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Sometimes Inspiration is Very Close to Home by Felice Picano

                                 

        What makes Looking Glass Lives among my works special to me is that it is not only very personal, but also one of my most autobiographical pieces of fiction.

          An actual Amity Pritchard existed, although her name was different. Yes, there was a real “haunted” house that she had lived in for almost a century, and which lay, long abandoned, in a southern Rhode Island beach town. I did visit the house once with the cousin with whom I shared a bedroom over the summer in the nearby beach town. He and my older brother and sister did – as happens in the story –one particular night ride me to, and then suddenly leave me alone at that haunted house, deep in a wood. They then bicycled off, with the intention of scaring me.

Like the narrator of the story, I wasn’t at all afraid, but oddly comfortable and even content. I rested on a little patch of lawn in front and looked up past the wonderful gothic tower and still intact oriel windows at the stars and I felt at one with my life and with who and where I was. That in itself was unusual since some kind of intellectual was trying to be born inside my twelve-year old self and I was often in tumult.

My maternal grandfather, Ralph, is responsible for all I knew about Amity and her house. By that year, he was seventy-five years old, and would live to be over ninety-six. For years we had spent about a month each summer at his house in Thornton, a rural town outside of Providence, Rhode Island. Several times, he and I had slept in the same multi-mattress bed.

Grandpa Ralph was bald on top with a cream colored tonsure of fine hair. He sported large yellow-to-white moustaches that he waxed regularly. His eyes were light colored, sometimes hazel, sometimes blue or gray. He dressed like someone out of a Grant Wood painting, in long sleeved, collarless shirts, with a variety of vests — even in summer–and amazingly colored oxblood and cedar-toned shoes that rose to his ankles with far too many laces. He spoke slowly and gruffly, but he was wise and smart and well-traveled, especially in New England. He seemed to have had several lifetimes of experience to impart to any boy or girl who was willing to listen. His wife, Francesca, who my two-years-older sister remembers better than I, was something of a termagant. She had died a few years before and he didn’t seem to miss her much. He adored my mother who loved him back which is why we were there so often — a two hundred-mile, half-day, car trip from Long Island. If Ralph had an opinion about my father, I never heard it.

I’ve already written a little about Grandpa Ralph in an earlier volume of True Stories—“Secret Ceremony,” so he was also a real mensch!     

That summer, Grandpa Ralph shared a summer beach house with my mother and her four children and her closest brother in age, my uncle Billy, along with his wife, Aunt Lucy and their two children.

 Grandpa knew the area well and he told us the town’s history, beginning with Petasquamsquat Rock, where the local Nanuet native tribe and a group of Roger William’s colonists signed a pact agreeing to live together and help each other with fishing and agriculture. Unlike many colonists of Puritan Massachusetts and Connecticut, Rhode Islanders, under William’s religion-free government, actually kept to their treaties. They never tried to exterminate the indigenous people by outright murder, or by giving them Smallpox infested blankets. Eventually the remnants of the tribes either married into the colony or moved to nearby Block Island to be independent. 

We would get these histories and many more anecdotes from Grandpa Ralph as we hiked the creeks and rivulets, ascended the hills, scouted out caves, and went clamming with long rakes on the shoreline for the tasty local “Quahog.” Mostly, my cousin and myself accompanied my Grandpa Ralph. My cousin was luckier in that living nearer he could visit with our grandfather more often, and he formed a much closer relationship with this utterly cool man.   

Then of course there was the story of the large, once expensively beautiful, abandoned mansion on its huge piece of property on the edge of the town just sitting there, off a side road to the paved two-laner that led from the highway ramp into our resort town. Grandpa Ralph knew a great many details about the woman who had lived alone there for decades “with two colored servants,” just as Roger’s grandfather tells him about it in my book.

What he told us was that the story began around 1860. The “Pritchard” family consisted of a widowed father, the wealthiest man in town, whose businesses included shipping, whale oil, and eventually banking and real estate. His wife had died many years before trying to birth a third child, the boy that Pritchard wanted so badly. He never remarried. He did have two daughters he doted on, both of marriageable age by then. The younger by one year was beautiful, sweet, and sympathetic. The elder was more plain but intelligent, well read, and she possessed the managerial skills that allowed her to help run his business and eventually to succeed him. Every man in three counties and some from as far away as Boston, tried courting her. But she ended up falling in love with a dashing stranger who had joined the army and quickly risen through the ranks. He wooed her, and they became engaged. He went off to fight in the Union army where he became even more successful. But he would visit the Pritchards every leave he got, staying at a local boarding house. This went on for several years, during which the girl’s father died and the Civil War ended. Everyone now expected a wedding.

Instead, suddenly, the town heard that the engagement was broken off. A few days later some boys found the underside of an expensive carriage stuck on a sand bank in the local river. Divers found the bodies of the Union officer and the other Pritchard girl still in vehicle. Apparently, they had attempted to run away together. Left sisterless and without her fiancee, the eldest daughter went into deep seclusion. She sold off the Pritchard properties one by one and was seldom seen in town. Over the years, she gained a reputation for being a witch, so food was delivered to the edge of the property since no one dared to go deeper into the woods directly to her house.

My Grandpa Ralph had seen her only once, inside her coach, driven by an antiquated African-American servant. The boy was in town with his folks, visiting friends and had gone for a walk. The Pritchard heiress stopped and called ten year old Ralph over and asked him to run an errand for her. He did, and was rewarded with an Eagle silver dollar. That helped make her even more memorable. Other boys told him who she was. The townspeople only came to know of her death decades later, when they found her old servant man wandering the side of a new automobile highway.

                                      *

          What most people know of Rhode Island — if they know anything at all — is the sprawling Capitol, Providence, which covers almost half the tiny state. Either that or else they know the very maritime, Eastern area, comprising Newport and Barrington, etc — i.e. the yacht-club, tennis court, and High Society eastern portion of the state.

Southwestern Rhode Island is different: it remains almost rural, and can definitely be “horsey,” as visitors to the University of Rhode Island campus near Washington, Rhode Island, always remark in amazement. But even further south of there is where Indian lands and reservations give way to small, old towns like Point Judith, Galilee and Petasquamscutt, peninsulas defined by riverfront or harbor on one side, the ocean and long white beaches on the other.

These are predominantly summer towns with a much smaller population of permanent residents. That area comprises the otherwise unwritten-about scene of Looking Glass Lives. The folk there are of old New England Yankee heritage and their inbred and gossipy small-town prejudices are only lightly brushed over with a two-day-tan gloss of summer-beach town flair and city tourist sophistication.

          Besides the authentic and unusual setting and the handed down story of “Amity” in Looking Glass Lives, there is one completely unique autobiographical moment of the story as written and published. It was something that stuck in my mind and became the “kernel” of the tale: possibly also why the story became a book at all. It was what happened in those moments after I’d gotten up, still calm, recall, and walked away from the old “Pritchard” house that summer night that I’d been stranded there, going in search of my cousin, my older brother and my sister.

     Without a bicycle, I walked along the rutted dirt road for a while before I thought I heard them talking, to my right, at a perpendicular angle to the road.

          I saw what looked like a stamped down foot path, followed it into and then out of a thicket and into a clearing where I stopped. I’d arrived at a pond that I’d heard lay upon the property here.

Despite the darkness, I thought that I saw the three of them in the middle of the wooden bridge that crossed the pond. Given the reflection of the moonless but very starry night sky in the black pond waters, I could actually see pretty clearly. I made out a flimsy structure where they stood, something like an arbor or pergola, overhung with vines and moss, in the center of the surprisingly sturdy little wooden bridge where every footstep resounded.

Even before I arrived at them, I could tell it wasn’t my cousin and brother and sister. Instead, the people I saw were three grown-ups. They stopped speaking to watch me approach. They were dressed in what even at twelve years old I recognized as “old timey” clothing; the man dressed in what I thought could be a 19th Century Army uniform, the women in dresses down to their ankles. One young woman carried a frilled parasol at her side.

I politely said “Good evening” and then looked away as I passed them. I walked another twenty-five feet to the other side of the bridge, all the while intently feeling their gaze on my back. I wondered who they were, but mostly, I wondered where my relatives were.

When I reached the pond shore, the path continued through another, longer thicket and I took that. Soon, I did hear my relations where they stood and sat and I ran toward their voices, coming out all at once right onto the two-lane road that took us back to the little town.

Excited by the events, I said, “I wasn’t afraid at all. I liked it there by the house.” My brother said something like, “I told you. He’s nuts.” Then I told them “There are people there too. Not at the house. That was abandoned. But on the bridge over the pond.”

They didn’t believe me. But I got my cousin to come with me back to the pond. We found no one there so we returned to his bike and rode back to town where we had ice-cream just before the little shop closed for the night.

Although I went back to the pond with my cousin several days later, I never again saw the three. What was odder was that the little bridge was now incomplete, we couldn’t cross the pond on it. A five or six-foot-long section of the wooden foot bridge just past the arbor – now bare of any moss or vines too — was broken off, with no boards but with supporting palings sticking up out of the water. My cousin said he couldn’t recall that we crossed it that night, but I definitely knew that I had crossed it earlier because that’s where the three grown-ups stood and I’d walked right by them. I remembered the noise that I’d made walking on the boards. I even remembered a kind of flowery smell like gardenia at the arbor. My siblings didn’t believe I’d seen anyone there. I was simply “making it all up.”

It was that inexplicable encounter, unexpected if more or less ordinary when it occurred and only eerie in retrospect, that propelled the story of Looking Glass Lives into existence twenty years later.

©  2020 Felice Picano

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