She’s the last of the neighborhood moms. Her house sits across the street from ours, perched on a hill once owned by her dad, a successful pig farmer. I’ve known Shirley almost all my life – her oldest daughter and I became playmates when we were six. I began visiting Shirley regularly a few years ago, a handful of hours a week. Now at over ninety years of age, she needs a little help getting around and the opportunity to just sit and talk with a friend. I love this time we share and never tire of her stories about growing up on the hill.
Although Shirley’s short-term memory is fading quickly, she has done well remembering the distant past. I’ve learned that’s the typical pattern of memory loss as we age. She doesn’t remember that I’ve heard the triple egg yolk story four times in one day or her remembrances of sledding down the hill as a young girl. I don’t care. I could hear them forever, because one day, much sooner than later, I won’t be able to. Besides, many of the stories she shares are of our neighborhood where we both grew up and some stories in particular, are of the old farm that I call home.
I listen to each retelling, enraptured, my imagination racing as my mind becomes a movie camera, putting faces to names, dusty clothes on rambunctious farm boys and cows grazing in a sprawling orchard. Her stories are the next best thing to me being alive before my time, a time traveler peeking through a portal at my beloved home.
During Shirley’s childhood, there were only three dwellings in our neighborhood – her grandmother’s, her home and our farm. Observations on the neighbors’ activities were easy to make in such a sparsely settled area, and especially any observations of something out of the ordinary. So it was with our farm, where nine or ten children were said to have lived at any one time, many of them wards of the state. One day before Shirley was born, their rollicking play in the front yard prompted her mother to ask her new husband to build their home farther down on the hill, and not across from this rambling farm with its band of ruffians. Shirley’s recounting corroborated with stories I had heard from other sources years before – the boys at Hartwell’s were a rowdy crew.
But the Hartwell’s reign on the farm came to a sad demise, when at the close of the Great Depression, a bank loan could not be repaid. One day in October when Shirley was walking home from the bus stop, she noticed a strange gathering in the farm’s front yard where the boys routinely played. Farm equipment of all types and household appliances were sitting on the front grass. Cars clogged the yard. People swarmed about, giving close inspection to the goods before auction. I had read about this tragic turn of events in archived deeds, but Shirley’s memories brought it to painful life. Her story brings a dimension of heartache to the initials painted by the boys on the brick and timbers of our cellar.
Growing up, Shirley was an outdoor girl, as were many children in an era without entertainment technology. Wetlands and large ponds surround the neighborhood, which children made frequent use of in summer and winter. Willis Lake, as the locals call it although by definition it’s a pond, sits about half a mile through the woods behind our farm. Shallow and long, it provided quick wintertime transportation for Shirley, an able skater.
Tossing her skates over her shoulder, she’d begin the long trek from her house to visit her girlfriend, Ann, who lived at the far end of the lake. Down the street to our farm she’d stroll, around the back of our barn to the edge of a frozen field. There, she’d climb over a stone wall before finding the old road in the woods. After taking this road to the lake’s edge, Shirley would don her skates and glide another half-mile or so across the ice to see Ann.
There were half a dozen or so of these cart paths crisscrossing through the pines, shortcuts made by farmers long ago to get to various pasture or woodlots or perhaps to harvest ice from the lake. They remained for most of my childhood, too, before being lost to development. These paths to the lake were part of my earliest memories and always seemed enchanted to me, wide trails carpeted in needles of white pine, shrouded by dark woods. Never foreboding, the paths beckoned me to follow, to discover their guarded treasures of pink lady slippers or clearings of marsh where painted turtles lined up on logs to soak in the sun.
Although I never ambled down the cart paths in winter as Shirley did, I can imagine the deep woods must’ve seemed curiously silent to her under its covering of snow. To this day, Shirley can still recall the layout of each road, from beginning to end. I can, too, a lasting part of my childhood psyche, one that I hope will never fade.
Shirley loves telling me stories of Dewey, a younger boy from the city who’d spend part of his summer visiting his aunt on our farm. Shirley’s two sisters, older and engaged in their own social affairs, and her little brother, too young to be a viable candidate, conveniently evaded the role of keeping little Dewey company. However, Shirley, volunteered by her mother, landed the part.
To hear Shirley tell it, she had nothing better to do with no one else around, and it gave her a chance to play in the farm’s barn. Its capaciousness was a child’s dream to explore with two stories of haylofts lining the barn’s walls, the upper one thirty feet or more from the ground floor. No railings or partitions at their edges made for easier access when loading in hay. The lofts were a dangerous place to be for children, and there is record of someone who, during a load-in during the 1800’s, died of his injuries from a fall. No matter for Shirley and Dewey. Up the wooden ladders they climbed to play. Scattered hay on the ground floor finally gave away their position, where they were promptly ordered down.
I don’t share Shirley’s memories of playing in the lofts. Their open sides and structural integrity prohibited it. I also didn’t like heights, so it was never a temptation. But I do remember gazing at them from the ground floor and wondering what mysterious treasures could be laying up there in darkness. I did know that it was a haven for bats, and counting them as they flew out from a hole in the hay door was a fun pastime on a summer’s night. But there are other memories I do share with her; rows of empty cow stanchions in the rear shed, bouncing balls against the barn doors and finding the right spot to echo your voice through its wide entrance.
Shirley also tells stories of her first and second grade teacher, Miss Adams. She was a young woman then, just beginning her teaching career, known to be tough, but also patient and kind. Over thirty years later, Miss Adams ruled my third grade class, but she was no longer patient. Perhaps thirty years of being an educator had slowly burned her fuse. By the time I sat in her class, she was a force to be reckoned with. A schoolmarm harkening back to the 1930’s, she was a heavyset woman with wire glasses resting halfway down her nose and shoulder-length gray hair rolled into a net. But her shoes were the most imposing feature: black tie-ups with chunky square heels that firmly staked her claim to the linoleum she walked on.
I feared her. Shirley loved her. Many students loved her, but we all knew to step in line precisely when ordered. It was then quite incongruous to me to hear Shirley’s girlhood story of spying her at the local drive-in. There, just a few cars over, was Miss Adams with her boyfriend, both of whom were apparently missing much of the show, but creating one themselves. The image of young love and my third grade teacher with gray hair and combat boots grated in my brain. It still does, but it does make me smile.
Although I was born and raised in this town, I have felt at times as an adult that my roots don’t run deeply enough to be considered a true native. My family arrived here only a month before my birth. The old saying, “Just because a cat has kittens in the oven doesn’t make ‘em muffins”, refers to transients not really being from a certain area just because they were born there. Compared to Shirley and some others whose families have lived in our town for centuries, I feared that I could be regarded, somewhat disparagingly, as someone of the feline persuasion.
One day, as Shirley and I chatted up more town memories, the old feeling of being a bit of an outsider crept over me. I felt the need to come clean in the presence of town royalty and openly admitted that I wasn’t in the same league as Shirley, that being only first generation didn’t give me claim to being a Sudburyite like her. Looking me square in the eye, Shirley said, “Oh no. Don’t you worry. You’re a Sudburyite all right”, and gave me a wink and a smile. I have not doubted my status since.
The childhood memories that Shirley and I have of this place are precious, not only in themselves, but because they closely parallel each other. Although we are a generation apart, we have walked the same wooded paths, played in the same barn and shared an unforgettable teacher. We have experienced both people and places that others who follow us will never know, but for a time at least, remain secure in the archives of our memory.
But bonding to place doesn’t have to take generations of shared or parallel memories. It can happen over a much shorter span of time, taking surprisingly little for people to identify with each other and feel connected to somewhere special. But we must be willing to create memories of a certain place with others, which become our shared histories and ultimately, the history of where we live, work or play. That is a bond given to us by place, a gift received through our own awareness and intent. Alone, place and memory are powerful; together, shared or parallel memories of place are even stronger, forever telling us we belong.