Saturday, November 22, 2014
"Rich Men, Poor Men," Ch. 5, Axtell Memoir BUT...AT WHAT COST
It was a story-book meeting. My friend from work loved to ride horses. I had a car, so I drove her to the hack stable and rode, though not very well, with her. A half-hour after my first riding experience began, my horse ran away with me and the tall, handsome college man working there galloped up from behind and delivered me from certain death! What a start to a relationship! Then, he said, “How in heck (or maybe hell) did you let this horse get away from you?” So much for romance … the man has not one romantic cell in his body… but he did have some other qualities I immediately recognized. And, as they say, the rest is history – at this writing, fifty-two years of history.
He showed up at my door the next day, so I guess something had sparked in him too. I don’t know how he found out where I lived, but there he was. I asked him many years later what the attraction was and he said, “You had very good manners.” Good manners? Anyway, the chase was on. We were inseparable… and he did have a bit of the “romantic” in him during the courtship. Not much, mind you, but a little.
I had never met anyone like Ashley before… or since, for that matter. I know I said previously that my childhood experiences dictated my future beliefs… and they did to some extent, but Ashley (for better or worse) provided (actively and passively) most of the finishing touches. We started out with very similar values. We both have somewhat rigid convictions about right and wrong, but our convictions were not prescribed by religious dogma. We are atheists (or agnostics), and dismissive of dogma in general. If anyone can be honest to a fault, he is. I see many more gray areas than he does, but our underlying “truths” are the same. He NEVER lies – I will skew the truth a little to save hurt feelings, but both of us are ethical in the extreme… and always have been. This has been both a blessing and a curse for me. His honesty and his strict sense of “rightness” (almost to the point of self-righteousness) were both an attraction and a problem – especially when we had kids… but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Dating Ashley deposited me into a wholly different kind of culture – a culture of the rich. Ash denied their wealth, and to him, they probably weren’t; however, to me, they were definitely of a different “class”… and something to be reckoned with! Sure, I had met educated “rich” people before, but never as an insider. His father, Silas Blake (SB), was a big time lawyer in NYC… and terrified me. When it first got around to him that we were dating, my parents received an invitation (issued more like a command) to appear at his home in Staten Island to discuss the futures of the children. “We wouldn’t want them to quit school and become common laborers,” he warned.
Ashley let my parents off the hook, but I felt obligated to obey. Maybe obligated isn’t the right word. In some ways, I was excited to comply. Prior to our going, I had received a large packet in the mail. It contained newspaper and magazine articles about his Supreme Court cases, his family’s history – notable achievements, and famous characters in his life… it was a large packet! I was duly impressed, but appalled by his arrogance.
I was right to be afraid of the much-anticipated meeting; it was an inquisition. Upon our arrival, SB sent Ash off on an errand and told me to have a seat on the veranda by the pool. I could appreciate his concerns. Ashley had married previously at eighteen and that marriage had been annulled when he was twenty. Then, at twenty-one, he appeared to be ready to leap again. Yes, I understood SB’s concerns, but I found his manner quite deplorable. His wife, Betty, Ashley’s stepmother, tried to rescue me by offering some experimentation with an Ouija board… (WHAT?) Anyway, she said not to worry because nobody paid any attention to SB. (Where in heck was Ashley?!) For some unknown reason SB decided to quiz me on horticulture. I guessed I would pass the inspection only if I could name all the plants in the garden. There weren’t any roses or daisies, so I was cooked! I didn’t fare much better on any other topics he chose either. If he had asked about jazz artists and their music, I might have had a chance, but the words of the Kenyon College fight song were not in my repertoire.
I was eighteen when I arrived on that veranda… and at least twenty-five when we left. I learned a lot… I learned what wisteria looks like. I learned SB was “eccentric” and Betty was “crazy.” And I learned I needed to save Ashley from this freak show. It back-fired, SB! I think you wanted to show me I wasn’t good enough, but instead, you showed me I was.
I had already met two of Ashley’s three older brothers and his two younger half-brothers. Hal (a lawyer), his wife Barbara (a teacher), and their daughter were a typical up-and-coming family. Ash had lived with them his junior and senior years of high school in Washingtonville, NY. Hal was a little scary; Barb, not at all.
Dan and his wife, Sue, were the most welcoming. They were relatively poor and not at all intimidating. They lived in a small trailer on some of the farm property, and Ashley lived alone in the (unheated) farmhouse at that time. “The Farm,” as it was called, was 200 acres on Drury Lane, about seven miles from Washingtonville. The house, built in the late 1700s with an addition built in the 1870s, was quite run-down when I first saw it in 1960. I’m sure it must have been very beautiful when SB first bought it in the 1920s before the Crash, but by the time I saw it, the house was in major disrepair: the tennis court was unusable, the barns and out-buildings were losing boards and possibly their foundations, and the fields and riding trails were mostly overgrown. The glory days were definitely gone.
As I learned later, SB barely survived the Crash, but fared much better than many of his colleagues. I’m told he took a couple of them in at the farm where they played “gentlemen farmers.” The family has home films from that era, so I did get to see “the lifestyles of the rich and famous at the farm.”
None of the “names” SB dropped to impress me then would be recognizable now (to any but historians), but he did run for Congress in NYC, went on a diplomatic mission to meet Stalin, and was generally surrounded by the Who’s Who crowd. Neither was Ashley’s mother’s family a bunch of slouches. Not that my family were slouches, but I had NEVER met any people with these kinds of credentials.
Ashley’s mother, Ellen, was an M.D., but didn’t practice medicine. Her aunt, however, had. Dr. Mary went to med school at Stanford, worked as a medical examiner in San Francisco, and then worked as a milliner to save enough money to start her own practice in NYC in 1903. She was an original suffragette and most of the pictures we have of her show her on a soap box… or at one or the other of society’s best costume balls. She, among others, initiated the law that eliminated the word “bastard” from birth certificates; only a birth mother’s maiden name was to be listed, so no stigma would attach to the child. Good for you, Dr. Mary!
Female doctors were nearly unheard of back then… yeah, she was quite the character! And quite the example – an example Ellen followed until she married SB and started a family.
From all accounts, Ellen was a wonderful mother – the perfect and necessary foil to SB’s brusqueness and eccentricities. But she died when Ash was six. Amo (Ellen’s mother) stepped in to raise the boys. She, too, was wonderful… but SB was a lot to overcome.
All agree Ashley suffered the most from his mother’s absence; he just didn’t have her long enough… and once crazy Betty arrived on the scene, he was a forgotten child, left to raise himself. Well, not completely; he lived with neighbors for a while and lived with friends in Mexico for a year or so when he was twelve. I don’t know many of the particulars because Ash doesn’t talk about those years much – certainly not enough for me to figure out the sequence of events. I do know Aunt Trudy (Ellen’s sister) wanted to raise him when Ellen died, but SB refused. I get the feeling he was shuffled around a lot and didn’t really have a place to call home.
There is no doubt in my mind: loneliness was the main reason he married so young. He loved Joan, to be sure, but he needed a family, and the Tuthills provided him one. My mother warned me that might still be true. Ashley was brilliant and extremely competent in every chosen endeavor, but he was emotionally needy and too quick to anger. Watch out, Judy.
I had one more brother to meet – the eldest, ten years older than Ash. We were invited to Thanksgiving dinner. I didn’t know what to expect… another SB? A Hal? Or maybe a Dan? I didn’t trust Ashley’s assessment of anyone in his family. His take, at that time, was usually quite different from mine, so when he assured me I had nothing to fear, I didn’t entirely believe him.
Wow, what a house! It was a big old colonial surrounded by bigger and older trees. It was beautiful – even then at the end of November. As Ashley parked the car, he said, “They bought this as a fixer-upper. Si is doing all the work himself.” I was impressed. Every tidbit I learned about this family impressed me. I checked my hair one last time and hoped my little black dress was appropriate for the occasion. Butterflies fluttered wildly.
The door was pulled open as we stepped on the porch and a smiling Si greeted us warmly, “Come on in. You must be Judy… Blah, blah, blah… This is Patty. Blah, blah.” I muddled through the introductions with a frozen grin and a seemingly empty brain.
That done, I relaxed a bit and shadowed Ashley through the hall and into the living room. The inside of the house was as beautiful as the outside – straight out of Country Living Magazine. Well-oiled antiques dotted the rooms. It was like a museum, but cleaner and friendlier. Everything was perfect – a perfect house with two perfect parents and three perfect children. Even Patty’s apron was pristine. I figured food wouldn’t dare splatter on it.
The usual Thanksgiving hustle and bustle swallowed most of my discomfort. I listened and watched and on occasion spoke, but I never strayed far from Ashley’s side until it was time for dinner. We were seated at opposite ends of the longest table I’d ever seen. I forget how many people were there, but we all fit without touching elbows. Each place setting had too many forks, too many spoons, and too many sparkling glasses. Amazing. They were only in their early thirties. How in the world had they accumulated so much stuff? Auctions!
Bowl after bowl after bowl was passed around and I politely took a sampling of everything except the boiled onions. I don’t remember whom I sat between, but I guess I must have made polite conversation with them… that is, until I tried the green bean casserole. I had a mouthful of it, when I detected onion. I gagged. Oh my God. Oh my God. Please don’t let me throw up. Pleeease don’t throw up! Swallow; you’ve got to swallow!
I couldn’t. This glutinous half-chewed mass lay in my mouth with nowhere to go. This can’t be happening… I pretended to sneeze and blew the blob into my napkin. My eyes were watering and I was still choking, but all seemed oblivious. I should have known – they had perfect manners too. The rest of the meal dragged on. All I could think about was how to get rid of my puke-filled napkin. God, could this get any worse? Well, it could have, I guess, but it didn’t. Between dinner and dessert, while they were busing the table, I escaped to the bathroom with napkin in hand. I scraped it clean; problem solved!
As often happens during dessert, everyone relaxed. Ties were loosened; jackets came off and postures slumped. The table wasn’t perfect anymore; it was filled with crumbs and spots of wine and gravy and cranberry sauce. Finally – a scene I could relate to. All formality was gone and conversations… well, they got more real too. I was starting to enjoy myself. I liked hearing about the problems and costs of house reconstructions from Si, and labor negotiations from Hal, and kids’ stories and SB stories. It was great… and it got even better. Barb went to the piano and said, “Come on, let’s sing some Christmas songs.” I was there in a flash. I was at home.
Nothing in my nearly two years of college strikes me as being anywhere near as influential as meeting the Axtell clan. I was terrible at chemistry (slide rule and math difficulties), barely okay at history and good at everything else. The history professor once said, “You didn’t provide many historical facts or connections, but you wrote it so well, I passed you.” So, seeing the writing on the wall, I changed from a medical lab tech major to an English major. The switch would require an extra two years of college, but it turned out not to matter. I got pregnant, quit school, married Ashley and moved to California in December, 1962. By then, Ashley had quit school to join the Army. There was a draft lottery at the time, so in order to be able to choose his MOS (military occupational specialty), he had enlisted rather than take his chances with the draft.
SB had died by then… otherwise, I doubt Ash would have been allowed to marry me. SB would have found a way – or at least tried to find a way to break us up. Hal offered an “out” (abortion, I guess), but Ash was, and is, an honorable man. Abortion was never considered by either of us. It was illegal, but available… and if I were a believer, I’d thank God every day we never considered it a reasonable “choice”!
The older I get and the more society changes its rules and expectations, the more I treasure having lived in the good old days – a sure sign of advancing age. I enjoy the flights back – they are fond memories and they supply a perspective younger people don’t have or apparently want. That’s why I am writing this… I want to lend some added perspective to my grandchildren. They, after all, are growing up in a society in which college graduates believe they NEED to go to baby-bathing classes before their babies arrive. How did this happen? There’s a self-proclaimed “expert” waiting to give advice about darn near everything now.
Astonishing…especially to those of us who have witnessed the accomplishments of folks left to solve life’s ordinary problems on their own.
Judy Axtell's memoir has been published by Outskirts Press. It is available in paperback from OP, from amazon.com, and bn.com.