Posted by: cornvillenutmeg | April 6, 2020

My Chipmunk Brain

Chipmunks are cute, undeniably cute, but they also work so hard.  And the difficulties they face!  I appreciate those difficulties these days.  I didn’t always, but I did always think they were cute.  In fact, I thought they were cute the very first time I saw one. Then I was a young child, and I wanted one. I bet every child in North American felt the exact same way with his first chipmunk.  

I say North America because on no other continent do they exist.  You can Google it if you want.  Go ahead, try African Chipmunk.

Ah.  You’re feeling smug, aren’t you?  You see page after page in response to your prompt, but now, look at the first entry.  Disappointed?  You can try the rest, but you’ll still be disappointed.  Same thing is going to happen with Australia, Asia, Antarctica, Europe, and South America.

If you are a non-North American, you’ll have to settle for other, wee cute rodents that are not chipmunks.  For instance, the Cape Ground Squirrel; I find them pretty darn cute.  And the Hazel Dormouse is not only cute as cute can be, it’s unique –  the only species of the genus Muscardinus, so there.  You can run into a Hazel D. in all sorts of places:  Northern Europe, Asia Minor, the British Isles, and in County Kildare in the Irish Free Republic.  (On the same page I found Dwarf Mongooses which are seriously adorable, and even very tame, but they only look like rodents.  If you’re thinking of one for a pet, you may be put off by their best friends, Hornbills.  They’ll poop all over your house.)

For all I know, you have visited India’s west coast.  So, tell me, did you, while you were there, catch a glimpse of what you would swear was a chipmunk?  Yes?  Now, do you want to know what you really saw?  A Jungle Palm Squirrel, superficially close in appearance to our chipmunk.  In fact, in that part of the world, you might also maybe have caught a glimpse of a Nilgiri Striped Squirrel, maybe even a Lariscus Three-striped Squirrel, although that would be unlikely. Depends a little on how you feel about Borneo.

South America. Now wouldn’t you think if any other continent was going to have a chipmunk or chipmunk-like rodent, it would be South America?  After all, it’s more or less connected to North America.  But nope.  Not even a look-alike.  In fact, except for one I’ll tell you about in a bit, South America’s rodents are not an attractive bunch.  The easiest on the eyes, so to speak, is the guinea pig.  South America has all sort of those, but they eat them, like regular food.  Try this thought experiment:  cuddle up to a chicken, headless, featherless, wrapped up and on display in the meat department of your local supermarket.  How’s that? I  know. I didn’t like it, either. 

As I suggested, there is one very cute South American rodent:  the Andean Squirrel.  It’s a reddish-brown and only six inches long, not counting the tail which is also about six inches.  Don’t get your hopes up, though, because you’re probably not going to run into one of those unless you happen to be a fan of the cloud forests of the Columbian Andes. 

And by the way, what goes for South America, goes double for Australia, but without an exception.  For Australia, though, I do have a theory about why there are no cute rodents.  Once upon a time, there actually were cute ones.  Probably the Sandy Inland Mouse, or even the Heath Mouse, used to be cute as anything, but they stopped being cute maybe a couple thousand or so years ago.  Why? Snakes.  Australia is the poisonous snake capital of the world.  Think of what it meant to be cute way back when.  You know how cute things stand out?  Think Ruby Throated Hummingbird, or Lilac Breasted Roller.  See what I mean?  Those rodents, the cute ones, they were the first ones the snakes went after because they were so easy to spot.  So the cute ones had a choice:  do the Darwin thing PDQ or just give up and go extinct. Next thing you know, everywhere you go in Australia, nothing but drab, ordinary looking rodents, ordinary by Australian standards, that is.  Plus all those hungry poisonous snakes.

Back to my appreciating chipmunks.  I’m going to explain that.  When I lived in Connecticut, I liked to plant flowers in the beds around our house. The house was pretty big, so there was much to take care of.  It was in this time of my life that I no longer saw chipmunks as cute because they dig holes.  Their favorite digging ground is garden soil; it’s loose and really easy to dig in.  If they were digging dens for the winter, I might have looked on this chipmunk activity with less annoyance. But they were not.  They were just digging holes either to find food they’d buried the previous fall, or to hide food during the late summer and fall.  Every once in a while, if they were feeling peckish, say, they would have a gnaw or two of a plant’s roots, doing that plant worlds of no-good, but most of this activity seemed to be about holes for holes’ sake. I had to find out, and when I did, I also found out that chipmunks spend most of the winter hibernating, or giving a very convincing imitation of hibernating.  Mammal experts do not agree on whether chipmunks are or are not to be included in a list of mammals that hibernate.  So, I thought, what’s going on with the food holes?  Why do they need food if they’re going to sleep through the winter?

My problem with their holes was that those cute little buggers always chose to dig right next to a plant, most frequently an annual flowering plant, and that plant would die immediately, from the indignity, I figured.  Anyway, by the time I discovered the partially dug up plants, they were wilted dead. 

I tried all sorts of things to dissuade the chipmunks.  Fox urine, coyote urine – I might have even welcomed a poisonous Australian snake or two because the fabled Eastern Diamondback and the putatively shy Copperhead most certainly put not even the smallest dent in the chipmunk population.  So reluctantly I put out traps.

 In case you are wondering, mouse traps don’t bother chipmunks one bit.  Rat traps, on the other hand, worked pretty well.  They also work well on anything else at all that showed interest in the peanut butter I used for bait, specifically gray squirrels, red squirrels, blue jays, dogs, and cats. (I know, who ever heard of a cat that liked peanut butter?  Well, now you have.)  Happily I recognized how irresistible our pets found peanut butter, and stopped using rat traps before any damage was done, corporally or emotionally – I’m thinking of the cat with that last, my dog Emma would each day believe, today is the day the trap will not snap.  I moved on to electric traps. They’re like a little electric chair except it’s a box.  The makers of those execution chambers were thinking rats, but I can tell you they are perfect for chipmunks.  And field mice and the occasional vole.  Poor little things.  I gave all of them a nice burial, deep enough so the coyotes couldn’t get them even though coyotes have to eat, too, but leaving them out for the night crew would feel like insult to injury.

Now I’m in Arizona.  All I have are potted plants, and I’m no longer on the warpath for chipmunks.  It’s not that they don’t dig in pots, they do.  The difference is I’m old, and, as I said, I’ve come to appreciate what they and I have in common.  I keep a bucket of garden soil handy to replace the dirt the chipmunks displace. They never seem to want to dig in that bucket.  I wonder why that is?

So, what we have in common: If I were to make a list of the items I’ve taken down or moved or otherwise gotten out of the way, which I then put somewhere really smart, a place where those things would be safe … well, that would be a long, long list.  The things is, when I get around to noticing that a particular thing is missing, like for instance the plaque that was hanging in the kitchen that my Aunt Carol gave to my wife, Edie, whose maiden name was Rubino – “The only thing wrong with Italian food is that seven days later, you’re hungry again.”  I’d moved that to make room for a Christmas decoration.  After de-decorating, I wanted to put it back.  All I knew was to look in really smart places, which I did.  I haven’t found it yet.  I think I won’t find it until I want to put something else in a really smart place where it will be safe.  It only bothers me a little to know there’s at least one really smart place in this small house I apparently don’t know about.

See?  The chipmunks can’t remember where they hide their food so they just keep digging in likely (think smart) – and unlikely for that matter – places.  Once in a while they find something, probably more often than  I do.

Posted by: cornvillenutmeg | December 29, 2019

I prefer things to make sense.

For instance, if you want to take a bus from one place in a city to another, the place to stand is in the close vicinity of a bus stop.  That makes sense.  Or if you want a built-in bookcase made of dark cherry wood,  hire a carpenter, not a brick layer. (I speak only to the not-handy, otherwise, by all means, make it yourself with wood.  Dark cherry, if you like.)

From twelve to nineteen, I played club football.  At twelve, I was one of the bigger players; my coach told me I was a tackle.  Back then we played both offense and defense so I learned how to block and how to tackle.  By fifteen, though, I was taller and much slimmer, no longer tackle size.  Nor was I suited to quarterback, nor was I fast enough for running back.  What was left?  End.  I didn’t need to learn blocking or tackling, but I did need to learn catching and patterns.  I could do that.  I didn’t think it was hard.

At fifteen, I was no longer on a club team.  Instead I played on the junior varsity team. We scored touch downs on offense and defense. We tackled quarterbacks and running backs in their own backfield. We were very good and lost no games.

The end of the fall sports season always included a morning athletic assembly.  Members of teams, junior varsity and varsity, were called to line up in alphabetical order to receive certificates, numerals (of one’s graduation year), or letters.  At that season’s assembly, our coach gave a brief recap of our season.  He was very brief. He asked us to stand, and then announced to the student body that ours had been an undefeated team.  The entire student body and faculty applauded us.  We were celebrated.  We were acutely embarrassed and very proud.  All day long we were congratulated by our peers, upperclassmen, those in lower  school (grades 7 through 9), and by many of the masters, which was what we called teachers.

I know for a fact that never, not once, in any of the games of that undefeated season, did any of us celebrate a good play: touchdown, tackle, a long run, or a skilled catch.  We patted each other on the back, said nice catch, or good running, or way to go, great tackle.  We never danced, we never pretended to pose for a picture, we took no stance or posture and looked at the bleachers (there were almost always at least two or three parents watching), and we never spiked the ball.  None of that ever occurred to us.  What we did do was play the game we had been taught and coached to play as well as we could.  That was fun and rewarding, which was the point, which made sense, which was why we were there on the field in the first place.

I stopped playing football after high school – not big or fast enough. I did watch our team play.  I cheered for them, glad when they won, sad when they lost.  That was the fall of 1964, and I never saw any of the kind of celebrating that is nowadays impossible not to see many times over whenever a football game is televised.  To me, it’s unseemly, unsportsman like, braggadocios.

Professional athletes are paid astonishing amounts of money.  Surely that is reward enough, not to mention, what else are they hired to do other than play football well which includes, as it always has, tackling, blocking, catching, running, and scoring points?  Does it not make sense that a young man who is paid multiple millions of dollars to catch footballs actually does catch footballs?  Is that not what he expects of himself?  Isn’t that what his coaches expect?  Is that not what his owner, he who pays the salaries, expects?  Certainly fans expect that.  Does it make sense that doing precisely what you have been hired to do is cause for celebration?

Then finally there’s this:  celebrating successful football play apparently has nothing to do with your team’s success.  Even when a team is clearly going to lose the game, say, behind thirty points or more at the final two minutes warning, first downs are accompanied by the exaggerated sword thrust, hand gesture.  What exactly is that celebration meant to celebrate.  Certainly not the team’s play.  What’s left if not that one particular player’s successful play, albeit in a losing effort?

Other sports are not exempt, but no others celebrations are so elaborate, so emphatic and extravagant.  I enjoy watching football games more than any other sport (except for the UCONN Women’s Basketball Team), but I do wish most players would take notice of the handful of players who do what they’ve been hired to do, like handing the ball to a ref, and jogging back to the huddle.  I appreciate that, not the other.

Posted by: cornvillenutmeg | April 23, 2019

A Street Photography Location Nonpareil

Not from me, but you will enjoy this post.

Tulip Frenzy

All images Leica M10 with 35mm Summilux FLE or 21mm Summilux

I saw a provocative headline recently that asked “Is Instagram Killing The Great Outdoors?” Of course, Betteridge’s Law of Headlines states, “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered no.”

Still, it’s a pretty good question. Ten years ago, Horseshoe Bend near Page, Arizona was a lovely place to stop and reflect high above the curvature of the Colorado. These days, hundreds of people arrive in busses in order to get selfies they post on Instagram.

There are people falling off of Yosemite cliffs, trying to get that Instagram post that will generate likes. One instinctively recoils from what we perceive to be a desecration of nature — going to the right place, but for the wrong reason.

But what of buildings, street corners, locations that seem made for photography? The Occulus is the Santiago Calatrava-designed…

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Posted by: cornvillenutmeg | December 5, 2017

On Reserving Judgement


“…the future becomes present, the present past, and the past turns into everlasting regret…”

Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams 


       The website has this to say about Alabama’s age of consent laws: “The age of consent is sixteen. With parental consent, parties can marry at age fourteen. However, this parental consent is not required if the minor has already been married… Common law marriage is recognized.” 

     Speaking of himself at the age of 32, candidate for the U.S. Senate from the state of Alabama Judge Roy Moore said, “I don’t remember dating any girl without the permission of her mother.”  The year was 1979.

     On November 4, 1979, 63 Americans were taken hostage in Teheran. I’m sure I didn’t notice, but I can’s say with certainty.  All I know is that I was likely in the morning or afternoon or evening, doing one teacherly supervisory duty or another.  On Saturday, August 9 of that year, in Brighton, England, the first nudist beach on the UK was established, and I wasn’t there.  Farrah Fawcet turned 32 on February 2nd.  Inflation was 11.2%.  The DOW ended the year at 838.  My red Ford Fiesta cost $4,400.00. I do remember I liked it.  None of that data did I recall; I found them all on the internet, of course.

     I think about me in 1979 and mostly I cringe.  Too much of that me I find shameful.  Had I been then as wise, sensible, empathetic, and rational as I am now, I think, or perhaps it should be, I hope I would see that me in a better light.

     The idea of a thirty-two-year-old dating a fourteen-year-old is repulsive.  I am mindful, however, that the year is 2017 and I am 72.  So, being today far wiser, more sensible, empathetic, and rational than I was then, I reserve my judgement.  I recommend that for those whose capacity for angst is at the bursting point.


Posted by: cornvillenutmeg | December 3, 2015

Jimmy the Geek

Today I have invited a guest to contribute to the Cornvillenutmeg.


     My name is Brian Lister. My sophomore year in high school was so far the hardest year of my life. Because of that, and maybe so I’d understand it all better, I wrote down everything that happened. For a long time, what I wrote sat in a drawer in a large manila envelope. Now the whole story is in a book, Jimmy the Geek.
     I read it again a couple of weeks ago. After all this time, it surprised me how many different subjects came up: friendship, loyalty, betrayal, homophobia, bullying, bigotry, and basically what’s fair and not fair. And everything that happened was the result one physically weak high school sophomore and the effect he had on both his friends and enemies.
     When Jimmy moved to town during the summer, he interrupted my friendship with Harry, who was my best friend and always had been. Pretty much from then on, Harry and I stopped doing what we used to do, like playing touch football or ultimate Frisbee with other kids, fishing, camping, going to the beach. That was because Jimmy wasn’t really strong enough to do things like that on account of he had a health issue. So instead, Harry and I spent the rest of the summer doing mostly what Jimmy preferred, like listening to opera, going to see a ballet, cooking, every once in a while a movie.
     By the time school started Harry and I were more or less used to Jimmy and had gotten to like him okay – well, Harry more than me, really. Most of the other kids, though? Not so much. That was the main problem which got to be a bigger and bigger deal as the year went on until everything more or less exploded into an epic mess that changed everything and pretty much everyone.
     What you’re going to see when you read this book, these kinds of things are happening all the time. In fact, I’ll bet you a dollar you won’t have to look very hard to see stuff a lot like them in your own school.

Brian Lister

Posted by: cornvillenutmeg | September 21, 2015



     Mother, Mimi, and I are standing on the train platform in Pennsylvania Station. A man called Porter has brought all our suitcases off the train, and a man called Redcap is putting them on a big cart. He will bring them to the street where Leslie is waiting for us.
     We follow Redcap up a ramp and into the station which is a big room. Redcap pushes the cart across the floor of the station to where there are six doors. Mother hurries up to get in front of him. She opens the door so Redcap can push the cart through. Then Mimi goes through the door with me, and then Mother.
     Mimi looks around for Leslie. A man dressed in an all-black suit and a black hat and very shiny black shoes steps up to Mimi and waits for her to turn around. He looks down at me and smiles, but not a big one, not the kind where you can see teeth.
     Mimi turns around and sees the man. “Oh, Carlos. There you are.” Mimi looks at me and says, “Jimmy, this is Leslie. He’s going to drive us all the way to the Big House.”
     If his name is Leslie, I wonder why Mimi called him Carlos? Mother, who was thanking Recap and shaking hands with him, steps up and says, “Hello, Leslie. Thank you so much for coming to get us.”
     Leslie says, “Yes, ma’am.” I decide his name must be Leslie.
     Mother looks at me. “Jimmy? Do you remember Leslie?” I move so I’m to the side of but also behind Mother. I nod.
“Can you say hello?” Mother says. That means I’m supposed to say hello so I do.
     Leslie and Redcap put the suitcases into the trunk of the car, which is very long, and also black and shiny. Leslie and the car look like they belong together.
     Mother opens the door to the back seat. Then she flips down a little seat that faces backwards. Mother calls it a jump seat. She and Mimi get in and sit in the back seat which is pretty far away from mine. I’ve never seen a backwards seat in a car before. Mimi says, “Now Jimmy, you have the best seat because you’ll be able to see all the skyscrapers.”
     Leslie closes the door and gets in the front. Mimi says, “We’re going to stop at the office to pick up Mr. Buckley before we head home.”
     Leslie says, “Yes, ma’am.”
     Mimi’s right. I am in the best seat. And there’s another one on the other side for the window over there. Mother says I can sit on both. There’s lots and lots of buildings, but also people and trucks and cars. Most of the cars are yellow. Mother says those are taxi cabs and that if you have enough money, they will take you wherever you want to go as long as it’s not too far away. The taxi cabs and trucks blow their horns all the time.
     We pick up my grandfather at 103 East 37th Street. That’s where his office is. That’s also where my father and my Uncle Jim and Uncle John have their offices, but only Father is riding to Sharon with us. I call my grandfather Father because I call my father Daddy. He says, “Well, Jimmy. It looks like you’ve grown another foot. Are you almost as tall as I am?” He always thinks I grow a lot when I see him.

     Leslie, whose last name was Carlos, was married to Elizabeth who was my grandmother’s maid. Sometimes, though, if my grandparents were having a cocktail party or big dinner party, Elizabeth would help serve.
Leslie and Elizabeth had three children: Alma who was my Aunt Carol’s age, Wayne, whom Elizabeth called Rodney, and Kathy. Wayne was about my brother John’s age, Kathy was my sister Priscilla’s age. In South Carolina they lived in their own house just across a sandy road from my grandparent’s home, Kamchatka.
     Their house is gone now, of course, as is most of what I recall about my grandmother’s home there in Camden. Elizabeth’s house was small and cozy and smelled of burning coal because it was heated by a coal stove that sat between the kitchen and another room which I never saw. I would go to visit Elizabeth and her children in the afternoons when my family was in Camden. Alma taught me to play hop-scotch in the sand in front of the front porch of their house. Leslie was never there when I visited.
      In Sharon, Elizabeth and her family lived in an apartment that was created in one end of the hayloft above the horse stalls in the stables. Below their apartment was the laundry room where Hester did all the laundry for everyone who lived at Great Elm, except for Bristol and his family. They lived in a house all year-long so they had their own washing machine.
Hester was busy almost every day. An outside staircase was built onto that end of the stables so Elizabeth and her family wouldn’t have to go through the stables when they wanted to go home.
Elizabeth arrived each morning at my grandmother’s room after Mimi had had her breakfast. If any of us were visiting, Elizabeth would say, “I’ll come back later, Miz Buckley.”
     And Mimi would say, “Oh, thank you Elizabeth. We’re just finishing up a story.”
As she left, Elizabeth would say, “Take your time.” Then she might add, “Nowhere to be till lunch time.” But if Mimi had an appointment, then Elizabeth would remind her that she had to be at the hairdresser at such and such a time. Or perhaps it was the day Mimi had promised to have lunch with Mrs. Bogardus. Elizabeth would remind her of that. Mimi already knew what she was going to do, but that way she could tell the children who were visiting she was going to have to make this one the last story, but she hoped they would come back tomorrow.

     I believe the occasion of meeting Leslie was also the first time I had been to New York City. I was enchanted, and from my perch on first one and then the other of the two jump seats, I peered at the buildings, taxi cabs, trucks, and occasionally another limousine.
     From the office, Leslie drove us to the West Side Highway which he followed until it became the Henry Hudson Parkway. Back then, that highway emptied into a large traffic circle which Leslie drove around half-way to the beginning of the Saw Mill River Parkway. By that time there was no more to see. My mother saw I was tired, and told me I could curl up on the floor. She covered me with a blanket, and I fell asleep listening to her and Mimi talking. My grandfather had already put his head back and was asleep.
     While Father and I slept, Leslie drove. He left the Saw Mill in Millbrook, New York, and then took Route 44 to Amenia, New York. From there, Sharon is only a few miles on Route 343, then only a minute more to Great Elm.

I didn’t know Leslie did anything other than drive the limousine until one summer when the gardener wasn’t there. He, the gardener, was not one of the group who traveled from South Carolina each year to take care of Great Elm. He lived in Sharon (I presume) and perhaps he worked on the place year round. He was an older white man, gray-haired, who always wore a hat, an old and stained fedora. Sometimes I would be in the patio alone or with my friend William. We would hear the outside door sigh open and then close. It was the gardener slipping in with his watering can. He made very little sound. He didn’t sing to himself or whistle. His did not let his can clatter even though it was made of metal and had a very long spout, nor did he over-water for I cannot recall hearing the sound of water splashing on the tile floor. A half-hour or so later, the door would open again and close, and he was gone without out our ever having really seen him. On days when plants didn’t need watering, he drove one of the ganged riding mowers.
     The summer the gardener vanished coincided with my seeing Leslie for the first time dressed in clothing other than his chauffeur’s attire. He took over the watering of the plants and mowing the lawn and wore khaki pants and shirt. That may also have been the summer when Leslie became the person who would drive me and my older siblings and William to the movies once or twice a week, not in the limousine but in the station wagon Jeff drove when we went fishing.

     Leslie was short, almost a foot shorter than Jeff, so the Friday morning he and Jeff showed up at my mother’s bedroom door in the Barn, they made an incongruous looking pair. Jeff was in his gray jacket, Leslie was dressed for the outdoors. They did not look well or happy. They had come to receive harsh words and to deliver an apology.
On their days off, the servants would often all squeeze into the station wagon and drive to Poughkeepsie, New York. Poughkeepsie is west of Millbrook where we had left the Saw Mill and headed east. The city is about an hour’s distance from Sharon. I had it in my mind that they all had friends there, but I think now the attraction was of a different sort, one where the clientele was black, the music unrestrained, and the liquor plentiful. On one such occasion, the night preceding their appearance, Jeff and Leslie began an argument that continued during the drive back to Sharon in the wee hours of the morning. Once out of the car, fisticuffs ensued with the result that Leslie scored a technical knockout which is to say Jeff went down. Neither had further appetite for another round.
     I do not know the facts pertaining to how or why my mother learned of this incident. With Mimi away for the height of hay fever season, my mother as senior Buckley lady in residence, was the designated arbiter of their breech of conduct.
Mother was still in bed. She, like Mimi, took her breakfast in bed every morning – coffee and a piece of dry toast which she never ate all of.

For us children, sleeping in Mother’s room was a special treat although as we reached adolescence, not one we often sought to enjoy. My guess is that sleeping in her room was something she initiated when we were croupy as she used to say. An aspect of mothering she was truly gifted at was making a sick or otherwise unhappy child feel better, even good. She personally would prepare for the patient strips of white, crust-less bread, buttered and sprinkled with sugar, or cinnamon toast – whichever you preferred – and sweet tea with milk. When she wasn’t running errands or driving other children to or from school, piano lessons, dancing school, dentist, and catechism classes, she spent her time with her invalid child. So sleeping in our father’s bed – generally unoccupied more than two hundred nights a year – was associated with feelings of being cosseted.
     I can’t at this remove begin to know why I was in need of pampering the night before. As like as not, the previous night I was feeling lonely, bored, and sorry for myself; or perhaps the night before had been very hot and sticky; Mother’s room was the only one with an air conditioner. My being still asleep when Jeff and Leslie arrived was no more than an unfortunate coincidence.

     I am not a child of the South, but my mother was and her parents were and their parents were. I haven’t any idea when the Steiner family (Mimi’s maiden name) grew wealthy enough to have servants, but by Mimi’s childhood, they were and they did. Her great-grandfather emigrated from Switzerland to New Orleans in 1845 with his wife and seven children. He was a shoemaker by trade. His son Louis, Mimi’s father, died in the early days of the Civil War, probably of wounds received in service to the Confederacy. His widow with four children, married one George Kraus of whom I know no more. Louis’ son, Aloysius had four children with his first wife. None of the children survived. The oldest lived only until she was five. It was believed she perished from grief over her mother’s death. Aloysius married a second time to Marie Wassem. The first of their four children was Mimi. By the time of his death, Aloysius had risen to Secretary-Treasurer of A. Baldwin & Co. As far as Mimi knew, her family always had servants.
     My grandfather’s family did not. He was one of five children whose father John was the sheriff of San Diego, Texas. John was well-respected by the citizens of San Diego, but not well paid.
     My parents had servants although not the way Mimi did. My grandparents employed more than twelve people to take care of them, their homes, and their estates.

     I am a fan of formality, ceremony, ritual, and routine. I am comforted by courtesy. All of those qualities I value were inextricably entwined in my experience with my grandmother’s servants in my growing up. I take pride in being an almost perfectly polite man.
     I recall the first time Mimi invited me for supper at Great Elm. I suspect it was on that visit which began at Penn Station. My mother told me everything I needed to know about how to behave.
Gentlemen, she told me, stand up when a lady enters or leaves the room. Children stand when anyone older than they enters.
     If a male who is older leaves his seat to use the powder room or to take a phone call, children do not need to rise, although they may choose to; however, if a lady leaves, children should rise unless the lady says specifically not to.
Gentlemen allow ladies to precede them out of and into a room. Children give the same courtesy to anyone older than they. If, however, a boy is asked to escort a lady into the dining room, he and she are to be shown the deference due the lady. If the lady is Mimi, then you and she go first.
     In the dining room, a gentleman helps the lady he is escorting into her seat by pulling out her chair, and then helping her to slide it back in. Then he remains standing behind his chair until all the ladies are seated and all other gentlemen older than he are also seated.
     Always thank Jeff and Ella when they bring you something.
     I remembered everything Mother told me. Mimi asked me to escort her, and even though Jeff had already pulled Mimi’s chair out, he stepped aside so I could be the one to push the chair in. But he helped me. All evening long, I received compliments on how good my manners were and what a gentleman I was.
     Mimi told everyone where to sit. The seats to her right and left were for honored male guests. Honored lady guests sat on either side of my grandfather at the other end of the table from Mimi. When I was included, I almost always sat on Mimi’s left. That seat was called Starvation Corner because it was the last one to be served. I never minded it though, and here’s why. When you had supper at the Big House, everyone waited until everyone else had been served, even though Mimi always said, “You all may go ahead. Don’t let your supper get cold.” So being the last one served meant I didn’t have to wait as long as everybody else.
      Jeff and Ella were in and out many, many times during supper – to take away the first plate that your napkin was on, to bring you your warm plate the food would go on, to serve bread – almost always half pieces of toast cut into triangles – to serve the meat, the vegetables, and the starch. To pour wine, to re-fill water goblets, to re-fill wine glasses, to pass all the food a second time, to take away the plates, to crumb the table around your place, to bring finger bowls, to take away the plate the finger bowl came on after you had twinkled your fingers in the lemony water, wiped them off on your napkin, and moved the bowl with its doily to your left where your butter plate had been before Jeff or Ella took it away. And finally to serve dessert. And every time Jeff or Ella offered me food, took away a plate, brought me a plate or finger bowl, re-filled my water, swept up my crumbs (of which I always had more than anyone else so there really was something to sweep around my place), I said, “Thank you,” and looked them in the eye and smiled, and they would whisper, “You’re welcome,” or “You’re welcome, Jam,” if it was Ella.
      What I noticed was that not everyone at the table said something to them. Mimi did, my mother and aunts who were Mimi’s children did, although, except for Mimi, nobody actually looked at the person who had served. And sometimes, when all the food was brought around a second time, many of the diners stared at the platter or bowl Ella or Jeff was holding for about six seconds, looking as though they weren’t sure what it was or why it was there. They would wave a hand, and the platter was withdrawn. Except for Mimi, and except for my mother. She did do the staring part, but she actually said the words.
     The dessert dishes were cleared after everyone left the dining table which everyone did after Jeff had carried the coffee tray into the sitting room where cocktails had been served. Once he put the tray down on the coffee table where Mimi would serve it, he would come back into the dining room, pause at the entry, and say, “Mz Buckley, the coffee is ready.”
     She would say, “Thank you, Boykin.” And we would all make out way back to the sitting room the same way we had come into supper.

     All of the foregoing is to make clear the point that the only way I knew of to treat any of the servants was to be both polite and friendly, and I just could not imagine how either of those was going to be a part of how Mother was going to handle Jeff and Leslie.
     As I said, I am polite. My dear wife Edie would say I am overly so, that I go out of my way to be polite even to the extent of inconveniencing myself. She once asked my cousin, Peter, also an oldest of a large family, what he had been brought up to be. At the time Edie was new to my family. She was curious about our upbringing. In answer Peter said, “Polite.”
Impoliteness on the part of anyone else could enrage my mother. She once took hold of a museum guard and physically shook him, saying, “Don’t you ever speak to me that way again!” I promise you, there was no chance he would repeat that to her or anyone else.
     Impoliteness on her own part was so disturbingly unthinkable she could become flustered even at the notion that she might inadvertently do or say something possibly indecorous.

Almost in unison, Jeff and Leslie said good morning to Miz Heath. My mother in her bed jacket, her tray of coffee and mostly uneaten toast in front of her bid them a curt good morning in return. Then there was silence. Leslie and Jeff probably thought she was being stern. I was fairly sure she simply had no idea what to say. The only humans she was good at castigating were her children and her husband.
     After almost too long, Mother cleared her throat. “Would either of you care to explain to me exactly what happened?”
Both Jeff and Leslie started to speak. Mother held up her hand. “One at a time, if you please. Jeff, you may go first..”
Jeff stumbled through an explanation which, when it wasn’t disjointed was all but incomprehensible. Mother did not interrupt him but let him go on and on until he simply ran out of words to speak. Leslie followed with an abbreviated version. He relied on many, “Like Jeff say” to make his way through to the end. Then, each apologized.
“Very well,” Mother said. “You may go. Let this be an end to this episode. We shall take this no further…” She did not end the sentence as much as leave it hanging.
     Jeff more quickly than Leslie saw that more would be forthcoming. He said, “Yes, ma’am?”
She graced him with a nod of the slightest approval. “Provided such a thing never happens again.”
“Yes, ma’am,” they both said. And, “Thank you, Miz Heath.” They backed their way through the open door. Jeff leaned back to close the door. He caught me looking at him. He winked and pulled the door shut.
     Mother waited until she knew they were well on their way. “I have no idea in the world what that was all about.”
     “How did you find out?” I asked. This had all happened late last night, and here it was no later than nine-thirty the following morning.
     “Elizabeth called me first thing this morning to let me know what had happened and to say that Leslie and Jeff wanted to come to apologize.”
     “What were they apologizing for?” While the idea of Jeff being drunk bothered me only slightly less than his having lost a fight to Leslie, it didn’t seem to me what they had done had hurt anyone other than they themselves.
Mother looked at me as though she couldn’t understand how she had raised such an ignoramus. “Conduct unbecoming of the family,” she said.
     “But they aren’t family, they just…”
      She cut me off. “They most certainly are. While there is no question of a consanguineous connection, the servants are just as much a part of the Buckley family as you or I. And they are treated as such. And they are expected to act as such.”

     I  don’t know when either Leslie or Elizabeth died. In searching for notices of their deaths or obituaries, I found notice of their son Roderick’s death in April of 2011, at the age of 59. The notice included the information that his parents had predeceased him. A few years before her own death, my aunt Priscilla on her annual visit to Camden over Christmas, visited Elizabeth in the cottage Mimi and Father had built for her on the grounds of what used to be part of Kamchatka. She had wanted to express her condolences to Elizabeth on having lost her husband.
Elizabeth looked surprised. “Oh, Miz Priscilla. Don’t you give that one second of thought. That Leslie, he was a bad, bad man. I am just so happy to be rid of that man before my time comes.”
     Aunt Priscilla was more tickled than anything else. It turns out that no one had ever much liked Leslie, but he was tolerated because of how much Mimi loved Elizabeth.

Posted by: cornvillenutmeg | April 3, 2015

Jeff Boykin

A Tale of Summer

     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.”

Posted by: cornvillenutmeg | March 20, 2015

Late Night Snack

A Tale of Summer
Late Night Snack

     It is late on an August evening, past nine. Mother and John are in the kitchen. John is standing with his back to the refrigerator. Mother is facing him. Over her shoulder, John can see the kitchen windows but nothing beyond them. Still, he knows what’s there: thirty-eight seconds running full tilt, his friend David’s house. David and his family have gone to see a play, otherwise John would be there. He wishes now he had been invited to go to the play, too. Mother is in one of her moods.
     “What did you think you were doing?” she is saying.
     “Nothing,” John replies.
     Jim and his father stand on the other side of the closed kitchen door. They look at each other. John shouldn’t have said that. They were about to go into the kitchen when they heard voices. Mother’s tone stopped them.
     “You were standing in front of the refrigerator, door wide open, contemplating the mysteries of the universe?”
     “I was looking for something to eat.” John is sounding sullen, not one of Mother’s favorite tempers.
     “And?” This is one of those questions Mother asks, and you’re never sure what the right answer is.
     “I couldn’t find anything.”
     That was not the right answer. Both Jim and his father know that. They can hear Mother step heavily forward and John scatter out of the way. Now there are the sounds of objects being set on the counter. Some are hard, others are soft.
     “No?” she had said. Then, “Well, I’ll just help you, shall I?”
No conversation interrupts her raid on the refrigerator. Items crowd the counter. She has to take steps away from the refrigerator now to find more room. Objects thump and bang. Finally the refrigerator door is closed.
     “You did say you couldn’t find anything, didn’t you?”
     John makes no reply.
     “Have you lost the power of speech or hearing?”
     “Yes,” says John. He’s made another mistake.
     “Hearing, then.”
     John’s confused. “What are you talking about, Mother?”
     “Well.” She has raised her voice as though she were talking to someone hard of hearing. This is the voice she used to talk to her father after his stroke left him partially paralyzed and partly deaf. “Since you can speak, I take it you cannot hear.”
     “Come on, Mother.”
     She ignores that. “Let’s return to the issue at hand, shall we? Your inability to find anything to eat. Would you or would you not agree that there is an abundance of food on the counter here?” John is silent. She allows him to be that way. She steps to the counter, sorting through what is there, pushing some things to the side, holding up others. “Here are cold cuts — ham, bologna, cheese. Here is peanut butter and one, two, three, four different flavors of jelly and jam. And here on this plate seems to be a complete meal: meat loaf, mashed potatoes, corn, and gravy, a reprise of today’s lunch.”

     She works her way down the length of the counter. “Now, what have we here? Pickles, olives, both black and green, sliced peaches, tapioca pudding, two pieces of Juju’s chicken from the day before yesterday, cottage cheese —which practically no one other than I eats, but I’d be happy for you to have some — six hard boiled eggs which I’m sure Sally was thinking of turning into egg salad but she can always boil another one or two more tomorrow morning; and finally three freshly caught and cleaned fish, the result of your father and brother’s early morning excursion, but, oh, that’s right. You don’t like either fish or eggs. Well, I do see your problem then.”
     She is breathing hard. John seems not to be breathing at all. She strides back down the length of the counter and comes to a climactic stop. “Do you have any notion of the absurdity of your statement? Do you have any idea how implicitly selfish you are being? There are children in this town, never mind foreign countries, who would be grateful to the point of tears to have any of what you see here arrayed before you.”
     John is crying. She has achieved her objective. Now she will, as the saying goes, fire for effect. “Did you go through some transformation while I was away that your father failed to call to my attention?”

     Mother was gone most of August. Her children were relieved. This summer hadn’t been in any way like any other summer. Before she left, Mother had not taken anyone anywhere. No trip to the Catskill Game Farm. No rainy day matinees at the movie theaters. No picnics — not at Bash Bish falls, or up the mountain at the Farm. She only appeared at the pool when Ella and Jeff brought lunch. She didn’t drive anyone to Hatch’s Pond to go swimming in the mornings; Leslie drove instead. She did sit with her children while they ate lunch, but for dinner she’d go to the Big House. The rest of the time she stayed up in her room. If she came out at other times, it was to find something to get mad about. Sometimes it was because one of her children didn’t make his bed even though he’d never had to make his bed before in his life. When she discovered no one was doing summer reading for an hour after lunch every day, she got mad about that and started to make everybody write book reports. If the books didn’t get reported on as fast as she thought they should, then one or another had to go up to her room after lunch and read her book there so Mother could see it being done. If someone left her clothes on her bed or on a chair, no matter if she was down at the pool swimming and was going to put them back on later, Mother would get mad about that. And she’d get mad if anyone said things such as, “I’m bored,” or “There’s nothing to do!” or “I don’t want to take tennis lessons,” or “Golf lessons are boring,” or “Why do I have to go riding if I don’t want to?” Or if one of her children told her he couldn’t find anything to eat.
     That summer she went away in the middle of July. Their father said she was going somewhere to help her lose weight. All her life, she was always on diets, but the last year or so, she’d been trying different kinds of diets like eating nothing but grapefruit, or crackers and cottage cheese, or anchovies. Nothing worked, though. Once she didn’t eat anything all day long. When she stood on the bathroom scale, she saw she had gained a pound.
     When she first went away, everyone was relieved. “Good!” they said, “Mother’s gone. Maybe she’ll never come back!” After all, what difference would it make? She didn’t do anything fun anymore, and Leslie would still be around to take them places. They could still walk up to Walsh’s drugstore or Mr. Reep’s shop to get candy and comic books. They could still go down to the Big House to visit Mimi, at least until she went to Europe because of hay fever. Aunt Pitts would also be around on weekends, and she was fun. Their father would still be coming on the weekends as he always did anyway. So what did it matter with Mother not there? At least now she wouldn’t be around to yell at them all the time.
     Except that all the time she was gone, they missed her. Not the her who was gone, exactly, but the her they wanted, the her of past summers. Throughout the day, singly or in pairs or triads, they would find themselves in her room, looking at her things, sitting in her desk chair where she sat and wrote sometimes, or just sat. On a card table next to her desk, she left a jig-saw puzzle one-third done. Their father hadn’t put it away and that surprised them. He always put things away. Sometimes they’d sit at the puzzle and look for a piece and think about whether or not Mother would be happy if they finished it for her.
     Every once in a while, one or two would be invited to the Big House to have dinner with Mimi and whoever else was there. They would get dressed up in a jacket and tie or a dress, and Mimi would call them Darlin’ and tell them how pretty or handsome they were, and point out what good manners they had, and say to Jeff when he brought them a Shirley Temple,   “Boykin, doesn’t Pammy look pretty this evening?”

     “Yes, ma’am, Miz Buckley, she certainly do,” Jeff would answer.

     Then they would feel special and important and good at first, but pretty soon they would find themselves looking at the chair Mother always sat in during cocktails, and the chair she always sat in during dinner, and they would wish it were last summer or the summer before. When dinner was over and after Mimi and the other grown-ups had had coffee, and the visiting Heaths had been given more than one cube of sugar dipped in coffee, Mimi would say, “Darlin’, don’t you think Juju’s goin’ to worry if you aren’t back up at the barn pretty soon?”

     Then, because no one said no to Mimi or ever behaved in any way except properly, they’d stand up, give Mimi and everyone else a good-night kiss or handshake, say thank you, and leave. With each step from the Big House to the Barn — up the path toward the pool but then branching to the right to go though the trees where it was darker, past the water fountain that never worked, that instead had ivy growing out of it, past where the path branched off again to the Office and finally up on the driveway and past where Mother’s car would have been parked if she were here — all the way up they would feel less and less happy, thinking maybe it would have been better not to have gone because now they seemed to feel worse than before; and tomorrow would be another day of just the same: everything a child could possibly want except no Mother to give it life.
     While Mother was gone, her children didn’t behave very well. The older ones, Jim, Pam, and John, didn’t mind Juju. Instead they did what they wanted. All Juju could do was tell their father if he called from New York and Juju answered, or when he got to Sharon on the weekends. All he would do was tell them to stop giving Juju a hard time, for crying out loud, and to act their age. What would your mother say? That, of course, was the point, but none of them got it then, especially not Ben, the father.
     The little ones— Perky, Buckley, Alison, Betsey, Jennifer, Timothy, and Janet — they fought with each other and tattled on each other and were mean to each other. They formed clubs from which they excluded each other. From time to time they’d try to get Mimi to intercede, to take their parts against Juju, or Jim or Pam if either he or she was acting out the role of responsible eldest brother or sister, but Mimi never would. She would just do her magic and send them off with a piece of maple sugar, a quarter, and a reminder to say their prayers. (To be fair, Timothy and Janet were mostly good. Perhaps because since they were the youngest and the only ones Mother still loved. They didn’t feel anything but sad that she was away. Their involvement in the struggles of their siblings was largely involuntary and a matter of survival. “If you don’t say you’re in my club, I’ll kill you!”)
     Then one day it was the end of August, and they all knew it was the day Mother would be back. They didn’t go to Hatch’s Pond that morning because Leslie was driving to the airport to pick her up. They swam at the pool instead, but without much enthusiasm and with much attention to the clock on the peak of the bathing cabins. When Juju said it was time to go up for lunch, no one needed to be scolded out of the pool, up to the Barn, or back into dry clothes. Afterwards, they waited in the living room because from there could be seen the front circle where the car would pull up.
     Shortly before three, Mimi’s formal car, with Leslie dressed in his black chauffeur suit, rolled up and stopped. Her children moved from the living room to the entry hall, suddenly palpably afraid. Juju stepped out opening the screen door, beaming. She was delivered. Everything would be put to rights now. Mother said hello and stepped through. She looked at her children.  She didn’t seem to have lost weight.

     Tim and Janet stepped forward. She leaned down and hugged and kissed them both. The rest stepped up one at a time. Their cheeks were kissed perfunctorily, and each in turn was asked how their broken arms were healing. The question was so non sequitur, no one responded in any way. Then Mother went to her room and did not come out again until it was time to go to the Big House for dinner.
     Mother had traveled away from her children summers before. Sometimes she’d gone with Mimi for a week or two to France, Spain, or Italy. Once they remembered she’d gone to New Orleans to visit her cousins, and another time to Venezuela where Mimi still had friends from the days their grandfather was in the oil business. Mother sent them postcards telling them funny things and hinting about presents she would have with her when she returned. But this summer had been different. She’d gone alone. She’d gone for a month. There had been no postcards, and no one had an idea where she had gone.
     Later they found out what she meant about the broken arms. She was mad that they hadn’t written. Pam tried to explain they didn’t know where she was, but that only made her madder.

     “Shall I help you decide what you would like to eat?” Mother says to John. He nods, or perhaps he says nothing. It doesn’t matter. Mother will do what she will do, no matter what. “Fine, I’ll make you a bologna and cheese sandwich, shall I?”
     Now the kitchen is silent, but Mother is vibrating with rage. Jim and his father can feel it through the closed door.
“Good.” Mother says. She steps into the pantry. She opens a cupboard and removes a plate. She takes two pieces of bread. She unscrews the jar of mayonnaise and spreads both slices. She slaps two pieces of bologna and one of cheese onto one slice. John hates mayonnaise. There is no chance he’ll remind her of that. She spreads mustard on top of the cheese. “Lettuce?” she asks. John says nothing. Outside the kitchen door, Jim and his father think they can hear that John is still crying. “No lettuce then.” She puts the two slices together. Now she is handing the sandwich to John. The silence is back. It goes on and on. Outside the kitchen door, Jim and his father are afraid to move, afraid she’ll know they are there and have been listening. Jim wonders where everyone else is. It’s not so late that all the rest are asleep, is it?
     “Have you lost your appetite?” Mother says.
     John doesn’t answer.
     “Then eat your sandwich.”
     John takes a bite. He chews three times before he starts to gag.
     “Don’t’ you dare!” Mother says.
     John gags again, struggles, struggles, swallows. He gasps, chokes. Water is run into a glass. John drinks. He puts down the glass, hard. He’s had it. His fear is overtaken by outrage.
     “Why are you being like this?” he wails.
     Mother says nothing.
     “What did I do?”
     Still silence.
     “I didn’t do anything, did I? You were just in a bad mood and you wanted to be angry. I’m just the first person who came along.”
     Jim and his father look at each other. “He’s right,” his father whispers. Jim agrees, but he’s stunned his father would say that.
     “I hate you,” John says. The kitchen door slams open.  The despair he feels at the disappearance of the mother he adored somehow replaced by one he dreads has fueled his rage.

     John does not see the two eavesdroppers. He slams the door shut. Slamming doors is a huge sin in this family; however, no sound comes from the kitchen. Jim and his father melt away to the sounds of food going back into the refrigerator. They wonder if Mother will eat the rest of John’s sandwich.

Posted by: cornvillenutmeg | March 9, 2015

On Being Polysomnagraphed


     If you are a man of a certain age, not less than sixty, say, perhaps not quite yet seventy – or one of a lesser number of women – you have experienced the esoteric joys of sigmoidoscopy, endoscopy, and colonoscopy. However you may have yet to enjoy the recondite pleasure of Polysomnagraphy, more commonly known as sleep study. You should not, well, lose any sleep over missing out; the odds are very much in your favor that you will have your sleep polysomnagraphed at least once before you die, and now that you no longer have to fear dying young, your polysomnagraph will likely happen sooner than you think. It’s your sleep architecture, you see; for, will you, nill you, sleep architecture changes with age.
Not yet familiar with sleep study lingo? Very well. Sleep architecture used to be called sleep patterns. That was before sleep centers – some call them labs – began to pop up wherever we Boomers gather to wind down. As of January 1, 2013, there were twenty five hundred sleep centers in the United States, and probably dozens more by now. Why? Because we elders – and we are legion – suffer from myriad sleep problems: sleep latency and sleep fragmentation, for instance. Good old run-of-the mill insomnia affects forty-four percent of us. It’s our circadian rhythms, you see; they begin to urge us toward more avian than Homo sapiens sleep architecture; this condition is known to sleep professionals as advanced sleep phase syndrome (ASPS).
     Perhaps because polysomnagraphy is such a fast growing field, it leans heavily on acronymic labels for sleep disorders. In addition to ASPS, we have RLS (restless leg syndrome), PLMD (periodic limb movement disorder), GERD (gastro esophageal reflux disorder), UARS (upper airways resistance syndrome), OSB/LRR (overly shallow breathing or low respiratory rate). I made that last acronym up although the disorder is real.
However, the primary cause of sleep disruption is snoring. I don’t mean the snoring common to our overweight brethren (unless, of course, an adipose-challenged person is also old). I will say, thought, that sleeping in a house subject to that timber of snoring can be a challenge.
Now that I am schooled in the universe of sleep disorders, I am able to speak authoritatively of sleep apnea, or OSA (obstructive sleep apnea). As OSA spreads faster than Disneyland measles, the incidence of OSA in the AARP generations continues to increase, thus the proliferation of sleep centers where your first polysomnagraphy experience awaits. Mine is in Flagstaff, Arizona.
     The lab’s literature stated unequivocally that sleep study patients sleep in were rooms indistinguishable from good motel rooms. Well, not exactly. The bed was comfortable. While I had been advised to bring my own pillow if I wished, which I did, I forgot it, which I regretted. The lab’s pillows were okay if you’re fond of good motel room pillows. And there was a television of decent quality and size, and inexplicably tuned to an episode of The Golden Girls. Perhaps the lab technician thought I would find that comforting.
     The room, however. I cannot recall when last I slept in a motel room with a dropped, acoustic tile ceiling and fluorescent lights. There were lamps, too. A table lamp sat on a bedside table snug in a corner of the room, not anywhere near the bed..It reminded me of items I have encountered in consignment stores and lawn sales. There was also a standing lamp once popular in the seventies, I think. It had three cone-like reading lamps which could be aimed in different directions. I have always imagined a lamp of that sort was designed to be set in the middle of a room with three chairs backed up to it, each lamp aimed down over the shoulder of whoever might sit in one of the chairs to provide light enough to read or needle-point.
     If I had to guess the origins of the room’s contents, I say most everything had come from someone’s deceased grandmother’s house once the children had carted away anything they wanted. The bedside table would have been left behind. Eventually the table lamp was moved to the right side of the bed, the side I decided to sleep on given that the real bedside table on the left was burdened with equipment.
A large leather arm chair sat in the corner on my sleeping side of the room. I think it reclined. Having now survived my polysomnagraph, I can say with confidence that I would have slept better in that chair instead. I’m sure the standing lamp could have been moved to accommodate me. You will understand as you continue to read.
     Another chair next to the door – arms and legs of metal tubing, seat upholstered with matching upholstered pads wrapped around the arms – faced out into the room. There was also a double door closet which I put off poking my head into until the sleep technologist – more about her anon – left me to change into my sleeping attire, proper sleep attire being a non-negotiable condition for sleep study patients who might be in the habit of sleeping nude, semi-nude, or in their underwear (and now I’m wondering what the difference between semi-nude and only underwear is?). Once she was out of the room, but before I changed into my PJs, as she called them, I opened the closet door. There were many, many things in that closet, all in a jumble. A mattress rested aslant just inside the doors, propped up on I don’t really know what. I closed the door very quickly and firmly, and briefly considered moving the recliner so that it would inhibit anything from coming out of the closet.
     Once changed, I opened the door a crack, as instructed. In much less than a moment, she knocked. I said, “Come in.” In the ubiquitous blue scrubs, In stepped Peggy, the polysomnographical technologist.
Peggy, is attractive, but not so attractive as to make an old man nervous. Since graduating from Northern Arizona University, she had spent eleven years in the sleep study business. She spoke to me in the voice and rhythms more typically used with five year-olds.
     Peggy was incandescent, cheery, helpful, patient, courteous, and smart, and just a tad too loud. I felt that were I to spend hours in conversation with Peggy, I would probably begin to cry, but I could think of no way to request a different tone, one more like Eeyore’s, for instance.
     Peggy is from Seattle. She moved to Flagstaff so as to have more sun in her life. Perhaps Peggy’s energetic animation is an inverse reaction to the number of sunny days the Emerald City enjoys – on average, 58, most in July and August; however, that would not explain the hyperbolized patience and easy to understand vocabulary she employed with metronomic invariance to elucidate what would happen over the next eight hours.
     Draped over Peggy’s shoulders like a stole were many wires, the first two of which she directed me to drop down the pant legs of my PJs which I did with as much modesty and dignity as circumstances allowed. The bottoms of those wires she then affixed to my calves; , the tops she draped over my shoulders, later to be attached to something else not yet in evidence. Next Peggy put around me and pulled tight two belts, one to monitor my esophageal hiatus, the other my heart. After that she moved on to my head to which, with the help of great gobs of paste, she attached electrodes; I lost count at five. Finally one more electrode was taped just below my larynx, this one to monitor something having to do with snoring.
     At that point she produced a panel the size of a 40 ounce Whitman’s Sampler with a carrying strap into which she plugged the heretofore unplugged ends of all the wires to which I was now firmly attached. This device, Peggy so patiently explained, would accompany me everywhere until the following morning. For instance, she said, perhaps I would like to use the bathroom? I said I would. The panel dangling from my shoulder, I did just that.
     I returned to a Peggy-less, preternaturally quiet room but not for long. Peggy brought with her three devices through which a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine would, should the need arise, deliver air while I slept. Two fit over only one’s nose; these are known as nasal interface masks. The other covers both nose and mouth; it is known as face mask. Peggy helped me to try all three. It’s an interesting sensation.
     A CPAP machine delivers the room’s ambient air into a mask forcefully. The nasal interface apparati aim the air right smack boing up your nostrils, down your throat, and into your lungs. It’s a bit, I imagine, like having a robot give you artificial respiration though your nose. The trick with a nasal interface is with the breathing out. Exhaling by mouth doesn’t work. I can’t explain that, but it doesn’t. You open your mouth and suddenly nothing is happening. So you need to breathe out through your nose as well. For me that was a problem. I suspect the human body does not know how to send air out the same way it is coming in when it is coming in at hurricane force. To accomplish that takes concentration and discipline at levels greater than I could summon. Think of it as a pulmonological equivalent of a salmon’s journey upstream.
     The face mask, on the other hand, allows you to breath out through your mouth (also in for that matter). I found the combination of taking air in through my nose and forcing it out through my mouth to be easier.
     Me having made my choice should the need to CPAP me arise, Peggy attached two more sensors, both under my nose, both to gather data on my breathing: one humidity, the other temperature.
Peggy then bade me a goodnight. She would, she said, likely be returning throughout the night to adjust or reattach wires, electrodes, or straps, as well as to hook me up to the CPAP should that prove warranted. I thanked her, took my night time medications, including for this occasion especially ambien which the polysomnagraphy rules not only permit but encourage. Why that would be was quickly apparent. I read for a little while, began to feel sleepy, turned out the light, put my head down on the pillow, and stayed awake, for a long time. I was almost asleep when Peggy made her first visit. An electrode had become dislodged. She put it back where it belonged and went away. I put my head down again, and stayed awake for another long time.
     When exactly Peggy returned to attach me to the CPAP I’m not sure. My adjusting to alternately being blown up like a balloon and trying to exhale against the flow took longer than I wish it had, but I did manage to sleep again, this time through what was left of the night.
     Polysomnagraphy labs are nocturnal by necessity (although what the best way to study the sleep architecture of someone such as a night watchman or a baker makes for an interesting question you might want to put to a polysomnagraphicologist, if you know any). The labs are not closed and shuttered during the day. Polysomnagraphy is mainly a sub-specialty of pulmonologists. Pulmonologists, like most doctors, see their patients during regular business hours. All of which is to explain why patients are awakened for the day while it’s still pitch black outside, something you discover only once you pass a window on your way to the bathroom.
     Peggy woke me shortly after five a.m. She unplugged me and invited me to use the bathroom, which I desperately needed to do. When I returned, we reversed the process from the previous evening – off first came the electrodes attached to my head, then the belts, then I retrieved the wires from down my pant legs. I asked what had happened in the night that suggested to her I ought to be attached to the CPAP. She dodged my question artfully saying only that I would likely be invited back for a second night for titration.
     That was not good news. First, I’m pretty sure I’ve enjoyed having my slumber studied enough for a long time to come. Second, I didn’t like the sound of that word, titration. I’m pretty sure the last time I heard it was during the first semester of chemistry my junior year in high school. I know it wasn’t the second semester because I dropped the course after the first. I did my best to get Peggy to give up a bit more information, but she’s as good at keeping mum as she is about explaining CPAP devices.
     While Peggy took away the equipment, I returned to the bathroom to brush my teeth and comb my hair. The teeth presented no problem, not so the hair. Hair with glue in it is hard to comb. Peggy had mentioned that hot water helped remove the glue, the hotter the better. I deferred that task till it could be accomplished in my own shower.
     Dressed, packed, and looking a little Goth, I thanked Peggy, bid her good morning, and drove home where I arrived before either my wife or dog had awakened.

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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