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    Wednesday, May 22, 2024

    Remembering a ‘good’ neighborhood at Christmas

    Neighborhoods are ephemeral. They come and go. Children grow up; people move; people die; businesses edge out residences; interstate highways slice through. But while they exist, close-knit neighborhoods can be a source of strength.

    Today, Route 27 in Mystic is lined with gas stations, restaurants, hotels, and shopping venues, but in the 1940s and 1950s, it was a little community of 10 or 12 private homes wedged between Old Mystic and downtown Mystic, but not really part of either.

    At one end, near Elm Grove Cemetery, were four homes belonging to three generations of the Barnes family. They farmed and owned a moving and storage business.

    At the other end, near the intersection of Jerry Browne Road, were the Hoods and Johnsons. John Hood was a retired Navy commander who’d survived the attack on Pearl Harbor. Tom and Elizabeth Johnson had a little farm, and operated a gas station out of a converted teahouse on the property. Their house was a snug Greek Revival that had been built during the Civil War by William Eldredge, a Mystic shipwright.

    Among the several families in between were the Lambs and the Keaches. Norman Lamb bred award-winning day lilies and ran a nursery next to his house. Florence Keach owned Whitehall Mansion, which she and her husband, a Yale professor, used as a summer home before gas rationing made the commute from New Haven impractical. Whitehall had been built in the 18th century by an Old Mystic doctor, Dudley Woodbridge. It sat quite a way back and faced away from the road. It is said to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad.

    I believe there are only three homes from this era that still exist: the Hoods’ place; Whitehall Mansion, which is now a hotel and has been moved closer to Route 27; and the Johnsons’ home, which was relocated to Fishers Island. But before the intrusion of I-95 and the accompanying commercial development, the area was charming and rural.

    Shade trees lined the road. Sheep, horses, and a cow grazed contentedly in the Johnsons’ pastures. Mallards and wood ducks swam in their pond. In the spring, Norman Lamb’s daffodils marched along a winding woodland path down to the Mystic River. In the summer, his fields were filled with strawberries and sweet corn, and his large bed of gladiolas was a colorful sight to behold. A comic counterpoint to this bucolic loveliness was a talking crow. I think the crow and his owners actually lived in Old Mystic, but when the breeze was right, he could be heard summoning the family’s son in a convincingly human voice, “Russell! Russ - ell!”

    On December 24, 1943, this world was turned upside down. A bus making a wide turn on Fort Hill in Groton collided head-on with a car carrying four neighbors heading for a cup of Christmas cheer after a day’s work at Electric Boat. All the men were badly injured, but Tom Johnson and his friend, Harold Hughes, were in critical condition. When Tom’s wife, Elizabeth, got to L+M, it was clear that the doctors didn’t think he would live.

    Elizabeth’s neighbors sprang into action so that she could spend every possible moment at her husband’s bedside. Despite wartime gas rationing, they often drove her to the hospital. They made sure the animals were fed, and that the cow was milked. They assisted Elizabeth’s elderly mother, who was caring for the Johnsons’ infant. They never asked if they could do anything to help. They saw what needed to be done and did it.

    Sadly, Harold Hughes didn’t survive. He was 38 years old, and left a wife and teenaged son.

    Tom did recover, and was released from the hospital in the spring, a damaged but lucky man. I don’t remember the Johnsons’ delayed Christmas celebration because I was their baby. I’m sure it was emotional.

    Mom used to say that good neighbors are one of life’s greatest blessings. Giving the gift of neighborly love: that’s a nice holiday thought to ponder.

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