Friday, February 3, 2023

Who Are You?

     "He was a good man."

     I remember as a youngster hearing older friends of my family speak of my grandfather. I listened respectfully but didn't really have any reference. Mom never talked much about her father. I'ld never seen a photo of him and I'm ashamed to admit that until recently I didn't even know what his first name was.

     I did know that the family name was Varney and that he had worked at a store in Wilton during the tough years of the early '40's. I'm not talking about the malled, big boxed, franchised chaos near Exit 15. What old-timers know as Wilton was the close-knit community at the foot of Mt. McGregor where Rt.9 and Ballard Road meet. The store was located on the northeast corner of the Wilton-Gansevoort Road and Northern Pine Road intersection. I believe it was owned by a Charles Van Rensselaer. It's gone now, razed or burned years ago.


And now...

     With WWII raging, most of the men were off fighting in Europe or the Pacific. Women and children, the elderly and the disabled were left to sacrifice and make do. Some of them were already bereaved widows and orphans. Family lore tells of my grandfather delivering groceries to those with no way to the store, of making sure that those who couldn't even afford a few dollars for food had enough to eat. He kept track of the neighborhood kids whose dads were overseas, becoming a father figure to those who hung out on the store's porch. He bought candy out of his own nearly empty pockets to brighten the day of the little ones.

Family and friends
My grandfather and grandmother are third and fourth from left in backrow
My mother is little girl standing in front of her mother

     Then, in the final desperate months of the war, my grandfather was drafted just a short time before aging out. He left Wilton, never to return. All I know is that he was in a tank closing in on Berlin when he became one of the conflict's last casualties. His body was interred along with thousands of other soldiers in a massive cemetery in the Netherlands. For years afterward a Dutch family, forever grateful for the sacrifice of the Americans, placed flowers on his grave, writing and sending photos to my widowed grandmother.

     My mother was a young teenager when she lost her father. She endured some lean, hard years afterward. Maybe it's the ugliness in Ukraine, the suffering of people there, but lately I've been thinking about how events shaped Mom, and in turn molded me. She always loathed injustice, never trusted government authority and she was always extremely frugal. All traits that, with a little introspection, I see in myself.
     Which brings me to Bennington, Vermont. To a little day trip I took there recently. Exploration is in our genes. Humans are restless, always wondering what's beyond the next hill. Thus the travel 'industry'. As I write this I have a friend wandering the backcountry of Big Bend National Park. Another buddy is going to Costa Rica  and a couple of long time hiking pals are in Antartica communing with penguins! They're sending back great pictures and I'll admit to a little envy. I also know that I could never do things like that. It's the attitude about money that I got from my mother. I have such a hard time spending it on things that aren't basic necessities. Things like travel or entertainment. Still, the itch to 'go' is there so I scratch it as best (and cheaply) as I can. Like spending the exorbitant sum of $30 on my Bennington escape. 

Jim Appleyard's photo of Boquillas Canyon in Big Bend National Park


Steve Mackey's photo of penguins in Antartica

     About a third of my budget went for gas. From my house it's about an hour's drive across the Hudson and thru the Taconic foothills to the Vermont Valley where Bennington hunkers. It's  scenic, pretty countryside on a connect the dots route thru Greenwich, Cambridge, White Creek and North Bennington. It was a Sunday morning and Kings Donut Cart was out but there was a long line so I didn't stop. Love their goodies but I could have easily spent $5 there. You know what they say about a penny saved...


      The next $10 of my splurge went towards admission to the Bennington Museum. I was interested in the Parks and Recreation exhibit but alas, they had already taken most of it down. Still, there was plenty to see. They have a whole gallery of Grandma Moses paintings and another room chronicling the Battle of Bennington, an event which actually took place just across the border in New York. Other current shows were the spooky In the Shadow of the Hills and a pictorial history of the Walloomsac Inn, quite a spooky place in its own right. Note that the museum closes over the winter but will reopen in April with some new exhibits.

'Friendly' faces in the Shadow of the Hills exhibit
The one at upper left sure looks like Shirley Jackson

     Looking at art always makes me hungry ( in truth, just about everything I do makes me hungry! ). So, after the museum the next stop was a no brainer. I took the short drive over to the Blue Benn Diner and slid onto a stool at the counter. Within minutes I was digging into a hot roast beef sandwich with gravy, mashed potatoes and a side of veggies. Haute cuisine? Well, no. Satisfying and cheap? You bet. For $10 I was fat and happy. This place has been putting smiles on faces since 1948. Now you can even buy a coffee table book - Sonny's Blue Benn: Feeding the Soul of a Vermont Town - celebrating the diner in words and vintage photos. 

     With still a little time left in the day I headed back to Old Bennington ( up the hill beyond the Museum ). The juxtaposition of the Old First Church's formality directly across the street from the shambling Walloomsac Inn always tickles me.

     From there I walked down thru the cemetery to visit Robert Frost's grave, where the inscription reads: "I had a lover's quarrel with the world."

The exquisite fence that encloses the cemetery

Frost's grave on a frosty day

     Next stop was just up the street at the Bennington Battle Monument. It's a state historic site open during the warmer months, when there's a fee to take the elevator to an observation level about 2/3's of the way up. My preference would be the original 417 step stairway but I'm not sure if it's still used. From October to May you can walk around the monument but not go inside. It's definitely impressive although I'm still quite fond of our Schuylerville Monument ( hometown pride ). What really amazes me is that all the stone you see, estimated at 19 million pounds, was dragged here from a dolostone quarry in the Town of Kingsbury, Washington County in the late 1800's.


- lyrics from What I am, a song by Edie Brickell

     With dusk settling it was time to head home. I was sorely tempted to stop at Brown's Brewing in Hoosic Falls ( by now, both hungry and thirsty again ) but I knew that would nearly double my day's expenditures so I resisted. One thing about driving alone in the evening: it gives you time to think. It felt like the repercussions of a young girl's loss many years ago were riding in the truck with me. The events of 1945 shaped my mother and she in turn shaped me. I had inherited values and habits that grew out of her deprivations. They say there were three maxims carved in the wall at the Temple of Apollo at Delpi in ancient Greece: "certainty brings ruin", "nothing in excess" and, most famously, "know thyself". Perhaps, if we all took a little time to think about why we believe what we do, to dig into where our personal truths came from and to accept that other's experiences were different, it would be a better world.

One last note...

     I've heard there's an exhibit at the Wilton Town Hall honoring the community's WWII families. I plan on checking it out first chance I get. Sadly, as long as the world keeps producing Hitlers and Putins there will be a need for people like my grandfather Maynard Varney and countless other brave service men and women to protect us. 

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