DH and I have been spending part of this day cleaning up the house and putting things away for the winter. The screens have come out of the storm doors and been replaced by glass; the air conditioners have been removed from the windows. And I finally went through a pile of stuff I'd brought over when my aunt moved out of her house.
In the pile were various family heirlooms, including an old painting of my great-great-grandfather's house in Benson, Vermont, circa 1839, an assortment of daguerreotypes of ancient family members (two of my great-great-grandmother as a child and a teen, probably from about 1842-45, and some of unknown relatives), my great-great-grandmother's embroidered cap, an apron, and her black shawl, and more.
When I was helping my aunt clean out her house, I also had asked her to let me have a 3-ring binder that contained stories she had written for a writing class she had taken back in the late 1970's. She had taken a correspondence course to teach would-be writers how to write stories for young people and I thought it would be interesting to read her stories. So today I sat down and read what she had written, and found her writing was quite good. (In fact, I called her up and told her she should go back to it!).
One of the earlier assignments was apparently to write a descriptive essay, and she had chosen to describe the house she and my mother grew up in, in West Medway, Massachusetts. She had also written another essay describing a typical morning in the garden behind the house. The essays made me realize how much simpler, and probably happier, children's lives were back in those days, in the early 20th century.
DH and I have driven through West Medway and seen the house she describes (which is now missing its porch and veranda, apparently in an effort to make the house more historically accurate in its architecture). As of 15 years or so ago, West Medway was still a pristine New England town, and still had its white-steepled church and central green.
I thought I'd share my aunt's essays with you so you can imagine what it might have been like to grow up in that town, and in that house.
The Old House
by Frances Knowlton
When I was a child, I lived in a big old house in a small New England town. The house was built in the early part of the 19th century, and so was much more interesting than ordinary houses. There was a fireplace in every room, except for two that had been boarded over, probably because of drafts; but my sister and I each had a fireplace in our bedrooms, and there was one in the little back room upstairs, and two more downstairs.
Some early owners of the house didn't care about keeping the architecture exactly as it was intended, so they added a latticework porch to the front, and a side veranda with wooden pillars. The front porch was covered with rambler roses, and inside were two stone seats, one on either side of the porch, and there were small uneven violet glass panes on each side of the door, with a fanlight on top. My sister and I played dolls and "house" there when we were quite little.
The side veranda had trumpet vine climbing up all of its pillars, and they were not only beautiful in bloom, but if we were lucky, we could catch sight of a hummingbird coming to drink nectar from the trumpet flowers.
These porches were not the only attraction of the house, however; there was also, attached to the side end, a woodshed and a barn. And that barn was really a wonderful place for playing hide-and-seek and many other games.
The barn had a large chopping block downstairs in the middle, a long work bench and revolving whetstone on one side, and the remains of three horse stalls toward the back, as of course in early days people had only horses and carriages to get around in. There were piles of wood and branches pruned from the fruit trees in the back orchard, and Father would chop some up for the fireplaces as needed.
Then there was the barn loft - oh, that was a wonderful place! There was a large raised platform originally meant for storing hay, which was just like a real stage, and we dressed up in clothes from the old trunks and put on plays with the neighborhood children.
There was also a hay chute that we could slide down, and last, but not least, an honest-to-goodness pigeon loft, which could only be reached by a ladder. It was an exciting day when we were old enough to climb the ladder to the loft, and look out way, way down through the holes made for the pigeons to fly in and out. Chickie, our cat, looked small, like a little kitten, from way up there. It was pleasantly scary, and we often went up there to play.
I was a bit of a tomboy, and climbed all over the roofs of the house, woodshed and barn. Some mothers would have been afraid, but my mother was more daring even than that, when she was young, so I guess she understood.
It has been many, many years since I was a child in the old house, but I know we were very lucky to have grown up in such a home.
Another essay my aunt wrote about her childhood home was equally appealing:
The early morning dew still sparkled on the grass, and the "fairy tents" were strewn on the lawn as though for a convention. I closed my eyes and pictured tiny joyous creatures with irridescent wings swooping down to sip dew drops, or up into the trees visiting the birds. I could almost hear their tinkling laughter among the bird songs.
Suddenly I felt a petal soft touch on my leg. I started, and my eyes flew open. There at my feet was Chickie, our cat, meowing hello. I giggled as I reached down to scratch her head. "Oh Chickie, I exclaimed, "You almost made me think my daydream was real!"
We strolled over to the hawthorne tree which stood in impressive grandeur in the exact center of the far side lawn, against the forsythia hedge. How beautiful it was! Almost in full bloom, the clusters of deep red flowers, which singly almost resembled tiny roses, made a striking sight against the distinctively shaped leaves.
Chickie and I ran along the path beside the barn which led to the fruit orchard, and soon the delightful fragrance of the cinnamon bush tingled my nostrils. The tiny yellow flowers were almost too small to make an impressive indoor bouquet, but the delicious aroma all around gave it equal importance with the deutsia, flowering almond, and bridal wreath.
At the back of the barn were many gnarled old great-grandfather lilacs, together with their progeny, and the air was filled with their fragrant perfume. This cool and secluded lilac grove was a perfect retreat on a hot summer's day. Two of the oldest trees were completely bent over, forming ideal "seats," and I sank down on one of them to meditate a while in this scented "summer house."
Many birds filled the air with joyful melodies. I could make out the oriole's song, the robin's and the virtuoso performance of the song sparrow. Even the blue jay refrained from his raucous cry, and just called "wheedle, wheedle, wheedle," which musically was as far as he could go, no matter how long he might practice.
Chickie undoubtedly had mixed feelings about all this, but she seemed content to call a truce for the present, and rolled over to have her tummy scratched.
Soom we got up and went off to inspect the garden. The long coarse orchard grass tickled my bare legs as I left the path and took a short cut. In those days, without a power mower, keeping the grass cut would not only have been an impossible task, but it wasn't really necessary anyway. We had two plots of ground in the midst of cherry, apple and pear trees, my father's vegetable garden, and my flower garden. The rows of vegetables which were sprouting seemed healthy, but in my flower garden only the zinnias were poking up through the rich earth.
On the way to my favorite climbing tree, we passed an uneven moss-covered high pile of rocks, broad at the base, and tapering somewhat at the summit, which my sister and I had always called the "fairy castle." I have no idea why it was there, but when we were younger we really enjoyed the make-believe games we played there. The uneven flat rocks which jutted out made perfect balconies, and underneath, the moss-covered stones became porches. Some of the moss was "fairy moss," that lovely spring willow green moss with delicate orangey-red "trees" growing all over it. These were the fairy picnic groves. Various openings and crevices for doorways and passageways led into the castle where our created playmates lived.
I raced Chickie to the tree, and of course she won. She lay down on a branch about half an arm's length higher than mine. Her serene yellow eyes closed in contentment, and light and shadow through the leaves highlighted first her soft watered-silk gray, then the pure white markings which she worked so hard to keep snowy. As I reached up to scratch behind her ears, the ecstatic vibrations from her throat became louder and louder, almost musical in their intensity, and I wished I could join her in a duet. It seemed like such a perfect tribute to a beautiful morning.
One of the things that struck me about my aunt's (and my mother's) childhood was how much closer to nature they were than children are today. My mom and aunt often reminisce about their father going out to pick "a mess of beans" for the evening meal, or how my grandmother put up canned fruit from the orchard every fall. The birds apparently sang in the garden and the children learned their names, and the names of all the flowers.
The other thing that is obvious is that these children did not have a lot of toys. My aunt and mother grew up during the Depression and they made up their own games and used their imaginations to entertain themselves.
I just read an article in the Friday New York Times about how parents who buy second homes in the country end up battling their teenage children because they find spending time in the country away from their friends "boring." And some of these parents actually have to bribe their kids to go away with them by buying them their own boat or paying for seven of their friends to go along with them. I couldn't help but think how spoiled these children of privilege are, that they don't appreciate what they have. My mother used to always decry how today's children "have no inner resources." After reading my aunt's essays and the article in the Times, I understand exactly what she meant.
Today's Haiku (as promised)
Long ago children
Used their imaginations
Why can't they today?
Now I realize there are many, many mothers out there who are ready to write and tell me how imaginative their children are. And I think all children are imaginative at heart. What we need to do is to make sure they have the opportunities to use that imagination. Children nowadays have so many toys and electronic games, and have such tightly-scheduled lives, that they no longer have those long summer days to daydream or imagine fairies in the garden. I don't have children myself, but I remember enjoying days much as my aunt describes when I was growing up. And I don't see a lot of kids nowadays having those kinds of days. And that is a loss.
Or maybe I'm just an old curmudgeon.