Claire Johnson

Claire Johnson

Born 1951

Claire Johnson. Courtesy of the author.

A personal history told through female friendships: wonderful women of Little Compton I have known.

Janice Clark and Sue (Clark) Stowell

My husband Steve and I moved to Little Compton in 1978, some 42 years ago, and the very first person we met upon arriving in Little Compton was Janice Clark at Shethar Real Estate.  At the time I had been offered a music position at Westport Middle School, and we needed a place to live. My very knowledgeable Principal Paul Wilber of Little Compton, directed us through the backroads to Little Compton, and to Shethar Real Estate, by far the best advice we have ever had. How lucky we were! Janice greeted us with her radiant smile and blue eyes, and her hair pulled back in that lovely bun. Her red and white gingham check blouse, and blue denim wrap skirt from LL Bean has always brought a smile when I remember her. She welcomed us into the office as warmly as if we were old friends. She then said she had a winter rental available- her sister in law’s- and she would take us there straight away! My next question was “Is there any water view?  Janice laughed with a very knowing smile, replying “Yes”, but little did we know our first two winter seasons in Little Compton would be at the lovely Farmhouse on Warren’s Pt. with water views from almost every window!

We were soon in our car, following Janice to Sue and Ev Stowell’s house, where Sue stood outside waiting, in her shorts, and comfy blue polo shirt, with her two beloved dogs, Dawn, a sweet German Shepherd, and Dusky, a happy frisky Golden Retriever romping on either side of her. The Farmhouse sat just across the big lawn on the Stowell’s amazing property, and Sue and Ev (Henry) and Dawn and Dusky would become our very first friends in Little Compton.

Sue introduced us to everyone in town, and invited us to the United Congregational Church, which we attended, and later joined.  In fact, before long, we were singing in the Choir, and not long after that I became the Organist and Jr. Choir Director there for another 15 years.

 Sue had been in the midst of publishing the Church cook book about this time, and she was also was a gifted knitter, and created beautiful hats.  Dawn and Dusky soon became our companions, accompanying us on our countless walks on the beach at Warren’s Pt. those two years. Had it not been for Sue’s friendship and welcome to the church, I probably would not have become the Organist at the United Congregational Church nor found my long-standing love of the church over these past 42 years!

Jessie Lloyd O’Connor

It was during these winters living at Warren’s Pt. that I met Jessie O’Connor who lived at the very tip of Warrens Pt with her husband Harvey.   Jessie soon discovered Steve and I sang, and played guitar, and invited us on Sunday afternoons to their house for singalongs. We brought the guitar and our voices, and Jessie played her beautiful violin fiddle, warming apple juice for “hot cider” as we sang together along with Ida and Bob Johnson (no relation), sharing stories as well as songs. She told of Joan Baez visiting them, and Pete Seeger who was a regular guest and old friend.

Jessie also wanted to do the Line Dancing that winter at the Wilbur School, and I picked her up in the car, and drove us both to the weekly event. Mind you, I was around 30, and I suspect Jessie may have been in her late 70s early 80s at this time, which was pretty impressive to be line dancing! She wore her soft soled shoes, as she gave it her all, and was an inspiration to everyone around her.  A few winters later, around 1982, we had a Christmas Pot luck supper, and Jessie came with her violin. One of the loveliest times I remember, Jessie played the sweet Christmas melodies above our singing voices so beautifully. Her failing eyesight didn’t hinder her lovely notes either.  Jessie’s gift of music that year was so radiant and memorable, as was her special friendship!

Liz Brayton Dawson

Liz “Brayton” Dawson came into our world about this time when we moved into the Farmer’s Cottage on the Brayton Estate at 551 West Main Road, better known as Wunnegin, which meant “Welcome” in the Wampanoag’s language.  We rented this amazing 8 room cottage for 10 memorable years, bringing our daughter Kate and son Will home as babies to the magnificent rolling lawns, gardens, the Glade, fields, and even a pond upon which they had the fun of ice skating during a few cold winter days!

Liz could do anything! She had taught at Friends Academy in her early days before her four boys were born, fashioning chicken coops from the famous “Roost” into needed Sports lockers at Friends, as she had been a Physical Education teacher and field hockey coach there. Ironically enough, my job in Westport had ended after three years (cuts to the Special subjects statewide) and thanks to a tip about a Music job opening from Liz’s dear friend Wendy Merriman, I too found myself teaching at Friends Academy! Liz loved her teaching days there, and shared how good it made her feel to know I was driving over there from Little Compton and Wunnegin as she had once done.

Liz had a down to earth love of life and also her family home, and she often worked with Tony Medeiros, the caretaker, who called her Betsy, having known her from their childhood days in LC.  She had known Tony for most of her life. With garden gloves on, they would prune, cut, and make all the improvements Liz thought necessary to keep the beauty of Wunnegin thriving. One day she even installed a new toilet seat at our house, complete with the proper screw drivers and wrenches, all the while wearing gold bauble bangles bracelets on her wrist. She shared so many stories of her growing up there, and her beloved mother, Dorothy Paine Brayton, planting 100 daffodil bulbs every fall. Kate and Will grew up amidst this beautiful splendor and beauty of thousands of daffodils to run between and pick, along with the Brownell Roses, and the magnificent Glade filled with a massive masonry fireplace, and paths of dog tooth violets and Solomon Seal everywhere! Our days at Wunnegin marked an unforgettable chapter in our lives as a young growing family.

Ellen Burchard

During my years as Organist at the United Congregational Church, Ellen Burchard befriended Steve and I in the Church Choir, welcoming us and making sure we felt like part of the group. Ellen’s career as a NYC actress and producer was well known in town. She married John Burchard and they owned Old Acre at the corner of Meetinghouse Lane and West Main Rd. Years before we moved to town, Ellen transformed the huge horse barn at Old Acre into a Theatre Barn, offering shows to the local towns! She had connections with actors in NYC and would bring in actors of distinction, and of course she was in the show as well! No one ever knew Ellen’s precise age; it was her guarded secret. But you could count on Ellen to dress and sing as only a professional actress could.

She wrote a play for the town’s 250th celebration, in which a plethora of the areas early settlers including Benjamin Church played by Ellen’s husband John who was a direct descendant, and Queen Awashonks, played by myself, performed in the United Congregational Church amidst other “early settlers”.  Steve and I had the pleasure of accompanying her one summer at the United Congregational Church, when she sang a special song composed by J. William Middendorf.  Ellen sang this lovely song with a small amount of dramatic interpretation, as Steve accompanied on his flute and I on the piano.

When we bought our home 31 years ago, Ellen gave us a trunk load of forsythia from Old Acre, which we dug ourselves and planted in our yard. Today, they bloom still, and remind us of Ellen’s charming smile, thoughtfulness, and friendship.

Sidney Lockwood Tynan

How lucky I am that one of my first friends in LC, remains one of my dearest friends still, and lives just within a mile of me now. Sidney and I met when she lived at the Corn Crib, on Warrens Pt. one of the years we lived at the Farmhouse. Our friendship continued as Sidney played soprano recorder in a recorder ensemble I organized called the Sakonnet Winds, performing at the Stone House, and the United Congregational Church one year. Our paths have continued to cross a number of times since then, and within the past 10 years we have resumed where we left off! Be it sharing stories of bird sightings of hummingbirds or swallows, monarch butterflies, or the first opening of the Chinese witch hazel, or an invitation to walk the famous back 40 on Sidney’s beautiful property on a given afternoon at 4pm, Sidney remains by far one of the most amazing and inspiring of wonderful friends. She has reached out to the hearts of so many with her “Letters to the Editor” every month, touching upon a vast array of topics from hummingbird nectar, monarchs, gypsy moths, the summer solstice, and the lovely late fall Joe Pye Weed that colors her afternoons in hues of purple. And even on an afternoon in the midst of the dreaded Covid Stay at Home nightmare, she remains cheerful, optimistic, and ready to share knitting stories, or long-ago stories of her father sending off fireworks one distant summer day, because the dreaded Polio epidemic kept her family at bay from neighbors… social distancing even back then. How I have treasured her hand made post cards, and invitations for her long-standing Finishers Club, even though I rarely have been able to attend too many. One of my most memorable recent times was Sidney’s Summer Solstice celebration, last June 21, when she invited me, Lydia Greene, and Mary O’Neil over for afternoon strawberry rhubarb pie, made from scratch at Lee’s Starfish bakery. Such a celebration included of course her sweet little Hinkley- a cavalier King Charles Terrier, and a lovely walk enjoying her gardens and her “back 40”. In my most recent conversation with Sidney, I asked her about her wonderfully remarkable long life, and she said to do things you like slowly, and always take time for a nap.  What better advice from someone who has enjoyed and shared her love of life and nature with us all so endearingly? Thank you dear Sidney! I am so honored to continue to share the return of Herbie (hummingbird) every April and all the very magical wonderful moments of life with you!

Betts (Betty) Woodhouse

I had the wonderful pleasure of meeting Betts Woodhouse while directing the Jr. Choir at the United Congregational Church. Betts made it a point to attend specially on the two Sundays the Jr. Choir performed each month, as she absolutely LOVED seeing the children!    Most of the Jr. Choir members were 12 years old and younger, and Betts sat as close as she could, in the second pew from the front. Being very near the piano and the Jr. Choir where they stood and sang on the altar enabled her to enjoy and savor up close, the cherub voices and lovely angelic faces of the children as they sang.  Always in her white gloves, her blue eyes sparkled when the Jr. Choir girls and boys walked up to sing, and she beamed with a huge smile being so close to them.

When our daughter Kate was almost a year old, Betts asked if she could sketch a portrait of me holding Kate, and of course I smiled and happily said YES!  She spent a morning at our house, and sketched me holding Kate on my lap. How incredibly surprised I was when she appeared one morning a month later, presenting us with a beautiful sculpture of Kate and myself, which  she had brought over after firing in the kiln.   I was speechless with gratitude, and had no idea this gift had been in the making.

There she stood, in her Birkenstock sandals, and wool socks, on that late winter morning, after driving over in her car. Betts often sat so low in the driver’s seat, many in town thought no one was driving the car, as she was not often visible. However, I suspect everyone knew it was Betts driving on a mission.

Three years later our son Will (William) was born, and one day at church Betts asked if she could do a portrait of Will, since she had already done one of Kate. This time she invited us to her beautiful house on Round Pond one late Spring morning, where we sat in the warm sun surrounded by her lovely gardens. Will lay on a blanket in the grass, and during our visit, she sculpted Will, while giving Kate her own clump of clay to work on. She nicknamed Will Winston Churchill, as he reminded her of Winston, saying he had a very round face like Winston’s.

A month later Betts came over with a beautiful sculpture of Will, just as he had looked that morning in his overalls. These two treasures have graced our home for the past 36 years, commanding a very special place in our living room and also in our lives. How incredibly fortunate and honored we all have been to have shared these precious moments of friendship with Betts, treasuring these two wonderful sculpted figures she so generously created and then gave to us to enjoy always! Thank you so very much, dear Betts!

Claire Johnson

April 22, 2020

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