Posted by: cornvillenutmeg | June 1, 2020

Summer Friends – Part III


Summer Friends – Part III

The trip from West Hartford to Sharon followed CT Route 4 all the way, but when we arrived at Rt. 4’s intersection with Rt. 128, and made the  90º turn to the left, it was time to get excited.  My mother in her station wagon led our small caravan.  Another followed her.  Mimi had sent Leslie with the Great Elm station wagon to help with our move.  Following Leslie was a rented truck which carried bicycles, trunks, suitcases, assorted toys one or another of us believed he or she was unable to get through an entire day without, never mind the entire summer, and, mysteriously, two boxes of books.  Why the books will be clearer later on.

            Once past the gates of Great Elm, as the caravan made its way passed the front and back drives to the Big House, past the stables and Ella’s cottage, took the right hand fork above the pool, tennis court, and weeping willows, we all craned and looked for our particular landmark, the one that spoke most intensely of Great Elm.  For me it was the Stables, not because of the horses and being able to ride. The Stables were Great Elm’s center.  From them, any direction took me somewhere I wanted to be.

At the Barn, as the truck backed up to the front door steps, the station wagons parked and we emerged.  No one said much of anything.  I think we were making sure the views from the Barn were still the same;  The Barn, itself, the Office, the Big House, the pool and tennis court, the stables, or at least what part we could see,  Mr. Bristol’s house,  the hunt ring in the field above the Barn, the orchard on the other side of the dirt road that went up as far as the woods. 

Up there just past the end of the road, a track led off to the right another few yards.  It was there that Williams, and grooms before him, dumped the old hay from the stables in an unshaded corner of the field above the hunt ring where it would ripen to mulch to be spread on the garden beds, around each tree in the orchard, and at the base of the grapevines.  But that was not all the pile was good for.  At any time of day, armed with a pitchfork to move the top layers of hay and an empty coffee, in no time at all, you could expose as many nightcrawlers as your can would hold.  The hay pile was home to hundreds, maybe thousands, and it was Jeff’s secret nightcrawler farm. 

Assured that all Great Elm’s parts were where they were last September, we came to life.  “Can we go visit Mimi?”  Can we go to the pool?”  “Are we going to Hatch’s tomorrow?”  John and Pam and I knew the answers to those questions.  We’d heard them before.  “No. No. We’ll see.  Right now everyone has to help unpack. No one goes anywhere until that is done.”

The truth was, neither our mother nor Juju wanted help.  If the little children helped, the task took  longer.  John, Pam, and I took the wicker trunks with our clothes into our rooms – John and I shared, Pam was by herself until Perky got old enough to be her roommate –  and put everything away in no time at all.  We brought the empty trunks into the hallway, sat on the octagonal bench in the middle of the room, and waited.  Before long, Mother would come by and ask if were finished.  We would say yes.  Then she would ask if we had put away the trunks even though they were almost next to her.  We would say no. She would tell us to store them in the linen closet – the closet was huge, by the way;  it was one of the places we could hide when we played hide and seek on rainy days.  We would take the trunks to the linen closet, and I would put them away on the left most top shelf where they always went.  We would go back to the hallway to wait.  Before long Mother came out from one wing of bedrooms on her way to another.  She would pause and look at us. “Did you put the trunks away?”  We said we had. “Would it be too much to ask you to help your brothers and sisters?”  We would say it was not.  She’d say, “ Pam, you help Betsey, Alison, and Ja-Jay.  Jim, you and John help Buckley and Tim.” 

Pam went straight away.  Her sisters would rather go to the dentist than have Pam mad at them.  She’d be back in the hall in no time.  John started to say it wasn’t fair, but I poked him.  Our mother cared not a twig about fair and unfair.  We went to find Buckley who was not putting anything away but making life hard for Juju and awful for Tim.  We’d drag him into the room he’d sleep in, tell him he had three minutes to put everything away or else.  My wife always chooses “or else.”  Buckley knew better.  He’d experienced any number of or-elses. He took longer than three minutes, but not much. Meantime we looked in on Tim.  Juju was helping him so all we had to do was wait for Buckley. 

Soon everyone was in the hall waiting for Mother to make her next appearance.  When she did, the little ones asked about visiting Mimi and going to the pool.  Mother had, of course, already called Mimi to alert her, so the answer to part one was yes this time.  The answer to part two was no still.  It was too late in the day.  We’d be having supper soon, and then need to get a good night’s sleep if we were going to ready to go to Hatch’s tomorrow.  Mother had a way of giving bad news and good at the same time. 

At that,  Perky, Buckley, and Alison, and anyone else who’d been alive long enough to be able to move independently raced down to the Big House.  Pam did nothing undignified She went into the phone closet, closed the door, and called Susie.  John and I knew the Trowbridges weren’t in Sharon yet because the Heaths always arrived two or three days before they did.  John went his way, I went mine.  I went to visit all the places I liked most beginning with the stables, the hay loft, the top floor of the Big House, the room that was still referred to as the nursery, and before I left, Mimi.  Then I headed back to the Barn with a stop at the pool and the bathing cabins. 

I’ve never thought about that last stop before. The bathing cabins were unremarkable.  They were the right side of a small structure.  The other side, which looked exactly the same from the outside – white clapboard, green shutters –  was for the machinery that kept the water circulating in the pool.  It was always on and when you opened the door to that side, the noise was much louder.  With the door shut, the noise of the pumps and water and filters joined the background, just another of the pool sounds.

There were two bathing cabins, one for boys, one for girls.  Each had a toilet,  one changing booth with a door, and three others there were open.  All the booths had a bench and clothes  hooks on each side.  The bathing cabins were cool almost to the point of being cold, and of course, damp.  A raised wooden slat flooring to keep your feet dry covered the cement floor. I’d look into each side, first boys, then girls.  One side was almost no different from the other except the girls’ had a mirror, and the toilet was at the far end;  ours was the first door on the left, across from the booth with the door, theirs was also on the left but opposite the sink.  Our sink was also at the far end, but in the middle, under the window, between the last booth and an open closet of shelves.  Almost nothing was ever on those shelves –  once in a while a life jacket – except when the bathing cabins were cleaned.  Then any clothing left behind, usually underwear, was picked up and put on one of the shelves.  Oh, and the booths on the girls’ side had curtains instead of just being open. Both sides felt the same and smelled the same.  I can’t say what the smell was like, but what it felt like was summer was almost here.  Only a couple of days until William arrived, and then real summer would start.

One morning you wake up, June is almost over, and it’s been summer for so long, every day is almost the same.  Get up, have breakfast, go riding or visit Mimi, play around till maybe about ten.  Then, time to go to Hatch’s Pond. 

All the little ones are in bathing suits (Pam, John, David, William, and I will change when we get there), and everybody squeezes into Mother’s car.  Who’s everybody?  Me, Pam, John, and our siblings – each year, one more and one more and one more… First Priscilla – we call her Perky – then a year later, Buckley, a year later, Alison, then Betsey, then Jennifer – called Jay-Jay – then Tim, and finally Janet, the only one born in Sharon, two days after Labor Day, 1959, before we moved back to West Hartford.  Also in the car are William, David (and sometimes, Susie), Juju, who was from Hungary and first worked for us as a cook but then became a nurse when the nurse we had whose name was Maria got tuberculosis and wasn’t allowed to be around children anymore.  And Mary Kuptchunis, whom we called the baby nurse because she only worked for us when we had a new brother or sister.  She stayed until they were around two.  Some years she never left or was gone for only a short time. 

If you were keeping count, by the time Janet was part of the family, the station wagon was very crowded – including Mother, sixteen people of different sizes and ages could have been in that car.  Of course, cars didn’t have bucket seats, just straight across bench seats, so four or five children could fit in the back seat, one on Juju’s lap, sometimes two if they were little ones, and one on Mary’s lap.  Mother didn’t mind having two or even three others in the front. Pam and I were big enough to have a little ones on our laps, too.  Usually David would be on William’s lap, and if Susie was with us, someone could sit on her lap.  Most of the time it was Pam because she’s on the small side and doesn’t weigh much. Susie was quite big for her age.  In the way back, which didn’t have seats and was supposed to be where you put only things, if we needed to, we stuffed little ones in and padded them with towels or life vests. Sometimes Mother left the tailgate down, with David and John sitting on it for the whole way, and William and I right behind them holding them around their shoulders so they wouldn’t fall out.  There were probably laws about that kind of crowding, but no one ever seemed to think anything about it. Besides, Hatch’s Pond was only three miles away.

Hatches’ Pond was so special not because it was better than any other pond – I can’t think of another pond we ever went to – but because it was different from what was usual, from our West Hartford routine.

In West Hartford, we went to school during the week and got through the weekends.  On weekends, our father was there from his week in New York, and he wasn’t happy about that.  Our mother was on edge because our father spent most of the weekend wishing he were in New York, not saying so, just acting like it.  School vacations meant only that, in addition to managing the weekends, management of a different sort was required  for this newly unstructured weeks.  We were ever on guard during vacations not to let our mother see us bored.  As often as not, her cures were worse than the boredom itself: puzzles, board games, fresh air, a good book – no disparagement to any of those, but they are enjoyable when the partaking is your idea, not on demand.  Sure, once a week, she might take everyone to the park to skate on the frozen ponds, if they were frozen, and occasionally, every other year or so, there would be a snow storm, a novelty without school to get in the way, and certainly to be made use of.  Then, vacation was over and back to our former routine.

Sharon and summer on the other hand:  Mimi, the Stables, Walsh’s Drugstore, the Singing Hollow Shop, Jeff, the remains of iron manufactories which Mother told us were tombs for Indian chiefs, riding, Dakin’s Department Store in Millerton, NY, with its wooden floors, bubble gum machines, toy department, and looking then as it had looked for fifty or more years which is what Mother told us, woodchuck hunting, Bash Bish Falls, just the other side of the state line from Copake, NY into Massachusetts, fishing, the Catskill Game Farm in Catskill, NY,  now an official historical place known as The Old Catskill Game Farm, supper at the Big House, picnic lunches  at the pool.  Not one thing about Sharon and summer was usual except for the appearance of our father on weekends, but at a place as big as Great Elm, he was easy to avoid.

And all of that started with Hatch’s Pond.  Somehow our morning visits to Hatch’s always held the possibilities of any of the others, which we would seldom know were coming.  Mother might tell us he night before, but most of the time, not until breakfast on the day of.

 Other families came to Hatch’s as well, a small number who, like us, were invited by Mr. and Mrs. Hatch to use the pond to swim in the morning.  Those families did not come often whereas we went practically every day.  Secretly, we considered the pond to be ours, the Heath’s that is. Maybe the other families didn’t go so much because we were always there, noisily and vigorously taking up space.  That’s a thought, anyway.

People who went to Hatch’s parked their cars on the back side of a small circle, oval really. Three tall pine trees grew between the circle and the pond and provided shade.  From there to the wet sand,  called the beach, the grass was kept mowed to lawn length.  The beach was small, maybe ten feet wide and twenty or so long. If you’ve ever noticed, sand on the edge of ponds and lakes never completely dries out the way it does by an ocean.  This sand was hard packed, good for making small castle and things, but not comfortable to sit on or lie on.  That didn’t matter since we weren’t at Hatch’s to rest.

Adjacent to the beach area, to the right, was a boat house, well, a half boat house.  The first half was two changing rooms, one for girls, one for boys. The boat house half was mysterious. The only way to get in as far as we could tell was from the water.  Farther than you could reach from the bank was a sort of half barn door – half the long way top to bottom, not the wide way, side to side. To door could only be gotten to from the water. You had to row your boat through a wide area of Lily pads. Then, even if you got there and were brave enough to open the door, there was no light on the inside. You could never know what was in where you couldn’t see without a flashlight which we never remembered to bring.

Maybe fifty feet from shore, a float,  big enough for several children to be on at the same time, was anchored by four chains hooked or tied to something way down in the weeds where you couldn’t see.  The float was covered with burlap to help you not to slip.  There was a diving board at one corner, and it, too, was covered with burlap.  By the end of each summer, the burlap had gotten frazzled, but sure enough, next June, there it would be again, all fresh and new. Each summer, another sibling was a good enough swimmer to make it out to the float and back.  I guess that was meaningful to them; I never noticed. Pam, John, and I were always a good swimmers.

Play at Hatch’s was individual.  Heath children teamed with other Heath children, but the team membership shifted depending on where and when.  William and I had no idea what John and David were up to.  We could see them, obviously busy, but we could not tell at what.  Buckley and Perky would sometimes be in the water, clinging to one of the float’s anchoring chains, talking in low, inaudible voices, occasionally ducking underwater and surfacing at a different chain.  Alison and Betsey stayed on the beach, digging and poking at the sand, not building anything particularly, more making designs that had no plan, that weren’t really designs.  Tim was alone.  Jay-jay might play with him for a while, but she wanted to be with Betsey and Alison who would sometimes let her join them.  But Tim could always count on Juju for companionship, and Mother if this were one of her days.

William and I dove and cannonballed, swam underwater, thought about swimming all the way across the pond to the other side, would get pretty far from shore, notice how much farther we had to go, and decide it wasn’t something we really wanted to do after all.  Once in a while, we’d take one of the rowboats out, row down to the other end of the pond, and explore the edges, or give the little ones rides, two at a time. 

At eleven-thirty, more or less, toys and tubes, towels, life vests and children were gathered up and stuffed back into the station wagon. Back at the Barn, everyone changed, or was changed, from wet swimming suits back into summer clothing for lunch at noon.


Responses

  1. Will you be collecting these lovely reminiscences in a book??

  2. That’s the plan.


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