A forgotten book
One spring morning, I wrenched myself away from the kitchen table and went on a run. You know how that is. Work beckons but if you don’t get some exercise now, you’ll start snapping at people. It was starting to rain. I loped onto my 3-mile route, out Union Street in Deep River, crossing into Chester. At the end of Straits Road, I decided to push on a bit farther, across Route 148 and up the steep Pleasant Street. (Hiking season was here; I could use a little hill training.)
As I neared the hill crest, I noticed boxes of knick-knacks marked “Free” on two lawns. It was a Monday after the Chester townwide tag sale. The rain spattered one box of old books. I jumped onto the grass and bent down to flip through the volumes that smelled like 40 years of a damp basement. One green hardback looked interesting: Chapters From My Childhood: On the Old Farm in Mount Carmel, Connecticut During the Nineteen-teens, by Ruth Warner Robinson. What was this? I thought.
I told myself I had run most of the hill anyway, and so I tucked the mildewed book under my arm and ran home. Holding my nose at my kitchen table, I pried apart the pages. The chapters had originally appeared in The New Haven Register between 1963 and 1970, when she was probably in her 70s. Robinson was no writer, but she was honest. She told stories and drew folk-style scenes of children in a farmyard near what is now Sleeping Giant State Park in North Haven.
Ruth Robinson’s family grew food, harvested wood for heat, and kept farm animals. Her father traveled to New Haven by horse and wagon to sell produce. She and her siblings had to help. They didn’t have much to wear, but they didn’t seem to mind. Families then took in traveling homeless men each season. One man they particularly liked came every spring and stayed through the fall, working every day. He was much beloved but an alcoholic. Her father once bailed him out of the New Haven jail and, finding a hidden bottle of hard liquor in the barn, filled it up with tea to make a point.
In that, I think, Ruth Robinson fumbled to paint an idyllic past because she left in the sharp edges of lifeÑand so, perhaps, her writing wasn’t so awkward after all. She wrote that despite their isolation and her parents’ stern ways, she felt safe and happy. What changed things for the family was after World War I, when developers began buying up all the land on the outskirts of New Haven. Her father announced that it was time to move, and so they bought a farm 30 miles away, in Killingworth.
Since that day I found the book, I have been brooding over what it reveals about the past we idealize. Ruth Robinson’s childhood universe seemed long gone by the 1960s. For years, her story was too quaint for modern minds and languished in the basement. Now her memories might guide the movement of idealistic locavores. But that stinky green book, innocent and stark, reminds me that Connecticut lost more than growing techniques. Pre-World War I, people placed themselves into strict categories: farmers, children, merchants, teachers, business owners, tramps. Today, we tell ourselves that we’re broad-minded. Maybe we’re all sort of trying to be like Odysseus. But we’ve lost that sense they had a century ago, when a farm family fed themselves but also fed the homeless, because they knew that everyone ought to take personal responsibility for the suffering around them. I went for a 3-mile run in the rain, and there in a stinky box of books was a missing piece of the past.