Whenever the Christmas season rolls around and I’m in the presence of pine trees – as I was last week, trekking through the tree farms of Exeter for a story elsewhere in this newspaper – I am reminded of my dear old friend Antoinetta Goodwin and her discovery that Christmas trees are an anti-depressant.
She was a true South County character, renowned for her patriotism and dedication to the state bird, the Rhode Island Red chicken. A tiny woman, she made seasonal costumes for them and had a huge pair bolted to the roof rack of her station wagon, each waving an American flag.
Another, better-known, pair roosted on her mailboxes and frequently stopped traffic. It seemed a URI rite of passage for pranksters to steal them.
Inevitably, the police would catch the miscreants and return the chickens – and the thieves – to Mrs. Goodwin who would scold them in a mournful voice. “How could you?” she would cry as though they’d kidnapped the Lindbergh baby.
She was also famous for her personal beautification efforts: For decades she planted marigolds in traffic islands and other ugly spots, bringing cheer to passersby. She and the late fishing dynasty head Jake Dykstra, another larger-than-life persona, planted marigolds and canna lilies at the intersection of Routes 1 and 138, on the North Kingstown-South Kingstown border.
She was a person who found goodness and beauty everywhere and, if it didn’t exist, she created it.
Her 156-acre Christmas tree farm was a symbol of deep, abiding love, having been started with Jack Goodwin, the man she met and married late in life. “We couldn’t have been happier here,” she once told me, a far-away look in her eyes.
A year after they married, the Goodwins began planting Christmas trees, starting in a far-off field. Within two years they’d put in 6,000 seedlings; in another five years they had a crop and began selling.
She had 26 acres of spruce trees and, after Jack’s death she worked the place alone. She stopped selling trees, preferring to give them away to nursing homes and schools.
In the long dark winters, Mrs. Goodwin used the Christmas trees as her defense against loneliness. They provided the same sort of happiness derived from the marigolds of summer.
For more than 20 years she hosted busloads of kindergartners who would arrive at the farm and make a day of selecting, then cutting down, a Christmas tree for their classroom. Dressed in snowsuits, mittens and boots, they searched the paths until they found just the right specimen.
After it was cut, they would drag the tree back to the workshop, where they gathered around the old-fashioned woodstove for hot chocolate and homemade cupcakes.
If she enjoyed the smiles of adults driving by her sunny blossoms, Mrs. Goodwin – I knew her for 30 years and never called her by her first name, deeming it disrespectful – adored the time she spent on the farm with the children.
A single working woman until she was 40, Antoinetta Ferraro Goodwin had no children of her own, yet every year she had grandchildren by the dozens.
When Antoinetta Goodwin died, at 83, she left the sort of loss that can’t be filled. She had the nerve to be different, to be adamant and noisy when convinced she was right (she once staged a sit-in, protesting her taxes, while a batch of marigolds wilted in her car), and to make everyone around her just a little better.
In my humorous gardening book, “Beds I Have Known”, I wrote: “With the passing of time, Mrs. Goodwin came to resemble her chickens – from her feathery puffs of gray hair and her small bright eyes peering down a sharp beaklike nose, right to the tasseled hats she knit for the chickens and herself.”
When she planted, nose down and fanny up, she resembled nothing so much as a chicken pecking at the ground.
She was a quirky, funny and dear woman who shared nuggets of wisdom.
“You can’t get discouraged,” she said. “If you give up, you spend the rest of your life being sorry. I believe in going on. If you enjoy something, just do it!”
Martha Smith is a freelance writer for Southern Rhode Island Newspapers.