Isabelle [aka Izzy] has returned several times to visit, most recently in 1997 or thereabouts. The photos she has seen on the Smoke Rise & Kinnelon Blog inspired her to write this story.
Somewhere Over a Rainbow in Smoke Rise
by Isabelle Garland
Let me start by saying that I am not now, nor have I ever been, a chemist. I am so un-chemically inclined that I can barely follow a cooking recipe. When you open the oven and see the cake boiling over the pan, and you just scrape it back in, you can only hope no one notices. When you get certain chemicals too near a flame and they go up, whoosh, people do notice. Don’t ask me which chemicals, I just told you! I am no chemist. And after that little experiment in chemistry class I had no eyebrows and the fringe was completely burned off the front of my hair. It was one of the latest in a series of small mishaps, and mum rang Auntie Jean.
Auntie Jean’s mother and father had left Scotland years before for a new life in America. Her father had gone first, 1923 New York City needed strong young blacksmiths to bend iron around windows, gates, and grills. Within a few months he had settled into life in America and had rented a large flat in a Victorian house in Montclair in anticipation of his wife and two wee girls joining him.
Annie Blackwood and her daughters had kissed her mother goodbye through many tears and long hugs.
“I’ll be over to see you, hen!” Grandma Jessie had promised, but both she and her Annie knew the promise was false. They would never set eyes on each other again in this world. Every time I visited Paisley the remaining Aunts and Uncles spoke with such love and familiar warmth as if she’d only stepped out to the market the moment before we’d come in.
The same warmth and love was reserved for speaking about Auntie Jean. Her sisters, Aunts Clara and Jessie, had been born in Paisley but their younger sisters, Florence, Anna, and Auntie Jean had seen the light of day in New Jersey. The family back home in Scotland was so proud to have three genuine Americans added to the fold, and their pictures were cooed and fussed over whenever a bit of post arrived.
As the girls grew and the pictures continued to come they were noted as being quite sophisticated lassies, what with the influence of New York City and all. There were plans made on both sides for a reunion, but then the war came and everything changed.
Clara married a soldier who was blown to bits on his first time out. Jessie became a nun. Florence married a man from Kentucky and grew big as a globe. Anna married a man who never seemed to work but had plenty of money. And Jean married a man who did work and was also a success.
She met John Connelly at a soirée one night when she was supposed to be studying for biochemistry exams. (Some of our family are chemically minded!). He’d just returned from the war where he’d spent a year and a half as a prisoner in Germany. He too a son of immigrants, his mother having come to America from Ireland. She managed the date, passed the exams, graduated with a First (oh I don’t know what it’s called in America), a top university degree, and got married all in the same year.
Uncle John grew up longing for a safe community where he could raise his family and discovered Smoke Rise. After he married Auntie Jean he worked hard, built his business on his natural friendliness and one fine day moved Auntie Jean to their airy home on the gentle curve of Orchard Road.
They built a pool, had five children, but never forgot their roots or their aging parents. It didn’t require a formal holiday for the Connellys to all be gathered around the large table enjoying a large brisket or a turkey with all the trimmings. One of the Nans would tell a story about the fairy folk back home and the other would try to read the tea leaves. Both grandfathers enjoyed a whiskey with “the Lad”, as they always called Uncle John, and then they would fall asleep in wing chairs kept just for that purpose.
Back in Britain, when I set my face on fire, Sir put a cooling cloth on it and called the school nurse. Before I knew it, hey ho, I was sitting in A & E having my face assessed. The conclusion of the matter was that silver sulfadiazine was spread liberally over my face and mum booked me a flight to Auntie Jean’s. (Of course now no one uses silver sulfadiazine as it seems to prolong the burns, but we are talking about medicine in 1970, in this instance.) Term was ending for the holidays and Mum reckoned I needed a little break. I, for my part, was embarrassed to be seen shopping in the High Street with a face that looked like a Bakewell Tart!
The morning I left Dad bundled me into his green Wolseley Hornet and drove me to Gatwick reminding me to mind my manners, keep the ointment on my face, and make regular trunk calls – long distance International calls – back to Mum.
“She will worry, you know.” He said as he patted my hand goodbye. Dad was a senior lecturer in Physics and very logical. Mum was the weeper and we’d left her at home, rather than risk a scene at the airport.
It wasn’t my first trip out of the country. We regularly holidayed in France and Spain, which were both warm and sunny. British pound bought a lot then, though life under Mister Franco was a bit harsh for the native Spaniards.
The plane took off in thundering rain, but soon rose above the clouds, flying into the cold weak sun of a short December day. I tried to sleep but just couldn’t. This was my first time to America and I felt electric!
Uncle John sent a driver to meet me at Kennedy Airport. He had a sign with my name on it, helpful given the hundreds of Christmas time travellers, all rushing about the terminal like so many “Mad Hatters”. By now I was starting to flag a bit; so when I sank into the soft leather seats of the blue Lincoln Continental I noticed that the world was covered in white powder, but was soon sleeping like a baby.
I awoke as we were just drawing up to a small cottage with an immense pointy cone-shaped tower. It was a darling little gatehouse with a gate-person and all! The ground floor of the building was constructed with rough stone of various shapes and colours. The upper portion was wooden, painted white, with a small window in the eaves of the snow covered roof. There was a leaping stag weathervane on the top of the turret and I felt a familiarity – our neighbours had a weathervane fastened to the side of their chimney. It was a cockerel, rusted squeaky, but my heart made the connection.
Anticipation renewed my energy. At sixteen it doesn’t take much! I sat up and gave a proper ogle as we wound our way into the trees and sunshine. In earlier times the roads in our English villages had been defined by sturdy oak or horse chestnut trees. Children regularly played “Conkers” with the hard nuts in September and October. But most of the trees had been cut down to widen the roads as more and more people began driving automobiles. Yet now we passed mansions ensconced by the veritable forest! I had never seen anything like it – nature on the doorstep.
We turned into a curved drive and the auburn haired woman who came out to greet me could only have been Auntie Jean. She was lovely – I felt so welcomed and it mitigated the nervousness that suddenly hit me. I was so far away from home, in the woods, and I think my itchy skin was pealing because there were brown flecks on my gloves and the front of my red coat.
“Come in dear girl! Welcome to America!” She gave me a hug and thanked the driver for carrying in my bag. She swept me along into a large kitchen where a young girl was pouring water into large mugs.
Auntie Jean said “Isabelle this is your cousin, Fawn.”
Fawn pushed a strand of long dark hair out of her eyes and smiled.
“Would you like some hot tea?”
A hurdle. Tea? This was tea and they put lemons into it? Was it drinkable? Was it legal? What on earth did it do to the milk? One part of my brain reminded me that I am no chemist and if Americans put lemons in their tea there was probably a perfectly good reason to do so, and I should be bold and give it a try.
“Yes, thank you!” I smiled.
“Fawn should be in school today but she stayed home to help me get the room ready.”
“You’ll be downstairs in DeDe and Debbie’s room!”
“Will they mind?” “Oh it’s OK” Fawn just shrugged in that easy American manner.
We sat, sipping tea, as Fawn told me about her brother and sisters. There were four Connelly girls, two of them older than me and two of them younger. In between was a son, John Jay, who was also slightly younger. Colleen and John Jay were in secondary school – high school; Debbie and DeDe were at university in Florida. Uncle John phoned that he’d be along soon so Auntie Jean set about making dinner as Fawn and I dragged my baggage downstairs to the older girls’ bedroom.
We went down into a massive room that had a full bar built into it, just like a pub, brass rail and all. Off of that was another huge room – the bedroom with its own en suite. I could not believe I would have this room to myself for most of the visit. And I had to grin – the walls were covered with Beatles posters – including some from their days in India and some from Yellow Submarine. No Rolling Stones, though. Well, that was to be expected, it was the Beatles or the Stones in those days.
Were all the houses in Smoke Rise as beautiful as this one? Foxglove Cottage, my home, was very old and though it was two storied, with thick wattle and daub walls, it was comparatively small. And it sagged. (Well, it has been standing there since 1595 so I guess it has a right to sag a bit.) Plus it was cold in the winter and we had to continually feed coppers into the gas meter as if it was still World War II! This house was open and airy, but cosy at the same time.
Auntie Jean had given me my own corner of the bedroom with a chest of drawers and a comfortable bed. Fawn helped me to unpack my bags. I gave her the Cadbury’s chocolates I had brought for everyone and she squeaked in delight.
Upstairs I heard voices in the kitchen, and suddenly I needed to use the loo! A hand painted mural had been painted along the walls and I was examining the details when I turned to wash my hands and glanced up into the mirror. Oh no! Silver sulfadiazine was caked on my ears and in blotches on my cheeks! I went to grab my flannel – my wash cloth – wondering if there was going to be any time to repair myself. But the door burst open and a young girl, all freckles and long brown hair, burst in with a laugh.
She gave me a hug and exclaimed “I’m Colleen! Come on, dinner’s ready!”
We went up the stairs, into kitchen, where the family was already seated. I could feel my face flaming as introductions were made but to give them credit no one commented on my appearance. We spent dinner discussing all of the things there were to see and do. Colleen and Fawn wanted to shop at a mall. I had no idea what a mall was, other than Pall Mall, but I was willing to give anything to do with shopping a go!
Their brother, John Jay, wanted to show me around Smoke Rise. He proved to be a cheeky devil with a quick grin and sparkling blue eyes, often earning an “Oh Johnny Jay!” from his mother. He made it all sound like so much fun. I thought it would be lovely to see this civilised woodland and the next day we all decided to take a walking tour.
Later, after I’d seen to my skin, I climbed into bed and listened to the silence. Our cottage was just off the High Street of our village. It was relatively quiet – if you compared it to the actual High Street, but there were pubs at the top end and the bottom end of our street, which sometimes meant that “merry” lads strolled past the house in song. During the day women with prams (nowadays they use push chairs) went along to the butchers or the fishmongers, the bakers or the chemist. There was constant activity in our little village and though there were few cars, back then, one never lost touch with the sense that one’s neighbour was only a few feet away, separated by a wall or a few meters of garden.
To lie and listen to the peacefulness of this new world, to hear the hushing of snow as it drifted, to feel the cool air of the night made my bones want to melt into the bedding. And then, faintly, ever so faintly somewhere upstairs, I heard someone playing the piano. A sonata, quietly passionate and tender.
In the morning we all dressed up in winter coats and sturdy boots. We don’t get much snow, if any, in England but we get cold weather. I came prepared! As John Jay led us through the snow I couldn’t believe how hushed everything was. We crossed an old stone bridge and I heard a car go by in the distance, but it was well muffled. We went over a knoll randomly pelting each other with snow along the way.
Chugging through the thick covered paths, working our way along, we came to a red brick stable block. I breathed in deeply, loving the smell of stables though I am, at best, an indifferent rider. Young girls were going to and fro – some getting feed, others with the stable doors open, chatting merrily as they groomed their horses. A lad was sitting on what must have once been a fountain, cleaning some tack. John Jay and Colleen introduced me to a couple of their friends. They said they loved my accent, and kept me chatting, not so much as to hear about life in England, but to hear me speak. I had to laugh, back home we did the same thing when Yanks came to visit! We got a few American programmes on the BBC, but it was never enough.
After we left the stable we continued on into the woods proper. John Jay suddenly stopped, put a finger to his lips, and pointed. A large deer was quietly chewing on the last leaves of the lowest branch of a silvery tree. Suddenly it lifted its nose in the air and scampered into the bushes.
“Where did it go?” I knew we hadn’t made a sound.
“Maybe it smelled a mountain lion!” “Johnny don’t!!” Colleen and Fawn both wailed at the same time.
“You’re joking, right?” “No, there really are mountain lions in the woods around here.” His eyes held a steady, not joking, gaze.
I suddenly felt like Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream”, “Uh, maybe we’d better go then? What is that?”
A strange little creature had wandered out from under a bush. About the size of a hedgehog, it had fluffy black fur and a bushy tail. Up the middle of its back was a thick white stripe. It paused, not two feet from us and its bottom end began to rise in the air.
“RUN!!!!” shrieked Fawn and we scattered in all directions as the most noxious fumes I had ever smelled came wafting from the hind end of that darling little creature!
I ran and ran and ran. No mountain lion or malodorous little beastie was going to get me! I ran through the woods, slid down a hill, and got up to run some more. Behind me I could hear Colleen and Fawn shouting, “Isabelle come back!” but I kept on running. There was something terrifying about this new world! And now there were pounding footsteps behind me! Dear God, a mountain lion had come to kill me in the New Jersey woods! I ran even harder, screaming one long scream as it suddenly caught me.
“STOP!” John Jay made a lunge for me, grabbed the back of my coat, and we both tumbled, bum over teacart, down a small knoll into a ditch. I lay there looking up at the sky and then I heard laughing. And I started laughing! Fawn and Colleen came flailing down the hill and tried to help us up but fell over too, which caused more whoops of laughter. Blood is thicker than water, and a good laugh thicker than both.
No one could be serious for the rest of the walk. We walked in a huge circle, down along past the Smoke Rise Inn, which was closed but with door unlocked. There we stepped inside to warm up a little – Colleen found some packets of hot chocolate, John Jay boiled some water, and soon we were warm and glowing. Naturally we left money on the counter by way of thanks. Five dollars – worth more than the chocolate but we were children who could afford it.
That night we agreed to go ice skating. My cousins rang around to their assorted friends and soon a skating party was organised. Fortunately my foot was the same size as DeDe’s foot, unfortunately, the only ice skating I had ever done was when I was eight and my dad took me to Somerset House one winter. I was now twice as old and a good third taller. A longer way to fall if my feet refused to co-operate! But I was chuffed – pleased – that they would make the effort.
The sky was ink black with diamonds thrown in her hair. We trouped to Smoke Rise Lake and others came along in twos and threes. There was a gathering place, marked with huge logs that had been gnawed down during the summer by beavers and forgotten. Someone had dragged them together and central to that a ring of stones with burnt ash waited attending. The boys built a fire to light the way for us girls and to warm their own hands later on. We all sat on the logs putting on our skates, laughing and chatting, exchanging pop-culture titbits as young people do. I explained about the double-decker buses; they told me who had the best pizza. These are the ways we bond.
Out on the frozen lake the water was glass. The bonfire threw light across places where blades cut through ice throwing diamonds onto the pond so that it was like skating on the very sky its self. Not that I could skate, no. I wobbled about, managing to keep a bit of dignity, as the others glided past like swans. One boy took my arm and propelled me around. Other boys linked arms with Col and Fawn and everyone even made a huge chain which went in a big circle until the end person was flung off into the night. They called it “Crack the Whip”. I saw John Jay fall, saw a girl try to get him up and saw him laying there playing dead. She leaned over and whispered something in his ear and he was up like a rocket shooting off into the night. I have no idea what she said, but they both laughed about it later.
We skated across the lake and around a strange solitary island. Lacy fingers of leafless branches reached to the sky, framed against the night. And in the midst of it all a shadowed tower bleakly watched over our tomfoolery and high humour with a dark eye. One boy kept looking to it, but the rest just went around in circles and I avoided it completely. It needed seeing to.
This was like a wonderland world. I’d seen snow in Aberdeenshire, but never had I felt such a freeness of heart and mind as I did that night with my American cousins and their friends. Someone had flasks of hot chocolate, my second that day as all dieting was abandoned. Someone else had brought a guitar. We sang and skated and the boy who’d propelled me around the lake stayed by my side the whole time. I don’t remember his name, so don’t ask, but I think he fancied me a wee bit, if only on that occasion. It was sweet, really.
Later that evening when the house grew quiet I heard the piano again. This time I went quietly upstairs, I didn’t want to disturb and you know how people get when they realise they have an audience. I just wanted to hear the music. I found my way, through the study into a music room all done in green. It was amazing, like bringing the woodland indoors on a summer’s day. The door was open and John Jay sat playing at a baby grand piano. Off to the side Colleen was doing something to the shag carpet. She was raking it! I’d never seen such a strange sight in all of my life.
I came in quietly and sat in a wing chair, pulling a throw over my legs. I rested my head against the leather as John Jay began Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and Colleen raked the sod of a new Ireland.
So concludes Izzy's reminiscence. It captures very well a few moments in time which for many of us remain in living memory.
Thank you, Izzy!