... The incredible, white, quiet days and nights
Few of us are old enough to remember when the 19th century turned into the 20th. I am fortunate to have a delightful short story that depicts these times written by the late Brooks Atkinson, Melrose native and former drama critic, war correspondent and Pulitzer Prize winner from the New York Times. His story was originally published as "A Puritan Boyhood" by the Massachusetts Review in Volume XV, No. 3, in the Summer of 1974. It was later, in 1976, retitled "Growing up in Melrose; A Puritan Boyhood" and subsequently published in 1981 by the Melrose Historical Society as a small paper-covered booklet of 47 pages. I thank the Massachusetts Review and the Melrose Historical Society for their permission to allow us to publish this excerpt from Mr. Atkinson's story.
In March of 1982, Mary Bachus, one of my mother's life-long Melrose friends, sent Mom a copy of that booklet. Back in the late 1950s, the Bachus's lived on the northeast corner of East Foster Street and Gooch and we lived down the street a few houses at 169 East Foster Street. Brooks Atkinson grew up in a house across the street from us at 164 East Foster Street. In a juxtapositioned sort of way, we were all neighbors. I now have that booklet and would like to share with you Mr. Atkinson's verbal picture of the Christmas Holiday season in Melrose in 1905 when he was 11 years old.
Winter was the peak of our year. It completely transformed the neighborhood, not only in the freshness of the new landscape but in the nature of our activities. Everything seemed radiant. Early in the morning after the first big snowstorm we heard the gay sound of sleighbells and the deeper, more laconical note of the horse-drawn pungs. ("Pung" was New England for sled.) When the big snow finally came - not always before Christmas - the carriages, delivery wagons and drays, all of which rattled more or less, were laid up for the season and replaced by light, trim sleighs with their sweetly curved dashboards and silvery ornaments and also by the heavier pungs that slid on four sets of runners. The winter vehicles were silent; that is why the drivers hung bells on the necks of the horses. Sliding on runners was so much simpler and more direct than rolling on wheels that the transformation of horse-drawn vehicles in the winter seemed like the transformation of prose into poetry.
Before breakfast time a worker on the city road gang drove a horse-drawn wooden plow along the sidewalk. He went by so silently that you had to watch for him, and sometimes when the snow was deep you had to be on the spot to see what a high ridge the plow threw up on the street side of the walk. The streets were not plowed; the city expected the horse-drawn vehicles to break a roadway through the snow, and the first team had a strenuous responsibility. Plowing the sidewalks was a prelude to shoveling snow at home. Every boy was soon shoveling steps and opening paths in front of and behind the house, and you could hear the thumping of snow shovels or the scratching sound of iron coal shovels throughout the neighborhood. Shoveling paths under the clothes line was a boring chore. The clothes line darted back and forth all over the backyard.
But the chores could not temper our delight in the fresh new world of winter. For weeks the world had been looking gray, lifeless and dull. But the snow transformed it into a sparking wonderland in which the immaculate white of the snow outlined the branches and twigs of the trees in the backyard and turned the dingy, smelly henhouse into an enchanting and cozy little building. The English sparrows were dejected. With their feathers fluffed out to keep the cold away, they sat together in morose flocks. We tossed bread crumbs to them for comfort as well as nutrition. Everything else seemed to explode with delight.
Street traffic in those days was not only light but slow and flexible. If the legal concept of the right of way was in existence it did not seem to apply to us. Collisions were almost unheard of. Every vehicle could and had time to get out of the way of other vehicles. That made it possible for boys and some girls to coast down the middle of the streets without misgivings. We did not worry about the traffic at the crossroads. Coasting was pure exultation. It set us free. Especially when the snow was packed or was icy, we had the illusion of sliding down hill at a sensational speed, chiefly because we were only four or five inches from the surface of the snow, some of which blew in our faces.
That was before the era of the Flexible Flyer - a long sled eight or ten inches high; it could be steered by a crossbar. The Flyer was a versatile sled that stood on the threshold of American technology. But my cronies and I regarded it as sissy, suitable for girls but not for the valorous sex. Our sleds were short and rigid - belly-bumpers we called them; and we steered them by dragging one foot on one side or the other, or by yanking up the front of the sled while it was in motion and pushing it in another direction. We took pride in the gleaming polish of the runners, and sometimes rubbed them with sharpening compound under the illusion that we were increasing the speed of the sled. When enough pungs had driven over the road to pack down the snow we climbed to the crest of the hill, took a long, preliminary run, slammed the sled down and fell on it, and, if the snow conditions were propitious, had a long, fast slide to the bottom of the hill - marking the end with a stick to measure the longest slide of the day. We slid through one and sometimes two crossroads, which would be a dangerous thing to do today. In our street there were never any traffic accidents.
Conditions were more headlong and dangerous on neighboring Upham Street, which was much steeper. Serious coasting was concentrated there. Some of the boys who lived there poured buckets of water in a track down the middle of the street at night to make an icy surface the next day. Upham Street had a bobsled worthy of its icy surface. Louis Dow, who lived at the top of the hill, had a colossal double-runner that steered with a wheel, had a gong up front and could seat six or eight passengers on a ten foot plank. Once it had started down the hill it developed enormous speed and, in fact, slid up a small hill at the end of the run and made a right turn onto Main Street opposite City Hall. That double-runner and its sensational performance were legendary in Middlesex County; there was nothing as long, mighty and triumphant in any other place. Dragging it back up the hill was exhausting. But the excitement of sliding downhill with its gong clanging and the passengers screaming was sufficient compensation, although it lasted only two or three minutes. Automobiles put an end to that magnificence - not only because of the danger of collision at Lebanon Street but because the top speed of the double-runner was not appreciably greater than the normal speed of automobiles and was therefore no longer such a unique and thrilling experience. Moreover, the streets now have to be plowed and salted to give automobiles sufficient traction.
I don't remember that anyone used skis in our community in those days, although some people used snowshoes in the Swain's Pond woods or in Middlesex Fells. But the idea of traveling one hundred miles back and forth for a weekend of winter sports was unthinkable. In the winter just about everybody was confined to Melrose for the duration. Rumors of the beauties of the White Mountains, only a little more than one hundred or one hundred and twenty-five miles north, were like Esquimau folklore, too far away to be within the realm of possibility. I remember rumors of two Melrose young men camping on the slopes of Mt. Washington in the winter; it seemed like something that the Indians might have done.
We all skated. A few children of unimaginable affluence had shoe skates, which was the ultimate in equipment and style. Most of us had to be content with skates that clamped on to the soles and heels of ordinary street boots, with a strap over the ankles to give additional security. They came loose consistently. We were forever hobbling clumsily to shore to readjust the clamps in the hope of making a tighter bond.
Ell Pond (known to supercilious people at that time as Crystal Lake) was the favorite place for skating because it was large and located in the center of town. There were cavernous, rambling ice houses on the pond near Main Street. While adults and children were happily whirling around the pond, men with saws and long poles were cutting ice and hauling it into the ice house against the intolerable heat of the next summer. But The Meadows in the Highlands was a more interesting place for skating. In addition to open spaces, where boys played hockey, it provided lanes of ice through brush and trees, and gave us an impression, not of whirling around, but of going somewhere on skates. And that was also the reason why it was so much fun to skate to school. After a thaw when the water in the gutters froze we had rough and bumpy ice all the way to school, and it seemed less dreary than usual to go there on skates.
Some of our local skaters had a whirling, sweeping, virtuoso style that seemed effortless; they could move like disembodied spirits in a world of fantasy. They could skate backwards as well as forward. On the street they may have been ordinary people. But on skates they were like spirits. No one had to leave town to enjoy winter sports. We had winter sports on the streets, sidewalks, hills, meadows and ponds before the merchandising term, "winter sports," became a standard phrase.
Winter had another blessing. Christmas relieved the dark season of the year with an outpouring of religious exaltation and worldly merriment. "Merry" was probably not the right word: it was too literary. It was steeped in the robust sentimentality of Dickens. And "jolly" was too hearty a word for anything we knew. But Christmas was a day of warmth and wonder and of belief in something more magical than daily life.
Our family was the end product of a Puritan line. Worldly pleasures did not come easily within the scope of our lives. But Puritanism should have inhibited the pleasures of Christmas for another reason. Puritans regarded the celebration of Christmas as a Catholic ceremony. When I was a small boy it was only a quarter of a century since the elders of Boston insisted on keeping the schools open on Christmas day in the hope of putting the Catholic children in the wrong.
We were wholly ignorant of this background. And since Christmas was the one exception to the habitual parsimony of our lives we may have been abnormally elated by it; we may have celebrated it with abnormal belief and fervor. Every year it was spontaneous. It had not yet become a monstrous bazaar. Beginning after Thanksgiving Day, which was also a jovial feast, we awaited Christmas in a paradoxical spirit of happy anxiety. There were no Christmas cards in our experience. I don't remember our family ever sending or receiving cards. Christmas was personal and intimate. In our house, as in most houses, the Christmas tree with its fragrant odors from the woods was the core of the rite. Mr. Owen, who drove the grocery cart, delivered ours about three days before Christmas.
Since we did not have electric current my parents decorated the tree with strips of sparkling tinsel, strings of popcorn, exotic ornaments and small candies in metal holders.
The danger of fire must have been real. My parents kept a bucket of water just behind the tree to use in case of fire. I can remember the care with which they snuffed out candles that had burned down to the holders. On Christmas Eve as well as Christmas Day people in the neighborhood put lighted candles on the sills of the front windows - another source of danger by fire. On the day before Christmas we were permitted to watch our parents decorate the tree as they stood on the family stepladder, but the doors were pulled shut when they were finished. Before we went to bed on Christmas Eve my sisters hung stockings on the shelf above the grate in the dining-room. I remember once waking up in the darkness on Christmas Eve and sneaking downstairs to look at my stocking. It was empty. I was heartbroken. Just then my father came home from his bowling club. He told me that it was only 11 o'clock and that Santa Claus would come later. I went back to bed less dejected.
Santa Claus was the imponderable mystery. Was there a Santa Claus, as we believed, or was there none, as some of the iconoclasts in the neighborhood maintained? We had circumstantial evidence that Santa Claus did exist. Our stockings were filled with candy, crackers and nuts the next morning after Santa Claus had come down the chimney. And after breakfast (when we had raisin cake for the only day in the year) the doors to the front room were opened, and the transfigured spruce tree with its flickering candles and shining ornaments turned a familiar world into magic. In a moment or two Santa Claus, carrying a pack, came slowly down the stairs, jovially greeted us by name and began to distribute presents. We took them in awed silence. We did not dare speak to such a fabulous person. From this experience we had no reason to doubt that Santa Claus was real.
But there came a time when my oldest sister, Mildred, smugly informed me that Santa Claus was Uncle John. She pointed out that Uncle John, who lived in Weymouth, a considerable distance away by railroad, spent the night before Christmas in our house. After breakfast the next morning he quietly left the table while the rest of us were eating raisin cake. After Mildred had spoken those evil thoughts I could imagine Uncle John behind that array of whiskers and under that tasseled red hat. I reluctantly concluded that Mildred was right.
But it was several years before I really stopped believing in the myth. The idea, the costume, the tradition, the Clement Moore poem, the cheerful ceremony of Santa Claus still retained a certain reality for me. Long after I knew the truth I remember being unwillingly moved by the arrival of Santa Claus at the Christmas tree celebration for children in the church hall. A dazzling Christmas tree overwhelmed the plain meeting room, and made the atmosphere congenial. We sang Christmas music, all of which was fresh because it had not been dinned into our ears every night for a month, as it is today. Every year Christmas was to us a fresh experience. Finally Santa Claus arrived in the upstairs Sunday School room that had windows looking down on the hall we occupied. We could hear the reindeer stamping and the sleigh bells ringing, and we could hear Santa Claus yelling "whoa" in a deep, impatient voice. While this was going on, the janitor put a ladder up to the windows of the upstairs room. Presently Santa Claus opened a window, flung his arms out hospitably and greeted us. Maneuvering his pack and himself he then started down the ladder.
As a recognized adolescent I was one of the enlightened, and I had nothing but contempt for the children who were awed by the fake visitor from the North Pole. I knew very well that every year Santa Claus was Deacon Goss, one of the churchmen I most respected. But knowledge changed nothing. I was thrilled. My heart beat a little faster; I was alive with expectations as in the old days. It was the annual charade and I was still emotionally involved in it. When I went home I was delegated to turn the crank of the ice cream freezer on the back porch in the cold darkness in preparation for our Christmas dinner. That was part of a joyful experience.
After we had received out presents around the tree in the morning and after the candles were snuffed out we went outdoors to try out the sled or the skates, if that was what we had received; and we also went down the street to see what the Goodridge boys had received. After the warm glow of the family meeting around the Christmas tree the out-of-doors seemed flat and empty. For we had strayed outside the magic circle. Christmas was essentially private. Some Protestants went to church that day, listened to the traditional music and to the radiant story that Luke told with joy and wonder. We never thought of going to church on Christ's birthday; we were too busy with pagan excitement. I was nearly thirty years old before I spent a Christmas away from home, Christmas seemed to me trivial and sullen.
The booklet referenced at the start of this story states that Brooks Atkinson penned the preceding piece at the age of 80 while retired in Durham, New York. I question the accuracy of that statement because I can find no reference to a town or city named Durham in New York State. I suspect he was retired in Durham, New Hampshire, Maine or North Carolina; all these states have cities named Durham. In any case, he died of pneumonia in January of 1984 in Huntsville, Alabama at the age of 89.
I need to thank my friend Russ Priestley for hounding the Melrose Historical Society and the elusive Massachusetts Review in order to gain permission to publish this piece. I never realized there was so much action "behind the scenes" in producing a publication. It seems that Brooks Atkinson may have been our first and original Silver Stringer.
December 3, 2004