A summer trip to New England brings back memories of my family's roots.
Posted Jun 30, 2015
Among the most consistent memories of my childhood are the trips that my parents, my brother and I made every summer from our home in central Pennsylvania to visit my parents’ relatives in New England.
Our annual pilgrimage began the week after school ended in June. In the cool of the early morning, my father would neatly stow our suitcases in the trunk of the family car and then call out, “Let’s load up!” from the driveway as my mother, my brother and I scurried around the house collecting our last-minute travel necessities.
With my father in the driver’s seat, my mother beside him in the passenger seat, and my brother and I occupying the left and right sides of the back seat, respectively, we would set off on what in those days was an eight-hour trip north to the southern Vermont town where my mother grew up and where her parents still lived.
We would spend three or four days with my grandparents in Vermont before traveling to the suburbs south of Boston, where my father had grown up and where his older brother and his brother’s wife lived. After a few convivial days with my much-beloved uncle and aunt, we would take to the road once more for a week of family vacation on Cape Cod or, in later years, the southern coast of Maine.
We made these trips to give my parents a chance to catch up with their families and hometown friends and—although I was unaware of this motive at the time—to show off my brother and me. But the journeys also instilled in me a conviction that, although my family lived in Pennsylvania because of my father’s job, my real roots were in New England. I had been born near Philadelphia and raised 100 miles to the west in central Pennsylvania. In my mind, however, I was simply a displaced person. One day, I was certain, I would return “home” to New England to live.
As it turned out, Fate had other plans for me. In my senior year of high school, I applied to two New England colleges, but the fat acceptance envelope came only from a school in Washington, D.C. In my twenties, when I decided to become a journalist, I had what I thought was a successful tryout at a newspaper in coastal Massachusetts, but my first firm job offer came from a newspaper in coastal New Jersey.
After two years as a cub reporter in the Garden State, I made my way to Washington, D.C. again and then, in what appeared to be an absolute repudiation of my childhood dream, Honolulu. For 14 years, as I worked as a journalist in the 50th state, the closest I came to the land of my ancestors was learning with dismay about the straight-laced, 19th-century New England missionaries who arrived in the Hawaiian Islands determined to impose Western values and religion on the proud, dignified and spirited Hawaiian people.
My Pacific sojourn ended in 2003 when I moved back to Pennsylvania to help take care of my mother, who had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease a few years before. Even visiting New England, let alone living there someday, was no longer a priority; I had my hands full with weekly visits to my mother in her nursing home and a rather stressful job as a government press secretary.
When my mother died in 2009, my brother and I buried her next to my father in a cemetery in central Pennsylvania. My father had died unexpectedly in 1983, a few months after my parents had taken a June vacation to Cape Cod and, I learned much later, talked about buying a small cottage there and finally moving back to New England from Pennsylvania.
My mother’s people were relative newcomers to New England, having made their way there in the 1840s from Ireland during the potato famine. My father’s family had been in the Boston area for more than 300 years—ever since my father’s ancestor, William Hooper, arrived from England at age 18 as an indentured servant in 1635. In retrospect, it seemed only natural that my parents would want to live their final years in a region whose customs and traditions—everything from baked beans and brown bread to the distinctive New England accent and sensibility to the sharp tang of the Atlantic salt air—were familiar to them.
My mother returned to her Vermont hometown for a high school reunion in 1987, but her dreams of sharing a golden retirement with my father in a snug home on the Cape had died with him, and she lived the rest of her life in central Pennsylvania—an area where she was never entirely comfortable.
A few years before her death, as I was sitting next to her wheelchair on the patio of her nursing home one balmy afternoon, my mother said to me out of the blue, “When you write my obituary, don’t say that I just lived here.” After she died, I complied with her request; even in my sorrow, it was easy to put together a fascinating tale about a Vermont native who had left home after high school and lived in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Alberta, Canada, before marrying my father and settling down in Pennsylvania. But memorializing my mother in her obituary was one thing; finding a way to not be haunted by my parents’ thwarted goal of one day returning permanently to New England was quite another. On my periodic visits to my parents’ grave, I still feel regret that they are buried so far from the land where they longed to live again someday.
With my mother’s death, it seemed that my last link to the New England of my childhood and hers had been severed. The chance to forge a new link to that dimly remembered place and time came about unexpectedly earlier this year. It turned out that my mother’s younger sister, who died in March, wanted to have her ashes interred next to her parents’ grave in the Catholic cemetery in her Vermont hometown. Because my aunt had no children, the task of organizing the graveside ceremony and bringing her ashes to Vermont fell to my brother and me.
And so it came to pass that, on a cool morning in June, my brother and I once again found ourselves in a car heading north to Vermont from Pennsylvania, on our way back to a town on the banks of the Connecticut River that I had not set foot in since my grandmother died in 1975. In spite of the somber nature of our trip—the committal service for my late mother’s sole surviving sibling, I could not suppress a sense of joyful anticipation at returning to a place so full of memories and meaning for me.
The pages of literature—and of life—are filled with stories of trips such as this one that end in bitter disappointment for the traveler. The charming town of memory has decayed into squalor; the river has run dry; the cemetery is choked with weeds. The gracious family home has been torn down, and no one among the few dispirited souls who still inhabit the blighted streets can remember anything at all about the traveler’s family—who once were among the town’s most distinguished citizens.
I am happy to report that our experience on this trip was nothing like that. In fact, as sentimental journeys go, it was close to perfection. Admittedly, we had a huge advantage over other nostalgia seekers because my mother grew up in Brattleboro, Vermont, a town that was vibrant and prosperous in my childhood and today is even more appealing—so much so that in 2012 it was ranked No. 11 by Smithsonian Magazine on a list of the 20 best small towns in America.
Another key ingredient for a successful journey to the past is the presence of a genial and knowledgeable guide. Here we had great luck, too. Tim, a lawyer and a friend of my mother’s family, still lives in Brattleboro; when I spoke to him in March after my aunt died, he was only too glad to help with my aunt’s committal service. Tim, who is in his 70s, remembers my grandparents and their four children, including my mother and my aunt—who used to babysit Tim and his brother. During our visit Tim served as a gracious, invaluable bridge between the Brattleboro of today and the town of my mother’s childhood.
The morning of the committal service, Tim met us at our hotel and drove us to the cemetery. He showed us the grave of our grandparents, where our aunt’s ashes would be interred, as well as the graves of our great-grandparents and our two great-aunts. We also paid our respects at the grave of Tim’s parents, whom I remember well from my childhood trips to Brattleboro. They were two of my mother’s favorite people, and visits with them were always rich with stories and mirth.
Attendees at my aunt’s committal service included Tim, his brother Brian and their wives; my aunt’s goddaughter, whose mother had grown up with my mother and my aunt and whose parents had introduced my parents to each other; and a man whose wife had gone to high school with my aunt and who saw the notice about the service that Tim had put in the Brattleboro Reformer. After the committal rites, we sang an Irish hymn and then traded reminiscences about my aunt, including her passion for tennis, her career as a writer and publicist, and her fondness for extremely long telephone conversations.
After the ceremony, Tim graciously led us around downtown Brattleboro, helping us locate the block on Main Street where my grandfather owned a clothing store and the location—also on Main Street—of the elegant Brattleboro Auditorium. Among his many other civic activities, my grandfather managed this public performance venue, and he convinced such luminaries as John Philip Sousa, Paul Robeson and Will Rogers to travel to Brattleboro to entertain and enlighten the townspeople. The Auditorium was torn down years ago, and a humble bank branch now sits in its place. But still it was deeply rewarding to be able to fix in my mind the route my grandfather might have taken as he traversed Main Street between his enterprises, tipping his hat to friends and business acquaintances as he strolled.
Later in the afternoon, my brother and I—accompanied by our extremely patient significant others—drove up and down the hilly streets of Brattleboro looking for houses where my mother and her family had lived. We had with us a handful of faded photographs of my mother and her siblings as children or young adults standing in front of their various dwellings. We also had help from our mother: Years before, while she was in the nursing home, she had carefully written the street addresses of each house on the backs of the photographs.
To our amazement, we located all three homes in short order. At one home, the owner—who by some weird coincidence was named Susan and who was from central Pennsylvania—even invited me inside to take a look around. My eyes were drawn to the polished wooden newel post at the bottom of the staircase leading to the second floor; I wondered if my mother had briefly rested her small hand on it after running down the stairs from her bedroom each day. I know that she was fleet of foot because she had often recounted for my brother and me her custom of racing every day from this very house on Grove Street to her school a few blocks away.
My brother told Susan, the home’s owner, that my mother would start for school when the bell began ringing. She would dash down the steep steps from the front porch to the street, barrel across the street and down an alley, turn right at the end of the alley and sprint the final steps to the school door before the last clang of the school bell. When we left the house, we traced her route by car; I tried to imagine a slender, dark-haired girl running ahead of us with her thin legs flying under her skirt and her schoolbooks clutched in her arm.
At the luncheon after the committal ceremony, Tim and Brian had reminisced with me about my grandfather. Tim recalled that he knew when it was officially spring each year because my grandfather, who was always impeccably dressed, would switch from his winter fedora to a straw hat. Brian had youthful memories of being in a car with his father and spotting my grandfather walking down the sidewalk in their neighborhood. Brian’s father would invariably call out to offer a ride downtown, Brian said, and my grandfather would invariably accept.
“Your ancestors were good people,” Tim said, by way of summing up his feelings about my mother’s family. His remark made me smile with gratitude, as did so much that we experienced on our brief trip to Brattleboro. Forty years is a long time to be away from a beloved place—especially a place where one’s roots run so deep. But what joy it was to finally return and re-discover such good family friends and to have my carefully preserved memories polished to an even brighter luster. I am already looking forward to making my next trip north—and I have no intention of waiting even two years before I do so.
Copyright © 2015 By Susan Hooper
All photographs © 2015 By Susan Hooper