PART III – THE SEASONS OF MY LIFE
Wasn’t it pleasant, O brother mine
In those old days of the lost sunshine
When we were visiting, me and you,
Out to Old Aunt Mary’s?
It all comes back so clear today
Out in the barn lot and down the lane
We patter along in the dust again
As light as the tips of the drops of rain
Out to old Aunt Mary’s…
James Whitcomb Riley – “Out to Old Aunt Mary’s”
Riley is too often viewed as a homespun, regional poet. Actually, he was one of the most popular and successful writers of his era. Nobody has ever dealt with nostalgia better than he, and some of his poetry is very sophisticated.
“Those old days of the lost sunshine” embodies every summer day of my childhood – our games and clubs, 4-H led by Miss Tipton, eating food that you could only have during the summer, and making hollyhock dolls from hollyhock blossoms and toothpicks that Paula Nicewanger also remembers making.
I had my own version of going to “Aunt Mary’s.” Every summer Grandpa, Uncle Nolan, Aunt June, Mother, and sometimes Wayne and I went to have Sunday dinner at Great-aunt Laura’s home, in Michigantown. The menu never varied: ham loaf, chicken and noodles, corn, mashed potatoes, tomatoes and green beans from her garden, home-made pickles, homemade rolls, cake, and pies. After dinner we drove out to the Old Home Place where Grandpa grew up and which symbolized the days of the lost sunshine to him, my uncle, and my mother.
And now? And now the Old Home Place is gone, and my cousin, Wayne Kelly, and I are the only ones who remember those Sunday dinners at Great Aunt Laura’s…
The Old Home Place
DAYS OF LOST SUNSHINE
Thoreau wrote, “I was rich in sunny hours and summer days and spent them lavishly.” I didn’t know it then, but I stored up riches in my memory bank.”
And what is so rare as a day in June?
Then, if ever, come perfect days.
Then Heaven tries earth if it be in tune
and over it softly her warm ear lays…
Whether we look or whether we listen,
We hear life murmur or see it glisten.
James Russell Lowell – “The Vision of Sir Launfal”
The older one becomes, the more one pulls forth memories like fish on a stringer. As I edit this essay that I wrote several years ago, I think about our beloved friend, Phyllis Otto, who quoted the above lines from her capacious memory. That reminds me of an afternoon that we spend a few months before her death, taking turns reading favorite poems to each other.
Summer was a sweet liberation. On the last day of school we ran, hopped, and slipped down the old school building’s diagonal sidewalks, singing “No more school, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks!” From early in the morning until dusk we lived outside with breaks for meals or when our mothers could catch up with us to make us do chores or practice the piano.
Our parents’ idea of child rearing was certainly different from today’s. When we didn’t obey promptly there were immediate consequences. The most expensive things that they gave us were our bicycles and graduation watches. The words “helicopter parents” didn’t apply to our parents. What we did have was a lot of unsupervised, unorganized freedom to do pretty much as we pleased.
We played kick-the-can and another form of hide and seek called Tappy-on-the-Icebox with the big tree in front of Auntie Kelly’s house as base. One person was “It.” Another kid drew an imaginary circle on “It’s” back, intoning, “I’ll draw the circle.” Another poked a dot in the middle of the circle. One of our favorite pastimes was bicycle slips where we played hide-and-seek by racing our bicycles up alleys and streets.
Our parents let us use hammers, saws, and hatchets to turn wooden orange crates into chairs. Rex Mattix built a hideout from bits of lumber and dismantled orange crates.
When Jana proofread this, she was reminded of how the neighborhood kids put on a circus. My father let us use our garage for a clubhouse. Wanda Frazier, Susie Scudder, and I decided one summer to have a “serious” club, unlike the previous summer’s Rock and Gem Club that was disbanded when Suzie ran home, wailing when Wanda and I smashed her crystals with a hammer.
I showed up at the first meeting of the Literature Club with my father’s Iliad, and Wanda intended to peruse a biography of George Washington Carver. “He invented the peanut, you know.” When Suzie arrived with the latest Nancy Drew mystery we changed our name to the “Nancy Drew Mystery Club.”
When I was eight years old we skulked around the neighborhood, looking over our shoulders and speaking in whispers. Rex Mattix, two years older than I, informed us that he’d heard that the dreaded Black Dot Gang of kidnappers was operating in Knightstown. At night I barricaded my bedroom window with pop bottles, figuring that if the kidnappers tried to break in the noise would awaken my parents. I spent many nights that summer in a state of terror, wishing that my parents would chain me to my bed so the gang couldn’t get me. One hot night my father decided to open my window and was hit by a falling bottle. He informed me in no uncertain terms that he wanted a stop put to “this Black Dot nonsense this minute!”
THE DUCK WHO THOUGHT HE WAS A DOG
One fine June afternoon I carried home from Mrs. Horn’s house a tiny, fuzzy mallard duckling. “Please, can I keep it? You won’t have to do a thing for it!”
Ducky fearlessly ruled our yard. Our dog no longer contentedly dozed on the back step, but was chased away by Ducky. We’d hear quacking and mewoing and go out to resue Tom, my cat, who’d be lying supine with Ducky standing on him, wearing a mustache of yellow fur that he’d pulled from Tom. Every evening Hagues’ hound dog tried to gobble the table scraps put our for our pets. After much woofing and quacking, Ducky chased him out of our yard.
Sometimes we confined Ducky to the yard by tying his leg to a brick. Often, however, he ran loose. The men who worked at Keens’ poultry house got a kick out of him. They’d shuffle their feet; and Ducky would waddle out and grab a pant leg. The man would drag him along and then put his foot under Ducky’s breast and gently sail him through the air. Then Ducky would tackle another fellow. “That dern duck of yern thinks hit’s a dog, don’t hit?” said one of the men. One day Mr. Paul Butcher, the funeral director, was chatting with Mother. He wasn’t amused when Ducky ran his muddy bill up and down the leg of his pale gray suit.
Next Ducky started chaseing cars. Ducky would waddle behind a car, fall hopelessly behind and then turn around and around, quacking furiously as if to say, “I really showed ‘em this time!”
Mornings, he confronted the school bus. No one in town would have intentionally run over him, but I thought about throwing him under
the wheels myself when I had to go out in my robe to chase him home while the country kids on the bus jeered and snickered.
One September night, he didn’t come home when I called, “Here Ducky, Ducky, Ducky!” The next morning Mother told me that he’d been run over. That was the sad end of Ducky Daddles.
After school Mother showed me his grave beneath the forsythia when I got home from school. “I thought he’d like it here because he loved the springtime so.” Then we toured the yard: “Here’s Pinky Thomas’s grave. Here’s your rooster, Chicory Chick, in the lily of the valley bed.” On around the yard we went, viewing the graves of the turtle, the parakeet and all the creatures that had shared our lives, reminiscing about each one.
My beloved Tom lived peacefully into old age and was buried in the place of honor beneath the Japonica. I think that every yard could tell the same story: Under a persimmon tree at our old Irvington house lies Trouble, a black cocker. “You’d better name him ‘Trouble’ because that’s what he’s going to be!” advised Bill’s sister. A cat lies amidst roses. Vicki shed many tears when we buried her Peruvian guinea pigs, Flower, Daffodil and Roddy, beneath the French Lilac.
Under the walnut tree near the little pond that Bill made are the goldfish that he was raising. One day he found them lying outside the pond. Suspecting something fishy – forgive the pun – he held an inquisition of five-year old Vicki and her chum Brian Schroeder. “What did you do to my fish?”
“Gee Mr. Clarke, this mean ol’ witch flew down and did it.”
“That’s right Daddy.”
In his most thunderous voice, Bill said, “I don’t for one minute believe you. I want the truth, right now!” The truth was that they were pretending to be surgeons and used sticks to perform tonsillectomeies on his fish.
The worst problem that I ever saw anyone have with a tent was in the Black Hills south of Rapid City. We camped in a meadow near a woman and her children. One afternoon, we heard a loud bang. Her inflatable tent had expanded from the sun’s heat until it exploded. She burst into tears and wailed, “What’m I gonna’ do? I borrowed that tent from friends!” The poor things slept in their car.
We’ve often camped at a national forest campground south of Rocky Mountain National Park which we much prefer to the small sites packed up against each other in the park’s crowded campgrounds. If you want to experience mountains without a long drive, it takes only a day and a night’s drive to get there. You go straight out 70 and head North at Denver for about seventy-five miles. The view from out campsite was lovely: a rushing trout stream, pines, wildflowers, pure air, and mountains. Be warned, however, that sanitation consists of a water spigot and a Port-o-let style toilet!
It rains almost every afternoon there. In the morning, the cobalt sky is cloudless. Then before noon a tiny puffball of a cloud appears and grows and grows until it is joined by other clouds, and a brief thunderstorm ensures. The brochures warn about lightening: “If you’re caught out on a mountain during a storm, do not stand under a tree. (Duh!) Do not stand under the overhang of a cliff, either. If you can’t get off the mountain, lie down.
Bill and I hiked several miles up a mountain trail to a lovely little lake. Alas, we dallied too long over our sandwiches, and a thunderstorm caught us two-thirds of the way down the mountain. Eek! At age fifty, I thought that I was too old to run, but we ran lickety-split down that mountain, getting thoroughly soaked in the process.
There’s nothing more miserable that being wet in high country, because you’re also cold. One summer we picked up our friends and fellow house boaters, Jim and Karen, at the Denver airport and took them to the National Forest. Bill and I knew better but forgot to close up the tents when we went hiking. When we returned, rain had blown through the windows of our tents, soaking our sleeping bags and leaving puddles on the floors. We drove 30 miles to Estes Park in search of a motel.
It was dusk on a Friday evening. “No Vacancy!” Good sport Jim said, “I guess we can sleep in the car.” “Right!” said Karen.
Homeward bound, Bill pulled into a place that rented tourist cabins. We went in to inquire. “I’m sorry, but I have only one vacancy that I’m not renting tonight because it’s been cleaned for people who will be arriving tomorrow.” We understand,” Jim said lugubriously. He looked so sad that she felt sorry for him and let us have the two-bedroom log cabin and even threw in a can of coffee that warmed us as we sat around in our pajamas in front of a roaring fire that we built in the fireplace. Ah!
THE JOLLY HIKERS
Ebenezer Bryce called Bryce Canyon a Hell of a place to lose a cow. It’s also a Hell of a place to take a hike. Walking down to the canyon floor is pleasant but getting back up to the rim is murderous. Bill’s brother, Rick, and I were early birds, but Bill and Esther declined our invitation to view the dawn from Sunrise Point. It was still pitch dark when Rick came to our tent and said softly, “Rose, time to get up.” We sat on a rock, waiting for the dawning. First we saw an eyebrow of sun, and then slowly the sun rose and painted the pinnacles of rock, called “hoodoos,” with glorious colors. Oh, oh, oh!
“Let’s walk just a little way down the path and see what it looks like from there.” “Good idea,” said Rick.
One little way led to another as we wanted to see what was just around the next bend, and we ended up doing the three-mile Queen’s Garden loop, so named because one of the formations looks like Queen Victoria.
Bill and Esther were drinking coffee when we got back. “Where’ve you guys been?” Bill asked.
I burbled, “The sunrise was just tremendous!”
“We took a little hike on the Queen’s Garden Loop,” said Rick
“But I wanted to hike that loop,” Esther said.
“Me too!” added Bill.
“No problemo! We can go back after lunch. Right Rose?”
“Won’t you guys be too tired?”
“Not me, I’m fresh as a daisy.”
“Me too!” I added. Actually, I had my doubts, but I knew which side
my husband and sister-in-law were buttered on.
That was one of the most hellacious afternoons of my life. Giggling, Bill, Vicki, and Esther skipped down the path like the characters in The Wonderful Wizards of Oz and sang about going off to see the wizard while Rick and I tromped along behind. “Wizard my aunt Fanny,” I thought. “You’re going to think ‘wizard’ when you have to go back up.”
At the bottom there was a junction with the Navajo Loop. Esther said, “oh, let’s do this one, too – it’s only a few more miles!”
Rick and I were exhausted. One of us would say, “You guys go on. I
want to look at this flower… take a picture… tie my shoe…” Anything for a respite.
“Hey you guys! Hurry up!” Bill or Esther would yell.
We came to the final stretch called “Wall Street.” You know what Wall Street looks like, don’t you? Straight up! That path was one steep switchback after another.
“Puff, puff, puff, puff… pant, pant, pant, pant… wheeze, wheeze, wheeze, wheeze…” We’d lag behind until the others couldn’t see us lean against the canyon wall.
“Rick, I think I’m gonna die.”
“No such luck,” he croaked, “C’mon – you can do it. Jus’ keep put’n one foot in front of t’other like me: Lef’…right… lef’… right…”
He shambled on.
As I took my last anguished steps to the top, a plump, ubiquitous busybody leaped up from the bench where she was parked and stridently announced my arrival to one and all, “Oh dear! You look awful. Do you need help?”
I shook off her hand and snapped, “No thank you.” Actually, I felt like saying “You wouldn’t look so hot yourself if you’d gotten up off your fat behind and gone six miles on top of the three before breakfast!”
The others were waiting at the car. Esther exclaimed, “My, wasn’t that fun!”
THE HOUSEBOAT LOG OF A WANNA-BE SYBARITE
I wrote the notes for this in between bouts of sun tanning on the top deck. Ah summer! Recreation… vacation… togetherness with friends. We joined five other couples for our annual four-day cruise on “The Good Ship Lollipop” as we dub the houseboat that we rent. The group rented its first houseboat on Lake Cumberland about thirty years ago. Most of them either taught with Bill or are married to someone who did.
Looking back, I see the escalation of American affluence and technology that has occurred since then. That first 64-foot-long boat had a combination kitchen/living room with an uncomfortable, fold-out couch. The next compartment had two bunks across from the head and open to the hallway. There was so little headroom that I refused to sleep on the top bunk. Bill and I slept on an air mattress on the front deck until one year a colony of ants marched on board via the tether rope and bit us. At the back was the “honeymoon” suite – a double bed. There were no doors on any of the sleeping areas.
The lights were gas flambeaux that we supplemented with Colman lanterns. The cheap gas stove burned you if you touched its surface. Pans of water were heated for washing dishes. Food was kept cold in ice chests, and we sweltered as there was no air conditioning. Periodically we’d open the screens and rush full speed down the lake to cool the boat off and get rid of flies.
We were severely warned to throw no toilet paper down the primitive marine head lest it clog. Occasionally we dumped buckets of lake water down it to made sure it remained clear. It sounded like a loud coffee grinder when flushed, so that everyone on the boat was awakened when it was used at night.
And we thought we were in paradise! Think of it: cruising around a beautiful lake, tying up in tranquil coves where there were no other boats, floating around on rafts while sipping frosty drinks, sunning topside, chatting, reading, fishing, reading, snoozing.
Since cell phones didn’t exist, no one could call us; and if we wanted to call home, we had to use a pay phone during infrequent stops for gas and ice. No alarm clocks, to-do lists, calendars, or children to take care of!
(A firm rule was no children on board, much to the disgust of Vicki and the other kids, one of whom announced that she wouldn’t be caught dead on that stinking boat.)
Flash forward to the luxury of a recent 18-foot by 84-foot, three-decker, gorgeous pleasure barge: It has a gas grill, air conditioning, electric lights, a TV for playing tapes and a sound system. The gourmet galley has a refrigerator, computerized stove, dishwasher, microwave, and trash compactor. The dining table seats ten, and there’s another table on the front deck. There are private sleeping “cubbies” with doors and lavatories, and 2 ½ baths that flush quietly. There’s a dryer that’s ever so nice for keeping your beach towels toasty. The top deck features a covered bar and sitting area, tanning area, big hot tub and two slides off the rear.
This over-the-top luxury is just the frosting on the cake; we had as much fun on the “primitive” boat. The real substance of these days out of time lies within the abiding friendships of the crew, some of whom see each other only once a year.
We could rent a huge cottage for a week or stay at a resort for the same cost. However, as friend Jana pointed out, the houseboat brings us together in a way that no other place would.
Meanwhile, it’s time for a little snooze. I apply a new coat of pineapple-scented oil and stretch out in the warm sunshine, lulled by the gentle rocking of the boat. Ah! Surely I was meant to live the life of a sybarite.
HIGH SUMMER – AUGUST
During the hot August days of sixty-five years ago, Wanda and I might well have been splashing around in Mother’s laundry tub that we’d filled with water early in the morning so that the sun would warm it. If one of those warm afternoon rains came we would have put on our bathing suits and run out to try to escape the heat and humidity.
Another thing that we would have been doing this time of year was to wash Mother’s dozens of Mason jars. Mother worked for weeks putting up beans, tomatoes, catsup, vegetable soup, corn relish, pickle lily, jelly and grape juice that became the feasts of winter.
We were paid a penny a jar that we promptly blew on Cream Soda or Mason’s Root Beer at Conway’s mom-and-pop grocery. Sometimes we bought Royal Crown Cola – “Royal Crown Cola, hits the spot! Twelve full ounces, that’s a lot!”
Canning was necessary because people didn’t have freezers. We had an icebox. Whenever Mother needed ice, she tied a card to a porch pillar, indicating whether she wanted 25 or 50 pounds of ice. The deliveryman would come into the unlocked house and put it in the ice compartment.
Tomato season is in! I overheard Bill say to our friends on the houseboat, “People sometimes put down Indiana, but no tomato can compare with an Indiana tomato!” People begin to inquire in July about the size of each other’s tomatoes.
I know what a lot of Hoosiers are having for dinner many August evenings! Even the finest cuisine of France cannot top a Hoosier garden dinner of fresh corn on the cob, sliced tomatoes, green beans slow-simmered with a bit of bacon and an onion, fine -cut slaw with vinegar dressing, and corn bread, hot from the oven and dripping with butter – ah!
Sometimes Mother sliced corn from the cob and fried it. She also made corn fritters that were thin, lacey, crispy-brown pancakes made with fresh corn cut from the cob. This was one of the absolute favorite treats of my childhood which, alas, I never learned how to make. Get those old recipes while you can!
Bill and I love corn on the cob. Several ears of corn and bread and butter make a supper for us. We’re very exacting about our corn. We rarely eat it at restaurants because it’s always overcooked. Corn should be cooked as soon as possible after it’s picked in plenty of rapidly boiling, salted water. My brother, Earl Gard, used to tell Toots, “Get the
water boiling, I’m going to pick some corn.” Use more than one pan if necessary. Do not cover the pan or cook the corn longer than two or three minutes.
My parents had a big garden north of the greenhouse that used to be up on the hill on Morgan St. They did everything by hand. People everywhere plant backyard gardens. From the trains in Italy and England – even in urban areas – you can see vest pocket gardens in tiny yards. There is more to it than gastronomic considerations. A gardener receives the intense satisfaction of producing fresh and delicious food with his own effort just as a fine cook takes pleasure from pleasing people.
The hectic pace at which we gallop through life today makes the way people lived during the 40’s and 50’s look downright humdrum. Most people in our neighborhood were not “social.” Also, malls and computer networking did not exist.
When twilight came our parents called us home while robins chirped sleepily as they settled down for the night, and the lightening bugs began to glow. Sounds of long-ago summer evening: the high-pitched trill of crickets and the deeper voice of a Katydid, punctuated by the thrum-thrum of the chains of the porch swing as my parents and I swayed gently, to and fro, to and fro. There is something universal about the deep pleasure of a porch swing and how it soothes away the cares of the day.
Our porches were extensions of our living rooms. My parents and neighbors would call back and forth, “Nice evening, isn’t it?” or “My! Today was a real scorcher!” Sometimes Lois Frazier or Gertrude Scovel would come and have a beer with Daddy and chuckle about the antics of a neighborhood courting couple. (Neighbors were very interested in each other’s business!)
Each season brought its special foods which were not served at any other time of the year such as walnut fudge in the wintertime and strawberries, homemade lemonade, and watermelon in the summer. I loved to hear the Strawberry Man’s chant as he came down the street: “Strawberries! StrawBERRIES!” No Italian gelato has tasted as good to me as the Raspberry Royal ice cream from Jolly’s Drugs that we ate out in the porch swing. Even minor pleasures were savored because of their scarcity.
As we absorbed the tranquility of the evening hush, life seemed to grow more quiet and to slow down. Mostly I listened as my parents talked as the mood moved them. Reminiscences and ruminations: I never tired of the old family stories and my parents’ philosophizing. Those evenings in the porch swing established connections and instilled a sense of peacefulness that I have rarely found since.
I hear still their gentle voices… Thrum-thrum, thrum thrum… goes the swing. “Do you remember old Daddy Cunningham?” one of them might say… Thrum-thrum… “You know, I always wondered what became of him.” “Who was Daddy Cunningham?” I’d ask.
“He just disappeared one day without a trace… Thrum-thrum…
“There goes XXXX, a-courtin’. S’pose they’ll get married? Wonder if Lois and Gertrude are watching,” … Thrum-thrum…
“Remember the time Delores Black and her kids were in that leaky old boat that filled up with water and started to sink, and they panicked and jumped overboard and thought they were going to drown, and they swam for shore as hard as they could, churning up mud because the water was only two feet deep?”
Thrum-thrum… “Aren’t the stars bright tonight? See, there’s the Big Dipper and the Milky Way. It’s almost as if there was a plan for it.”
“What I wonder is, if God made the stars and the universe then where did God come from?” … Thrum-thrum…
“I don’t reckon we’ll ever know.”