Blog Schedule

I post on Monday with an occasional random blog thrown in for good measure. I do my best to answer all comments via email and visit around on the days I post.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Charlotte...and Gus Too

Charlotte Dean Stark. She was my first best friend (after my sister that is.)

Charlotte was older than my grandmother by 5 or 6 years. She had been a Suffragette. She was a book reviewer for the New York Times. Between December 4th, 1932 and August 6th, 1944, Charlotte wrote a total of 192 columns.

She was married to Gus, a thin man who had no teeth. But that didn't stop him from eating whatever he wanted. He ate everything from popcorn to steak, gumming things to death. On New Years Eve he'd put in his teeth and look completely different. But he didn't like to wear them because they hurt.

I don't know how Gus and Charlotte first learned about St. John or when they first arrived. I do know they were already family friends when my mother was going to Pratt Institute between 1934-36 because Mom spent the holidays with them up in Connecticut.

They came to Trunk Bay on St. John early on, before 1934, before Grammy opened it as guest house. In fact, the only building left at Trunk Bay, the Lower House, was built by Charlotte and Gus between 1948-49.

Charlotte had short curly graying red-brown hair. In her youth it had been a deep auburn. Her eyes, if I remember rightly, were a watery blue-green. She wore long skirts and dresses, which she made, to cover her right knee which had been severely mangled when she was a girl.
The story she told is that while riding a bike the front wheel hit a trolley or train track. She was thrown, landing on her right knee. The knee cap was shattered and a large cut on the top of her thigh caused a piece of her stocking to go up inside her her leg. Doctors had to enlarge the cut and with a long pair of tweezers they pulled the piece of fabric out. Her knee remained gnarly and lumpy and it didn't bend very well.

Over the fireplace (the only one on St. John at the time) there was an oil painting of her that was done when she was about 18. She had been a pretty young woman; a small heart-shaped face was surrounded by an abundance of auburn hair. She was wearing a long yellow dress. She looked very much the Gibson Girl.
She still had the dress when I entered her life. She'd let me play dress-up in it. It was made of satin and had a drapery-like front, like a narrow shawl that acted as both yoke and straps. It had a small train. When I wore it I loved pretending I was in a grand ballroom strolling and dancing about. Made me feel very elegant.

Charlotte was slender and had long fingered hands that were bony. She filed her nails into small points. She played the piano and sang in a thin watery voice. My sister, Erva, Charlotte and I liked to sing Christmas carols all year long.

She liked to do acrostics. She also had a knitting project, making herself an outfit of fine off-white wool. But like Penelope, she never finished it.

She took a battery of pills, mostly vitamins. She had these little pill boxes, each one different. Every morning she'd sort out which pills went into which box; morning, noon, evening, bedtime. She hated taking pills. She'd chew up the ones she could, all together (YUK!) Then all the gel-cap types she'd pop in her mouth, take a big sip of water, throw her head back, shake and wiggle her head and stroke her throat to get the pills down.

She made her own yogurt.

If I was around when she made bread she always gave me a small lump to knead. Even if it fell on the floor she'd bake it in its own little pan and I would eat it. She taught me how to use their special pop-corn popper. It was a large electric machine. Just this much oil, this much corn. I got so good I became the official popper when ever I visited, which was often.

Charlotte wrote two books about St. John. I wish I had them.

She slept in the nude and walked from the bedroom to the bathroom butt naked. She was not the least bit modest about her aging, saggy body. She slept with dozens of very small pillows which she made special pillow cases for. She also wore a black satin mask over her eyes as she couldn't sleep when there was any kind of light. She made the masks too.

She wore Joy perfume. Gus kept her supplied with an extremely large bottle of it. One bottle would last a couple of years.

Charlotte introduced my sister, Erva and me, to the "Sea Sick Record," (as our cousin Frances called it.) It's real name is "The Pinafore" by Gilbert and Sullivan. We loved that album and would sing along with it. I particularly liked trying to imitate the contralto who sang the part of Buttercup.

"I'm called little Buttercup,
Poor little Buttercup,
Though I could never tell why...
...So buy off your Buttercup, buy." It must have been a hoot to hear an 8 or 10 year old singing that song.

Charlotte and I got along like two peas in a pod. I spent many week-ends with her.

Gus would take us down to Hawksnest in the afternoons around 3 p.m. to take a sea bath. He had an old tractor and he'd rigged up a seat on the back of it. I would sit in Charlotte's lap as we made our slow way down the steep rocky road to the beach. We always had stale bread on hand to feed the pompanos.

After the beach Charlotte and I took a shower together, something that by today's standards would be frowned upon and/or questioned. One time I asked her why one breast was smaller than the other. She told me she had had a tumor removed and lifted up her breast so I could see the thin white scar that went from one side to the other. Another time I asked her why she and Gus didn't have kids. She told me she had lost three. I can only assume, now as an adult, that she had had three miscarriages. I told her I was sorry. She told me it didn't bother her anymore, particularly since she had me to play with.

Sunday mornings were always fun. Charlotte and I would get all dressed up. I would wear one her long dresses, all pinned and gathered up to fit me. We'd dab on some Joy, then we'd climb onto the tractor and Gus would motor the three of us down to Caneel Bay to pick up the Sunday New York Times. We must have been quite a sight, an old owman and little girl walking through the lobby of the hotel as if we owned the placed; Charlotte looking elegant - she carried herself as one who had once been among the elite, which she had been - and me, trailing skirts that were too long acting like a princess.

Then there was Gus, who wore the same basic outfit every day, jeans and a white short-sleeved shirt, leading this odd female pair.

Every morning Charlotte took her flower basket and shears and went out into the yard to gather hibiscus blossoms. She had a multitude of different kinds. Inside the house Gus had mounted on the walls lovely pieces of drift wood into which he had drilled holes. Charlotte would take out yesterdays wilted blossoms and replace them with today's. And so, there were these wonderful splashes of color in the foyer and on the white walls of the living room. A praticularly beautiful piece of free-standing drift wood sat on the top of her white up-right piano.

Once Charlotte taped/attached all these differnt types of hibiscus to one of her large potted plants. She called her "Ho-ax Charlotta."

Sometimes we had screaming contests to see who could scream the loudest. She and my mother called me "one of God's screachers" because I could scream so loud.

She liked to eat pomegranates and had several trees in the yard, both the white and ruby red kind.

In the late 1960's after Gus's death, Charlotte moved back to the states. I was very sad about the move. I begged her to sell the house to my Mom and Dad, but it was not to be. In 1989, Hurricane Hugo took the roof and destroyed part of the house. What was left was eventually torn down...all of the beautiful stonework Gus had done, their large open porch overlooking Hawksnest. It's all gone now.

But I have some pictures. This one shows me on her lap. My sister stands tall in the back. Our friends, Melaine, Ed (left) and John (right) gluster around her like bees on a flower. I am, as I always was, barefoot.

I loved Charlotte dearly. She always answered my questions, even if it was to say, "I don't know." I have a pretty little three-shelved cherry wood piece that was hers. I also have her Harebell china. Between us, Erva and I have several pieces of her jewerly. I also have two of her painted fans and several books from her extensive library. I read the The Secret Garden at her house.

In 1968 I visited family in Connectcut for Christmas. I spent the night with Charlotte in New York City. She was living in a hotel-apartment. We had dinner together. The next morning, before light, she gave me instructions on how to get to Grand Central Station. We hugged and said good-bye.

It was the last time I saw her. Charlotte died in 1977.

I still miss her from time to time, which is why I'm writing about her today. It's one of those moments.


  1. What a nice tribute. She sounds like she really knew how to live:)

  2. This is beautifully written, Bish. Charlotte would be proud. - Janelle


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