At the time that my Father's bipolarity was just beginning to drive him completely off the rails, he started going about helping various townsfolk with yard work and the like. At the time I thought it was a benign - even laudable - activity, although current interactions with my brother Rob, who is victim of the same dysfunction, has caused me to begin wondering how welcome - and how helpful - Dad's activities actually were. The downside to this new initiative, as indeed was the downside to every new program which he undertook, was that he nearly always tended to involve his offspring, notably me.
One of the first of the people Dad undertook to assist in her gardening and so forth was Miss Anna Hargreave, a lovely elderly lady who had been his teacher from first through fourth grade in a cobblestone one-room schoolhouse a couple of miles to the southeast of our farm. That is, the schoolhouse was a couple of miles southeast; Miss Hargreave's home, which she shared with an unmarried sister named Emma, was across the creek which bounded our farm on the north - a short distance if one were in the mood to swim, but two or three miles by road, since in each direction from the Farm the nearest bridges were at least a mile distant.
The Misses Hargreave were quite elderly; this was in the 1950's and my father's early schooling with Miss Hargreave, who had also taught several of his older siblings, had begun in 1905. Anna was a rather beautiful white-haired lady who looked like a Norman Rockwell version of everyone's Grandma. She was sweet-natured, gentle and generous. She loved her garden and grounds, though she was too old to do much gardening by herself, and in this case I think my father's assistance was welcome - especially since the entire job rapidly became solely the concern of my brother Gary and me, thence handed on to my sister Lucy, and on down through my catalog of brothers until, long after I was off to college and seeing the world, it became the job of my sibling number six, Liam.
Despite the fact that I was (as Mom used to tell me with a certain note of asperity in her voice) the Little Prince, a fact that arose solely from my position as the first boy in two generations among my mother and her seven sisters, and the first grandchild in almost thirty years on my Dad's side where there were no less than five sisters and four other brothers, all of whom had either no children or fully grown children and found much of their time free to dote on me - despite all this positive adult interaction- I remained very wary of adults and never really saw them as completely human in the way I saw myself. They were too powerful, too all-knowing and their reactions were usually utterly inexplicable to me. People were far more formal in those days, and I never addressed any adult other than as Mr. or Mrs. or Miss or Aunt or Uncle. There was no mistaking these folks for my contemporaries or buddies, no matter how warmly they treated me nor how much they played or joked with me. Adult women dressed soberly and wore hats with veils and white gloves when they ventured forth from their homes for anything other than a quick trip to the grocery - and sometimes even then. Men wore fedoras any time they set forth from home. Few women drove; one would see married couples when two such drove about together, almost invariably with the fedora-ed men sitting upright in the front seat of the car, and the gloved and hatted wives seated behind.
I liked Miss Hargreave, despite the fact that she was an adult and the boss, the latter category being another that, until my day of retirement, I never felt entirely easy with even though I was quite good friends with several of them. I always felt, with either my elders or my bosses, that I was subject to unfathomable whims, that I was never sure that a humiliating reprimand was not forthcoming, although such reprimands were quite rare in my experience - far rarer than I deserved. Miss Hargreave would tell me little stories about Dad as a small child. One I recall was that on his first day of school he showed up with a big red bow tied under his chin. I was a good deal less fond of Miss Anna's sister Emma. Emma was thin and boney, and severe in appearance, and although she had a good heart as far as I could see, any conversation with her soon swerved toward the biblical and religious. She hadn't a clue how to speak to children, and I in turn hadn't a clue how to speak with her comfortably. Even worse were days when a third sister, a married sister named Almeda, was present. Miss Almeda - or Mrs. Law, I suppose I should say - was personally pleasant and kind, but age had brought on a speech impediment that rendered her completely impossible to understand. Her lower jaw did more than tremble - especially when she was speaking - it shook vigorously resulting in speech that was a disjointed series of syllables. I did not dread her because of any unkindness, but because of my embarrassment that she would speak to me and I hadn't a clue what she'd said. When I found myself in a position where i was unable to understand an adult I felt a deep shame. I have always felt I should understand people, a trait I may have gotten from my Mom who went into full panic mode when confronted with even a hint of an accent. Mom's fear that she wouldn't understand such a person inevitably overwhelmed her to the point that she didn't understand them, even when she otherwise might have.
Lucy, genuinely liked Miss Hargreave; I think any kindly haven that got her away from the increasingly chaotic conditions at home would have earned her heartfelt gratitude. Miss Hargreave, in return, doted on Lucy. When Lucy was accepted at college and was seeing Miss Hargreave for the last time before she left, Anna gave her the gift of a small leather change purse. Lucy thought it the odd gift of an out-of-touch elderly lady, until she got home and discovered $100 rolled up inside it. This was a substantial gift from anyone in 1962, and from a lady in such straitened circumstances as a retired schoolteacher must have been, it was extremely generous.
Mowing Anna Hargreave's lawn, planting her gladioli each spring, and digging up the spent bulbs each fall and pruning her beauty bush (I am not sure what this bush was actually called, but it was completely pink in spring with thousands of little pink tubular flowers) were more or less Shaughnessy traditions for years. Miss Hargreave insisted on paying us a couple of dollars each time - which were extremely welcome - but it was almost like a chore at home; that is, something expected, taken for granted and performed with reasonably good grace every summer for years.
When the task was handed on to Liam, sixth in the sequence of siblings that began with me, he developed a very close relationship with Miss Anna. Liam has the happy quality of whole-hearted enthusiasms. He has always loved baseball passionately, he loved cowboy films and the whole 1950's concept of what the West had been - the good guys and bad guys - and he has to this day, tons of friends who return his affection fully, both those newly met and those who are childhood friends because he shows his feelings of affection openly; not with hugs or physical display (we are far too Irish for that) but with unfeigned pleasure displayed when he meets them. Liam is a singer and a songwriter with the eye of a lover. (My sister-in-law who has herself been inducted into a Hall of Fame for music in a large city in the West says, "I have written songs, but Liam is a poet." He has the gift of poking fun in a way that affection shines through. Chief of all his targets for mockery is himself. People love to talk to Liam, because he is very funny - not in the sense of knowing a million jokes, but simply in having a gift for coining phrases and descriptions which are both acute and very funny and memorable. Liam's nicknames for various friends have become family standards when speaking of those friends.
By the time Liam was mowing Miss Hargreave's lawn, Dad had found another protégée just up the road from the Farm - Miss Bessie Hadlock, the last of a family that had more or less been local gentry for generations here in Reedville. Originally the Hadlocks had lived in a great square house with a cupola on top, which stands on a hill at a point where three roads meet, formerly known as Hadlocks' Corners. There is today an historic marker in front of "Hadlock House". However, the generation that produced Bessie, a woman who was as old, or nearly so, as Miss Hargreave, had in some way lost nearly everything. The Hadlock farm with the great house was lost and at the time everything came apart for them, there appeared to be little hope of saving anything. However, my dad's oldest brother who was a gifted lawyer and prominent in county politics, undertook to save something from the wreckage for Bessie Hadlock. Ultimately he managed to save for her a small wedge of land with the small tenant house across the road from the big house. Nearly every farm in this area - certainly all the older ones - included a tenant house for a family which was hired to help work the farm. This was usually a rather plain house, much smaller than the big farm house. Usually the tenant house would be occupied by the same hired man and his family for many years. In many cases after the nineteen fifties, if farms were sold, the big house was retained by the selling family and the new owners would move themselves or one of their married children into the tenant house.
At any rate, Liam, with his gifts for throwing himself into whatever he does and for being liked by those he deals with, became as close to Bessie Hadlock as he was with Anna Hargreave. Both Miss Hargreave and Miss Hadlock would, in any case, have been within our orbit of awareness; Reedville was a very small town and few families moved in or out - everyone had been there forever, it seemed, as had their parents and grandparents. But because of the lawn-mowing, these ladies became more than just someone one knew of or met occasionally at the store or library. They were part of that ring of people with whom our entire family had a certain feeling of kinship.
I had long since hitch-hiked to California to become a surfer, and Lucy had completed college by the time Liam inherited the Hargreave lawn and taken on the Hadlock job. One day he was working in Bessie Hadlock's garden when she came out with a paper in her hand.
"Liam," she said, "we have lost Miss Hargreave."
And she and Liam stood in Miss Hadlock's garden and wept together.