Tuesday, September 25, 2007

GRANITE STATE X - Over and Over

On this hyper-clear cold mountain day, from the road that leads from the old family summer places to Sugar Hill Village I turn the aqua Mustang left at small New Englandy inn called inn The Homestead and drive up to the site of the old sprawling Sunset Hill House Hotel, where old ladies in print dresses fanned themselves and rocked on wicker rockers on an unendingporch – rocked and gossiped about missing people and the hotel manager, who they said was too slick to have been well bred, and complained about the food, this being a place where eating took up a large part of the day. This corner where I had turned off for the Sunset was where, when I was 8 and with my grandfather on his daily walk, he spoke to a couple who stopped their nice car and asked where the big hotel was – told d them there was no hotel here and as they drove away explained to my brother and me that he was doing them a favor since they looked Jewish.

Starting up the hill on the left, to my left are the ruins of an old brown shingle-covered building that still has faded white letters on it spelling out “The Pioneer,” this once being the rakish place where I would go with Kitty. We would sneak away from the Sunset’s Saturday night dance – bright lights and the eagle eyes of old people who circled the dancers – and we would go down to the Pioneer where the college kid bellboys and chambermaids and waitressed and waiters from the Sunset came. They were role models as passionate neckers and dancers in the dark, and they would sneak us drinks of Seagram’s Seven.

And on the right now what is left of the tall Gibbs house where members of our short lived but significant summer crowed lived – tanned Louisa and Jimmie from
Boston by way of some sailing place, blonde Alice and Harry from Baltimore, cousins but so distant that Gibbs and Pooles had been known to intermarry – according to a genealogy chart the hung in the telephone room of White Pines.

And then a placid area of grass where the Sunset stood until it conveniently caught fire and burned to the ground in 1967 just as its clientele was dying off. And past the Sunset the hotel cottages, still there, small but spacious square one-story shingled houses with circular porches that mimicked the big hotel porch. It was one of those houses that that my mother’s grandmother used to rent, filling it up with southerners, mostly ladies, who believed you could die in hay fever season if you did not get to the mountains. Across from the Sunset was the best view from anywhere of the Franconia range. Though the hotel was gone there was still a viewing area off from the sidewalk where you could look through binoculars set in steel that it took a coin to operate, and also turn an arrow on a chart so that you could tell if you were looking at Cannon Mountain, or Lafayette or Garfield or the three cannon balls, or in the far distance Mt. Washington, the highest mountain in the Eastern part of the Unilted States, which was all that counted. Mother as a lonely young girl in the cottage filled with Southern ladies played golf on a small nine-hole course, still there just past the cottages. And still there too the ramshackle building where the caddies waited – my brother and I once serving as caddies, just like local boys. Though unlike local boys we only worked certain mornings and our paternal grandfather, who seemed very British though he was from Chicago, doubled everything we made, and my brother Peter got the most business, from Southerners sent from by my mother’s mother, who still came to the Sunset, told to ask specifically for Peter, be sure to get the right twin, the clever one, the one who will repeat for you his latest cute sayings.

After the Sunset Hill House burned down, the name was given to a plain old clapboard building built on a slope across the street that I had known as a dormitory for the college boys and girls here for the summer to work in the hotel. In my parents’ day, when Mother was a lonely little girl playing golf on the small Sunset golf course, Dad who was a lonely boy with an actual pony cart, would come up the the hill, past the Sunset. And they saw each other but never spoke for it would be like speaking to a stranger. In my parents day that building I knew as a dormitory for serious neckers had been called simply the Bachelor’s Quarters – a cheap place for the right sort of unmarried young men to stay. It was there to lure families of the right sort with the right sort of daughters to come to the Sunset Hill House, which had not then, as in my day, become an old people's place yet.

One night a week from Thanksgiving in this cold early winter of ‘86 Deirdre was doing something with the family of her current boyfriend, so I arranged to go out to dinner with my old friend Mickie, in whose house, which had once been one of our family houses, I was now staying. Mickie, who has been so gorgeous in adolescence in 1950, a puppy face with a wickedly inviting smile, who went around with her fine new breasts in flimsy, for 1950, bathing suit halters – she knew some local people now, including her young boyfriend whom she had rescured form a bare-bones farm – though she told me she really appreciated, really, no irony here, once being advised by my grandmother not to get too close to local people. So flattered that my grandmother would care.

Now one of her friends was a woman named Mary Jane who had recently been running the latest incarnation of the Sunset Hill House, a stuffy, Waspy in created in that old building with the fire escapes that had been a the bachelors’ quarters and then the summer college kid workers dormitory. Now it was fixed up expensively, but sparsely, to attract rich Wasps with brochures about how it was everyone’s duty to take the mountain air in a refined setting while playing golf. Mary Jane had had some falling out with the Sunset’s owners, and had just started this new rival restaurant across the way, near the first tee of the undersize golf course, in what had been the caddy shack, which had been ancient by the time Peter and I played at being caddies there.

I went there now for dinner with Mickie. Parked the aqua mustang where dad had probably at last met the golfing girl who would be my mother.

I had been here just three months earlier when I had driven over from Vermont. That time in Auguest when I went to meet Mickie at the former caddy shack, I had found a small crowd waiting outside what had become the dining room. The names being called were all names of my adolescent friends – as if I were in a time warp this time, though I quickly realized these were the sons and daughters – but they looked just like their parents, these young boys in sports jackets just as if it were still the fifties, the girls in dresses for dinner – my friends and lovers, the pretty girls, the determined boys, just like they had looked in 1950.

And now it was this very cold late November. Mickie and I headed for a room, once used for golfers to put on and take off their cleats and wipe off the heads of their clubs, that was now a bar lounge.

The summer kids were no longer around. The sole patron was a fat guy who was a friend of Mickie’s who said, as he apparently said every night, that his family had worked at a lake resort frequented by Kate Smith, who was the nastiest woman in the world. And he said, an he said several times that New Hampshire was America’s best kept secret. We were joined by the very ordinary and nervous looking Mary Jane who ran the place now, and briefly by her 5-foot, red-faced boyfriend who was sweating because he basically lived in the kitchen – and it turned out this was a crucial time. There had already been snow. The ground was already freezing. The heating system was not meant to work past golfing time. No one had ever before tried to interfere with how things had been arranged in the 19th century in the White Mountains. Certain summer places were not mean for winters. The pipes would be frozen any day, beyond the reach of blow torches, and Mary Jane would have no future if they could not last through Thanksgiving.

In those golden summers of the past I had had no idea how fragile everything up here could be.

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