Monday, March 26, 2018

Remembering Seven Brides

From Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
Everybody’s down on Face Book these days. With good reason, I think. They’ve got some heavy splainin’ to do. But while they work at fixing things so we can get out from under ethically challenged organizations such as Cambridge Analytica, I hope people don’t go to the other extreme and overlook the pleasure Face Book has brought into our lives by providing a means to reconnect with people from the past. To say nothing of a place to store those Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance scenes, political satire and the latest of 799 photos of my dogs.

Even as the woeful state of my short-term memory continues to remind me that things will never be the same, and as the trees continue to fall in what was once a rich forest of friends and familiars, I try to follow what I think is good advice – to live in the present. Easier said than done, once you reach an age when there is far more of your life behind you than ahead. But I also don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I’ve got rich memories, and why, I ask myself, should I not enjoy going back in time and lining them up like toy soldiers and playing with them for a while, now and again.

I’ve largely tuned out on the news that my country now wants to put a man in charge of National Security who has advocated a preemptive strike on North Korea and that that news is now in second place to the news that our president is wrapped up in a scandal with a porn star he was diddling at the time his wife was giving birth to their latest offspring.  I’m reading more. Listening to music more. And also using the internet to reconstruct missing pieces of my past. Here’s a sample:

A couple days ago, an old high school friend posted on Face Book a link to the YouTube video of the Barn Raising dance, that wonderful dancing scene from the 1954 film Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. I just sat here and kvelled over with delight, remembering the time I went with my mother to Radio City Music Hall – I think it was in 1954 when the movie first came out – and left the following comment:

It was 1954. My mother took me to New York City and got us tickets to Radio City Music Hall. I was 14 years old. The movie was Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. It's a memory that keeps on giving. Have seen this dance a million times. Even at 14 I knew I was watching a spectacular performance of talent and not everyday stuff. What I took away from it, though, was what a magnificent place New York City was!

My sister responded:

I never realized you got to do this-what a great experience!

And that set me to thinking there was something wrong with this picture.

All throughout my time growing up, my parents would pack us into the car for the long drive to Nova Scotia every summer. My father only got two weeks’ vacation and his emotional home was the place where his mother had grown up, at the end of an 8-mile dirt road in rural Guysborough County in the eastern part of the province. For me, and in time my sister, this place was paradise. Cousin Betty was there, and she showed us how to milk cows and turn the cream separator. We played with lambs and goats and jumped, to the great consternation of my great aunt Carrie, off the barn beams into the hay. To my father, who lived for hunting and fishing, it was a chance to do those things with his beloved uncles, Cliff and Clarence and his favorite uncle, Harold. To my mother, who spent all her time with the women folk snapping beans and peeling potatoes, it was a horse of a different color. She would have loved to spend that time in New York City, which at the time was a three-hour trip (today it's only two) by train or car away from our hometown, Nowhere, U.S.A., where we lived most of the year. Spending it in Nowhere, Nova Scotia instead was her lot as a dutiful wife. She had no say. She signed my report cards “Mrs. John S. McCornick,” and when I asked her once why she didn’t sign her own name instead of Mrs. My Father, she said, “That’s just the way it is.”

So how could I possibly have seen Seven Brides for Seven Brothers at the age of 14 in New York City. Was it a dream? Try as I may, I couldn’t dislodge the memory of that trip to Radio City. I remember the chorus line, and I remember the movie. No doubt whatsoever it’s a real memory.

So where was my little sister, age 9 at the time? Was she there too? Did we all four go?  Did we stay in a hotel?  I have a very vague memory of a trip to New York with the whole family, where we stayed with friends of my parents on Staten Island – or maybe it was Long Island someplace. Could it have been this visit?

Doris Day at Horn and Hardart's
The other memory that anchors this trip to reality was the memory of Horn and Hardart’s, that wonderful cafeteria where you could put a quarter in a slot and take out a piece of pie or a hot dog or a whole range of other things you could see through the window. A marvel of technology for a 14-year old in 1954.

The wheels kept spinning. Could we have gone by train? Until 1958, when I went off to college, there was a branch of the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad that went all the way up to Winsted. We might actually have taken the train in.

My grandmother lived across from the depot in Torrington in 1945, the next town down the line, the town where I was born. In the early days before trains went out of style, she’d take the train up and we’d pick her up at the Winsted Depot and traveling back with her was a grand adventure for a small child. I am able to recall the year 1945 because I was with her when the factory whistles started blowing on May 8, when the war came to an end.

Torrington train depot in 1907 and as I remember it in the 1940s.
It was demolished, as a safety hazard, on January 4, 2011, after
113 years despite efforts to have it declared a historical site.
“Come on,” she said to me, grabbing my hand and pulling me down the stairs. “We’ve got to find your father.” He worked for what was then the American Brass Company, and that was directly across Water Street. We had no luck. The crowd was too large and it was pouring out of the gates. We kept looking for him all the way down to Main Street where people were dancing in the street, I remember. Pretty heady for a five-year old. Not even. VE Day was a week before my fifth birthday. My sister at the time was just nineteen days old. And my memory of that time is clear as a bell.

The depot was a few hundred feet to the east of my grandmother's apartment building. A few hundred feet to the south, across Water St., was  the American Brass Mill, where my father worked before he was transferred to Waterbury and the company was absorbed by Anaconda Copper Works in 1960. 

The place where the Torrington train depot used to stand
as it looks today.
Here’s what that place looks like today. You can see that a single track is still there, probably because they continued to use the line for freight for some years and then found it not worth the trouble to rip out anymore.

The depot was replaced by the building you see there with the white façade and at first I suspected that the building Großmutter lived in in the 1940s wasn't there, either. It’s far more likely it was torn down years ago and replaced by the building you see on the left that contains Alfredo’s Deli.

But then, thanks to Google maps, which allows me to swivel a photo around, I see that there is an old building still in existence behind Alfredo's that must surely have been there in my youth. That must be the building where my grandmother lived on the second floor.

I still have a memory of being taught to draw two points, a comma and a hyphen (Punkt, Punkt, Komma, Strich) and then draw a circle around it and call it the face of the moon (Fertig ist das Mondgesicht) in those days with
Großmutter. Back when I got to play the role of the little prince, first born of my generation on both sides of the family (except for cousin Pauli, who died at 7), but especially adored by a grandmother who had lost her first husband in the First World War and been forced to hand her daughter, my mother, over to her sister to raise so she wouldn't go hungry in a country that had just lost a war. Großmutter then worked as a stewardess on the Hamburg-Amerika Line, jumped ship in New York and found her way to Torrington and her daughter she had not seen in four years. She then stayed until she was discovered to be a German alien living in the U.S. without papers, was arrested and brought to Washington to stand trial as a spy - a story for another day. Now, she at least had her daughter and her dignity back (my father managed to convince the judge his mother-in-law was no Mata Hari) and her daughter's little boy and girl to devote herself to.

I'm conscious, suddenly, that I'm back now in time not to my college years or my early adult years in San Francisco, but all the way back to the age of five, and the memories are flooding in strong and clear.  And thanks to the internet, I have located the building and can see the windows of the apartment I was in when I learned that World War II had come to an end - at least in Europe.

I can scroll forward, ahead to my first days of school, to the time I visited my cousin Pauli, who was dying in the hospital of leukemia, to the time I was myself in the hospital having my tonsils out and realizing afterwards that my mother had lied to me, that I would still get a sore throat sometimes even though the tonsils were gone. Or back to the time I was playing slap-jack with my Aunt Doris as my mother left the house with my father to give birth to my sister.

Back to the time when all my aunts and uncles were alive, all my three sets of grandparents - my mother's sister and husband who adopted her took on the title and role of grandmother and grandfather as well as Großvater, Großmutter's second husband, who died at some point around 1947 or 8, leaving me with a connection to his brother Otto and his Lebensgefährtin (life partner) in Berlin, my Tante Frieda, who came to be a major figure in my life in later years. She would become a reason for me to go back to Berlin some 20 times over the years until she died at the age of 94, outliving all other members of her family and all her friends.

All these people are gone now. All loom large in my memory and anchor me to specific locations that I recognize today as my roots. I've had an interesting exchange with two close friends this week, also, about growing up as an outsider because of being gay. When I want to, I can shift my various identities at will. I was gay in a straight world, a child of immigrants who could get an invitation to the Country Club because I had a WASPish name, a bookish kid in an anti-intellectual high school social environment, a poor kid at an upper middle class college filled with preppies and skiers, where I didn't have the money to join a fraternity or run with the skiing set, cursed, I believed for many years, to be an "other" - a perennial outsider.

But my memories force me to see the other side of that coin. How rooted I am, how comfortable I am admitting that within this California persona I have fitted into, hand-in-glove, for many many decades now, there are also New England roots which, despite very little watering over the years, are still strong.  I am both German-American and the child of Scottish and Irish immigrants who were headed for Ontario but when shipwrecked off the Eastern shore of Nova Scotia, decided to stay.  Protestant Nova Scotia which once warred with their neighbors, the Scots Catholic heirs to Mary Queen of Scots. And when the Gaelic-speaking priests from St. Francis Xavier University came to visit me daily that month I was in the hospital in Antigonish at age 16, because my family, now back in "Connect - tikut", as they pronounced it, weren't able to get there, I was deeply grateful to them. I had little to do but listen to bagpipe music on the radio and dream of going to college at St. FX.

If you dig in the right places, you will discover that Torrington is the home of the largest Elks Lodge in New England. I love absurdist trivia like that. And did you know that Torrington, Connecticut is one of 536 micropolitan areas in the United States, a designation that signifies a place with a growing population far removed (by as much as 100 miles) from larger metropolitan areas? And that Torrington was named the number one micropolitan place in the country to live in by Bizjournals in 2008? All this information is easily accessed if you only type in Torrington, CT on the Wikipedia website. The wonders of the modern world where information now rules supreme and you can actually drown in it, if you are not selective. What, you don't read Bizjournals?

Torrington, Connecticut is where I was born. It is also the home town of John Brown, whose body lies a-moulderin' in the grave.

lead photo - the scene is from the Barn Raising Dance - Check it out on YouTube here.  I've marveled at this choreography and talent a million and forty times, forty in this last week alone.

Punkt Punkt Komma Strich

Torrington train depot

other photos are grabbed from Google maps

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