Valley News – Column: The Lonely Year of Grampa Nugent
Before the COVID-19 pandemic and our nationwide shutdown, the subject of loneliness was a bummer, guaranteed to either freeze any conversation completely or turn it into a therapy session.
But after a few months of compulsory isolation, loneliness has become a fashionable subject because it is universal. Everyone was experiencing it. Anyone could understand it.
In my family, loneliness was not at all taboo. In fact, it was a great romantic legend involving my great-grandfather, Charlie Nugent (1870-1940), a carpenter who in his early twenties left his wife and children in Fitchburg, in Massachusetts, and took a 3,000 mile train. in Seattle in search of fortune.
There he bought a horse and wagon and built a portable sawmill, wandering the Washington wilderness, chopping logs and shaping them into planks, selling them for a handsome profit.
Within a year he had made enough money to return to Fitchburg and build his wife and three children a house with his own skillful hands.
Houses were less complicated then – no plumbing, no electricity, no central heating.
Decades later, in the 1920s, he had moved to Guilford, Connecticut, and started a turkey farm. At the time of her death in 1940, Nugent’s Turkey Farm was the largest turkey farm in Connecticut and her granddaughter, my mother, had been raised there with her sister.
(I have a photo of Grandpa and Grandma Nugent on their wedding day posed on a wishing well, and another half a century later on their 50th wedding anniversary, wearing their Sunday adornment – with one exception: Grandpa’s shoes look like they’ve been a long and proud history of mud exposure. “I want a red-clad marching band to play Turkey in the straw at my funeral, ”he announced in his later years, instead getting a barber quartet.)
My mom would tell me tales of Grandpa Nugent in the “plucking room,” waist-deep feathers at Thanksgiving, when fresh turkeys were in demand.
When she complained of being alone, Grandpa Nugent, a big barrel of a man, would take her on his knees and tell her the story of her year on the West Coast, thousands of miles from her family.
He told her about his portable sawmill and how he wandered through the Washington woods at night with a lantern, sobbing out loud and hoping against hope to meet another human being he could talk to.
He must have looked like Diogenes, wandering in ancient Greece, lantern in hand, in search of an honest man. (I suspect my great-grandfather would have settled for a dishonest man, just to see another human face.)
And that’s where the legend of loneliness in my family began.
I always thought that family legend was a bit of a stretch – until the 2020 pandemic locked me in my own home with only my dog and cat for company.
Once every 10 days I would venture to the White River Junction grocery store. I was very grateful to see a familiar face. A lot.
I had a phone, TV, internet, email, SMS, and Zoom to keep me from feeling alone, and yet I was aware that when I saw a face of flesh and blood and I I heard a voice of flesh and blood, I suddenly felt relieved.
My home is five miles from Dartmouth College, whose Latin motto is Vox clamantis in deserto, “the voice of one crying in the wilderness”.
As Charlie Nugent’s great-grandson, it’s more than a college motto for me. It’s a reminder of the human bond that COVID-19 has made invaluable to all of us in 2020, as we quietly sob in the wilderness of our own hearts.
Paul Keane lives in Hartford Village.