you to The proceeds are helping us continue and expand our memoir-writing project. The greatest rewards are personal, though. To give you an idea, here is the beginning of a piece my mother began writing the day after the book-signing at Bud & Bella's:

The room is very crowded. A little bell sounds as the door opens and closes, opens and closes. Our audience is beginning to stand as all the chairs are taken, and some are even sitting on the floor. The room is becoming warm, even though we are seated where we get cool air from outside when the door opens and closes, opens and closes. How very rewarding. This is my first time as author-presenter-autograph signer and I couldn't imagine that there would be more than a token number of family members and close friends. Instead, we are overwhelmed, if not over-run. A small group of octogenarians are ready to read excerpts from the anthology the Hale Street Gang has recently published, our very first. I'm one of the group, one of those who will be reading. In fact, I am the first reader.
Our large audience is very appreciative. No one leaves before we have finished reading. They buy a number of copies of our anthology, The Hale Street Gang: In Cahoots; make complimentary remarks about it as they get their copies autographed; and leave me feeling happy, although exhausted after only two hours of exertion that couldn't be much less demanding.
Now that I am in my ninetieth year (I like to put it that way instead of just saying I'm 89), my participation in the Hale Street Gang is one of the most pleasurable activities in my limited repertoire of activities. Thank you, Hale Street Gang, thank you daughter Sara for providing us with the necessary leadership, thank you, Jack Rowell, for your wonderful photography and for all you have done to further this project, and thank you to many others who have contributed their help and support, including financial support. I'm inclined to think that the writers' group is running neck and neck with two other favorite activities: reading, and visiting with family and close friends (not too many at a time).
Ruth Demarest-Godfrey, Idora Tucker, Nancy Rice.

Exercise: Write a Scene

My mother in her teens.

Recently we've been working on scenes as a way of strengthening our writing. Here's one written by my mother, Idora, for her memoir entitled "Musical Memories." As the music teacher in the Randolph school system for 25 years, Miss Esther Mesh made a deep and lasting impression on my mother and countless other students. Scads of admirers turned out last month for a reception honoring Miss Mesh (now 101 and utterly charming), in whose name over $100,000 was raised for the restoration of Chandler Music Hall. She gave a 20-minute speech that had us all laughing and crying, and she didn't even use her notes. A few days later, my mother began working on a piece about the impact of music on her life, a story in which Miss Mesh plays a pivotal role. "An important aspect of my association with that gifted teacher was what I gained from participation in the chorus," my mother wrote. When she read her work-in-progress to the group last week, I suggested that she highlight some of the turning points in her narrative by turning them into scenes. A week later she read parts of it again, including this lovely passage:
"On a warm spring evening I am seated on the bleachers in a crowded auditorium.  Although it is a large space there are so many bodies in it that it is becoming a little too warm.  Several hundred boys and girls from the high schools in Vermont face the audience.  Although the audience is conversing softly, the members of the chorus are absolutely silent.  The conductor enters the auditorium and everyone in the audience rises and applauds. The members of the chorus applaud, but do not rise. There is a pause, and at the conductor’s signal the members of the chorus stand without making a sound.  We wait for the opening notes from the orchestra.  I am tempted to hold my breath, but experience has taught me that it is better to take a few deep breaths, so I do that.  This is not my first time at the annual Music Festival in Burlington, the highlight of my school year.  We have spent a large part of the year learning the music that the state chorus will perform, as well as music which our high school chorus will perform on another evening under the direction of Miss Mesh.  The magic begins.  Beautiful sound begins to wash over and around me.  A few tears escape as I open my mouth and begin to sing.  Every eye is on the director.  Every motion means something.  The pauses must be in perfect accord, the increases in volume must be absolutely right, enough but not too much. The conductor’s baton provides us with the cues we need. There’s nothing quite like it.  During my high school years I went to the Festival three times and was so impressed with it that when I delivered the salutatory address at my high school graduation I told about the Festival chorus in the essay part of the address.  I was to have only one more comparable experience during my lifetime, and that was when I was a senior in college."

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Hale Street Gang: Phase 2

In early January, I will hold a workshop for people wanting to start a memoir-writing group that meets outside Randolph village. The Greater Randolph Senior Center serves Braintree, Brookfield, and Randolph Center—in fact, most of the Hale Street Gang drive to the center from outside the village. With winter coming, it seems like a good time to do a little outreach into the more rural parts of our service area.

The photo, by the way, is of my aunt, Ruth Cooley (now Demarest-Godfrey), who drove that little Austin all over central Vermont back when she was an itinerant music teacher in the public school system.

If you've been thinking about joining a memoir-writing group and would like to participate in the January workshop, send me an email and I'll give you the details once I've established a time and place.

You do NOT have to be a senior to join, although the workshop will be designed to attract seniors. As the workshop leader, I will organize participants into small groups (5–7 people is ideal) that will continue to meet once a week for 12 consecutive weeks. There will be a small charge for the initial workshop, which will include some follow-up during the 12-week period.

Let me know if you're interested, and I'll make sure you get a follow-up email.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

October Signing at Bud & Bella's

Reading at Bud & Bella's Bookshop in Randolph, October 30, 2010. Nice turnout, with old friends and new (a bit crowded...some folks had to stand and others sat on the time we'll make better use of the space). Cookie got a balloon, several bouquets, and a bodacious birthday cake made by Cynthia Jackson. Jack took the picture.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The 10-Minute Memoir: A thank-you note

Thanks to all who attended the writing workshop at the Illsley Library in Middlebury on Friday, October 30. It was the first time I'd led a workshop of that kind, and I was buoyed by the nice turnout, the enthusiasm, and above all, the stories I heard. I want to read them all. To Penny, Maureen, Lydia, Sarah, Kirsten, Melissa, Debi, Allison, and Maya: Keep writing, please, please, please. Remember: You can start a group with 3 people, and you can write in short intervals (even just 10 to 20 minutes) and if you make it a daily habit, you'll be amazed at how much you can accomplish.

If you would like to hear about upcoming workshops, send me your email address (I forgot to bring the guest book yesterday). And if you have feedback about yesterday's workshop, I'd like to hear from you. You can email me at

Check the blog in a few days, because I'm going to begin a series of posts about the tools of memoir-writing. I'd like to make the blog more interactive, so if you have questions, use the "comments" section below.

Happy Birthday, Cookie!

Dear Cookie:
You are the salt in our soup, the sprinkles on our sundae, the "J" to our "oy," the whump that fluffs the pillow, the "X" that keeps us guessing (what will it be?). 
With love and admiration,
The Hale Street Gang

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Saturday Oct. 30: Reading @ Bud & Bella's, 3 PM

The Hale Street Gang: In Cahoots 
(215 pages, paperback, $16)
Reading and Book Signing
Saturday, October 30 @ 3 p.m.
Main St., Randolph, VT 

Yesterday I bought eight silver-metallic Sharpies at Belmain's for the reading and book signing this Saturday—one each for Mary Jacobs, Cookie Campbell, Idora Tucker, Ruth Demarest-Godfrey, Charles Cooley, Cynthia Jackson, and John Jackson. Oh yeah—and me. Now I'm delighted to say I gotta buy 2 more: D'Ann Fago and Loraine Chase will be joining us. Most of the writers will read a short excerpt from the new book. Idora has chosen the following:
"Mrs. Gifford is the widow of a well-known local physician, doctor to my family when I was growing up. In fact, he saved my life when I had a ruptured appendix, long before the days of antibiotics. However this is my very first contact with Eliza, as she is known locally, and she has come to offer me advice on how to be a good wife and helpmate to my doctor husband. . . . The room is very sparsely furnished, and we are seated on two Montgomery Ward chairs brought in from the kitchen. Under Mrs. Gifford's considerable bulk the legs of her chair are gradually spreading further and further apart . . ." 
More about the Hale Street Gang:

Estelle Therrien: Upstairs at the Brookfield Farm

With Halloween a few days away, here's something to put you in the mood: I believe this is the first piece that Estelle brought to the group when she joined us last summer. I've been saving it for the spooky season ever since.

The winter of 1943, when we moved into our farm in Brookfield, was a pretty cold one. My sister-in-law and her husband had an apartment on the second floor. One day when the men were outside cutting wood, she and I decided to check out what was upstairs in the shed and garage on the property. To our surprise we found an embalming area, sheaves of wheat, black suits with no backs to them, white shirts with no back, embalming fluid and a folding table for getting the deceased ready for burial. By the time we found four coffins, we were both pretty excited. When the menfolk returned, they were just as excited as we were. They looked at each other and started laughing; the two of us looked at them. They explained, "We have the heavy handles on the barn doors, the ones for carrying the coffins." We all laughed then. As time went by, we decided to wallpaper the bedrooms because somebody had done their homework on all the bedroom walls. We used the embalming table for preparing the paper.

By the time we found
 four coffins, 
we were both
 pretty excited.

The next summer we had some company from Massachusetts. After dinner that Sunday, my two brothers and two in-laws went to check the treasures upstairs in the shed. My mother and aunts and I were doing dishes in the sink by the window that opened onto the porch. We heard some singing and we stopped to listen. We looked out the window and there came a procession along the porch: my brother was lying in one of the coffins, covered with one of the black suit-fronts and holding an American flag. He waved the flag, keeping time with the funeral march that the four "bearers" hummed as they filed past the window. They decided to take the coffins to Brookfield Pond, to soak them overnight so they would swell and seal. The next morning they drove up to the pond. Lo and behold, the coffins had disappeared! The Old Guard had picked them up and we never saw the coffins again.

In the 1980s, someone compiled a history of Brookfield. The sudden and unwelcome appearance of four coffins in the pond was remembered—put there, no doubt, by "flatlanders." The coffin incidents kept us laughing throughout the years. The Old Guard must have remembered, too, since they included the story in their history. We never found out where the coffins went, but someone of the Old Guard must know, even yet.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Dorcas Wright: Brookfield in the Forties

Brookfield student body. Dorcas is middle row, center.

Dorcas has been writing about the Brookfield of her childhood. She moved there from Lyndonville as a youngster, and today she is writing a memoir of the little village as seen through the eyes of a deeply impressionable child. Dorcas is a member of the Hale Street Gang's Tuesday group, and yesterday she read a beautiful passage about haying with her dad—just the two of them and a horse to pull the wagon. (D'Ann said it reminded her of a Breugel painting.) I'll post that excerpt a little later. Meanwhile, here is Part III:

Vermont had some very cold, snowy winters around the early forties. Children had a wonderful time. There was hardly any traffic and the roads were usually badly plowed so they made excellent sliding. On some nights it was possible to slide from the top of Bridge Hill to East Brookfield. We had to have a truck lined up to carry kids and sleds back to the village. Sometimes we would tie a rope to the back bumper of a car and get dragged back up the hill. It certainly would never be safe to do that now.

Horses were still being used in the winter to deliver the mail. We used to rent horses to the rural carrier because there were days when it was easier to drive a horse than it was to dig out a car.

The local church provided some social events, but it was hard because there were so few young people. In the summer we looked forward to "vacation Bible school." There were summer people who added to our church population.

Mostly our recreation centered around the pond and the floating bridge. We spent a lot of time by the pond, collecting frog's eggs, fishing, and swimming whenever weather permitted. Sometimes we got a surprise dunking when it wasn't planned. Wild apple trees, probably started by cores dropped from some student's lunch, grew by the shore. As kids, we knew where every type of apples grew and remembered our favorites. Aunt Jesse had attached a raft about midway on the south side of the bridge. There was no sunscreen then and no one was aware of the effect of sun on skin cancer. We soaked up those rays by the hour.

When we got bored with just lying around, we would head for the store, where there was a soda machine where the caps would fall into a container. A kid could have great fun with a handful of soda caps. One of our games was to stand on the top rail of the bridge and toss a certain number of caps into the water, then jump in and retrieve them. The person who brought up the most caps won the game. You had to judge the timing so that you didn't jump too soon and create so many bubbles that you were unable to see the caps, or wait so long that the caps had sunk lower than you could catch many of them. The older boys liked to dive off the rail and swim under the bridge, coming up on the other side. There were always a few moments when we all held our breath waiting for them to surface. They always told stories about how many scary things they encountered under the bridge, such as long tangled weeds, hanging chains and a skeleton or two. No adult seemed to worry about the danger we might get into. The younger children learned to swim at the cove where the water was shallow. My sister Debbie could swim like a fish at four.

Brookfield Pond today.

The 4-H clubs were very active. They provided recreation and a lot of education. I was involved in cooking, sewing and gardening. The drill of the time was to finish with a perfect project. It was easier in the cooking classes to finish with edible and reasonably perfect-looking muffins. But in the sewing projects it was another thing entirely. The hand-stitching had to be neat and eight stitches to the inch, it should look as neat on the backside as it did on the front. By the time the project was finished you hated the item you were making. A lot of girls were really turned off because of this stress for perfection and never did sew again.

The boys raised dairy animals learning how to groom them and show the animals at fairs and other competitions. Many young farmers got their start with herds they had raised themselves.

The adults played cards. Eighty-eight was the favorite, along with Oh Hell (also called diminishing whist), where one less card was dealt each round until there was only one card to bid on. If you didn't make your bid it was "Oh, hell" and there was one more card dealt each round until the number of cards dealt was the same as when the game started. The game could get quite lively. That was when the kids would crowd around the register upstairs and listen.

Other times there were dances at the schoolhouse or more often at the Masonic temple. Everyone went from babes in arms to grandpas and grandmas. The waltzes, fox trots and polkas were danced to, but more popular were the old dances—the contra dance, line dances . . . Best of all were the square dances. Perley Keyes called the squares. John Harford played the drums. His eyes would be closed and he looked for all the world like he was sleeping, except his hands never missed a beat. Four couples made up a square, three called dances were a set—tunes like "Honolulu Baby," "Marching Through Georgia," "Duck for the oyster, duck for the clam, duck for the hole in the old tin pan, and all swing your partner." What good wholesome fun it was. As kids we danced in the schoolyard at recess, without music but singing the calls. It sure burned a lot of energy.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Gala Writers' Reception

Ruth Demarest-Godfrey, Idora Tucker, Nancy Rice.

The reception at the Vermont Folklife Center on Saturday was a blast. With over 100 guests attending, the place was packed. Many of the visitors were from the Randolph area, and many had donated to our project through Kickstarter and other venues. The day was sunny and bright, and the drive over the hills to Middlebury spectacular. I had a surprise for each of the writers: an advance copy of our new book, The Hale Street Gang: In Cahoots. The book is now available via To order it, click on the title (above); it will zip you to Amazon's "E-store." Bud and Bella's Bookshop in Randolph will also have copies later this month; I ordered them this morning, but shipping is slow (they are due to arrive on October 28.) The list price is $16. I am really proud of this book, which is a true collaboration, the result of two years' work at the Randolph Senior Center with our memoir-writing groups.

Sara Tucker and some of the gang, at the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury.

The writers had no idea the book had arrived, so it really was a complete surprise. The back cover reads: "Meet the Hale Street Gang, twelve senior citizens who gather every week in the village of Randolph, Vermont, to share their life stories. Most are in their eighties; the eldest is ninety-nine. Their clubhouse is the senior center, an elderly mansion in a fringy neighborhood south of the railroad tracks. Together, they weave a rich, lively, and intensely personal tale of twentieth-century America, its nexus a small town nestled in the Green Mountains."

My favorite part of the program was sitting and listening to the music of Beth Telford and Jim Green, who came over from Braintree and Randolph to play for us. I hope we can talk them into doing the same when the exhibit opens at the Chandler Gallery in Randolph in February. At least they won't have to drive so far.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Dorcas Wright: Brookfield, 1939

The old Brookfield schoolhouse, now a private home. The photograph is by Jessamyn West.

This is part II of Dorcas's memoir about growing up in Brookfield. (Part I is below.) Dorcas is working on an extended memoir, so she considers this a rough draft.

There were about six other children in the village and that first year there were a total of nine students in the village school. No running water, two "two-holers" in the back of the woodshed for toilets (one for girls and the other for boys). Needless to say, no one tried to linger in the johns. A big wood stove heated the building. When that stove was cranked up, if you were facing the stove you were too hot but your back was cold and your feet were always freezing. A few years ago, after we had done a lot of renovating to the schoolhouse, I had a chance to visit with a very old man who had been a student at the village school. Forrest Upham came into the kitchen, looked around, went into the living room, and stood about where the old stove stood. Looking carefully, I guess to see if there was anything left of his memories. "I went to school here, you know. Coldest goddamned place in the world." He was right, you know.

We spent a lot of time by the pond, collecting frog's eggs, fishing and swimming whenever weather permitted. Sometimes we got a surprise dunking when it wasn't planned. Wild apple trees, probably started by cores dropped from some student's lunch, grew by the shore. As kids, we knew where every type of apples grew and remembered our favorites. We had a dress code. The girls wore sweaters and skirts, probably woollen, and hideous long brown cotton stockings held up by garter belts. We wore one outfit for the whole week, changing into work clothes after school to keep our  school clothes clean longer. Baths were once a week on Saturday.

So that was the Brookfield that we arrived at in late august 1939. The family moved into the Fisk house, which Aunt Jessie had purchased from her brother and sister after their mother died in 1935. My father had lived in Brookfield with his grandmother when he was a boy. He used to tell me about being sent by Grandmother Fisk with a basket to dig up freshly laid turtle eggs. She would scramble those eggs and have them for supper. Dad said that they tasted kind of fishy.

Anyway, he was no stranger to the village. We had visited Jessie many times and were not really unknown, but it was hard to be accepted in these small Vermont towns. That first winter my mother and I were terribly lonely. Mom had four sisters and four brothers all living in the Lyndonville area. Dad's family lived in St. Johnsbury. They all were a big part of our lives. The winter was cold. The Fisk house was literally freezing. Plants froze in the bay window while the wood stove was burning. We had a little Scotty dog named Cookie. Somewhere she found a half of a pig's head that had been slaughtered and brought it home. Cookie nudged it under a doormat and was very protective of it. The floor was so cold that the head never thawed and finally Mother was able to get it away from the dog and get rid of it. The only heat upstairs came through a register in the floor. It didn't do too well heating the room, but it was a great place to keep track of what was being said down in the kitchen.

Dad had two hired men to help with all the animals. A young fellow from the Bronx named Tim Tracy lived with us and took care of the horse barn. A local handyman helped Dad in the dairy barn, shoveled roofs and did other jobs that needed tending to. We delivered milk to the village. That was mostly my job. Sometimes I loaded the bottles onto a sled and pulled the sled or hitched up a horse to a big sled. At sometime in those years I had a young pair of steers that I was training to be an ox team.

Perley had improved the ice harvesting business and had bought tools imported from Canada. One tool was a gasoline-powered saw that was self-propelled. The ice was kept cleared of snow, which made for good skating before the harvesting started. The ice block should be clear so that one could read a newspaper through 24 inches of ice.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Dorcas Wright: Brookfield, 1939

Brookfield's floating bridge with the Fork Shop in background.

Dorcas is one of several residents from the neighboring hamlet of Brookfield who have joined our group over the past few months. She moved there in 1939, when she was eight and her father was hired by her Great Aunt Jessie—Jessie Fiske, that is, the original owner of Green Trails. Dorcas is working on a fascinating portrayal—part history, part personal memoir—of life in the little village, which happens to be one of the most charming in all of Vermont (she now lives in the former schoolhouse). She begins with a little historical background:

Brookfield in 1840 was a bustling town. There were seventeen mills at that time powered by the water from the outlet of Colt's pond. The town had a large hotel, a boardinghouse, a barbershop, and three stores. In the center of the village there was a factory for making forks for the farm. I have heard a story about a village resident that worked in that building for forty years. It was said that his shoes had worn grooves in the floor. I spent five years working in that building when it was a restaurant. I never saw those grooves, but I think that I left some of my own.

Continuing down the stream was a sawmill and a creamery where milk was collected. The cream was separated, and the cream was sent by rail to be sold in Boston; the milk was returned to the farmer to be fed to the calves and pigs. The butterfat of Jersey cows was higher than any other breed, and that was why the Jersey cows were so prized in Vermont.

A very necessary business was a blacksmith shop for shoeing the horses and repairing wagons. Brookfield had several businesses in town that made chairs. Dropping down the stream, there was another sawmill, a grist mill for making flour, a cider press, a tannery, and a grinding mill that ground bones to mix in with plaster for finishing the inside of houses. At the bottom of the stream was a pipe organ factory. Colt's pond also was a major source of business. Every winter, when the ice got twenty or so inches thick, it was cut into blocks, moved to the icehouse. There it was packed in sawdust and the shipped by rail to the Boston markets. This was a big winter industry until the 1940s.

This Brookfield had only the ice-cutting business remaining when my family moved here from Lyndonville, Vermont, in 1939. Harold and Clarice Gage, two-year-old Deborah and I came to live in the Fiske house and manage a summer resort for my Great Aunt Jessie. She was the first woman professor of botany at the new Douglas College, which was the woman's division of Rutgers. Miss Fisk was also head of the seed lab for the New Jersey Department of Agriculture for thirty years. She researched the care of the best kinds of grasses for golf courses. She also worked with the New Jersey state police on the weed marijuana. Jessie also ran a riding school, which allowed her to pursue her ardent love for horses. In the summer of 1932 Jessie brought her horses and four students to her mother's house in Brookfield. The students were all named Mary and became known as the four Mary's. The plan was to spend the mornings riding horseback and studying the local weeds. In the afternoons a swim in the pond was just what the Mary's needed. Jessie and the students were fed at Ella Benham's, which was the next house up at the beginning of Ralph Road. This house is now the residence of Ed Koren, who is well known as a longtime cartoonist for the New Yorker magazine. His long-haired depictions of native Vermonters are highly recognizable and dearly loved. (More after the jump.)

Friday, September 17, 2010

Loraine Chase: Grandfather Morse

Grandfather Morse.

The Hale Street writers' childhood memories are filled with grandparents, who were an integral part of family life before World War II. Grandfather Morse was no exception. He was Loraine's only surviving grandparent, her grandmother Morse having died shortly after the birth of Loraine's mother, and she spent a lot of time with him. The exquisite photograph above was taken in the 1920s (Loraine was born in 1926). I love the way it overflows with gentleness and affection, despite the formal setting. Loraine's memories of "helping" her grandfather around the farm remind me of Charles's memories of Grampa Small (click here). Loraine writes:

My only surviving grandparent lived with his oldest daughter and her husband on a farm in Moretown, Vermont. It was a beautiful white farmhouse with wraparound porch and surrounded by nasturtiums. I had a swing and a beautiful wicker doll carriage which I wheeled my around. I recall the milking cows and the garden attended by my grandpa. I guess I thought I did something to help him, but it was mostly about keeping company. I also recall the ice house with sawdust packing.

Grandpa hitched up Dot and took me riding in a horse cart similar to Amish. We purchased items at Ward store and after returning home I was treated to a juicy cherry chocolate.

I remember the hot haying task, piles of hay pitched onto the hay wagon by pitchfork. Aunt Etta made a special spice tea for the workers.

Close by I had two much older girl cousins and I became very close to them. One of them came to live in Barre with us to attend Spaulding High School, as there was no high school in Moretown. The other girl attended Waitsfield.

I got passed around in the family and at my uncle’s farm I enjoyed floating a little boat in a watering trough. I played a lot of croquet games. My cousin and I cooled off in the river.

One of my cousins was a telephone operator in Waterbury where I had another aunt. I spent time with Aunt Minnie and my cousin, and we attended some Gene Autry movies when her time allowed. I remember “Don Fields and His Pony Boys” country music. He was heard from radio WDEV Waterbury. I enjoyed the music and enjoyed dancing by myself when listening.

Loraine Chase: Mother and Dad

Plainfield, Vermont, 1931.

Loraine grew up in Plainfield and moved to Randolph in 1952 after her husband accepted a job with the local feed store. The following is excerpted from "Mother and Dad," a tender portrait of a hardworking couple who turned a Depression-era family loan into a memorable mom-and-pop business. Loraine's recording of "Mother and Dad" is included in the exhibit now on view at the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury.

I was born in Montpelier September 26, 1926, when mother was 26 years old. We lived in an upstairs apartment on Main Street in Montpelier in 1927 at the time of the flood. Dad was working for a furniture store on State Street. I was told mother panicked when the water kept rising up the stairs. She went across the hall to speak to an elderly tenant and he scolded her for being there without her baby. In due time, she saw Dad coming home in a boat.

From Montpelier, we moved to a little cottage in Barre. Dad was then working for Standard Oil. I attended kindergarten there. I have some memories of playmates living in back of us.

My brother was born five years younger than me. I have been told that when the landlord came to attend me when Mother went to the hospital, I was standing up in a chair by the counter and I told her I wanted to fix supper for Daddy.

We moved to Plainfield just before time for me to start first grade. We rented an apartment and Mother told me the woodwork was all painted blue and that was her mood there. Mother was always worried and I think Dad was an optimist. He borrowed money from my grandfather to start a service station. My grandfather regretted he had not loaned all his money, because he lost when the banks failed during the depression. Dad built a small building and it became our home and place of business—a Gulf service station. He built a garage with a grease pit where he sold tires and serviced cars. He had some previous training in Detroit.

I recall the black woodstove with reservoir and the metal tub that my brother and I took our baths in. The icebox was on the outside on a little porch. The milkman delivered milk to our front door early morning and the cardboard tops rose up high from the glass bottles in the winter.

Mother was a wonderful cook, and she made lots of homemade bread and most wonderful sticky buns. Her claim to fame was her brownies, which I think she sold two for five cents. People purchased them to send to their servicemen overseas during World War II. No package baking then. She also sewed with the treadle machine. She made me a winter coat and matching hat with a fur ball on the top.

Before I was in high school we had a nice house built there. That house had a nice sun porch. Mother turned that into a little ice cream parlor and sewed sandwiches and of course brownies. That grew and became a small convenience store.

Dad had a green thumb, and he made a rectangle picket fence with a trellis. He had beds of various flowers there near the road. He also had a hedge of cosmos that grew tall and full along the driveway by the house. He produced a vegetable garden and mother canned many preserves. My parents worked very hard seven days a week.

During the war, Dad went to work in the Windsor machine shop, and mother held the fort and pumped gas, which was then rationed.

My dad had some health problems, and he just passed out occasionally. Mother and us kids rubbed his arms and legs and he came around. The doctor never knew what his problem was, but in due time, I never knew of that happening. Eventually, they physically needed to sell the business.

New home.

Dad built a nice house in East Montpelier, where they lived for several years, and he tore down an old barn to build a very nice camp at Nelson Pond. It was next to the Chase camp. Happy families. Dad found the spring there which was used by some other campers.

After selling the East Montpelier home, they lived at camp in the summer and rented in Barre winters. Mother did housekeeping for some homes in Barre. They eventually rented an apartment back home in Plainfield.

My mother died at age 69 of heart failure. She was borderline sugar. Dad was alone for 10 years. He attended the Plainfield Senior Center and often took walks. He did very well to keep the spirit with a broken heart.
Mother and Dad.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Hangin' with Bob, Greg, and Jack

Bob Hooker, at the Vermont Folklife Center.

Spent the day yesterday in Middlebury with Bob Hooker, Greg Sharrow, and Jack Rowell, hanging the Hale Street Gang's "Portraits in Writing" exhibit, which officially opens on Friday, just in time for the town's Art Walk. It felt like Christmas, opening up all the cartons. First to go up were Charles and Ruth, above (we thought it would be nice to put brother and sister together). Jack took this photo of them and Bob as a sneak preview, since most of the writers won't see the exhibit until October 2, the day of our reception.

Also this week, Alex Hanson from the Valley News had lunch with the Tuesday group. The room where we meet has become so cluttered with debris (the remnants of last year's Christmas bazaar, supplies for discontinued art projects, old photographs that nobody can identify) that there is barely enough room for us anymore. We managed to squeeze enough to accommodate both Alex and Jack, who stopped by just as Emilie was ringing the dinner bell and was easily persuaded to stay for some shepherd's pie. I don't know what Alex made of it all, but I guess we'll find out on Saturday when we pick up our copy of the Valley News. He's probably wondering how we get anything done in all the chaos.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Estelle Therrien: Plenty of Dancing and Laughter

Estelle grew up on Voghell Road in Randolph. She now lives at Jocelyn House, in Randolph village, and is a regular at the senior center, where she likes to play mah-jongg. We are thrilled to have her in the Tuesday group. Many of her early memories concern the French-speaking community to which her family belonged. She titled the following "Thoughts As I Grow Older," but I thought that seemed too somber for a piece about dancing, partying, and drinking moonshine:

All the French People Partied at the Drop of a Hat

This is not a day-to-day journal, it's just my thoughts as I grow older and all my friends and neighbors are dying off. There is nobody to talk to about the farm, Abbotts, Blairs, the little house on the hill. It is strange; I don't want to let it get me down in the mouth, and mind you, I won't, God willing.

Dancing! Square dancing! Loved it, especially the swing around! My Dad was a great dancer; I loved it when he was in our square. At one party, he came over and took my hand and led me onto the floor; it was one of the best dances I shall always remember. It was at a wedding reception, before I was married, and it was in an old farmhouse, which was where all the parties I ever knew were held. All the French people had parties at the drop of a hat, usually Sunday nights.

Especially in the winter it was so cold! At that time there wasn't any Prestone for cars, so they let all the water out of the motors so they wouldn't freeze. After the party they would have to fill them up again, but they sure didn't seem to mind. The wives would heat the water in a big boiler on the stove (wood, of course). By the end of the night it was warm or boiling. The men put on their war mackinaws, mittens and hats, then each one had a pail to carry the water. Very exciting! Then the women and children would run to the cars, wrap themselves with blankets and snuggle down for the ride home. No heaters in cars! Everybody had such a good time, but they still had to get up 'round five o'clock in the morning. I often wondered if my parents stayed up, because the parties lasted till quite late. Then, too, they always had a little moonshine, which was passed out in an ounce glass, everyone taking their drink in turn, out of the same little glass. That's all they had at one time, but of course it was handed out quite often. But nobody seemed to get drunk, as there was a lot of singing; everybody would take turns singing a song, and there was always plenty of dancing and laughter.

One Monday morning my sister and I were sorting clothes to do the washing, talking about the most recent party and the new family that had moved into town. Now we were talking about the men in the family, who were all good looking. I was telling my sister that Homer was the best looking, but what a name! We both laughed, but my father said in his soft voice, "Never laugh at a man's name, as you might be having him for a husband." And I DID! My sisters in Massachusetts always sent our letters to Mr. and Mrs. Omar Therrien. That was the French way to spell and pronounce his name. They didn't approve of his American version. But he stubbornly held onto the name he was baptised with: Homer Therrien.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

We Did It!

The summer is ending in a flurry of activity, as we prepare for our opening at the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury, Vermont. That's right--we made our fund-raising goal on Kickstarter, thanks to some 60 donors. The exhibit of Jack Rowell's portraits of the gang, along with recordings of the writers' reading excerpts from their work, will run from September 10 to December 18.
Save the first Saturday afternoon in October, and come to the Writers' Gala Reception. Meet the writers, and hear the music of Beth Telford and Jim Green, who have generously offered to play for us. Stay tuned for more events (workshops, readings) in late October.
Note: The reception date of October 2 is a change due to a scheduling conflict. (The original date was September 18--but now you can go to Tunbridge Fair that day.)

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Hale Street Gang: In Cahoots (Sneak Preview)

Tomorrow (Thursday) I leave for France to visit my in-laws. Patrick's mom is 87 and showing her age, and we have two brand-new babies in the family, so the annual visit is pretty important, but it's always a little hard to leave home. Anyway, we'll be back July 2, but if it feels like I'm absent over the next two weeks, that's why. Meanwhile, here's a rough draft of the introduction to our "collective memoir," which we will publish later this summer. The title seems to have morphed from "Fishbone Alley" to "In Cahoots." What do you think of the intro? Is it done? Or do I need to take time out from vacationing to perfect it? The real question is, does it make you want to read the book?

IN THE FALL OF 2008, MY MOTHER AND I ENROLLED in a six-week memoir-writing class at the senior center in Randolph, Vermont. My mother was then eighty-seven, and I hoped the structure of a class would encourage her to keep working on the memoir she had begun years earlier and then put aside.
Randolph is the town where I was born. I went to the Randolph Elementary School, learned to swim in the Third Branch of the White River, to ski in Mr. Farr’s cow pasture, to skate at the town rink by the bridge. I bought penny candy at Merusi’s store, popcorn at the Playhouse movie theater. I still remember the sternness with which old Mr. Merusi used to view every child who crossed his doorstep, as if we were all bent on mischief, and the way Mrs. MacLaine used to patrol the aisles of the movie theater clacking a metallic noisemaker, the signal for us to simmer down.
In 1972 I graduated from Randolph Union High School and went off to college. From there, I moved to New York City and got a publishing job. Over the next thirty years, I married, moved approximately twenty times, divorced, married again, and raised a stepson. Then I came home to Randolph.
My husband and I settled in at 36 Highland Avenue, my childhood home. I was tired of big-city life and needed a change of pace; my mother needed some help. I began driving her to her appointments around town, becoming a regular in the water-aerobics class at Shape, the book discussion at Kimball Library, the Lift for Life class at the senior center.
The Randolph Senior Center is on a half-forgotten street just south of the railroad tracks; when the neighborhood dogs slip their chains and come looking for kitchen scraps, Rose, the cook, stands on the front porch brandishing her spatula and threatens to call the police. At the senior center, you can get a flu-shot, a pedicure, or a lesson in how to declutter your home. You can play bridge or make a patchwork book bag or take a little nap sitting up. At the senior center, Emilie rings the dinner bell Monday through Thursday at 11:55, and we all say the Lord’s Prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance before we form the chow line. There is hand sanitizer on every table and a little envelope for your suggested donation, and Rose and Janet serve the meatloaf and watery vegetables cafeteria-style. The coffee is 50 cents on the honor system—there’s a wooden salad bowl for your change—and it tastes like 50-cent coffee. You can come through the door feeling mean as a snake and you will still get a chair and a squirt of hand sanitizer and a plateful of food.
I started going to the center to lift weights. The Lift for Lifers were some twenty gray-haired ladies who hoisted dumbbells and leg weights from a seated position, their chairs in a circle. They talked as much as they exercised (I had noticed the same tendency in the water-aerobics class), and my mother attempted to keep order by wearing a whistle around her neck and blowing on it whenever the talk threatened to overtake the hoisting to the extent that we might not finish on time. After several months of this routine, it was announced one day at lunch that a memoir-writing workshop would begin soon.
The class convened on a Monday morning at eighty-thirty. My mother and I were the only two students present. I asked the instructor, a young woman who was just finishing up her MFA, if she would like to postpone the class while we recruited a few more students, but she was undaunted by the small turnout. The next week, another student joined us, and then another, and soon we were six. The class ended, the instructor left, and we were on our own.
Because I am a professional writer, the others quickly decided that I would be their leader. It was a humbling assignment. My “students” were all capable writers who had done far more living than I, and I wasn’t sure what I could teach them, but I happily accepted the role. A year later, I invited the seniors to start a second group that would meet on Tuesday afternoons. Every week we gather at a big round table in the craft room and, surrounded by a jumble of Christmas ornaments, scraps of cloth, and other bric-a-brac, read aloud from our memoirs-in-progress. I do not tell the writers what to write about. That is entirely up to them. I just listen, waiting to see what themes will emerge.
It interests me, for instance, that so many of their childhood memories concern grandparents. The influence of grandparents and their integral involvement in family life was a given in an era when assisted living meant moving in with the kids. The older folks helped with the many chores that were typical of rural households before World War II. My mother remembers her grandfather churning butter, tending the vegetable garden, and keeping hens, as well as peddling the eggs door-to-door, on foot, in town. This was when he was well into his eighties. Grandmothers helped with the sewing (most clothes were made by hand), the ironing (a long day’s work), and dozens of other tasks that don’t exist today (does anyone darn socks anymore?). One of the tasks assumed by both grandmothers and grandfathers was, of course, the care of young children, which explains why they figure so largely in these early recollections.
Writing is never an easy task, and old age doesn’t make it easier. Some of the Hale Street writers don’t drive anymore. Some don’t see or hear like they used to. They struggle to make their pens do what they want, to understand what their computer means when it says, “Overwrite?” They wrestle with imperfect memories, and lives that are too long to fit comfortably on the page—where to begin? What to leave out? What to include? And yet there they are, every week, pages in hand. Why do they do it? More than the writing, it’s the sharing, the sense that their lives have meaning and will continue to do so after they’re gone.
Whenever we gather, we laugh a lot. I suspect this is instructive. Despite their hard knocks, the writers themselves are a resilient bunch. There’s little that escapes their sense of humor. Six of them were born in Vermont, five of those in Randolph. The rest moved here from the Hudson Valley, the Midwest, Kentucky, and other parts of New England. At some point, I began to think of our work as the literary equivalent of the locavore movement. Their recollections are idiosyncratic and intensely personal, and that’s what makes them so effective. Together they have created, quite by accident, a vivid portrait of small-town life that spans the twentieth century.