Thursday, July 21, 2011

Tea at the White House

On Tuesday of this week, I purchased a subscription to an online searchable data base of newspaper archives. I thought I'd fiddle around with it some and looked up this ancestor or that, without much luck. It was fun snooping around the old articles in places where our ancestors lived and it will give me lots of help with background and historical information when I write future Henrietta posts.

I found some newspaper articles my grandfather, Leslie C. Hall (Henrietta's grandson) had written for the Acton Beacon in the 50s and 60s. It was a local newspaper that covered several area towns. He wrote some articles about the history in Sudbury, a colonial village established in 1639 and my home town. I think that's how I became so interested in history. But he also wrote articles about what was going on around him in the small farming community on the verge of a large population explosion.
Leslie Hall, my Grandfather

His column, which he called "Hi Neighbors" featured stories about the people in Sudbury, their goings on with the grange, the churches and other community organizations and events. In one article, he collaborated with a Ms. Lilly Nelson who helped him out because he was suffering from an "inflamed eye". Ms Nelson is listed as collaborator on several other articles I found, so they may have decided to share the byline some time in the early part of the column, although I hadn't remembered hearing about that until I found it online.

The exploration of the newspaper data base and an invitation to a "tea" in Sudbury that I received this summer gave me today's Henrietta inspiration. As I write this I haven't yet attended it, but I will post it the day after, adding a few finishing touches and post "tea" remarks. This tea was offered as an item in my old church's service auction last spring. The hostess, Alexandra, an old friend advertised it as a "British Tea" and it was to be given for 6-8 guests. My sister Becky and good friend Melinda purchased the event with the idea that I would be here to join in with the fun.
Alexandra's House

You might be wondering what on earth this all has to do with my Henrietta blog, but behind what promises to be a delightful afternoon of teacakes and extended pinkies, was the fact that the home in which this tea is to be held is the home in which I lived from infancy until I was about 3 years old, right next door to my grandparents at the time my grandfather was penning his column.
My Grandfather, Grandmother and Uncle Alan c 1950

Seeing the house will be interesting, but I am not sure if I will "feel" anything for this house because I know it has changed so much. I have seen photos of the interior after it has been beautifully restored. My friend Alexandra bought it about a year or so ago.

It's a beautiful antique home, built in 1830, once the main house for a huge farm in Sudbury. But, before I see it in its new incarnation, I thought I should write down what I do remember from more than half a century ago, lest the new memory mingles with the old.
"The White House" late 1940s

I have memories of this home, vague and fragmented, but strong. I remember the hurricane whose wind sent a tree branch through the kitchen window as I ate my breakfast and Mom and Ginny Baldwin, the upstairs neighbor sat at the table with me. I remember the glass from the broken window cutting my mother's ankle and the dash across the driveway to my grandmother's house, poodle skirts flying as my mother carried me and Ginny Baldwin carried my brother Chuck through the storm. I remember it as if it happened yesterday, Chuck's cowboy hat flew off and Ginny ran after it, braving the storm to save what was probably my 4 year old brother's favorite possession, spinning along the ground on its edge, like a red felt wheel. I don't remember if she caught it, I just remember her trying. I remember how much I loved Ginny. I don't remember what she looked like, just that I liked being in her company. I do remember it being a treat to go upstairs to Ginny's and I can see myself in my mind's eye playing with little cars on her linoleum floor, cars that probably belonged to her son Stevie.
The White House-View from my grandmother's house.
Behind the garage is that 'dark dirt-floored' room. The outbuilding
with the bees is in the foreground.

I don't remember the bedroom we slept in but I remember having a recurring nightmare there in which a Woolie Dog, half dog, half lion, would put a ladder up against our window and steal us away in the night. My brother Chuck and I shared the same villainous Woolie Dog character in our dreams. I remember light coming through kitchen window curtains and the wooden high chair where I sat to eat my meals. I remember the bay window where the kitchen table sat, the same window shattered by the tree branch in the hurricane. I remember the dark area between the garage and the kitchen, with an unfinished dirt floor and no lights that we could reach. It was dark in there even on the brightest of summer days. I have a vague memory of a plank from the outside door over to the kitchen door. If I did it just right, I could step up up over the threshold, and hang onto the doorjamb with one hand, then swing into the darkness to the plank and up onto the kitchen step without letting my bare feet touch the dirt floor, and anything else that waited in the darkness there. My feet were always bare then.
My grandparents escort my great grandmother into their home
The White house in the background 1959

Over the years we always referred to it as "the white house" because it was painted white, and later we thought it was funny when we told people we used to live in 'the white house'. Like a classmate at a reunion, it's gray now, but the face I remember from childhood is still there and recognizable if I look closely. It was just down the street from the new house we moved to when I was 3, and right next to my grandmother's house. It was a constant in my neighborhood travels, a landmark that spoke to us when we were older and we'd ride by on our bikes or pass on foot. It said "I remember YOU!" every time.

It loomed from atop a slight grassy hill on which it sat, looking down onto unpaved King Philip Road as though it was royalty itself. Tippy, who was Aunt Marian's big German shepherd dog lived across the street and he and my Grandmother's English setter, Duchess, would lie stretched out, sleeping like the dead in the middle of the cool dirt road on hot summer days. People had to drive around them in order to pass by. In the front yard, hundred year old maples provided shade keeping the grass cool under our feet, their roots lying partly above ground, like long ropey legs stretched out into our path, playfully waiting for us to trip if we didn't watch our step. A worn granite rectangle served as a step up to the front door, which I can't remember ever using.

The Porch was removed at some point.

There were tall lilac bushes along the sunny side of the house, untrimmed and drooping out and over the stone and dirt driveway, smoothly rutted where the wheels of the cars rolled, grass growing in the middle, large puddles in the same spots whenever there was a big rain. An ancient rubble stonewall ran down to the road, separating the yard from Mr. Bonnazoli's huge vegetable garden. His wife, Ida, was the kindest woman my grandmother ever met, she told me once.
Ida and Al Bonnazoli.
Ida, the kindest woman my grandmother ever met.

There were bees in some of the old out-buildings in the back yard, that I didn't like playing near. Someone once had a workshop there. We knew that because there were rusty screw tops of jars nailed into the bottom of a wood shelf, their glass bodies that had once hung below and held nuts and bolts and nails and brads, had long since been broken and were nowhere to be found. I know what they were because my dad had the same jar tops nailed above his workbench in a later house. But the bees kept us from going into that old place that might have been a chicken coop at one time. An old gray wagon wheel, leaning against the white clapboards comes to mind but I'm not sure if I remember that from a painting my mother had, or if there really was a wheel there. There were more lilacs and multitudes of hostas and orange tiger lilies growing together in a crowd along the stone foundation in the back. An old well was in the center of the yard and we weren't allowed to go near it. I steered clear of it but it is that well which comes to mind whenever I hear the nursery rhyme "Ding Dong Dell, Pussy in the Well."

My grandmother's house, the 'red house', sat further up the drive past the long red barn that we never went into. I think her house had once been the milk house, although not in my lifetime. It had clean white trim and its brick foundation was painted white, too. 
In front of my grandmother's house, red with white trim, once the Milk house.
My brother is the baby held by my Dad. My Dad's family and my mother's family
together in 1951. I was just about to be born. Duchess, the English setter is in the foreground.
 Gram's was the house that I loved the most, that little red house. It represented a haven in a storm on more than one level, I guess.

My grandmother and me, when I still lived in the white house, c1954.
But "the white house" is also central to a story of which I don't have any memory, but is part of my own family history. I look at it with a sort of detached curiosity now, as though it happened to someone else. Yet, it is my history and you all know how I love those stories of one's personal history. This house is where my history began and it was in this house where a vaporizer, attached to an infant's crib ran out of water in the middle of a cold February night in 1952 and caught the baby's world on fire.

Like I said, I have no personal memory of it, I was just five months old, the exact age that my granddaughter Lily is today. Looking at Lily gives me some perspecitve on how little I was and what my parents and grandparents must have experienced. A miracle really, that I have no recollection of it and that I survived at all. And I have heard the stories countless times, the stories not just about a tragic accident, but the stories about the little town that rallied around a young family and a baby when all seemed so lost. These are the stories that made Sudbury so much more to me than just the town in which I grew up.

Over the years they told me stories of the telephone operator, Gladys Tighe, a dear friend of my grandmother's who would pass along reports to all the townspeople who were interested in knowing my condition during those weeks of hospitalization. The Chief of police, John McGovern would tell the story of how he drove me to Waltham hospital in 7 minutes, and that he'd never forgotten that trip, although I think that might be an exaggeration in the time the trip took. He told that story as long as I knew him, and how ironic that the first house I ever bought would be right next door to his.

The story of Clyde Barber, the local rubbish man and the subject of a Reader's Digest "My Most Unforgettable Character" article,  dragging away the charred crib with tears in his eyes stays with me. I remember him, the gruffest of men, with the softest of hearts. My Godmother, Maryellen, leaving her nursing job to stay with me night and day. I remember hearing about the support of the church and so many townspeople, when nobody knew if the baby would survive.

The MacLeans were a well loved couple in town who would run young couples dances on Friday nights in the town hall. My parents often told me how touched they were that these folks once ran a benefit dance to help raise money to pay the doctor's bills. Such a special community it was back then. Maybe it was because the town was only about one quarter of the size that it is today and still populated by folks who grew up there, as had their ancestors for generations before. Now, we are so scattered, it's hard to feel so attached to a place I think.

But with that deep attachment to Sudbury still firmly in place, as I was hunting through the newspaper archives on the eve of going to tea at "the white house" I found an article and I think it's rather remarkable that I found it just now. On April 24, 1952 in the column called Hi Neighbors, written by Ms. Lillie Nelson  in collaboration with my grandfather there was the following excerpt:

was sung last Saturday evening
by Dick Whelpley at the Donation
Dance that the Couples' Club
worked so hard
for the benefit of little Suzanne
Hall. We were all as deeply touched
as he, to think.that so many
would rally to help this little child
who has known so much pain in
so brief a span of life.
We will say only that the
Couples' Club wish to thank everyone
for the generous response, and
to thank those who contributed,
including Dave Bentley's orchestra.
(Lillie Nelson says that this organization
is not far from a baby
itself, but it took on a very worthwhile
project. Good Luck in the

I knew Dick Whelpley, the singer who they talked about in the article. I remember him singing in church many times, a tall thin man with a remarkable tenor voice. I've known his daughters and his wife as long as I can remember. He rests now in Wadsworth Cemetery, just across the lane from where my mother is buried. A bench marks his grave and there are musical notes carved into the granite. 

The story I told today is self-centered, I guess. But I tell it because stories from days gone by, even as recent as during my own life time, give a sense of how things really were. I don't know how many people who live in Sudbury remember Dick Whelpley or the dance for "Suzanne" or Chief McGovern and the MacLeans. But, there are a few still. I just hope they tell their stories when given the chance. 

We had a fabulous time at the tea. I will post some photos on my tomorrow for "Feel Good Friday". The "white house", now gray is just beautiful inside, but the rooms were not as I remembered. Now a single family home, the steep stairway upstairs to where the Baldwins lived seemed a little familiar, although they now lead to bedrooms and a lovely area for Alexandra's chaise. The dark room between the garage and the kitchen now has a floor and is their laundry room and mudroom. The well is still out back in the yard and there are lilac bushes that I know were there when I once ran bare-footed in the grass.  


Cheryl said...

Suzanne - Of course, I knew your story about the fire but never heard it with the details you've included here. And the newspaper article is wonderful way to make it very real. Our family's move to Sudbury in 1956 was probably close to the beginning of that population explosion and not connected to the history of your family or your part of town. But I, too, have very fond memories of our years in Sudbury. Seems like such a simple life as kids then, including being barefoot all summer long!

Ajaire said...

Suzanne, I've never heard the fire story before. It must have been neat to find that article. You should write more "self-centered" posts; this was a great one!
Just reading the word lilacs reminds me of home. It's probably because there weren't any where I lived in Seattle all those years.
One last thing: you and chuck sharing the same nightmare villain kind of gives me the i think it might give me nightmares now. Hehe