Previous Stories

I have written down a few stories over the years, prior to starting this blog. They are on this page by the date they were originally written. This page serves as a personal and shared archive.

July 28, 2010

Blackberries

It never got incredibly hot in Western New York when I was a child, except for the one day of the summer where I would go blackberry picking with Gramma and Aunt Joyce. Mind you, I spent of a lot of summer days and nights on the farm while my mom tutored and dad worked to try to bring the old house they had bought into livable shape. There was never a shortage of things to do during the summer on the farm, trust me, so the many small hands of my cousins and I made…well…a little less heavy work for the grown-ups. But, right around mid-August there would inevitably be a more leisurely conversation that started up over breakfast, one that was intended just for me.

Joyce, who would always read the paper over the edge of her glasses while eating her shredded wheat, would put down the paper and say: “You know, I keep thinking about blackberry pie.” My gramma would smirk over her coffee, and my eyes would get wide. “Do you think they’re ready yet?” my young and eager enthusiasm would emerge and conjure up rose-colored images of how blissful it was to have fresh blackberries last year, to savor bites of blackberry pie at Thanksgiving that had been frozen from the summer’s haul. “I was up there the other day, and I think by Friday” Joyce would say. “I’m going to take off work and we’ll go up there really early, before it gets hot.”

As if she had a premonition, by the time Friday came, it would be forecast as the hottest day of the summer. Every year. I would wake up early and feel the sticky humidity that always accompanied summer heat near the Great Lakes and immediately put on the lightest clothes I could find. I’d rush down-stairs and pull out a string of old coffee cans from the cellar, line them up by size and imagine them filled to overflowing with ripe and juicy blackberries. At some point, reality would click in, though, and gramma would look at my exposed knees and arms and give me her one-word sage advice: “Prickers”

And, suddenly, I’d recall the shooting pain of having arms and legs covered with scratches and pokes, not to mention assorted bites of bugs and mosquitoes. I would sigh and head back to my room, putting on long pants and throwing a long-sleeved shirt over my tank-top. Undaunted, I would go back downstairs to our odd looking party of over-dressed women of three generations setting forth to the woods with as many tin cans as we could carry. And then, adding more glamour, gramma presented us each with a mismatched pair of socks with the toes cut off that we could slide over our hands and arms to get to the really tricky berries hiding amid thorny brush.

And so, the adventure began.

The first leg of the blackberry excursion was a hike across the cow pasture. This was an obstacle course of bovine proportions, not to be undertaken lightly. The cow pasture was staked out on all sides by electric fence, which we did not shut off lest the cows attempt to follow us in our quest. So, Aunt Joyce would gingerly undo the lowest level of fence then we would all slither on the ground underneath the upper two wires. All the while, I would be praying that my rear end would gracefully fit underneath while fearing a jolt from above.

Once through both sides of the fence, we had a lengthy trek into the “big woods,” named so for the height of the trees within in. This first patch of woods was itself about a mile from the nearest sight of road. The big woods was a fabulous place full of little streams, tall old trees with thick branches, dense underbrush that reminded me of a tropical rainforest. There were no trails, except in winter when snowmobiles would cut through. In summer, though, there were only vague cues about where one was going. We would, at times, leave rocks in specific places to make sure we weren’t walking around in circles. There were birds, squirrels, rabbits, occasionally even a fox sighting. In the big woods, I heard stories about my grandfather tapping the maple trees, his father’s father cutting down some trees here to build the main part of the barn on our family’s farm. It was refreshingly cool in the big woods, and I longed to simply be lost in it for a while and listen to the stories it had to tell. But, while we might find a berry or two to indulge our appetite here, this was not the final destination. So, we forged on ahead.

Out of the “big woods” we would enter the corn field. Here, the stalks higher than my head did little to protect against the glaring sun. The corn field seemed to go on forever. Here, there were bugs. And snakes. And heat. The temptation to turn around was never greater than when tramping through the seemingly endless rows of corn. I would try to entertain my march by singing, but gramma and aunt joyce were not thrilled to join in my little ditties that I would make up as I went along. So, we simply walked with the occasional mutter of “it’s hot” breaking the silence until we all fell into rhythmic step again.

Finally, like Dorothy gaining sight of the Emerald City, I would catch a glimpse of our destination peeking through the end of the corn row: the little woods. Actually, the little woods was larger than the big woods, but the trees were shorter here. The little woods was at the edge of a plateau, the final marker that looked over into the valley just beyond the farmland the Hudson’s had claimed as their own generations earlier. Within the little woods were small pockets of trees, then open clearings within the woods where bushes and brush grew wild. Those outer bushes were entwined with wild vines filled with precious blackberries that we would pick for the rest of the afternoon.

The first berries would hit the bottom of the can with a notable “ping”, “ping” for smaller berries, “thud” for the larger thimbleberries that I would occasionally find. Birds tended to eat the edge berries, so it required reaching deep within the thorny vines to get to the best, juiciest prize berries. Even with my long-sleeves and my fingerless socks, the scratches and scrapes began to mount up. The sun beat on my back. Flies seemed to swarm around relentlessly. But, the berries began to mount up, filling first a small can and then another. We would pause occasionally for a drink of water and to pour our picking cans together to measure our progress. Joyce measured in terms of pies, “I think there’s enough for three” she would say. Gramma would correct her, “Two pies. Unless you want a skimpy one.” Our goal was five pies, so we would go a little deeper in, moving along the edge of the little woods while overlooking the neighboring farmland.

My picking turned into a daze after a while. My thoughts would drift to places I’d read about in books, to other times when picking berries was a means of survival rather than pie-baking. I imagined myself in those times, thinking how lucky I was to have my life. I was blissfully and innocently unaware of the fact that my family did live a subsistence existence, that we had never earned enough money to pay income taxes, ever. We had food and a house, cows for milk and meat, gardens for vegetables to can and freeze, and the delicacy of occasional blackberry pies. What else was there?

Later that afternoon, we would stand together at the kitchen sink picking over the berries and soothing our scratched arms in the cool well-water. “Five pies” Gramma would announce and I would beam proudly. “Can we bake them tomorrow? Can I help?” I asked eagerly. Gramma would smile and nod. And, she would save out a small dish of berries for me to snack on before dinner.

Blackberries have never tasted sweeter.

 

November 25, 2008

Thanksgiving

It was snowing outside that Thanksgiving, as it so often does in Western New York. In fact, when I was very young I used to wonder why anyone would plan a “harvest” holiday in the winter; of course I didn’t realize that not everyone lived in the same climate as I did. The snow served us well many years, since there was more food arriving to Gramma’s farm house than there were places to put it. Conveniently, Joyce had scooped up piles of snow which now served as make-shift refrigerators for green plastic tupperware container filled with Grandma-O’Brien’s-Cabbage-Salad (it is said just that way, all one word) and several brown pottery pitchers full of fresh-from-the-cow milk that was recently retrieved from the milkhouse.

The Thanksgiving tables had been set the night before. I had been there to help with that, too my eyes stinging and burning the whole time from the piles of onions I’d helped gramma slice to make dressing. The tables began in the dining room which was just off the kitchen. The main dining room table was where all the “main adults” sat, and it had been pushed flush to the front windows with only enough room for Uncle Loren to sit on the window end (because he is left handed and that way, he wouldn’t jab anybody). At the other end of the dining room table, a long picnic table had been brought in to form a right angle bridge between the dining room and the living room. The wide archway between these rooms allowed for chairs to be placed on either side…for young, lean people who would be seated last. I was not among that group. The picnic-table bridge met with a series of fold-out tables strung together, spanning living room and the pocket-door divided “parlor” [in which no one ever sat, except thanksgiving]. The parlor was cold, and went unheated most of the year. Indeed, it was where most of the family’s wakes had been held until the mid 60’s when a shift to funeral home use had occurred. That fact added to the parlor’s allure for many of us grand-kids, along with the presence of a fireplace and a bellows that just begged to be taken down and played with. With any luck, we’d have a fire in the fireplace later that evening.

The furniture usually residing in these three rooms had been relocated against walls (some stacked on top of each other), or out on the front porch. Televisions were turned off at 11 and could not resume until mid-afternoon when dishes were cleared and the house reconstructed. In the farm house’s current state, there was formal seating for 42 people that year, the largest that Gramma could recall. Thanksgiving was the one proper holiday that we kept to impeccable tradition. There was no children’s table, as we all sat tucked amongst the grownups. All tables had linens neatly pressed. Every place was set with the best dishes in the house, including Gramma’s wedding china. Every person had either silver that had been recently polished or the best stainless that could be found. Glasses were all glass, and as many pieces as possible were stemware. My favorite glasses were tumblers that had pheasants painted on them. I had folded the napkins “restaurant style” (or as close as I could come to it) and fashioned a name card for each place along with help from my younger cousins Carol and Tad. Diligently, the night before, we arranged places by size and shape of people and nuclear family so that no one would be left wondering where to sit, or having to eat three rooms away from their most familiar members of the Hudson-Hauber tribe. I made sure that people who liked pickles had the condiment trays readily at hand (pickles and olives were the only food on the table before precisely 1 p.m.) and that those of us that didn’t had room for whatever favorite they wished to rest by them (cranberry relish for me). The rest of the food would be served in every possible serving container known to humankind…all of which were dutifully arranged on the kitchen table and waiting for filling from stove, oven, refrigerator or snow-drift in the hectic half hour before dinner was served.

And somehow, everything arrived and was completed within that half hour. Guests arrived in the kitchen after shedding coats and boots in the front room (also known as the “barn room” due to its lingering smell) and were quickly shoved out into the eating rooms except five of us: Gramma, the cook in charge. Aunt Joyce, her red-faced sous chef. Me and my cousin Carol, the “food runners” who would quickly scoot serving bowls from kitchen to tables. And, last but not least, whatever male relative decided to carve the turkey. Gramma would stand, electric carving knife in hand and yell into the dining room, “I need a man to carve the turkey.” It was the one thing she would not do; I had never seen her do it. It was always a male relative, as long as I can recall. That year it was my Aunt Joan’s second husband, Howard. He shook with worry and said outloud that he wasn’t sure if it was thin enough or thick enough and Gramma turned around to him briskly and said, “Howard, just carve it.” And that was enough said.

At exactly 1 p.m., every item of food and every person had a place. My mother, the most religious of the clan, would be asked to say grace. My cousins and I would kick each other under the table and try to steal a bite of something during the lengthy prayer, only to receive the watchful glance of a near-by relative and decide to just wait it out. Food would be passed from table to table, across the bridge, and always from left to right so items didn’t run into each other. We ate. We laughed. We told stories. We heard about the year Aunt Joan dropped the blueberry pie. We heard about Aunt Sally (my mother’s) attempt to spray air freshener in the bathroom but accidentally grabbing the can of pink spray paint that had been left there instead, creating a festive paint-job on walls and floor. We told tales on the young and the old and howled with laughter. We ate until we had no more room, and then cleared the table and immediately put out the pies. All home-made: Pumpkin, Mince, Elderberry, Pecan (which later in life, would become my family specialty) and Gramma’s apple pie served with slices of New York State Extra Sharp Cheddar. And somehow, we would find room for all of that, too.

The day was still young. There were dishes washed and put away (hours of work with aunts and cousins together continuing the family stories), football games to watch, cows to be milked, walks to be taken in the cold afternoon air, and the traditional family “BINGO” game to be played, distributing all of Aunt Joyce’s unwanted knick-knacks to the younger family members who would gather around competing for the best item with each win. Punch in a huge glass bowl with sherbet floating in it would bring every child back to the kitchen again, and again, and again. One of the youngest would be given the task of “passing around the mints” in the cut-glass candy dish as relatives sat and talked. And around 7 p.m., when everyone’s chores were done, the food would come back out again for sandwiches and leftovers. Gramma would sit in her chair and smile later that evening. She never looked tired. Everyone would say, “you must be exhausted” and she would laugh and shake her head and say “no.” She wasn’t tired at all. I now believe she was telling the truth: she was exhilarated watching the farm house she had called home for so many years blossom into the homestead for her family.

When I was a little girl, I thought everyone celebrated Thanksgiving like this, with 42 people in three rooms and the best of everything out to enjoy. I realize now that I had a treasure. I have an image of family love and togetherness (and craziness, and crampedness, and sometimes heated “discussions”) that carries with me across my lifetime. I have stories that have been shared for years. I know how to bake Gramma’s apple pie and cranberry relish…to roast a turkey and make flawless gravy. And I know my roots. Even when I cannot see all of my family, I carry them with me in my thoughts and in my heart. I want my own daughter to know this image, to feel connected to people who are part of her family. I bake Gramma’s apple pie in a beat-up pie tin that was the only thing I wanted to bring home from New York after her funeral. I tell these stories all the while I cook with my daughter now, mixing family love into the handed-down recipes and learn-by-doing style that fills my kitchen as it did hers. Maybe Gramma knew some of that when she smiled at us on those childhood Thanksgivings. I have that memory of her, too…which will also last a lifetime. And for all of this, I am thankful.

September 7, 2007

Last Trip to Lilydale

A clear, crisp autumn wind whipped through the curtains of my bedroom that Saturday morning before Labor Day. I woke up with the sense of freedom that a three day weekend offers, and the sense of anticipation building around me. Perhaps it was a cyclical reminder of the coming semester of teaching, or perhaps it was ushering in a greater season of transition beyond my conscious awareness. But it was uncanny, that feeling, and the air that drifted through my windows brought with it a beckoning to the one place where my restless spirit yearned to go. And so it was, that Saturday morning, that I got in my car and set off for Lilydale.

Lilydale calls itself “the town that time forgot.” A small, quaint village formed at the side of a lake by turn-of-the-century Spiritualist believers, “The Dale” now boasted a small but loyal following of modern-day mediums, psychics, faith-healers and those of the mind-body-spirit connection type seeking respite from the dictates of modern living. The buildings, the customs, the stories, the family names of Lilydale had not shifted with the passage of time, and many of the properties hadn’t seen much upkeep through the decades, either. When “in season” the once quaint houses and cottages abandoned and weather-beaten during the harsh lake winters became summer residences of spiritualist leaders, brought back to life by the soft sounds of wind-chimes and the cadence of strolling cats and dogs who wandered freely on the small, quiet roads alongside its residents and visitors. Lilydale was not a psychic fair for the curious skeptic; it was the summer retreat of true believers and those who wished to visit them. There were no road signs or advertisements; those who wanted to find Lilydale simply knew how to get there.

On this particular morning, Lilydale was the only place where I wanted to be. As I drove the southern tier section of the New York Thruway, I called into my awareness the many people who I had loved, and lost. Several had made contact with me during previous trips to Lilydale, in both subtle and quite noticeable ways. During retreat season, the faithful would gather at “the Stump” for an open prayer service in the morning and afternoon. Since spiritualist prayer and practice involves clairvoyant contact with those who have departed the physical world, visitors could attend in the hopes of receiving messages that the faithful felt needed to be conveyed by the spirits present. The messages of this sort I had received while visiting Lilydale still resonated in my soul like a wrapped gift that I treasured in moments of fear or discouragement. I unwrapped each one in my mind during the drive, experiencing that connection as part of my journey.

When I arrived, I characteristically parked on the edge of town and picked up my art supplies along with my journal. I passed by “the Stump” already packed with visitors awaiting messages, heading instead for my favorite drawing location. It was windy and cold by the water’s edge where I liked to sit and draw on an old wooden pier under which spread the characteristic wildness of decades-old water lilies that were the town’s namesake. I drew wildly that morning, like I imagined a state of artistic madness might feel like. The lake-side willow tree that was the source of my sketching seemed to grow more and more frantic. My charcoal raced to keep up and I was entirely lost in the passionate mayhem of nature and art.

What are you drawing?”

I probably would have jumped out of my skin anywhere else, but in the moment at the Dale I simply answered as I drew “The trees. Or maybe me. I feel like they feel.”

They look angry, no?

“No. Not angry. Blown. Out of control. They are attached to the tree but seem to be trying to fly.”

Perhaps they should fly; leaves can do that. Perhaps you could, too, if you tried

It occurred to me to turn around and see who had come out on the pier with me, who was giving me this unsolicited artistic interpretation and life coaching. But, there was no one of this world within eyesight. The wind slowed down, and I stepped back to see the chaos of my drawing reflecting the chaos of my spirit. I decided to walk back into the company of the faithful. Obviously, there was a message I needed to hear.

I walked several paths throughout the town, the woods surrounding it, and the clearing by “the stump” where some visitors still sat talking about the recently completed service and messages from beyond that either rang true, or had left them puzzled. I walked through the small pet cemetery where the four-legged inhabitants of Lilydale came to rest their earthly lives surrounded by small stones, markers and other messages reverently placed. I continued my stroll through dense woods of enormous trees until I came to the Forest Temple, a small wood-framed church that was the original constructed place of worship for Lilydale’s founders. Inside, beginning in a few minutes, was the afternoon healing service.

It is noteworthy that many visitors are drawn to Lilydale to find healing of body and mind or to gain specific contact with a departed loved one. I had been to Lilydale for both of those reasons over the years. Today, I was at peace with those aspects of my past, but at discontent with my own complacency, my sense of having limited myself by seemingly irrevocable life choices. So, I waited in the church, praying silently, until one of the healers came and touched my shoulder, asking with the characteristic greeting “May I come to you?” The energy in the small wood-framed building was high, the only sound the whispered and comforting words of the healers and quiet descriptions of the needs of those seeking. Those unfamiliar with reiki were given a brief explanation about spiritual energy and chakras and other mysteries with which I was reasonably well acquainted but at these moments, preferred to keep my knowledge to myself. Humility is what is needed, not arrogance, when one truly seeks to understand one’s own humanity. So, I listened with inner and outer voice to this cadence of explanation and speech from the woman healer whose hands were placed at that moment just over the top of my head, tracing the energy from my head down towards my shoulders. And then she stopped. Reiki involves no physical touch, so she asked permission to make contact with my hair. Which I granted.

“This is yours”

She stated this quietly, as she removed a small willow-tree leaf from the tangled curls of my hair.

“I’m told you’ll understand what it means.”

I nodded that yes, I understood. I understood perfectly

“Be well, then. Remember in your journey that you are never alone. Have a blessed life.”

Her words felt final, yet utterly reassuring. I thanked her and left quietly, holding the leaf in my hand.

The rest of that day at Lilydale I simply walked. Wandered. Allowed myself to simply be a part of my past, my present, and my yet to emerge future. I felt freed, disconnected from what had been limiting me. I made no plans, received no messages foretelling my future, had no inkling of the direction of my journey. I simply believed that when given a chance to fly, I would.

Lilydale’s 101st season closed that Labor day weekend, 1999. By the time the town reopened the following June, I would be living in St. Louis and taking the first steps into an entirely new chapter of my life. I would have opportunities unfold at rapid-fire pace and make decisions with my heart, my head, and my spirit without fear, without regret. I still am. That was, indeed, my last regular seasonal trip to Lilydale. But the journey still goes on.

October 2, 2007

The big salmon salad

The recipe was simple. Go to Schnuck’s grocery store, ask a store worker for one of the large plastic containers they had stowed away behind the deli counter (available only to those “in the know”). Approach the salad bar with wild abandon…lettuce, mixed greens, spinach, tomatoes, carrots, celery, artichokes, broccoli, and other assorted plain and exotic mix-ins that appealed in the moment. Go to the seafood counter and select a chunk of cooked salmon, in whatever way looked most appealing that day. Purchase a bottle of salad dressing to complement the salmon flavor-de-jour. This did not require gourmet talent or culinary expertise, simply the requisite time to make the grocery-store stop on the way to our destination of choice. It was, in short, the way that even in the busiest of schedules that Deb and I would find time to share a healthy dinner and conversation at least once a week.

The big salmon salad would always be shared by two. Sometimes three, and occasionally even a few more. No plates required, simply forks. It sometimes sat on the center of a Haywood-Wakefield table, while stories of Eric’s life and death were exchanged over its slowly disappearing contents. Sometimes it took on an outdoor taste on a shared park bench where my daughter would run around in the background and I would sing “born free” as a joke while relishing the adult conversation I desperately needed. It sat, moved into a nicer serving dish, in more elaborate dining rooms surrounded by mismatched vintage linens and favorite crystal wine glasses. Sometimes we even cut up all the ingredients from actual, whole vegetables when we could carve out enough time to cook and converse before eating. Once, it sat on a make-shift table of moving boxes and provided some sustenance for late-night packing of the remaining pieces of my china, wrapped up with the safety of extra linens and shared reminiscences. Bites of big salmon salad were infused with the sweetness of laughter, peppered with pensive and apprehensive thoughts about the levels of risk required to actualize one’s potential in life. Lingering tastes of vinegar marked the angst of relationships lost while the zest of new ingredients seemed to anticipate life’s new beginnings.

I don’t actually remember one big salmon salad that tasted better than another, although it has never been exactly the same way twice. Over time, the recipe has become its own word in the vocabulary Deb and I share in our friendship, as in “shall we do the-big-salmon-salad?” We ate one last Saturday, as a matter of fact, in a huge white ceramic bowl with actual cut-up and hand-tossed vegetables. We even used plates to share that one. But, the flavor was distinctly familiar, that of re-emergent togetherness of friends and a sense of connection in spite of miles and evolving life experiences. The big salmon salad: a recipe worth re-inventing again and again over the years; a recipe that gets more and more flavorful with time and feeds the body, as well as the soul.

 

 

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