A NEW ENGLAND CHILDHOOD
Janet L. Carpenter
The other morning at church, the minister, by way of illustrating a point in his sermon, told us of the gentleman, somewhat past sixty-five years of age, who recently died in the Massachusetts General Hospital as a consequence of being struck by a truck as he stepped from the curb, and was found by postmortem to have been afflicted with no fewer than four mortal diseases – for two of which no remedy is known – yet who lived, as I say, to be past sixty-five, and then had to be knocked down to be killed. The story appealed to me. I recognized the gentleman at once as one of my New England brothers. Quite possibly he was born in Maine or Vermont. Or, indeed, he may very well have lived all his sixty-five years within walking distance of the institution where he closed his career. I am convinced, however, whatever may have been his birthplace, that he came of simon-pure New England Stock.
If I could have been consulted as to my choice of the place in which I should be born, and should spend the first eight years of my life, it seems to me that I would have chosen Worcester County, Massachusetts, and the ancient town of Sturbridge, where I actually was born and did spend those first eight years. I am not sure, however, that I should not have stipulated, when making my choice, that I was to be allowed to move West at the end of the eight years, or shortly thereafter, and not be left with my fellow Yankees to do peculiar things with my a’s and r’s and grow up in ignorance of the fact, still hardly credible to some of my childhood associates, that the United States of America actually lies for the most part west of the Hudson River.
I can’t imagine a more desirable family tradition than that inherited by the children of old New England ancestry – born, very likely, as our generation was, in the same town and even the same houses in which some three or more generations of their ancestors had been born. Somehow it gave one a sense of stability, assurance – a feeling of belonging. Our fathers and mothers had played with the fathers and mothers of our playmates, our grandfathers with their grandfathers. We didn’t bother to trace our ancestry back to Plymouth Rock and the Mayflower –†we didn’t need to.
We took our town for granted in the same fashion. We knew that our town of Sturbridge had been there long before the Revolutionary War, for wasn’t it told in the town records how many men and how many kegs of powder Sturbridge had contributed from time to time during that memorable struggle? If we had needed visible evidence of our age, wasn’t there the “new” burying ground, already in my childhood days more than a hundred years old, but still referred to as “new” because the old burying ground so far outdated it? That really was old. And it was a lovely place, too, mostly grown up, among the graves, to fine old pine trees, the ground beneath them thick and cushiony, brown and slippery with the fallen needles. The stones lay flat upon the earth, or, after an old fashion, were raised somewhat from the ground like low stone tables. Even the few that had once stood upright had mostly fallen.
It was a quiet place for the most part –†nothing much to be heard there for long hours at a time except the soft whirring of the wind in the pines. Only, from time to time, there was a sudden irruption of young voices; for the village school, a substantial red brick building, two stories high, stood just at the corner of the old burying ground. Only a stone wall to climb – no sort of barrier to a New England child – and there under the pine trees, on those smooth brown needles and over those old gray stones, was the most delightful playground. To be sure, in the wintertime it didn’t serve; but spring and fall it drew many a small girl and not a few small boys over that stone wall. And who that had frolicked under the pines or played house on those old flat stones could ever afterward associate ideas of fear or unnaturalness with any burying ground?
But I should have told you what the village looked like; we called it “Sturbridge Center.” If you had seen it first from the wooded ridge of Shumway Hill, you’d hardly have known there was a village there. Only you couldn’t have failed to see the big white church on Meeting House Hill, with its lovely, slender, tapering spire. And here and there among the big maples and great elms one could get glimpses of other buildings – the old shoe shop, with its rows of windows, once the scene of lively though unhurried activity, but in my childhood, since shoes were now made by machinery in Lowell, quite deserted. Also, sharing with the church the eminence of Meeting House Hill, was the town hall, a big structure built to accommodate all the voting population of Sturbridge town (there were something like seven villages in the town, besides a scattered farming population) when they gathered together on the annual election day, or from time to time for various town meetings.
But let us go down from Shumway Hill and see the village at close range. We’ll drive down behind the sleek, well-fed, and unhurried family horse, choosing to go by way of the schoolhouse on its hill. Perhaps you think the location of the schoolhouse was chosen for the benefit of the children, who with their sleds used to make the hill unusable for pedestrians in winter. No, it wasn’t that. There just wasn’t any place to set a fair-sized building except on a hill.
Well, here we are down on the Commons, the only level place in the village, and it not so large, though plenty large enough to provide space for the village baseball games that engaged a good part of the male population after supper on summer evenings. The Commons was roughly triangular in shape, bordered on one side by the road that came down from Fiskdale and went on down to Southbridge; on another, by the road that skirted the Meeting House Hill and headed off toward Charlton. We didn’t think much of that road. Facing the Southbridge road on the south side of the Commons was the old tavern, overshadowed by two enormous elms. The village boasted two stores, one on either side of the Commons. The post office was always located in one of these stores – but not always in the same one. Under a Republican administration the post office was housed in Corey’s store on the north side of the Commons; under a Democratic, it moved over to Chamberlain’s, on the south side. During my rather brief life in the village there was no opportunity for a removal, and all of my small errands were done at Corey’s on the Republican side – which, according to our family tradition, was quite as it should have been!
Those errands of mine consisted for the most part in going after the mail, or expending sundry small coins sometimes provided for me by my father, but more frequently by an indulgent grandfather. Those were the days when there was a delightful variety of small coins. Of course there were pennies, but they were too common to be of much interest – of none at all, save for their purchasing power. But there were fine, generous copper two-cent pieces that looked like silver, and still thinner and more elusive silver half-dimes. The vulgar, but useful, nickel had not yet gotten into circulation.
But we’ve kept the family horse tied long enough to the hitchrack in front of Corey’s. Let us drive on, down the Charlton road this time, ’till we come to “Our House.”
It is a curious, rambling old house, quite on the edge of the village. If there was any plan at all in the building of it, the house must have been assembled around the great chimney in the center – a chimney so large that it accommodated big fireplaces on three of its sides: one in the large living room, one in the front bedroom, and the third in the dining room. The house didn’t face straight with the points of the compass – most New England houses didn’t. Why should they? If your old New Englander had a fancy to have his house face the southwest, who was to interfere? Perhaps that explains why, in my childhood memories, the sun is always shining into the living room and the kitchen. It was a cheerful old house.
I said that it was rambling. But unless you happen to be familiar with that kind of old New England house, you can have no idea to what length it went. It went rambling off through a succession of kitchens and backrooms, entries and woodsheds, until it finally arrived, without interruption, at that part of the establishment which housed the four-footed and the feathered members of the family. For they were part of the family. Just at what point the house turned into the barn it would be hard to say; probably it was in one of the woodsheds. And believe me, a New England woodshed was no unlovely place. There were a few feckless folk who left their woodsheds in disorder, but ours was immaculate. Those piles and piles of wood all split and cut into stove length and stacked up with perfect regularity. It was as attractive – and smelled almost as good – as the cellar with its rows and rows of barrels filled with apples – pippins and russets, astrachans and northern spies, and a half dozen other varieties. But that’s another story – the cellar.
It must have been the woodshed, I think, that made the final link between house and barn, for from the woodshed we emerged on the barn floor, scene of innumerable childish revels, in summer with the great doors open, front and back. Above, on either side, were the haymows. And under the haymow on one side were the mangers from which Phoebe the horse and Daisy the Jersey cow looked out with interested eyes upon our varied performances.
Of course we chose the Christian names for the four-footed members of the household, but the family name became theirs by inheritance. Our lively little bay mare was “Phoebe Carpenter” to the whole town; and “Fannie Haynes” – also a bay, but older and more sedate – was quite well known and in her own way as highly respected as her mistress. “Pete Southwick” was as much a village character as the old gentleman who owned him. It was the same with the canine citizens of the community. There was “Carl Allen,” a sort of “dog cousin” of mine, since he belonged in my uncle’s family; and “Ponto Witter,” a great Newfoundland who belonged to the village doctor and was almost as much beloved as his master; and “Freddie Hobbs,” the small, long-haired canine whose van could be distinguished from his rear only by the direction in which he happened to be going. Freddie was one of a household of three, the other two being his master “Sam,” a grizzled old fellow who was rarely seen unaccompanied by Freddie; and “Lois,” an old Negro woman, also claiming the name of “Hobbs,” who had been in the family since time immemorial and was accepted by the villagers with as complete lack of curiosity as though she had been a feature of the landscape.
The pig held no such family relationship as the other four-footed folk about the place. He – or was it she? (we never bothered to inquire – we weren’t interested) – was a sort of pariah. He was not necessarily evil – with some very pleasant consequences, to be sure. We kept him for strictly utilitarian purposes; he was a manufacturing plant, as useful, and as unpleasant, as the old-fashioned glue factory. He existed for the purpose of converting potato parings and other discardings from the kitchen into savory sausages and rosy slices of ham. We used to stand outside his pen and marvel at his unhumanness. The horse and the dog we understood; even with the cow, dumb as we thought her in certain ways, we felt a sort of human sympathy. But the pig – he was beyond our comprehending. He was our nearest approach to acquaintance with the wild animals. We knew nothing of his antecedents, and he had no progeny – at least not on our place. He was simply purchased; at the appropriate season of the year, fattened, more or less successfully, depending on his breed and possibly his disposition; and then with a certain amount of most unearthly and appalling squealing, metamorphosed, first into a grotesque and ghostly caricature of himself, to be suspended in the woodshed for a day or two, where we visited him, quite needlessly, by uncertain lantern light, solely for the sake of the shivers it always sent creeping up and down our small backbones. Eventually, to the accompaniment of much activity on the part of the grown-ups and some heavenly odors from kitchen and smokehouse, he was converted into hams and sides of bacon, strings of plump sausages, and jars of shining lard. Possibly it was the tinge of Hebraism always present in New England culture that made my father so averse to the keeping of pigs in captivity. I think he always suspected that part of the Gadarene herd escaped the watery death that befell the main body of the herd and lived to be the progenitors of the supposedly domesticated breed kept by New Englanders. At all events, we children grew up with a strong distaste for that particular animal in all except his most refined and sophisticated forms.
Our town was full of quaint characters; at least they would have seemed quaint to outsiders. As for us, we took them all for granted. It seems to me, now, as I look back on the life of the village, that we must have been an astonishingly independent lot of folk. There may have been much gossip circulating in the town, but if so, it passed quite above my unconscious head. And really, I think we took one another so much for granted that curiosity couldn’t have flourished very greatly in the community. If Emily Woodard found her husband impossible and came home, bag and baggage, as she did, at the end of the first month, we figured that it was her own business, and took to calling her again by her maiden name. The grown-ups, I later learned, never had much approved of her marrying that old Tom Bridges and felt that she was well rid of him, divorce or no divorce.
We were a surprisingly hale and long-lived race of folk. Like the old gentleman in the minister’s story, it took a lot to down us. I remember the neighbor across the road who, when Grandfather grew old – really old, say eighty-nine or ninety – would help him out by coming over at four o’clock in the morning to cut the grass in Grandfather’s mowing, afterwards going off to another part of town to do a day’s work. But he was only eighty-four!
Of course, we had our village unfortunates. It was long before the time of prohibition and the old tavern still had its barroom. And there was another neighbor across the street who was too good a patron of the barroom. More than once Grandfather was called over to help take care of the old man when he had delirium tremens. Poor old fellow, he had finally to be put in an institution in Worcester. He was bitterly homesick, and would beg Grandfather, when he went to visit him, to take him home. And there was the village doctor – a good doctor, and a good man, too, say what you will – who, coming in on cold days, or nights from country calls, would many a time stop and get Grandfather to go home with him so that he could get safely past that barroom. Poor fellow! He didn’t always have enough self-control to make that call for help. We children all adored the doctor. It was worth while to be ill – at least a little ill – just to have the doctor come to see us – the doctor, and Ponto.
But we were seldom ill. I was the victim of an attack of typhoid, caught, not in our own country, but in that foreign region known as “York State,” to which Mother and I had rashly journeyed one summer. I came very near breaking the family tradition of long life, but finally did “pull through, ” as we phrased it. And the results of that illness were not all to my hurt. For as a consequence, I was not allowed to start to school until I was nearly nine years old. It gave me three years of glorious freedom – three years that were spent, much of the time alone, for other children of my age must be shut up in school – in spring and summer, ranging the fields and woods, wading in brooks, riding in from the hayfields on great loads of fragrant timothy or clover; in the winter, coasting down those snow covered hills in the pasture just beyond the safe limits of our own orchard, or sometimes, tucked cozily into the cutter between Dad and Mother, going for long rides through a forest fairyland, with trees and underbrush ice-coated and flashing, or snow-laden in a white sunlit silence.
There may have been gray days in my New England – there must have been, many of them – but for me, in my memory, summer or winter, the sun was always shining.