Into the Woods to Grandparents’ House

Today I took a shortcut to get to the post office in East Greenwich (eBay shipments – are you following my other blog, ‘From Splurge to Purge’ ?). From Division Street, I turned right onto Howland Road and took it to the end, where Howland meets Middle Road. As I was stopped, I was looking at one of the houses my grandparents lived in. Yes, one of – from the time I was a child, there were, oh, at least four. Five? All in and around East Greenwich, Cowesett, Coventry, all after the magical house on Hemlock Hill. It’s pictured here, as a copy of a painting that was made.

Most of us have fond memories of our grandparents, if we were lucky enough to have them. I had only my mother’s parents (my dad’s mother died when he was 18, his father died before my first birthday), but they were superlative grandparents. We would drive to visit them, either from our house in Connecticut or, after 1963, our house in Johnston. The drive to Hemlock Hill in Perryville was via Route 1A, the old Post Road that runs along the southern coast of Rhode Island, where beaches have names like Matunuck, Weekapaug, and Quonochontaug. Perryville, named after Cmdr. Oliver Hazard Perry, is really a village within the town of South Kingstown.

My younger sister was too small to remember, but Ann and I, sitting in the back seat, would strain to see the familiar landmarks as we approached. Invariably, Ann would call out, “I see the white church!” and “I see the red house!” before I did, as she was not saddled with vision problems until she hit her 40s.  The red house (pictured at left) marked the entrance to, well, to Red House Road, a dirt road with no lights and plenty of animals in the woods. A quarter-mile drive or so, past Dr. Gee’s little yellow cottage on the right, nestled behind trees and tall shrubs, brought us to Hemlock Hill. A two-car garage sat at the bottom of what to me seemed like an insurmountable driveway up to the house. Most times, my grandparents parked the car in the garage and walked, with bags of food or other necessities, up the hill to the house.

And the house! With wooden Adirondack chairs on the wide front porch and the smells of molasses cookies or beef stew filling the cabin (because it was built as a cabin, and had bedrooms and a bathroom added later), it was a comforting place full of love. My cousin Cindy remembers sleeping over when it was just the cabin, with an outhouse down in back and a chamber-pot for use during the night. A tick-tocking clock on the rough-hewn mantle marked each quarter-hour with soft Westminster chimes; a bird that had flown into the picture window was preserved and mounted on a branch (fascinating to us kids, and my first and only up-close experience with taxidermy), and the big heavy oak rocking chair waited to be occupied, by grandfather and grandchild. On a very clear day, you could see the ocean from that high vantage point. My grandfather built a fish pond in the front, and farther down the grass, a stone fireplace for cooking outdoors in warmer weather. He blazed a trail through the acres of woods behind the house, and each of us begged to be taken for a walk along the “bunny trail.”

My grandparents sold the house in the 70’s, and although my grandfather was still hiking, it was better for them to be closer to their children and grandchildren. My mother always said she didn’t know how her mother could live in such isolation. Around ten years ago, my sister noticed the house was for sale, but the picture accompanying the real estate notice showed a different house, now two levels. Everything changes – that’s why memory is so cherished.

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