Raised in a Barn: Souvenirs of Hope

My parents bought the Barn in 1958. I know this for a number of reasons–mostly documentation I have from when it was transferred (along with a voluminous paper trail) to me in the 1990s. But I have one memento where the date is engraved  forever. The bell at the left memorializes the date of acquisition, and my parents’ hopes and plans for the barn, and not incidentally, their marriage and family.

With the wisdom of hindsight, it is perhaps hubris to put that sort of thing in a brass object that hangs by the front door. But my father was given to exactly this sort of gesture (when my parents bought the brownstone in NYC that I grew up in, Dad painted a beautiful watercolor of it, which he gave to my mother).

The bell was hung up by the door to the kitchen at the Barn–when you live in a place that big, you need a powerful CLANG! to hear when people are at the door–and there it stayed for the next forty-odd years, through wind, rain, snow, and assault by small children who liked to make it ring.

I was just old enough in 1959, when the bell was under the Christmas tree for my mother to discover, to remember it in its bright and shiny original condition. In 1959 my parents had been married for six years, had two children, an established life in Greenwich Village, and a sprawling property with a barn in the Berkshires. Were they happy? Me, with the utter clueless self-absorption of a six year old, I did not even think about the question, but I believe that they were happy enough. My parents had a similar set of goals and aspirations, a similar aesthetic (for two very visual people this was in fact very important), similar approaches to the world, and a similar sense of humor. What was still to come was the revelation of the other stuff they’d brought to the marriage–my father, for example, had a hunger to teach. He was a marvelous teacher about theory and ideas, and an impatient teacher about process. He told me, when I was an adult, that one of the reasons he’d married my mother was because he thought he could teach her so much. When I suggested this was a dumb reason to marry someone, he snapped “Well, I know that now.” My mother, when I was a teenager, told me she’d thought she was doing a noble thing marrying my father: he was a Jew, she was a Protestant, and she was doing her bit for world peace and understanding. I did not tell her what I thought of that as a reason to hitch your life to another person’s, but I thought it loudly.

Ten years after the bell had come home to live with us, we had moved to the Barn full time: my father had a series of professional reversals, the brownstone was been sold, and we were in Sheffield. And my parents had slipped into a state of hostility and anger that would last for the next couple of decades. They stayed married until my mother’s death, but no one was having any fun. Still, sometimes, like the sun shining briefly through a boiling mass of thunderclouds, from time to time a remembered affection would break through, and for half an hour or so those goals and aspirations–and the humor!–would see them aligned again.

For all the unhappiness that their marriage encompassed, they gave my brother and me a pretty amazing start in life: all the books, art, history, and curious experiences a body could hope for. Each one of them, separately, was smart, funny, generous, social, with a wide acquaintance and curiosity about the world. That was rare enough: when they were together things curdled.

The brownstone is still there, albeit in other hands. The Barn is also in other hands, and well and lovingly kept up. I have the souvenirs of hopes: the bell and the watercolor, and everything they say about my parents’ marriage and where it went.

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About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books

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