Sydney M. Williams
Essay from Essex
January 1, 2020
“It’s a funny thing about coming home. Looks the same,
smells the same. You realize what has changed is you.”
Eric Roth (1945-)
“The Curious case of Benjamin Button,” 2008
(A screenplay adopted from the eponymous
short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1922)
Nostalgia suggests a sentimentality for the past, typically for a period or a place with happy personal associations. The aphorist Mason Cooley once wrote, perhaps more harshly than he had to, “Nostalgia paints a smile on the stony face of the past.” Regardless, our memories do focus on the positive.
Asked by grandson Alex a few months ago to describe what it was like growing up in the late 1940s and early 1950s, I found myself stymied. How does one sift between good memories and bad? What is truth, and what is simply a memory one wants to believe? World events do not define our childhood, nor does the political scene nor even the state of the economy; though all three affect our lives. It is, rather, the relationships with our parents, siblings, friends; it is school, and what chores and play consumed our days. It is the small things, like the instance when I was twelve and found a rare dollar warming my pocket. By chance, the baker who delivered bread and pastries from the back of his van twice a week drove up the driveway. I foolishly bought a dozen jelly donuts and more foolishly proceeded to devour them without sharing. My reward was a stomach-ache and a future aversion to jelly donuts.
Thinking of one’s childhood creates a tendency to look for a past purified through the filter of time. What memories are real, and which exist only in our minds? Unhappy memories become tucked away and are more difficult to recall than those that are pleasant. In Educated, Tara Westover’s 2018 coming-of-age story written when she was thirty-two, the author uses half a dozen footnotes to explain that her memory may be faulty. And she was thinking back only twenty years. In Thomas Wolfe’s novel You Can’t Go Home Again, he explores the changing scene of American society, a universal subject not bound by time or place. Just as in George Webber’s case (Wolfe’s character in the novel), my hometown is different than it was sixty years ago. Oh, yes, the bank and the post office are still on Grove Street and the library is still on the corner of Concord and Main, just across the Contoocook River from the center of town. But the innards are different. The Unitarian Church, where I went as a child, is now the Unitarian Universalist Church, but it sits in the same place, on Main Street and Summer. The elementary school I went to has been gone for over fifty years, but I remember the dark and scary, window-less coat closets and the strict, unsmiling teachers.
The lay-out of the streets is the same, but the movie theater is gone, as are the depot where we used to pick up feed for the animals, and Derby’s, the department store where one could buy anything from clothes to appliances. The biggest store in town today is the Toadstool, a bookstore started by a younger, enterprising brother almost fifty years ago. The physical changes are more cosmetic than foundational. And, yes, Summer Street becomes Middle Hancock Road, as one drives north. Whit’s tow, where I learned to ski, has been replaced by affordable housing units. The Dodge Place, where my parents went to live after they were married in 1938, is still four miles from the village on Middle Hancock Road, about halfway between Peterborough and Hancock. The house and barns still stand, but seemed sad when we recently drove by, in need of paint and too quiet, absent the activity and noise that nine children provided. Seen only in my imagination were the goats and horses that once grazed and played in the fields behind. The pair of peacocks that adorned the front yard have gone to wherever peacocks go when they die.
Two recent events caused a wave of nostalgia to sweep over me and reminded me that I had never answered Alex’s request. The first was a painting in a gallery in Old Lyme. It depicted a summer cabin, such as one might have owned or rented seventy years ago, in the early post-War years, usually on a remote lake or pond. It was a simple structure, in need of repair. One could envision a hand-driven water pump in the kitchen, no electricity and an outhouse out back. An aunt and uncle had such a place on Martha’s Vineyard when I was young, a place I remember with a dozen of us packed into the small uninsulated camp. It had bunk rooms for the children and a half-mooned two-holer thirty feet from the back door. It dawned on me that my grandchildren may never know a life where children entertain themselves in small boats, swim in the lagoon, dig for clams, play hide-and-seek and fly kites. The second event was watching a pick-up game of hockey on Exchange Club Pond in Old Saybrook. As I watched the half dozen skaters pushing a puck around, I thought back to clear, cold winter days when I played similar, informal games of hockey on the Fly Pond in Peterborough, not far from where Summer Street becomes Middle Hancock Road. When we got bored with hockey, we would race up to girls and, in a preteen and early-teen mating ritual, yank off their hats and make them catch us. Once my brother, sister and I watched mournfully as a truck bound for Benson’s Wild Animal Farm carried the carcass of one of our horses that had died a couple of days earlier. Later, as the sun began to set, we would light bonfires and toast marshmallows for S’mores. “It is strange how much you can remember about places like that,” E.B. White wrote in his essay “Once More to the Lake,” “once you allow your mind to return into the grooves which lead back.”
Our childhood lives are long when living through them but pass by quickly in retrospect. In my case, my childhood ended when I was fifteen and went off to boarding school. While I have some memories of when I was three and four, most are between five and fifteen – not a lot of years to form the character we become. But those moments leave an indelible impression. “Sometimes you will never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory,” wrote Dr. Seuss. I can think of hundreds of such moments – stopping at Howard Johnsons in Brattleboro, after a day of skiing at Hogback or Bromley, with coffee for my father and hot chocolate or a piece of apple pie for us; playing in the hayloft, and once carrying my sister Charlotte back to the house after she fell through the trap door; being summoned from Miss Flagg’s second grade class by a fifth grader who told me he was going to beat me up after school, and being scared stiff the rest of the day (thankfully, he forgot his threat); swinging on birch trees, ala Robert Frost; walking “over the hill” along the mile and half wood road that separated our paternal grandparents’ summer home from ours; spending three days and two nights with my mother in the White Mountains, when I was going through puberty; playing on the swings my father had built in our backyard; posing for our artist parents; picking wild strawberries in the field next to the “Brick House,” now the Well School; climbing on skis the two and a half mile trail from Pinkham Notch to the “Hoard Johnson’s,” a lean-to at the base of Tuckerman’s Ravine on Mt. Washington. My brother Frank and our father were with me. The next day we hiked up Wildcat and skied down. I recall a family trip to Stowe when I was twelve, and the embarrassment of having to share a bed with an aunt. I remember cantering “Judy” along dirt roads, with a younger sibling on “Mitzi,” a smart, stubborn Shetland – the pony on whom we had all learned to ride – who refused to let the much bigger “Judy” pass. And then years later, after I had left home, I heard that my mother had cradled “Mitzi’s” head in her arms as she took her last breath. These memories tear through my conscience like an icy dagger. You can’t go home again, as Thomas Wolfe titled his posthumous novel. You can, but sometimes it is hard.
As children, we lived dual lives. Most of our time was spent in Peterborough, but now and again we would go to East River or Wellesley to visit our grandparents. It was a glimpse into a world different from the one we lived. In Wellesley where my father grew up, our grandparents lived in a large Victorian house, the one in which my grandmother had been born in 1875, and which became hers when she was married in 1907. It is where my father grew up. The house is on Lake Waban (now owned by a cousin), a fancy term for a body of water that we thought of as more of a pond than a lake. My mother’s parents lived in a large house on Long Island Sound in Madison, Connecticut. It had its own beach where we swam and went out in a rowboat. There was a barn and a paddock for the animals my mother would bring with her. Before my grandfather died in 1947, he would take us to “Bruin’s Lair,” a hidden spot, perfect for a friendly bear, in the woods on a path beyond the barn. There we would leave treats which were always gone the next day.
But most of my growing up was in New Hampshire. It may only be the way we remember things, but life seemed simpler in those days. We lived four miles from a village of 2,500 people. There were fewer time-saving devices; an absence of technology meant board games that required shared participation; we memorized poetry and short speeches. I recall one evening memorizing Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as I walked around the house. At school, we were reminded almost daily of the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance. While patriotism was common and mingled honor with love for country, it was temporarily hijacked by Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1950, when he used it to falsely accuse dozens of loyal Americans of Communist sympathies, solely to advance his dark vision. Personal freedom was a bicycle. Mine came in the form of an “English” bike on my thirteenth birthday, in January 1954. Taking it out, I skidded on the ice, went over the handlebars bruising my jaw. The lesson I learned: Don’t ride a bike on the ice! Nevertheless, our parents worried less as to our whereabouts than do parents today. That didn’t mean they loved us less, just that they felt the environment more secure and they trusted us.
Expectations were less, in terms of what government would provide. It was assumed we would look after ourselves. On the first day of school when in Mrs. Fitzgerald’s fifth grade class, it was expected I would check on my sister Betsy who had just entered Mrs. Morris’ first grade class. Inequality existed. Some kids had parents who lived in bigger houses; some kids were smarter and some stronger and more agile. We didn’t philosophize; we were realists. We knew that some had the ability to hit a ball further and to run faster. Some received better grades and others were more diligent. We got into wrestling fights, especially with bullies. Misogyny, I am sure, existed, but was absent in our household where we children saw our parents as equal partners. That was also true of our grandparents. Our grandmothers, we all knew, were as accomplished as our grandfathers. Our parents and grandparents were lovers of nature and the environment. They made sure we cleaned up after ourselves when picnicking or camping – but we were not told that the Planet would die if we did not switch from wood and coal to oil or gas, let alone solar or wind. In our small town there was some diversity, not in race or religion, but in the ideas and habits of families.
It is important to keep the past in perspective – what we should treasure and what we should leave behind. The British journalist and author of The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley, wrote recently in The Spectator: “We are living through the greatest improvement in living conditions in history.” Extreme poverty has declined around the world. Despite violence on TV shows, in movies and on video games and the religious tyranny that persists in much of the world, there is less violence today than at any time in history. In rich countries, consumption of minerals and fossil fuels has declined, while standards of living have increased. Reliving the past should not cause us to forget how improved our lives are today. The misty past hides blemishes and the future will have its share. As I wrote earlier, we remember the good and suppress the bad, like getting out of bed in the winter in a house with no central heat; bringing in the kindling, so my father could light the wood stove; having to share a bedroom with three siblings. Clothing material was less friendly: snowsuits became soggy and woolen mittens never kept hands warm. In winter, we had to carry water from the house to the barn for the horses and goats. Picking blackberries on Cobb’s Hill or high-bush blueberries in the “next field “were chores, not outings. Even so, there were moments of fun. I remember once returning from an afternoon of picking blackberries and seeing goats peer out from every downstairs living room window. Someone – it could not have been me – had forgotten to shut the gate to the field and had left the door to the house open.
We forget, also, how improved we are as a country – how civil rights and woman’s rights acts of fifty years ago have bettered the lives of minorities and women; how Medicare and Medicaid have helped the elderly and the poor. Polio was a constant dread for parents and children. The Salk vaccine was first administered in 1955. In 1950, according to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), childhood deaths in 1950 were 29.2 per 1,000. By 1999, that had dropped to 7.1 per 1,000. Pneumonia and influenza killed 314 children per 100,000 as late as 1960. Forty years later, the number was 8 per 100,000. While nuclear weapons still exist, we no longer – perhaps naively – live with the threat of annihilation from the Soviet Union. Changes in communication have been revolutionary. Today, when on an errand, if I don’t have my cell phone, I feel naked.
We all have a past. It helped formed who we became. It is important for us who are older to communicate our story to succeeding generations; for it helps in their search for identity. But we must keep it within reason; it should not dominate our lives. The last sentence in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has pertinence. “So, we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Fitzgerald refers to an innate desire to recapture the past – that we might correct mistakes we once made. But the truth is the past is the past. It is something to cherish, to learn from, and then move on.
In this season, as the old year goes out and the new year comes in, we sing Robert Burns song, “Auld Lang Syne,” an evocation of the past, “Should old acquaintance be forgot/And never brought to mind?” The answer is no, we should not forget old acquaintances, but it is unhealthy to dwell too much on the past. So, Alex, it is the present and the future over which we have some control. That should be your focus.
HAPPY NEW YEAR!!