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Christmas 2018

Dear Tim and Piper

Piper asked me what I remembered of the time when my children were young. Sadly, the answer is not very much. I do remember teaching them to read. Meg and Amanda learned from Dick and Jane, which was still available. By the time Tim came along, Dick and Jane was nowhere to be found. He learned from a set of phonics books recommended by a teacher at Meadowbrook. I took the subway and bus to get them at a warehouse on Concord Avenue, beyond the Fresh Pond traffic circles. I have a vivid memory of waiting for the bus in the hot sun.

I remember working hard to persuade Meg to eat. Mostly sitting at the round, maple table in the corner of the kitchen in Bird Hill, flying a spoon full of something at her mouth. “Bzzzz, here comes the plane into the hanger…” I have no such memories for Amanda or Tim. Perhaps they were better eaters or perhaps it just made less of an impression on me. I also remember reading to Meg and Amanda each evening, but they were probably a bit older than Joan for that. I can still recite the Owl and the Pussycat, which was one of our favorites. We often read Frog and Toad. I only learned recently that Meg disliked that book as much as I did. So, she was listening to it to please me and I was reading it to please her, and neither of us liked it. Let that be a warning.

What I do remember, and this may be more relevant, is a good deal from the time when I was about Joan’s age. These memories may, of course, be highly unreliable. The only real evidence I have is that when I reported remembering being in a carriage in the winter and Robert coming to visit, Possum said that wasn’t possible since he was away in the army and never visited 44 Elm Street. Robert said nothing, but got up and went to his study, where he retrieved evidence that he had actually visited Elm Street in January 1944, when I was 10 months old. So, for that one memory, I do know that what I remembered actually happened!
First to set the scene: Possum and Robert were married on May 30th, 1942 at St. Andrew’s Church in Wellesley. They moved to a cottage in Bethesda and Robert worked for the Federal Reserve Bank. In January 1943 Robert was inducted into the army and Possum moved back to 44 Elm Street. I was born in Newton on April 5th 1943. Jerry reports that he and Red had been out cruising that evening and returned after their curfew. Grandad was so pleased to have a grandson that he neglected to notice that they were late. (Did you know that Red is mentioned as “Warrie” in Sylvia Plath’s Journals? Apparently she was part of a group that went to Elm Street after midnight and engaged in drinking gingerale [sic] and dancing.)

I’m not utterly clear on who was living at 44 Elm at that time. Certainly Possum, Garney, Grandad, and Jerry. I have no memory of Uncle Keith being there, so perhaps his visits during mud season were over? Ted was away in the Pacific and I suspect that Red was at college. The figures who loom large in my memory were Possum, Garney, Grandad, and Francis, whose domain was the kitchen and who cooked all the meals. Garney never did learn to cook. There was also a cat whose name I don’t remember but who seemed to belong to Possum. Also Grandad’s dog Mac. Mac was friendly and the cat was scary. She had very sharp claws and no regard for my person.

Before I get to specific memories I would like to try to reconstruct my mental state. I was aware of my own existence as being separate from that of the other people in the house but I don’t have any sense that I thought of them as having an existence parallel to and different from mine. I was totally self-centered. I thought only of myself. I don’t believe that I did anything to please other people. On the other hand, I certainly was aware of and looked for other people’s approval. I had no awareness of doing things that were wrong. I just did what I felt like.

So, given that, what do I remember? My earliest memory is surely of Robert’s visit in 1944. The image that I have is of myself inside a carriage. (No idea of what the carriage looked like from the outside, although I have now seen photographs of it.) Somebody important was visiting but didn’t know who it was. This person was outside the carriage and it was cold out. Its seems interesting to me that I realized that our visitor was important. Surely lots of people came to 44 Elm Street. How did I know that Robert was important? Even at that age babies understand more of what’s going on than we realize. This is the only memory that I can firmly date. The others could be at any time from early 1944 until we moved to Washington after the war ended. Robert returned to Wellesley on December 18th, 1945, at which time I was 33 months old. So all of these memories are between the ages of 10 months and 33 months.

The house at Elm Street was a warm, friendly place. Surely part of that impression is due to the fact that everybody looked after me but I know that Ted also had a very fond spot in his heart for that house. Later on, after the house had been sold, he was forever encouraging other people to buy it. I was most disappointed when we returned from Switzerland and I found that the house had been sold and Garney and Grandad had moved to another house on Valley Road in Wellesley.

Francis was a large, warm, black woman whose domain was the kitchen. I have a memory of sitting on the counter watching her work. I have no sense of her being in any way different from the other members of the household. Certainly I wasn’t aware that her status was inferior to the other residents. The memory does include the fact that her skin color was black but that meant nothing to me. (In fact, some years later, when I saw a black gentleman on the street in Lidingö I was so surprised that I went home and asked Possum about him. I had no memory of ever seeing anybody black, nor any knowledge that such people existed – not too many people of color on Lidingö in 1950.) The food that Francis produced was simply a fact. It never occurred to me to question it. Three times a day meals appeared and that was that. Possum has written that all through the depression Garney and Grandad managed to have servants and cars:

“Bill has always wondered how it was that we continued to have cars and maids when we were so close to destitution, and I have trouble understanding this myself. I think it may have been the perception that cars, maids, and family should all go under together. There were no other jobs, wages were cut from seven to six dollars a week, and who would buy a yellow Chrysler roadster, vestige of the twenties, that had one door taken off by the side of the garage, or a Ford that had gone through the fence behind the A&P?”

The dinning room, where we had all our meals, was in the front of the house to the right of the entrance hall. It was separated from the kitchen by pantries. I particularly remember the bell push set in the floor under the table, which Garney used to summon Francis.
Sleeping arrangements at 44 Elm Street varied. Garney had a large room with twin beds. There were chests at the foot of each bed. Whether the second bed was for Grandad I don’t know. Later on, at Valley Road, he had a room of his own. Off Garney’s room was one of the many sleeping porches. These were screened-in porches with large openings to let in cool air. Sometimes I slept on Garney’s sleeping porch. More often I had a room at the head of the front stairs. The latter room had been Possum’s and had a sleeping porch of its own, although I don’t ever remember using it.

I do remember learning to walk. I had pulled myself up on one of the chests at the foot of Garney’s beds and managed to take a few steps over to the other chest. I was immensely proud of this achievement and wanted to show it off to Possum but, much to my disappointment, she wasn’t there. For fifty or sixty years I was under the impression that she had gone away somewhere for a few days. Only recently did she tell me that she had simply been at the A & P in Wellesley. I believe that my reason for wanting to show Possum my accomplishment was the belief that she would be pleased by it. This seems to contradict my assertion that I was only interested in myself but I don’t think so. Really, I was just looking for her approval. I didn’t have any sense of how she would feel about it herself. It is also interesting that I remember asking Garney where Possum was. Since it is unlikely that I could actually talk at that point the conversation must have been a bit cryptic. Nonetheless I have a clear impression of showing Garney what I had done, asking her where Possum was, and being told that she wasn’t there.

Once when I was sleeping on Garney’s porch I had a nightmare where I thought that I was in bed in a small cottage with a stone fireplace and chimney. A giant was coming down the chimney to get me. I had this recurring dream many times over the next sixty or seventy years. It has not troubled me recently. Of course one might wonder how a giant was going to fit into a chimney but that didn’t occur to me and certainly wasn’t an impediment to the giant. I suppose that the raw material for this dream must have come from a book of fairy tales but I have no direct memory to support this. This is the only memory that I have that was in any way threatening. For the most part my life was extraordinarily safe and comforting.

Usually I slept in the room at the head of the main stairs. The stairs led down into the front hall. Off the hall and visible from the stairs was the living room where people congregated after my bedtime. I would often sneak part way down the stairs and peer through the balustrades trying to follow what was going on. My impression was that everybody was having a very good time without me. Once I made the mistake of going all the way down the stairs and announcing myself. This is the source of Possum’s story where I appear announcing “Bang, shoot, down I come, no read.” I must have been promised a story if I didn’t leave my bed, which implies that my visits to the stairs weren’t as secret as I imagined. (By the way, if those are balusters in Possum’s picture, they are on the wrong side of the stairs!)

Possum’s old room, in addition to a sleeping porch, had a fireplace with a mesh fire screen – perhaps the same one that I now have at 21 Foster Street. Certainly it looks the same. One day around Christmas time I found myself in possession of a chap stick and discovered that I could use it to draw on the fire screen. This was a very satisfactory occupation – try it sometime, the soft chap stick fills the pores in the screen very nicely. I’m not sure that I had any sense that this was something that I ought not to do, although that became very clear once Possum discovered the evidence. I don’t remember any sense of regret, nor do I remember the PJs that Possum included in the sketch.

The Briggs lived in the house next to 44 Elm Street. Like 44, it was a shingle-style house with a chicken house in back. I’m not sure if it had a barn. In any case Possum wrote of the Brigg’s henhouse: “It is said that Mr. Briggs used to retire to the henhouse for some peace and quiet.” I believe that the Briggs had two daughters and one or more sons. One day I was not feeling well and was left behind in my room at the top of the stairs with Barbara Briggs as a sitter. I remember this as being a somewhat strained afternoon. I was very fond of Barbara’s sister (whose name I regret that I cannot remember) but did not really know Barbara. She didn’t know what to say to me or do with me and I reciprocated the feeling.

One winter, probably, 1945-1946, Grandad built a boat for me in the basement. It was to be called the “Navy Bean” and was constructed from newspaper and airplane dope. It had a rectangular shape with a flat bottom and not much freeboard. (I knew nothing of the construction but I do remember being taken to the basement to see it while it was still in process.) The following summer we took it to Camp Taconnet. That is now a three hour drive but in those days it took the entire day. I remember stopping at the liquor store on the New Hampshire border; crossing various border rivers on old-fashioned swing bridges; and a stop at LL Bean’s, which in those days had a single sales floor with the goods displayed on trestles.  Much to my disappointment I was only allowed in the boat once. I don’t recall the actual voyage but I clearly remember that it only took place once. A photograph of Red in the Navy Bean offers an explanation. If he moves off dead center, one of the corners will go under and, glug, glug, the whole affair will sink. Since Grandad was a graduate of MIT this is a surprising failing. MIT has long had an outstanding naval engineering department. In fact, Bernie Goldhirsh, the founder of Sail Magazine was a graduate of that department. Perhaps Grandad spent too much time in the Electrical Engineering department (course VI in MIT parlance).

In 1945 Possum and I flew from Boston to Council Bluffs. I can’t pinpoint any memories of Council Bluffs or of Grandma and Grandpa Bean. What I do remember is that we ended up on a train on the way back. I found the train to be very boring compared to the plane, and I did realize that somehow our plans had changed so that we ended up on this other, inferior, mode of transportation. Possum later told me that we had been bumped off the plane by military personnel. I do recall that sitting upstairs in the vista-dome was much better than downstairs.

One day I had an outing with Grandad. We got in the car and drove for what seemed a considerable distance. Then he got out at a sandpit? Gravel pit? Not sure exactly what it was although I believe that it was near the corner of Speen Street and Route 30 in Natick. I say this only because that corner once matched my memory of the trip. It now looks quite different! Once there, we got a box full of sand, which turned out to be for the cat. I was most excited to have had this time with Grandad, although I didn’t really understand its purpose.
That trip was in a Ford Woodie, which Curt has since identified as a 1941 model. This was the same car that I managed to start all by myself. For some reason I was left in the front seat of the car with nobody else around. The relative sizes of the car and myself are still clear in my mind. I was about the same size as the steering wheel. There was lots of room on the floor ahead of the front seat. The car was parked right in front of 44. I twisted the keys and the engine started right up. That led to immediate panic on my part. I guess I was lucky that it wasn’t in gear. Grandad showed up really quickly and shut the car down. I don’t recall that I was criticized for this incident. Probably it was hushed up.

Grandad was a great hunter and fisher. In fact, he referred to himself as Grandpa Grouse in his wonderful book of memoirs: Partridge Shortenin’. That book has no folios and no index. In case you are wondering why, Grandad wrote it in sections and had individual signatures printed whenever there was free press time. As a result it was impossible to assign page numbers. This brings to mind our much later discussion with Boris Bittker, the author of Federal Income Taxation of Corporations and Shareholders. We wanted to include an index and Boris, who had a photographic memory, didn’t understand why anyone would want such a thing. One day Grandad presented me with a popgun. This was a small long gun with a cork as ammunition. The cord was attached to the gun with a string, so it wasn’t going to go very far. I was given stern warnings not to point the gun at people or the faithful dog, Mac. I don’t remember any prohibition on pointing it at the cat, nor do I remember considering that possibility.

Garney had a flower garden to the left of the house, between 44 Elm Street and the house that Lillie Faulkner built at 40 Elm Street. Nowadays there is a new house squarely in the middle of her garden. I was given the job of brushing Japanese Beetles off the roses and into a coffee can of turpentine. I still recall the acrid smell of the turpentine and I associate that smell with both roses and Japanese Beetles. I was paid some sum on the order of a penny for ten beetles. It wasn’t enough to maintain my interest.

It was just behind that garden that I learned to tell right from left. The garden had a trellis that led to the back of the house. I learned that the side of the trellis away from the house was my left and the side toward the house was my right. I could only distinguish the two when I was standing in front of the trellis and I had no actual concept of left or right. I had simply associated the words with positions relative to the trellis. For quite a few years I would work out which was right and which was left by imagining the trellis.

One day I was placed in a cage (not a playpen, it was fairly large and had no bottom) set up on the lawn outside the pantries between the kitchen and the dinning room. I didn’t much like this so I set to showing my displeasure by screaming. I screamed for a really long time. I remember that I was just about ready to give up and make the best of it when Possum came out and rescued me. She later told me that the contraption was Garney’s idea and that Garney said: “Don’t worry, he’ll get used to it.” I hate to admit it but Garney was right.

I also have a memory of two people (Red and Jerry?) taking me and the cage out to the edge of the aqueduct behind the barn and throwing the cage over, to convince me that we were done with it. Possum denies that this was possible, but then why would I remember it?
If you examine Possum’s drawing of the Woodie loaded for the trip to Taconnet, you will see that underneath the Navy Bean, there is another boat labelled “B”. This was Grandad’s fishing boat. It was kept in the barn and I remember being out there with Grandad examining the boats. Its actual name was I.B., which stood for Iron Bastard. How I have managed to remember that name, which certainly meant nothing to me at the time, I don’t know.

One morning Jerry took me to the basement which, like many New England basements, had a damp smell of mildew. Once there we dug out the equipment to make “tin soldiers”. These were figures that had nothing to do with tin since they were molded out of lead. We melted some lead, poured it into the molds and made a fine set of soldiers. This experience stuck in my mind for many years. In Sweden, I retrieved spent bullets from the nearby army firing range and tried to melt the lead out of them using Possum’s pans and the electric stove. No luck. They must have been filled with something less easily melted than lead. It was probably just as well that it didn’t work, I had quite enough lead exposure as it was.

Garney had a job at the Hathaway House, which was a bookstore on the corner of Central Street and Weston Road, across from the Wellesley College campus. It was the official bookstore for the college and also had a fine selection of children’s books. Garney loved to read out loud and was a first rate reader. I have vivid memories of her reading Thornton Burgess’ Old Mother West Wind to me. It was right at the limit of my comprehension and was probably a bit advanced but Garney liked it so we plowed on. I was particularly puzzled by Peter Rabbit’s experiences in the Briar Patch. I had no idea what a briar patch was or why a rabbit might find it an attractive place. Beatrix Potter was more my speed.

Several times Possum took me to visit Great Grandmother Warren (Lillie Faulkner Warren). At that time she was in her early 80s. To me she seemed absolutely ancient. She lived in an apartment at Vernon Court across from the Newton Public Library. I remember little of her actual apartment, but I have a clear recollection of the elevator, which had polished brass fixtures and a scissors gate. My cousin, Tim Warren, was also taken to see Lillie there and has much the same memory. Once inside the apartment, Possum would hold a conversation with Great Grandmother, which meant absolutely nothing to me. I don’t suppose that Great Grandmother knew how to approach me and I certainly had no idea how to talk to her. Eighty plus years was simply too large a gap for either of us to cross.

Back in Elm Street, The Morning room was a small, cheery room off the hall on the left as you came in. It also opened onto the living room. One day a new console radio appeared and was installed in the Morning room. It was a large wooden device with dark chocolate, bakelite knobs. This was the first radio I’d ever been aware of and it was the center of much attention. I vaguely remember the spoken word issuing from the radio but have no recollection of any music. In fact, I don’t remember any music at 44 Elm Street. That may be my own failing since Garney was very musical and played the piano; and Possum reports that Grandad, who was pretty much tone deaf, loved to sing.

One other memory from the Morning room. One day, I was sitting on the living room floor when Jerry showed up in the Morning room. He was very excited and told us that we’d never guess what he’d found. It turned out that the treasure was bubble gum in the store. It had been missing throughout the war and had just reappeared, so this must have been 1946. I, of course, had no idea what bubble gum might be.

In the summer of 1945 Possum and I went to Kinderkamp in Wiscasset, Maine. I have a memory of a long walk along the seashore with Possum and her pointing out a starfish to me. Beyond that I don’t recall much of that first visit. The next year I, at age three, was sent alone to Kinderkamp as a camper. This was a traumatic experience. I slept in an upper bunk and recall being upset in the evening and having a counselor try to comfort me. Kinderkamp also had a rule that if you didn’t finish your food at one meal it would be served to you at the following meal. I can report that Cheerios are even less appetizing after sitting in milk for a few hours, than they were originally. I did win that contest. Eventually they stopped trying to make me eat the Cheerios. I suspect, but have not verified that Kinderkamp was on the piece of land that now belongs to Camp Chewonki. This would be easy to check at the Lincoln County Registry of Deeds, which is in the Lincoln County Courthouse in Wiscasset.

So, that is a full record of all that I recall from my first few years at 44 Elm Street. From my point of view it was a comfortable existence. I was totally unaware of the difficulties presented by the Depression and the War. I didn’t recognize that there were very few new objects in the house; I didn’t know that Ted was away in the Pacific; I didn’t know that Great Grandmother had had to give up the house she built next door; I didn’t understand the terrific strain on Grandad, who was trying to keep a business going and preserve the jobs of his employees and put bread on their tables as well as his own. All of this only came to me much later in the form of stories. I have been exceedingly lucky and have never experienced that kind of stress.


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