You are going to think I am overly preoccupied with grandmothers, but since yesterday I’ve been thinking a lot about my third grandmother, Winifred Thayer. This grandmother was acquired through adoption, not blood, and unlike in most adoptions, I was an adult and it was not a one way process. My late partner Peter and I adopted her as much as the other way around.
My recollections of Mrs.Thayer were prompted first by attending to a long postponed task: packing a motley collection of stuff yesterday to ship to an appraiser, in order to donate it to a museum. All of it was associated with the family of Ephraim Niles Byram, a noted clockmaker, self-trained scientist, technician of navigational instruments for Sag Harbor whaling fleet, and the builder in 1852 of the eccentric Oakland Cottage, in Sag Harbor, New York, which Peter and I once owned. It is all destined for the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum, which already has an entire wall devoted to Byram. It includes a daguerrotype of Byram; original deeds going back to 1808; a wood plane belonging to master cabinet maker Eliab Byram, Ephraim’s father; one of Byram’s working tools; an 1822 sampler embroidered by Byram’s sister; an 1886 high school diploma of Byram’s daughter; a Byram family christening dress; and bolts of fabric (linen or flax), homespun by the Byram women.
What united these items was not just their association with the Byrams but also that they were all carefully preserved by Mrs. Thayer and entrusted by her to us. It all started when we had just taken possession of our newly acquired wreck (delapidated would have been too kind a word) in April, 1984. Mrs. Thayer, then 88, toddled across the street from her very neatly kept house and crackled “Did you buy this house?” When we said yes, she said she could tell us a great deal about it. An understatement.
Mrs. Thayer and her husband had moved into the Byram House as newlyweds in 1913, as boarders of Byram’s daughter, Loretta. Loretta, a (you should pardon the expression) spinster, became “Aunt ‘Retta” to Mrs. Thayer’s children. When the Thayers moved in 1929, it was to a house they built across the street. And when Aunt Retta died she left her house and all its contents to Mrs. Thayer’s son, Forrest (“Sonny”).
Mrs. Thayer became Loretta’s de facto guardian and guardian of the Byram family legacy. In her later years, Loretta, fearful that outsiders would learn family secrets, spent hours in front of the fireplace burning letters and papers. The deeds which Mrs. Thayer gave us were among the items she secreted away to preserve. Mrs. Thayer was a lifelong Methodist who barely ever took a drink. One of the “sins” that made her guiltiest, about which she repeatedly sought reassurance from us, was that, fearful for the soul of Loretta (who lived firmly in the Byrams’ anti-organized-religion tradition), she secretly and without consent baptized Loretta on her deathbed.
In their mutual zeal for preserving the house, its history and the history of Sag Harbor, Peter and Mrs. Thayer found themselves soul-mates. Mrs. Thayer had lost her hearing in her 30s, a time before Sag Harbor and eastern Long Island generally became swamped by New York City’s social dominance. As a result, she preserved in a pretty pure state the Bonacker accent that had more in common with Nantucket and coastal New England than it did with New York. And, because she couldn’t hear much at all, she was more comfortable telling stories than listening. The result was hours of audio tapes Peter took of Mrs. Thayer relating stories of old Sag Harbor and the Byram family lore. Her memory was sharp. As we restored the house, stripping off 1950s wallpaper, the colors Mrs. Thayer had vividly described for the walls reappeared, allowing us to be confident that our choices were true to the Byram scheme.
Through the process of bringing the house back, Mrs. Thayer and we developed an incredibly strong affection. Each Friday she had a tin of cookies waiting for us, in one of four revolving flavors. We visited back and forth daily, sometimes multiple times. She taught me local skills, like shucking oysters. On the many house tours we did for various civic organizations, she would gamely dress in 19th century costume, including bonnet, and sit in front of the fireplace telling her stories. When we introduced her to new people, she’d say “I’m their grandma.”
Mrs. Thayer didn’t need to adopt extra family. She had a daughter and grandchildren, including a granddaughter, Maretta, whom she adored and who adored her back. But in her living room there was a very handsome portrait of her son, Sonny, done by his close friend, Paul Cadmus, whom Mrs. Thayer knew. Sonny, a Broadway costume designer, was killed in a car crash in the early 1950s on the road to East Hampton. We did the math: handsome costume designer, friend of Paul Cadmus, and figured that at some level her adoption of us was more than joy at the restoration of the house. It was also a form of restoration of her close relationship with her lost gay son.
I might not have brought all this back to mind today if not for the approach of tropical storm Henri. I’ve been concerned at how it might interfere with my first post COVID reunion with very close long time friends staying an hour east with my friend George. Reading how rare it is for tropical storms to make direct hits here, I recalled that relatively much more common occurrence on Eastern Long Island. And I recalled Hurricane Gloria in September, 1985. The wind was howling at the peak of the storm when I looked out from the front of our house to see a white flag waving in Mrs.Thayer’s window.
“I think Mrs. Thayer is in trouble,” I said to Peter. He agreed that I should run across and see what she needed. I dashed out the front door, and narrowly missed being felled by a large oak tree branch as it crashed to the ground. And barging through Mrs. Thayer’s front door I found her, oblivious to the sound of the howling winds, calmly cleaning her house. It was not a white flag I had seen, but a dust rag.
I am relieved that, after much procrastination, I finally got those memorabilia out the door. I know from both Mrs. Thayer and Peter that the meaning of these things lies in the stories we tell about them, some of which are now only known to me. Left in this house, upon my death they would become just a bunch of interesting knick knacks or even junk destined for the dump. Returning them to where they can be placed in context and made part of a coherent story feels important to me. I deviate from farm concerns, and tell you this story, in that spirit.
WHAT’S AVAILABLE THIS WEEK
Blackberries, $6/pint probably the last week
Long Hot Portugal peppers $.50 each
Jalapeno peppers, $.50 each
Cucumbers, sweet slicing variety $.50 each
Collard greens $3/bag
Swiss chard $3/ bag
Rhubarb $4 a lb.
Mint $1 a bunch
White oasis turnips, $3/lb – baby size or big ones, your preference
Shiso leaves, $1 for 10
Sorrel, $3 a bag
Garlic chives, $1/bunch (flat leafed)
CHICKENS: They were quite uniform in size, all just around 6 lbs, a few under. These freedom rangers have been what you want them to be, deeply flavorful. $6/lb, frozen.
Email us your order at firstname.lastname@example.org, and let us know when you’d like to pick up your order. It will be put out for you on the side screened porch of the farmhouse (110 Lasher Ave., Germantown) in a bag. You can leave cash or a check in the now famous pineapple on the porch table. Because I’m now here full time, we’re abandoning regular pick-up times. Let us know when you want your order any day between 10 and 5, and unless there are unusual circumstances we’ll be able to ready it to your conve