The Why: A preface to the Chesterfield Road essay.
The why. The question that comes when I dredge it all up, and now, after so long. For my first 26 years, I’d been in the dark, left witnessing only flickers and glimpses that hinted why my family lived the ways that they had. By that I mean the arguments and distance and the caution and care about pride in being us — nobody special to speak of — for the optics of our family name. For my brother and me that meant they ever hoped we wouldn’t cascade back, become fuckups or trouble, pick from the myriad ways to embarrass them.
I was good, always good. And quiet. It was the natural state of me, the invisibility I felt, the fade into the backdrop and wallpaper, which through force or happenstance was me keeping out from the fray. So I wasn’t a fuckup. But I don’t know what else that made me, except merely there, a dodge and duck and a stiff arm out from mishap.
We never held highfalutin status. In fact, as I learned, in my hometown we had been cast down as quite the opposite. Which is why I take umbrage when someone whispers or snarks at what privilege I’ve had — and chides with insistence — how downy a coat I’ve nuzzled, I ought to shed it. Truly, clearly, they don’t know, as they joust cavalierly in assumption and generality and their own self-ingratiating prejudice.
In 2018, before winter, I wrote the essay “Chesterfield Road”, which later was published in an anthology of author essays. Mine bore truth, unflattering as it was, on the cringingly violent past of my family on our old farm in the north end of my hometown, and just across Latimer Brook from where I grew up. More poignantly, I wrote on the redemption my father forged for sake of our name. I wrote too on my complicity in his plan, living in the house he built, unknowingly playing a part to foster our collective restoration.
I have known for some time in my adulthood about the murder and suicide — those of my dad’s parents — in 1961 it cast cloud over our family for everyone to see loom. The headlines then made landfall half-across the state. The abuses he endured with his brothers and sisters in the years leading up ebbed and churned and roared on our acreage in privacy, as many and most do. Once headlines hit, when a poor north end family suddenly was orphaned, the warts and scumbaggery of life on our old family farm finally had come into bloom.
To my dad’s credit, he managed to bottle and cork word of it all from me until he had died and I was in my mid-twenties. It went undiscussed for years and through all my growing up. It remained too as the undercurrent of persisting resentment for most of my family. To me, the journey and origins and endurance behold value that outshine accompanying shame. They have to. Why else would my family push through those vile parts of their lives and make mine better?
So, still I sift where I can for morsels of detail of our sordid history. A recent breakthrough in conversation with family sent one sentiment home clear — we’ve come far from beatings and neglect and cramped squalor and being unbathed. That was them growing up, my father, my uncles, my aunts. But as far as we’ve come, existing that way isn’t far removed from me at all. I live, sitting here, feet kicked up on the edge of my teak patio table, taking shade from the warmth of a sunny day, and I can all but see how he, my dad, had live — and full well realize his deliberate steps in removing me from versions of the same path.
However well or better we are, none of it we’re entitled to. All of it though, whatever it is we’ve attained, in station and pride, we earned and scrapped and fought hard for. And that is my answer to why. To know we haven’t merely existed standing here. That we stand steps forward from dark places. What I wrote — airing decades old secrets — outlines my father’s and family’s deliberate steps, the how, the why.
Chesterfield Road — Part One
The times I would see headlight glare strobe across my bedroom ceiling, I would take to waiting for its departure, often late and long after I was tucked in to bed. I studied what I could see in the dark without my glasses on, the tempo of flickers that faded and always gone with a whoosh of some car going by, each night, until all light dimmed deep blue or to black, until morning. Once though when I was eight or nine or ten and not quite asleep, the lights returned, and this once, they lingered. They danced and rolled along the walls before reaching like fingers to the ceiling. They stayed far longer, before finally disappearing, all without a sound. The lights, they never acted that way with me before or since. I wondered then where the car went, or that maybe it hadn’t been a car at all. It had to be, and I wrestled that into my head, then settled in. That is, until I considered whether our house, somehow, maybe, had been haunted.
For so long, I recalled the dancing lights, what I finally resigned to be driving cars and my overthinking thoughts. This was the house my father built and on the last parts of our family’s land, the only house I’d ever known through all my childhood. Our house was warm, and only ours, and after all, seeing those silent lights on the walls and ceiling would have been more than twenty-years before I found out what actually happened there. And having learned about our family and its history on that land, being haunted, I’m surprised now our house hadn’t been.
I spent a lot of time as a teenager, touring the shoreline roads in the south end of town I wanted to, but knew I never would get to live in. I longed for the foot-busy bustle of cul-de-sacs and side streets — to wander and ride bikes, to mischief and collect at the corner voltage box for impromptu tag and backyard football with the lopsided teams, bigs versus littles. I found myself drawn most to the neighborhoods by the shore. There, the ocean sat stifled by Long Island Sound, lapping gently along pebbly sands. Small beach crests, quiet and private, held their staid identities — Saunders Point, Oak Grove, Giants Neck, Crescent Beach — their sandy paths and sidewalks connecting seasonal cottages that one by one pulsed alive as full-time homes. Further south and past a swing gate and summertime guard, prim, spiffy girls I never saw during the school year inhabited some of the big houses in Old Black Point, with placid familiarity if not a bored indifference. On their saunters to and from their neighborhood clay courts for tennis, or past their permanent field for playing croquet, I roused as much attention on my bicycle riding by as it seemed they gave the carpenters and gardeners, a passing glance, if that at all.
Our town wasn’t quite divided into an us and a them, but in the spectrum, the monied Old Black Point was on one end, and eight miles away and north from the ocean, I was on the other. Names in town sometimes carried weight, some for better or worse. There were the institutions of sports name families that seemed to churn out son after son that lettered in three sports. Other names were well-to-do, the flip collar Izod and smarty-pants preps whose fathers worked in New Haven, Providence or Hartford. And mine? My dad grew up in town then became a Connecticut State Trooper. At school, my brother and I were always well-mannered, shy and quiet — a class act, a girl I knew since grade school said in passing, sometime last year. Our father’s drilled-in warnings must have worked. As unassuming as we were, he still was strict, and with us made one thing clear: If you embarrass me, I’ll embarrass you.
The north end woods where I grew up was a far different place from the shore and the rest of town, and my house, specifically, existed with a tarnish that I came to find stained deeply. At differing times there had been three houses that belonged to my family along a single stretch of the same land. One beheld a cramped, farmhouse squalor, and with it, beatings, a murder and suicide. The second, at some point, had been reclaimed for an escape — or at least the hopes to — from the first family house. And the third, where I grew up, unbeknownst to me, was the rampart and battle line, the standing ground my father decided on us holding, for sake of himself and us and the family name. My childhood of tree fort building, ball and glove passes and wood line walks with the dog was our soldiering, where we dug in, rather than yield, take shame or simply move away. The houses were each just driveways apart, one after the other, along a break in the winding, thicketed stretches of Chesterfield Road. And all my life living there, I knew nothing of their twined connection in those bold and sinister ways.
Chesterfield Road — Part Two
By the time I was eight and nine and ten, Dad had been curating an edited history on hikes for my twin brother and me, through a vast excavation on the other side of Latimer Brook, behind our house. This, he explained, had been our family’s farmland. Past a nearby hay lot, the steep slope we sometimes traversed marked how far down the bucket loaders dug, stripping the soil to bare sand.
Silt and gravel, piled like mountains, overtook the clues of where the farmhouse and barn once stood. Dad pointed out the only discerning remains, an open well head he causally warned us not to step by because, otherwise, we’d fall in and altogether disappear. This was House One, where my father grew up and was terrorized by his father, and with difficulty, finally left from. He never lingered past this place, trudging on instead, up paths into the ledge land too rough and rock laden for the excavators to rape usable soil from. He used that word, rape, under his breath and full of its meaning, for the land beyond our backyard and no longer his, scraped to a lifeless, chalky moon I knew in no other way.
A row of large ledge rocks fringed one side of our yard along Chesterfield Road that I scaled by hand and with ropes with my brother, with backpacks and green plastic M-16s shoelace strapped to our backs on our journeys, in view of our neighbor’s yard. Once, I happened on a green glass 7-Up soda bottle intact at the bottom, a painted label treasure from twenty or more years before, protected under crisp, colorless leaves, a relic perhaps from when Dad was just as old as my brother and me. We wandered and searched and fanned out and spied, reporting back and forth in choppy walkie-talkie words, minute to minute, most often on next door.
There, a bald man with a knit yellow hat and blue cover-alls drifted between his house and his machinery, the tall cranes and trucks he kept there for his ocean and river salvage jobs. His dogs — Roger, then Duke — roved our yard regularly, uninvited guests on walks most days, down the hill to the grass lot behind our house and across a footbridge to the hay lot, in company of whichever dog of ours, Bertha, Jane, or Big Bert. I never met him, our neighbor, Mr. Rogers. My father left him fixed in his glare, without words, with encounters ending each time in a silent turn of shoulder. Dad froze him out, the man who always lived next door on our lonely road. This was House Two, and I was well in my thirties and gone before I realized Dad had lived there for a time, if briefly.
There are things still a mystery about my father. Like, day to day, what he did after his father murdered his mother then killed himself at House One on Chesterfield Road. It occurred to me that after that, Dad simply left, and lived in his car and at the volunteer firehouse in Flanders. He was homeless, for a time he was, riding it out alone, perhaps until he would no longer be forced into foster care. But then there was House Two, and the unraveling family secrets Dad and Mom and all my aunts and uncles held from my brother, all my cousins and me, well into our adulthood.
There always was the conspicuous absence of Dad’s parents. In my childhood they never existed, except for her, Dad’s mom, in a single portrait on the wall in the dining room. She was full body stout, and for the sitting she was neatly dressed, a formal picture-frame stranger overseeing holiday dinners too special to be eaten in the kitchen, captive in monochrome and a metallic patina. And under a disconcerting closer study, I recognized her eyes were dented in and marked by the head of a ballpoint pen. She was Pauline and I never knew to miss her.
In earnest, what first most troubled me was the backlog of presents from Christmases and birthdays gone by from just one set of grandparents. I had gotten by with half of what everyone else did in my elementary school, and that was my quandary when I was bold and naive enough to ask when I was nine or ten, what Dad replied so tersely and a bit flippantly — that his parents were playing with guns, and they were dead. I couldn’t conceive then on how tender a ground I treaded, nor how plainly I was tripping alarms and zeroing in. Just a generation back. A tortured past. What sullied our family and sent it whirling in tailspins.
Chesterfield Road — Part Three
The newspaper story was precariously descriptive from that night, in November in 1961. Names, locations, the time of night, where the shots were fired, the places on her body she was shot, and which car he went into to finally end it for himself. One uncle was in Okinawa, staged for Vietnam. My father was out someplace. He was sixteen. The rest of them were there, five of seven of my future uncles and aunts, there as witnesses and victims with fresh scarred psyches, all when they were twenty-five and twenty-two and eighteen and thirteen and nine. They were there at House One, with their grandmother and mother when he showed up, their father, and when he brought his pistol with him. By then, none of them called him that. He was referred to as “the father” by each one, which I’m sure he mistook as reverence for him. They meant it instead to hold him apart from them, his children, as far as they could, even by reference and name. To them, he wasn’t their father, just the father, a place holder for the monster among them. His name was Stephen and even now I’ve never considered him my grandfather.
The father, as his children called him, was an out of work printer and bus driver, and quite the clarinetist, as good talk goes. He was smart and charming and easily bored, often caught reading between two and three books at a time. Ruddy pockmarks dotted his cheeks and leathery jaw. His hair was a wiry, balding crown. His face beheld a flat, tight lipped smirk that he adorned with a stylish, Clark Gable mustache.
People who really knew him, knew what he doled out at home. Within his family, there were whispers he was tied to Russian mafia from his years in New York on the Lower East Side, though his family was all Ukrainian. He parlayed household money into rounds of drinks and he liked fancy cars — he wanted a Cadillac but drove a Lincoln. He also kept a gun. State Police arrested him for that a year before, for beating his wife and threatening, too, to kill her. To most people though, he was a man about town, a frustrated savant and a bit of a cad. He was a well liked man, a man about town, and at home he was horrifyingly abusive, to his wife, his sons and his daughters.
There are tiny, scattered details about the family from then that make no sense, while some ring crystal clear. Like as kids, some of Dad’s siblings remembered seeing little, silver skull faces hanging from the trees like tinsel, by House One, and that they reminded them of the skull head ring the father sometimes used to wear. There were the fights with rocks the brothers had, and my father had to lay low in the barn for days until the swelling went down — or else they’d all get beaten — and that no one noticed he wasn’t there.
There was the murder and the suicide, and after, the squabbles about the gun the father had — the pointing fingers, who knew he had it, and what who did and didn’t do to let this torrent hail and thunder to its fury. Anger boiled. For my father, he didn’t cry hearing word his mother died and he didn’t at her funeral. The walled-off father with numbed emotions I was raised by had soothed himself in just that way, since his beatings started as a child. His siblings, though, clawed and lashed, they pinpointed rage on him, the brother who didn’t cry at all, and not for their murdered mother.
There was talk of a wicked sister who brewed dissent between the older siblings and younger ones who didn’t know better, when they tried to hold the family together in House Two, after the murder and suicide. In that festered fracas, the family fractured, parted paths, just split, all of them — twenty-somethings, teens, and a little sister still in grade school. The youngest was just nine and promised a valuable violin the family somehow had — that vanished when she was passed from house to house around in foster care after the arrangement living together in House Two collapsed.
Then there were the fights my father and his brothers were known in town for, sometimes with each other, or to stand up for their sickly north end friend, or in parking lots and side alleys, sometimes for little cause at all and after the slightest agitation. These were the twists in my family’s spiral down, a life endured brutally and what their mother’s murder made them. The closed door demons leached out, nearby and far past New London, in newscasts, headlines and gossip. Our die then was being cast. What was it our name would long hold for us — wild, lowlife townies from that dirty north end farm on Chesterfield Road? I’ve heard versions of that before.
Chesterfield Road (Part Four) — The final episode of a four-part serial ESSAY
If there was a manifesto of mine to my family, it would start when I was nine and ten, about the clouds of shouting, the bombast on Thanksgivings and Christmases, after wine and cans of beer, between my uncles and aunts and my father. The eruption from the table. The stale end to a once wondrous day.
My cousins, my brother and me, we all were left disbursing early from the Monopoly board we had circled around with bowls of chips and popcorn in the living room for the long haul after dinner. The retched tentacles of our family’s past outstretched and whirled and reached for us, the generation next, until at some point after, and unceremoniously, we stopped having family Christmases altogether.
I’ve wondered often how my father evolved from so near a complete destruction, since his brutal enduro ended, quick, with trigger clicks and flash, flash, flash. Sometime after, somewhere late in the 1960s, he worked for The New London Day, in ads, and had been a member of The Elks. He lived with roommates in Mad Men times. He emerged as a man with a past, beholding rugged looks and draped darkly with airs of Don Draper mystery. Move fifty or more miles in any way, he could just as well have walked off to disappear, to let fade the dim spectacle that rimmed still as curio and gossip fodder.
Before knowing what I do, I wondered too what pushed my father into police work instead, especially, all along, since he warned me not to ever do the job at all. After he died, I did, so I know firsthand why he waved those warning flags. The work numbs and is unyielding, it sours your soul, over nights and weekends, year building on year, the dealing with death, and living night to night in everyone else’s horror. Dad’s life though, growing up, had already been that way — in horror — and for him, becoming the police was one clear way to stand up from it.
But having become any kind of cop wouldn’t have been enough. In Connecticut, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, the State Police beheld prestige, mystique and awe — and induced, too, a nauseating fear. They rode patrols like hungered wolves that covered miles of highway and towns, alone. If there was more than one somewhere, hell there was going on. They rivaled the FBI and guarded the governor. They took charge and took control and took no shit at all. And my father was one of them, the last of the hard, old-time road troopers.
And with that, my father set out on executing the other part of his vision, in accumulating the shards of remaining family land, just five-acres, just ledge land and a flood-prone lower lot along Latimer Brook that once had been a cranberry bog. Some siblings gave their shares outright, gladly. Others held out for whatever it was they thought they could get or squeeze him for. House Three, where I grew up, he reset his roots there, on land with a tainted name, where all too many had made up their minds, turned up their noses, fanned the flames and whispered.
It’s clear, this was his precise intention — writing our family’s new narrative here and in this way. Unexpected, perhaps by most everyone in town, he circled back to where our family’s lives had shattered. He set us back up — and just stayed. He held vantage there, from front steps and back deck, staring ghosts and notions and looking straight, eyes to eyes, at everyone crossing paths who happened by. There, that way, balking talk through town stifled.
Moreover, he patrolled in town too, dispatched call by call, him pulling them all from the worst of all their moments. With that, he hadn’t simply stayed. He unquestionably had become the good. On our land and all across town, he restored the peace, brought the calm, he was unavoidable.
So the life in town for my brother and me went on with us unknowing, this bleak a history being met with a constance that beat it back. Was he afraid this past would follow us through school, maybe cost us a precious place on a town-proud sports team? Was that why he coached our teams from Little League through Babe Ruth? Did he risk stifling us to shield us from some hammer dropping he knew, somewhere, out there, might fall to crush us, and not because we couldn’t cut the mustard — but because of who he was? This was all his gamble, what I hadn’t had to contemplate until learning this, and later in my life.
Still, this leaves me looking now at my father and family and our house on Chesterfield Road in fresh, new light. Only now, with years passed and us grown up and gone, I finally see this clear — and now, after the house now finally has sold.
If Dad intended to live his whole life there, he fulfilled his wish. He died in the driveway from a heart attack when he was fifty-three. Mom since downsized to a condo near the boardwalk, toward the shore. My brother is gone from town now and I left the state for what’s been years.
I thought of flying out to help sort through the lifetime of boxed and stacked up memories. I didn’t go further than that though, just the thought, as I reconciled the facts and fables I had gathered over years. The house I longed to leave for ocean views and all the places someplace else, I’ve left, been gone, and now the house is too, from us, forever, except what’s in my head.
What I see most clear is my wonderment from when I was four and five and six and wide-eyed at the window. Dad is driving a dented, chalk blue pickup truck through the yard. Our dog Bertha trots alongside with the neighbor dog we called Roger, before they race off in the woods together. He’s been chainsawing trees and slashing brush with a machete, carving the truck path further down through the thickets, to the banks of the brook below, and he hasn’t told Mom it will work as a go-cart path as well. Up by the ledge rock outcrops, our tree fort hugs a cluster of well-aged maples in good surveying view of our neighbor’s yard.
Boulders that bulged amid the lawn he’s pried with shovels, picks and iron rods, he’s breaking them down to build stone walls, like the moss-grown ones we found up from the ledges of the sandlot. He put us out there too, picking stones imbedded in our grass lot from the big-time, summer flood. After lunch, we tote the buckets of stones to the banks of the brook and hit them over, one by one, into trees toward the sandlot, for batting practice, and to give them back.
These sights and moments flood back to me, and I see the lights that come and go across my ceiling, they’re just lights from cars that come and have gone by. Our house on Chesterfield Road, the one I replay and I still see, is warm and always ours. It never has been haunted, without a trace of taint, doing my father’s will in giving our family back its name.
Jason James is the pen name of Jason James Barry (Bahriy), a native of East Lyme, Conn. Jason is an award-winning essayist and journalist, and has been a staff reporter for the Hartford Courant, The New Britain Herald and The Record-Journal newspapers.
Following foot of his father, Jason later served as a uniformed police officer in Connecticut, then went on to become a Special Agent for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, where, among other things, he investigated Russian organized crime in New York City. He left government service in 2014, and lives with his family outside San Diego.