The first time I went over the border from Vermont that summer I immediately drove the aqua Mustang through Sugar Hill Village, the destination of the daily walks my twin and I took with my grandfather Gaga – who wore a floppy sun hat with green isinglass in the front brim, and always used a walking cane (as did I, in imitation, starting when I was six). We’d walk from White Pines up the long twisting drive through the tall pine trees that bore the name of the house and that my grandparents had had planted long ago. We’d turn left when we reached Davis Road, a dirt road with three more of our big family houses and little else on it except a rich house, also deep in woods, belonging to my grandfather’s old Princeton roommate Otto Mallory.
At the end of Davis Road was a the small wooden Episcopal summer church, St. Matthew's, where they sang "God Save the King" even though this was America, and where we’d gone with our grandmother Nana every Sunday, Peter and I in neckties and boarding school blazers, taking up the collection. Then onto a paved road and past the turn up to the sprawling Sunset Hill House. Also past the Homestead Inn (which the family ignored on grounds it was too self consciously New England quaint and owned by a family with an Italian name). Then on down into Sugar Hill Village, using a very old wooden sidewalk, past warm seeming picket fence houses that were in their way as picturesque as the big summer people’s places. Down a wooden sidewalk into the village, which was a post office/general store with a gas pump. It was here that I would get comic books – Dick Tracy with his wrist radio and Gravel Gerty and B.O. Plenty – and Donald Duck with his nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie – and little Nancy with her rakish little low class boyfriend Sluggo. I learned from comics before I learned from books that I need not be bound by the cast of characters or the places in the world into which I had been born.
It was at the turnoff to the Sunset that Gaga told two people who stopped their sedan to ask directions that there were no hotels here. And because I objected he took me aside on another day to tell me it was just that Jews work harder than anyone else and often take a fellow’s job away from him. And he really did have a very close Jewish friend still from his old radical settlement house days.
That church – where we took up the collection, and where everyone sang “God save the King” to the tune of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee – was overseen by Nana and it was where Mother and Dad had been married.
This was where I found myself going first on my return to New Hampshire from Vermont in this time when the entire landscape of my life was changing. I stopped and looked at the church. Then I turned up to where on my right the Sunset had been, passing on my left the ruins of a rakish, brown-shingled place called The Pioneer, a place to dance and neck in the dark with whisky provided by liberated college kids who worked at the hotel. By now the Sunset had been torn down, but its outsize rental cottages – one of which had been used by my Mother’s Southern family - were still intact. And across the street was a concrete sidewalk with a small viewing platform for the most pure version of the official family view of the Franconia Mountains.
This was one of the days the mountains looked green and soft, not blue-gray-black and granite. A wooden building a little past the viewing platform had been known as “the bachelors’ quarters” in my parents’ time, when respectable young men could stay cheaply because they were in demand as escorts for the daughters of the regular, mostly Southern, Sunset guests. In my own time (which began in the Depression) it had become the place where the college kids who were bellboys and chambermaids lived – these dashing people who could be seen necking in the shadows of the Sunset’s unending wicker chair lined porch during the Saturday night dances where old people sat in a great circle examining young dancers. Now it was being turned into a Waspish inn-size in that would use the Sunset Hill House name.
Across the road was a small golf course, still there, where Mother, an only child, played round after round alone, and from where she saw, coming up and the hill, my father, a lonely little boy in a pony cart.
I wondered if this were correct procedure for the new life I was in, focusing in this way on these people of the past rather than on myself – remembering past times with the pleasure I often knew then rather than the horror I knew now.