Thursday, February 18, 2010

Salisbury Road

I’ve been back to Rhode Island only a few times since my parents moved to Connecticut, once for Dad’s funeral, and then a few short visits to the beach with my daughters.

On every visit, I have driven down Nayatt Road, under an archway of elms, past the vistas of Narragansett Bay, and taking the long way so that I see the lighthouse at Nayatt Point.  I take in the water view sentimentally, and then head north on Washington Road, a long thoroughfare from which small streets hang like teeth from a pocket comb. 

I pass the woods on my left, full of childhood memories, and St. Luke’s Catholic Church on the right, full of childhood mystery, and then I take a left on Salisbury Road and pass a few small homes until I reach number 22. 

I’m always surprised at its small size.  I didn’t realize how tiny it was until my parents sold it, and I saw the specs- 1200 square feet.  I didn’t know five people could live that comfortably in such a small space.  I like seeing the site of many good memories, wonderful meals, and happy times, and I am warmed in those memories.

My favorite room in our house was the living room, where our piano sat, and where we spent most of our family time together.

I picture my father taking his Sunday nap on the living room floor, his head strangely comfortable at rest on his grandmother’s low milking stool.  HIs white shirt from Sunday morning’s service, unbuttoned at the collar, and his tie loosened, eventually, he’d have to rise and go back for the evening service. 

I picture Mom sitting in the reupholstered wing chair, reading the Providence Sunday Journal and remarking to no one in particular about who was in the obituary pages this week. 

She has an amazing memory for dates and times, and I don’t think she ever has opened a newspaper without stating the day’s date and then announcing something that happened on this date in years past.  “February 10- that’s the day Leland Jones broke his arm” or “May 23- that’s the day in 1954 that we moved from Gonic to Barrington”. 

Of course, what is missing here is the audio presentation of my mother’s voice and her distinctive New England accent.  She has always spoken in very emphatic tones with an accent that makes me smile to this day.  The absence of the letter R, and the emotion with which she will deliver a sentence is quite entertaining, particularly when she is annoyed or confused.

“Where AH my glasses?”, she’ll nearly sing.  “THAT is OOHWICKED!!”, she’ll opine vocifericely, giving the letter W extra emphasis.   The overwhelming favorite of our family has been when her compassion rises within her about some pathetic character, and she will gush, “The poor thing!!”, but it’s really pronounced “The Poe Wuh thing!!”.  This is her version of the Southern “Bless her heart”, which means “What an idiot”.

The passion with which my mother has lived is remarkable, and I need only visit my childhood home to remember many vividly played scenes from its walls. 

I picture her inside singing her heart out while playing a hymn on the piano, her canary Frosty singing at the top of his infinitesimal lungs.  I honestly believe that her exersize wasn’t about hearing her own beautiful, low voice, but truly about the notes and words that she was offering to God Almighty.

I picture her marching out the front door with deliberate steps and a stern face, ready to take on our crabby neighbors, the Perrys, who were the meanest folks in the neighborhood.  You couldn’t breathe the air drifting from their yard into ours without being screamed at.  Sometimes Mom’s passion came in handy, and I’m thankful that she occasionally gave them ‘what for’.

Yes, I can speak of the constraints of religion and the unwillingness of my mother to ever be wrong, but I have to remember that life was pretty good in my corner of the world.  Mom felt the good things as much as she felt anything else.  And one of the things I have to remember while weighing the things that have disturbed our relationship, is my mother’s great passion for life. 

She would read AA Milne’s Winnie The Pooh to us as if it were Charles Dickens.  And she read Dickens’ “Tale of Two Cities” with a grave sadness, reflecting on its tragic protagonist, Sidney Carton, and grieving his sacrificial heroism.

Dad and Mom were both very affectionate with us, and we couldn’t leave the house without hearing the words “Love you”. 

There are two other rooms that I think of when I drive down Salisbury Road.  One is the dining room, the site of family discussions, political and social, religious and emotional; as Annie, Dave, and I grew older, this room became more and more special. 

We had many wonderful meals together at our small dining room table.  My mother was a good cook, although not notably creative, and great care was put into whatever was placed before us. 

We had many a laugh around that table, often at Mom’s expense.  She was an easy target; her passion made her buttons easy to push.  Once, when I thought I had gotten the best of her with a juvenile prank, I left the table laughing so hard I had to expel my food.  When I returned to the table, I looked at my plate, and sitting among the creamed onions was Mom’s glass eye.  She wasn’t helpless, after all.

I also remember sitting around the table, expecting Annie’s future husband  to arrive.  We’d never met Jim, and Annie was convinced that her uncivilized brothers would give Jim reason to have second thoughts.  As she frantically expressed her worries, Dave and I began chewing more and more loudly, mouths agape, taunting her to believe that indeed we would make the worst impression possible.  When our visit with Jim was over, a ring was on Annie’s finger, and a tear was in my father’s eye.

The other room was our screened-in back porch.  We took all our summer meals on that little porch.  Whenever we had summer guests, my parents would boil lobsters, clams, and sweet corn, and we would share the bounty of New England.  I loved sitting there with melted butter on my fingers, and a pile of empty clam shells on my plate. 

After we’d all grown up and left, it was fun to return with our families to that porch, and crowd around the table, and celebrate being Madeira's.  My only regret is that my children were born too late to remember those days, and too late to have known my father when his mind was sharp, and when the smile on his face was one of loving his family. 

We lived well in those 1200 square feet.

I slowly drive past, wondering if the echoes of happy times still softly resonate in those small rooms at 22 Salisbury Road.  I look in the rear view mirror, until all I can see of my past is a green mail box.


  1. I make a similar journey when I have the chance to visit Barrington. Driving to Roberta Plat and ending up at 19 Houghton Street. Wonderful memories of my childhood home!

  2. Another great post from a guy who sees well, writes well, and lives well.

  3. Dave Grosser18 February, 2010

    Oh, man, you just made me miss that place again. Great post.

  4. Beautifully written, Phil. I loved "seeing" this side of your mom.

  5. Paul K. Logsdon19 February, 2010

    Once again, you bring tears to my eyes, as I remember a similar life in Washington's Crossing, N.J. My mother is with the Lord, dad is in not-great health, and the yellow ranch that I grew up in was sold 10 years ago. But my brother lives around the corner. Once a year I go back east, and as we drive by I wonder if those little boys outside have as great home in that house as did we.

  6. Great memories brought to life by your great writing once again. Your room by room description of our lives was great. I, too, return occasionally to 22 Salisbury and slowly drive by wondering if whoever lives there is as happy as we were. I'd add two spaces to your list--the basement where we'd watch Bonanza with Dad on Sunday nights--probably with grilled cheese and tomato soup; then some hot chocolate. The bedroom we shared which I remember as a haven--a warm place on cold winter nights and a place where on summer nights if fog rolled in off the coast the resonant mourn of fog horns comforted us. Love you brother, David

  7. That's awesome, David. I remember our wall paper, very much a male room, compasses and what not. And yes, Sunday nights watching Bonanza- the whole famn damily, I believe, watching the black and white chevy commercials... I might have to add your thoughts. Those were happy times. We are lucky to have had such good parents growing up.
    Thanks for checking in!

  8. I admire your gifts and honesty! Thank you for sharing - in SUCH an prolific way. I look forward to the next chapter! God bless, Anastasia Brown


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