If you have travelled the stretch of Interstate 84 through Hartford, Connecticut, you might have done a double take when you saw an exit for Asylum Street. I grew up about three miles up the road from that exit where the street unfurls into a suburban avenue.
My ancestral address, 1735 Asylum Avenue, is rich with symbolism and irony. But there is something subtler at work here—something beyond connotations of political or insane asylums. A quirky address like 1735 Asylum befit a kid like me—preternaturally grown-up at six—who emerged out of the rubble created by the collision between my father’s mid-twentieth century American patriotism and the fire-breathing communists in Cuba from which my mother fled.
We settled at 1735 Asylum Avenue in 1963—on my third birthday—into a house whose chief merit was that it sat on a main bus line for my mother—a life-long non-driver. If we couldn’t get from here to there via the Asylum Avenue bus, we didn’t go. More than mastering the transit system, my mother charmed the bus drivers; we always had door-to-door service at 1735.
I know that this former address of mine sounds like a cross between the historical and the unbalanced. But Hartfordites understand that the address was neither—this street was the original location of the American Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb, built in 1817, a precursor to the American School for the Deaf in West Hartford.
The original asylum was a gift of love and devotion from Mason Fitch Cogswell to his brilliant deaf and mute daughter Alice. Take Exit 48 of Asylum Street notoriety and you will almost immediately see a bronze statue of Alice Cogswell that sits at a fork in the road in which Asylum Avenue is to the right and Farmington Avenue is to the left.
Alice looks to be about eight years-old when her likeness was cast in bronze, the same age I was when I began to notice her. Two enormous cupped hands tenderly hold Alice, and she clutches a book to show everyone that dumb means mute, not stupid. As an adult I learned that the hands in which she stands—perfectly manicured hands that resembled my father’s—form the word “light” in sign language.
In many ways, now that I know this detail about those giant hands it make sense that Alice was such an illuminating landmark for me. She not only marked my comings and goings on the Asylum Avenue bus with my mother to and from Downtown Hartford, she marked the beginning and end of Sunday drives to my Bolton grandparents in New Haven. The forty mile trek felt interminable to me. But Alice was a touchstone. She limned crucial beginnings and endings in my childhood.
Alice’s statue also stood near the stretch of Asylum Avenue where the houses were monied and pretty. On the bus ride west to 1735 Asylum, the Queen Anne homes closest to Alice gave way to larger brick homes that ended at Steele Road, the dividing line of wealth. West of Steele Road were boxy colonials and heavily mortgaged roofs; 1735 Asylum—a three bedroom colonial—among them. The house would be the only property my parents would ever own.
When my parents and I moved into 1735, I was still an only child. Beige was everywhere you looked, except for the yellow straw wallpaper in the dining room and the deep lipstick-red shellac inside the kitchen cabinets. The previous owner’s neutrality was at odds with the passion and emotion that now rattled the house. My mother eventually redecorated the hallways, and the dining and living rooms in shades of green—the color of her pretty, translucent eyes.
Last week my sister, brother and I said goodbye to 1735 Asylum Avenue. The house was sold to a contractor who will take it down to its studs and rebuild it into something unrecognizable to us. But the truth of the matter is that these past couple of decades, 1735 Asylum was not the house in which we grew up. Like its proud matriarch, it had declined. Not beyond recognition, but to something else—a memory tinged by inevitable age and benign neglect.
When we were done cleaning out 1735, my sister Carol and I took pictures in front of the house, smiling the smiles of the brave, the weary and the sad. We walked through the rooms slowly, mournfully, as if following some sort of casket. “Do you mind if I say a Kaddish for the house,” I asked Carol.
She told me to say goodbye in my own way and in my own time. The Kaddish is a prayer of mourning that does not say a word about death. It’s all about praising God when one feels least inclined to do so. But there was a lot to thank God for even as we emptied our childhood home. On the way out of town I drove the Asylum Avenue bus route so I could say goodbye to my old friend Alice, still stalwart and serene in the hands of God.