The Children of Jim and Lucy Seger Jennings
Annie and The Fish
Nobody would believe her.
No one: not her father, not her brother, not her mother, not the men. There just weren’t any trout that big in that brook anymore. But she’d seen it, lurking in the shadows of a deep brown pool in the little brook across the road.
And she watched. Five years old and wise in the ways of brown trout and icy water. And tried—for weeks. Her gear left a lot to be desired, but the patience of a born fisherman won out.
She proudly marched her prize home and her parents documented her triumph in this photo.
When I spoke to cousins about building this website and posting family photos, the inevitable first response was “Do you have the one of Annie and The Fish?”
This is my immediate family: my father, Sonny, and my aunts, Jess, Irene and Annie. As I started to organize these photos I came up hard against the presumption of making any observations about their lives. But neither that nor good judgment will probably stop me.
A lifetime is brief, but the changes these farm kids had to grasp in theirs are stark in these photos. Horses, oxen, pastures, kerosene lighting, shotguns. The ones of Jessie gave me some insight into the woman whom I only knew as a middle-aged wreck.
There was contention between my parents which kept our immediate family at some distance from my father’s family. After my parents’ divorce and his remarriage, the three surviving siblings reunited like a litter of happy puppies. They were all physically active at that time, and also had a busy social life: sharing meals with friends and family, playing cards on Saturday evenings, working and traveling together. In these years I got to see more of Irene and Annie and spend time with their friends. Whenever I drove down from Maine or New Hampshire I stayed with them.
At the end of his second marriage in the early 1980s Sonny moved into Annie’s Kent Hollow Road house. Almost every evening either they or Irene made the 11-mile trek between there and Irene’s Gaylordsville home to have dinner together. Their hospitality continued; old friends and family joined them for bountiful weekend dinners.
In the fall of 1993 they both moved into Irene’s Gaylordsville home. That reunion seemed right in so many ways for them, an attempt to make up for lost time. Sonny died in February of that winter.
In their last years they continued in their kindly, generous ways. As long as they were healthy they all performed a lot of physical work: Sonny worked as a handyman, gardener and caretaker, occasionally tending livestock and pets. Annie reveled in work at a dairy in Washington for a while after her retirement. Irene cleaned houses and maintained extensive gardens at home. They hauled and split firewood for their various stoves and for others’. Ruth Conklin, a widowed friend and former coworker, joined their extended family. They ran errands for Aunt Jnet and others and kept an eye on the agoraphobic ex-wife of another relative.
Heart valve damage from rheumatic fever, not uncommon in the days before antibiotics, eventually slowed down Sonny and Irene. Sonny survived endocarditis in his easily 50s and again later; two successive heart valve surgeries kept him going until age 70. Irene remained active into her 70s, fighting her way back from a stroke but dealing with congestive heart failure. Her intellect never dulled and she died after a sudden collapse at age 80. Annie survived Irene by three years.
I don’t know how far I will take this. There are traits they shared: in love they were perhaps, in an overused phrase, naïve and sentimental: they fell hard and perhaps didn’t choose well. Naïve and openhearted; sentimental in trying to rationalize bad situations.
… and Later…
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Jessie May Jennings Buchinger
Wild, but not cruel. Like all the Jennings kids, a sucker for animals and the natural world. She watched birds from her wheelchair at the window. On occasion she would phone my mother when she spotted something unusual. Once it was a hallucinatory splendor: the tree full of hundreds of red birds.
I tell myself a little story that Jessie might have had a chance if she hadn’t fallen so fully in love with the man she spent her life with. I was startled when I first saw the photos of her as a teenager and young woman. She confronted the camera, full of herself, sexy, a bit defiant.
Jessie found a dull, crude drinking buddy in Frank “Pick” Buchinger, Jr. I do think he was devoted to her, for what that is worth.
His parents were Bavarian. I grew up calling them “Grandpa” and “Grandma” Buchinger. I know Pick had a sister. Beyond that I knew nothing. Grandma Buchinger occasionally picked me up on her walks and continued up the old CCC road that paralleled the main road through Macedonia Brook State Park. I remember her as small and soft-spoken. They owned the property at the junction of Fuller Mountain and Macedonia Brook Roads, which was called Valley Brook Farm, and at times Macedonia Brook Farm. I believe they ran a guest house at the farm. One more strand in this fabric are some of the photos that came to me through Jessie>.
Pick and Jess lived a quarter-mile further along the road into Macedonia Park, in a beautiful setting above the brook in a house where I remember a tobacco yellow hue on the unpainted sheetrock in the living room. The only toilet in the house was down the raw plank stairs to the basement.
In her forties, bones fragile with years of malnutrition, Jessie fell on those stairs and broke both legs. She spent years in a wheelchair after that. As a child I didn’t think about what that meant for her life and dignity. But after she died Pick installed a bathroom upstairs on the main floor.
I didn’t see much of Jessie as I was growing up. Once in a while we would stop by and I would stand and look at the magazines and newspapers scattered on the table by the picture window and peer into dreary corners. After Jessie’s spell in rehab for her broken legs she went to my grandmother’s house. I was spending occasional weekends there and remember a few sparks between Jess and Annie as Annie tried to change Jessie’s trajectory.
Eventually Pick came and collected her.
In this family, compassion usually won out. During Pick’s final decline in 1979, Sonny stepped in to help this man for whom he felt so much distaste, took him to, and then visited him in Waterbury Hospital. Living in Bridgewater, he drove the half-hour to Pick’s house in Macedonia to feed his animals for a protracted period in the summer and fall. After Pick died, the siblings found homes for his dog and a couple of cats. Sonny and his wife Elsa and friends and neighbors all pitched in to clear the property of innumerable truckloads of junk. They saved photos and passed them on to me, along with one of Pick’s cats. I filed away the papers, which I’m using on this project, and gave them back the horrid cat, who became best buddies with Sonny.
Although Pick had sold his home and only held a life tenancy, he had buried Jessie’s ashes near the little pond below the house. An entry from Sonny’s diary is inadvertently humorous if you come on it cold:
Dug up Jessie’s ashes and put them in Annie’s car.
The family buried Pick with Jessie in Good Hill Cemetery.
Irene Lucy Grisell
Irene’s daughter Susan found papers that surprised her regarding Irene’s almost girlish devotion to her absent husband Henry. The marriage collapsed after he returned from the War: family stories claimed that he had changed.
My mother spoke once about the time after the war, when they expected him home any day. She and his parents were cutting corn in Roberts’s lot (down across the railroad tracks) by moonlight on an October night. I never asked her whose corn it was, or why they were cutting it at night, or for that matter, who Roberts was, but I can place myself in that field on a mild Autumn night, and imagine her glancing up towards the house, waiting for the sound of a motor and the sight of headlights coming up the road, stopping at the barn… but that was not when he returned.
Irene found difficult but secure work at the NY state mental hospital in Wingdale to support herself and infant daughter. Henry’s mother Evelyn invited Irene and her baby daughter to move into their Gaylordsville home, where Irene spent the rest of her life.
After their divorce Henry sorted himself out, remarried, moved away, and raised two children with his second wife. His widow Louise and daughters Susan and Mary Lou have generously shared what they can remember of Henry’s stories of his stint in the 36th Combat Engineers.
Irene at the wood cookstove in her Gaylordsville kitchen. She moved quietly and efficiently, cooking, gardening, walking a mile or so every morning after she retired, even-keeled and loving. Whenever we saw her actually sit down and take a break from a project we joked that someone needed to take a photo to document it. Only rarely did the Jennings penchant for devilment and teasing come out, although her daughter Susan can testify that Irene had it too.
Laurence Allen “Sonny” Jennings
Hyperactive, skinny, a bit of a hellion when young; later a mellow, funny, warm man. Friends reminisce how much he loved to laugh. When we were small he read to us, and patiently played board games and checkers in the evenings. As my brother and I grew older we tagged along after him on the trails and logging roads of Macedonia Park. (It was like growing up with a 2000-acre backyard.) He was a member of St. Luke’s Lodge #48 in Kent for at least three decades.
He was a tease. Any number of us would have murdered him at some point if we had been able to catch him. One favorite story of Irene’s involved chasing him around the farm, up and downhill, over stonewalls and through fences, murderous, until she was able to grab his shirttail. He wriggled out of the shirt and ran off, still taunting her as he ran. I understand that level of rage, and remember windmilling my fists while he held me at arms length, laughing, after some particularly annoying bit.
Sonny was kicked in the head by a horse as a toddler and the only option at that time was to remove a damaged piece of skull. Even in the 1960s doctors cautioned that a reparative operation would be too risky, so he went through life with a horseshoe-shaped dent in his forehead. That may explain the incongruous bonnet in the photo. It didn’t seem to slow him up at all. Although missing part of his skull, my mother said he tried to enlist in the Seabees during World War II. I guess he hoped he could do something even if the regular military didn’t have any particular use for a guy who could be killed by a fist to the head.
My mother, Alice Hoffman, was seven years older than Sonny, and married to Herbie Davis, who was serving overseas, when she took up with the leggy farm boy. He was around 20. She had very little reason to love the world or trust anyone. Her family, with few exceptions, were vile people: a layer of respectability cloaked selfishness, dysfunction and sexual predation. In recent years nieces and others have pieced together an ugly story; much of what I believe is still conjecture, but the separate stories intersect in ways that make me fairly confident about this. Several of the brothers were inappropriate with nieces when we were young. I suspect both my grandfather and some of his sons preyed on the girls of that previous generation as well. Not a good toolkit with which to go into life.
Early on they were happy. They built a small cape on a piece of property subdivided from the old farm. Eventually they rented this out and moved to Macedonia Park and the State house that went with his job as a park ranger.
The first tenants at the Seger Mountain house were Andy Andrews and his family. Around this time Andy developed and hosted a children’s show for Hartford’s WTIC, The Ranger Andy Show, which ran for years on Connecticut television. Eventually Dick and Jnet Jennings sold the Jennings farm on Geer Mountain and bought the property from my parents.
Our mother loved us fiercely, but grew more withdrawn and controlling as years went by. Her second pregnancy at 39 was difficult and Larry was born with a cleft palate. She blamed Sonny… ritualistically, vociferously.
I don’t think Sonny had any idea where the fun-loving woman he married had gone. He confessed that he was trying to stay in the marriage until my brother finished high school (didn’t quite make it), but most in our family circle knew that it was a miserable marriage. They divorced in 1973; Alice moved with Larry to a house on Skiff Mountain they had previously built on land purchased from Celia Kinney. Sonny married Elsa Bumstead shortly thereafter. He retired from the DEP in 1976, bounced through a series of caretaker jobs over the next few years, restless, unwilling to own property again, averse to paying rent, but quickly dissatisfied with each situation. He bounced often enough that eventually Elsa bounced off. They separated in 1980.
As my mother started her long, slow slide into dementia in the 1980s she grew frightened and more controlling, which Larry bore the brunt of. The Jennings siblings urged Larry to bring her to dinner on Saturdays. This for a divorced spouse who, when she had been in her right mind, had treated them miserably. Their cousin Donna joined in, and was able to entice Alice into a bathtub with the offer to set her hair. Afterward they sent them back up Skiff Mountain with microwavable hot meals and fresh laundry. This went on for years.
Annie, Irene and Donna continued to care for my mother after my father’s death. Annie said she “didn’t want to see anyone living like that.” Alice had two sisters, one of whom was caring for an elderly husband, but helped a bit with laundry and meals early on; another was living about five miles away and called me to scold me but as far as I knew didn't do anything else. I stayed in New Hampshire, resolutely in denial, helping financially when I could but still unwilling to deal with my mother. The siblings kept an eye on her until we were able to get her into a good nursing home, where her fear of being alone was finally assuaged.
Clara Laura “Annie” Jennings
Annie went through her life picking up strays: human as well as animal. Big-hearted, athletic, passionate, infinitely kind. Annie was the aunt I saw most and perhaps knew least.
She loved farm life, hunting, fishing and the outdoors. This late child may have been her father’s darling. In the summer of 1945, at age 12, she witnessed his death as he collapsed from an apparent stroke and fell from a wagon. She told me that she knew he was dead when he hit the ground. In the same month her beloved Gramp Jennings died. For the next few years, as a teenager, she struggled to keep the farm while going to high school and studying in the HVRHS Vo-Ag program. I believe she always felt like an exile after they left the farm.
Once she passed a point in her tempestuous early adulthood, she retreated from scrutiny, walked away from aspects of her life, and devoted herself to family and friends. She never discussed this period with me; I only discovered more after her death in 2003.
Mary Hoffman, who spent most of her teaching career at Pettibone School in New Milford, was a student teacher in Kent and a very young Annie was one of her pupils. She told me that Annie was always fiercely protective of her cousin Arnie, and wouldn’t allow him to be bullied or bothered. It was how she was, always, with those she loved.
Annie worked for over 30 years as an aide at Wingdale State Hospital, which enabled her to support her mother and Donna, the young daughter of Jim’s nephew Myron Jennings, who grew up at their home. At at time when patients were basically warehoused, Annie learned various crafts, notably chair caning, and brought those skills to the men in her ward, developing craft projects for them. She managed a tough job. In the process she also brought home a few strays, including a Russian woman who had been abandoned by her husband in New York. Distraught and with little English, Svetlana was institutionalized, overmedicated with Thorazine and, in Annie’s eyes, misdiagnosed. After bringing her home on a weekend furlough, Annie flatly refused to bring Svetlana back. I don’t know how she could pull this off, but she did. Svetlana stayed at the house for months until she found work as a textile designer in New York. In the meantime we all learned to cook Chicken Kiev and to make a garlic salad that could kill you.