Monday, July 4, 2011

* "Come out to the farm."

Uncle Walter, my mother's uncle by marriage: Family legend has it that he is part Native American.

Aunt Bertha (Auntie B ),my mother's aunt, by blood. 

Uncle Walter, 73, Aunt Bertha, 65, in 1951 in front of the main house  (which they lived in unheated, except for fireplaces,  in the summer) on their newly purchased  25 acre "farm", band leader Paul Whiteman's abandoned summer estate in Killingworth, Connecticut which had no electricity  or phone except for a generator which turned on to flush the toilet and listen to the radio for a few minutes.  Uncle  Walter  got up to stoke a wood stove four times every night. They lived by kerosene lamp until 1961, when he was 84 and she was 76. They had eight litters of doberman pinchers from Duke  (a black male) and Duchess (a red female) over the years.

My brother Chris (aka Kit) and me in 1951.

The former caretaker's house on "the farm" where  Aunt Bertha and Uncle Walter lived in the winter.

My mother's sister, June, and my cousin Philip, on  "the farm" in 1951.

Kid Stuff

I had a dream last night I was on their farm again.  They've been dead for 50 years, but I could hear their voices in my dream and feel their  grouchy, Yankee, warmth.  Aunt  Bertha always 'wanted children" my mother told me, but "couldn't have them."  It's tough being childless if you want them.

I never realized till forty years after they were dead that they bought that farm for my brother and me. They had no children, and their way of making money was to buy dilapidated property, live on it, fix it up, and sell it for a profit.

In 1951 at the ages most people would retire (73 and 65) Uncle Walter and Aunt Bertha bought the abandoned  25-acre summer estate of the King of Jazz (Rhapsody in Blue band leader Paul Whiteman) on Iron Works Road  (off Roast Meat Hill, so named for a barn-fire which killed all the cows) in Killingworth, Connecticut, an hour drive from my parents house outside of New Haven in Hamden.

What a place! No phone. No TV! No electricity except when you flushed the toilet thereby turning the generator on (also permitted for half an hour evening and morning to listen to radio).  kerosene lamps, wood stove.

What kind of crazy old Yankees would live there at retirement age? And why?  Were they trying to recapture the past?

They had bath tub, only a shower stall in the garage under the caretaker's house (where the wood stove was also located) and  no hot water! Aunt Bertha had to come in to town once or twice a year to our house  to "take a hot bath." Uncle Walter never did!

They lived there for ten years , and then sold it when I was 15, and bought three  dilapidated beach houses in Westbrook, Connecticut which they fixed up.  Uncle Walter even dug a full cellar by hand (wheelbarrow-by-wheelbarrow) when he was 85 years old. They lived there till they died, she at 78 he at 87.

When I was in sixth Grade, about to graduate to Junior High School,  I had an autograph book which I got all my classmates and relatives to sign.  My father wrote in his handsome architect-trained printing a philosophical sentence about "talents, like gold, become refined in proportion to the effort exerted to refine them."

I showed this  autograph book to Auntie B and Uncle Walter, when they came to our house, one of the two times a year they  dressed up and came to town---- for Thanksgiving  or Christmas dinner.

I nagged Uncle Walter to sign it after Auntie B did in the beautiful penmanship she was so proud of having acquired at the Framingham Business School . He kept refusing and my mother told me not to bother him further, but being a kid, I did.  I didn't realize that he hadn't written a anything beyond his own name for over 20 years (Aunt Bertha took care of all the business).

Finally he took the autograph book and with great labor forced his enormous, muscled hands  around a pen and wrote these words, the only words I ever saw him write: "Come out to the farm."

For ten years my mother, grandmother and brother and I had driven the hour to Ki8llingworth on a Sunday once a month to go "out to the farm." Once or twice i spent a week there alone with Auntie B and Uncle Walter.  It wasn't entirely roughing it: Aunt Bertha had a 1951 Oldsmobile '88.

I took it for granted. All the work he put into that place; fixing up and painting three houses, a dog kennels and a one room, sod-roofed log cabin (with a hole in the roof). he used a hand mower and a scythe to cut the grass, and an Abe Lincoln axe to chop wood.  If it snowed, he shoveled the quarter of a mile driveway up-hill by hand. It took two, some-times three, days.

"Come out to the farm" is as close as this tough, childless, old man could come to saying:  "It's your home too."

But, of course, I didn't realize that till forty years later.

What I would give to have that autograph book now.

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