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Column: Grampa Nugent’s lonely year

  • Nugent's Turkey Farm. Charlie Nugent left, Christina Nugent third from left. (Photograph courtesy of Paul Keane)

  • Nugent-built house in Caryville, Mass., using profits from Washington portable saw mill. (Photograph courtesy of Paul Keane)

  • Charles and Christina Nugent's wedding picture, circa 1890. (Photograph courtesy of Paul Keane)

  • Charlie and Christina Nugent on their 50th anniversary. (Photograph courtesy of Paul Keane)

  • Paul Keane. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

For the Valley News
Published: 6/5/2021 10:20:14 PM
Modified: 6/5/2021 10:20:14 PM

Before the COVID-19 pandemic and our nationwide shutdown, the topic of loneliness was a bummer, guaranteed to freeze out any conversation altogether or turn it into a therapy session.

But after a few months of mandatory isolation, loneliness became a fashionable topic because it was universal. Everyone was experiencing it. Everyone could understand it.

In my family, loneliness wasn’t taboo at all. In fact, it was a great romantic legend involving my great-grandfather, Charlie Nugent (1870-1940), a carpenter who, in his early 20s, left his wife and children behind in Fitchburg, Mass., and took a train 3,000 miles to Seattle in search of fortune.

There he bought a horse and wagon and built a portable saw mill, wandering the Washington wilderness, cutting logs and fashioning them into planks, selling them for a handsome profit.

In a year he had made enough money to return to Fitchburg and built his wife and three children a house with his own skilled hands.

Homes were less complicated back then — no plumbing, no electricity, no central heat.

Decades later, in the 1920s, he had moved to Guilford, Conn., and set up a turkey farm. By the time he died, in 1940, Nugent’s Turkey Farm was the a largest turkey farm in Connecticut and his granddaughter, my mother, had been raised on it, along with her sister.

(I have a picture of Grampa and Gramma Nugent on their wedding day posed on a wishing well, and another one half a century later, on their 50th wedding anniversary, dressed in their Sunday best — with one exception: Grampa’s shoes look like they had a long, proud history of exposure to mud. “I want a brass band dressed in red to play Turkey in the Straw at my funeral,” he announced in his last years, He got a barbershop quartet instead.)

My mother would tell me stories of Grampa Nugent in the “plucking room,” waist-deep in feathers at Thanksgiving, when fresh turkeys were in demand.

When she complained about being lonely, Grampa Nugent, a big, strapping barrel of a man, would take her on his lap and tell her the story of his year on the West Coast, thousands of miles from his family.

He would tell her about his portable sawmill and how he would wander 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 ancient Greece with a lantern in his hand, searching for 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 loneliness legend in my family began.

I always thought this family legend was a bit exaggerated — until the pandemic of 2020 shut me up in my own house with only my dog and cat for company.

Once every 10 days I would venture out to the grocery store in White River Junction. I was plenty grateful to see a familiar face. Plenty.

I had a telephone, television, the internet, email, texting and Zoom to keep me from feeling alone, and yet I was aware that when I saw a flesh-and-blood face and heard a flesh-and-blood voice, I felt suddenly 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 the great-grandson of Charlie Nugent, that’s more than a college motto to me. It’s a reminder of the human connection that COVID-19 made priceless to all of us in 2020, as we sobbed quietly in the wilderness of our own hearts.

Paul Keane lives in Hartford Village.




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