Tuesday, June 29, 2010

making connections

My Dad, Wallace, was recently visiting in the kitchen at Cleveland Place and reached up to pull down and turn on the light fixture in the kitchen ceiling.  He had purchased it at least a dozen years ago at the auction of a long-time friend, Rod  MacKay.  Rod is an accomplished Maritime artist who we met over thirty years ago in Sussex, New Brunswick, but currently lives in Nova Scotia. We have a large collection of Rod's work that represent several periods in his life which feature New Brunswick scenes and people.

                     (Unished Rod MacKay--Woman on the Knightville Road)

I remarked to dad that another friend, Karin Bach, who lives just a few kilometers away, had bid on one of Rod's large floor easels at that same auction but she insisted that Rod autograph the easel before she finalized the transaction.  Dad wasn't aware of that even though he had spent the entire day at the auction assisting Rod and the auctioneers.  Karin currently uses that easel in her studio; she is an exceptionally talented sculpture artist and painter.
 (Three birds representing Wallace, Patricia, Jane at Cleveland Place.  Artist: Karin Bach, New Horton, New Brunswick, Canada)

Dad returned his gaze to the unusual antique light fixture and described how he'd engaged in a bidding war with another Bed and Breakfast owner from Saint John who ran an establishment called Home Port.  Dad refused to relent in the bidding, and eventually won the bid, at a much higher price than he'd intended to pay.  The fixture was ideal for the Cleveland Place kitchen, both because it was a unique antique and its style fit the era of the home.

(unlit light fixture, before the connection)

After the auction, Dad explained to the operator of Home Port why he was such stubborn competition for the fixture and they shook hands.  Later, Dad sent the fellow a copy of a book titled Home Port that is from our private collection of Olive Higgins Prouty books which includes her self-published memoir. For Home Port, Mrs. Prouty consulted my grand-father (Dad's Dad), Allyn West I, for information to help her accurately and authentically describe the events of an overturned canoe in the water as part of the plot.  Allyn and Wallace had built a few boats between them, and Allyn was an authority in all wood and water craft.

(Allyn S. West II, Shirley Campbell, unknown-, WestCraft (tm) Watercraft, Massachusetts)

A story of a man who becomes a fugitive from his own identity.

                                       Fronts piece autographed to Allyn West I by Prouty

Our nephew, Allyn West III, and his bride, Sara have just left Cleveland Place.  They spent a week with us after their road trip from Houston, Texas.  Allyn is a doctoral candidate (journalism/literature), writer, poet, thinker.  Both Sara and Allyn remarked on the unfinished MacKay painting in their guest-room.  Of the over 30 paintings in the MacKay collection, I think that particular one is the most haunting and evocative, (Rod was working on that canvas when his first wife, Anne, was terminally ill with cancer; when she died, it remained unfinished.) and I admired that they remarked on it.  It didn't occur to me to ask Allyn if he was aware of these details until this afternoon.  We'd spent some time during his visit sharing a variety of little-known family histories---several of them significant and local in New Brunswick, and anecdotes and photographs; most of them happy ones, a few were depressing, but important to remember.

      (Allyn Stuart West I, August 1953 at the estate of Olive Higgins Prouty, Brookline, Massachusetts)

    (Allyn Stuart West II, location unknown ca. 1981)
(Jane West Chrysostom, Allyn Stuart West III, Sara (Cooper) West, March 13, 2010, Phoenix, Arizona)

Sylvia Plath was depressed.  She may have been bi-polar.  She benefited from the generosity of Mrs. Prouty who, as a fellow author and Bostonian, became a benefactor to Plath both for her tuition expenses through a scholarship and cost of her treatments for depression.  I imagine that by today's standards and practices of medicine, those treatments must seem barbaric.  Plath modeled one of the characters in her book The Bell Jar after Mrs. Prouty.  Sylvia committed suicide a short time after that book went to print.

Mrs. Prouty was a member of the Unitarian Church across the street from her estate in Brookline, Massachusetts.  As a high-school student, Dad mowed the estate lawns of Lewis and Olive Prouty for twenty-five cents an hour.  He also took one of her many cars luxury cars without her permission on at least one occasion which resulted in some serious punishment from his dad.

(Young Wallace at the Higgins Estate, Brookline, Massachusetts)

My mother's father, Ernest Henry Carritt, was a Unitarian minister. (Not at the Brookline church--but at parishes in Ohio, Illinois, and New Hampshire). I don't know much about Ernest's career, except that he was relieved of one of his appointments at a parish in the midwest in the 40's when he invited an African-American family in the town to join his congregation.  Also an accomplished wood-worker, Ernest built an altar for the chapel at the Joliet Prison in Illinois. The prison has been closed for several years, now, and I wonder what ever happened to his altar.  After he retired--with no pension from the church-- everything that Ernest built in and for his home, hand-crafted, wrote (sermons, lettters, etc.) and all the books he'd collected were destroyed in a fire by arson at their home in New Hampshire in the 60's.  His only daughter, (Ernest had a son, Dayton, with his first wife who died.) Patricia, had few mementos of his life and career which have been left to our family archives.

(Ernest Henry Carritt, Doctorate of Divinity; Tufts University)

(Altar crafted by Ernest Henry Carritt)

Stephen and I were married in the Unitarian Church in Worcester, Massachusetts where Stephen's family had been members for years.  The minister, Chris Raible, married us in 1981.  Chris is now living in Toronto,  Ontario, Canada.  I came across his name and e-mail address (for the first time since we were married) last Summer in an outdated Canadian History magazine called The Beaver that I found in a waiting-room. I contacted him to see if it was the same person.  It was, and we exchanged a few notes.  I was surprised he'd moved from Massachusetts to Ontario.

(Airman First Class; USAF Stephen Chrysostom, Jane (West) Chrysostom, Christopher Gist Raible, First Unitarian Church, Worcester Massachusetts, October 24, 1981)

Karin Bach who is originally from Ontario was raised in the Unitarian Church. I'm pleased that Karin met Allyn and Sara this past week.  Karin has been operating a unique lodging establishment called An Artist's Garden set in the woods of Albert County along scenic Route 915.  She has three self-contained efficiency suites that she designed, built, furnished, and decorated with her uniquely talented eye for taste, color, nature and quality.  She recently felled several large trees to give way for the spectacular views of Shepody Bay and Two Rivers Inlet that her secluded property overlooks.  My mother would be delighted; Pat frequently advised Karin about the potential of that obstructed view whenever she visited there, but during those earlier years when Karin was getting established with her pottery studio and building a home from the ground up a family was blooming--not easy years, I'd expect, and trees were probably not a priority unless they were already cut down and providing fuel for heat.  Karin is an especially hard worker and generous--two qualities my mother highly admired.

(Karin Bach, Patricia Carritt West, Hebron, New Brunswick, Canada)

My mother died in 2002.  We remember her in many ways, of course, but Stephen and I established a scholarship in her memory that recalls her good character, dedicated work ethic, and sense of humor through the qualifications of the scholarship recipient.  We've awarded six in as many years.  I try to imagine my mother reading and selecting qualified applicants, --she was a tough judge of character, and did not suffer fools gladly.  I can picture her Dollar-Rama (tm) readers perched on the end of her nose, wearing several layers of wool, lips pursed in concentration, with that light fixture pulled down close to the papers in an otherwise dark house.

Funny how we get to thinking about people, sometimes.

Monday, June 28, 2010

It only hurts when I laugh

We've all been asked the question.

Some of us take no time in coming up with the answer.  Some have several choices for their reply. Others have to really think about it, but eventually can find a suitable response.  Very few are stumped.

What is your most embarrassing moment?

The question is typically asked in a group setting, usually a party, so you have to choose your response carefully so you don't reveal too much about what causes you embarrassment (it might backfire on you later), or tell something you've done that you might not be proud of, or share part of your character that you might not want people who you're not very well acquainted with to know about you.

I have a few responses, but it's more a list of embarrassing things that I've said than done.  And now, faithful blog reader, you're preparing yourself for a humorous accounting of the gaffes, faux pas, blunders, and misspeaks that have rolled off my impetuous tongue in the course of these long years of adulthood.

Not a chance.

I think that inappropriate laughing is a better topic for this blog entry. Really!  Think about it. How many times have you been asked the question at a cocktail party?

"When was the worst time that you laughed inappropriately?" 

Imagine it, several of you are gathered around someone's living room with a drink, a small napkin with a puff pastry or stuffed mushroom that's too hot to eat--you know it, because the last one you ate scorched the roof of your mouth and you've been nursing it with an ice-cube from your drink for several minutes. People exchange topics about the work that they do, their kids' comings and goings, travels they've made--some guests you may know, some you're just getting acquainted with.

You've probably already pegged some of those who you don't know very well.

Type A:  The person who asks you a question, and before you've finished your response, they're answering it for you with the answer that they really wanted to give if you'd asked THEM the question.  For example,  "Have you ever been to California?" and you respond with "Well, funny you should ask, I've just been a few months ago, and found it to be much colder than I expected for this time of yea...." but they interrupt, and begin to tell you about their experiences in California, and you realize they really didn't care about your answer at all--they just had an agenda to start non-stop talking.

Type B:  The person who is everyone's very best friend, and knows everyone else in the room.  They find out something about you in some capacity, feign genuine interest in something that you're discussing, and promise you something in the future like:
a follow-up lunch
a book they'll put in the mail about the subject your discussing that they picked up at a yard sale but can't quite finish.
a telephone call with some information that would be pertinent for you to pursue

but you never hear from them again and you realize they are a big phony--so by now you spot them early on.

C:  The know-it-all.  Enough said.  Some esoteric subject has been brought up that piques your interest, and perhaps you know a few facts, but big mouth in the room, knows-it-all.  Or does he?

D:  Drinky McGluggerton.  He's just there for the alcohol;  he's actually amusing until he's had too many, at which point he becomes a little grouchy and frumps himself down in the Barcalounger (tm) in the corner and watches everyone else with a combative eye as the evening drags on.

But then the question is popped.  Has it ever before?  I doubt it.  Let's pretend it just has.
"When did you last laugh most inappropriately?"

My mother was a terrible offender.  But to her defense, and probably for most of us, an outburst of inappropriate laughter is usually an involuntary expression of stress or relief--(see The Jugular Vein blog entry)  --but not always.

When my mother was in a grocery store parking lot one cold wintry day after a freezing rain, she spied a woman who was pushing her heavily laden grocery cart out of the store to her vehicle.  The unaware woman hit a patch of ice, and the cart went wayward, while her feet went out from under her causing her to fall to her knees while keeping her grip on the cart.  The poor woman slid the entire length of the parking aisle flailing her legs to try regain her footing on the icy-slick pavement, but with no success.  By the time the cart came to a stop, and the woman could stand again, with torn stockings and bloodied knees, my mother was hysterical laughing.

Many years ago, we'd gone out to Bennett Lake in Fundy National Park.  We had an absolutely gorgeous wooden combination canoe-sail-row boat.  The Aphrodite.  It was very heavy, but the three of us (I was 13 at the time) could manage it well, and my parents could manage it with a bit of a struggle between the two of them.  Wally, would bark commands expecting an immediate and efficient response in action, while unloading the canoe and all its accessories from the top of the car until finally launching it into the water.  After several outings, we had a pretty good routine, each of us executing our job with the timely precision of a military mission.

Until one afternoon at the water's edge.  We were going sailing.  While I was setting the leeboards, Dad was righting the mast, and my mother tied the boom.  Something happened at this point, and the boom came down on Dad's head with an audible, and sharp CRACK!  Expletives were abundant, and my mother was immediately convulsed with laughter, which elicited even more expletives. 

After the tweety-birds stopped circling around Dad's head, we resumed our duties, and Dad returned to the rigging, when


it happened again.  Loud.  Hard. The angry sailor's vicious vocabulary was considerably more verbose.  My mother was unable to catch her breath from uncontrollable laughter.  It wasn't that she thought that it was funny, I'm quite sure it just was her coping mechanism. 

In our early days of home ownership in Omaha, we had a large Linden tree in the front yard that had several large, broken, and dangerous limbs that needed to be brought down.  At the time, we didn't have the standard set of homeowner tools like a tall ladder, a chain saw, or other necessary equipment to do the job safely or properly, but we were concerned that some of the dangling branches might come down and hurt someone.  Stephen drove our car up into the yard and stood on the roof to get a better look at them, and indeed, they were precarious limbs.

I advised him to just jump off the roof of the car, grab hold of the branch, and drop down with it as it should easily break off.  This was not good advice.

Stephen sprang off the roof of the car with the grace of an Olympic parallel-bar athlete, grabbed the diseased tree branch with both hands and stopped in time and motion for a few seconds when


the branch did break easily, but poor Stephen fell to the ground FAST and landed on his back completely knocking the wind out of him rendering him breathless and dizzy.  My immediate response should have been to rush to his side for assistance, but I didn't simply because I became helpless with a fit of manic hysterical laughter that I absolutely could not control.  Stephen was not amused.

(Remember when Mary Tyler Moore couldn't help herself at the funeral for Chuckles The Clown? )

Then there was a time when Olivia was in the hospital.  It was just one of several lengthy and successive stays when she was most sick several years ago.  The nursing staff knew us, and enjoyed Olivia--she was a model patient; she didn't cry, scream, or struggle during painful and invasive treatments, didn't demand toys or television or games, and tolerated the needles better than most adults.

An unfamiliar nurse came into her room one afternoon with a series of hypodermic needles to draw blood, and administer several medications through Olivia's IV.  She set the lot of the needles on Olivia's bedside table and turned her back to set up the procedural equipment when Olivia took on of the syringes and inadvertently inserted it directly through her hand---syringe on her palm side, the needle poking out the back of her hand.  Olivia calmly looked up at me from her bed and in a quiet monotone voice recognizing trouble held out her hand and said, "mummy?"

I laughed at first, because it was so incredulous that the thoughtless, careless, nurse would leave these syringes within Olivia's reach, and also because it looked so bazaar!  This strange anachronism of a small child's hand run through and through with a gleaming hypodermic needle filled with poison.  Certainly, not a laughing matter.

I think the next time I'm asked "What was your most embarrassing moment?" I'll return with the question "First, tell me when was the last time you laughed inappropriately?"  I think it will be a better conversation.

Either that, or I'll reply, "A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants." And see what happens.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Teasin' is the Reason for the Season

We either send them or receive them.


Most of them are sent to and from distant friends and families you ordinarily don't hear from at any other time of the year.  In the intensely boring newsletter you are subjected to the braggart accounting of children's accomplishments, the changes in careers, the ailments discovered or overcome, exotic travels, marriages, births, and a variety of upheavals, joys, and disappointments that occurred since the time passed from the previous year's letter.

We sent one every year.  We knew we shouldn't subject our friends and loved ones to our shameless boasting, but we just couldn't help ourselves.  When we started writing and sending them, we were displaced from friends and family, both in New England and in Canada, while we lived in Omaha with our four perfect, genius, handsome children who we just had to brag about.  We included photographs, certificates of achievement, report cards, locks of hair, newspaper clippings.  As the kids grew older, we asked for their input, and posed for family portraits with cat and dog--often in coordinating wardrobes against a backdrop of glittering Christmas decoration and twinkling light, or mahogany bookcases filled with leather-bound classics.

Until one year. 

We employed the help of our new friend, Jim McHarg.  He and Stephen look like they could be brothers--or at least related; both are tall and lean, and each have the same hair growth pattern.  So we asked Jim to join us in our family photo.  We asked Stephen to step out.

We gathered in the living room, the three remaining kids still living at home (Justin had already left the nest), the dog, the cat, the antique furniture, the dark-walled paneling.

Jim and I stood side by side, beaming--as proud parents would--with the children close by.

Kathryn, our popular high-school teen, in the foreground wearing a large t-shirt that clearly displayed a distended belly representing at least 7 month's pregnancy--her smile not so much beaming, but rather chagrined.

Olivia, our youngest girl who ordinarily wears a link of pearls, a classy cashmere sweater, and perky capri pants, her long locks of youthful, vibrant, brown hair, fresh-faced stood barely in frame of the camera at such an angle and with body language that suggested she'd rather be cutting herself than posing for a lame photograph.  Her  pin-straight hair, dark-rimmed eyes, heavy with mascara, combat boots, straight leg blue jeans, and arms clenched and folded in front of her created an authentic image of a rebellious, angry, disassociated teenager.

Andrew had to sit in the library rocking chair.  It is hard for him to stand--since he's missing the lower half of his right leg, so his crutches are propped against the chair where he sits and the vacant pant-leg knotted-- clearly revealing its absence.

Jim has his arm around me; we're still affectionate after all these years of marriage, even with the obvious stresses we've encountered since last year's holiday newsletter.

The dog and cat have gone missing.


and another to be sure....SMILE everyone; LIFE IS GOOD!


We took two pictures that year.  The one just described that we dashed off to print and make 35 copies to send to our friends and family who we think will enjoy our little holiday photographic prank.  The other photo was more run-of-the-mill, with both me and Stephen, the dog and the kids, all posing cheerfully.  That's what we sent to those on our mailing list who we knew wouldn't understand the joke photo.

The newsletter describes an otherwise mundane year, not making mention of a teenage pregnancy, an horrific accident that cost a young man his limb, or the trials of dealing with a distant, angst-filled teen daughter who clearly has not embraced her new-found health since being in remission for a few years and is considered cured.

"Merry Christmas, blah, blah, blah......" lick, seal, stamp, send. 

While we were on Christmas/New Year's holiday in Canada, we checked our telephone messages back home in New Jersey, to hear several repeated messages left by Stephen's mother who with each message, and with increasing urgency, implores him to return her call--she is very concerned for our family after seeing the photograph. 

There is also a message from my sister.  She is sickened by what she's seen, and what's worse, is troubled that I hadn't shared any of these significant details about our family with her before now.  I have RUINED her holidays.

Those who knew us well, and shared our sense of humor, enjoyed the diversion from the typical treacle we'd ordinarily sent off year after year.  My sister and mother in-law did not.  We returned their calls, and assured them that all was well.  (Really?  Neither of them didn't recognize that it was NOT Stephen standing next to me; REALLY?)
It's been several years since we mailed the epic FO-TOE-GRAF--one we now refer to as "The Christmas Card incident".

                        Christmas 2002

"I am sure that I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round, as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely."
C. Dickens

Maybe, it shouldn't just be when Christmas comes around....J. Chrysostom