Friday, August 19, 2005

The Wedding Photo

Parlor at the Theron Boyd House by Catherine Seiberling Pond

There is still a lot of chaff and bits of things left at the farm--some piles of old books, some chairs and lawn furniture we have yet to bring home, some odds and ends in the barn.

One thing we found on a recent visit was a framed photograph of my parents' wedding in July 1961 at All Saints' Church in nearby Peterborough, New Hampshire. It was dusty and had been tossed aside and lying on the floor of the upstairs barn loft. Perhaps it was a harmless mistake but it was the only remnant like this up there, a cast off, it seemed, the gesture of throwing away a past, a marriage.

My father and I were always very close. I don't exactly know the details of my parents' separation and divorce--only its impact on me as a child, a teenager, and as an adult. I have heard and surmised various things. But I always remained loyal to both parents while feeling a particular empathy, if not outright kinship, with my father. He was the one who was left behind--my mother had to ask his permission to move with us to New Hampshire (he was an Akron resident his entire life). There is a line in the movie ELIZABETH when Elizabeth the 1st says, "I am my father's daughter." I know exactly what she meant by that: I inherited my father's warped sense of humor, his penchant for melancholy, his love of music, and his body type.

To find this forlorn photograph, a tossed away remnant, like a relic from the Titanic that had survived all of these years or something a tornado had blown into the barn, was as perplexing a thing as much as it was upsetting. I have the original slide from which the print was made so replicating it isn't a problem--it is the finding of it that bothered me. Of all of the items at the farm we went through together, that other people pawed over and moved in the course of several weeks, it is as if that was left behind in the dust on purpose.

So we picked it up, dusted it off as best we could and brought it home with us. What else could we do? I couldn't very well leave my parents on the floor even though they had been divorced almost thirty years before my father died in 2002, even though the wedding itself took place more than 40 years ago. It is still a memory--not a memory of mine but a family memory, and worthy, despite the subsequent fallout of a marriage, of much better treatment than to be left in the empty, lonely space of an old barn.

To see a photograph of my parents sharing their vows, long before the conflicts and discord created by events of the past four years and almost three years after losing my father, just shook me to the core. Finding it in that state was symbolic of so many things and I should probably get this blog off my chest and be done with it--I realize I may be overeacting to such blatant symbolism. I have only hit a temporary low point in processing the "whole farm thing" but the photo has been speaking to me, as if to defend its presence: "I am here!" "I happened!" "I matter!" We all need to make such declarations from time to time--whether for ourselves, a philosophy or a discarded photo of a long ago event. These "bits and threads of our very lives" that Katherine Mansfield wrote about are always around us--some tangible, some less so. "This farm has many ghosts," my mother said. And so it does.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

The Sounds of Summer

West Terrace-Summer 2005

Tonight Henry ran to the screen door that I had just opened after an early evening thunderstorm. The door overlooks our west terrace in the photo above and captures wonderful night air, even in the hottest weather. Henry breathed in the clearer air, tipped his head to one side as if to hear everything, grinned widely and said, "I love the sounds of summer!...Crickets!...and it just rained!" That said so much in one sentence as well as the smile on his face. Oh to be young and exuberant about the little things in life, the things we take for granted as old fuddy grownups.

I had just been admiring my boys on the couch, thinking if I could just freeze this time in their lives when they are so happy and haven't really a care or a worry. When they still get along--with us and each other--and when the world is really as simple as one's own sensory perceptions and time is in the moment and the "eternal now".

Boys Swimming

Soon the days will be even shorter, the cricket chorus will be louder, summer days will wane and we will be in that odd-uneven time, the bittersweet time of the year at summer's end. But for now, for a few more weeks in the life of a 7 year old boy and his 5 year old brother, every day is a summer day--with an unplanned destination, a wide horizon, and the promise of things to come.

Monday, August 8, 2005

Mall City - Part Two

I have the image and concept of the shopping mall in my mind this week, having just spent six days within one mile of a major northeast mall in Burlington, Massachusetts--one with particularly high end stores and restaurants, I might add.

Shopping malls are one of those things I love to hate. I only visit them a few times a year and usually with my teenage daughter in tow whose taste proclivities demand the shopping range that a mall allows. I tend to get clothes on sale at GapKids or Children's Place for our two boys or the occasional kitchen item--ok, a complete consumer rampage as at Crate & Barrel last week--and used to drop in at any given Clinique counter for the annual requisite tube of "Honey Ginger" lipstick until they discontinued the shade about five years ago. My "big store" preference tends to be Target but I'm digressing from the point.

I like the convenience of a Target, an Old Navy or a larger mall complex but "not in our town, dear". I am glad that we live within an hour's reach of these larger consumer areas. I am glad to visit but glad to come home to our town with no stoplight. Perhaps it is hypocritical but I figure if a town is stupid enough to allow rampant sprawl in all directions, I may as well partake once in a while. Is it comforting to go to virtually any part of the country and find the same store, the same franchised restaurant? Yes and no. The malling of America has led to such a bland, homogenous response to life. As long as we are comfortable in our Abercrombie & Fitch (my daughter doesn't believe they used to be a high end fishing store) and have our Starbucks latte in hand, we don't need to fear anything. It is all one ballywick, really: suburbia, mall sprawl, eek. Where is our American regional character going?

I think one reason I am comfortable in malls on that rare occasion is because I grew up in one. Summit Mall in the rural fringes of Akron, Ohio (then the township of Fairlawn and now the City of Fairlawn) was one of the first indoor malls in northeastern Ohio. It was built in the early 1960s, perhaps the year I was born. Inside, at the gathering of its three axis points, was an amazing display of fountains with colored lights. The sound and the smell was a soothing thing for a toddler in a stroller and as we got older we were allowed to toss pennies into the pools. My mother brought us to the mall on rainy days--we were the original "mall walkers" before such a thing was advertised. I would eventually walk alongside my brothers tandem stroller while my mother herded us along, taking in the sites. We didn't always shop but when we did we went to Buster Brown or Sears for shoes and clothes, respectively (I used to have nightmares about the Buster Brown kid and his dog--both rather demonic looking pasted on the inside sole of my shoe), O'Neill's for "nice outfits", Halles or Polsky's for linens and various housewares.

The last thing I remember doing at Summit Mall was when my Aunt Mary took me to O'Neill's in the summer of 1980, at my grandpa's behest, to outfit me in a suit "to greet the president of Wheaton College on my first day of freshman year". It was a sweet, if not somewhat archaic, gesture that I will never forget. We chose a lovely Evan Picone gray flannel suit--the skirt had a kick pleat--a white blouse and black velvet pumps with a bow (very Talbots) and a matching black velvet clutch and even though it was 1980, the suit could have passed for something Nancy Drew may have worn in the 1930s. [Of course, the first day of school was 95 degrees and at least that in humidity--so no wool suits. I never did wear that suit until my first "real" job at the National Trust for Historic Preservation's northeast office in Boston. I still have the entire outfit, even though I long ago outgrew it.] All of these major stores left the Akron-Cleveland area when they went bankrupt in the 1970s and 80s. At one time, they had large city block-sized stores in downtown Akron, where we used to see their Christmas windows each holiday season.

Polsky's, I think it was, had the most marvelous in-store bakery. My mother would buy the occasional chocolate eclairs and at holidays--even something as benign as St. Patrick's day--she would buy cut-out cakes and cookies appropriately dipped in fondant and lavished with colored sprinkles or icing. These big stores also had large escalators and vast houseware departments where I liked to play "house" (of course) in the configured suites of furniture.

This mall was only a few miles from our house and by the early 1970s there were several more in the Akron area. They indeed, despite their glamour and excitement for a young child, sucked the life out of the remaining downtown Akron businesses as the Pretenders bemoan in their hit "My City was Gone"**:


I think Chrissie Hynde must be a "punk preservationist" of sorts. Most of the farms are all gone now, even more than when she lamented Akron's changes in the early 1980s, and are rapidly being sucked up by metro sprawl--especially in the northeastern part of Ohio. If our farms are all gone, even where there is no sprawl, where are we going to get our vegetables and fruits...and milk? Chile? California truck farms? Certainly not at the mall.

**MY CITY WAS GONE by Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders




Sunday, August 7, 2005

The Return of the "Big House"


Rear view of "STONEHEDGE FARM" by Sam Gray, summer 2005, for NEW ENGLAND HOME Magazine (to be launched September 2005)

Forget formulaic, pieced together pre-fabricated and chemically composited McMansion. We're talking c. 25,000 square feet of architect-designed house, complete with interior design and landscape, too, and a bevy of real and natural materials like stone, granite and wood. High end stuff, perhaps at least $200 a square foot in 2002 dollars (and that was before the cost of building materials tripled in the Northeast). I recently wrote about one such house in the western suburbs of Boston for a new magazine about to be released: NEW ENGLAND HOME (check out their website in "Literary" links, at right). It promises to be a magazine exclusively about well-designed high-end New England homes, perhaps an ARCHITECTURAL DIGEST for the nouveau Puritan. I haven't seen the first issue yet but my article is the cover story and I have to like that.

I actually liked this house, even though I didn't have a chance to visit it, save for photographs and extensive interviews with the family. It is what I would call post-modern Shingle Style with more an emphasis on traditional template than on modern stretches. There is a deliberate nod by the architects, Catalano Architects, Inc. to Henry Hobson Richardson, the firm of McKim, Mead & White, and even English country house designer Edwin Lutyens (pronounced Lutch-ens) whose late nineteenth century look was already post-modern in its way. [If you've seen the 1979 movie adaptation of A FRENCH LIEUTENANT's WOMAN, with Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep, the large English lakeside house used for the last scenes of the movie is a Lutyens design. Think big spaces, playful articulation of form and massing, and the ideal background for the pre-Raphaelite set.] As their website founder Thomas P. Catalano has been praised by Paul Goldberger in THE NEW YORK TIMES as "an architect whose shingled and clapboard houses are handsome and expansive, and endeavor to fit into their surroundings." Neo Shingle-Style? Neo-Colonial Revival? Can one have a revival of a revival? If so, that is what this house exemplifies and Catalano, who was once an apprentice to Robert Stern, is a proponent of the "Big House" movement.

The family that built it wanted to make it a liveable home for their extensive family of grown children and grandchildren. Talking with them reminded me of what my greatgrandparents thought about when they had in mind a country mansion in then ex urban Akron, Ohio in the early 1910s. Their vision turned into 65,000 square feet of Tudor Revival comfort and elegance--but despite its grandeur, the house was always warm and inviting. And my greatgrandparents entertained their extensive family and group of friends--and occasional special luminaries--like there was no tomorrow. I suppose before the great Wars and income taxes if you were on the right financial side of the fence, there probably was no tomorrow. [Some original summer houses from this era and before--in the late 1800s--exist near us around Dublin Lake in Dublin, New Hampshire. Sadly, those remaining houses that have not been torn down or burned, are sold to newly-monied newcomers because the original families can no longer afford the obsene property taxes that occur when you live lakeside with a mountain view in New Hampshire. "Live free or die" is our state motto--it should change to "Live free if you can afford to live here at all"]

All this talk of family seats makes me mourn the passing of the farm and what could have been. We wanted to create that same semblance of continued family gathering place. But it was not to be. My grandparents and even my mother managed to do so for a time--but not in recent years. I guess in the end and for a variety of reasons we could not carry the baton. Now I will try to create that within our home that we've shared since our marriage, the one that my husband's family has owned since 1960, the large double Federal house that will be 200 years old in 2013. It is rare in this day and age to have children near and family all around. I envy those, like the MacDowells with their large suburban farm estate and handful of grown children and even more grandchildren, that can actually pull it off--whether in 25,000 or 1,500 square feet. [Our friend Judy and her husband manage beautifully in less then that, complete with two grown daughters, a son-in-law, and a grandhild. Of course the Amish just add on a "Grandpa House" to their property for the older generation to "retire" into.]

The closest of families, no matter what their house size, are the ones who can say what they mean to each other and still get together for the holidays--or regular Sunday dinner--unscathed. None of this WASP pretense and pretending the elephant isn't in the room...because it usually is, whether dwarfed by the architecture or crammed into a corner, the elephant is there and he needs to be acknowledged. When a member of one such New England family I know announced at a Thanksgiving dinner that he was gay--perhaps not the best time to announce such a thing, unless in a WASP household--his father paused for a moment and said, "Would you please pass the peas?"

Saturday, August 6, 2005

"Missing Time" in Mall City

We just got back from six days and six nights in....Burlington, Massachusetts! Land of office complexes and industrial parks and a really great mall, actually. Vacation? No, not exactly, but yes in some strange ways. My husband had to have a procedure at the Lahey Clinic and I, his doting wife, checked into the Marriott up the road. When not at his bedside, I was at the Burlington Mall (well, only for a few hours out of the whole week and the first several with my husband--we hit Crate & Barrel and I'll detail that in another blog!) or wrapped up at the hotel with laptop, pay-per-view, and the occasional room service order (it does get tiring eating out alone). Our children were nestled at home with a veritable Mary Poppins, our friend Judy [see "Judy's House (and Pantry)" entry in my blog archives: May 5, 2005], so I never worried for a moment about them. I soon became a part of this strange world where I didn't have to be a wife, a mother, to cook meals or even manage any more than my own little hotel room. Not only was the world strange but the time, too--"missing time" we always call it when someone is in the hospital (I have only experienced that three times before, when each of my children was born).

On Wednesday the Marriott informed me there was no room in the inn. Oh dear, what to do! I'd gotten rather used to my eighth floor eyrie (while I don't like heights, I do like to be on a higher hotel floor) with its perfectly attuned airconditioner and bottles of Evian water and king-sized bed complete with Euro-style puff. So, I slogged over to the Homestead Suites and decided to stay there for the last three or four nights--the place was like a glorified Super 8, but with a small kitchen en suite. I found the nearest Trader Joe's and did my best at meal preparation (the one time I was glad to have and use a microwave). I decided to boycott the Marriott, despite their offer for me to return on Thursday--how dare they kick me out knowing that I'd been there for three nights and needed several more (but had neglected, initially, to make that extensive a reservation)! Both places had "Lahey" discounts which were substantial and appreciated.

I had no right to complain at all--here I was without husband and children for six days and nights while my poor husband was on five days of mandatory bed rest, post surgery. The time went far more quickly for me than I imagined it would. Between hospital trips twice a day (or in one long stretch of hours), I didn't seem to have much time. So I emailed friends and family with progress reports to fill in the gaps...and watched weird things on Cable TV (we don't have Cable at home so it is always a treat). I also had a lot of "alone" time, something I used to take for granted. Time with myself and with my thoughts, I never get lonely. I can miss my children and husband's company, sure, but I am also comfortable with my own time and space.

In that sense the stay was beneficial. I could not have gone down and back every day (90 minutes each way), fought traffic, and then balanced kids at home while worrying about leaving Temple behind at the hospital. This way I could focus on visiting him and getting rested for the home stretch to come. And fortunately we are still in August and have relatively unstructured days as it is.

T. is doing beautifully but we laughed that both times we've had Judy come for a week it has always been for dire reasons. NEXT time, we vow, we'll book that cruise or take a second honeymoon on "Judy time". But we are so blessed to have someone whom we can trust with all three of our children and know they are having a good time: so much so that Eli said tonight when I was tucking him in, "sometimes I didn't want you to come home!" I know exactly what he meant.