It was 1917 and the Boulton family found itself
scattered, all six of them in various locations, keeping up a steady
stream of letters to each other. Agnes and young Cecil were in Manhatten.
Margery was at The Old House in New Jersey with Teddy and her
grandmother, Florence Williams (Granny), over from London. Bobby was in
Connecticut with her new family, and Nanna stayed at dawn Hill Farm in
Cornwall, Connecticut with her three year-old grand-daughter, Barbara
The early days in the spring of 1917 brought much
discussion as to whether or not the United States would go into the war
that was raging in Europe. Based on the distorted proposition that war
brings prosperity, many of those with chances to make big money in the
stock market were in favor of it. The market would boom as it does when
the economy turns to the production of weapons and war machines. Six
senators and fifty congressmen voted against a declaration of war, but
it made no difference. The United States declared war against Imperial
Germany on April 6 of that year, and on May 18 an official proclamation
was issued to announce universal conscription.
Stories of the U.S. Army and Navy heading toward Europe
were in the press and on the air. It was an unsettling time and a vague
fear seemed to penetrate the lives of everyone, with even the younger
ones feeling an excitement about something they had never experienced,
while the older ones brooded over the possibility of what it might
bring. War could bring with it a feeling of uncertainty and “Let’s grab
the moment…who knows what will happen…?”
To the family left in Jersey, the war seemed very far
away but there was also a worry. Margery told her family how she thought
of all the young people she knew, women as well as men, whose lives
would be disrupted as the men were drafted into service, probably to go
overseas, and some might never be seen again. This posed a frightening
thought to a 17-year-old.
Coming home from a walk to the Manasquan River, which
was about a mile down the road, Margery found a letter from Aggie in the
mailbox. This cheered her, as Aggie asked if there were any chance
Budgie might come up to New York for a day and have lunch with her in
the city. Aggie would send the train fare and she had lots of news. She
also wanted to hear what was going on with Margery’s love life. Sending
love to her father and Granny, she
announced she was writing to Nanna and Cookie in Cornwall.
When she was young Margery loved going to New York City,
and would describe how unforgettable it could be in the various seasons.
Her eyes would light up as she told the family about the city in
springtime with buckets of flowers for sale on the sidewalks, and spring
blossoms tucked into the trappings around each horse pulling a buggy.
Sidewalks filled with people, everyone out walking, turned Fifth Avenue
into a kind of festival. She told us how green and golden the parks
became with budding bushes, and daffodils blooming on every corner.
Now it was autumn, another favorite season, when Margery
went up on the train from Point Pleasant to the city, a sixty-minute
ride. In spite of the war news, the city was alive with activity and
energy. The many horses seemed to delight in the spirit, lifting their
hooves high as they clip-clopped down the crowded streets. Margery,
caught up in the city’s magic, found her way to a small village
restaurant where she had agreed to meet her sister. As she told me about
their meeting, I imagined it as a story.
I could see Agnes, grown into a woman, tall and
extremely thin, with a head of thick, dark hair and wearing an
expression of slight superiority in her smile. I imagined my mother,
Margery, eight years younger, still very immature but attractive and
brimming over with youthful enthusiasm. In my mind I saw the two young
women sitting off in a corner and chatting over a simple lunch. At that
time my mother would have been excited about recently meeting Ken
Thomas, a writer and Princeton graduate, ten years her senior, and who
at the time had gone into the Navy and was sailing on the Leviathan. She
would tell Aggie that Nanna was not too happy about this relationship,
and she didn’t want Granny to hear about it. Her grandmother was most
Agnes would have been eager to talk with her sister
about the evening she met Gene O’Neill, a playwright living in the city.
She might have described his walking back with her to the Hotel Brevoort
where she was staying, and telling her “he wanted to spend every night
of his life with her from then on, and how he meant this…every night of
his life.” (This favorite line, telling of their first meeting, is in
almost every biography of O’Neill.) Agnes knew she was interested in
him, which she would tell her sister, but she felt there was something
uncertain about his way. There was another time shortly after this when
he ignored her…and later recited poetry to her. She could not seem to
make out the messages in all this.
Margery might have sensed a hesitancy coming up in
Agnes, asking her if she wanted to get involved again…and was Eugene
O’Neill serious? What about little Barbara, and keeping her with Nanna?
I could imagine all the questions that might have come up in Margery’s
Aggie had not told Gene anything about Cookie. She would
save that story for a little later. Their mother, Cecil, continued to
care for Cookie up at Dawn Hill in Cornwall, but Aggie would keep this
secret for a bit longer. Secrets in this family seemed to pervade one
generation after another.
I could imagine evening coming on and Margery taking the
train back to Point Pleasant. It was only an hour's trip, and she would
walk back to The Old House where she helped her father keep the
household going, as well as caring for the dog, cats and chickens. Then
the train would head south in the dark, while Margery might have been
wondering how the relationship with Aggie and this emotional O’Neill
would evolve. If the two of them were serious and decided to marry,
would he accept Cookie? Knowing how her mother wanted to help all her
children, she might take care of Cookie…like a mother instead of a
grandmother. Would Aggie let this happen? But Aggie was in the city and
her mother was up at Dawn Hill with the baby. Cookie must miss Aggie
awfully at times…poor little thing. Then again, Margery’s mind might
have drifted off to thoughts of Ken Thomas and when she might be seeing
him again. At seventeen nothing else seems too serious when you think
you’re in love.