How did we get to Manumit?
“I’m Elizabeth the Virgin Queen. Don’t laugh. On my title I stand firm tho’ it’s only a technical term.” That’s my mom, Gert, intoning one of her endless repertoire of songs, poems and quotes. Dramatic, emphatic, emotional when she was stage center, which was most of the time. Married at 24, widowed at 26 with two fatherless infants made so by the flu epidemic of 1918. Forced to live with her Hungarian Socialist parents, who raised me for the first eight years of my life, the lady clenched her fists and plunged into the “make-a-buck” world.
Union organizer, street-corner speaker, out-of-town agent provocateur, arrested for distributing handbills, political opportunist. Not a lot of time for two kids. Get them off the perilous Bronx streets and into the bucolic countryside and the “safe” hands of friend, Nellie Seeds, director of a radical “progressive-education” school. All win-win factors. So nine-year-old Donnie was dumped again, no fodder, no mudder, and an orphan in the “Mill” dorm with four other waifs. Not a bad life, nine year olds adapt quickly, loosly disciplined by the dorm mother, Marcelle Guiniard, Swiss beauty, more interested in her own image than the welfare of her charges, one of whom was Ezra Stone of brief history as “Henry Aldrich”. Dorm life had its moments. Veggie-food wars through a connecting tunnel with the adjacent dorm. I remember catching half a cabbage head flush in the puss during one encounter. A reverse Pyrrhic victory, we ate the enemies’ weapons!!
Did our mother love us? How could she not!!?? Donnie-postcard: “Today besides French we learned fracktions” (sic).
So the days went by and we went to class …or not… as the mood struck us. Class was not obligatory. There was always the “production chart” on the Main House wall on which a substitute hour on the farm could be supplied in place of a classroom hour. I spent more time among the rhubarb and rutabaga rows than with the reading and ‘riting . Spelling, even today, is an adventure in originality and creative genius. Some wag said, “A man who can only spell a word one way is somehow lesser for that.” Right on! My man!
Three months and the first “report card” was issued. Typically “Manumit” it is included.
Remembered moments: French class under “Franz” Baggypants (named for the European style dress he wore) consisted of an hour of the game J’accuse,” the pointed finger and “animal, poissan, oiseau!!” Franz’s Belgian accent followed me to Creston Junior High where it ran up against Miss Grey and her Irish American version of French. Of course, I corrected her. How could I do less? After all, I spoke French!! And Esperanto. Though all that remains of that amalgam of language is: Le estas bonne kuniglo. Chiuie contestas nien. Freely translated: He is a very good rabbit, which nobody can deny.” Why does this gem remain after eighty years? Ask me not!! I plead, “Not Guilty, Judge, Yo Honor, Sir,” to the uncontrolled actions of a wayward brain!!
Another Manumit carry-over to the real world: Discussing the Solar System in Junior High, teacher: “Name the eight planets.” Donnie: “ There are nine.” “ Eight” says Teacher. “Nine,” says I. “I saw Pluto on Astronomy Hill through our telescope!!” Manumit Rules!! My mother came to school a lot those days.
Back to second year in new dorm. I am now ten years old. Mates: Shirley (changed to John) Padget Payne, Bobbie Haberman and two unidentified New Yorkers. Evening sport: naked wrestling at arrangement of dorm captain, Don Stevens. What does this say about Don’s proclivity? Absolutely no conscious reaction on my part to naked participation. Lasting indelible effect? Quien sabe??
The group had its own store in which was sold candy, stationery, and etcetera. We ran it and each student had an account. Enclosed is exhibit “B” outlining financial actions involved.
Bobbie Haberman was my “best” friend with whom I spent many innocent hours enjoying Manumit’s greenery. A lasting love of animals, outdoors and growing things developed while we played Momma and Poppa gorilla. Once again I was too young and unsophisticated to attach anything but friendship to our rolling on the ground and climbing trees and such, but when we left Pawling all that was left behind.
That I missed my mother was made evident by my constant references to when she would be visiting. Even her visits were strange. We would sit and “converse” in a made-up language, created on the moment and adlibbed . To this day, I do not know if it was done to impress bystanders or for our own amusement. Being a “mother” was a difficult role for her and not one she fitted into easily. The “language” was a barrier to intimacy and I never felt we “knew” each other.
We had an extensive chicken population, a hundred or more and they were put to work hatching a dozen duck eggs. The twelve little fuzz balls became my responsibility and each morning my approach would be greeted with the raucous chorus of quacks as I neared with the day’s quota of corn .. Of course I echoed their cries sounding more duck –like than any of them. I raised them to full size to find they were destined for the axe and Thanksgiving dinner. I was vegetarian for that meal, if I ate at all.
Manumit was not my sister’s and my first trip “away” from what passed for “home.” At three, I remember Locust Farm, then Pioneer Youth Camp, Camp Ganaden then three years at Manumit and summer camp. Little wonder I had built a protective wall complete with drawbridge and moat against any invader of my privacy!!
Summing up: What were the lasting effects of the varied traumas and goods and bads of living at Manumit during the three formative years? First and foremost…I became self sufficient, confident and with a strong ego. Ask me, I could do ANYTHING…plumbing, ditch digging, electrical work, farm labor, animal care. A hundred and fifty pounds of barbed wire and sinew in a seventy pound frame. A love for all things natural and growing, animal, poissin oiseau!! To this day, I am a problem solver, reducing things to their least common denominator…and a good teacher because of that quality.