“My grandfather was so old when I first remember him that I hardly realized we were in the same world. He was an ancestor, still walking around or sitting in his rush-bottomed chair reading by the kitchen fire. His bent figure, his thick grizzled hair, and his sharp black eyes were a little frightening.” — Anne Gertrude Sneller, “A Vanished World”
I am blessed by good friends who realize I fully appreciate books, and are good enough to share even their most beloved old treasures. A Vanished World is the life story of the Moultons in rural Cicero, New York.
This tome is amazing and endearing and so well-written it feels as though the starkness and the beauty both can be felt. The somber and cantankerous old grandfather she describes was the link to ancestors who came from England to America in 1637.
“Through his father, his long life touched the Revolutionary War and covered the building of the United States as it unfolded across a continent in the nineteenth century,” Sneller writes.
For serving six months in the Revolutionary War, a land grant on Grantham Mountain in New Hampshire was gifted to ancestor William Moulton. It is this lovely and rugged, rocky forest land where the story begins.
“No one in those days felt that he had to do or think what everybody else did,” Sneller’s grandfather had stated.
It is this type of independent thought upon which this country was founded. In his era, no old man got to be so by being what we now term “politically correct,” but by stating his mind and standing firmly upon it.
It is from this free-thinking spirit that birthed a curious child who took it all in.
Late in her life she wrote, “This is the story not only of a vanished childhood but of a vanished world. The background of trees and meadows and orchards, of white houses and red barns, of stump fences and stone walls has disappeared and is as irrecoverable as though it had never been.”
As is the case for nearly every single one of us, the realization of what she had loved and lost did not fully occur to her as she lived through the transformation of a countryside.
“I know now that we lived in a world of extraordinary beauty. The farm tools and machines had a music of their own; the click of hoes in springtime, the swish of a scythe in the deep grass of the fence corners; the sound of a mower travelling across a meadow, and most beautiful of all, the melody of the reaper at work on the harvest.”
Children were called upon to accomplish all sorts of things, and if a scary old grandfather asked a child to play checkers after the chores were done, there was no getting out of it.
“He must have thought it would amuse me, for it could not have amused him to play checkers with a child who did it so badly. I did not enjoy checkers, and I did not wholly enjoy my grandfather,” Sneller writes as her memoir opens.
As much of her writing manages to do, this observation evokes memories of a grouchy old uncle, reeking of cigarette smoke, who demanded rather than requested our presence across the checkerboard from him.
It felt like sheer punishment. Sneller’s life was touched by the unending work of the turn of the century farm and home as well as by more refined relatives, such as Aunt Ann, who kept a book among her teaching supplies entitled “Slate Pictures for the Useful Self-Employment of Young Children.”
By laying a piece of sheer ‘silk paper’ (much like tissue paper of today) over its pages, one could create artwork by tracing the old, stark pictures.
The author said her hours of tracing the pictures were “as happy as those of Aunt Ann’s pupils in their useful self-employment,” and that special book was always put back on a high shelf.
This was to be her first book, written at age 80, after a lifetime of teaching English from 1914 to 1940. It is a pure pleasure to read, placing us in the old countryside of days lived and lost.
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