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Chapter XIII

At a time just before the Great Depression in 1931, Agnes was living with the two children, Shane and Oona in The Old House in West Point Pleasant, New Jersey. My mother Budgie, Nanna, little Robert and I were living in the Merryall house, north of New Milford, Connecticut. Robert was Margery's second child and born in July 1930.

My earliest memories of the Merryall house were when I was about four years old. Set back from a dirt road and edged with several huge old maple trees, the two-story Colonial was painted a soft barn red, with a side porch facing the valley below the New Milford hills and looking down on the Aspetuck River.

The peach tree in the side yard was the largest one in the whole world, with more peaches hanging from its branches than anyone could imagine. So we believed. Inside the old house, a large living room boasted a great stone fireplace around which the family had tea each day in the late afternoon. It was here, in this beloved old house, where my family and I spent our summers.

Six months before Robert's birth, Margery married Louis Colman, who became a father to us both. I loved him dearly, but after about a year and a half he left and went away to New York City. It broke my heart! Budgie told me later, when I was grown, that she wanted to raise her children alone because she wanted sole control over how they were to be raised. For all my mother’s wild youth, she was very rigid in her ways during our childhood, mellowing greatly in her later years.

Only a baby, Robert was not good company for me at age four, and most of the other people around were grown-ups. So I had to entertain myself with the attention of friends and relatives who came to visit. My very favorite was Marnie, my mother’s Aunt Margery. We pronounced her name "Mahnie," the English way. (Many years later I named my first child Marnie.) I also loved to see Marnie’s husband, Uncle Francesco Bianco. He wrote poetry and had a bookstore near Washington Square in New York City. In the summers they left the city and came up to Merryall to stay in their charming storybook house up the hill from us on Frenchman's Road.

Aunt Marnie was tall and thin, with her hair done in what was called a Dutch boy coiffure. We called it simply “a bob!” Marnie had a gentle, caring way about her and seemed to see all through kind eyes. She delighted us with her wonderful wit, enhanced by the British accent she managed to retain through all her years. I adored her. Uncle Francesco was a small kindly man with graying reddish hair, and his light blue eyes crinkled up at the corners when he told his wonderfully funny stories.

We would often all troop up the hill to visit the Biancos in their comfortable little home. The gray painted cottage wore solid light blue shutters with quarter moons cut into them. On the side of the house there was a huge wooden rain cistern where the rainwater was collected for washing. We had to push open the small gate as we went into the yard and Aunt Marnie and Uncle Francesco would call a cheery greeting from the house, “Come in! Come in!”

Aunt Marnie some days found interesting things for us to do, and often told us stories about animals she had known, such as a baby alligator she kept warm on cold nights by wrapping him in a piece of flannel and taking him into bed with her, or the cat who insisted on finding mice for my brother and me whenever we cried.

We loved her stories and her story books. One day Aunt Marnie took us for a walk in the woods behind her house. Running alongside on his short little legs, her small black dog named Scottie went with us. This time we found an ant hill about two feet high, the likes of which I have never seen since. We stood amazed, watching the ants climbing up and down the hill. Scottie wanted to explore the mountain and tried digging into it with his fast little paws. Marnie distracted him with a stick to chase.

On the way back to the cottage, Marnie told us we would find Uncle Francesco making spaghetti. It was intriguing to see him cutting rolls of dough into thin strips and then hanging them over a rod to dry. By dinner time he would have made a delicious sauce with tomatoes and vegetables from the garden, and also baked a loaf of thick, crusty bread. The smells of all the good food were overwhelming, and we were delighted to be invited to stay for dinner. Marnie was very proud of her garden and told us the names of the various vegetables and the glorious flowers. These were special memories to tuck away for later years.

In those early days, Barbara spent several summers with us. We missed her so much in the two winters when she had to go away to boarding school. Her mother, our Aunt Aggie, was very busy with travels and writing and needed help with Cookie’s care.

Young Agnes with baby Barbara Burton, circa 1914-1915. Barbara Burton Davis, 1935.
(She added the name Davis in NY.)

I recall one summer when Barbara was about seventeen and staying with us, she came down with pneumonia. There was an air of worry as Nanna nursed her back to health and I remember her looking so pale and fragile lying on the large bed in the upstairs North Room. I was afraid she might die. She seemed like an adult because I was thirteen years younger. She was sweet and gentle and the family loved her. As I remember her in those days, she was very beautiful with large, wide-set dark brown eyes and a lovely smile. We needed to be as quiet as possible so Barbara could rest and be well again. Nanna wrote to Aggie telling her Dr. Stevens came to see Barbara and ordered lots of fluids. In time, her fever came down and she recovered slowly. It was good to see her up and about once more as her energy returned.

Barbara told me later of the time when she stayed with us all one winter and went to school in New Preston, and how the other children teased her and threw cow manure at her because she was a “city girl.” It was painful for her, but she was very philosophical about it. Barbara had learned to hide her hurts well.

Barbara and Shane, 1920. Barbara Burton, 1932.

As I recall the Merryall summers, I think of lines from a favorite song called “The Old Oaken Bucket” that Nanna sang as she played the piano. “How dear to this heart are the scenes of my childhood...” For me at age five, Merryall and the scenes of my childhood became a wonderful children’s world. The second summer I remember was filled with good times, cousins coming to visit and the usual grown-ups who came and went. We picked and ate rosy-ripe peaches, watched the little goats in the shed down the hill, walked through the high wild grasses that grew far behind the house and down to the river below, and we played children’s games.

Oona came to stay with us that summer when she was seven. Two years older and a little taller than I, she was like my big sister. Nanna told her that the warm, dark tan she had acquired made her look “as brown as a berry.” Oona had a crown of thick brown hair, intent wide-set eyes like Barbara's, and a winning smile. She cast a spell over me in those early years and I agreed to do whatever she told me.

One sunny afternoon, Oona had an idea. There was a large stone wall around the well in our front yard, and the water bucket hung from a sturdy ring attached to a rope for hauling up our drinking water.

When Budgie and Nanna were indoors, Oona suggested, “Let’s put our dolls in the bucket by the well. We can send them down into the water to have a bath.” It sounded like a fun idea to me, so we proceeded to do just that, cranking the handle that lowered the bucket and the dolls down into the well. After a splash sounded, we knew the dolls had gone into the water. Oona cranked them up again. Our babies were drenched!

It took days for the cloth bodies of the dolls to dry out, and as they lay in the sun their composition faces became awfully cracked. So much for doll baths in the well. We also had a “talking to” from Nanna, but she took pity on us as we nursed them tenderly until they were thoroughly dry. They were definitely not so smooth anymore.

“Let’s make believe they have a dreadful disease,” Oona suggested, and we amused ourselves with that idea for awhile. I found my doll in an old treasure trunk years later, but she had never recovered from her dunking!

The old house still stands in Merryall, and sometimes as I drove by many, many years later, I liked to think of the happy times we spent in that magic place, with all the family, including Oona, Robert, the Woodville cousins and our beloved adult friends who paid us so much attention.

Our winters had been spent in the studio-bungalow, which my grandfather Teddy had owned in Woodville. There was a hand pump in the kitchen for water, a kerosene lamp on our table, the large tin tub for baths, and a wood stove for heat. Our toilet was outdoors and called the “back-house” or the “out-house.” It was during the Great Depression and we grew an enormous garden; at least it seemed enormous when the family weeded it each week. After a harvest in the autumn, Nanna and my mother stored beets and carrots in barrels of sand in the cellar and put up many jars of fruits and vegetables.

Mother bought a small red and white cow we named Daisy and she learned to milk her. She told me years later not ever to tie myself down learning to milk a cow! We had chickens, which my grandmother tended and sometimes killed so we might have a chicken dinner. I refused to eat them. I knew what had happened to them when I heard them screaming as Nanna chased them to end their days on the chopping block.

Nanna made hooked rugs and sold them so we were able to buy large mail-order sacks of flour and grains for breakfast cereal and bread. Mother drove us down in great style to the New Preston train depot to pick up those bulky supplies. She had an old eight-passenger navy blue Buick convertible, with running boards on each side, and Robert and I were allowed to sit in the small pull-up seats in the back.

Aunt Bobby and Uncle Walter lived up the hill in a handsome cream-colored Colonial farmhouse surrounded with great maple, oak and horse chestnut trees. The huge old horse chestnuts were our favorites because they dropped satin-skinned nuts down for us to use in all kinds of games. The small red barn down across the field, housed one cow for milk and several horses for riding. The barn extension held many chickens and a feisty rooster, while cats and dogs joined the outdoor scene and followed us all around. Oona, and sometimes Shane, would come up to visit and were warmly included in this family with six children, and my brother and me.

We shared summer swims in a favorite place. Barefoot, we’d hike up the dirt road and down a grassy path to the wide, cool brook, where a high waterfall pouring down on us was the most fun of all.

As children we didn’t really feel the impact of the depression, but I do remember my Uncle Walter sitting on the running board of his car and weeping, with his head in his hands, because there was no work for him anywhere. I was very touched by his distress, realizing in a child’s way how serious it was. I have never forgotten the feelings.

  Chapter XIV


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