The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Cape Cod Scrapbook August 28, 2014

“Cape Cod Scrapbook” is a companion post to the previous one, entitled “Two Weeks Gone”

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Finally…

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My Uncle Paul and his sister (my mother) Nancy, my son Elihu and my Aunt Sandy.

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Cousins Elihu and Rusty take off in search of sea life without a word of goodbye.

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This is the dock behind their house; at high tide the water comes much closer in.

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This is the small neighborhood beach. Just perfect at low tide to find critters.

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After our first brief visit, we all headed out to this local eatery.

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While we waited for our food, Elihu and I went out to the pier to hang with the fishermen.

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I think all eleven year old boys get a kick out of live fish.

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Aunt Sandy, Uncle Paul and mom at the end of a fine dinner of fresh, local seafood. The harbor is just outside.

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Elihu points out the location of the restaurant on this mural of what Wareham looked like over a hundred years ago.

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As painted by Nanci. Love it.

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A picturesque New England dock scene from the restaurant window.

IMG_1315If you’re ever in Wareham, Massachusetts, stop by Narrow’s Crossing and get the whole fried clams.

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The following morning we found a nice little breakfast joint in the neighboring town of Onset.

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We’re at the Pier View Restaurant. The bay is right behind mom and Elihu.

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Note the Linguica. It’s a Portuguese sausage, usually kinda spicy, always tasty. (Dig the great prices, too.)

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Mom’s not usually down with me making changes to the menu, but I requested that my Eggs Benedict be made with the local linguica instead of ham. I suggested that they might want to call it “Eggs Elizabeth” should it become a hit.

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And here’s the handsome man who carried out my culinary wish.

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We’re not at our family’s beach here, but rather another, more expansive stretch of coast about two miles away to the Southeast. I preferred it as it was much more wide open than the small neighborhood beach, it was sparsely populated and there was lots of sand.

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We fed the seagulls earlier, and when we left the beach to go into the water, they ransacked mom’s bag. The gall of those gulls!

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Mom on the beach. She spent much of her youth here.

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My Cousin Janice, in the middle, is about to undergo her third year of chemo for an unrelenting cancer. She’s got a great spirit, and both children and grandchildren to live for. She’s ready to kick its ass once again.

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Elihu shows his Great Uncle Paul his catch from the day.

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Uncle Paul is in his chair, on the right. Since his stroke in ’91 he still gets around well – drives too – but speaks very little (might be due in part to his wife – she kinda makes it hard for the poor guy to get a word in edgewise, stroke or not!).

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Sandy gave mom a history of the Jackson side of the family, compiled by Paul and Nancy’s paternal grandmother. I know mom doesn’t have great feelings about this side of the family (her father left her mother and never supported them in any way, nor did her father’s family help out), but nonetheless it’s nice to have this information.

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This is a letter from Uncle Paul’s paternal grandmother, describing in part the contents of the book. Dated November 11th, 1963. There’s a fascinating amount of detail going back a couple hundred years. Both the Conants and the Jacksons have been in this country for over three hundred years, so when people ask me what nationality I am, I tell em that I really am American more than anything else. But hey, at this point in the game, aren’t we all pretty much mutts no matter what our lineage?

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Uncle Paul and Cousin Rusty. Rusty likes to say in his local accent that I’m his “Cape Cawed Cahzin”.

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This is the shack where Rusty keeps his stuff and works on various projects. His father was a shop teacher, and it seems he has the tinkering gene too.

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There’s a lot of stuff here… certainly more orderly than my own brother’s mess.

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Sadly, since Uncle Paul’s stroke, his boats have languished here in the back yard. If only I lived nearby! I dearly miss the sailing era of my life.

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We discovered these very odd-shaped fungi poking up through the ground all around the house. The craziest part is their smell – super funky bad, almost like skunk.

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This is Gertrude – or Gert, as locals know her. She lives directly across the street from my family in a house painted the color of tomato bisque. She knew my mother’s mother, Lydia, and is thrilled to meet Lydia’s great-grandson. Gert’s in her early nineties.

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We’re enjoying a visit with Gert in her breezeway. (I just love these time-capsule homes – nothing’s changed in forty years.)

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A sweet good-bye.

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Gert sang with big bands in Boston in the ’30s and ’40s and regularly appeared on live radio programs as well. We have both those things in common! She has difficulty remembering what day it is, yet she remembered me well from my visit two years ago – she even remembered that I ‘was the singer’. I was impressed! She’s one spunky lady. She zips around the neighborhood in her motorized wheelchair and seems to know just about everyone in town.

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The boys on their second and final search for critters.

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What’s this?

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A tiny crab!

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One more cast of that magic trap…

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And look! A flounder! Crazy looking creatures they are, with both their eyes on top like that. They swim flat along the bottom and usually don’t come in this close to shore. Rusty assured us this was a really lucky catch.

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These folks invited us over for a drink. Mom’s on the right.

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The world proved itself to be a small place once again; the woman on the far right has a brother who lives in our town. !

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Crane spotting.

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Mom, pulling away from her brother Paul’s house, as he watches from the porch. (Note Gert’s tomato bisque-colored garage door in the side mirror.)

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After she waved, mom noted to me that that might well be the last time she would ever see her brother. What is there to say? Poignant, and quite possibly true.

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Later that night we had one of the best dinners I’ve had in a long time at Mezza Luna in the town of Buzzards Bay. Great music played, the vibe was elegant, the food expertly prepared. Highly recommended by all three of us. Their house clam sauce was spectacular.

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The next morning we set out for home – the long way. This was the house in which my Auntie Helen (mom’s Aunt) lived – in New Bedford, Massachusetts. High class, high style.

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This is the front hall. !

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Mom indicates the large staircase…

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…and Elihu investigates it.

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This was the office of my mother’s uncle, who was a doctor. She remembers getting a vaccination under protest in this room as a young child.

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This is our host (yet another Nancy!) in the grand foyer.

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The new owners have put together a small history of the house and their progress with the restoration.

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As a child, mom used to think these decorations looked like door bells. We all agree. They do.

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How about this garage. Not too shabby, huh?

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Now we’re off to see if we can find Auntie Helen’s summer cottage. But first we’ll have lunch at the harbor.

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We’re eating at Sail Loft, just behind the marina in South Dartmouth, Mass. I’m enjoying the iconic “law-b-stah” roll. I am not kidding when I tell you these were among the very best french fries I have ever had. Really. This place has a cozy vibe, plus live music. I’d go back if I were a local.

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The house on the right at the end of the pier was Auntie Helen’s.

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My son is clearly comfortable here.

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And there’s an osprey nest here too. A little bit of heaven for each of us.

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An ‘almost’ selfie of us on the new pier with the yacht behind.

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As a child I remember walking down this yard and path to the beach.

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Inside Auntie Helen’s old house, Elihu zones right in on the bird art.

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Elihu and Grandma look out over the bay to a view I marveled at as a child.

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We passed a lot of boats and bridges on this trip.

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Now we’re visiting the house mom lived in for her middle school and high school years. She had a lot of happy stories to recall for us as we drove around Fall River. Her bedroom had been upstairs on the left.

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And this enormous structure was where she went to high school.

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On the steps that she once scrubbed with a toothbrush (see the previous post for the backstory on that).

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Durfee High School, Fall River, Massachusetts. Long-time drummer for the band Steppenwolf, Ron Hurst attended Durfy HS too, years ago. The grand building is no longer used a school; it’s a municipal building now.

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Now we’re in Barrington, Rhode Island at mom’s very first home.

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Eighty years ago it was all farm land. The house on the left side of this picture is the same house as in my photo above (sans the addition, which is on the right in the first pic.) Both mom and the current owners knew the family that still lives in the small house on the far right side of this photograph. Mom knew the generation that came before, but still the same family. I thought that was a sweet thing to learn. In this photo it was all wide-open fields and orchards – it looked just like this when mom was Elihu’s age – but now the area is heavily wooded and houses are everywhere.

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Here’s the view of the ocean from the front door. In the old days there was only an orchard of fruit trees between this house and the water.

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One quick stop to get directions…

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…and to smooch a pooch.

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Now it’s goodbye until next time. Thanks, you lovely ocean, you. You feel like home to me.

 

Tiny Trip June 22, 2014

I don’t get out much these days, but I did get out yesterday for what I’d thought would be a fairly straightforward overnight visit with an old friend from my elementary school days in Chicago, and who now lives in mid-state Vermont. It was a short trip, but densely packed with new and memorable experiences.

My childhood pal is moving across the country to the Seattle metro area. She’s lived here in the Northeast for three years and I haven’t yet been to see her (she and her family have, however, been to visit me). It’s hard to believe that it was only yesterday morning that I was throwing a toothbrush and a favorite pillow into a bag and hitting the road. It feels like I’ve been gone a week. My head is full of images, my heart is heavy with a final, impromtu stop I made on the way back, and I’m saddened to learn that shortly before I returned home this evening we lost Amity, our last pure white hen from the old flock. I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed right now, siting here in my cozy chair in something of a daze; post gin and tonic, post review of new photos, post whirlwind tour of historic Vermont, post the loss of one more hen. And although I may feel uncertain about many things in life, there is one thing I do know for certain: I love being home. And after having just seen a thousand different ways to live, having a head swirling with images, places and possibilities – and even loss – I know one thing for certain, that I need none of it right now, thank you. I’m relieved at the peace of being still and doing nothing at all. I’m more than happy to be back.

Once again, some time away has given me the experience of seeing my own corner of the world through brand new eyes. And I remember again how much this place means to me. I’d rather look out at the distant mountains of Vermont than live in between them. I like to assess it all from afar, nestled as I am here in my small, hillside niche in the woods. I have just the right amount of sky and trees, and just the right amount of house, both which give me more joy than they had just the day before yesterday. A day trip is a lovely experience in of itself, and it’s also a healthy way to help remind one just how blessed a thing is home.

IMG_6785The road as I start out… Vermont has always seemed idyllic and just out of reach; now I mean to examine these once-distant hills more closely.

IMG_6835This shot is uncharacteristically ‘un-claustraphobic’ of the Vermont byways; the roads almost all run parallel to the many rivers that run in the valleys between impassable mountain ranges. Usually one is in the woods, under cover of endless pines, a stony river bed close to one side. This is what makes travel through the state either extremely tedious or a journey of great beauty and mystery, depending on how urgently you may want to get somewhere. I always start out intrigued, but after a couple of hours of meandering alongside a shallow river in the deep woods I can get a little short of patience.

IMG_6829There’s precious little flat land in between the hills, but farmers find and use what they can.

IMG_6853After driving two and a half hours on two lane roads, at last I’ve arrived at Dina’s house. The small town of Randolph is a mere stone’s throw down the road.

IMG_6892First things first; lunch at ‘Wright at Home’, an even closer stone’s throw from the center of town.

IMG_6891Chatting with the locals…

IMG_6890The kitchen is in full view of the dining room. Cute, sarcastic and vintage signage decorates the place.

IMG_6885Dina’s son Sam figures out how to use my fan (given to me by another classmate from our elementary school who spent the past year in Spain).

IMG_6873This cutie is Thomas, the younger of Dina’s two sons.

IMG_6869Small town action! The local hippie artist has a mild run-in with the town cops.

IMG_6894We walk back up the hill after lunch. Nice place, huh?

IMG_6851Sam stands in the doorway of the carriage house-turned apartment unit.

IMG_6854Earnest, the boy’s dad, made a catapult for them. When I left it was still on the front lawn for anyone to take. It could be yours…

IMG_6917Dina and her friends enjoy one last soccer game before she moves…

IMG_6906While the women play a game I go investigate a nearby river behind the athletic field. Spied several species of birds and enjoyed some time also doing nothing at all but enjoying the perfect breeze and the gentle sound of moving water.

IMG_6926I took a walk around the field and learned the name of the high school mascots.

IMG_6937The gals at game’s end.

IMG_6941The town’s high school class is graduating tonight under this tent in the same field, so we go to pay a visit. Dina and a friend wave to each other under a gloriously-clouded sky.

IMG_6947Ah, the good old U S of A.

IMG_6974The band gets ready. Love that sousaphone.

IMG_6980Dina knows a lot of people here in this small town. Turns out our visit is a perfect opportunity for her to say goodbye to many friends.

IMG_6994The graduating class and their teachers line up for the processional.

IMG_6997Families await the graduates.

IMG_7018Elihu will get a kick out of this kid’s cap.

A little window into the moment.

IMG_7039Dina says good-bye to Tom, a local cop.

IMG_7043Main Street, early evening.

IMG_7055Looking North, towards the ice cream shop, a favorite of locals. I myself don’t have much of a sweet tooth, but highly recommend both the ‘maple creamee’ soft serve and ‘coconut crunch’ hard ice cream.

IMG_7064A taxidermied white panther in the window of the local barber shop. When I was small, I’d heard stories about black panthers still living in areas not far from my current home, but never of white ones. Today, panthers are extremely rare, but thankfully their smaller cousins the bobcats can still be found in the woods around the Northeastern US.

IMG_7062A wonderful and successful addition to Randolph’s downtown, restaurant One Main offers an enticing menu and a casual yet upscale vibe for locals to enjoy. Send an energetic gift of good thoughts to owner Shane, as he faces some health challenges at the moment. Seldom met anyone so radiant and positive, I’m sure he has a successful future ahead of him.

IMG_7063But like in so many small towns, keeping it alive and vital is an ongoing challenge.

IMG_7059Every building in this town is picture-perfect, like something from a set. This is the train depot. You can catch a train here and be in New York City in five hours.

IMG_7067Plus there’s a movie theater – with first run films. Love that awning!

IMG_7070We visit a neighbor’s house for dinner – Earnest, Dina and hostess Phyllis seen here in what I think is probably the most inviting, homey kitchen I’ve ever been in.

IMG_7074At the dinner table in this landmark Victorian house. Hosts Phyllis and Richard are on either end, and we’re joined by Earnest and Dina’s two sons, two neighbor kids and one of the hosts’ twin daughters. I have not sat at a table with so many people in probably twenty years. One of the most enjoyable dinners in just as long, too.

IMG_7100Captain lives in this beautiful house too; she may be the world’s only one-eyed Bernese Mountain dog.

IMG_7083This house is known as “Mari Castle”, and it was built by a speech writer for Abraham Lincoln and named for his wife. And if you might be interested in living in this gorgeous gem of a house, it’s for sale! A beautiful coach house and small chapel-made-office building are also on the property.

IMG_7125Here’s a photo postcard of the place from years ago…

IMG_7128…and here’s a picture that Dina took of the place in winter.

IMG_7103The coach house and neighboring mid-century chapel.

IMG_7069Some readers may know my love of things mid-century. This was the first building to catch my eye as I drove into town. My heart skips a beat when I see such a roof line. I’m not kidding.

IMG_7121The main doorway.

IMG_7110The stunning original wood arches inside. It was difficult for me to see the interior so altered from its original beauty.

IMG_7116The same arches as seen from the second floor. Even though it pained me to see the place so transformed (into a doctor’s office), I gotta say they did a tasteful job of it.

IMG_7085At three in the morning, Dina and family get loaded into the car to drive to Logan airport. I suddenly realized that I hadn’t taken any photo of me and my friend of 45 years, hence my last-minute selfie (and disheveled appearance). I’m amazed I’m old enough to have known someone this long. Wow.

IMG_7142Like me, this fellow stops to gas up on Main Street before heading out (note the barber shop in the background).

IMG_7145Virtually all Vermont towns are situated alongside a river.

IMG_7155Kayakers wave hello as I shout a greeting to them.

IMG_7189Even in the fairly populated city of Rutland the mountains beckon from beyond the utility poles and roofs… What a sky, huh? I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day to travel.

IMG_7164This trip, I decide to visit the mountain settlement of Killington. When I was small it was a modest and barely developed ski area. Now it’s a ritzy destination. Kinda reminds me of an American version of Zermatt, Switzerland.

IMG_7181The view up…

IMG_7166…and the means by which one gets there.

IMG_7168It’s just not possible to convey the feeling of being atop such a mountain; this photo doesn’t come even close. Those who ski (a population of which I am regrettably not a member) will know exactly what that is. So will those who hike and climb mountains. It’s the most expansive, exhilarating feeling. Also, in my case, it can inspire sudden bouts of panic. This didn’t happen to me in my younger years; I hope to discover a way to mitigate such altitude-related episodes, as they really suck and I can see them eliminating future adventures.

IMG_7204I continue South, down historic route 7, past Manchester’s famous Equinox hotel.

IMG_7210Had to stop when I saw this place.

IMG_7212Chickens everywhere.

IMG_7213If only I could afford one of em. Played the ‘hey, I’m an artist too’ card, but no go. Wouldn’t even consider the slightest mark down. I was seriously interested, but he seriously didn’t care. Ah well.

IMG_7208Onward I go, still heading South. I pass another farmer, doing things old school. One just doesn’t see those huge machines the way one does in the Midwest, where fields go uninterrupted for miles. Life here in Vermont has a gentler, more organic feel.

IMG_7195I saw these two fellows dressed in such odd-looking garb that I just had to stop and ask them what they were about. Daniel, left, and spokesman Michele, right, tell me they are cave enthusiasts, here from Montreal for the wonderful underground cavities unique to this region. Lots of white marble comes from this area too. Here, Michele writes down some sites I can visit to learn more. Tonight they are celebrating the birthday of a fellow caver by descending 140 vertical feet into a cave and sharing a glass of champagne at the bottom. !!

IMG_7197Off they go…

IMG_7220My ultimate destination en route home has been in the back of my mind all afternoon. I’m headed for Bennington. It’s the burial-place of poet Robert Frost, and the town in which my father, harpsichordist Robert Conant, was cremated. I need to see the place in order to give myself some closure. This obelisk is a monument to Revolutionary War soldiers which sits at the far end of Main Street, up the hill. The funeral home where dad was cremated is off frame and to the left, at the other end of Main Street.

IMG_7221Within a short time I’m at the base of the monument.

IMG_7223Here’s the church behind which Mr. Frost is buried. He himself did not belong to a church, but said if he were to have, it would have been the Congregational Church. His gravestone is the only one in the cemetery to face East instead of West.

IMG_7224Some ancient headstones just next to the Congregational Church.

IMG_7237The view of mountains to the East.

IMG_7227The signs that show the way are many and the effect is comical.

IMG_7229Here’s the Frost family plot. The center marks the poet, his wife and five children, the far one his grandchildren (one of whom is still living) and the marker in the foreground is completely empty. ! That’s thinking ahead, huh?

IMG_7231Here’s his famous epitaph; “I Had A Lover’s Quarrel With The World”.  I placed the small, white stone in between that line and ‘his wife’ on the line below.  Like hers too: “Together Wing to Wing And Oar To Oar”

IMG_7240Leaving the cemetery, the light is especially magical.

IMG_7246This next step is kind of surreal for me. Might be for you too. Get ready to see a side of life – or death, rather – that none of us ever really thinks much about until the choices are directly in front of us and ours alone to make. Even then we tend to think of it as some far-off, unreal sort of process that somehow doesn’t ever really happen, especially not to our beloveds. Cremation happens, and it has to happen somewhere. In this case, it’s on Main Street behind a cheerful looking house.

IMG_7247I walk around to the back. I’m ready, I guess…

IMG_7267It’s strange to see this for myself. The doors on the right are the last ones my father passed through looking as I knew him. My heart stops for a second when I recognize the facility for what it really is.

IMG_7250How bizarre it seems… That after such a marvelous, accomplished life, a body becomes merely something that must be gotten rid of somehow. And here it is. No pomp or circumstance to it, really. It’s just a super-powerful oven.

IMG_7256How mundane it looks, I think to myself – and in a way, it’s almost funny. The final end of my father in the un-glamorous back-end of a building with a wheel barrow and garden tools stashed behind. It makes me smile even. I wonder if dad too is seeing how hard it is to grasp for the earth-bound soul.

IMG_7251This is where my father’s physical matter met again with the world of its creation… And this is where I begin to cry. Please forgive me the next image; I realize for some it may be too much, but for me it’s the very reason I’ve driven so far today. I need to understand more completely what this process was. I remind myself the whole time that this happens thousands of time every day, in every single corner of the world. Most of us will never care to see it for ourselves, but some of us, whether we dare to express it aloud or not, may find ourselves unsettled until we see it with our own eyes…

IMG_7260The last place where hundreds of people’s loved ones – mothers, fathers, sons and daughters – have entered in bodily form. I look in the window in something of a trance. How can this be? I wonder over and over to myself. What an illusion we create and sustain for ourselves all life long that we shall ever be as we are now. We aren’t even as we were last year, or even yesterday for that matter. We weren’t even around one hundred years ago, and we won’t be here one hundred years hence. We know all this. So why is this idea of burning the bodies of our loved ones – and seeing the very sentence itself in print and the photo of the place in which it happens – so unthinkable? Why? If my father were here, he’d put his arms around me and tell me not to be sad, not to concern myself with the loss of his body. I know it. And I also feel very strongly that he still exists very close by, like a person on the other side of a one-way mirror, and he smiles at me and lovingly wishes I wouldn’t trouble myself so. But then again, I can’t help myself. I’m still on this side of the mirror, and no matter how hard I try to expand my consciousness on the matter, I just can’t. This feels creepy. It feels sad. But somehow, it does help.

IMG_7277I return to my car and see a tattooed dad and his family pass by the funeral home on a summer night’s stroll. Life keeps on goin.

IMG_7278Ok, for some this will undoubtedly be too far… I wanted something local to bring home from my trip, and this mom and pop store was across the street. It was here that I picked up some cheese and smoked meat; it was impossible for me to overlook the Monty Python-esque humor in it. I can promise you dad would have laughed too.

IMG_7304I’m headed home now. I pass the marble-enfused rocks of Vermont on highway 7 as I head North.

IMG_7287I’m a bit emotionally spent by now. Got lost a few times (in a region divided by vertical, North-South mountain ranges it’s not a simple thing to get from East to West) and by now had had it with winding, two lane roads and picturesque New England villages.

IMG_7294One more Vermont vista…

IMG_7301… and then New York again, at last. I love a trip, but truly, there’s no place like home.

 

 

Eve Of July 8, 2012

What thanks can I offer to all of you who’ve made this trip possible? I see the donations come in, I breathe a little easier, and yet I don’t. I’ve been given so much help from my friends over the past three – nay, almost four – years, and I begin to feel a little as if I need soon to be doing something for others. But for now I will receive all this kindness because I know you felt inspired to help. I’ll honor that by using your help to create a journey for Elihu and me that we will remember for the rest of our lives.

The eve of the journey is a tense time for me. How do I sleep? I printed out our directions, I have my maps, my car is ready, our bags are packed. Elihu was even asleep hours ago, allowing me the time to collect my thoughts and my things in the quiet of a nighttime house. Seeing all those driving directions had me a bit intimidated. Me? Afraid of getting places? Ha!

I can remember finding my way to a boat docked in a small harbor in Portugal with little more than the name of a nearby town – no language, little money (and carrying ten pounds of white flour – staples requested by the captain. Can you imagine making it through international airports carrying ten pounds of a white powdery substance? Whew. A more innocent time it was.) Once in Indonesia, not quite sure exactly where my hotel was, I navigated lanes upon lanes of traffic in Jakarta during a monsoon rain and finally arrived there by way of a trade: my western cigarettes for a one final wild ride in a Bajai that got me there safe. I’ve done hundreds of singing telegrams and in so doing was made to find every manner of crazy out-of-the-way joint you can imagine. All long before GPS. (We did, however, had GPS on the boat, that’s where I first learned of it.) And I love maps. If I lack some good bedside reading material, a map will do. Then again, it may do too well. I might be up all night reading it, cuz I just love to think about going places.

I really shouldn’t fret about the actual ‘getting there’ part. But still, that’s the part which has me up late and unable to sleep. Man, how did we do it thirty years ago? Was it so hard? Didn’t we just take the highways, take most likely looking exit and just ask local folks where to go from there? That must have been how we did it. People have been making car trips for decades without benefit of GPS… I gotta relax. Gotta remember it’s still in me. I can do this car trip thing.

Oh, but I’ve gone off on a tangent, when what I’d wanted to do in this final homemade post was to thank all of you so much. We two are so excited, so happy. Truly we are embarking on a modern day adventure. We know where we’re going, and yet we know not. It’s the little serendipitous surprises that make it so magical. So I guess it’s the anticipation of the things I know not that has me so keyed up at this late hour.

Thanks, dear friends. And now, finally, I’m off to bed. I think I’m ready to sleep now.