Old Stories through New Eyes

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A few weeks ago, my brother sent me a very interesting New York Times opinion piece that’s on topic with the “Dry Year” thread of this blog. In it, poet John Skoyles reveals how he had spent much of his graduate school years drinking heavily, and had engaged in risky behaviors as a result. In fact, he wrote a memoir about it called “A Moveable Famine” without realizing that his own alcohol abuse was a theme in the book. It wasn’t until he reflected back on his story after reconnecting with an old girlfriend that he acknowledged his alcoholism. Although I considered reading the memoir, I’m hoping he’ll write another one that looks back on that time with new eyes.

In the same email in which he alerted me to Skoyles’ article, my brother also suggested that I consider adding a new thread or two to my blog, in order to keep people interested and entertained. He felt I needed to branch out from my too-narrow focus on not drinking, dieting and running. I couldn’t agree with him more, so, as a result, I’m introducing a new thread related to the memoir section of my blog.

My two brothers and I grew up in a busy inn, in a Vermont ski-resort town. Although hard to believe given that they’re now both in their 70’s, my parents still run the very bustling Combes Family Inn. Through the years, my mom has threatened now and then to write a book filled with stories from her and Dad’s 36 years as innkeepers. Since they’ve recently begun formulating their retirement plans and even picked a tentative date for closing the doors on their business, I decided it’s time to help Mom document some of her favorite inn-keeping stories.

My parents, while in their mid-30’s, had a dream of becoming innkeepers, long before it became fashionable. My mom was always a great cook and my dad an exceptional handyman. When our original hometown in New Hampshire was becoming over-developed, they began looking for an inn in earnest. They looked for two years to find a suitable one in either rural New Hampshire or Vermont, where they could raise their three young children while creating a business.

My mom’s story doesn’t make sense unless you understand how vibrant and beautiful the inn and its property are today. The photos below give you a taste of what I’m talking about. There are two photos of the inn and the grounds today and four of the “before” pictures.

“I’ll tell you the very first inn-keeping story that I want people to know,” Mom said the other night, after I mentioned this new idea for a blog thread. She was addressing me, my father, my husband Bruce, and my brother Bill, who is visiting for the long July 4th weekend. “The story relates the moment when we all walked through that door, as we took possession of the house in March, 1978,” she said.

“The entrance way had piles of garbage and large, opened bags of large-animal feed. Wafting out of the first room beyond the entrance was the smell of animal feces. A quick look inside, revealed more garbage and a partially collapsed ceiling,” she related. “Our cat, Gimpy, was so skeptical about the place that he wouldn’t walk through the doorway. I’ll never forget that I turned to look at my eldest child Billy, after Gimpy walked away from the front door. Billy, who was just 11 years old at the time, shook his head and asked ‘What have you gotten us all into?’”

Little did any of us know then that 36 years later the inn would be still be in business. Although I have heard the story a million times, I have no recollection of the cat’s disgust or my brother’s reaction, because, in a similar reaction as my cat, I ran back to the car and refused to get out again. I just sat in the car and cried. When my parents came back to force me out, I kept screaming “I want to go to the Snow Mansion!”

I was referring to one of the handful of other inns my parents had looked at before finally selecting the ramshackle farmhouse.  What I called the “Snow Mansion” was really the Snowvillage Inn, a resort near Conway, New Hampshire that had a large pond, tennis courts, and rolling fields. It’s still around today. This is what it looks like now. When we left our home in Merrimack, New Hampshire, in my mind, the Snow Mansion was the type of place we were moving to.  In fact, it was with considerable pride on my last day in elementary school that I told everyone I was moving to the Snow Mansion.

What my nine-year-old self and my cat Gimpy couldn’t conceive of was the potential that my parents had seen in the place. According to my mother, as she reflected back on why they risked uprooting their three young children and moving to start a new life in a house that could truthfully be described as “a dump”: “It was a place we could put our own mark on and start our new business slowly. We loved the area. It was near a small town with a village center with a growing ski resort, and it had a local school for you kids. And, on top of all that, the house itself had more than 50 acres and was on a country back road with a great view.”

Once each month, I’m going to interview my mom and share her stories. Some of them are absolutely hysterical.

Cat School

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I enjoyed putting together my last post, “My Sibs and Me.” So much so, in fact, that I have to tell one more sibling story.

As I’ve mentioned many times in the past, I am writing a memoir. In the process, I have dusted off several boxes of old books, letters, journals and photographs. The last box I opened had several reports and personal mementos from my primary and secondary school years in Ludlow, Vermont.

Among these items was a typed, untitled, one-page story with an “A-” in red ink at the top. I have no idea how old I was when I wrote it, or what my assignment was. The story, however, is one that I have told many, many times through the years, even very recently. In all of those recountings, though, I never quite told it the same way that it was typed by my young self on a nearly transparent sheet of typing paper.

The story takes place when I was four and my brother Wayne was five. At the time, our older brother Bill was six and in first grade. I was in my first year of a pre-school program, and was very worried about how my cat passed his days while I was away at school. My mother eventually found my many nagging questions about my cat—“Gimpy”—tiresome and finally told me that Gimpy also went to school. She explained that, as soon as we three kids went off to school in the morning, Gimpy went to “Cat School.”

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(Above: This photo was taken about the same time that the “cat school” story takes place.)

On the morning of the story, the pre-school was closed, but the elementary school was still in session. This meant that Billy went off to school while Wayne and I stayed home. Shortly after Billy had left, I looked out the window and spied Gimpy walking around outside. I ran to Wayne and told him to come with me and look, because “Gimpy must be on his way to Cat School!”

Below is exactly what was written on the typed page that I found.

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When I was about four, my family lived in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Our house had some woods and a swamp behind it.

One day, my brother, Wayne, and I decided to follow our cat, Gimpy, around to see where he goes during the day. The cat started to head for the woods, so Wayne and I chased him. I don’t remember how long we followed Gimpy, but somewhere in the middle of the woods, we lost sight of him.

I started to cry and Wayne said, “I know how to get home from here.”

We started heading back the way we came and came to the swamp. Wayne walked right through the water and when he got to the other side, he said, “Sharon, come on, it isn’t that deep.”

I said, “I don’t want to get wet!”

Finally, I went in the swamp and got wet all the way up to my chest. After a bit of walking we reached a place we’d seen before.

I said, “Our house is this way.”

“No, stupid, it’s this way,” Wayne said.

Wayne went his way and I went mine. When I couldn’t see Wayne any more, I started screaming and (then turned around and) caught up with him. I followed him through the woods and finally we were out of the woods and in our back yard. Mom was standing next to the house yelling at us. We ran to Mom and hugged her. I think she was crying.

Mom said, “Oh, I’m so glad to see you! If you ever run away again I’ll give you both a licking!”

By: Sharon Combes

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Finding my old school essay allowed me to see this childhood episode through my own eyes as a child. I imagine myself being too embarrassed at the time that I wrote it to acknowledge that I believed my Mom when she said that our cat went to school. Therefore, I completely left that part out, despite it being a fundamental part of the story.

This tale is a special sibling story to me, because it’s a microcosm of my relationship with Wayne when Billy wasn’t around. We had our differences, but we still turned to each other and, ultimately, bonded.

I’d love to hear other childhood sibling stories. Please comment on this post with one of your favorites.

My Sibs and Me

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Evidently there’s a Siblings Day. I became aware of it late on April 10th through the numerous postings in my Facebook newsfeed about it. When the hell did that happen? And, if it’s now a bona fide day of family recognition, where will this end? I found out there’s already a Cousins Day, for example. Assuming I’m not the only person asking these questions, I’m writing to provide a little background on this obscure holiday, as well as a few personal thoughts about my own siblings.

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(Above: I couldn’t resist putting out a Belated Siblings Day post on Facebook with this sweet Combes sibling portrait from the early ‘70s.)

Here’s what Wikipedia says: “Siblings Day (sometimes called National Siblings Day) is a holiday recognized annually in some parts of the United States on April 10 honoring the relationships of siblings. Unlike Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, it is not federally recognized, though the Siblings Day Foundation is working to change this. Since 1998, the governors of (41) states have officially issued proclamations to recognize Siblings Day in their state.”

There’s a lot more information about it in this fact sheet located on the foundation’s website. For example, the date of April 10th was picked because it was the birthdate of the founder’s deceased sister.

That, as the website says, “the bond between siblings is usually the longest relationship of a person’s life” is certainly true. I remember pointing this out to my nephew Liam a year or two ago when he was angsting about his sister and yelled at the top of his lungs, “I hate Ayla!!!” I counseled him then that the day will come when he needs his sister and that his relationship with her will be the single-most important one he develops through his whole life. Of course, he looked at me like I had corn growing out of my ears.

I certainly had my ups and downs with my two brothers, Bill and Wayne, particularly when we were very young.  I remember being terrified of being left alone with Wayne and often used to wonder, had Billy not been there to protect me from him, whether I ever would have survived toddlerhood.

There was the time Wayne pushed my head under water while I was learning how to swim, the time he got a bunch of neighborhood kids to help him stick me in a hammock and spin me over and over again until I threw up, and the countless times he used to kick me under the table.

Wayne never minded getting in trouble, so he seemed to make it his goal to take me down with him. “Wayne is kicking me under the table!” I once yelled.  Dad replied in a millisecond, “at least he’s quiet about it.”

The most depressing instance was the time Wayne successfully got my mother to believe that I had used the F word.  I was probably 8 at the time and I had never even considered using the F word. I’ll never understand, given Wayne’s history of shenanigans, why my mother believed him. At any rate, Mom attempted to wash my mouth out with soap – except there wasn’t any water involved. I can still taste the chunks of Coast that were scraped off in my mouth under my little buck teeth.

It went on like this for years between me and Wayne.  Our relationship didn’t turn around until Billy went to college and it was just the two of us left at home, he a high school senior and I a junior. Wayne had realized that it was handy to have a popular sister who could potentially provide access to girls.

In my “new” relationship with Wayne, I was touched that he asked my help putting clothes together for him to wear to school. He seemed to blossom in several ways that last year home.  In actuality, I probably just noticed Wayne more now that Billy was gone. That allowed me to get to know him better and to appreciate him. 

Billy and I, on the other hand, seemed to have been made from the same mold.  We were high academic achievers, extroverts, and captains of our high school sports teams. That we were so much alike and so difficult to ignore were probably the main reasons Wayne seemed to have so much trouble growing up. He might have felt unnoticed and under-appreciated, and that led to outlandish behavior to get attention.

In high school, Billy and I had a nightly ritual of doing homework around the massive oak table in our family room. It was always a race to finish our assignments by 11:15, when the local NBC news broadcast ended, so we could watch “Star Trek.”  When the mildly attractive and shapely meteorologist started her fumbling assessment of the next day’s weather, it was a signal to finish up, close the books, and be alert for Captain Kirk.

Like the motley crew on the Enterprise, Billy and I always seemed to get along.  Those nights doing our homework together are among my fondest childhood memories.

Then the inevitable happened. We all grew up and went our separate ways. Bill was off to Clarkson University in upper state New York and then into the nuclear core of the U.S. Navy, where he remains today, presently out to sea with the rank of Captain. Wayne found college life wasn’t for him and joined the U.S. Air Force where he had a very long and decorated career. He’s retired from the military, but is back at the Wright Patterson base in Dayton, Ohio, as a civil servant. I went around the world in my studies and early career, ultimately settling back home in Vermont, just a stone’s throw from where the three of us grew up.

All of this sibling talk is making me realize that we really need to make a point of getting together much more often. I’ve no opinion on whether or not there should be a national holiday to celebrate siblings. It all seems a bit too Hallmark-ish for me.  However, I am very thankful to have taken this time to reflect on my relationship with my two brothers. And I’m pretty darned lucky to be stuck with them.