While young Norman got up to the same high jinks as other city kids at the turn

While young norman got up to the same high jinks as

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While young Norman got up to the same high jinks as other city kids at the turn of the century— climbing telegraph poles, playing on stoops—neither at the time nor in retrospect did he find urban life idyllic. What he remembered, he said, were “the sordidness, the filth, the drunks” and an incident that forever spooked him, in which he witnessed an inebriated vagrant woman beating her male companion to a pulp in a vacant lot. His family moved for a spell to the village of Mamaroneck, in suburban Westchester County, but then returned to the city, this time to a boardinghouse, because his by then far-gone mother could no longer abide housework. The boarders with whom the adolescent Rockwell was forced to take his meals, a motley collection of frowsy malcontents and shady transients, were almost as traumatizing to him as the vacant-lot vagrants. However, Rockwell had nothing but pleasant memories of the modest vacations his family went on in his early childhood, which were spent upstate on farms whose owners took in summer boarders to earn a little extra money. While the adult guests simply played croquet or sat on porches breathing in the country air, the children befriended their farm-boy and farm-girl cou nterparts and embarked on a whirlwind tour of bucolia’s greatest hits: helping out with the milking, riding and grooming the horses, splashing in swimming holes, fishing for bullheads, and trapping turtles and frogs.
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These summer escapes made a deep impression on Rockwell, blurring into “an image of sheer blissfulness” that never left his mind. He ascribed to the country a magical ability to rewire his brain and make him, temporarily at least, a better person: “In the city we kids delighted to go up on the roof of our apartment house and spit down on the passers-by in the street below. But we never did things like that in the country. The clean air, the green fields, the thousand and one things to do … got somehow into us and changed our personalities as much as the sun changed the color of our skins.” Reflecting on the lasting impact of those vacations some 50-odd years after he’d taken them, Rockwell wrote in his memoir: I sometimes think we paint to fulfill ourselves and our lives, to supply the things we want and don’t have. & help; Maybe as I grew up and found that the world wasn’t the perfectly pleasant place I had thought it to be I unconsciously decided that, even if it wasn’t an ideal world, it should be and so painted only the ideal aspects of it—pictures in which there were no drunken slatterns or self-centered mothers, in which, on the contrary, there were only Foxy Grandpas who played baseball with the kids and boys [who] fished from logs and got up circuses in the back yard.… The summers I spent in the country as a child became part of this idealized view of life. Those summers seemed blissful, sort of a happy dream. But I wasn’t a country boy, I didn’t really live that kind of life. Except (heads up, here comes the point of the whole digression) later on in my
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