On Main Street

Main street

The tall trees were compelling. “It’s Moorestown and no other,” we said, as we drove through town. We found an old house on Main Street which faced a row of oaks. It had a first floor center hall that Margie loved and a garret-like bedroom (ours) under the roof’s slant; two rooms the children quickly made their own, and on the second floor, a two-room suite for Margie’s mother, Helen Headley Ridge.

Big trees graced many Moorestown streets. They dotted the park that surrounds Strawbridge Lake. A silent grove enveloped you on the winding street leading to the Middle School, an unexpected treat. Our backyard trees – two of them walnuts that Helen deemed junk trees (a death sentence) – blended into the woods that had taken over a disused apple orchard on Mrs Williams’ estate. We were drunk on trees. We took no vacation that year. We didn’t need one. Good thing too, we were broke.

My walks along Main Street, under the trees, took me past David Ritchie’s house where Harley Armstrong lived, then past Bob Smith’s tall house on the north side of Main, past Bob and Lenore’s house, past Parry Cottage where M.C. Morris lived and finally, to Molly Haines’ Hathaway Cottage. These were Quakers I had met after I joined the John Woolman Memorial Association. Our new family physician asked:

Have you made many friends in Moorestown?”. I told him.

You know the finest people in Moorestown.”

Some mornings I’d arrive at the Friends School at Chester Avenue when parents were delivering their children. I’d pause at the traffic light to watch the cars emerging from the school grounds. Some SUVs had bumper stickers which read “We support our troops in Iraq”.

MFS

This was the corner where M.C. Morris used to sit at his rickety folding table, handing out peace literature and soliciting signatures for antiwar petitions. The school’s bulletin board stood on the lawn just behind MC. The message on the board said “There is No Way to Peace. Peace is the Way.”

M.C. was tall and lean, with a mustache and a closely trimmed beard. In cold weather he wore a tweed topcoat and a black beret. In an earlier life he had taught German language and literature at Hiram College. He also knew Russian.

EPSON MFP imageMC Morris refinishing furniture

In 1930, M.C. took a job with the John Deere Company which trained him to fix, to maintain and to use the farm tractors. The Company had sold hundreds, perhaps thousands of its tractors to the Soviets. MC and Libby were sent to Moscow where he became one of the faces of John Deere in the Soviet Union.

He would visit many outlying farm areas every month. He’d make minor repairs but mostly he showed the farm workers how to do it themselves. Sometimes M.C. took a train to the end of its line, then a bus as far as it went and finally, by horse and wagon to his destination. Libby stayed in Moscow where she worked within the small Quaker presence there. They remained in Russia for about two years.

In old age, Libby and M.C. returned to Switzerland on their fiftieth wedding anniversary, to the village where they had been married. They were married again pro forma in the same town hall. The townspeople celebrated it with them. Shockingly, Libby died on that trip and she was buried in Switzerland.

Parry CottageParry Cottage

Once back in Parry Cottage, to supplement his income, M.C. refinished furniture and re-caned chairs. He did a piece for us. In good weather he did the sanding and the painting on the small terrace above the first floor’s kitchen. He’d wear his rusty black beret in cool weather. We lost touch for a while; then Molly told us that M.C. had moved into a modest retirement community in Ithaca, New York, to be near his daughter.

We exchanged postal cards: his room was comfortable, with a desk, a chair, space for his books and for his calligraphic equipment. He said there were no locks on the doors. Occasionally a sadly diminished resident would enter his room while he was working at his desk.

Harley Armstrong taught English at the Moorestown Friends School for fifteen years. She wrote an excellent sentence and she despised humbug but her tartness was tempered by Quaker forbearance.

In Harley’s time, persons eligible for food stamps collected them at the Burlington County Trust Bank, which was located on Main Street across from the Friend’s School. If they chose, Bank customers could conduct their business al fresco at a teller’s window which opened out to the sidewalk.

But food stamps could be collected only at this outdoor window, in fair weather or foul, in summer or winter. Harley put an end to that practice with a crisp letter to the bank manager.

She never earned much at Moorestown Friends School. In her day, many private schools paid badly, half-expecting their teachers, of good family, to have private incomes. Their children got a free education, but Harley had neither children nor private income. She made do by living on the second floor of David Ritchie’s raffish old house. In 1991 she entered Medford Leas on a resident scholarship. She died in 1997.

Molly Haines lived with her parents at the east end of Main Street. Her uncle, M.C. Morris, lived on West Main, about a mile and a half away. They’d take long walks together, two tall figures striding along Main Street, often at dusk. They walked in the street because the brick sidewalks were heaved up by the changing seasons and by the bulging roots of the old trees that lined the curb. On summer evenings I’d hear fragments of their speech as they passed our open windows.

Fresh out of college, Molly had worked for the GE Electric Company. Then she applied for a job opening at Philadelphia’s Quarterly Meeting of Friends.

If I get the job,” she promised, “I’ll work here for the rest of my life and I’ll never ask for a raise in pay.”

Molly got the job and she kept her word but The Quarterly Meeting did not: it included her in all pay raises. Molly earned her keep; in addition to her secretarial duties, she edited in-house publications and she adorned them with her clever illustrations.

She took the bus into Philadelphia every morning, just as Margie did, and sometimes they’d share a seat. Mollie would sit with the New Yorker Magazine in her lap while she knitted garments for her numerous nieces and nephews. She’d speak to Margie as she knitted, with an occasional glance at the New Yorker Magazine. Once a year she drove to New England to deliver scarves mittens sweaters socks and rib-cracking bear hugs.

In old age, Molly entered Medford Leas. I’d see her on Sunday mornings at Quaker Meeting in the Holly Room. The large windows there give a long view of the woods. At close of service I’d walk across the room to greet Molly.  She’d give me a powerful bear hug that lifted me to my tip toes.

Months passed. She showed up at Sunday Meeting in a wheel chair. No more bear hugs at end of service, just a hand shake. Then she entered the Haddon Court Assisted Living unit. I see her now and then as she’s wheeled down a long gallery that overlooks some trees. She looks at me blankly.

Bob Smith, ever the outsider, lived on the other side of Main Street. My friend, Bob Haines, was the newly elected head of the John Woolman Memorial Association.  I was his treasurer. He introduced me to Bob Smith who was the outgoing president. Both Bobs were graduates of Haverford College but Smith was eleven years older than Haines.

I introduced Margie to Bob Smith one afternoon while we were walking on his side of Main Street. He was sitting on his porch. I told him that Margie was a graduate of Swarthmore College because I knew that Swarthmore and Haverford College were friendly rivals. Bob’s face lit up:

Did you see the score?’, he asked gleefully. He saw Margie’s puzzled look.

We beat you!”, he crowed.

As a student, Margie had gone to the football games only because they were a part of the Saturday night dating scene. She told me a story perhaps apocryphal, but quintessential: the Swarthmore players, in the huddle, were apt to question and debate the wisdom of the quarterback’s call.

I wish that I had paid more attention to Bob Smith. He was city born and bred, he was well read. That he was ironical discountenanced some people.

After his wife died, Bob began visiting London again. He knew the great literary accounts of London and he had retraced the the authors’ footsteps. He’d see six or seven plays in two weeks while he was in London,

Stay at the William Penn Club”. He assumed every thinking person was drawn inexorably to London. The Club, a small hotel owned and operated by the Society of Friends, is located just off Great Russell Square, near the British Museum, a short stroll to Bloomsbury and not far from the theatre district. Bob was not an outsider in London.

In 1970, he wrote a book, In and Out of Town. It is poignant and tart, a clear-eyed memoir of his boyhood in the Northern Liberties district of Philadelphia at the turn of the century. Bob’s father was the beloved neighborhood physician. By 1900 the neighborhood was teetering on the edge of fading gentility. Here’s Bob in the foreword of his book:

Minor enchantments, high moments and wonder, are touch and go and hard to hold, and worth the try.” Here’s one of his tries:

And always in the late afternoons with supper cooking, the breath of the basement kitchen coming up from the dumbwaiter and the stairs. In warm weather with windows open and a wind from the river it was lager beer from Schimpf’s and a whiff of horse from the boarding stables in Perth Street and in its season, waiting for those who got close enough, the warm sweet scent of the alyssum in the flower boxes.”

In late autumn Bob and Lenore Haines used to buy a sack of unshelled pecans and stand it up in the corner of their kitchen. They and Harley, Libby and MC, and anyone else who happened to call, would sit around the kitchen table shelling the pecans. Pecans do not yield up their flesh so easily as walnuts, nor so bountifully. It took a long time to fill our bowls.

pecans

We’d dump our gleanings into a large pot. Later, Bob and Lenore would fill dozens of little bags with the kernels and tie the bags shut with red and green ribbons. These became Christmas gifts for relatives and friends.

Every year or two, Lenore and Bob, Libby and MC, and Harley attended the meetings of the Iroquois Nation in upstate New York. In my mind’s eye, I see them standing serenely among a group of Indians under a spreading tree. Across a luminous river, lions and lambs lie side by side, as in a painting of the Peaceable Kingdom.

The Peaceable Kingdom

Bob’s vegetable garden in Moorestown was a peaceable kingdom. The garden took up the entire back yard of his house. A thick layer of mulch covered the ground, sixty years of mouldering leaves were augmented by each autumn’s fall. The soil needed little hoeing; Bob merely pushed aside the mulch to expose the welcoming earth. His garden was a patchwork of plots living in happy confederation. One large plot was devoted to lettuces. A wide strawberry plantation formed the back boundary of the garden.

In mid August, Bob and Lenore departed Moorestown to visit Argonia, Kansas, Lenore’s home town, where she maintained her family’s homestead. She and Bob had first met when they were students at Vassar and at Haverford colleges. After their marriage, Lenore made her life on the East Coast where Bob took over the family paint business in Camden, New Jersey. She missed Kansas sorely and Bob knew her sacrifice; hence these late summer transfers to Argonia.

In old age they moved to Argonia for good. Their daughter had preceded them to Kansas, first to attend university there and then remaining in Kansas after marriage. She lived within driving distance of Argonia. Bob died in Argonia three years later. Lenore lived to be ninety-nine years old.

Help yourself to the garden while we’re gone,” said Bob, and I did, concentrating on the strawberries, the carrots and the lettuces.

Bob did hand-to-hand battle with the insects because he rejected chemical warfare. He picked the bugs off one by one, and he placed them in a Mason jar. He said there always seemed to be enough vegetables for his family, for his friends, and for the insects that escaped his fingers.

EPSON MFP imageBob Haines in his garden

One spring morning, I came upon Bob on his knees. He was tenderly, reverentially transplanting lettuces. He had started these plants in his battered greenhouse, from the seeds of sprouted lettuces, lettuces descended from the lettuces his father had planted in the garden eighty years before. Bob sent some of these seeds to his daughter in Kansas every year and she passed some on to her daughter. Why does this recollection give me such pleasure?

Bob and Lenore Haines, Libby and M.C. Morris, Molly Haines and Harley Armstrong – Bob Smith too – were of those Moorestown Quakers who vied only in goodness, anonymously. In their quiet way, undetected, they planted in me a bit of their peaceable kingdom.

Portions of this piece appeared first in my letter to the Friends Journal in June 2007.

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