Showing posts with label Rabbit Hill. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Rabbit Hill. Show all posts

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Nostalgic Tour

Once again we are preparing to leave our boat after an abbreviated summer in the Northeast, one that was mostly hot and humid.  This is our thirteenth summer living on our boat and given that time, combined with the countless weekends during the score of summers preceding retirement we spent on board our boats, not to mention vacations during that same time we’ve probably lived almost six years on the water.  Could that be? As I type this, the water is slapping on the hull, a sound we’ve become inured to, but one I will surely miss one day.

A couple of weeks ago our friends, Harry and Susan, visited.  It was a hot day, the wind not exactly right for going out to our mooring, so instead we toured our old homes and haunts in Westport, Weston, and East Norwalk, sandwiched between lunch at our club house and then dinner in Westport (why does everything seem to be centered around food as one ages?).

Our first stop was the home on the Norwalk River where we lived before relocating to Florida.  We had renovated the old cape, adding a master suite to the top floor.  It was certainly Ann's favorite home, and mine for the view and nautical feel, but when the Nor'easters came, so did the river and on several occasions the home was surrounded by water.  As the burden of manning the pumps fell on me, I was not sorry to bid the home goodbye.  The house  has been renovated still again, the guts of it torn apart and even the top floor which we had so meticulously planned and built redone as well, but at least the house was recognizable.

Next stop was the town of Westport. When we arrived there in 1970 it was a quaint town of shops, a movie theatre, a bank, some venerable restaurants, a nice New England feel. It has morphed into an outdoor mall of Brooks Brothers, the Gap, Coach, Crate and Barrel, Talbots, etc.,  those stores replacing Klein’s, the Remarkable Bookstore, Acorn’s Pharmacy, etc. The character of the town has changed; the only remaining stores I recognized being the Westport Pizzeria, and Oscar’s Deli.  That’s it!

From there we went up North Main to Fillow Street which becomes Ford Road, passing the Saugatuck River on the left and the entrance to the Glendinning complex  an office building now occupied by Bridgewater Associates, one of the largest hedge funds in the world.

The Saugatuck River has a waterfall there and we used to swim in the pond above the waterfall, cool, clear mountain water so refreshing. Now it has been fenced off, another casual freedom lost.  Turning onto Sipperly's Hill Road, where we had first rented a small chauffeur's cottage on a nine acre estate (now parceled off with huge homes built on the property), we arrived at our first home on Rabbit Hill Road.

The house we bought in 1972 was set on two acres bordering a pine forest.  Over the last 40 years  the subsequent owners have rebuilt parts of it, adding a small second story, although the footprint has not  changed that much.  We drove up the narrow driveway, feeling a little ill at ease doing that, and sure enough someone came out of the house and got into her car and proceeded down the driveway.  We had to back out.  We rolled down the window and said we used to live there forty years ago and, remarkably, she invited us in.  She had bought the house in 1992. 

It is still a modest home, and some of what we did to the house remains, such as adding a small dining room off the tiny kitchen, but the bookshelves I built around the fireplace are gone, although the fireplace and mantel still stand.  The original detached one car garage remains, probably built when the house went up in 1925, just large enough for a model T! Outside the house the new owners cut back part of the pine forest and they now have a beautiful expansive lawn before the forest begins.  Actually, it is no longer a forest as one can see other new houses beyond.  When we lived there, Rabbit Hill itself – the subject of the Robert Lawson children’s book -- was indeed an uninhabited hill except for the few small homes clustered around the entry road.

From there, we drove up Weston Road to the home we lived in for twenty five years near Weston Center.  Ridge Road / Lane, was almost unrecognizable, many of the old homes torn down or lots sold off to build huge homes, the size of which astounds me.

We bought our Weston home in 1975, a small ranch, which we added onto, but retaining the character of the home.  Our old home is now gone and a “McMansion” has been built in its place.  Although it sits well on the property in the front, the back of this “palace” is almost on the road, its towers and turrets in one’s face and – I thought -- inappropriate for the sylvan nature of the setting.  Sad to see.

So the day was one of nostalgia, and now there is another sense of melancholy as our summer on the boat is winding down and soon we'll be flying to Copenhagen to meet a ship that will be returning to NYC via the northern Atlantic route, with multiple stops in Norway, Ireland, Scotland, and stops as well in Iceland and Greenland.  Ann has organized tours at each port and I hope to post some interesting photographs and a narrative of our trip sometime in October.

I’m loading up a few novels to read, but meanwhile I’m trying to finish Blake Bailey’s massive biography of Richard Yates, A Tragic Honesty, probably the best literary biography I’ve read since Carol Sklenicka's biography, Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life  It is a breathtakingly detailed biography of a much under-appreciated artist, Richard Yates.

Until reading Bailey’s account, I was never fully aware of the extremely biographical nature of Yates’ fiction. His characters are from his life experiences.  And I never fully realized the extent of his asceticism, an anti-materialism that manifested itself in the most austere living conditions, almost a stereotype of the dark, brooding artist.  (One of his apartments was a seven story walk-up on 26th Street, off of 5th Avenue in NYC.  Bailey describes it as “a long studio with a few random sticks of furniture – an orange sofa bed where he slept, a wobbly table in the narrow sit-down kitchen, two or three chairs and a desk by the plaid-curtained window; also he installed a bookshelf where he mostly kept the work of friends and students, as well as a handful of novels he couldn’t do without.”)  Cockroaches frequently were his companions in these run-down apartments.

His self-destructive alcoholism (which naturally he denied), his militant, compulsive smoking (4 packs a day, even after he was diagnosed with TB), and his need to be with a woman who would support him emotionally, is in many ways reminiscent of Raymond Carver’s life, a writer who he apparently met only once.

Yates worshiped the works of Flaubert, Hemingway and then Fitzgerald, always feeling inferior to the latter or any writer who was Ivy-League schooled.   Although Yates taught fiction at the graduate level, he never went to college himself.  Nonetheless, Yates felt he had a lot in common with both Hemingway and Fitzgerald and even tried to emulate the latter in his dress from Brooks Brothers, not to mention living in Paris during his formative years.

Between his bouts with mental illness and compulsive drinking, his marriages, affairs, children, and peripatetic teaching positions, it is a wonder that he wrote such classics as Revolutionary Road and Easter Parade, two of my favorite novels, as well as other novels and short story collections.  He was the writer’s writer, respected by all but loathed for his lifestyle.

I was saddened to see that Bailey quotes what someone said about the edition of Revolutionary Road I had republished, lamenting that it “languishes in a grim (and expensive) hardcover edition published by a reprint house (Greenwood Press).”   This particular edition was reprinted for college libraries and had to be manufactured to the “grim” standards acceptable for library use.  It was not a consumer edition but at least the classic was kept in print.

Perhaps I’ll write more about this superb biography sometime in the future.  I first have to finish it!

In the meantime, we bid adieu to our boat and friends and family in the Northeast as when we return from our cruise we'll begin our drive back to Florida.  Until then……

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Rabbit Hill Days

Someone asked whether I had a picture during my hippie years, when I sported nearly shoulder length hair and a Fu Manchu mustache. This led me to photographs of that time, when we bought our first home in Connecticut, on Rabbit Hill. If that sounds familiar, it is the same location that inspired Robert Lawson’s famous children’s book of the same title, published only a couple of years after I was born. Lawson had lived on the Hill. This in turn led me to think about those days, how different they were, a new career and home, the breathing in and out of energy and expectations.

We bought that Rabbit Hill home after having rented across the road on Sipperley’s Hill. I can still remember reading the Westport News, spotting the ad for the home and saying to Ann, “Hey, that’s just across the road.” We had been married the year before, my coming to the marriage with college debt, alimony, and child support (I was a fine catch). Between the two of us we had finally saved what was then required to get a mortgage in those days, about 25% of the purchase price, a far cry from zero down of the recent credit bubble. This first home had two small bedrooms and one bath, a prefab that had been built before WWII, which nonetheless was on two of the most beautiful acres of mostly pine trees and rolling hills.

Rabbit Hill Road itself was a little cul-de-sac private road on which four homes stood, three small homes (including ours) and another larger one, probably the original home on the road. It was thought that had once been owned by Max Shulman as his name was on the deed for the private road. Shulman was the author of Rally Round the Flag, Boys! that was made into a film starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward; and filmed in Westport.

We did not know at the time we were also becoming “neighbors” of the Newman’s who lived east of nearby Weston Road. When Ann collected for the United Fund she was “assigned” their home and Joanne Woodward was very welcoming. Towards the end of my career, I had the privilege of working with her on the publication of Westport, Connecticut: The Story of a New England Town's Rise to Prominence for which she graciously agreed to write the foreword. She was personable and we chatted about buying our first homes in Westport, as friendly neighbors would.

Rabbit Hill is off of Ford Road, which runs along the upper branch of the Saugatuck River. At the bottom of the hill is a waterfall which we could easily hear on tranquil summer nights with our windows open. There is a fresh water pond above the waterfall where we would swim on languid summer weekends or at twilight after work and before dinner. Between the waterfall and the wind moving through the adjoining pine forest, nature’s steady hum became our constant companion. At times we would walk through the pine forest to a clearing where we would just lie on the ground to take in the sky and the sounds. It was quite a change for someone who lived in the city.

When we saw the ad for this home, we were not even thinking of buying but we loved where we rented and as with most big decisions in our lives we were impulsive. After all, across the street meant it was meant to be. So with everything we had saved, in July 1971 we put down the required deposit and secured a 7-1/2% mortgage that would be paid off completely in 1996, so far in the future it then seemed like a long slide into eternity, and we bought our first home at 5 Rabbit Hill Road.

This reinforced our commitment to Connecticut and so we finally cut our long-standing ties to New York, giving up our rent-controlled apartment at 33 West 63rd Street. Ann also abandoned her NYC commute, leaving the publishing industry, and secured a job with an advertising agency in New Haven.

Buying a home brought out the nesting instinct, fixing up the house and making a trial run at “having a baby” by getting our first puppy, a Miniature Schnauzer. We painted, and I built a bookcase on the wall that had a fireplace, not only for our books but also to house the Fisher Stereo system I had bought from Avery Fisher himself as my father photographed their equipment and I was able to buy what was at the time a top of the line amplifier and speakers, wholesale, to play our 33 LPs.

When we had custody of my son Chris, during Christmas or for part of the summer, I would fly out to Indianapolis to accompany him on the flights. It was the Rabbit Hill experience that contributed to our mutual longing for him to live with us, although that would not take place until he was beginning high school.

It was a simpler time, no cable TV, Internet, Twitter, Facebook, cell phones or even portable phones, personal computers, digital anything. No passwords! All in the Family was the #1 TV show and I associate our Rabbit Hill days with the music of Carole King and Credence Clearwater Revival. But they were inflationary years, President Nixon ordering a 90-day freeze on prices and wages as the inflation rate approached 6%, the consequence of continuing to fund the disastrous Vietnam War that still dragged on.

In fact, that same year we saw Dalton Trumbo’s movie, Johnny Got His Gun – perhaps the most gripping anti-war movie ever made, clearly a reaction to the inanity of the Vietnam conflict. A WW I soldier, played by Timothy Bottoms, is severely injured and emerges to consciousness in a vegetable state at a VA hospital. The only thing that functions is his mind and the action is passively viewed through his eyes and thoughts. His single wish is to terminate his life, but it is prolonged, and he is doomed to live like that for the rest of his life. I’m still affected by that movie so many years later.

In spite of the Vietnam War, the federal debt had not even doubled since the end of WW II, standing at “only” $408 billion, but that represented about 37% of the gross national product and today that is approaching 100%. To put those numbers in another perspective, a gallon of gas was then a mere 36 cents and the US population was 100 million less than today’s.

It seemed like we would stay at our Rabbit Hill home for the rest of our lives, but after expanding the kitchen to accommodate a small dining area, we concluded that it would be too expensive to expand the bedrooms, and we would be better off to buy a larger home. Ann was pregnant at the time, but that would later end in a miscarriage. We put our first home on the market in the spring of 1974 and the first couple that looked at it bought it – as I recall the husband had lived on the road when he was a kid and wanted to return. Sometimes I now feel that way as well. Off we went to neighboring Weston, to a larger ranch, and there we would live for the next twenty-one years, at which time we moved again to a home on the Norwalk River.

When we sold that last home in Connecticut, the closing was on a beautiful day in late May. The trees were now almost fully burdened by the summer’s leaves and the air was oppressive with blooming flora. Ironically, the buyer’s attorney’s office was in a building that used to house an embalming supply facility, one that had been turned into upscale offices, a building which was at the bottom of Rabbit Hill Road, overlooking the pond where we used to swim. So, we went back in time to go to the future. We made one last visit to our original little house that day, just by driving into the road and slowly turning around. A second story had been added on and the owners had pushed out as well. The house was now unrecognizable to us. But the stir of the wind in the pine tress and the surge of the waterfall were unambiguous reminders of those Rabbit Hill days.