We have been in Connecticut visiting my family for the past week and only now am I finding time for the blog. It was a bit of a culture shock to be in New England again. We both grew up here, but have not lived here in a long time.
New England’s towns are old and densely populated, as are those in other parts of the country. But New England seems to be slower to change than other areas—which is both good and bad. It has retained regional accents and words (subs are grinders, liquor is bought at a package store, aka a “packy”), and it has its own grocery chains, restaurants, and products.
On the other hand, it has resisted development more than many other areas and, as a result, does not have a good variety of groceries, restaurants, and retail stores. And it has crazy-ass drivers on a confusing rural road system that evolved from cow paths. It’s a unique corner of the country, with a very distinctive look and feel.
We stayed in northeastern Connecticut, which is now called “The Quiet Corner” in tourist descriptions—an uninspiring but apt name. There isn’t much excitement there–something that has not changed from my childhood.
Connecticut itself is referred to as the “Nutmeg State” because its Yankee peddlers had a reputation for selling phony nutmegs made out of wood. Apparently the name is a tribute to the peddlers’ “ingenuity” and “thriftiness.” As someone born and raised in Connecticut, I have always been at a loss to explain how cheating customers was something of which to be proud. I’ve read another explanation that addresses that concern, which contends that the nutmegs were real but the Southerners who bought them were too ignorant to realize what a nutmeg looked like and thought they were made of wood. I don’t buy that version. In any case, it strikes me that even for reticent and understated Yankees, no one could think that calling an area the Quiet Corner of the Nutmeg State is going to attract visitors. Probably just the way they like it.
In many ways, the area looks bizarrely the same as it did fifty years ago. Some streets have not changed a bit, but have the same houses, painted the same colors (!), and the same small businesses, wearing the same family names out front. Very déjà vu. But some things have changed. There are more people. And the land has become reforested.
When I was growing up, Connecticut was a schizophrenic mix of aging mill towns—remnants of the industrial revolution’s heyday—and bucolic towns, with white-steepled Congregational churches and town greens, surrounded by rural farmland. A lot of the farmland had already returned to forest, but there was still a significant amount of open land. Now the forest has taken over. Areas that were fields when I was young are unrecognizable–completely covered with mature trees. Meadowood Road now is meadow-less. I feel like a geezer–“these woods used to be an open field with bayberries and sweet fern when I was a youngun.” It is such in-your-face evidence of my age to see that a mature forest has grown up since I left. Old dog indeed.
Our drive to Connecticut from upstate New York was uneventful. Once again, we were outrunning storms and it was overcast and windy, but we had some glimpses of the Erie Canal and Hudson River.
We arrived on July 3 and woke up to rain on the Fourth. Despite the rain, we went to a neighboring town, Willimantic, to see the annual Fourth of July boombox parade, a tradition dating from 1986 when the town couldn’t find a marching band for the parade and they cranked up the boomboxes with band music instead.
It was an entertaining small-town parade, with kids, floats, and fire engines.
After the parade, we dried off and enjoyed independence by eating lots of lobsters.
In the week after the Fourth, we celebrated my mother’s ninety-first birthday and took several day trips. One day, after giving my mother a tour of our trailer, we headed out for a walk along the Natchaug River and came upon two beautiful restored cars–a 1912 Buick and a rare 1929 LaSalle. The owners had driven them from Manchester, about 20 miles away, at a maximum speed of thirty miles an hour, to enjoy a streamside picnic. They had restored the cars with great care and attention to detail. It was a real treat to see and hear about them.
I have never been able to come close to my mother’s superhuman energy level. Now that she is ninety-one, we are finally about even. I am not kidding. She was gung ho to tackle Gillette Castle on a hot, humid day mid-week. The “castle” is a retirement estate built by William Gillette (no razor connection) in the early 1900’s. He was an eccentric actor most well-known for portraying Sherlock Holmes on stage. His castle vision was weirdly entertaining and had a beautiful view of the wide Connecticut River. My mother pointed out to the tour guide that the plants in the conservatory were greatly in need of watering. She was right, and they were soon watered.
As you may suspect from Gillette Castle, stones are one of Connecticut’s most abundant resources. Fields seem to grow them (one of the reasons the farmers left). Nutmeggers, being the ingenious and thrifty people that they are, used the stones to build lots of walls and buildings. The stone walls in the woods are lasting reminders of the fields that used to be there.
Willimantic has restored the old thread mills for new businesses and brought out the beauty of the stone buildings, which formerly were full of broken windows and always made me think of the miserable working conditions that they likely housed. In seeking to revitalize the town, Willimantic also brought in an architect for a new bridge in 2000, who designed this thread and frog motif.
While in Connecticut, we moved from strawberry season to blueberries. We intend to pick our way through every fruit harvest and did a good job at a pick-your-own farm session with my mother. It was the first time in very many years that we have not had to keep an eye out for bears while blueberry picking.
It continues to be very hot and muggy and there are lots of bugs here—whizzing, attacking, attaching, and crawling varieties. Zoe took her first swim in a swimming pool, but was a little confused about the steps.