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.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Mary Hutchinson: Farr's Hill

I was among the last batch of Randolph kids to master the stem Christie on Mr. Farr's hill, and Mary Hutchinson was my instructor. She also taught me to blow bubbles at the old Randolph playground, which she wrote about for an earlier post. It was an era when playgrounds and ballparks and ski lifts were built not by federal stimulus money or state aid but by volunteer armies of dads with shovels and hammers. Here's a glimpse of what it was like:

Mr. Farr was a farmer who gave up his weekends after chores to operate a ski lift. He also ran it during holiday vacations. Farr’s Hill was one of the first ski tows in Vermont. It opened in about 1936, just two years after the tow in Woodstock, the first in North America. Mr. Farr operated this rope tow for about thirty years. He would stand there all afternoon and many mornings in his visor cap, denim barn coat, and barn boots, and look upward, ready to stop the lift if someone fell off. He would climb partway up to help a child up if necessary. He was always jolly with a smile and a twinkle in his eye. “As I say” was how he often began a sentence. He would stand there all day when the day was sunny and bright, all day when it was blustery cold, all for no charge for thirty years.
A neighbor, Helen Frink, was often on hand to help one learn to ride the lift. She would hitch up her horse and tie on a rope so you could get the feel of the rope. This helped eliminate many falls off the rope tow.
Before the ski tow opened, Mr. Farr had a skating rink and a toboggan chute. I only ventured on the toboggan chute once. It was too scary for me.
Our ski clothes were quite different in the early days. We wore woolen pants, a woolen shirt of some kind, and often woolen mittens. Those of us who were fortunate had leather mittens to go over the woolen ones. Mittens didn’t last long on a rope tow. At the end of the day our woolen pants were covered with tiny snowballs from falling down.
To get to Farr’s from our home we walked, wearing our ski boots and carrying our long skis and poles over our shoulder. Up School Street, onto North Main Street, across the bridge, and up the steep stairs behind the present firehouse, across a field and up the road where the Herrins now live, and there we put on our skis and skied diagonally to the tow. Once there, everyone lined up horizontally across the hill and sidestepped up the hill and then back down to pack the snow. This helped to prevent ruts and big piles of snow from building up where people turned. It also helped to preserve the snow longer. Once this was done, there would be a line of about twenty-five kids waiting and shouldering and edging each other to see who could get through the line first. The tow stopped often as a kid would fall down and have to get out of the way before you were on your way again. If you happened to be on a steep section of the hill it was mighty hard to hang on and be ready when the rope started again with a jerk. For thirty years Randolph kids spent many weekends skiing and trying to bump each other off the rope by thumping the rope. At times we went in a corrugated warming hut to huddling around a cast-iron stove, which stood without a warning label and could burn your mittens brown if you got too near it.
Often money was given to Mr. Farr to help defray expenses, and a small calf was given to him at the dedication ceremony of the new Pinnacle Skiways. The beginners’ slope at Pinnacle was named Farr’s Trail.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Cynthia Jackson: Loss

Loss, losing, lost; loose, loosing, found. I am losing, losing every day—each hour as it goes by:
My calendulas and marigold, as the summer sun becomes the cooler autumn sun, and moves across the sky nearer the horizon.
My favorite shoes grow shabby, then shabbier and finally fall apart.
My once smooth, soft skin becomes rough, spotty and wrinkled.
My pepper hair surrenders to a briny assault.
My hopes of becoming really organized have been mislaid, lost.
I know about loss, big loss:
My parents and my grandparents, of course, and now, my two brothers are both gone. A young cousin, his life newly reclaimed from drug abuse, swept out to sea in the undertow of a huge wave bringing news of an approaching hurricane off the North Carolina shore. Friends, some known since primary school, some close, some less so, but all part of the fabric of my life—gone.
I know about little losses, some very painful:
My cats: Boots, Tiny, Tiger and Bozo, Fluffy, Mischief, Tigger I, Obadiah, Tigger II,Tranquility, Rosie (for Franklin Delano). And things: the little cameo from the gold ring, given to me by my grandmother’s friend and lost while playing with Fluffy. My wedding ring, lost while swimming and playing in the water with my children. A fantastic mask of feathers and glittering jewels from my daughter. A Christmas ornament made by my son, crushed.
I know the loss of places: My homes, fifteen of them, from Vermont to Florida, from Wales to Japan, where I lived as a baby, a child, a young woman, an old woman. However, my homes of long ago, transformed though they may have been by their new owners, remain in my mind as they were, so vivid that I can enter them, see motes dancing in the sun as it filters through the maple leaves, the windows and the oak shutters, then splashes across the book-piled table, along the carpeted floor and up the legs of the chaise longue, whose leafy pattern was faded long before I had ever seen it, smell the books, the carpet and the dust dancing the limitless dance in the sunbeam.
They are lost . . .
But they are still mine, loose, loosed from the reality of every day, so free, free to stay with me where I can find them at will, until I, too, am free, and all the things of this world will drop from me as I am loosed into the air to dance freely along the beams of sunshine and moonlight.

Monday, June 7, 2010

How Now Brown Cow

One time I had a long list of dates to memorize for a history test and Mom sent me to the barn to get Dad to help me. Dad was sitting beside a cow on his three-legged stool, with his head against her flank. He proceeded to make up a jingle for each date I had to learn. I’ve forgotten most of them now, but the next day I did not forget one, and I aced the test. One I do remember is “In 1609, Sir Hudson felt so fine, he sailed right up the Hudson River, in 1609.”—Ruth Godfrey

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Grandparents Great and Small

My great-great-grandfather, 
Henry Boardman Cooley, circa 1860.
I am fascinated by the few faint memories of great-grandparents that have surfaced in our group. Often these are spectral figures dressed in quaint clothing—old-fashioned lace caps; long, rustling skirts; shirts with high, stiff collars; lots of buttons. Wheelchairs (especially interesting from a child's point of view) and beds so high they require footstools also have a tendency to crop up. These ghostly characters say little if anything in the dreamlike memories they've implanted; D'Ann Fago's memory of her maternal great-grandmother (below) is a rare exception. The story about the knife in the pie may be apocryphal, or maybe not, but D'Ann's memory of the woman who told it is quite clear. She also remembers that her great-grandmother "left her room to come down to meals, but she could barely walk and she couldn’t hear. She was very patrician—didn’t miss a thing. She had been the copy editor at her husband’s small-town newspaper. She was a very definite little woman with strong ideas about everything."

The photograph above is a print made from a daguerrotype that was unearthed in my grandfather Cooley's old farmhouse; it shows his grandfather, Henry Boardman Cooley, in the 1860s. Handsome man. Unfortunately, I know nothing about him. Henry's great granddaughter Ruth has this memory of the Smalls, a set of great-grandparents on her mother's side:

"I remember, dimly, a couple who seemed ancient to me. 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 my great-grandparents. 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. Great-Grandpa was at Appomattox." —Ruth Demarest-Godfrey

Saturday, June 5, 2010

A Pie for Johnny Reb

Photo: David C. Foster @ Creative Commons

"My grandmother’s mother lived in our house. She used to tell me stories about the Civil War. There was a famous Confederate prison in Louisville, and she and her sister used to write to the Confederate soldiers who were being held there; they smuggled knives into the prisoners, hidden in the pies they baked." —D'Ann Fago