All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
A SECOND SUMMER in the COUNTRY
Our second summer in the country remains forever vivid in my memory, largely because I took a lot of photographs, many of which you are about to see. Early that July, Eunice’s parents, Alex and Dorothy Richards traveled to America, for the second time. They stayed with us for several weeks. We all had a wonderful time. While they were here, my mother, Leila, and her new husband, Devit Law traveled from Miami Beach, again, and dropped in for a long weekend. We would not see my mother again, for twenty years, until after Devit died. Therefore, we were seeing my new stepfather for the final time. In my opinion, this former catsup salesman, who by marrying my mother had been suddenly able to retire, personified the very essence of opportunism and mediocrity. And he was equally unimpressed with me. Thus, even though, the meeting was brief, it set the scene for this snappy dressing dandy to soon impact our financial destiny.
If ever a picture was worth a thousand words, this photo would be it! It succinctly sums up the second summer of our new life in the Dutchess County. By then, we had become full-fledged country bumpkins. The fact that Eunice, hates this photograph, and finds it quite embarrassing is not without a certain irony, considering that when she was growing up in England, she imagined life in America would be like the Beverly Hillbillies. And, by the way, she loved the show. Now, she found herself in Dutchess County, and suddenly, her childhood concept of life in the USA had become her new reality, and she didn’t like it, after all!
Here we see the entire family, with the sole exception of yours truly, who is behind the camera. They are all posing with the tractor, parked there by our neighbor, Paul Miller, who planned to plow the driveway, then, left it sitting there four years. On the left, we see a pair of city slickers, my mother and her new hubby, looking like Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor, the lead characters in “Green Acres.” Right in the middle, is Eunice, staring as Ellie Mae, along with Pudgy's replacement, Bingo, now one year old. Beside her, is her “Mum” Dorothy; and in the driver’s seat, her father Alexander. Meanwhile, climbing on the tractor, is Samantha, still wet from the aboveground pool, and her little sister Alexandra Toots, in her Mickey Mouse bathing suit.
This second summer found us with a brand new pool. Sometime before or after the previous winter, when the water in the pool was not frozen over, I got a phone call from Jim Pappas, our next door neighbor, alerting me that the tax inspector was right down the street, and methodically heading our way. Jim believed that if he didn’t get to the schoolhouse that afternoon, he would, surely, appear there the next day. I had already theorized, to my dismay, that because the house had changed hands, the taxes would go up. And suddenly I realized: Oh my God! He'll see the pool!
Thinking that that fifty dollar piece of crap would make our taxes skyrocket, the blunder bear ran out into the yard, and hurriedly tore the pool apart. I only had to lean heavily on one side, and the whole thing collapsed, sending a few thousand gallons of stagnant water cascading down the embankment, with a mighty "splash!," and out across the highway! Then, I dragged the liner and the sidewalls over to the incline, and kicked them down the ditch between the yard and fence. I tossed the wooden ladder after them. After that, I hid the pump and filter in the cellar. I later learned that this spontaneous attempt to avoid taxes had been utterly unnecessary. A knowledgeable friend, later, informed me that an aboveground pool did not increase the tax on real estate. How embarrassing! And, so, that’s why we began this second summer with a new aboveground swimming pool. This one was a sixteen footer!
By the way, the tax assessor did arrive the following day. I was quaking with fear as I showed him around the house, with the walls and the ceilings half torn down. When he was about to leave, and we were standing in the hall by the front door, I sheepishly dared to ask him, with a voice that was quavering, “Will our taxes go up much?” He laughed, and replied. “A single story three room house, with only one bathroom (the other, having been torn out), and a basement that’s unfinished? Go up? Your taxes will be going down!”
Meanwhile, I'm taxing my brain, right now, trying to remember if anything worth relating took place between the winter and the summer of 1971 when Eunice’s parents arrived in the USA again. Oh, yes, I just remembered something. The emotional state that we were in, on the other hand, is something I've tried to forget. It’s fascinating how one chance meeting can lead to another, and alter the course of destiny.
Our introduction to the country, and the hard frigid winter that followed it had plunged us into deep depression. When spring arrived, we had come to the conclusion that we should try to escape this nightmare if we could. So, we put the schoolhouse on the market, while we went house hunting in Nyack, a town that seemed more closely related to the world as we had known it in the city. This exercise was doomed on both counts. We couldn’t find a house we liked, or could afford, nor could we find a buyer for the schoolhouse.
Fortuitously, the one potential buyer, who came to look at the house, and actually saw it as exciting, was a doctor who already had a place in Garrison. His name was Dr. Alvin Friedman-Kien. His property in Garrison included an entire complex of structures, consisting of a barn, a house, and a greenhouse. He had imported an old fashioned master carpenter from England, just for the summer, to live on his mini estate and renovate it. This gentleman's name was Harry Rickard, and being that he had no family here, Alvin thought that because Eunice was English, Harry might like to meet us. And so Harry came to visit. We immediately became friends. He had with him a scary looking dog named, Sheba, who he had adopted from the humane society to temporarily keep him company in Garrison, where he spent all week alone.
See, I told you Sheba looked scary! But looks can be deceiving. She was actually a sweetie. Harry Rickard was not unlike Eunice’s father, Alex Richards, in temperament, stature and personality. Therefore, when Eunice’s dad arrived, a few months later, he and Harry did, in fact, become, good friends. Meanwhile, Harry and Sheba were frequent visitors to the schoolhouse, and always welcome. Whenever Harry had some time to spare, I’d hire him to aid me with my amateurish attempts at carpentry. As a master carpenter, Harry was amazing. He had never used a power tool in his life, and did everything by hand. Harry was a living throwback to a previous century. Together, we built a raised sleeping platform in the living room, and I’d assist him, while absorbing as much knowledge of carpentry as I could.
I’ll leap ahead here to explain the impact that Harry Rickard had on our destiny. When fall arrived, Harry returned to Brighton. And when he left, he gave us Sheba. She turned out to be a dog who I admired greatly. I was convinced that she was more cat than canine, for she had a bright and independent mind. She would only do what pleased her, and only when she felt like it, would she deign to cooperate. Sheba and I developed a relationship, one based on mutual respect. Sheba, on the other hand, had absolutely no respect for Bingo. She considered him an idiot, and endured him with palpable distain.
Apart from giving us Sheba, perhaps more importantly, Harry also introduced us to a carpenter who worked with him occasionally at Alvin Freedman-Kien’s. His name was William Maxwell. Thanks to this introduction, our lives would never be the same. It was Bill Maxwell who, over time, came to be the genius craftsman, who crafted every aspect of Mouse Heaven. In fact, Mouse Heaven was his Masterpiece! But all of this was to take place much further in the future. For now, our second summer in the country was just beginning, and Eunice’s parents, Alex and Dolly, would soon arrive from England.
Speaking of Bingo, here he is now, looking like the Big Bad Wolf, with a hangdog expression, and sitting by the front porch with Samantha and Alexandra, just as the summer was beginning.
A few days later their grandparents, Alex and Dorothy would arrive from England. By now, Eunice’s parents were seasoned travelers. If we had our misgivings about living in the country, they certainly didn’t have any. They loved America, and they loved it here in Dutchess County. Most of all, they liked hanging around the house and pool. But we did manage to do some sightseeing. These photos were taken on an excursion to The Bear Mountain Inn, where there are few bears to be seen, but they do serve what folks from England call, “a slap-up feast,” and we call, “an all you can eat buffet.” It was a lovely day, not discernable from the look on Samantha’s face. But the blurry shot of Toots with a red balloon has become a “fave.”
Eunice’s father Alexander absolutely loved the country. Here we see him sitting on the tractor, and later, grilling the biggest steaks he’d ever seen, on our tabletop barbeque. He also displayed his skill at carpentry by crafting a flock of bird feeders, some of which he gave away, and others adorned our yard for many years, until they eventually faded away. Contemplating, just now, how that could have happened, I realize that these photographs, although, they remain bright and new, were taken forty-six years ago. They have fared much better than the bird feeders did.
Alexander and Alexandra instantly became best friends. Toots discovered that her Granddad would let her do just about anything, including smearing him with makeup. And here they are along with Tom, enjoying a cat nap.
No doubt about it, the new aboveground pool was the hit and focal point of the vacation. Everyone had fun in the pool, everyone that is, but Bingo, who would have gladly jumped in too. So many photos! This will be the biggest slide show.
Harry was a frequent visitor. Meanwhile, the crowd from the cabins next door were back again as well. Bingo became Alex’s best friend, and good old Tom was still around.
And here is the whole motley crew at sunset. I call this one “God’s Little Acre.” Of course Bingo had to get in there, while Toots imitates a monkey, and Ellie Mae, strikes a pose in center stage. After several weeks of each other’s company, a relaxed casual mood set in. By the way, here one can appreciate the sorry state of what we called “the driveway.” And It just occurred to me, the school bell is still in the bell tower. That’s become a bedroom, these days.
And then, my mother, Leila and my new stepfather, Devit arrived. When Devit Law married my mom, he not only acquired a new wife, but also a new condo, and her new Cadillac as well. I noticed that the front license plate on Leila’s car had been changed to "LAW" to advertise his name.
I assume that Eunice was behind the camera. It was always a rare occasion that I would be in a photo. While she was at it, I seems she not only took one of me and my mother together, but also one of me with Toots and Bingo.
These photographs are a study in sharp contrasts. Here we see Devit and Leila, modeling Miami Beach’s most outrageously Mod fashions, circa 1970, and doing their inimitable imitation of Barbie and Ken, alongside Eunice’s, modest mum, Dorothy, looking consistently dowdy, circa Dover, 1940. I wouldn’t want to imply that Devit is attired like a clown, but if Dorothy saw someone in that outfit, walking down a street in Dover, she’d assume the circus was in town!
And here’s a photograph that I have always found amusing. I don’t know who took it, but it always makes me laugh. Eunice and her dad, standing beside my mother’s car, while Bingo’s jaws are clamped on Alexandra’s arm. And she is impervious to his nonsense.
Meanwhile, I was shooting similar photos, not as funny, but better color, of Eunice in her lavender dress. What an attractive Wench! And, is that Samantha I see behind her?
When this day came to an end, we bid Leila and Devit good bye, never guessing that if would be nearly twenty years before we would see my mother again, but never Devit, who she managed to outlive. For now, they drove off in Leila’s Cadillac, on a twenty year adventure that would carry them across the USA, from New York to LA., dropping in on every member of my father’s family, along the way. And when they ran out of Birnkrants, they embarked on an itinerary of annual cruises that carried them from the Far East to the Caribbean, and back again. Eventually, they purchased a bigger better condo, a penthouse in Miami Beach. This was a marriage made in Heaven, made possible by love and money that my father made in Michigan.
A few days later, we bid farewell to Eunice’s parents. Eunice and the kids would see them again, but I never did. They traveled to England one summer a few years later. And Eunice went to Dover one final time, accompanied by Noel Barrett’s wife Lynn Barrett, shortly before her mother passed away. Dorothy lived to be 90. After Alex died, she spent her final years in a nursing home, and loved it there.
As you can see, our life in Dutchess County continued. But, it sure felt like it was coming to an end, when a few months after my mother and her lover left, she wrote to tell us that she was taking back the gift she gave us, my so-called “inheritance,” a $300 a month mortgage payment that she put in my name to make up for the fact that my father left me nothing. But, as she explained, times were tough and penthouses were expensive, so she had to terminate the gift that she had given us, twelve years prematurely! Meanwhile, it seemed obvious to everybody that she and her paramour had no problem “making ends meet,” if you know what I mean! And, clearly, her ex-catsup salesman husband had screwed us too, without a condiment.
Fear not dear reader, the story has a happy ending that turned out to be a new beginning. That extra $300 every month had been just enough to enable us to survive on the $200 a week that Colorforms advanced me towards royalties. Now, I had no option, but to go to Harry Kislevitz, and ask him for a bigger advance. As always, Harry didn't let me down. He doubled my weekly allowance, and once again, I was off and running. Did I resent my mother letting Devit convince her to spend that monthly sum on him instead of me? Yes, at first I did, but in the end, it proved to be a sort of gift, one that forced me to stand on my own two feet. And it wasn’t very long until the toys I made began to sell, and generate more royalties, even at just one percent, than Colorforms had been advancing me.
This might be a good place to end this page. But as a few photographs of Samantha and Alexandra, from this era, remain, I’ll add them here, and then, call it a day.
As our second year in the country came to an end, our lives were still in disarray. We did the best we could to make this enormously huge space with its primitive amenities seem like a home. At times, we felt like we were camping out, indoors. Tom was the only member of the family who was totally sold on living in the country. He loved his life here, even though, he was forced to put up with two insane dogs. Bingo and Sheba together turned out to be a canine situation comedy. Bingo was either stupid or crazy; we could never quite make up our minds which it was, but either way the results were the same. While Sheba assumed the role of watch dog, and took her job too seriously, she seized on every opportunity to display how alarming she could be, overreacting to every noise by barking ferociously. God forbid Greeks bearing bricks dare enter our yard again.
At times, the always predictable interplay between Bingo and Sheba approached high comedy. Their most amusing routine took place every time we went away, and left the two of them sitting on the front porch, side by side, which was something that we often did When we returned, the pandemonium was guaranteed to begin. As soon as we drove up the driveway, Sheba, in an attempt to impress on us what a good watchdog she could be, would suddenly turn on Bingo, menacingly, and chase him away. The two of them would then, run round and round the house, and through the woods behind it, again and again, with Bingo fleeing for dear life, and Sheba barking furiously, in hot pursuit, a few feet behind. Finally, when both dogs were worn out, Bingo would either hide, or fall down, while Sheba would come trotting up for her reward, a shower of petting and praise. It was all totally insane. And this hilarious routine would take place, time and time again. When things calmed down, Bingo would slink up with his tail between his legs, and the two dogs would sit side by side on the porch again, as if they were the best of friends. Meanwhile, Alexandra, who was always an animal lover (even now she has seven cats) never failed to be amused by the never ending antics of these exceedingly strange pets.
Exceedingly strange? That is a question that we asked ourselves, frequently. Could two children grow up in an old schoolhouse, with a thousand images of Mickey Mouse, a glamorous English mom, a father who makes dolls and toys, a clever cat and two crazy dogs, and not turn out to be exceedingly strange? Well, we weren’t inclined to change anything, so, we would just have to wait and see.