Wednesday, June 19, 2019

A Return to Childhood Part IV

The six ducks across the street are in a line along the edge of the road grooming themselves. They’re fun to watch with the little tail wiggles and wing flaps. I hope the traffic slows for them.

Dear Mum,
You would've loved this property where I live now. The brook which can be seen from the house is amazing. We always loved the brooks, didn’t we? You would've been right down there cutting away all the brush, cleaning up the dead fall and debris, and making it look beautiful.

I remember how you always had the area under the pines looking so pretty. Do you know, they cut all those pines and the backyard is open (and … blah)? 

But alas, I am not you, and at this age, I cannot do that clearing work you loved. I am building flower gardens, though. I always admired your gardens and your love of the plants. I’m sorry I didn’t come into it while we could have done it together.

Forgive me?

Love you forever!

Yes, I talk to my mum almost every day. I don’t get a response. She just looks at me from her photo perch on the shelf across from where I write. But it dawned on me messages sometimes come through when I’m writing. I usually say it’s from The Muse. But maybe if I specifically write to mum, she might come through in my writing.

Contemplating loss of parents and learning to let go takes me on an interesting journey, and now that a few years have passed and the heartbreak lessened, I am able to look at our lives without falling totally apart (although I still get teary). I’m curious for answers to questions I never dared ask when she was alive. I want to know more family story, and for some reason, I hoped the recent trip to old family and childhood properties would trigger things I forgot.

There are things children don’t recognize when they’re young, and 60 years ago, family dynamics were different. Most kids just aren’t interested in family history, especially if the parents aren’t passionate about it. Still, I wanted something to stir within me. I wanted a memory, a feeling, a connection …

June 4 continued: Gail and I continued on to Kensington and the moment we crossed the border began, “Do you remember who lived there?” We pointed out buildings we remembered; some kept up and renovated, some looking the same, while others falling to decay. There were new buildings interspersed and other additions to the landscape.

Oh, here’s a spot where an old trail used to come out onto the main road and is now a housing development. And on this trail which ran beside a familiar-looking home was where my brother and I once found a watermelon in the brook.

Imagine two kids, we must’ve been 8 and 10, finding a watermelon in the brook on a hot summer day. Wow! What a treasure! Of course, we rescued it, broke it open on a rock, and stuffed ourselves silly on the delectable, juicy morsels.

Needless to say, mum was looking for us before we got home. The people who put the watermelon in the brook to keep it cool, saw us take it and went immediately to phone our mother. Hey, we were kids. It never occurred to us someone would purposely put a watermelon in the brook!

Where the American Legion is now was once a little store called The Bird Cage (we called it the shit shack.) I remember it being a small, two-room, dingy, crowded place smelling of dust and cigarettes. He had parakeets and sold penny candy and cigarettes, and out back he had lots of books we could take and read. (I was the reader.)

The two corner houses were similar and I remember the families who lived there. Then we turned the corner onto our street, down the hill into what we called the hollow, then up as we approached our old homes.

Gail’s old house still stood bright and white looking almost exactly the same, though kept up with fresh paint and all. She remarked how the two old maple trees bordering the driveway had been cut down long ago.

My childhood home is gone!
But my eyes strayed across the street and my heart dropped into my belly. My house was GONE! There wasn’t anything recognizable. Any remnant of the building was gone, and vegetation, brush, and saplings covered the once-huge lawn and property leaving only a small reseeded level spot of ground where the house once stood. It didn’t even look big enough to have held the house I called home in my youngest years.  

I pulled into the driveway (which now extended to connect to Gail’s father’s old driveway to the farm “down back”) and we got out. My mind was numb. I couldn’t even find words, except to say how small the house footprint looked.

Gail pointed to two trees on either side of the driveway. “Do you think these are the same two trees we used to climb?” I wasn’t sure. After 57 years or so, wouldn’t they look bigger? I stood there trying to take it in. I was in such shock, I couldn’t even cry.

A man was walking by and I waved him over. He said the property had been abandoned for years and was foreclosed on. It was recently sold to Alan Lewis. Hey, that’s Gail’s cousin who had bought her dad’s old farm and had even bought my uncle’s property years ago off my dad.

We got back in the car and continued down the driveway to her dad’s old farm. The dirt road followed a ridge top, one side went down to where dad once had his chicken coops and pig pens and the other side down to the brook (what we called First Brook). Nothing looked the same. The road dipped down and crossed the brook at an intersection where the new driveway to the property merged with the old. Yes, there was the brook where Don, and Gail’s youngest brother Lyle tried to teach the baby chicks to swim (after all, the baby ducks could) and the swamp on the left where we learned to ice skate (which looked way more open now than I remembered).

To the left was the old trail leading to what we called the Second Brook, but again, although there was still a trail, it wasn’t the trail of my childhood. Farther up was a large parking area for visitors to the “new” farm/retreat property. I wouldn’t be able to walk up the hill, so Gail said to keep going. We had permission, after all.

We emerged from the wooded area onto what had been the farm, a piggery and huge gardens when Gail’s dad lived here. Now it was a huge expanse of manicured lawn continuing up. To the left was a renovated cabin named after Gail’s dad which he had lived in. There were other cabins, each set up with their own private space.

Someone directed us to continue up the hill, around a huge building which now houses meeting rooms and social areas, and through a stretch of woods where there was to be a ceremony Gail wanted to attend.

I immediately felt out of place. The energy here was wrong; not bad, just not the land of my childhood. The road twisted around trees and we came out into a field where exhibition tents were set up. Off to the right, looking like it was emerging out of the tall field grass, was a humungous black sculpture of a gorilla. What? Like that fits in here? It was ugly.

We got out. I realized this field was what we’d called The Big Hill. I spent a lot of time up here. This was my go-to place, the place where I came after school to recover from the name-calling and out casting of school mates. It was a great sledding hill, but once at the bottom, it was a long way back up trudging through snow.

I pointed down the hill to a group of trees and told Gail of the old foundation there and how my puppy fell down an open well and how her dad came and rescued the pup. He later put wood over the well so other critters couldn’t fall in.

Next to the trees in the middle of hill going down were two huge silver-metal sculptures of faces – so out of place in this serene setting. Other than those modern sculptures, the hill looked the same … but I didn’t want to stay. The people gathering were strangers and it all felt wrong to me.

I fought to find words to apologize to Gail and say if she wanted to stay, I’d wait below. I didn’t want to disappoint her. I found the words and she said she didn’t want to stay either. We returned down the twisty-turny path and back onto the old farmland. We stopped to inspect a life-size buffalo sculpture and sat on a bench near the rock where two of her brothers were buried.

There was another sculpture (I guess you’d call it a sculpture) nearby in a smaller section of now-manicured lawn. It looked like a long Loch Ness serpent made of bright red lobster trap rope undulating in the green grass. It was ugly and did not fit in with the landscape at all. To me, it looked like an armature of something being developed, but it’d been like this for years. It reminded Gail of something kids were supposed to play on.

The sun was warm after the cold of the morning at the beaches. Gail pointed out places she remembered, and we shared stories. My favorite memory of this property was, when we were little, Gail’s dad had a big party every summer inviting friends and neighbors. There’d be a huge cook-out; we’d play dodgeball, tag and hide ‘n’ seek; explore the woods, light off fireworks (which I’ve always hated), but the best part was the singalong around the campfire after dark.

An employee came by and talked about the people coming to this ceremony. I looked at Gail, “I really don’t want to be here,” and she agreed. This wasn’t our land anymore. We didn’t belong here, and we drove away passing many out of state cars and a few more sculptures that looked like they’d be better off at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, not here in a forested landscape.

I made one more stop at my old home and hiked down the field to peer into the woods. I called out to Gail who waited in the car, “These forsythias might be from mum’s old big bush!” I tried to look past the trees bordering the field. The field, too, has been encroached upon by Mother Nature. I just wanted one glimpse of something familiar, but it wasn’t to be.

We made the loop around the other way in leaving, driving past my second house, which still looks the same shape only a different color and all the pines in the back are gone. We passed the old farm where my dad grew up, its barn now gone. Then onto the road where my uncle lived, I was shocked to see his house looked exactly the same (on the outside) as when he was alive. (It’s now one of Lewis’ guest camps.)

We stopped for sandwiches to take back to our rental. My emotions were all over the place. I still hadn’t pieced it all together, still not sure of what I was really looking for, let alone deciphering how or why I didn’t find it.

Back on my computer, I wrote a poem:

There’s No Going Back

We returned, Gail and I,
to our childhood homes and land
ready to share the experience
of trudging down memory lane together

I anticipated emotional outpouring
expecting scenes from long ago
to trigger childhood memories
I can’t remember

I anticipated sentimental reaction
and a falling of lots of tears
as the land I grew up on
wrapped me in a comfort of what I once knew

I anticipated finding release
as feelings flooded my being
eyes overflowing
triggered by delights of childhood now lost

But there was nothing here
the landscape totally changed
even to the demolition of my old home
and what was left unrecognizable

Speechless, stunned and feeling empty,
I couldn’t even cry
The land did not call to us
its energy no longer matched ours

My eyes strained to find familiar
my being searching for the old roots
of what was once my home
and what once encompassed blended family

Her dad’s old property, too
its scenes no longer familiar
the now manicured and manipulated landscape
as foreign as other people arriving

The place, though beautiful,
felt cold and alien
strange modern sculptures created a wrong feeling
not fitting in with the landscape … as we knew it

We pointed and exclaimed, “Remember …,”
but words stuck in our throats
as memory didn’t match what we were seeing
we didn’t belong here anymore

This place was no longer home
to two little girls
who ran barefoot through tall grasses
and dared to ride pigs

It was time to leave.

The past is the past
there’s no going back
but for a short time,
I so wished for a return to simpler times.

--Sasha Wolfe, 2019

The journey of living wholeheartedly and delving back into the past has its rewards even if I’m not getting the answers I expected. The land may no longer be mine or I belong to it, but there are still memories of happy childhood times.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

A Return to Childhood Part III

I love history, not the history they teach you at school, but real history with real people and their personal stories. I always want to know what happened to people who lived in such and such houses. Everyone has a story and an interesting life. Where are they now and what are they doing? Who’s still alive?

Who’s going to write or tell their stories? Who’s going to write our stories? When our time here is over, will there only be a few old photos to show we were here? Will we just become a name on some family tree, and no one will ever really know who we were?

Years ago, my oldest son worked on family genealogy. It was interesting, but with names only, there was the lack of personal story of these people. Who were they? What did they do? What happened to them? How/when did family lose connection? I want to know story!

The other day, I found a typewritten family genealogy in the back of my uncle’s old photo album done by a distant aunt of theirs (my great-aunt then?) with many unfamiliar names. Does this mean I have cousins I never knew of?

The question runs through my mind: How much do I really want to delve into this? Would I be interested in reaching out to someone? It would be a time-consuming endeavor, for sure. And what would I do with any new information?

Just before my mum passed, I wanted to write hers and other family stories, but never made the time. Now it’s too late and I struggle (with some sorrow) to fit pieces together. Why didn’t I pay attention when I should have? But I didn’t and now the universe is driving me to look back now.

And so, I continue the story of the recent trip to the coast with my childhood friend/sister, Gail, to visit old family properties and reconnect to the land and waters:

June 4 unfolded in steps starting with the early morning beach walk then the visit to my uncle’s old property on Rings Island, Salisbury, Mass. This next segment was to go back to where their (uncle, mum, and aunt) early years were spent.

This was my grandparents house at Black Rocks, Salisbury, Mass.
A little family history:
My grandparents early house was at Black Rocks in what is now called Salisbury Beach State Reservation in Salisbury, Mass. My mum used to tell stories of growing up down there on the Merrimac River near where Black Water Creek meets the river at Butler’s Toothpick.

She talked about eminent domain and how the government came and made the families move. I found information where the state took over the land in 1931 (one site said it was in 1935), and the military took it in 1941 to set up defenses in fear of a Pearl Harbor on the east coast. It was also a watch place for German U-boats.

But I can’t find any official written info on moving the families off the land, or even how many properties were involved. I have one old photo that shows at least five or six houses around my grandparents’ house … and their house was right on the beach (river side, not ocean).

My mum often told a story that during the big flood of 1936, she remembered her mum carrying her in one arm, twin sister Margaret in the other, and older brother Ray clinging to their mother’s skirt as she waded through almost waist-deep water to get to high ground. They had rabbits and chickens in the bottom portion of their house and the poor creatures … And mum had said this was when the government made them move.

Flanders store and boat livery service, Salisbury, Mass.
But that was her memory and she was a small child, then. She had to be younger than 10 when they moved. She also told stories of the CCC Boys (what she called the Civilian Conservation Corps.) Their camp was on another street just down from where my grandparents’ house had been moved to on Beach Road.

The original road to the beach was built of planks laid across the marshes and in 1866, Beach Road was laid over the top. I would like to be able to find out when my grandparents moved there … had to be after the 1920s.

I’m not even sure how much my mum knew about that time. She remembered kid incidences like when one kid almost drowned in the creek and Margaret jumped in and save him. How they used to jump on big ice cakes in the winter and float down the creek. (Yikes, the thought of ever catching my kids doing something like that …) And how her dad made a lot of money selling liquor thrown overboard by boat crews when they were caught by the authorities during prohibition.

Gail and I headed to the beach from Rings Island and pulled onto the road to the reservation. I made a quick stop to take photos of a gnarly tree and the winding creek beside it to use in my next pastel painting. I usually try to plan my visit here before Memorial Day when parking doesn’t cost and was surprised and pleased to find this day there wasn’t a fee to visit the reservation. I turned towards the boat ramp.

Scene I will do as a pastel painting
Soon we were making our way down a soft sand path towards Butler’s Toothpick (erected years ago as a navigational landmark on the river.) After my mum passed away, she came to me in a vision demanding to go home and I knew this is where she wanted to be. The remaining family, Gail, and I brought Mum and Aunt Margaret home in a dedication ceremony in 2014 on their birthday, April 18.

On this trip to pay honor to them, the beautiful spring blossoms were gone, but the rain clouds moving in made for a spectacular sky. My weight sunk into the sand then gave a little more when I moved into the next step jarring my back reawakening an old injury. It was a little easier walking on the edge near the fence, but every jounce added to the pain. By the time we reached the Toothpick, which wasn’t far, I wasn’t sure I could walk much farther.

Path to Butler's Toothpick, Black Rocks
Cold wind whipped hair into our faces making it uncomfortable along the water. I hid my disappointment. I didn’t feel the connection I usually feel at this spot. Where was my mother? Why couldn’t I feel her? My thoughts were stripped away in the gusts like pieces of ribbon torn from its knot.

I wanted to walk farther down the beach, but a large crowd of people picnicking near the camping area deterred me. Gail gets colder easier than I and I could tell she was eager to move on. I followed her along the path back to the parking lot stopping often to take photos of the dunes and rest my back.

My mind was numb. Once again, that which I was hoping to discover didn’t happen. The journey to rediscover my roots and hopefully fill the hole in my heart wasn’t to be with this visit. I know this is a process. It’s been many years and just as with a real archeological dig, layers need to be explored before the treasure can be found.

Perhaps the afternoon visit to my actual childhood home will be the trigger. Stay tuned.

Monday, June 17, 2019

A Return to Childhood Part II

The new Boulder Garden
Saturday night I fell asleep planning more work in the gardens. This morning, instead of being on a creative roll, Murphy has jumped on my back. Some days just suck! I just want to sit and cry, but I’m even too down for tears.

Rain falls and Pele kitty cackles at the downy woodpeckers at the suet feeders outside. I push through getting the last of the editing done for the week. The work numbs my mind, so I don’t have to succumb to my sad feelings.

Four hours later, in responding to an email from Gail about her mother hugging her from beyond and the love she felt triggers something within me.

Hmmmm ... all about the love. Tears are falling. On one hand, I know I'm loved ... but I don't FEEL the love! That's what I'm missing. Maybe that's what I'm looking for in trying to go back to childhood. And there's part of me that feels I'll never be loved again ... if I ever truly was ... and that no guy (husband or boyfriend) ever truly loved me -- oh, there's the love of friends and distant love of family, but I don't have the immediate, physical, hug-feel of love. But then I keep telling myself I don't have time for love, the last thing I need is for someone to want me to love him -- I have too much me stuff with my art I'm trying to do.

I truly believe we need to allow ourselves time to grieve. Not just for those who’ve passed on, but for every loss or betrayal we’ve ever encountered. Allowing ourselves to feel is to heal emotionally. Perhaps, this too, is why I am making this journey into the past and part of my living wholeheartedly.

This is going to take more contemplation, for sure. But first, the journey of returning to my childhood family properties continues …

June 4, Gail and I took a break after our morning beach walk deciding what to do about breakfast. We got in the car and headed south on Route 1-A passing through Seabrook Beach, then into Salisbury Beach, Mass. I drove around the loop of the old amusement park and we pointed to where the Flying Horses carousel, the old wooden rollercoaster, and the Ferris wheel used to be. 

We stopped for photos of today’s cheap-looking carousel – nothing like the huge Flying Horses of our childhood.
We recalled playing skee-ball in the arcades. (Skee-ball was my favorite and it was fun to win prizes.) Gail talked about having her first piece of square pizza. Joe’s Playland and both Tripoli and Christy’s are still there. Other buildings are also there, but nothing was really the same. There were no crowds of people walking around with kids eating cotton candy; no chatter, no sounds and bells of arcades and amusement rides. The area almost feels like a ghost town, just barely hanging on to life.

Not seeing any breakfast-type place, we headed to Salisbury Square and found some dive of a little restaurant. The people were very nice, but the place itself was awful and neither of us ate much – and to use the bathroom? Gross, beyond gross!

My uncle's old house around 1990 and little garage to the right
We headed down Route 1 to Rings Island along the Merrimac River and across from Newburyport. My uncle was the harbor master for 38 years and there’s a plaque dedicated to his memory by the pier. His house, a two-story narrow New Englander was once a barrel factory before he bought it. Now it is multi-million-dollar structure, two houses in similar shape connected by a two-story foyer (I would guess). What was once a little garage is now a huge, two-story building of its own.

What my uncle's old property looks like today
It’s hard to find words. The beach where we learned to swim when we were little filled in with beach grasses long ago. The boat ramp is gone. We walked out on the pier chatting about how we used to jump from this spot or that at high tide. The ramp going down to the boat slip dock is now multiple docks extending out into the river and we went out to the very end. The river is still beautiful and peaceful, and we couldn’t have asked for a prettier day.

I don’t know what I was expecting to feel – I only know I didn’t feel it. There was just a sadness of times changed, although the beauty of the river is amazing. It was time to move on with the next stop being the land where my mum and siblings spent their early childhood – Black Rocks, Salisbury Beach Reservation. My mum and aunt, mum’s twin, talked of their childhood home a lot before they passed. I try to get down once a year around their birthday to visit and to feel them.

The river views are soothing to the soul
There’s something in my soul searching – for some kind of connection to family, to heritage, for roots. Maybe it is all about love; love of parents for children. Is it because I can’t feel the love any longer and I’m trying to get it back? Whatever it is, I know this archeological dig into my past will eventually bring relief and better understanding. 

Thursday, June 13, 2019

A Return to Childhood Part I

My sister-by-different-parents-best-friend, Gail’s father recently passed away and with his leaving came the realization that every adult I knew as a kid is now gone. What a strange feeling. We are truly the adults now and into our crone years. I’m not even sure how to describe it; definitely a door closed on the past, but there’s also an emptiness.

I’ve been thinking about childhood and wanting to go back to rediscover things I’d forgotten as a part of learning to let go and live wholeheartedly. With Gail’s dad’s passing, this felt like a great opportunity to explore, discover, and really say goodbye to the past.

And who better to share this experience with but Gail! We talked it over and rented an Airbnb at Hampton Beach. We only live about a couple hours apart, but we seldom see each other these days. We looked forward to spending time together, telling old stories, and visiting our old homes. It’s one thing to discuss the past, but to actually visit the old homesteads would add another dimension to the adventure.

We met on an early June afternoon. The day was sunny, but the wind made it a little chilly. We settled into our cute little apartment and after lunch in Seabrook, we returned to Hampton Beach for a little souvenir shopping and ocean watching. Later we changed into our night clothes, relaxed on the two couches planning the next day’s trip, and talking about life.

The next morning, we were up in time for the sunrise. I trudged quietly behind Gail, feet sinking into the soft sand, my head bent watching for trip hazards. We followed the narrow path up a tall sand dune, a dark orange glowing over the tops of the waving dune grasses. The path opened into a sandy hollow at a crossroad between the taller tops of the dunes with other paths, one from another road and two towards the beach.

The sun, now a glorious brilliant yellow surrounded by shades of orange streaks with blue-gray sky higher above greeted us. The huge round ball sat on the horizon above the Isles of Shoals. We stood mesmerized, then took photos.

I pulled my eyes away from the sun. It was nearing low tide creating a huge, wide expanse of beach which stretched lengthwise towards Boar’s Head to the left and the jetty to the right. The entire horizon on either side of the sun was topped with orange, darker along the horizon itself and lighter above looking to the north and in softer shades to the south.

Do we take the straight across path which would take us toward the main part of Hampton Beach or the right path towards the jetty? Me, I chose rocks over the more developed, commercial areas, and we made our way down a steep incline between the dunes. The wind was still blowing, but not quite as bad as the day before. Still, we had to keep pulling hair away from our eyes. Wow, I forgot how much I loved walking the beach at sunrise!

The jetty looked so far away and I’m not good at walking these days. I wasn’t sure I could make it. We chose to walk the high tide mark. I took my time and picked up rocks to make a rock garden back home. Little plovers ran along the beach in front of us and the seagulls looked huge compared to the small birds.

Sometimes we’d make comments to each other, but mostly we walked in silence, each lost in our own musings. And all the while, the waves crashed onto the shore and rolled up the sand in a soothing, rhythmic, deep whhoooshh.

My wanderings slowed as I not only stuffed my pockets with interesting rocks, but I let myself get caught up in patterns in the sand made by the outgoing tide. I took way too many photos, but I can’t help it. It didn’t take much to catch my attention. I finally made it to the jetty and was rewarded by finding three sand dollars.

With my pockets heavy, it was even harder walking in the soft sand back up over the sand dune on the return. We rested up a bit and chatted about the next part of our trip down memory lane – a visit to Salisbury Beach Reservation, Salisbury, Mass., where my mum spent the early years of her life on the banks of the Merrimack River.

What memories and emotions will stir? Stay tuned.