On days of national or personal memory, I make a pilgrimage to my boyhood summer home on Teed Avenue in Barrington’s Hampden Meadows.
I drive my familiar route along the Wampanoag Trail, back in time to my very first visit to this dead-end street overlooking Hundred Acre Cove. It was 1944, the dramatic, decisive, dreadful season of World War II, and I can recall my mental and physical condition.
By the summer break in ‘45, the victory in Europe was over. My brother and I had been sent to Maine during the summers of ‘42 and ‘43, but by ‘44 we stayed along our local shoreline: No more submarines prowled our bays. I tried to create my own Victory Garden in the backyard, and my harvest was ... poison ivy!
Our house had a steep hill leading down to the eelgrass and beach, where I caught minnows in a glass milk bottle with a few crumbs of bread in that bubble that held the cream. I once used them as bait to pull up eels and “devil-fish.” Mostly I kept the “mummies” in a large jar for a single day and then let them go and grow.
And then, as I was beginning my preteen years, I tried to get a tan (to impress the girls in the fancier houses of Barrington) and only succeeded in suffering the kind of sunburn that makes your skin peel. Yuck.
We drove the short distance through East Providence eastward to our miniature corn belt for seven summers.
I relive those long July and August doldrums days now, under the winter-gray skies, through my CDs of songs of World War II and the postwar era.
The radio reported the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and I worried that almost any accidental brush with the nucleus of any molecule might bring the world to an end! The Age of Anxiety at the tiptoe teen ages of 10 to 15.
Now, this house that my father and mother had purchased came fully furnished, with an old-fashioned wood-burning stove, a pump-in sink and dark Victorian oak furniture. (My brother claims he found a “Gentiles Only Need Apply” sign in an under-staircase closet. Sometimes he claims it read “No Jews or Dogs.”)
My family was in the home-furnishings business, in East Providence, so we managed to get a “ BarcaLounger” – a newfangled reclining chair – upholstered in red plastic. Beside it in the parlor stood a “Morris chair,” a 19th-century version of the same design concept, a throne that tilts.
I ensconced myself in the “modern” contraption and suffered throughout that final August of the war, in soul and in body.
My creative mom painted the furniture white and decorated the chests of drawers with giant roses. She took the croquet game stored in a large closet and fashioned towel racks or playful and whimsical toys and garden statues from the scattered and dismantled items.
My brother made me grilled cheese sandwiches using a device you had to plug in – and sparks flew! The wiring was worn and split. I got a similar small shock every time I tried to use the basement shower, which sported my mom’s mural of a mermaid to distract me from the fraying wires and pipes of the homestead. My dad was willing to work as a handyman but, alas, he was an amateur.
For many years after these 1940’s hammock retreats, I would make my sentimental journey to that fateful transition from the patriotic years to the doubts and dilemmas of the postwar era. Until one day, the house, like a mirage or a daydream, the very place itself, simply vanished – into the void!
It seems somebody had bought the place, but not the waterfront land upon which it stood. The house was rolled around the corner to a new location. And the murals and the tables and chairs had also disappeared, and nothing was left except what remains in the images and words you read here.
I drove by and recognized the front wall, mostly by the dated plaque marking the year of its construction: 1927. It took me several searches. I must have looked suspicious cruising the streets with a camera, unsure which structure was the dwelling that held my ghosts and phantoms.
As a 7-year-old, I had welcomed the declaration of war in 1941: now that the Duration had been declared and “Defense” stamps were straightforwardly “War” stamps, there was a clear line for me between good and evil, between freedom and slavery. Patriotism and its symbolic flag were everywhere. I was not only safe here, but could even actively contribute, by wearing hand-me-downs and cutting out the funnies and sending them to my uncles and cousins fighting far away over the Atlantic and Pacific, beyond, over there, not here, on the battlefields of Europe and among the islands in the Pacific.
The local branch libraries lent me 20 books, and I perused them all, big words and fancy thoughts and all. A number had themes relevant to the war, before, during and after. There were also books from earlier eras that had come with the house.
My brother and I rode our rusty old bikes everywhere. Tires and gas were rationed and the roads posed no danger to cyclists.
Once the veterans came back and sought jobs, it was possible to get help to terrace the hill behind our summer retreat. Friends and family could drive down on a Sunday afternoon, some on motorcycles, and play penny-ante poker and keep us company. We sailed and we rowed and we grew up and away. Part of me is still there and then, with the discomforts and fears as well as the hopes, the guilt for growing up as well as the pride of gaining the powers of adulthood.
I have kept a few souvenirs, like the Morris chair (but not that BarcaLounger contraption) and some dishes and kitchen tools that came with the house in that summer of 1944.
By 1951, we had moved on, and off and away. Except in this story. In my memory bank. On memorial occasions.
I hope I can get my brother to sketch the house as it was. I believe his career as an architect was inspired by that house: he has never wanted to tear down a structure but rather to restore and rededicate buildings, in the spirit of those summertimes and those childhood experiences from Depression to Duration. And the books that whiled away the war-time hours, they must have contributed to my career as an English teacher, whiling away the seasons in our Ocean State.
MIKE FINK (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.