Off North Road - Homely memories

By Russell Hoxsie - December 27, 2007

Readers of my recent articles about home and place and the many memories one has about them may understand why I continue in the same vein. These are important features to me of our lives as civilized folks, oriented around our families, our work and play, and all the attachments we find for ourselves in the process. Moving from one home to another is an ordeal nearly everyone experiences, often as a totally unanticipated surprise. Losing a home through accidental fire or economic failure within the family or within the greater community are catastrophes that change peoples' lives, sometimes permanently. I have been lucky in the homes I have occupied.

A few years ago, I found an old photo which an aunt had saved of our house we lived in during the 1930s and I kept it recently in the glove box of my car in case I would ever have the chance of finding its location and see it again after so many years. When passing through Falmouth one afternoon with time for a side trip, I turned in at the Queen's By-Way, which I remembered from talk among the family when we had lived in Falmouth. Very quickly I spotted our house, which was easy to match with the picture I held in front of me. The dormers and panes of glass in windows matched the picture exactly and the yard and environs looked vaguely familiar. I searched for but could not find the chicken coops that I remembered belonged to a farmer who lived next door (practically in the middle of Falmouth). I had had my first exploration as an eight-year old farmer-to-be trying to wrestle an egg from under one of the sitting hens. I had seen Mr. Farmer do the same with elegant grace. My clumsy efforts brought the hen cackling off her perch and out the door into the dusty yard - so much for chickens in my future. I drove on to the Vineyard ferry in time with a sense of having satisfied a child's curiosity about my own then distant past.

We spent the summer in Mattapoisett the year my sister was born. I suppose the move to "the shore" was meant to be a rest and change for Mother who had a young infant to care for. Born in April, Joan was about three or four months old that summer. I wonder how easy camp life in a tiny crowded house proved to be for Mother with its pull out cots and several beds in one large room for sleeping and a miraculously odor-free privy just a step outside of the kitchen door. I watched a Frenchman neighbor while he cleaned and dressed an eel. He spoke in his native French, much to my puzzlement and curiosity. He nailed his freshly caught eel by the head to a tree and skinned it, turning it over gradually until he had skinned the eel's full circumference. What a neat job, I thought. "Son parlent le Francais," was the first I had ever heard. Between his speech and the eel, I felt I was having a great adventure although I was not tempted to accept a portion of his catch for my evening meal, nor have I been so tempted over the past 75 years.

In New Bedford during the depression we lived near a dead-end terrace where my father said a homeless man spent the nights. He left burned out matches by the fireplace grating where he tried to warm his hands. The 30s abounded with movies and news reports of gangsters and violence. We would sit with a baby sitter in the darkened living room while parents were out of an evening and our sitter would point into the dark streets outside the windows to every black car which rounded the corner from Hawthorn Street to Tremont where our house sat and imagine up real-life gangsters to our thrills and bed-time fears. I think that woman who treated us with such excitement at bed-time served a short-lived employment with us when Mother found out about the late evening street watches.

During World War II we lived for a few months in a second floor apartment in Watertown while Father was temporarily stationed in Boston before going overseas. We had never lived so close-by another family. Lady next door called out frequently to brother and me to stop talking while we pitched a ball back and forth to each other. We were scared a bit when Dad shipped out for England, but we were glad to take leave of the apartment on the second floor so we could yell, at least talk back and forth, while throwing the ball.

Our father survived safely through the war, served in the military government in Germany and returned to civilian life. His pride and joy for travel was an oversized alligator bag, really a trunk, which he carried everywhere. While I was in medical school one summer in the 40s, he returned through New York from summer camp in the Army Reserve and stopped for an overnight in our apartment on York Avenue and 65th Street. By the time he had climbed two of the five flights of stairs to our sixth floor apartment, he knocked on the door of a third floor flat and asked the occupant, unknown to us, if he could store his bag overnight and save the added climb to spend the night with my wife and me. We were flabbergasted at his naiveté in the city. Who would ever ask a stranger to hold his bag, never mind leave it overnight in a stranger's apartment? Dad marched to a different drummer, always enjoying the discomfort of his family when he did something outrageous or at least out of the ordinary.

Our New York apartment became the center of our new marriage with medical school the engine which drove us forward. We helped our sixth floor neighbor through difficult terminal cancer when her ceiling collapsed after a chronic leak in the roof had left it weakened.

We tolerated another neighbor behind one of the adjoining walls who knocked loudly on her wall when our kitty began rolling a marble across the wood floor toward her place. One hot steamy New York day with all our windows opened for the merest breeze, our kitty plunged to her death from the kitchen window trying to paw a leaf flying by. Mary Ann raced down the stairs to the street to save her, but she was too late.