Brattleboro woman has a stormy history
BRATTLEBORO -- Carol Corwin has a history with hurricanes.
1938 -- Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island
"I grew up surrounded by millionaires."
Carol sits in her beautiful, homey West Brattleboro living room. A fire burns in the sturdy woodstove. An enormous chimney encloses the stove on three sides, rising to the ceiling like a remnant of an old fortress.
Carol and her husband, Bruce, have lived here since 1957. The living room was an addition to the original 1900 house; though it was built in 1969, the room and its expansive chimney are still, she says, the new part.
The walls are lined with books and family photographs, several long shelves of CDs, and an unexpected harpoon high on the south wall. A piano -- Bruce is a musician and music teacher -- rests just behind Carol's comfy wingback chair.
She sips green tea from a small mug.
"I was a middle-class kid, as my grandfather was the caretaker of an estate," she says. "But we lived across the street from the Rhode Island Country Club, so there was a great hill to sled and ski on. We had two beautiful beaches to go to, and Echo Lake was there.
"We spent every day outside. I was a jock, pure and simple. Every day I'd get off the bus and go to Sneddon's lot or the Greens' lawn and play football or ski or skate or swim. My childhood was truly idyllic."
She shakes her head, sits up straight, leans forward. "But let me tell you about the hurricanes."
Carol was 5 years old when the massive 1938 hurricane blasted right through Narragansett Bay.
"I was at a birthday party at the Greens' house across the street as the storm was picking up. Mrs. Green opened the door, and a chair blew out. It was really strange," she says. "I remember my father carrying in some storm windows from a shed out back. He might as well have been carrying a sail. The wind caught him and he went flying!"
She lays her long hands flat on her lap. "The next was 1944 or ‘45. That was before they named them."
She concentrates for a moment. "That was a tough time for us."
Carol says no more about the unnamed storm, and the memory slides back into its place in her quick and hopeful mind. By the early 1950s, she had left Rhode Island for the University of Maine.
"Oh, college was tremendous fun," she says with a smile that somehow manages to be both soft and ebullient. "And that's where I met Bruce."
1955 -- Narragansett Bay
The day before Carol and Bruce were to be married, an unwelcome houseguest appeared.
"Hurricane Diane," Carol says. "That was a bad one. There was my father bringing the oil burner up out of the cellar like he had for Hurricane Carl in ‘54. There was my brother running a boat around the yard where our wedding reception was going to be."
The waters began to recede, though, and by the next day the yard was dry enough for the reception.
"Except the grass was chartreuse," Carol chortles, "because of the salt. Chartreuse!"
Not long after the funny-colored wedding, the young Corwin couple moved to Bennington. Bruce was from Bellows Falls, and Carol had fallen in love with the state during her first visits to Bruce's family.
Both worked as teachers, Bruce in vocal music and Carol in primary grades. They lived on a farm in town alongside the farm managers, whom they called Uncle Emmett and Auntie.
"They were wonderful." Carol smiles. "They made life easier for us. I remember one time we were away, we came back and Auntie had made us a roast partridge. In 1957, when Bruce found work in Brattleboro as an instrumental music teacher, which he wanted, I was so sad to move."
Carol was heartbroken to leave the community she and Bruce had found through church and various activities. She said as much to Uncle Emmett, who told her a story about a little man sitting on the outskirts of a town.
She grins. "Folks would come up to the man and ask what the town was like. He'd say, ‘Tell me where you came from.' They'd answer, and whatever the description, he'd reply, ‘Well, that's pretty much what you'll find here.'"
Carol took the lesson of expectations to heart, and it didn't take long before she and Bruce belonged to the First Congregational Church in West Brattleboro, finding special connection in the couples club.
They moved to their current home in 1958. Bruce continued and deepened his work as a musician and instrumental music teacher, while Carol raised their three kids.
Large and small adventures marked the years. Getting to know their neighbors. The family's cross-country trip in a VW micro bus. Activities with the church. Intercultural summer camp. Carol's return to teaching Kindergarten in 1968. Two enormous gardens in the yard. Trips with Carol's opera appreciation club. Joining the Friends of Brooks Memorial Library. Making Brattleboro the beloved home they expected to find.
1973 -- West Brattleboro
"It was the day of my father's second marriage," Carol says. "My mother had died two years before. Bruce and I were all dressed up and ready to go, and then at 2 p.m., the water started to come over the banks of the Whetstone Brook."
Carol called her father. "'We can't come to the wedding,' I said. ‘We have to sandbag.' And we changed out of our fancy clothes. That was a bad storm."
Life resumed its cheerful bustle, and Carol led her students on farm trips and swimming trips and apple picking trips. She retired in 1994 but stayed busy as ever with friends at home and trips around the world, surmounting the bad storms.
2011 -- West Brattleboro
Carol remembers the flood, of course, the five-and-a-half feet of water and silt in her basement, the destruction of the gardens, the smashing of Bruce's woodshop, the loss of minor and treasured possessions.
But she remembers even better six days after Hurricane Irene passed.
"More than 60 people came to our house to help clean up," she says. "What a tribute to Brattleboro. Our kids, folks from the library, our church, Bruce's band, our friends, people in groups."
Their Jehovah's Witness friends brought them a spaghetti dinner. A woman gave them a box of 45-rpm records when she'd learned they lost their collection. Another lady sitting near them one night at the Chelsea Royal Diner gave them a box of extra Christmas decorations. A man named David Gates replaced three cord of wood they'd lost.
"And my Garden Club, I've been with them for 25 years, they gave us a sizable amount of money to build four raised beds to replace our gardens," Carol says. "We have so many people to thank."
2012 -- West Brattleboro
There was no hurricane of note this year in Vermont. This West Brattleboro house is cozy and dry, safely filled with music and memories.
Carol Corwin, however, is a hurricane of sorts in her own right, except instead of blasting the land apart, she and Bruce vigorously gather goodness together into ribbons and trills, trellises and chimneys of friends and great expectations rising across decades. Theirs is a hurricane of invitation. Carol is a storm of sun.
In the middle of the latest Road Scholar catalog of international trips for seniors, Carol has stuck a yellow Post-It next to a jaunt to Istanbul and Egypt.
"I'm going on this trip," the note reads. "Ya wanna come?"
Becky Karush is a regular contributor to the Reformer. Learn more about her writing services at www.lifestorycompany.com. To suggest people for this column, write to her at email@example.com.
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