Posted by: cornvillenutmeg | April 3, 2015

Jeff Boykin


A Tale of Summer
Jeff

     I don’t know many first born children of large, privileged families and have not researched the topic, but I do have three cousins who fit the bill almost as well as I do. They are younger enough than I that we are not chums so in the specifics of what our childhoods were like, we’ve never compared notes. Even if we had, my experience was unique simply because I am the oldest of what would eventually become fifty cousins on my mother’s side, fifty six if you count my father’s.
      In that position, one might go in one of two ways: one might grow up taking the responsibilities of primogeniture seriously; or one might feel, let us say, entitled. I went that way, which is to say I was spoiled; those close to me tended toward over solicitousness, overindulgence, and excessive praise. I believed that what I wanted to do was the same as what I was supposed to do.
      At the age of eight, I had one mother and one father, nine aunts, eight uncles, two grandfathers, two grandmothers, one brother, two sisters, and six cousins all of whom were infants. All the adults either loved me or pretended to, particularly when my mother was present because, first, they were afraid of her. (Well, her mother and father weren’t afraid, but my father’s parents were.) Second, she was the oldest of her generation and had taken her primogenitary position very seriously. As far as she and her parents were concerned, the indefeasible heir had been presented to the family, and I was he.
      It may be surprising, but I did not invariably get my own way. Mostly this happened when I might be alone with an uncle or aunt and out of sight and earshot of my mother and grandmother. On those occasions it was not unusual for me to be treated curtly when I whined or pouted and was not acceded to in every way. That, of course, would break my heart.
      Broken hearts are not unusual happenstances in the lives of little boys and girls, but not all little boys and girls understand the value of having their hearts broken. I did, and with so many, many adults available, setting the wheels in motion for a disappointment certain to break my heart was not hard at all. A little broken-heartedness went a long way.

     Jeff Boykin, my grandmother’s butler, and now long deceased, was the man whom I loved the most perfectly in the world. And he loved me. He loved everything about me. Jeff worked for Mimi from before my mother and father were married. I am certain he knew I was not actually born to be President of the World, but he didn’t mind treating me as though that were true. Today I cannot say I understand why he felt about me as he did. I most certainly do understand why I felt as I did. Jeff was kind to me. He was always pleased to see me. Anything of mine that needed mending, he always mended, whether fishing rod, BB gun, or heart. Jeff was my default person to go to when my heart got broken
Early one summer evening in my eighth year, I was told by my mother I could not eat dinner with the grown-ups.

      “Why not?”
      “Because Mimi is having guests and there will be no room at the table.”
      “But I want to.”
      “I know you do, but this is one of those times when children aren’t invited. Maggie will make you a nice dinner and I’ll sit with you while you eat in the breakfast room.”
      “But then I won’t get what you will!.”
      “I’m sure you will have what we will have; just a bit earlier.”
      And on and on I’m sure I went, to absolutely no avail except for this. Jeff, to whom I fled, once my mother made clear the matter was settled, said he would take me “fishin’ in the mornin’. And how would I like that?

      “How early?”
      “Befo da sun even come up.”
      “What time is that?”
      “Oh, ‘bout five.”
      “How will I know when to get up?”
      “I b’leve Miss Aloise can find you a ‘larm clock.”
      “What if I can’t hear it?”
      “Why then I’ll jess come raise you up myself.”
      “I know what we could do.”
      “Whas dat?”
      “We could tie a string from my big toe to your big toe, and you could just pull on it.”
      “Ha, ha, ha. Thas right! Thas jest what we could do.”
      Somehow I did wake up and I went downstairs by myself to the kitchen at five o’clock in the morning in the Big House with nobody else awake in the whole house, except for me and Jeff.
      Jeff was wearing khaki pants and a khaki shirt. I’d never seen him dressed that way before. I’d never known Jeff to be dressed in anything but gray or black pants, a white shirt and black tie, bow or four-in-hand, and, when he was serving, a gray (lunch time) or black jacket. To see Jeff in mufti was a special honor. I am today almost certain no other member of my family, uncle, aunt, cousin, brother or sister, saw Jeff dressed as I did that morning.
      We drove in the station wagon my grandparents supplied her help with. Here they were in Sharon, Connecticut, almost a thousand miles away from their home in South Carolina, living not in their own houses with their own families, but, in Jeff’s case, a small bedroom in the warren of rooms above the kitchen. They certainly needed a car for their days off — Thursday after lunch and Sunday after brunch.
      Another family in Sharon, the Hatches, owned a small lake which they invited certain other Sharon families to use. Mostly it was a place where children were taken by their mothers to go swimming in the mornings. The Hatches’ help were given the use of the lake in the afternoons. The lake was teeming with fish — largemouth bass, bluegill, crappie, some sunfish, and yellow perch.
      Out the driveway to Great Elm, you traveled south for two miles as though you were driving to the Sharon Country Club or taking the back way to Dover Plains, but long before you got as far as the club, you took a left onto Hatch Road. There on the right, set back on the rise of the land, was the Hatches’ home. The house is constructed of rough cut blocks of marble. Once it was like most of Sharon’s large homes, made of wood and painted white, but twice it burned down to the foundations. My mother claimed Mr. Hatch got tired of rebuilding so he chose marble.
      Only a half mile farther, a dusty dirt and stone, one lane road led up a hill, over one dug out bump in the road, across the top of the hill, over a second dug out bump, and there below you lay Hatch’s Pond. At shortly after five in the morning in high summer, the water is like black glass. Hanging above it to a distance of perhaps three feet, a mist so thick you can’t see through it, but you can see over and under it.

     Imagine seeing such a sight for the first time in your life, sitting in the front seat with Jeff, probably the biggest and strongest man alive, and at least as good a fisherman as Uncle John, although Jeff would never admit that, but that’s what Mother told me last night when she came up from dinner to tuck me in and promise me she would make sure I heard the alarm clock. Jeff drives the station wagon down the hill, around the flag pole until it’s facing back toward the road. He sets the handbrake and kills the engine.
      I’m struck by the silence. There is virtually no noise. I hear nothing, no birds, deer-flies, cicadas, just somehow the sound of the perfectly flat lake. Then I’m out of the car and at the water’s edge before Jeff has lowered the tailgate.

     I call to Jeff, “I don’t see any!”
     “Ha, ha, ha. Don’t see any fishes” Jeff says as he comes to the water’s edge carrying his tackle box, fishing rods, net, and a can of worms in an empty pail.  He smiles at me and I can see his gold tooth peeking out the right side of his mouth. “Jimmy don’t see no fishes.”
      “Are they hiding?”
      “Das right. They hidin’. They heard ole Jeff and little Jimmy comin’ to get ‘im, so they hidin’.”
      “Do you know where they are?”
      “Sure do. Ole Jeff know jes’ whar dey are.”
      Mr. Hatch kept two row boats at his lake. Both that morning were made of wood. A few years later when things like row boats began to be made of aluminum, he replaced the older boat with one of those. It was the older one Jeff and I took that morning. It was bigger than the other, longer and narrower at the beam. Jeff put the fishing gear in the boat.  He brought two rods, both his, but one for me to use.

     “Why do we need a pail?” I asked him.

      “Put all da fishes in when we catch ’em.  Dem worms so good, dere ain’t hardly two fishes in de whole lake can resist ’em.”

     He shoved the boat out into the water about half way, then he got in and sat in the rear. He told me to get in and sit down on the middle, the rowing seat. Then he stood, took one of the oars and used it to shove us away from shore. Still standing, Jeff used the oar as one would use a paddle in a canoe, and paddled us straight across the lake where there was a little cove. We were very quiet. He put the oar gently down when we were half way across and let us glide the rest of the way. The boat came to a halt twenty or thirty feet from shore.
      Jeff picked up one of the rods. He loosed the hook from the cork handle and handed the butt end of the rod to me.
He reached into the coffee can and poked under the surface of the dirt on the top with his index finger. He curled the finger and withdrew from the can a worm so long and fat, if he’d told me it was a baby snake I would have believed him and leapt overboard.

     “Now, dis de way you hook ‘im so the fish gots to mash down on de hook to get a good bite.” He impaled the worm at one end first, looped it, impaled it again at the middle of the loop, looped it again, and impaled it a third time. “Mister Fish wants some of dis heah, he gone haf ta take him a greedy bite.”
      He let go of the hook and worm and let it dangle. “Now, you hold at while I git mine ready, then I show you how to cass that worm where a big old fish jess waitin’ on his breakfass.” Jeff baited his own hook. “Now den,” he said, “mash down on that button right dere under your thumb — thas right. Now cock you arm back like this heah. Good. Now, when I tell you to, thow your arm forward like you thowing a ball and turn loose dat button at the same time. Now you watch me first.”
      Jeff executed a perfect cast. His worm and hook sailed gracefully out and away and toward the shore. “Go on ahead,” he told me. My first try put the hook and worm into the water three feet from the side of the boat with a great splash. “Thas fine,” Jeff said. “I b’leve you gone git one rite cheer.”
      I did get one right there. The line bumped, I jerked the rod up.  “Thas right.  Thas de way you set de hook.  You got ‘im now.” 

     A few minutes later, after Jeff encouraged and guided me into better and better casts, I got another. Then Jeff caught one, Then another. It seems to me now that we caught dozens of fish. That may not have been true, but we certainly did fill the pail with some of all of the kinds that Hatch’s Pond had to offer. We would spend fifteen minutes or so in front of different parts of the shore, then Jeff would move us farther down the lake. Too soon, before eight, I think because Jeff served Mimi her breakfast at eight thirty, we had to leave. Jeff pole-paddled us all the way back the length of the lake from where we had ended up. He let me keep casting as he propelled the boat.
      Back at the Big House, Jeff carried in the pail of fish to show it and me off to Ella, Margaret, Elizabeth, Leslie, and Maggie. We all had fried fish for breakfast that morning. I was allowed to sit with my friends and admirers at their table in the kitchen because no one else was up and downstairs for breakfast yet. Had it been later, or were I older which I eventually became, I would have been expected to eat my portion of the catch in the breakfast room.
      Jeff and I were friends until after I had a child of my own. When I heard that he was terminally ill with cancer, I wrote him to thank him for teaching me to fish and to drive, which he did well before I was old enough to be licensed. And to tell him I missed him, and I loved him. I didn’t hear back, but my Aunt Priscilla told me that a few months before he died, he had come to call on her where she was staying at Springdale Hall, a country and social club in Camden. He was frail, she said. That was hard for me to imagine. They chatted mainly about the past. Jeff told her about my letter and how much he enjoyed receiving it. “Made me feel so proud, Miz Priscilla. So proud.”

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Responses

  1. Lovely, Jim. Would you send it to my father? Thanks and Happy Easter to you two.

  2. Aw Jim, what a strange growing-up you had. How wonderful to have had Jeff in your life, to support you and teach you some of the things other adults did not have time to help you with. He loved you because, Little Prince or not, he recognized a high-quality person in the making. xxx e

  3. Nice, Jim.

    I once went fishing with Jeff, just as you describe, here.

    Special times! Cameron

  4. I am privileged to be one of your readers! Sho nuff, Jeff sounds great.

  5. Wonderful as always! You know how much I’ve wanted you to do this, so thank you even though you are doing it for yourself–but sharing! As ever the Editor, check whether Mr. Hatch replaced the oldest boat earlier rather than later??

  6. Jim, You are a remarkably smooth, graceful, and lovely writer. I enjoyed this selection immensely both for its insight into you and for its compelling narrative.

    Hugs, Cie

    >

  7. What a lovely portrayal of “privilege,” both his and yours. Thank you for sharing such a beautiful summer memory from your youth, Jim..
    Sometimes all a person has in life is money util a true treasure is bestowed upon them, how sweet to have had that and to be wise enough as a boy to realize some such value,not only in an afternoon of fishing, but a life long friendship that transcends what may or may not line a mans pocket..
    You are a gifted story teller.. I hope you publish… I have forwarded this to Master Ethan who is in the writing program at the university of Iowa. I know he will enjoy reading this as much as I did… Thanks Again, Miss You ~ Kat


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