Sunday, February 28, 2010

My Lunch With D'Ann

D'Ann Fago is my soul sister: a small town girl who, in a break for independence, made her way to New York; there she developed herself as an artist and met the love of her life. Her crowd in New York included some famous names: She once served her friend Billie (as in Holiday) canned salmon overturned on a bed of lettuce. On Saturday, we sat at the kitchen table in her old Vermont farmhouse and ate bread, cheese, a sliced avocado, and a whole tin of anchovies—which I happen to LOVE. Her studio, which occupies a wing of the farmhouse, is a world of marvels: Paintings and drawings testify to a life richly lived. During my visit, she brought out one of her children's books, published by Golden Press—the little scene above is cropped from one of its illustrations (shown in full after the jump). I was struck by the title: "The Merry Train." The childhood memoir that D'Ann has been working on is a bittersweet reminiscence about loneliness and self-discovery, and it begins with a train ride:

My first memory is of being held, wrapped in a blanket, in my grandmother’s arms on a passenger train from Atlanta to Lexington, Kentucky. I was three months old. Nauna, my grandmother, had been visiting my parents in Atlanta. My mother was ill with influenza—this was 1917, the year of the famous epidemic. Later, my mother explained that she didn’t want my grandmother to be lonely, so, since she already had one small child, she gave me to my grandmother to raise.

I remember heavy curtains surrounding the berths in the Pullman cars and angry people complaining about the noise I was making, which probably encouraged me to yell even more—which I did. Being somewhat stubborn is a characteristic that I’ve held onto through most of my life.

They tell me I can’t possibly remember these things from when I was three months old, but as far as I’m concerned it’s about as real as any memory I have: being handed to my grandfather and being held in his arms at the train station in Lexington. “Daddy” was what I called him forever after.

Introducing: Our Resident Cartoonist

Hale Street's youngest memoirist was born in France and moved to Randolph by way of Africa. That's his self-portrait, above. Who is he? Hint: You may have seen him buying Belgian beer at Fenix Foods or palmiers ("rabbit ears") at the farmers' market in Randolph on summer Saturdays. He has also been known to help Rose in the kitchen at the Senior Center on occasion. The drawing is taken from his memoir "A Frenchman's Odd-yssey." His current work-in-progress is a graphic novel about Wall Street. He like to do his writing in pictures. His pen name is "Tex."

Mary Jacobs: Feeding a Circus

Preserving family stories is the main motive of most of the Hale Street Gang. This one is priceless. Mary's son, Joel, was just out of high school when he ran away with the circus one summer day. The following summer, he brought the entire circus home to dinner. His mother recalls the experience in this piece. The sound track was recorded by Greg Sharrow of the Vermont Folklife Center; I put together the video with pictures from Joel's photo collection. Mary's text is printed below:

The day after his high school graduation, my youngest son, Joel, left home to spend the summer as a rigger with a college student circus, which had been in Randolph the day before graduation. The group had about 40 performers, a band, concession, horses, snakes, dogs, and an elephant. They toured from Maine to Virginia with two shows daily, each day at a different location. Joel returned home in September to attend college and left again the next May to be head rigger.

Mid July of the second summer, they were in Greenfield, Massachusetts, where my daughter lived, so the family went down to see Joel and the circus. I learned that head riggers are responsible for setting up and dismantling tents and all apparatus for the acts as trapezes, tightwires, etc. Everyone had multiple duties and Joel rove the snake truck where he also slept.

As we were saying good-bye to him, he asked if Betsy (my daughter in law) and I could do him a favor. The circus was coming to Randolph in late August and he wanted us to provide the evening meal for about sixty people. We said, sure, thinking a barbecue in the backyard, but he was thinking a meat and potatoes meal. We said okay, not quite sure how we could do this.

First, the menu. We decided on scalloped potato, because it could be prepared early and reheated; roast beef, because another son raised his own Angus beef cattle, and there was plenty of meat in the freezer; corn on the cob; and cakes for dessert.
Remember, this was thirty years ago, and almost everyone in Randolph knew someone in each family. Soon, promises of food came to us from many people. There was a bushel of corn from a local corn grower, milk both chocolate and white from Sprague’s Dairy, potatoes, casseroles, desserts, rolls, maple syrup, sodas, and even a huge venison roast from the Fish and Game Department. Everyone wanted to help feed a circus.

The day arrived, hot and humid and threatening rain. The circus arrived about 6 a.m. and started setting up in a field about a five-minute walk from the house. Mid morning, Joel and some friends arrived to take showers. They kept coming and coming, and hot water and towels soon became a problem. Towels were thrown into the dryer without washing and hot showers soon became cool showers. Telephone calls to the neighbors for help and the young people were sent around the neighborhood and were greeted with hot showers and offers of food. It was a first for many of them to be welcomed by strangers into their homes.

Food started arriving and we soon ran out of shelf and table space. The bathtub was full of desserts. More “help” calls to the neighbors to use their refrigerators and ovens.
It rained and rained all day and was still very hot and humid. The circus group arrived about 4:30 and soon overflowed into the basement and attached garage. Someone started a roaring fire in the living room fireplace. Picture this: a house full of young adults, a family trying to finish preparing and serving good to sixty people, the stereo blaring and a roaring fire in the fireplace on a hot, rainy day.

The circus cooks had been told to offer their help and their relief was obvious when told this was their evening to relax and enjoy.

Rachael, my granddaughter, was three, and the clowns came in full costume ready to entertain her. She took one look at them, started crying, ran into my bedroom, shut the door, hid her head under a pillow, and could not be teased or bribed to come out of the room.

The snake charmer, a pretty dark-haired girl, kept close to my son Jeff, who was busy slicing meat, boiling corn, and helping wherever needed. She finally said, “I’m not putting the make on you, but it has been a long time since I was near a clean male wearing aftershave.”

In the garage, Gail, my daughter-in-law, gave Joel a badly needed haircut and beard trim. Soon she had a waiting line until she said, “No more.”

You cannot believe the amount of food they ate and how often we heard, “It is so nice to be in a house.” The remaining food was packed and given to the cooks to take with them for the next day. Everyone was still sitting around and the manager finally said, “We have to go. We are going to be late starting the show.” There were passes to the show for all the neighborhood children.

After the show, tents were taken down, trucks loaded and they left for St. Johnsbury. Two years later, one evening, a young man was at the door with the largest backpack that I had ever seen. He explained he had been with the circus, and was now hitchhiking across the U.S. He saw the Randolph exit sign and was let off at the local bar where someone gave him a ride to the house after asking if anyone knew the Joel who was in the circus. He thanked me again for the great food and the relaxing friendly atmosphere of being in a house. A couple of phone calls were made, and he was on his way to meet Joel, who was living in Chester and attending New Hampshire Tech.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Mary Jacobs: A Day in the Life of a Country Nurse

Mary Jacobs was the first writer to join our group back when it consisted of my mother and me, period—the photograph above was made by my buddy Jack Rowell during a three-day shoot at the Senior Center last December; Jack's photos of the Hale Street Writers will be on display at the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury later this year.

Mary was a nurse at Gifford Hospital in the days when my dad was the valley’s busiest ob-gyn. I went to school with her kids, but I didn’t know Mary until she turned up at the Senior Center one October morning and said she had been thinking about doing a little writing. Seventeen months later, she has become a part of my life.

Mary faces life’s challenges with the steadiness of a general, but she has the heart and soul of a comic—her appreciation of life’s funnier moments is like a welcome shot of caffeine when the Monday group gathers around the craft-room table at 8:30 a.m. Rather than sailing into a long narrative, Mary has been writing short pieces, one per week, about whatever gets her pencil going. Many are about her nursing career. Below is one of her earlier pieces, about her first day as a “home health” nurse in rural Vermont; next week I'll post her story about the day the circus came to dinner:

"For thirty years, I had been a hospital nurse, the last of these in a combined coronary and intensive care unit. Here, assistance and equipment were readily available in a clean, orderly unit. I decided to make a change and transferred to Home Health. My territory included South Royalton, Tunbridge, Sharon, and Strafford. Much of this territory was very rural. In fact, I had lived in Vermont most of my life and did not realize the poverty and poor living conditions of some families.

My first patient lived in an unpainted, rundown farmhouse. I was greeted by several mangy-looking, barking dogs. The only entrance that I could find was through the woodshed. I opened the door and was in the middle of a flock of hens. I am very afraid of anything with feathers, and it took all my courage to go through the many feathered clucking hens.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Ruth Demarest Godfrey: I Am Born

Many passages in Ruth's memoir about growing up on the Cooley farm begin "Idora and I." The two sisters have been lifelong best friends. Idora remembers sitting for the picture above—she was unhappy because she wanted to wear Ruth's shoes. The picture below was taken by their mother, Gertrude Cooley. I know my maternal grandmother only through stories. Ruth's story about eating the candle holders is a clue to the kind of mother Gertrude was—whatever mild punishment Ruth's disobedience provoked has been long forgotten.

"I was born at home, and in order to get Idora out of the way during the commencement, she had been taken to the barn to see some baby pigs that had just been born. I guess it was not surprising that Idora thought I was another little baby pig! I hope she may have changed her evaluation since then.

"It began for me as an independent entity on June 27, 1922, in a farmhouse in Randolph Center, Vermont, which was my home (except for a couple of years when Dad rented the farm to Wyman) until June 27, 1943, when I married. My mother and father were there, of course. Dr. Gifford and Edith Chadwick, a nurse, were in attendance. Idora had arrived fifteen months before, so she had established a beachhead and had a running start. I never caught up with her, but then, she was here first! As you can see, I was fortunate enough to have loving parents and a friend, mentor, and rooting section from the onset. . . .

"There is a very early memory somewhere in there of a trip to see my great-grandparents, Grandma and Grandpa Small. I remember, dimly, a couple who seemed ancient to me at the time. They may have been close to the age I am now! I think they were wearing black clothing, my great-grandmother in a long dress that came to the floor. That is my entire and only memory of meeting them. I have since learned that Great-Grandpa Small fought in the Civil War with his four brothers and his brother-in-law and that all survived. Grand-Grandpa was at Appomatox. . . .

"Another memory has to do with someone's birthday party, after which there were leftover candles and small candy candle holders. Apparently, Mom had to leave us for a moment, perhaps to go to the barn, which was across the road. She left us with explicit instructions not to eat the candle holders. Now my sister, Idora, and I were apparently not always obedient, because we did eat some or all of the candle holders. Outside the kitchen door at the farm there was a cement porch floor, which we referred to as the piazza. There was a glider hanging there, and Idora and I felt that if we crawled under there, headfirst, we could not be seen and therefore would not be reprimanded for our disobedient act. The seat of the glider was high enough that our small bottoms were clearly visible, so we did receive some sort of retribution. I'm not sure of its nature, but the thought of castor oil is running through my mind with some insistence. Mom may have felt that the candle holders would be harmful to our very young digestive systems, and castor oil was thought by some, in those days, to be the be-all and end-all of curative substances. Our mom had a very good friend who was somewhat older than she and very sure of her own wisdom. In fact, this friend once insisted that she had cured one of her own children of polio by administering castor oil! Dr. Salk could have saved himself a lot of trouble if he had only known that. At any rate, I think we were sent to bed very early and we may have been given a dose of castor oil.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

An Excerpt from "Winter Morning"

One year after the Hale Street writers began meeting on Monday mornings, I invited the seniors to start a second group that would meet on Tuesday afternoons. One of my motives was to encourage my aunt Ruth to continue with her writing. She had already written a prodigious amount, but it was so good that everybody in the family wanted more. Ruth is the second of five siblings who grew up on a farm in Randolph Center (my mother, Idora, is the oldest). Her writing is observant, sensitive, and often very funny—like Aunt Ruth herself. Here is a short excerpt from "Winter Morning," a reminiscence about the farmhouse routine of her childhood years, back in the day when clothing was handmade, right down to the woolen underwear:

"My older sister and I each were responsible for seeing that our younger siblings got dressed. The hardest thing to accomplish was getting on the stockings in any sort of acceptable fashion. This involved getting long, heavy stockings on smoothly and getting the long underwear down over them so they looked acceptable. There was much yanking and folding. My little sister was fortunate because my older sister was assigned to her case and my older sister was fairly adept at creating a smooth union of stockings and long underwear. My younger brother was not so lucky, because I seemed to lack the expertise to do the job and avoid carnage. Marion started the day with smooth legs. Charles and I started the day with lumpy legs."

Idora, Ruth, and Charles have all written about life on the Cooley farm during their early years. It is fascinating to see how their memories compare. Their mother, Gertrude, took many pictures of her children while they were growing up. The one above shows the four older siblings (from left: Idora, Charles, Ruth, Marion). John came along a couple of years later.

Our First Published Memoir

The Hale Street Writers began with my mother, Idora: She was its first student memoirist, and the first to publish her writing. She began writing Wife and Mother years ago and set it aside one day intending to pick it up again when she felt inspired. Years passed. In 2008, I started bugging her about it. I thought a group would help motivate her. I was all set to start one at the Randolph Senior Center (where Mom often goes for lunch, for book discussions, and for her monthly pedicure), when the director of the center beat me to it. My mother and I signed up for Ann's workshop, which ended a few weeks later. By then, we had six writers who were hard at work on their life stories, so we kept on meeting without Ann.

A year later, my mother delivered Wife and Mother to our friend John Lutz, a printing wiz, who produced 50 copies that went flying out the door, generating in turn a collection of fan letters.

My father was a country doctor, and much of Mom's book is about the role she played in our community as the wife of Dr. Ransom Tucker. Dad was a visionary: His dream was to start a clinic that would serve the White River Valley, a rural community. The effort cost the entire family dearly—my father loved his patients and literally worked himself to death. He died of a heart attack on his way to work at the age of 59.

My mother's memoir is a special gift to me. When my father died, I was 17, a senior in high school. How well I remember receiving the terrible news. My mother and I were traveling, on our way to visit colleges in the midwest. A state trooper pulled us over somewhere in Ohio and told my mother to drive to the nearest rest stop and call home—this was way before the days of cell phones—and he escorted us down the highway to a roadside motel. Mom went inside while I waited in the car with my boyfriend. "I wonder what's going on?" I said to him. When my mother got back in the car she slid in behind the wheel, looked down at her lap, and said, "Daddy died." Then she lowered her head, put her gloved hand to her face, and cried a few silent tears before gathering me into her arms.

Her memoir recounts the early years of her marriage and draws to a close 30 years later. It gives me a portrait of my father that I cherish. I am still putting together a mosaic of Dad from the bits and pieces I gather from other people's memories. It is one of the things I love about being back in my home town after a 30-year absence. All around me are people who knew and loved him. I am so grateful to my mother for writing about him and sharing her memories with family and friends in the form of this wonderful book.

Monday, February 8, 2010

How It All Began

In October 2008, in an attempt to get my mother, then 87, to finish writing the memoir she had begun years earlier, I talked her into enrolling in a six-week memoir-writing class at the local senior center. We were the only two students present. The next week, there was one more, and then a third, and soon we had six students. The instructor left before the class officially ended, and we were on our own.

A year and a half later, we are still writing. Once a week, every week, we pull our chairs up to a big, round table in the senior center "craft room" and, surrounded by a jumble of Christmas ornaments, scraps of cloth, and other bric-a-brac, we read aloud what we have written during the week.

Because I'm a professional writer, the others quickly decided that I would become their teacher. I am also the youngest in the group by at least 25 years (I'm 55). Most of the writers are in their eighties. The eldest turned ninety-nine last October.

Writing is never an easy task, and old age doesn’t make it any easier. Some of the Hale Street writers don’t drive anymore. Some of them 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 every week, there they are, at the table, homework in hand, ready to share their life experiences.