Sunday, January 22, 2012

Millis and The Ol' Folks

My father was one of two children (I've already written about my aunt's camp in New Hampshire), but his mother (my grandmother) had several siblings, some of whom I never really met.  One was close enough to us that I ended up spending a lot of time with her. She was my Great Aunt Lily.  She and Great Uncle Ed had two children: Edward and Arthur. They all lived in a ranch-style house in Millis, west of Newton, in a very rural area. The house was nestled in a forest, yet their next-door neighbor  had a large patch of farmland. I didn't know anyone else who had a farm or grew anything, so it wqas fascinating to me to see food come out of the ground. 
My first memory of Millis is not my Aunt Lily's house, though. It's of my great-grandparents' farm, and it's really an image more than anything, a sensory memory of smells, sounds and one image: a large Christmas tree decorated with lit candles and surrounded by a series of graduated wooden dolls that fit inside each other, nesting dolls. That image was one I revisited for one of my short stories ("The Nesting Dolls"). 

Ma and Pa (my father's grandparents) had come to the United States from Sweden when my grandmother was approximately twelve. They settled on a piece of farm land and raised chickens, cows and horses. My father used to tell me stories about going out there when he was young.  He learned how to ride, as well as how to milk cows, kill chickens and grow vegetables. In fact, his skill with horses gave him one of his first jobs as a stable boy in Everett (if you could see Everett now, all brick, steel and tar,  it would amaze you to know there were farms in the area right up to World War II). I remember Pa as being quite tall (and scary) and Ma as having a lilting accent. Other than that, there's very little to connect to them since I was so young when they passed away.

But the rest of the group in Millis was a different story. And what a group they were! Every time my family went out there, it was a party, whether it was Christmastime or the middle of the summer. Aunt Lily was what we called a "hot ticket." Roly-poly and always laughing, she took no guff from the guys and brought my grandmother (who tended to be gracious, elegant and a little on the chilly side) out of her shell. Uncle Ed was big, too, with a booming voice. He had some kind of executive position in the local shoe factory. Their boys were as different as my city home and their country one. Eddie, a big football player, was engaged to tiny Jeannine, a girl all the guys constantly teased and fawned over. Arthur, on the other hand, was erudite and suave, and though everyone knew it, no one admitted he was gay until many years later.

In the basement of their house, Uncle Ed had built a wet bar and converted the area to a party room, with red leather banquette seating against the wall and plenty of room for dancing. It was there that Arthur taught me how to do the Cha-Cha (he could have competed on "Dancing with the Stars") and the Stroll. My father smoothly moved over that floor with his champion Jitterbug moves, and I considered myself lucky if he danced with me since most of the women monopolized his time. He was a charmer, Frank-Sinatra-style. There were very few moments in my life that my father wasn't laughing, and he especially loved to dance, so my memory of him is with a full smile, a toothpick stuck in the side of his mouth, his blue eyes sparkling. He wasn't very tall, probably 5'8", but he was the biggest man I knew, especially when he was out there on the dance floor. I loved watching him, but even more, I loved dancing with him.

When I grew a little older, I would go to Millis for a few days every summer, all by myself, and I roamed the sweet pine-smelling forest behind the house and helped the woman next door harvest potatoes, but I didn't get to dance with anyone. I did, however, get to eat my first lobster with Aunt Lily and Arthur, both of them teasing me mercilessly when I cried because the lobster was alive before it went into the boiling water. I didn't like that first lobster, though I love the meat now (and still can't watch them being boiled alive).

I was with Arthur in his red and white Impala convertible the day Marilyn Monroe died. When the news came over the radio, he pulled over to the side of the road, turned up the volume and just listened. His eyes filled with tears and his skin paled, and since I had just seen my first Marilyn movie ("Bus Stop") with Aunt Lily just a little while before that, I felt the sadness, as well. I'm not sure he has ever realized that my fascination with Marilyn started that day and ended up with me writing a book about the millions of collectibles created in her image. He probably would get a kick out of it. I should tell him the next time I send him a Christmas card . . .

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