Farm Meant Wonderful Summers of Childhood

<i> Shriver is a Portuguese Bend, Calif., free-lance writer</i>

As Californians, we have rented a house on Martha’s Vineyard this summer (I’m long overdue for a trip to New England). Already I can smell the Atlantic breeze, picture small harbors ringed with white houses and hear the Massachusetts twang.

We’ve invited family and friends who live nearby to join us for a memorable East Coast reunion; it is possible that we may never visit Massachusetts again. Last summer we were in Greece. Next summer, who knows? We don’t own a second home and we don’t want one. We like the freedom of free-lancing our vacations.

Life was different when we owned the Farm. Our summers never changed then. When I was a little girl, June meant boarding the Fall River Line in New York City to sail to Massachusetts. Dressed in a flowered smock with matching panties, white socks and Mary Janes, I’d stand with my brother, my parents and a mountain of luggage on the deck of the steamer. I’d keep my fingers plugged in my ears until the horn gave the loud “Hoot Toot” that announced we were under way.

My great aunt, Mardie, used to meet us in Fall River, driving a black LaSalle. For all the years I can remember, she wore her white hair piled high on her head, a black grosgrain ribbon around her neck and long black-and-white silk dresses that swirled against her legs. She’d greet us with cries of joys and hustle us into the roomy LaSalle, saying, “Hurry, lambies, hurry! The Farm is waiting for you!”


Familiar Landmarks

She drove the car along country roads while we children peered out the windows for familiar landmarks and rejoiced to hear that the only change at the Farm was a new calf.

“There’s the church steeple!” we’d yell, and then scream our recognition as we passed the fish pond, the ice pond, the tiny post office and finally braked in front of the old yellow house under the horse chestnut tree.

Dodo, our other great aunt, never failed to burst out the door, her arms stretched wide to welcome us as we tumbled out of the car.


Much as we adored her, she’d get only a brief hug until we’d gone on our inspection, making sure that everything was in its proper place. We’d pet the new calf, the old horse and bounce on the hay in the barn. We’d dance with glee as we greeted Hans who’d come to work for great grandpa in 1915 and was to remain at the Farm until his death in 1968.

“By Yeaorge, here ye are again!” he’d say, taking off his straw hat to wipe his forehead.

Nothing Changed

Nothing ever changed at the Farm. Depending on the month, we’d pick strawberries, raspberries or blackberries to put on our cereal with thick Farm cream we’d skim from the milk.


Mornings we were driven to the beach. (The great aunts sat beneath black umbrellas while we swam.)

Afternoons we napped and played games with the antique Halma and Lotto boards our mother and our grandmother had used, and at night we were lulled to sleep by the great aunts’ piano playing and the ticking of carriage clocks and grandfather clocks that measured time in the rambling rooms.

The Farm lasted out the great aunts’ lifetimes, and we still owned it when old Hans dropped dead scything grass along a stone wall. Then we sold it. Now, the Farm is back on the market (the couple who bought it are getting a divorce).

I hear that the new gray paint on the house has already peeled and that the horse chestnut trees have been cut down. When the great aunts died, their account books witnessed that they’d spent half of their small income patching up the house and tending to the trees. After contributing generously to charity, they had only a scanty sum left for themselves. They never took a vacation.


Decision to Sell

The family’s decision to sell--supposedly the Farm couldn’t be “kept up"--was really a decision not to make the sacrifices the great aunts made.

Our first grandchild, Claire, will be 9 months old when she visits us at the Vineyard this summer. I hope our rented house has a wicker rocker, because everyone will want to rock her to sleep. Claire will be the first grandchild in 100 years who won’t be read Edward Lear on the screened porch of the Farm.

I don’t suppose she’ll mind. At her age, mommy and daddy are the whole world. Anyway, today’s children don’t count on “always.”


But for me, wherever I spend my summers, I always visit the Farm. I close my eyes and I’m running toward the old yellow house under that big horse chestnut tree. For I’ve learned that the trees I’ve planted in my memory can never be cut down.