LC Van Savage
JEANETTE, ALVAH AND BERNICE
I am in Lenox Massachusetts now, writing this from a lovely time-share condo at The Ponds at Fox Hollow. Every summer our whole family takes a trip together after carefully selecting a place that has a quadruple plethora of activities for young children, since we’ve brought along six of those, all six years old and under, all with the attention span of newborn gnats. This place is perfect for all of us. We are happy here.
vAnd I am happy here too, but in a kind of bittersweet way because Lenox holds many memories for me. Now that I’m here again after many years, I’m remembering an old woman I cared about deeply. She lived in Lenox and died here in 1969. Her name was Jeanette King Richardson and I loved her dearly and admired her monumentally.
Jeanette was a spinster lady until she was in her forties and even though she’d been born in Chicago in 1882 of two righteous, Bible thumping, God fearing, fire and brimstone Presbyterians (her Scottish father was a revered, famous and feared minister) she did the unthinkable, worked hard as a nurse, invested her money and took a long trip around the world unchaperoned and by herself in 1937, the year before I was born. She was a tough young, and then a tough old woman, generous and often kind altho occasionally slightly narrow in her views. For example, to her thinking our planet was quite an uncomplicated place, -- “what on earth is all the fuss about?” she’d often ask the air,-- because to her mind the world had few problems since it was made up of just two clear factions; The Presbyterians and The Heathen. “But,” she would shake her head and sigh ruefully, “I guess we’re all God’s children, so I suppose I shall have to love them all anyway.”
Jeanette lived through the Great Depression, and had had the smarts to pull all her money out of the stock market about 48 hours before the Crash happened in October of 1929 and I have no idea where she stashed all that cash; I just know she had a bunch of it whenever it was needed. Widowed five years after Black Tuesday, she lived in a huge, graceful and shaded old home on Bement Ave. on Staten Island shared with good friends and former neighbors Alvah and Bernice Judd and their children Dick and Mary. Jeanette had helped Bernice when baby Dick was surprisingly born nineteen years after sister Mary had appeared, and having had no children of her own, Jeanette loved that little boy fiercely and passionately and mothered him unmercifully. He in turn adored her, and called her “Aunt Jeanette.”
They all lived together because in November of 1929, Alvah Judd had quite abruptly found himself without an income and a home. He’d quickly lost everything because of the Crash and the family was literally out on the sidewalk on Bement Ave. Jeanette saw them from her windows as they stood there weeping, personal items scattered about their enormous lawn. She stepped outside and called to them from her huge front porch saying, “Alvah! Stop all that nonsense! Gather your family and your things together this instant and come here and live with me.” So they did. And never left. Overjoyed, Jeanette had her darling Dick to help raise, and best of all, she had Alvah and Bernice to boss around.
Years and life passed, Alvah eventually found work at a fairly demeaning job compared to the Wall St. one he’d lost in ‘29, and after he retired, they all ended up in close but separate apartments on Bard Ave. on Staten Island. And as happens sometimes when someone’s life has been saved, the savees, in this instance Alvah and Bernice, began to angrily resent Jeanette and disliked any intrusion from her in their lives, such as her asking them for their already-read newspapers and to please repair things for her. Lots of things. Bernice wasn’t so vocal, but Alvah was pretty cranky about Jeanette’s demands and bossing them around so much. Jeanette paid him no attention and just smiled coolly. She knew they were in her grovel and while she never spoke of her having saved them, that was the bottom line and they all knew it.
Dick Judd remained his Aunt Jeanette’s special beloved child throughout his life. They were very close, so when he finally decided to quit an insurance job he hated in New York City to purchase and run an inn in Lenox Mass., he invited the elderly Jeanette King Richardson to come to live there at The Village Inn with him and his family for the rest of her life, rent free. After all, he was acutely aware of the fact that she had saved his family from a terrible end back in ’29, and he loved the old lady and wanted to give something back to her for what she’d done for his parents. Jeanette happily accepted.
The only fly in the ointment was that Dick invited his parents Alvah and Bernice to also spend their last years at the inn, but that was no fly in Jeanette’s ointment. She was thrilled. She’d live on the same floor as they, and they’d have all their meals together in the great old diningroom below. Alvah adopted a noticeable dark, scowling demeanor, but knowing a good deal when it was offered, he took it. And so they all lived with the new innkeeper Dick Judd and his wife Marie at The Village Inn on Church St. in Lenox, Mass., and it was good. Most especially for Jeanette.
Today Mongo and I drove around this pretty town. The Tanglewood music extravaganza hasn’t yet begun so traffic is manageable. It’s lovely here. We passed the old Village Inn and I asked Mongo if he’d mind if we went in for a while. He immediately agreed. It’s still a stately building, handsome and worn to a nice old patina, still painted dark yellow and I could see Jeanette’s room in the front, where she sat in the bay window as she grew older and watched the people and cars and the great, fragrant Wisteria vine creeping across the roof of the large front porch beneath her windows, reminding her of the same vine her parents had had on the front porch roof of their home in Chicago when she was a child. The welcoming, spacious front porch has been enclosed now, but back then it was wide open. Jeanette would sit and rock there when the weather was good, and she’d grandly greet the incoming guests as if she owned the place. Dick didn’t mind at all, but Alvah sure did and he’d glower darkly at her from his rocking chair, snorting loudly. Several times. But Jeanette paid him no mind. Playing La Grande Dame was something she lived for and did rather well, and the mere fact that she was neither born to nor had earned the title bothered her not in the least.
Mongo and I strolled around the inside of the old inn and it made me sadly happy to see it all again. The furnishings are still the same. I saw the same table Jeanette sat at with Alvah and Bernice in the stately diningroom. The Victorian front parlour is still dark, elegant and cool and I saw the sofa where Jeanette would sit, queen like, to welcome Mongo and me and our three small sons when we’d come to visit. I still have photos of those reunions. It hasn’t changed much in there. The Village Inn still seems to be a genteel place for older folks to sit and rock and talk, laugh and reminisce together. Jeanette was very happy there.
And it is where she died. As she was being carried down the long staircase to the ambulance for her final ride, her adored Dick weeping at her side and clutching her old hands tightly, Jeanette, knowing she’d never be coming back to the inn, tried to comfort her beloved almost-son by repeating again and again to him, “It’s been wonderful. What a grand time you gave me here with you, dear, dear Dick. Thank you. Thank you.”
So this is a story of how life often comes full circle. I have never stopped being amazed that Jeanette King Richardson, in a sudden and impulsive act of incredible generosity back in 1929 began that particular circle and saw it become completed. I am proud that she was my grandmother.