Tuesday, September 1, 2009
#3 – ENGLISH PARTY
In the Bahamas Ellen becomes busy setting up the details of her life. One morning we walk for hours in the hot sun looking for a place to go later for lunch that will serve her beer.
She is constantly on the phone to airlines making arrangements for where she goes next. One moment it is Rome. The next it is where her alcoholic mother lives. She has a complex system of plane connections that she keeps changing until she settles on a version that means that on our last day she will be leaving Nassau eight hours before I do. And this tells me something unpleasant about myself, for I find I am panicking.
It seems silly while I am thinking it, but anyway this time together is over and I can move on with my life. Back in the city I am again in my 25th Street apartment that has a view. I go uptown to visit my old friend Walter Karp on West 79th. This is where I slept on a bunk bed in the first days after leaving my marriage. Once I had the place for a summer in exchange for Walter and Regina using my Cheyne Walk apartment in London. I have been visiting here for 20 years.
Walter generously has my book Revolution in The Philippines on display on what looks like a library dictionary stand in his living room, and I am grateful, and I am surprised that this brings me no pleasure.
I also hurry to meet up with three other oldest friends, Al Prettyman, Alex Bespaloff and John Thackray. Alex has become famous for his books on wine, Walter has a following for his political books. Al is an admired teacher, philosopher, singer and writer who started his own publishing company. John, an Englishman who grew up mostly in Brazil, is an accomplished raconteur and has written plays and has recently turned himself into a world-class mountain climber. None of us was much recognized when we first became friends. When with them now I remember being with them years ago when life was still opening up.
And now there is a phone message from my wife that she has signed the divorce papers, and will not ask for a cent (though her lawyer wanted her to try for a cut of everything I might earn, especially from my book and articles about the Philippines). I note that I feel nothing. There is a message from my twin brother saying there is a plan to go to New Hampshire, where he is taking my mother who is coming up from Florida for her 75th birthday. The party will be in Littleton, this mill town where, my Aunt Betsy (my late father’s rebel sister) lives. I can stay with Peter and his wife in the Farm House over on the Sugar Hill-Franconia line. The Farm House, of which Peter became owner way back when our grandmother died and I was in Indonesia, has not been a house with a farmer serving a farm since the later days of the 19th century when it was transformed into the first – now the last – of the big formal summer houses that were to give our family definition.
I take a bus from New York's begger-infested Port Authority terminal to Littleton, which is a northern mill town where the summer people from the correct White Mountains summer towns, Sugar Hill and Franconia, went once a week for serious grocery shopping in McGoon’s, which has always been there. McGoon’s is basically a summer peoples’ store, where they could buy their S.S. Pierce canned goods and their maids could rule on the ripeness of melons. I will stay with Peter in Sugar Hill. And the next day he and his wife and I will return to Littleton where Aunt Betsy now lives – not in a summer person’s house but in a small house on a steep hill that goes up behind Littleton’s old movie theater.
Maybe this is what I need to relieve this creeping depression I feel. For I am overwhelmed with memories from the moment I step off the bus in Littleton. Memories of times when I felt alive.
With my twin brother Peter – who here in rural New England is wearing a necktie – I ride in his fairly new mid-size station wagon into what a concerned outsider will soon call, not totally with irony, my magic kingdom – this place in the White Mountains that I so rarely see these days – this place that was once the center of the world, and I wonder if it could be again – though I know it can’t.
We take the interstate, which did not exist before I was an adult, from Littleton 12 miles to the exit for the village of Franconia, which for years now has had a cinder block supermarket next to the Dutch Treat, which is a sort of diner posing as a restaurant across the main road from a small store that is too personal to be called a convenience store but does have cold cuts and some good cheese for odd hours, and also tee shirts and batteries and sweaters. And also over there an the old Esso station that used to be run by a man named Chuck Vintner who looked after the summer people’s children to the extent of surreptitiously placing governors on their car engines so as to make it impossible to go so dangerously fast as they had been spotted going. He did this to my parents’ very plain maroon Chevy station wagon that I took to New Hampshire the summer I was 18.
Vintner’s place is long gone, but I still see it. And back across the road, by the Dutch Treat, I also see not so much the characterless supermarket as the IGA store that used to be there and that I had thought would stand forever. Like the supermarket it was owned and overseen by a family named Aldrich that is solidly grounded in this area. But unlike the supermarket, the old store was a personal store, with all sorts of canned and fresh food crammed into a simple clapboard building where there was always an Aldrich in attendance. One year the summer people were amused that the Aldriches had bought a share in a race horse and shoppers were given up-to-the-minute reports on the horse’s not very successful progress on Florida tracks.
From Franconia Village Peter turns onto an old iron bridge across the small but raging Gale river. Then we go past the turnoff to an historic old iron smelting furnace and then, as the car climbs, suddenly we have a panoramic view of the Franconia Range, which is a little hazy this day. The mountains have a cold blue tint – Mt. Lafayette rising above its woods, which are streaked with avalanche scars, to far above the timberline, Lafayette next to the somewhat gentler, more curved, somewhat ski-trail scarred Cannon Mountain with its cable car Aerial Tramway, from the days when European alpine skiing began in America right here. And though you cannot see it, you know that on a high stone outcropping on the bare Franconia Notch side of Cannon is the rock formation called the Old Man of the Mountains, which is shown on state promotional literature and license plates and road signs – the great stone face celebrated by important writers from Hawthorn to my grandfather.
At a turn in the climb up to Sugar Hill the road passes the Iris Farm, a pure Christmas card farm with spruced up barn and a silo, and with good looking dairy cows on its rocky land. We were taken there as children. Behind and above these cows, the official view of the Franconia Range. And now, the mountains still in sight, we take the left turn for what a sign says is Birches Road. I doubt if that name is used, for it was always called Davis Road. I think it must be as hard to get people to say Birches Road as it is in the city to get people to call what everyone still knows as Sixth Avenue by the new name it was given in the l940s, the Avenue of the America. I am pretty sure Davis, whoever he was, was not a summer person. I was pretty sure he lived in some distant time before these woods I see had grown on abandoned farmland, and local people still lived on this road.
Birches road née Davis road is still narrow and I still see it as unpaved, though it has scruffy blacktop now. It was populated almost entirely by our people, with no year-round people at all unless you counted the rare time our cosmopolitan grandparents would stay into a winter. It feels to me as if all the summer people are still around, whether in residence or not, whether alive or dead, whether or not their families still own anything in this part of the world.
On the right now is White Wings, the gentle old and somewhat rambling summer “cottage” that was my grandparents’ first house of their own after they moved East from Chicago where, my grandmother once explained to me, they had become too liberal for the Midwest – which seemed so strange to me since Sugar Hill and Franconia were so Republican in both their year-round people’s and summer people’s versions.
White wings is well back from the road. These two wings are connected with outdoor walkways on both floors, and they face and are parallel to the mountains. One wing is still kept, I know, just as it had been in my grandparents’ time, even though they sold it in 1949. The other wing has had different versions since new owners moved in and it was no longer my grandfather’s study when he needed absolute silence to write the books on which the family still stakes its identity.
This was the first house they sold off – when I was 14 and delighted that it went to a family from Grosse Point, Michigan, for the family had a daughter just a year younger than me who had perfect tanned skin and real breasts as seen in her two piece bathing suits, and an inviting puppy face – and was quick and funny and fun – the most heartbreakingly sexy girl I had, till then, ever seen close up.
After White Wings, Mrs. Gilman’s house, which is really our old caretaker’s cottage, moved here and made good-taste rich, after a caretaker was no longer needed. It was renovated for the use of Nana’s prominent old friend, Mrs. Lawrence Gilman, who was the widow of the Herald-Tribune’s music critic, and since Mrs. Gilman’s death it has been in the possession of Virginia Mallory from the clan, situated further along Davis Road, of my grandfather’s Princeton roommate Otto Mallory. It has a formal look now, but I still see it as it was before it was moved a hundred yards to its current place from where it was warm and scruffy, heated with a pot belly stove, full of generations of the caretaker’s family – and near a barn which no longer exists. And then the Farm House, the first of the big houses, dating a least to my great grandmother’s time – a sprawling old place that I never saw as a farmer’s place, for at some point in the late 19th century they put in a kitchen so big it could have been in a hotel kitchen, and there was a cross walk to an annex that led through a room with a pool table and a professional looking rack with many pool cues and one of those elevated strings of markers for keeping score, just like in the pool and billiards room up at the Sunset Hill House. After my grandmother died (I was in an obscure part of Indonesia at the time) my brother and his wife got possession of the Farm House. They closed off the huge kitchen and put in, for some kind of retrenchment reasons, a tiny city-like kitchenette, and they brought in workmen to tear down not just the big old kitchen but also the walkway with the pool table. Though at a point at the end of what had been the walkway they let a Norwesgion cousin by marriage built up a small weekend cottage that was as warm as most places here were cold.
After the Farm House, we see the place where the Playhouse had stood – a somewhat rustic brown building with French doors, on the outside a semi-circular terrace, on the inside a stage with small dressing rooms once used for amateur theatricals, and a very smooth oak floor for easy gliding in the past at charity dances for which the way-in was lit with long strings of Japanese lanterns and the men wore white dinner jackets and the women were in gowns that set off bare shoulders, smooth female backs, and the tops of mature breasts. I remember my pretty young Aunt Betsy and my gorgeous cousin Nancy, wife a of a dashing new naval officer, coming in to kiss me goodnight, when I was not quite six. They were on their way to the last benefit dance, which was to raise Red Cross money that would go to the British. When we were in our early teens and the place had been abandoned for a decade, we and kids our age had refurbished it and used it for our own kind of dancing, which in the 1950s was vertical necking done in darkness.
And then the dark brown, shingled octangular House on the Hill, looking like something from the cover of a gothic novel. It too was sold off by now, this one to a pair of retired schoolmarms, who like so many people were not our kind of people. Down behind it was our old tennis court, overgrown now with weeds.
Across from the Farm House, on the other side of Davis Road, the start of a long, narrow, twisting driveway to what had been the biggest of the family houses, leading there through a White Pine forest that had been planted on fallow farm land by my grandparents, a drive so narrow that drivers going down it always honked in case someone was coming the other way from what had been the center of my world when young – the biggest and most important of the houses, this one with the same name, White Pines, as the trees of the cultivated forest. It had been built by my grandparents in a stately combination of clapboard and stone. It was set on the edge of a lawn looking out from under striped awnings, and over white benches and in-ground bird baths, over iron streaked boulders and blueberry and thorn fields and then quite vast woods owned by my grandparents, leading out to still vaster woods that led to and up the very mountains that comprised this official view, a view with no sign of human life in it except the ski trail scars on Cannon and a place near the top of Cannon where from far away you could see, in an indentation near the summit, a moving Aerial Tramway car, no bigger in our view than a match box, silhouetted for a moment against the sky.
So here I am now, in this most familiar of all places, these houses, ghosts from the past, this landscape.
And the next day I am into a scene that changes everything.
Afterwards that scene hangs there just below consciousness. It is as if I've been caught in something as unreal as one of those amateur theatrical productions – The Importance of Being Earnest or Private Lives – put on by dilettante expatriate business people and embassy people in foreign places – Cairo or Hong Kong – plays about made-up worlds staged in places where the actors live temporarily.
And the scene in Littleton as it unfolds seems as far away in space and time as those scenes I have just left in the Bahamas. And yet, unlike in the scenes in the Bahamas, I cannot dismiss this place as a fraudulent facade that has no hold on me. It is raising questions I have never asked about the course of my life – about all the things concerning myself that I have never written about.
Some of the furniture brought into this house by my Aunt Betsy is from the big summer houses in the more correct nearby summer towns where she and all of us spent such important parts of our childhoods. What she has done here is like how her son stuffed such summer establishment things into a characterless Upper West Side apartment. In Aunt Betsy's house, which the family thinks was once a factory worker's house, the past permeates a stately old foldout desk, three apparently valuable if rickety cane-bottom chairs, a high wing-back armchair, a stiff and formal feeling sofa, an old-time wooden fireside stool. The room itself may not live up to older family standards, but the heritage had been inserted. Aunt Betsy speaks through her characteristic stutter with an accent she took on in many seasons of adventure in London after her husband's RAF death.
My mother seldom goes to New Hampshire, but my brother has driven her up here for her birthday. None of them (us) except my brother and aunt come up here much, despite our roots here – my aunt now in this small mill town house, my brother ten miles away in the last of the big family houses.
My aunt is cheerful at this party on this working persons' street. She is matching my mother drink for drink. Sometimes when my mother drinks she sounds Southern. Sometimes, like today, she sounds English. She is beaming. She exchanges looks with my brother, who is beaming too, and lying back in his chair, with his legs stretched out and his tweed trousers edged back revealing argyle socks. His fingers are linked over the tattersall vest that covers his stomach. He and Mother are beaming, as if to say isn't it amazing, such a high-toned gathering here in this homely New Hampshire mill town.
Peter coughs like an old Englishman. His wife Rosemary is talking about flower shows. She was born in colonial Malaya on the island of Penang and is English. She assures people she is not Irish despite her family name, Sullivan – getting this in because being Irish might be like being dark, like an actual Malay from Malaya rather than a white element of the English-officered India Army that was based in Malaya. She has refined her English accent to the point where she sounds just like our late grandmother Nana even though Nana came from Chicago, not England.
And there is a middle-aged woman from Melbourne there who married a Littleton man who worked abroad for oil companies and is now home to stay. She talks in the high-pitched tones of a young upper class English girl about her happy days in a boarding school not in England but in Australia.
And now they are all speaking – my aunt from New York, my brother from Washington, my mother from Connecticut and Florida, my sister-in-law from Penang, and the boarding school woman form Melbourne – all speaking about something they call "our England" and how it is becoming overrun with black people and Asians.
And I am thinking of my recent divorce after my departure from the Upper West Side apartment where I lived with my wife and her son and her mother, all of whom come from the Philippines. Gradualy I realize I am furious. Fake English people talking about “our England.” I am wondering if anyone at this birthday party has any idea how even I feel when they make these bigoted remarks about people of African and Asian heritage.