Saturday, April 3, 2010
#88 – MILL TOWN
I was going through these old places in Sugar Hill on my way to Aunt Betsy’s small house up behind the movie theater in the old mill town of Littleton. The place where the previous summer I had withdrawn into depression while people at my mother’s birthday party talked trash in prissy acquired British accents. (And it still seemed a betrayal, their bigotry, on a level with the betrayal just confirmed on my brother’s working via the CIA with people who wanted me dead).
I had been on the phone with Aunt Alice’s son, my Cousin Lawrence, with whom I had spoken while in New York and so knew he would be visiting his mother. I still considered him my friend, he being in the theater and thus closer to my life than any of the others.
So after passing through the old summer places – the restricted old Sunset Hill House Hotel, the family houses, the tiny village of Sugar Hill, the slightly larger village of Franconia, I cut over to Littleton, following the route we used to follow on shopping trips to Littleton, where there was a store called McGoon's where our cook Evelyn could mysteriously tell which were the best melons, and which meat and fish were up to standards, and where there were Crosse and Blackwell canned goods from Boston, and of course a special kind of thick soda cracker, made only in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, that was the only cracker served with the soup course in White Pines, and for that matter in the apartment Nana owned in New York.
Going through deep woods on the way, passing near the town of Bethlehem where the Jews went, I went by a sign at a turnoff for the White Mountain School, which was the current co-ed incarnation of the formerly all girls' boarding St. Mary’s-in-the-Mountains, which was right here in family territory. I had even been to a teen swimming party on the campus, which was deserted in the summer. But this was not a part of the official White Mountains. St. Mary’s was from my other life, my own life, that had begun down in the New Hampshire lake country at Holderness, which was a brother school to St. Mary’s, where I first got into serious necking.
From the woods I headed on to a creaky steel bridge over a fast moving rocky river into Littleton. I turned right at the familiar old movie house and went a steep hill, the Mustang sounded strained as it switched itself to a low gear, to Aunt Alice house, which was referred to in the family as a nothing more than a company house, which they all said it was a mistake to buy and not just because it was not a more exclusive place but also because a decaying mill town was no place for an investment. Aunt Alice had told me that when she moved to New Hampshire none of Nana’s old lady friends from the more rarefied towns invited her anywhere. Which did not surprise me, since she was always talked about as the family’s problem, even though she never went anywhere, whether London or Chicago, where there might be relatives without looking them up. Which was Lawrence’s pattern too.
The only one at home when I arrived was Lawrence’s wife Maya, who had a lightness very different from Lawrence’s always carefully rehearsed and slightly sneering form of lightness. Maya had plenty to talk about whenever we met – artistic and political and also mostly silly family matters. Not so very long ago she was dancing with Merce Cunningham, so she no more than me would be a part of the world I was looking into with new eyes now. I doubted if anyone up here except Lawrence, me, and maybe my late grandmother, would ever have heard of Merce Cunningham.
Maya and I went for a drive out the woodsy Easton Road. I told her I had just had this strange memory of my grandmother telling about an important experience she had had years ago while riding with the mailman. This was one of the few times I talked about what I was putting together, the kind of talk Lawrence had told me he did not want to hear. In the mailman story Nana rode with him since she did not have a regular driver's license (and would not get one until she was nearing 80. And even now Aunt Alice did not drive.
My grandmother had told me about the mailman one day at lunch in White pines at the long shiny table where on weekdays at midday there might be only three or four people in a place that by evening could have 12 or 20. She told me that one day long ago when they were way out in countryside the mailman slowed to stop in the course of a heart attack that killed him on the spot. What was she to do? She couldn’t just stay in the car with the dead man. And then, she told me, she saw in the sky the actual words “The U.S. mail must always be protected.”
And since there was almost no traffic, she waited there in the car alone with a corpse for many hours.
What a strange thing, I said now, this story of patriotism and words in the sky – how interesting that patriotism trumped sympathy. I saw the story aroused no apparent suspicion in Maya, who did not anyway seem to be listening. And I was now thinking of something she and Lawence had told me the previous year when I went to see a pretentious version of an opaque Brecht play Lawrence directed at McCarter Theater in Princeton. She told me that when she and Lawrence had been vesting in Littleton that year, his sister Lauryn, the one I really liked, had been there too, and Lauryn had said something about having been raped – in Maya's version raped once – by Lawrence’s younger brother Lenny, the one was had stayed in deep trouble with the law even after they fled New York – sawed off shotguns and kidnapping charges, a stint in the army in lieu of prison, a false identity, and then sudden death on a motorcycle. Things that everyone in this family said never happened in this family.
Maya also talked about how she resented her mother-in-law, my Aunt Alice, giving money and trips to Lauryn’s son Tom, but never to Maya’s son Eric -- and adding something creepy -- that when Aunt Alice spoke of Eric, who had entered puberty and become the darling of pubescent girls, it was as if this now elderly woman were talking about a grown man in whom she was sexually interested.
Back at the house, I went for a walk alone on my aunt’s hilly street’s narrow sidewalk. I breathed deep in the cool mountain air that up here was always so filled with my memories. Then I had a feeling there was someone behind me. I turned. It was Aunt Alice. Aunt Alice was following me, racing after me almost, and she seemed to be looking at me almost as you would look at a lover.
And I was remembering scenes of early childhood, a time when she had been the only one around who could cut through the darkness with gaiety.