Sunday, May 12, 2013

* The Mount Carmel Petition My Mother Refused to Sign

Robert H. and Barbara W. Keane
50th Wedding Anniversary, 1984

The Land of the Sleeping Giant

My parents lived in Mt. Carmel for forty years of their fifty-one year marriage.

 My mother’s great aunt, Lyda Wilbur, had owned Wilbur’s Hardware Store (later known as Kimler’s Hardware Store) in Centerville near the Hamden Town Hall and when she died she left my mother a small –very small—inheritance. It was big enough though to put a down-payment on the house where I was a baby  in Mt. Carmel near Legion Field.

The inheritance got my parents out of the New Haven ghetto, Star Street to be exact, where both of them had lived in poverty.  My father had graduated from Hillhouse High School and attended one year of college at the University of Alabama on the insurance money he received when his mother, getting off a trolley in West Haven, was hit and run and killed  by a drunk driver. His  much older brothers (there was no father in the picture) had told him he had no right to use the money to go to college. They were too poor for pretensions like that.

My mother had never completed high school.  

My father’s first job during the Depression was as a Good Humor man, selling ice cream from a three wheeled bicycle with a freezer contraption.

By 1960 my father had worked himself up to Executive Director of Labor Relations at Landers, Frary, and Clarke in New Britain.

That job and the munificent salary of  $12,500 a year enabled them to move to a new house.  They bought a lot in Yankee Mount Carmel's  fashionable West Woods on Still Hill Road and built what was then considered a “modern” house, an 8-room, split level, for the enormous sum of $ 25,000.

It was woods on both sides at first and then someone bought and cleared the lot above them (it was a hill, after all) and built another split level.  

And so we had neighbors.  A year later the neighbors sold their split-level to the Assistant Superintendent of Schools in New Haven and his family, Kenneth R. Redmonds.

The Redmonds were African Americans, or, as was the polite term back then, Blacks.

This was 1961 or 1962 and many folks had trouble understanding that all men are created equal.

My mother, who came from poverty, and had educated herself (she always had a book at her side in the living room) was not one of them. She knew about inequality.

One night the doorbell rang and my mother opened what was then considered the stylishly fashionable double door to the entry hall in our split level.  My father avoided most social interactions such as answering the door and phone.  He was a man of deep silences and piercing intellect (a “Philadelphia lawyer” as the expression goes) but chit-chat was not part of his repertoire.
RHK at 70

My mother on the other hand knew just what to say on all occasions and never consciously offended a person in her life. She worked as Assistant Registrar of Vital Statistics in the Hamden Town Hall and literally typed every birth and death certificate in the Town, as well as every dog and fishing license. 

By the time she retired she knew everyone in town, living or dead, fishing or barking.

It was a neighbor at the door  with a petition which expressed many neighbors' displeasure at having to share the neighborhood with a Black family. Would my mother like to sign?

My mother was sorry but she would not like to sign. 

The doors closed softly but firmly. The neighbor had never got over the threshold, double doors or not.

A few weeks later the Redmonds moved in. 

My mother did what she always did for new neighbors---made a casserole and brought it over personally to welcome them to the neighborhood, an old Yankee custom.

Over the next 23 years my mother would wave to the Redmonds, and they to my mother (my father was invisible)  and they would shout through the trees about the weather and how the kids were doing and about the seasons and such.  It was good Yankee neighborliness—friendliness without intrusiveness.

Fast forward 23 years to 1985.

 My mother then 73  and my father then 71  go on vacation to the West Coast.  My mother winds up stranded in an intensive care unit for 118-days fully conscious but unable to get off the life-support machinery.  My father is stranded in a motel for the entire 4 months.  My parents home has been empty except for a house sitter who came to feed the dogs and a friend who cleaned the house weekly.

When my mother died and my father returned to an empty house, Mrs. Redmonds, who had never before stepped foot in our home, brought down a casserole, completing the twenty-three year cycle of neighborliness.

My father would live there seven more years. When he died at 78, Mrs. Redmonds called to tell me that  my father  and she, long a widow, had exchanged hellos all those seven years from their separate driveways. 

She’d kept an eye on him. 

In my father’s library jammed with books I found a slight volume on his desk after he died.

Its title? 

How to Talk to People.

This is how it was in my Mother’s Mount Carmel in the 1900's.

Error: 1934, not 1938
Note:  I do not know how to pluralize "Redmonds" without it looking awkward and pretentiously academic, so I am pluralizing it incorrectly for eyes' sake.

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