Monday, November 2, 2009
#28 - MAMA BEARS
And I remember all the dark tales of childhood - of people being struck by lightning almost anywhere - freezing to death in sudden mountain storms - dying from blood poisoning after scratching themselves on rusty nails - crashing out of control cars careening down from Franconia Notch - being clawed to death in pine woods by angry Mama bears.
New Hampshire. These White Mountains townships, Sugar Hill and Franconia, that our houses straddled. On that trip up last September for the English Party, they still looked just as they looked more than forty years back when I was a child here. And they would have looked just the same when my parents were children, except that I knew from old photos that so much of what had looked to me like part of an eternal forest had when, my parents were small children, been open fields.
The summer people’s houses, not a one of them owned by either a Jew or a local person, still contrasted with the bare bones farms in this rocky windblown landscape. These houses were so perfectly decorated and so formal and the people in them dressed up every evening – and yet they were part of the countryside in the sense that so many of the people in them, including older people, hiked – they called it “climbing” - in the Franconia Range, which we saw towering over us, and sometimes in the more distant Presidential Range too, using the “huts” of the Appalachian Mountain Club, where the men and women hikers slept separately on bunks in dormitory rooms and everyone ate great hearty meals at long, unfinished wooden tables, the food carried up the mountainsides by healthy college boys, who were what we might become one day. People who went to the same boarding schools and colleges, had relatives in the summer communities, and shared a love for New Hampshire’s mountains that started in infancy. This was the outdoors and we were part of it and so not completely separate from the world beyond the family houses.
But when my non-identical twin brother Peter and I were children walking between birches on Davis Road, past the driveways for all our family places and also for the places of our grandfather Gaga’s old Princeton roommate Otto Mallory, we would often imagine ourselves in worlds that went beyond the summer places. We fantasized about how when we were older we would make it be more like pioneer days here, like worlds beyond our big summer houses’ grounds, for we would open a roadside log inn and restaurant right among the birches on Davis Road, and in the inn we would wear and also sell heavy boots and black and red checked flannel shirts – and the place would be open not just to family and certified family friends but to everyone.
And anyway not everything about our life outside the formal summer world was fantasy. I was amazed that tucked away here in the midst of our houses, down a bit from our dark, circular, ominous House on the Hill, in sight of our rambling old Farm House, across from the long winding driveway through woods to our main house, White Pines, and just up from yet another of our houses, White Wings, quite close the Poole Playhouse, which had once been for dances and theatrical shows, right here near the middle of all this was the Caretaker’s Cottage, which was heated with a pot belly stove, and, even more amazing, out in front was the pickup truck the caretaker used. Our truck!
And in the direction of our tennis court there was a barn that was our barn, and with a cow, our cow, that supplied the fresh milk Peter and I drank and our housekeeper Mrs. Miner used in cooking, with the cream served on Nana’s breakfast tray. The caretaker’s old wife taught Peter and me to milk the cow. It was hard at first, but soon we caught the rhythm and while I worked, pulling the udders just firmly enough so as not to hurt the cow, the warm milk zinged against the side of the milking pail, and I was one with a big world.
When we were very small our nurse, Ann, took us one day to the caretaker’s place. Lying on a bed in the cottage's small, low-ceiling living room was his sweaty old father, who was unshaven, dressed in long underwear, and apparently unconscious, so out of touch with what was around him that shiny black flies were alighting on his nose and eyelids. For not the first time in this idyllic summer world, I felt the nearness of death. It was so often in the air here in the White Mountains where, where in addition to warnings about deadly dangers all around, so much of the talk was about better days. And I had felt death the only time I ever saw my great grandmother, Mrs. Winterbotham, who one day was in a bathrobe standing in the doorway to the Farm House, which she, no farmer herself, had owned forever and which had been the first of the houses belonging to our family. These houses that could seem to constitute an entire world.
When we were a little bit older there was a caretaker who had a son, Teddy Noyes, who was our age and became our friend, along with Teddy’s friend Herby Whipple, who became our friend too. Together we built a tree house platform on a path through the pine woods leading to one of our two "reservoirs," which were bigger than wells, rectangular rather than circular, and with shingled roofs. We were aware that Noyes and Whipple were big names among the year-round people. At this point I saw no real barrier between the “them” and the “us.”
Mother and Dad were in the mountains for two weeks, driving around with Peter and me in our Plymouth convertible – which Dad, to Mother’s disgust, had purchased just before the auto plants were converted to making war machines. It seemed to me that by now, with the war ended, we had had that Plymouth forever, and that it had become dowdy and old hat. But when we all stopped in front of the caretaker’s cottage to pick up eggs before turning down to White Pines, the whole Noyes family came out to see this modern car. And watch how Dad could make the top go up or down by pushing or pulling something on the dashboard.