While we were out on the road on our cross country trip, Mom had read aloud to us from "Thunderbolt House" by Howard Pease, a Hardy Boys style mystery so captivating that vast stretches of each day passed with only the sound of Mom’s voice and the turning of pages. Through two complete readings back to back, plus a third on the return trip home, we listened to how the life of a small town California family in the early 1900s was transformed by the inheritance of a San Francisco mansion, how each member of the family was brought down by the their ascent into Nob Hill society, and how the only thing that saved them was the earthquake and fire that destroyed the city in 1906.
And so now here we were in Wisconsin, the book freshly closed and set aside, walking up to the door of a mansion as every bit a mystery as the one on the cover.
Ushered inside by a uniformed maid, we passed through heavily upholstered rooms with high gilded ceilings and brocaded walls into the presence of my father’s Aunt Nell and Aunt Betty, or - as they were locally known with grammatically archaic formality - the Misses Babcock. Tiny and stone deaf at 88, Aunt Nell was the first born, oldest living, and long established matriarch of the family. She had ridden a camel in Egypt, taken to the skies as a passenger in one of the first flying machines, and unlike most of her contemporaries had committed much of her life to helping those in need, and to giving unstintingly to all manner of community projects that a town the size of Neenah would not otherwise expect to enjoy. In sharp contrast, her taller but diffident sister Betty was the 79-year-old baby of the family who had spent most of her life under her sister's wing, supporting Nell's good works and taking care of the home.
Neither lady was more than dimly familiar to me as an eight-year-old, but their presence in our lives was far from remote or shadowy. At our great distance away in California we had been showered each year with a formidable array of Christmas gifts, and as each of us turned twelve these Wisconsin ladies marked our transitions into adulthood by substituting presents with an annual check made out for a manly $25, a sum so substantial and impressive at the time (Mom and Dad were given a joint $75) that opening a savings account followed without protest.
Every two or three years the aunts would also come out to San Francisco, at which point we would all be washed and dressed and taken into the city and briefly put on display for them at places like the Mark Hopkins or the Fairmont or the Clift Hotel, institutions of such luxury and privilege that the visits were more like stereopticon views of foreign lands, vaguely distorted and so removed from our own time and way of life that they were easily set aside or forgotten, except as some passing curiosity. It never really occurred to those of us on display that the lives of these ladies were in any way umbilically connected to ours.
Occasionally the two of them might alternately come to our house as part of some larger family gathering, for which Mom would dedicate months to properly stage, first cleaning and reorganizing every corner and cupboard of the house, then preparing an elaborate meal inevitably using the entire Royal Doulton china service Aunt Nell and Aunt Betty had picked out with her at Gump’s of San Francisco, their present to Mom when she married Dad. And when finally welcomed into our home with all the solemnity of visiting heads of state, the two sisters would very kindly comment on how perfectly everything had been arranged, and Aunt Betty in particular would remark on the dinner, noting that she was unable to get their cook to fix more than one vegetable and here Mom had prepared three.
My father, Henry Babcock Adams, walking my oldest brother Bob along the Neenah shoreline during their visit in 1941. The tension that existed between them all their lives was clearly evident even then.
Mom, however, was certain that both Aunt Nell and Aunt Betty disapproved of her, recounting repeatedly as evidence the events of her first and only other trip to Wisconsin, which had taken place in 1941 when my oldest brother Bob - newly married at the time of our trip - was a rambunctious two-year-old. At lunch on the first day of that earlier visit Mom had taken Bob out of the ornate Victorian high chair that had been set up for his use and let him run around the dinner table as the adults continued to talk. She then took him upstairs to change his diaper and to her horror discovered that while the diaper had been soiled, it’s contents had escaped to parts unknown.
How the errant turd escaped from both the diaper and Bob's clothing remains a mystery, but during her ensuing search of the intricate patterns of oriental carpets and parquet flooring, Mom was approached by Aunt Betty who readily offered to help, assuming the hunt was for nothing more offensive than a missing earring. When apprised of the real objective, Aunt Betty turned white, then quickly mustered all available hands into a bucket brigade outfitted with mops, pans, cleaning fluids and flashlights. Eventually the wayward excreta was found on the dining room carpet, remarkably untrammeled given the number of parties involved in its recovery. And shortly thereafter, to Mom’s everlasting chagrin, a nurse was hired to take charge of Bob for the remainder of their visit so that Mom could relax more during her stay. From this Mom inferred that she had been cast as nothing less than an unfit mother.
Now some twenty years later there were four children in tow, all seated in that very same dining room around a table set with linen, china, crystal and sterling, being served fried chicken by a procession of maids in white organdy aprons, each carrying some part of the meal on silver platter perched upon little white cushions trimmed in tatted lace. Sitting next to Mom, I mumbled something about wanting ketchup and was shushed with a little more emphasis than I had normally come to expect. Moments later, however, a tiny silver pitcher of the stuff was set at my place, summonsed through the oracle of Aunt Betty’s attentive ear and a buzzer to the kitchen hidden under the carpet.
And while it seemed to me in the moment that nothing could have been more amazing than that little pitcher of ketchup, when the dinner dishes were removed each place was next set with a finger bowl of warm scented water, for any of us who might have used our fingers to pick up a chicken wing or leg. This fastidiously thoughtful interlude, preceding the apple pie and cheese, was no less astonishing and exotic to me than had a band of whirling Dervishes come spinning around the table.
I had never seen anything like it before - and never would again.
CHAPTER I continues HERE