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Guestwords: Leaving the Farmhouse

Wed, 04/10/2024 - 12:49

Anno Domini 1953, East Hampton: My uncle captured the arrival of my parents’ Sears and Roebuck home kit strapped to the back of a flatbed Chevrolet truck. The silent film pans a cleared woodland overlooking Northwest Harbor. The truck navigates a steep sandy driveway, nearly tipping over while farm animals watch from a small barn. Family members take a full step back as the truck is unloaded near a block wall foundation. A burly truck driver, cigar in mouth, jumps down from the cab to help my father with the unloading.

Our picturesque farmhouse was built long before electricity was available in Northwest Woods, but a gasoline-powered generator supplied well water to the barn and gardens, and eventually to our new home built on the crest of the hill.

Fast-forward to late winter of 1978. A final snowfall had covered our rustic farmhouse surrounded by majestic trees. Gray smoke rose from the chimney, as my mother and I stood in the circular driveway. I was ready to leave for my last semester at college.

My mother, with Irish eyes the color of the sea and thick copper red hair now faded white as embers, spoke. Her breath vaporized into a prayer as she called me one of her “crown jewels.” It was a mantra she liked to use on all 10 of her children, a reminder of how valuable we were to her and my father.

I quipped, “I’m not sure, but if true I guess I’m one of your diamonds,” and we shared a laugh and a hug goodbye. Before leaving, I placed a soft kiss on her uncovered cheek, enjoying the fragrance of her balmy Evening in Paris perfume, one of her favorites. It mixed well with my cedar and sandalwood Nocturnes, a gift from an older sister.

Just then, the front door of our home flew open and my father stepped forward, ready to drive me up the Island to catch a Greyhound bus for my 10-hour journey. He was dressed in his favorite military green parka, a reminder of his time spent in Europe during World War II, when he was stationed in Chelveston, England, as a B-17 navigator-bombardier, flying in the 8th Air Force, 305th Bomb Group, 364th Squadron. My parents first met in Munich, Germany, just after the war, a match made in heaven.

On the snowy driveway, Daddy stepped toward us, sporting his yellow aviator sunglasses and Scottish cap. His ‘64 diesel Mercedes idled nearby.

Back in 1970 in that same blue Mercedes with its patinaed red leather seats, we enjoyed a cross-country road trip that started out rough. In Queens the engine overheated; steam hissed from the open hood as my mother rushed to a nearby house to fetch a jug of water. The man answering her knock looked over at the open hood of our car and then back at my mother and asked, “Well, how far are you going?”

She sheepishly smiled and said, “California.”

The Good Samaritan handed over the water. With a dubious look on his face he chuckled and said, “Well, good luck.”

My mother thanked him before rushing back to our car. 

Now, his eyes the color of the sky, my father said, “All set, lovie. Are your suitcases packed, Chio?” He never called me by my given name, the beautiful name my mother chose when I was born, the name of her paternal grandmother. My father called me by a name an older sister made up when she mispronounced Cecilia. Thus Mary Cecilia became simply Chio.

Closing the car trunk, he called out in a military voice, “Okay, let’s get going.” Albeit louder than needed, it was his style of speaking. He was an American history and Latin teacher at Bridgehampton High School and a sailing instructor in the summer down at the foot of the road. He often spoke with authority.

He and I enjoyed a copacetic relationship; we taught sailing together and if ever tempers flared, I’d pay little mind, knowing we’d be back to normal in jig time. The day he tried to fire me, I beat him to the punch and simply quit. With that he chuckled and soon we were back to normal, all was forgotten.

I was not unfamiliar with the Greyhound bus trip along the New York State Thruway, having taken it countless times. Gorgeous landscapes of farm fields stretching between cities like Syracuse and Rochester were not uncommon. Coffee and snacks and time to stretch my legs in Rochester was a welcome respite, as passengers disembarked and others climbed aboard. Onward we journeyed, arriving late to a dimly lit terminal in Buffalo. Catching a connecting bus south along Lake Erie, I arrived at my college town of Fredonia just before the thruway was officially shut down because of a lake effect ice storm.

I took refuge at an old-fashioned inn nestled in the center of town. Curtained windows outlined a snow-covered Main Street with lampposts that glistened amid the blinding squall. Before drifting off to sleep, I called my mother. Her voice was a comfort. She had been reading. My father had gone to bed earlier.

In the morning, I descended the inn’s squeaky staircase while taking in a welcoming aroma of hot coffee down in the lobby. A winter wonderland of ice and snow covered everything outside. Huge icicles adorned rooftops. A broken tree caught my eye, sparkling, split in half and encapsulated in ice.

With the sidewalks mostly cleared, I ventured on to my off-campus housing. It was a Cape Cod-style house, a reminder of my East Hampton. From a small foyer, I drifted along a narrow hallway. Sunlight was pouring in through wavy glass panes, waxing rosy across a carpeted floor.

Upstairs, a quaint telephone room was hidden behind a latched pint-size door, where I sat down at an oak desk and dialed home. The rotary phone clicked slowly while I gazed from a port window at a glass menagerie of twisted grapevines frozen in sheets of ice below. Once my mother answered, I shared further details of my journey and the charming hotel and how that wintery scene outside was right out of a Dr. Seuss story.

M.C. Koncelik Miller, a native of Northwest Woods, is working on a memoir titled “My East Hampton: Sounding the Depths.”


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