Friday, June 17, 2016

Remembering the Bartons

Remembering the Bartons

Both Edward and Hilda Ridings Barton had grown up on farms on the outskirts of the village but had climbed, comfortably, into positions of social prominence in the community along with other couples with names like Conger, Tyler and Brainard who enjoyed the financial fruits of their ancestors’ labors.

I remember Mr. Barton as being a smallish man, sort-of stooped, always wearing a three-piece brown suit, tie, and  - outdoors - a brown hat. He had an “English” bicycle that he rode down White Street from his home (now the Petrie residence, across from the new municipal hall) to the post office, careening ‘round the corner and up into the parking lot with one hand on the handlebar and the other clasping his hat to his head, and with a worn leather briefcase slung across his shoulders, like a “book bag,” on a long strap. He was quiet, but - in my recollection - always courteous, offering a smiling “Good day!” to everyone he met and tipping his hat to the ladies.

At home, he must have spent most of his time in his study - more a library, with walls of bookcases holding scores of volumes of history.  He had two favorite areas of study: the histories of saints, and his family genealogy. Learning that I could draw, he asked me to turn verbal descriptions of some saints into pictures and, when that project was completed, we turned to his family tree only to discover, with mutual amusement, that roots of both his and my families had been somewhat intertwined back in 18th century Massachusetts.  One afternoon, while chatting about “life back then,” I stepped near a wall to look at a small piece of artwork - a Russian icon, it turned out, that had come from the royal palace in St. Petersburg. He said, “Oh, do take it off the wall, Mrs. Brown (‘I was probably in my early 30s, but he always called me “Mrs. Brown”) and take it over to the window to look at!” And when I’d done that, “Would you like to take it home and enjoy it?”  He probably knew I’d say, “Oh, no! I couldn’t do that!”  Or, perhaps, he didn’t.

While Edward Barton was studying saints and genealogy (and riding a state-of-the-art mechanical exercycle which was also in his study) his wife, Hilda. was out and around the community pursuing her own entertainment and projects. A rather non-descript woman with an Eleanor Roosevelt sort of smile, she was always tidily dressed in simple but expensive outfits and traveled not on bicycle but in silvery Lincoln - often down the middle of the street! She, it appeared, had always loved local history and had been collecting pictures and stories and artifacts for years. She went one step further than other collectors, ‘though, in that she had photographer David Chernoff make copies of all the old photographs that she could locate and went to considerable expense purchasing at auctions  numerous items that she thought should not leave Waterville. Most memorable might be the twelve straight-backed wooden chairs once owned by the eccentric Ruben Tower who had had the front legs of the chairs shortened by an inch or so so that the seats tilted forward, were miserably uncomfortable and did not encourage any quests seated in them to stay!  She didn’t do it for herself - they were stored in a barn on Putnam Street for several years - she did it for the community!  She was the one, too, who persisted in researching and pestering the powers-that-be to have the “historic triangle” placed on the National Register of Historic Places - an event that took place in 1978. Not that she was always serious!  I spent enough time helping her on various projects to learn that:  1. She enjoyed both hearing and telling slightly risqué jokes, and, 2. She could really swear!  I thought she was lots of fun!

The Bartons, as expected of anyone of their social standing, left matters of housekeeping and gardening to  others - in this case, Frank and Mary Kilar.  Mrs. Barton complained mildly that “Edward can’t do a thing for himself!” while she, herself, actually admitted to having trouble opening a can of tuna fish!  One autumn, Hilda was hospitalized for a few days and I, having become fairly chatty with Edward, took him a freshly-baked apple pie.  I delivered it early one morning and explained that I’d used disposable pie tins so that he wouldn’t have to worry about returning a pie plate and there were three or four layers so that it wouldn’t easily leak when he cut into the pie. He looked at the pie; he looked at me and said, “Oh, Mrs. Brown - I don’t believe I’ve ever cut a pie!”  He said it so sadly and apologetically, I’ve never forgotten.  But I quickly said, “Oh - don’t worry!  Mary (Kilar) will take care of that!”  But - as it turned out,, Mary didn’t cut and serve the pie:  when it was nearly noontime, Mr. Barton summoned the Kilars from their work,and asked them to sit down with him at the little kitchen table where he gave them each forks and spoons and invited them to share the pie with him  --- they just dug in from three directions: no cutting necessary!

I don’t believe I ever saw the Bartons together at any social function in the village, but there certainly was no coolness between them at home and, for their fiftieth wedding anniversary, Edward proudly presented Hilda with a gift from Tiffany’s - his pride not so much that it was made by Tiffany, but that it was one-of-a-kind and that he alone had thought up the design:  on a simple gold chain hung a rough, unpolished gold nugget about the size of a peanut and set into the nugget, a perfect diamond.

The last time I saw Edward Barton was on the occassion of his birthday, one June 21st.  Hilda telephoned me a bit after dinnertime and said I “must come to help light the gas plant for Edward!” I had no idea what she was talking about, but it couldn’t have been too much of a dangerous, flamable or explosive emergency because she sounded very cheerful!  I arrived at the Bartons’ in my usual, grass-stained overalls (they were used to that!) to discover (with chagrin) that there were other guests there, as well, and they were wearing real, going-out-to-dinner clothes and were sipping sherry in the parlor!  But the overalls paid off:  when Hilda judged it to be “getting dark out,” we all trooped through the kitchen, out the back door and across the driveway to the lawn and garden where Hilda, gesturing to a small shrub with stalks of pink blossoms, said to all of us, “There’s Edward’s gas plant!” And the two of them actually tittered, knowing the rest of us were thoroughly mystified.  After we’d all arranged ourselves on the grass in a semi-circle around the mysterious “gas plant,” I was handed a box of matches and told to strike one and hold the flame just below and away from the lowest blossom on one of the stalks. I did, and - with everyone else - gasped as one-by-one, up the stalk, one blossom after another emitted a match-like burst of flame igniting the gas being emitted from the blossom above it!  It was a mini fireworks display and evoked “Oooohs” and “Aaahs” and applause as stem after stem was touched off.  When we’d exhausted the plant’s supply of excitement, we happily sang “Happy Birthday, dear Edward!” and left, smiling.

The last time I saw Hilda, years later, she was quite frail and sat propped up in bed, eager to hear the latest gossip, exchange a joke or two and talk a bit of history. I’d taken her a bouquet of flowers from my gardens - many cut from plants that she’d originally given me over the years - and, after talking for fifteen or twenty minutes, she picked up the bouquet and said, “These really should be put in water, now.” It was my clue to leave.  But when I stood up, she said, “Wait just a minute: help me do something.”  She started to take individual blossoms  off a stalk of foxglove and putting the little “hats” on each of her fingers! “And now will you ask Mrs. Ruane (Dottie was her personal aide, then) to come upstairs, please?” 

And that’s the last image I have of Hilda, sitting up in bed and holding up both hands, palm outwards, admiring her childlike reflection in a mirror across the room!  

‘Til her death, she remained the most reliable source of historic information, always knowing who was who and what happened when and where to look for information. Too often, when someone asks me one of those questions, I have no ready answer, and can only shake my head and silently demand to know, “Hilda! Where are you when we need you?”

Althought the Barton Fund was established by Edward Barton alone, the Barton Legacy was given the community by both, for they contributed generously to their churches and -althought Hilda wanted it always to be kept secret - she, especially, - and anonymously - “helped out” a great many families who didn’t even know her.

I think the most important aspect of their legacy was this : even if you have heaps of money to enhance your life,  remember that there is even greater value and pleasure to be found in simple things like “gas plants,” foxglove blossoms and spoon-sharing an apple pie!

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