Tuesday, October 12, 2010

2 houses, 1 driveway and an exiled Russian poet

The Sycamores, front, with a black and white sign
announcing the Joseph Brodsky photo exhibit.
In rear, across a driveway not visible here, is my house.
You can see the two stone posts between which the driveway passes.

My troubled relationship with the South Hadley Historical Society took a big turn for the better on Friday.

As the owner of a historic house myself, I never thought I would have any issues with the local historical society, but I did, which is a long story that I will sketch below. Fences have long since been mended, but still, I can't erase the fact that it happened.

The interesting turn of events began when a police officer stopped traffic for me on Woodbridge Street when I crossed after my mini bike ride. My very own crossing guard!

Then I noticed he was there to help the nicely dressed crowd who had parked in the Skinner Museum parking lot across from The Sycamores, a historic house across the driveway from me.

The reason: Part of a two-day celebration, "Joseph Brodsky: A Poet and his Place," at Mount Holyoke and Amherst Colleges and at Rawson House, where the exiled Russian poet lived and wrote for the 15 years he taught at Mount Holyoke until his death, at 55, in 1996.

Rawson House, the oldest house in South Hadley, is now attached to The Sycamores after being moved from another lot just down the street. Brodsky, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature and a MacArthur "genius award," would have been 70 on Friday.

The Sycamores, built in 1788 and originally the home of Col. Ruggles Woodbridge, was later a dormitory for Mount Holyoke College students and, after that, a home for inner city school-girls attending South Hadley High School through the A Better Chance program. After that it provided accommodation for male guests of Mount Holyoke students (don't know how much use it got in that department) and after that was a warehouse until 1996. After that it was empty.

It looked pretty bad until the South Hadley Historical Society purchased it from Mount Holyoke College in 1999 and began renovating it.

My house, built in 1848, is new by comparison.

On Friday, a balmy night, I stood in my driveway watching a crowd gathering in the courtyard. Someone was speaking into a microphone, to much applause. Photographers took pictures.

This was something new. They often have sparsely-attended open houses and meetings. I hesitated to investigate, partly because I was in my sweats and partially because I just don't wander over there too much.

My problems started on Oct. 19, 2004, when the historical society had Rawson house moved down the street after it was donated by the new owner of a larger house to which Rawson House was attached. I was as interested as the next person in watching it arrive on wheels on a rainy muddy day. Unfortunately, the house got stuck in the mud at the end of the driveway. It stood there for about a week while workers got it the rest of the way in.

If people sought directions to my place, I said, "It's the one next to a house stuck in the mud."

Ha ha. Actually it wasn't that funny. I was still recovering from my first stem cell transplant a year earlier, and I didn't always feel great. Workmen kept me awake making noise at crazy hours of the night. Once I went over there in the dark and asked them to stop. They said they had a deadline and refused to stop. I went back to bed and put my head under the pillow.

After that came the start of what I called the Driveway War. Mount Holyoke College, which owned the Sycamores when we bought our house, owned a small triangle of land including the foot of our driveway. They would not sell it to us or to the previous owner. When the historical society took over, they didn't want to sell it either. When they renovated, instead of using the gravel driveway leading directly to The Sycamores or putting one in on the other side of their house as I had been led to expect, they planned to run the new driveway cutting through the entryway of my driveway.

Lawyers got involved. Hackles went up. I could not believe I was wasting so much energy fighting about a driveway. Hey, I'm from New York. There are cars and commotion all over the place. But when you live in a small town, you don't expect to have to worry that your children might get hit by wayward cars coming too far into your own driveway.

In the end, I lost the battle because they owned the land. They promised that they would limit the number of cars parked in their driveway.

At first it was chaotic. Cars backed up trying to get into their parking lot and occasionally ended up on my part of the driveway. Katie was a little girl, and it drove me crazy that cars were coming near her when she was outside playing. Occasionally someone left a car blocking my way in or out. I strode across the driveway and found a meeting in which the offending party was participating; I was totally polite but inwardly fuming.

"I knew this would happen," I harumpphed to the kids. The Sycamores finally got the idea to direct cars across the street to the Skinner Museum. Problem fixed, except for the straggling driver who still doesn't get it.

So it was that on Friday night I was surveying the crowd and feeling irresistibly drawn across the driveway. I wandered over and heard a woman speaking in Russian, followed by a translator. People around me murmured in Russian. For non-cosmopolitan South Hadley, this indeed had turned into quite the affair. Mount Holyoke president Lynn Pasquerella was among those attending.

The gist of the speeches were thank-you's all around for the collaboration between the Anna Akhmatova Museum in St. Petersburg, which owns the contents of Rawson House along with some 2,000 items of "Brodskiana" (who knew?), and Mount Holyoke College and the South Hadley Historical Society, which arranged for photos from Brodsky's life to be displayed on the walls of the otherwise empty Rawson House.

The exhibit also includes photos of the space while Brodsky's possessions still occupied it.

Ken Williamson, chair of the Sycamores Committee of the Historical Society, also spoke. He saw me in the crowd and came over afterwards, smiling a big smile. He explained that about 30 people from St. Petersburg had come for the Brodsky celebration. Then he invited me in for a drink and refreshments that were being served at the opening.

I said I needed to go back home and put on proper clothes. He said that one of the earlier speakers had been wearing jeans, and that I shouldn't hesitate to go right in.

I went inside the main building and admired the braided dining room rug that I had donated before the "war." I got a Sam Adams and walked into the attached Rawson House, helping myself to a piece of fried shrimp and some concoction of roast beef and carmelized onions on crackers. The photos were interesting, as were the guests.

I had had my own crossing guard, an interesting evening, a drink and hors d'oeuvres, and I had gained a new respect for the South Hadley Historical Society.

It's probably time to let bygones be bygones.


Jonny said...

At the start of the war I would have gotten a giant cardboard poster of Ronald Reagan, placed it facing outward so I wouldn't have to look at "Sir" Ronald and shudder, and played his "Mr. Gorbachov why dont you tear[up]down this[driveway]wall" speech over and over again until they gave in...or served you with an injunction.

PS - Having lost, I wouldn't have exercised such restraint on the Sam Adams...or the shrimp for that matter!

pam said...


how fitting that the theme be Brodsky, and that you mention the Akhmatova House, which was first opened right before the end of the FSU, and where i spent a Russian Christmas, with a dear friend, before it was official...

also met brodsky, and had the absolute privilege of being a part of his soiree-circle in our hometown...how Ironic, iRonni-c,. irun-ic, have lectured on Akhmatova, just mentioned sneaking a visit to her grave this morning, the only pix which did not come out, when that area was banned to Westerners, in 1985...have translated her and published, lectured on her...
Enough! my Russian soul celebrates you, down the road from Joseph Brodsky;s...