Posted by: cornvillenutmeg | December 14, 2014

The Mothers of Great Elm


The Mothers

     I did not enjoy much of my childhood. Most of what I remember of that time is too frustrating, too contusing, too unhinging to want to revisit. I cannot think about growing up and believe those were the best years of my life. I always wanted to escape my youth, to be already grown-up, to be older.
      In my aunt Carol’s memoir, At the Still Point, she writes of Sharon and Great Elm, one of her home towns and one of her homes. They, and what came to be known as The Barn, were my home too, for all or part of every summer of my life until I was twenty-one. Reading what Carol had to say about Sharon unsettled me, for as I read her words, the summers of my boyhood grew vivid, and I yearned for them, and felt grief for their passing; and I came to see that I would with pleasure relive many of them.
The words – Sharon, Great Elm, the Barn, summer – evoke in me such images! The haze of humid days, clouds of gnats, the water of the pool, redolently odorous with chlorine, and so bright with sun, you have to squint. The two park-size lawnmowers ridden in formation endlessly circling out and back, nipping around trees and across the acres of lawn, their drone a lullaby on a slow, muggy afternoon. Sometimes they are echoed by the Town of Sharon’s single lawnmower manicuring the town green which extended an extra mile from Sharon’s center, past the Town Clock, all the way to Herrick Road. Big, slow horseflies and mean, persistent deer flies that sweep in silently for a soft landing in the middle of our backs, and we do not know they are there until they bite. Now alert, we wait until a tormentor lands on an arm or thigh. A quick slap and what’s left of the fly is blended with the blood it stole moments before. Such revenge always feels good.
      In the bathing cabins where we older children changed into our suits – the little ones were helped into theirs up at the Barn – with their always cool concrete floors, musty and stale, we undressed in cubicles standing on raised wooden slats that permitted the drying of wet feet. Then, at the end of the day, is there a cleaner feeling than stripping off a wet bathing suit, rubbing yourself as dry as you can with the already damp towel, and putting on your clothes over your body still cold from the water?
      We children lay on our towels on a patch of lawn next to the large awning sheltered patio, not quite asleep but not fully awake either, and we listened to the undifferentiated voices of uncles and aunts while they ate lunch. Above us, from high in the elms, the voices of the cicadas rose and pierced the air, blending with each other. Abruptly they would fall silent for long moments which startled us to wakefulness. Then they would begin again, and we slipped back into the trance, floating, thinking of nothing, worrying about nothing, feeling nothing but content.
When his lips were blue with cold brother John preferred warming himself by lying belly down on the sun-heated tennis court or super heated flagstones. When he rose, his stomach and one cheek were bright red. He has described being in Sharon this way: “One, long, flowing day. No heavy expectations. No requirements of my time that I wouldn’t have chosen myself. Swimming. Blue, blue sky. No measuring up, no pressure, no failure, no gnats, no humidity. Not too much heat – of any kind. Lots of warmth – of all kinds. No school. No school. Just play. Lots of play. And all kinds of permission from everywhere just to play.” 

   Every day at five forty-five in the afternoon, the sun now shining through the elms, and the air beginning to cool, the Episcopal Church would broadcast hymns to the town from its steeple. They were played by chimes, one note at a time, and just that much slower than you might hear them played on an organ. We knew them all; we would often sing the words. Although Catholic Mass at that time did not include the singing of hymns, we Heaths attended independent schools which included non-denominational (read Protestant) chapel at the start of each day. Chapel began and ended with hymns, the kind school children could easily sing. Onward Christian Soldiers, A Mighty Fortress, God of Our Fathers, We’ve a Story to Tell. The hymns reminded us that it was time to leave the pool, time to take off for the last time that day our bathing suits, almost time for supper. As the last note of the last hymn faded, simultaneously the Town Clock began to toll six and Juju stepped out the kitchen door to ring a bell that weighed ten pounds or more, summoning those of us who hadn’t yet left.
      What an extraordinary place for children to grow. What a gift and privilege. I wish I had known.

     What Great Elm was like before my mother married and became herself a mother I have, of course, no notion; I do however know what it was like for my family, the Heaths, the perennial summer residents of The Barn for every childhood summer from late June to Labor Day. It was a place where we played, as John said, unsupervised, often unsafely, wildly, willfully, mostly joyfully and exuberantly. The freedom we enjoyed was so unfettered, it was in effect absolute We swam, we rode our bikes, we ran and climbed trees. We rode horses, played tennis, learned to swing a golf club, took rides in a cart pulled by a mean and sulky pony. We explored cellars, attics, roofs, haylofts, pastures, gardens, orchards, and woods.
Except for the weeks that included the Fourth of July and Labor Day, each week was utterly equivalent to the ones before and after. We knew weekends from weekdays mainly because our father was present. He was mostly peripheral to our lives, he and my mother having chosen or settled or sought a routine which had him living in New York City Monday through Friday.
      Although by then our father would usually have arrived, in most ways, Saturdays were not appreciably different from any weekday. Mother still drove us to Hatches’ Pond in the mornings. Our father did not accompany us. We ate our mid-day meal at noon; and Mother often sat with us before she and our father joined the other adults for lunch at the pool or in the Big House. We children spent the afternoon there swimming, playing Red Rover or Marco Polo, or doing the myriad other things that Sharon had to offer, undisturbed and largely unnoticed. Again at day’s end we ate, the meal supervised by servants. Before we had finished, our parents were back at the Big House to dine. At some point early Sunday afternoon, after mass and brunch, our father was gone.
      My mother always employed a cook, but it seems to me now that mostly our cook was a different person from one year to the next so each summer saw a different woman trying to figure out the oddities of our Sharon meals. Each day, three times a day, the cook needed to prepare meals for as many as ten children, two nursemaids, and often an au pair. In addition, my friend William and John’s friend David, William’s younger brother, often ate with us, with or without an invitation.
Breakfast was mostly whatever one wanted: eggs, bacon, sausage, cold cereal, toast, fruit. Lunch was the hot and big meal. Supper was different. Some days it looked suspiciously like a reprise of breakfast, on others there were cold cuts from which we made our own sandwiches. Campbell’s tomato soup, chicken noodle, or a chicken kind of soup out of a box which Juju called Arthur Godrey’s Chicken Soup. That last was the least tolerated. It tasted odd, not at all like chicken, more like sneakers John felt. Whenever there was soup, there were also grilled cheese sandwiches, the bread barely toasted, the cheese barely melted, and the entirety less than lukewarm. If the day were a cook’s night off – Thursday and Sunday – Juju might cook. That meant spaghetti with a pinkish tomato sauce, probably canned tomato puree thinned with the previous day’s left-over Campbell’s soup; or, Hungarian chicken with rice.
      The evening cuisine sounds wretched, I know, but we didn’t much mind. The food was no worse in Sharon than in West Hartford, but the meals themselves were more relaxed at The Barn because our parents never ate with us. Sometimes Mother would sit at the table while we ate, but she always took her meals at the Big House with Mimi. Our father did not set foot in the dining room in the Barn. In any event, eating at the Barn was mainly something we had to do before we could get back to being in Sharon.

     I was almost thirteen when my grandfather died. As the result of a stroke, he had been infirm for three or more years by that time. Before his stroke, he was the acknowledged master of Great Elm. As did Uncles John and Jim, he traveled to and remained in New York for much of each week. After his stroke, he needed to be assisted in everything: dressing, walking, eating. His mind was unimpaired. He could speak still, albeit haltingly and, to my ears, uncomfortably, but his right side was mostly paralyzed. For me and certainly for my sisters and brothers, Great Elm did not feel like Father’s place; it was Mimi’s. After he died, John and Jim who worked in the family businesses, looked after that end of things, but Mimi’s place as the Buckley family doyenne and potentate, Fairy Godmother and Queen of Sharon was unquestioned.
      When we visited Mimi in the morning, which I believe we did every morning, at least some of us, you could count on being enthusiastically received. If she was in bed with plasters still on her crows feet, if she was packing, if she was discussing the menus for the week, if she was writing letters, if she was on the phone, her grandchildren were welcome. If she was saying her morning prayers, however, we would fall silent until she unbowed her head, crossed herself, put her rosary down and turned to us, smiling. Mimi at prayer was, we were certain, in direct communication with God. I don’t believe we could have disturbed her had we tried.
      Right away, Mimi needed to know what we were going to do that day.
      “We’re going to Hatch’s, want to come?”
      “Not today, dear, but you’ll tell me all about it, won’t you?”
      “Mother’s taking us to Bash-Bish Falls? Want to come?”
      “Bash-Bish? Oh, that will be wonderful. How exciting!”
      “We’re having a picnic at The Farm.” No need to ask if Mimi wanted to come; Mimi’s idea of a picnic was lunch brought to the pool..
      “Oh, won’t that be nice. Watch out for bears and Indians!”
      When we visited, Mimi would tell stories either about Nancy, the young Confederate girl who helped (Cousin) General Lee, or General Stonewall Jackson, win battles against the bad, old (sometimes she said, “Damn!”) Yankee blue-belly General Grant – she said that as though it tasted dreadful – by spying on them and running through swamps and deep forests in the middle of the night to deliver the crucial information in the nick of time (Later in school when we took history and learned how soundly the South had been defeated, it came both as great surprise and heartfelt disappointment. Nancy and Cousin Robert had defeated Gen. Grant so many times, it was inconceivable the war could have been lost.)
      Sometimes the stories were about a similar but different Nancy. This one was a young rebel girl who spied on the bad, old British for General Washington, and then running through forests and blizzards and across frozen rivers to deliver crucial information in the nick of time. This Nancy was presumably the other Nancy’s grandmother.
      During those morning visits, before the visit was over, Mimi inevitably would disappear into her hat and shoe closet and find, in a secret place, a piece of maple sugar for each of us.
      While we were visiting Mimi, Jeff would come to take her breakfast tray away, and she would say, “Isn’t Jimmy getting big, Boykin?” And Jeff would say, “Yes, Ma’am, he sho is,” and he would smile at me so I would know that he and I understood something just between the two of us. If we were still visiting after a full hour had passed, the phone would ring.
      “Hello?” Mimi would say, “Hello?” She always said hello twice as though the phone were yet a new instrument whose use slightly puzzled her. “Oh, good morning, my darling. Yes, they are. No, not at all, they could never be a bother. Oh, it is? Well, yes, yes, then I’ll tell them; yes, I will, right away. Good-by my… Oh, Allie, will you be here for lunch? And supper, too? What? No, I think Jim and Ann will be joining us, and perhaps Reid and Betsey. Yes, it will, of course, it will. All right, I tell them right now. Good-bye, my darling.
      “Children, your mother says it’s almost time to leave for Hatch’s pond, and you’ll just have time to change into your bathing suits if you run all the way back up to the Barn right away. Now let me give you each a big kiss. And thank you so much for coming to visit. You know, your Mimi gets so lonesome, and you’re always welcome!”
      And you always were – in her rooms, her house, her life, and her heart – Mimi welcomed you into her rooms.
      She was so happy to see you. Mimi was always more proud of you than anyone she could think of when you played the piano for her, or swam underwater the whole length of the pool, or learned to jump on a horse, or won a tennis match against anyone who wasn’t related to you, or shot a nasty old woodchuck that had been snacking in the garden.
      If you asked nicely, and if there weren’t already too many people coming, she would invite you to dinner at the Big House which was a special treat beyond imagining. First you got dressed up in a jacket and tie and nice pants. Then you would already be sitting in the patio with your mother and uncles and aunts when Mimi came downstairs. As she entered, you stood up which made her very proud of your wonderful manners, “and don’t you look handsome!” Her high heels clacked loud on the tiles as she stepped to her seat on the sofa that rocked. And she would say, “Come sit beside me, darlin’.” So, of course, you would. Then Jeff would bring you a Coca-cola the special way he made it with Angostura bitters and a maraschino cherry. And after he had passed you your coke and everyone else their Old Fashioneds or scotches, then he would pass the hors d’oeuvres which included because he knew you were coming, peanut butter on triscuits that had been put under the broiler.
      You would listen to your mother and uncles and aunts and Mimi talk about people and each other and places they’d been and were going. You would imagine being one day as old as they and joining in the conversation.
When Jeff passed the hors d’oeuvres a second time, he would leave them on the coffee table in front of Mimi which meant in front of you, too. Pretty soon Mimi would say, “Jimmy, dear, would you pass the hors d’euvres?” So you got up from your seat and picked up the tray carefully with both hands and passed it around to everyone else. When each uncle and aunt took something, they would say, “Thank you, Jimmy!” and look you right in the eyes and smile. When you put the tray down, then you could help yourself to olives and triscuits with peanut butter and one cracker with deviled ham because a gentleman samples everything his host offers.
      A while later, Jeff comes back with more drinks for everyone, but this time he just has little glasses with bourbon or scotch that he pours right into everybody’s glass, and never, ever the wrong glass, no matter how many people there were, whether Jeff had ever seen them before that night or not, no matter where they might have moved to in the patio between the first drink and the second. In my glass, he just pours me more coke if I have finished mine already which I always have. Then, one at a time, he asks if you want more ice. If you do, he has a small bowl of ice right there on his tray, and with big tweezers, he picks up as many cubes as you want until you say, “Thank you; that will be fine.”
      After you pass the hors d’oeuvres around one more time, Jeff comes back and stands in the doorway to the patio. Mimi looks up as soon as she notices him. Jeff says, “Miz Buckley, dinnah is suhved.”
      Mimi says, “Thank you, Boykin,” which is Jeff’s last name. And I smile at Jeff, and he smiles at me.
      All rise from their seats and step aside to let Mimi lead the way. If Uncle John isn’t there, Mimi asks you to escort her to the dining room, but when Uncle John is there, that’s his job since he is the oldest son.
      Jeff would be waiting behind Mimi’s chair, and he would pull it back for her and then slide it forward as she sat. I would do the same for any aunt who was going to be sitting next to me. I always sit to Mimi’s left. When Uncle John is there, he sits at the other end of the table. During the week, though, when all my uncles are in New York so only Mimi, Mother, some aunts, and I are at the table, no one sits there.
      Sometimes if it was a bad hay fever season, Mimi would go on a trip. We still went to the Big House now and again, maybe just to sit in the patio and listen to the water drip. Or explore the cupboards in the nursery, or the roof, or play the piano so when Mimi came back you would play the piece really well. Or look at the portraits of Mimi and Father, our father and Mother, and all our aunts and uncles and their spouses if they were married. When Mimi wasn’t there the door to her room was locked. Every day you went to the Big House, you would always go to her door and test to see if it was still locked because she might have gotten back late last night. When Mimi was on her trips, Mother would sit in her seat when she had supper at the Big House which she still did every night.

     Mother was different. We didn’t visit Mother, we went with her. She took us to Hatches’ Pond in the morning where you could swim out to the raft and back, or play in the sand, or row a boat, or go fishing with William. She herself didn’t swim, but she would wade with the little ones, and sit with them on the grass above the tiny man-made beach. She would hold them in her lap wrapped tightly in a towel while they rested and warmed.
She watched all of us every minute. If one of us stood at the top of the ladder blocking others who wanted to climb up onto the raft, she knew. “Jim, let Pam and John up please.” Her voice was just loud enough to carry out to the raft, just loud enough to be heard above the voices of the children on the beach. “Buckley, if you don’t stop throwing sand at your sisters, you will spend the rest of the morning in the car.” Buckley makes no protest. He drops a handful of sand into the water, and turns away from Betsey and Alison. Alison reaches to scoop up a handful by way of punctuating what she sees as her triumph over Buckley. Mother says, “Don’t you dare,” and Alison opens her hand, swishes it in the water, and then holds it up for Mother to see. “I wasn’t doing anything,” she says. Mother says nothing.
      At eleven-thirty Mother says to those still playing on the raft, “Time to come in.” John and David are having a cannonball contest. They’ve pressed Perky into being the judge. John’s head has just popped up above the water. He heads for the ladder, not the shore. David and Perky are swimming back. John gets on the raft, skips to the diving board, and is about to bounce off. Mother says, “John. If you jump off that board instead of coming here right now, you will not be coming back for the rest of the week.” John pauses to think that over. He turns toward the beach and dives into the water. He swims underwater most of the way back, popping up when he’s reached shallow water.
      Mother is looking at him as she folds one of the damp towels. John stands in the shallow water. “I told you not to jump off the board,” she says.
      “I didn’t jump, I dove. And I came right back.”
      “No Hatch’s for the rest of the week.”
      John wants to cry but he will not. He picks up his towel, wraps it around him, and he and David walk to the car.
      When Mother was angry with you, the inside of your stomach froze. You held your breath and you got very quiet. You sat alone and didn’t do anything or talk to anyone until she said something to you which if you were crying would be, “Would you like me to help you stop crying?” You always said yes to that. Then you sat in her lap and she would rub your back and say, “Sh, sh.” If you weren’t crying, then she would say nothing, but I think she admired that.
      Mother sat with us while we ate lunch. Sometimes at lunch Mother would tell you we were going to the movies after supper. Sometimes she’d say we’d be going to the Catskill Game Farm two days from today, or the Firemen’s Carnival or Bash Bish Falls or the Cathedral of Pines, and everybody could invite a friend. That meant William and David who didn’t need to invited because they were always there anyway; Pam invited Susie; but anybody younger than John didn’t invite anyone because there weren’t any other children around that were their ages except for a few cousins who are different from friends; besides, not all the younger ones got to go anyway, if they were still little enough to have to take a nap.
      Sometimes Mother reminded you that you had to practice the piano after lunch or read for an hour after lunch, and if you said anything that sounded like you didn’t want to do that, she would get mad. Sometimes when she was mad at the dining table, she would slap her palm down hard and sharp. She would do that a lot if you were arguing with your sisters and brothers. Whack! And she’d say, “End of the conversation!” Then everybody would quickly be quiet. After that, nobody would say anything at all until she’d say, perhaps, “Who wants to go for a ride to the drugstore after nap time?” Everybody except the one she’d spoken to sharply would say, “I do, I do.” If you were the one who didn’t say anything, she’d say, “I guess old, stinky Jim is going to punish me by not coming.” That way, you stopped feeling completely scared and started to feel a little mad yourself, too, and you pretended you didn’t even hear what she said.
      When they would came back from the drugstore where everybody had gotten something special – a comic book or coloring book or a new box of crayons or a ball to play with at the pool or a flashlight that looked just like a pen – your feelings were hurt and you were sad. Later on, maybe, Mother would take you to the drugstore by yourself which was actually more of a treat than going with everybody else.
      Mother would take you woodchuck hunting or on picnics up on top of a mountain when she was eight months pregnant, or fishing after dinner. She would drive you to Millerton which was a town in New York but only a few minutes away. Millerton had a toy store if you needed a ball or swimming goggles, and a store that sold guns and fishing lures if you needed hooks, and a movie theater.
      Sometimes Mother went away on trips. Then you would stay at the Barn with just Juju to take care of you. You still could go to Hatches’ Pond and to the movies and the drugstore because Mother asked Leslie to give you rides sometimes, but just going there wasn’t the same as going there with Mother. When Mother was gone on trips, she was usually gone with Mimi, and all of the days they were gone weren’t any different from each other. You were still in Sharon, and you could, and did, do everything you wanted, but Sharon felt a little hollow and empty without Mimi and Mother.
When they came back, summer was fun again. First, they brought back presents for everybody, like the kind of clothing people from the country they’d been to wore: hats, vests, belts, pants, scarves, dresses. Usually Mother would bring me a knife because I would always want one. Mimi would give us some of the funny money they used in those other countries, or rosaries made of special wood that the Pope or a bishop had blessed.
If we weren’t going someplace special, Mother usually spent the afternoons in her room reading and writing, especially when it was hot. Hers was the only room in the Barn that had an air conditioner.
      All the bedrooms in the Big House had them, and Mimi’s air conditioners were always on. She had one in the front part of her rooms and one in the bathroom between the room she slept in and the room that used to be Father’s before he died. She didn’t use that bathroom, she just kept things in it. She had another bathroom off her front room that was big enough for her make-up table. That was where the pitcher of ice water was. Going to visit Mimi in the afternoon when you had been up at the pool and swimming meant you got very, very cold because you only had your bathing suit on. When you visited from the pool, you never stayed long mostly because it was too cold and also because you couldn’t sit down in your damp bathing suit.
      Visiting Mother in the afternoon was not the same. She never told you not to come in, she just went right on doing whatever she was doing. You would start to tell her something – “Mother? You want to know what I did? – and she would say, “Um-hmm,” and listen to you but not look at you. If you told Mother you’d just climbed the red tree higher than you’d ever climbed it before, she would nod and say, “Oh, good for you.” To her, climbing trees was part of what you were supposed to do in the summer, the same as swimming, or going riding with Williams, the groom, or playing tennis or golf if you were old enough. It was why you were here in Sharon in the first place. Mother was mildly pleased about the tree, but she was really interested in her book, or what she was writing, or the jigsaw puzzle she was putting together.
      Mimi was thrilled. Mimi always wanted to know if you could see the tree from her rooms, which you couldn’t because, for one thing, the red tree that was outside the big house wasn’t as good for climbing as the one up at the Barn. To Mimi, climbing that tree should be rewarded with maple sugar, maybe, or a quarter. Mimi would say, “Oh, Jimmy! Good for you, dear!”
Anything that Mother did, she did with great intensity and passion. She was happy to have you join in and help her, but the help she took from you was more on the order of cheering than assisting.
      Mother bought us, her children, things that she thought would make a child’s life more magical, or maybe just at all magical. We had, of course, industrial strength jungle gyms and swings and teeter-totters anchored in the ground by cement blocks, but her eyes lit up when she saw other things like a cable that could be strung from one tree to another on a downward slant some fifty yards or more distant. Where she found it and what it was called – of course, today it is a zip line – no one knows (although I’d guess Hammacher Schlemmer because it was our mother’s favorite store, even more so than F.A. O. Swartz, when it was located in the Squib Building at 58th and Fifth Avenue), but it was perfect for getting from the Barn to the Pool in record time. You gripped the handles suspended from the trolley, ran forward and then leapt up, chinning yourself, holding your feet off the ground; and you flew along the cable at speeds that would have OSHA and the Child Protective Services speed dialing SWAT. A really important part of the technique for that particular toy was to remember to put your feet down before you got too near the tree at the end. Once brother Buckley (Heath #5) didn’t. Too bad, but he wasn’t supposed to use it anyway until the next summer because he was too small.
      The sled on wheels – small, hard rubber wheels, no more than five or six inches in diameter – was the most fun maybe because it was the most dangerous. None of us who rode it recall not having spectacular crashes that would shred our pants, knees, shins, forearms, and elbows. You could take it all the way up to the top of the driveway next to Mr. Bristol’s house and ride it all the way down, past the turn off to the barn, past Leslie’s and Elizabeth’s apartment above the laundry, past the garage where Mimi’s big Cadillac was parked – she almost never went anywhere in that car after Father died – past Williams’ cottage, past Ella’s cottage, past the stables, and on down past both driveways to the Big House, then right past the stone pillars and gate and right up to the main road. It disappeared one day my fifteenth summer when Mother found out my friends William. Harry, Tom and I were riding it on the public road that went up and down Sharon Mountain. It was a two and half mile ride, and you could get up to almost fifty miles an hour on the last steep part. She never told me I couldn’t do it; the sled just vanished.
      One summer a miniature Model T Ford appeared. It was powered by a lawn mower engine. At the beginning of each summer, the men up at Bud’s Gulf Station worked to get it running. And at the July Fourth parade, dressed up to look authentic, first Pam and I, then another year John and Perky, then Buckley and Allison drove it in the Fireman’s parade. We were no longer going to Sharon by the time Tim and Janet would have been old enough to drive it. Mother died when Janet was six.
      Another summer, from somewhere, she bought something that looked like the sort of thing a knife thrower’s beautiful young assistant would get strapped in and spun around on. This contraption, however, was freestanding. You stood in the middle, put your feet under broad leather straps, reached up and gripped two handles. Then you rocked yourself to the side, and you would begin to travel down hill, heels over head, until the ground flattened or something intervened. That was a wildly popular device with those tall enough to fit in it – me, William, Harry, John, and my youngest uncle Reid. My aunt Jane, who was afraid of nothing and would pass up no opportunity to try something new, also gave it a ride and pronounced it mad fun even though when it came to a halt, she was upside down and had to wait until we could catch up to her and give it a half turn more before she could get out.
      I am sure Mother knew that the playroom in the Barn was not a place we children wanted to be, so on rainy days, we went for rides. As many as could fit in her station wagon would get to go. Always Pam, John, Priscilla, and I, usually Susie, David, and William. Sometimes Buckley and Alison, maybe Betsey, maybe Jennifer.
      Sharon is a small town still, and while to us it was the center and source of all things good, it was only one of many small towns in that area of the world. Two other towns we went to with some frequency were both in New York state, Amenia and Millerton. Taking the most direct route and assuming minimal traffic, one can drive from Sharon to Millerton (Route 361 to the New York border, thereafter Rte. 62); Millerton to Amenia (Rte. 22/44); and Amenia back to Sharon (Rte. 343) – a distance of twenty miles even – in twenty-eight minutes. But if you were our mother with a car full of bored children, you could spend most of a rainy afternoon driving the roads circumscribed by the route outlined above.
      You might drive from Sharon down Hospital Hill Rd. and onto King Hill Rd. and into Sharon Valley. From there, Sharon Valley Rd. would take you to Sharon Station Rd. which used to lead to Sharon Station, now defunct as a station and renovated and a private residence. Family mythology as invented by my mother had it that Sharon Station was established by my grandfather and other residents of Sharon who, like him, worked in New York City. Traveling from the city by train. one could detrain in Amenia or Millerton, but not anywhere else closer to Sharon. Sharon Station was still in New York State, but it was closer by car to Sharon than were either of the stations in Amenia or Millerton. As it turns out, that myth is fiction as Sharon Station predated the arrival of the Buckley family in Sharon.
      If you didn’t take Sharon Station Rd. which now boringly just leads to Amenia, and you went right instead onto Sheffield Hill Rd., why, from then on you could wander onto Sharon Ridge Rd., Reagan Rd., Indian Lake Rd. which becomes Taylor Rd. which becomes Dakin Rd.; Dairy Rd., Mill Rd., Barney Dr., Red Cedar Lane, Lake Lane, and Horseshoe Lane, as well as Rtes. 58 and 61 until supper time.
      This area was then and is mostly still now farm country, flattish by New England standards, but crisscrossed with brooks where if you needed to see if there were any fish or frogs there, Mother would stop the car. In fields left fallow in the spring, and so in summer, now covered in wild grasses and clover, you might see a woodchuck; and since William and I always thought to bring our .22 rifles along on these excursions, Mother would let the car roll silently to a stop, William and I would get silently out, sneak to the fence line, and ease our guns forward. If the woodchuck was still there, which more often than not it wasn’t, we would take careful aim, count to three, and fire.
      There was once an extensive charcoal industry in that area. A number of the kilns used in the manufacture still stand. Inevitably on these drives we would pass one. Mother told us they were the tombs of Indian chiefs. She would stop the car so we could get out to explore. “If you’re lucky,” she’d say, “or unlucky – especially if the chief’s ghost is still around – you might find a bone or two, maybe even a skull!” I never doubted her and didn’t find out what those structures really were until I was older, much, much older.
Before returning to the Barn, these rainy day rides often included a final stop for a snack. Sometimes at Walsh’s drugstore, which had a soda fountain. Or perhaps the Singing Hollow Shop wherein Mr. Reep sold candy, ice cream, soda, comic books, and other sundries. Or The Raven, Sharon’s first restaurant, still in business in the sense that the structure is there and a restaurant operates in it, but the establishment has gone through many names including for a long time, The Waldorf.

     Our mother was mentally ill. How long for I’m not sure any of us knows. To understate things hugely, the last three years of her life were difficult, for her of course, but no less extensively, for everyone who loved her. And of course for Mimi, too.
      In the mid-sixties; Mother was diagnosed as schizophrenic, but schizophrenia was then a catch all diagnosis. Her illness was knotty, and the information she doled out to the psychiatric cadre who were charged with helping her was incomplete at best. How much did she drink, I’m sure they wanted to know. A glass of grapefruit juice and vodka, she probably told them. How much vodka? A jigger. That was not the truth. In fact, once the cocktail hour had arrived, she was never without her glass of vodka laced grapefruit juice which seems never to be more than half empty.
I am absolutely certain she made no mention of the Dexedrine she took from 1947 until her death twenty years later. Dexedrine was once commonly prescribed to help women regain their figures after childbirth. Somehow she managed to keep the prescriptions coming over those years. Then about 1960 she was diagnosed with narcolepsy. She suffered narcoleptic seizures from time to time which scared her and scared us more. I believe her habituation to amphetamine had much to do with her mental illness and narcolepsy and shocking weight gain.
      I can’t recall a time when Mother was not “on a diet.” By the time of her death, she was obese. In those last years she gained weight virtually every day. She once told me that on a particular day during which she ate nothing (except for the grapefruit flavored vodka), she gained a pound.
      Mother always had a mercurial side, even before she was officially mentally ill. Her companions, her children by day, her mother and siblings in the evenings, experienced the swings of her moods first hand. Three summers before her death, Mother’s mercurial side possessed her, and essentially the fun stopped. We went infrequently to Hatches’ Pond always depending on the availability of someone else to drive us. Mother was as likely as not to go sound asleep while she was driving so no more trips and drives.
      She was by then an angry woman armed with a wit none could match. Irritation simmered inside her as in the bowels of a volcano. The pressure of it, I imagine, was unbearable. She moved through the Barn vibrating with barely suppressed rage. The children felt her coming and skittered off in other directions. They knew what she was looking for: someone to serve as catalyst, to trip the release valve to vent the anger and let the seething die down for a while. When she couldn’t find prey, she’d lie in wait for someone to show up.

     In 1963, I was eighteen. I had my driver’s license and a car at my disposal. That summer I worked on the town crew of Lakeville. The following summer I had three jobs, all at the Sharon Playhouse. I directed the car parking, ran the concession stand, and drove all over that tri-state corner – Connecticut, New York, and Massachusetts – delivering and placing posters for the following week’s show . The next two summers I was an acting apprentice at the playhouse. What all that meant was that I missed the full impact of the wretchedness of those summers before she died.
      To this day, I do not know completely what those summers were like for my siblings. Mother still went away, not on trips with Mimi, but instead to yet another psychiatric hospital or clinic. Our father and Mimi told us she was at hospitals that would help her to loose the weight she could not stop gaining, but that was hardly or even slightly true. Where ever she went, whatever treatment she received, nothing changed her back to the mother of enchantment and mystery from the excoriating, irrational harpy she became.
      One epiphanic evening, my father and I were standing in the foyer of the barn when my brother John came from his room and went through the door into the kitchen. It must have been a Thursday night, or perhaps we were between cooks. Mother was there making split pea soup which she did, not for the pleasure but more for the ritual. A ham, bone in, had been served earlier that day or a day or so before, and ham bone meant split-pea soup. My father and I must have suspected something would happen for we stopped our conversation and listened. Very soon, the voices in the kitchen rose. My mother, always capable of attacking the weakest, most vulnerable spot even before her illness, now used her gifts of intellect not so much to destroy as to torture and maim.

     Quite unexpectedly John’s voice rose over hers with all the angst a sixteen year old can bring to bear. Through tears he said, “It didn’t matter what I did. You were just looking for someone to be mad at!” He shot back through the door before my mother could reply.
      My father and I looked at each other. “He’s right,” he said, and we slunk away before she discovered us.

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Responses

  1. Oh Jim what a portrait – especially of your poor, sad, terrifying mother. I had no idea the end of her life had been like that; how awful for those around her, who loved her – or had loved her. yikes. As ever, you write so beautifully that I feel I know the people and places you are describing – I hope you are going to follow in the footsteps of the older generation of your extended family and Write a Book.

    xxx in haste, but with many thanks for sharing this portrait of your youth, of Great Elm. Louise


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