Two Autumns in New England

When I attended Middlebury College in the mid-1970s, the school had a long weekend without classes in October each year. The weekend typically occurred near the height of the spectacular autumn colors, though, of course, the peak colors could never be predicted precisely. I can’t recall whether the weekend was called “Parents’ Weekend” or “Fall Break”. Whichever it was, we got out of classes for two days and lots of families showed up.

In October 1973, my freshman year, my parents came back for the weekend, which is why I think it was Parents’ Weekend. It was the first time my mother had seen the Middlebury campus.

My father feeding a tame squirrel in Montreal, October 1973

My father feeding a tame squirrel in Montreal, October 1973

I remember lots of activities while my parents were there, including the only football game I ever attended at Middlebury. I didn’t watch the game for long, because I don’t much care for football, particularly live (at least on television someone knowledgeable tells me what’s happening and there are replays of everything important). My parents also took my friends and me out to dinner to the Dog Team Restaurant, famous for its sticky buns. (I can still taste them.)

My parents and I also drove to Montreal for a couple of days while they were there. We drove north on the narrow highway U.S. 7 on a cold, gray day until reached Canada, then followed a similar Canadian route. I don’t remember any fall colors that day, only clouds and rain.

We arrived in Montreal, where it was frigid and windy. We found our hotel and checked in. Our room was too hot.

As the only speaker of French in the family, I was tasked with getting the room cooled down. I found a hotel maid and told her “Il fait chaud” (“It’s hot”) in my best French accent. I gestured toward the thermostat. She finally understood me and in a gutteral Quebecois I could not understand explained how to work the thermostat.

The room cooled off pleasantly. My father decided my Middlebury education was worth something. (Mind you, I’d had six weeks of college French at this point—so it was really my public high school education he was lauding.)

The next year, my sophomore year, my parents could not get to Middlebury for our October break. My grandmother (Nanny Winnie) decided she would come instead. She was generous with her pocketbook and plenty of fun, so that was fine with me.

Nanny Winnie did not drive, and I didn’t have a car on campus. She flew to Burlington, Vermont, and took the Greyhound bus to Middlebury. The main hotel in town was close to the bus station. A friend of mine with a car drove us to the Dog Team Restaurant for more sticky buns.

Maine tidal flats, October 1974. Unfortunately, the picture doesn't do the colors justice.

Maine, October 1974. Unfortunately, the picture doesn’t do the colors justice.

The next day Nanny Winnie and I rented a car. Today it is very difficult to rent a car unless you are at least twenty-five and have your own credit card. In 1974, the rental car companies were much less picky. My grandmother’s credit card and my driver’s license got us a car, even though I was only eighteen and didn’t have a credit card. I recall some questions about why she didn’t have a license, but she just shrugged and explained that she had been in a wreck when she was seventeen and never drove again. The rental agent liked her as much as everyone else did.

We drove through Vermont and New Hampshire to the coast of Maine. It was the height of the fall colors that weekend, and the weather was perfect. I have never seen such juxtaposition of cerulean sky, sapphire seas, and orange and red leaves.

Now Nanny Winnie liked to drink. We sat in a small restaurant one evening with a bottle of wine between us. I had one glass (in 1974 the legal drinking age in many states was eighteen), and she finished the bottle. She got to telling me stories . . . the same stories over and over again.

It was the first time I wondered if she was getting old and senile. She was sixty-six at the time—less than a decade older than I am now. I don’t know if that evening was an early sign of Nanny Winnie’s later dementia or if it was just the alcohol. She lived for another twenty-nine years before dying with Alzheimer’s, so I suspect it was the alcohol.

Those were the only two Octobers I spent at Middlebury, but I look back on them fondly. And as I remember them, I wish I had Nanny Winnie and my parents telling me stories again.

What memories do you have of beautiful autumn days past?

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  1. Every fall, my dad made a point to gather Mom and our family and head for the Ozarks. Silver Dollar City welcomed us to their Fall Festival. We’d take in a music show and eat at favorite restaurants. Although it’s been over thirty-three years since Dad took us to those beautiful rolling hills, his presence is still there when we visit the same old places today.

  2. Growing up, our neighborhood always had an outdoor Halloween party. All of the kids would gather in a cul-de-sac, dressed in their costumes to march in a parade. Afterward, there were games and a lot of candy.
    I love the photo of your father.

  3. My grandmother used to come to CT from NY every year during the fall and we would drive to a farm for pumpkins. If you could guess the weight within a few ounces the pumpkin would be free. My grandmother owned a grocery store and was used to the weight of chickens, etc so we always relied on her to guess. This farm had an apple press, we’d watch cider being made. The day was always fun-filled. A friend of mine lives nearby that farm and has an annual fall festival (we’ll be going this weekend). The farm has changed quite a bit (more commercialized now) but fond childhood memories always rush back when we drive by.

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