Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas is in the Heart

I can't single out one Christmas over another; one that stands out as the best Christmas ever for each year presents a different story of circumstance and expectations. But I can say that those Christmases spent in the country will remain in my heart forever. My aunt who swam like Esther Williams would on occasion say that youth is wasted on the young. I never understood what that meant until later in life. As a child, growing up in that row of 4 houses full of relatives was just the way it was to me. Having cousins, aunts, and uncles as part of my daily routine along with the surrounding fields and pastures; woods and old barn and chicken coop clubhouse and meandering creek-all just part of every day life.

No other time of the year brings that all back around like Christmas does. My grandmother baking her cookies and Christmas bread; the heartwarming scent of fresh greens mingling with cinnamon and nutmeg; snow falling-and falling; presents wrapped in tissue paper held together by stickers that often didn't stick; skating under the dancing stars-all and so much more part of life in the country at Christmas time.

I've written before about my favorite Christmas present ever-the pine desk my grandfather made me with the pad of paper and sharpened #2 pencil in its drawer waiting for me. Another gift-a rather simple gift of a pencil and letter holder from my aunt who made awesome candles also comes to mind as a favorite. I don't know why; perhaps because I was able to set the gift on my desk and use them when pretending to be a writer at a very young age. Funny what we remember isn't it? I think she ordered the set from Miles Kimball. At least I remember seeing the catalog and a few weeks later saw her walking down the cinder driveway to the mailbox where there was a package waiting so naturally I thought the package was for me!

There was one aunt who lived faraway. She was beautiful; always wore a single strand of pearls and lipstick and cardigan sweaters. Because she'd had polio growing up, she walked with a limp. She never had children. My cousins, siblings, and I were her children. When she came for Christmas it was an overload of excitement for her presents were always among our favorites. Not just because of what was inside but because of the way she wrapped them. She never used tissue paper. Rather, each gift was wrapped in brightly decorated paper with curly ribbon and bows. Every gift she'd either sent ahead or carried through the door was wrapped like this-meticulously-with corners tucked just so and edges folded over. I remember one year in particular when she came home for Christmas. I'd written her; asked for a particular doll; even sent a picture of it. Turns out I didn't get the doll and my disappointment was obvious. That Valentine's day I received the doll in the mail.

So many Christmases-so many memories. From my brother coming home from Vietnam and surprising my parents to my father dying on December 22nd and everything else in between. Point is-each Christmas writes its own story. Each Christmas offers its own memories which we can take and tuck away in our hearts-for that is where the Spirit of Christmas exists-forever.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Christmas in the country

Besides the anticipation and warmth of family gathering what I remember most of those many Christmases in the country was the setting. As gifts were wrapped and distributed between the four houses; as the older generation shared traditions with the younger generation; as the wide-eyed wonder of Santa Claus was not only in the eyes of the children but the adults as well, something else was going on. Mother Nature was at play; providing perfect backdrops-enhancing that wonder all the more.

I can still hear the crunch of the snow underfoot as we'd race down to the creek to skate.In the evening,lying atop that bed of ice, my cousin and I would "talk Christmas" as shimmering stars danced for us in the black-violet sky. The moon-a crystal white in the midst of those gleaming stars-seemed to touch the earth beyond the snow-covered fields glimmering in diamonds. Corn stalks left from the harvest assumed the role of toy soldiers in wait of Santa.
Snow sprayed by the wind from branches of pines and maples made little whirlwinds swirling about the drifts. Tracks of rabbits and field mice told of the little creatures scurrying about as the scent of woodstoves warmed our spitits. Far in the distance the haunting passing of a train whistled through the night going to places we could only dream of.

And on Christmas Eve-we were quite certain we heard the jingling of those famous bells-out in the country-where it was Christmas every day!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Saturday Night at the Movies

My oldest brother and I were lucky for on Saturday nights our grandparents would take us into town to the movie theatre complete wih a balcony and ushers with flashlights. There were always two movies showing. Between the first one ending and the second one starting a news reel featuring real news not opinion and black and white promos of coming attractions played. Then the fun started. It was time to play bingo. After paying to get in the attenda
nt would give each of us a bingo card. Everyone in the theatre played bingo while eating popcon smothered in butter. There was never talk about needing a license or protests over kids playing bingo. It was simply fun; part of a Saturday night at the movies.

A short man in a suit stood up on the stage and out of what seemed like a giant fish bowl pulled numbers painted on round discs one at a time; yelling the numbers so loudly until someone stood and yelled back, "Bingo"! The cards were perforated so as a number was called that matched your card all you had to do was push the number in and down. I'm not sure but I think the prize was free tickets. I don't remember any of us winning. It didn't matter. We were sharing time.

After the movies we'd go next door to a local diner; the sort of place with a countertop where see-through holders on pedestals displaying homemade pies and donuts sitting on doilies sat. In front of the countertop stationary stools that swivelled all around were bolted to the floor. These were usually occupied by the regulars-prime property where they could read the papers and watch who was coming and going. Booths lined the walls and ran up and down the center with an aisle on each side.

It was crowded after the movies. People gathered to talk about what was shown. We always tried for a booth near one of the windows. I'd sit on one side with my grandmother and my brother would be with my grandfather on the other side. When the movie had been a western my grandfather went on and on. Grampie loved westerns. He loved to read, especially Saturday Evening Posts and Zane Grey novels. Although we went thought the ritual of the waitress coming to the table with a menu covered in plastic and her small pad of paper in hand and a pencil behind her ear we always ordered the same thing-a hamburger with a pickle and a coke in a real coke glass with chopped-up ice and a straw. This was the only time we ever had soft drink so every last drop was enjoyed. Our grandparents were never in a rush to get back to the country. Dressed up to the point of even wearing hats they'd sit with us as locals came and went and the theatre sat in wait for the next Saturday night and more bingo and even more popcorn smothered in popcorn.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Giddy's Christmas Bread

For any and all who knew and loved our grandmother she was affectionately called "Giddy"; nicknamed by my brother when he was a toddler. She was the cog keeping us together; as strong a woman as I've ever known.She defined the power of a woman way before it became a cliche.Cook, baker, homemaker, mother, wife, garden tender, sewer, crocheter, rug maker-the list goes on defining this French-Canadian woman with high cheek bones and waist-length hair wrapped up in hair combs on top of her head.

When I think Of Giddy this time of year it is her Christmas bread that fills my heart. The aroma-the texture-the taste remain in my memory of Christmases when we'd gather together out in the country. I can still see her in her kitchen with an apron around her and her strong hands stirring and folding; a few wisps of hair out of place as she works the dough just where it needs to be. She never measured her ingredients. She didn't have fancy appliances or a multitude of tv chefs telling her what to do. She was the chef in her farmhouse kitchen kneading the bread for the holidays; folding in the fruits and nuts and raisins and then baking the loaves in her woodstove as outside the snow fell and inside the wonder of Christmas approaching filled every room of that old homestead.

Of course the proof is in the pudding as they say. Sitting down to enjoy the bread was more than a delight-it was tradition. Many times as we'd gather to talk and eat while nipping away at a loaf with a slice here and a slice there,the bread simply would be devoured in minutes! Of course there were more loaves in the waiting. Giddy always made sure we never ran out.

The recipe for Giddy's Christmas bread has been passed down. Those in the family who've followed in the tradition of baking the bread,which is a 2-day endeavor, have done quite well. Of course they have Giddy as their mentor. I've never attempted to make the bread. I think I will remain a taster-enjoying every slice as memories of Giddy in her kitchen fill my heart.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Dolls

Just like anything else dolls define a generation-from rag dolls to dolls that look, act, and feel like newborns, dolls leave an imprint on those who receive them. I only remember one doll I ever wanted. She didn't cry or eat or roll over or walk-she was just a baby doll with two little braids on the top of her head, blue eyes, and a warm and happy smile. I remember the moment I unwrapped the box covered with red-tissue paper. There were no glitzy photos or warnings that what was inside was unsafe or declarations that batteries would be needed to make whatever it was function. It simply was a doll whom I scooped up into my arms knowing at that very moment Santa Claus had again received my letter and again made my Christmas dreams come true. Her name was Bonnie Braids. Bonnie and I spent many hours together-at tea parties, in classrooms on the side porch, on picnics in the back yard. We became good friends.

When my oldest child was a little girl there was one doll constantly advertised on television. Of course those big companies know just how to make kids think their products are must-have, to die for gifts. Santa bought into the hype. Under the tree on Christmas morning was that doll that ate-and then literally pooped! My daughter never realized the meaning of the latter so when "it" happened she jumped up crying. The actuality of what those ad campaigns were screaming from October thru Christmas hit home and my daughter never played with that doll again.

Sometimes micro-chipped dolls; dolls that are endowed more than a little child needs to know; dolls that do everything but be what they should be in the first place-a doll that can just be wrapped in a blanket and hugged-are discarded along the way when the novelity rubs off. That's when that hard chunk of over-advertised plastic is replaced by something simplier; something that allows a young imagination to take a baby doll into their world-and truly and beautifully play-and pretend. What a real gift that is! No glitzy ad campaign needed!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Busy Fingers Club

For awhile my mother, 3 aunts and grandmother would get together once a week and create whatever it was they felt like doing. A few may have knit or sewn while others may have preferred to crochet. My mother was a talented seamstress; making tailored coats from Vogue patterns or suits with narrow lapels. She loved fabric. She loved fabric so much that for awhile she ran a fabric shop right off our living room decorated in antiques. I'd go in her shop in the evening and pick out bolts of fabric and mix-match them into outfits in my imagination. She carried all the top pattern lines and fancy feathers,pins, and jewels to make hats. Some times I'd bring a pad of paper and design my own patterns-or try to at least.

My grandmother was always braiding rugs. Her generation never wasted a thing. Socks with holes were darned; discarded clothing debuttoned; cut into strips and braided into rugs of all sizes. My cousins and I used to lay on the floor in her living room and pick out material woven into her rugs that had once been our pants or shirts or jackets. Each of those rugs was a tapestry into our family. They each told a story.

Christmas time is when those busy fingers got really busy. Wreaths made from greens brought in from the nearby woods were created around coat hangers. Fresh greens were also turned into centerpieces for each of those 4 houses in a row. But the candles are what I remember the most-especially the ones made by my creative aunt living in the old farmhouse. She must have collected bits of crayons and milk cartons all year for at Christmas she'd melt the blocks of paraffin and turn bits of crayons and milk cartons into beautiful,colorful, sparkling, shimmering candles of all sizes. I don't know how but she'd whip the paraffin and make some candles look as if they were covered in snow. To some she'd add little silver beads. Those were my favorite ones.
Making memories can sometimes be quite easy if you take the time to gather and share. I'm quite certain the talk was lively and the laughter loud as those busy fingers created into the night!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Place Where Santa Came Down the Chimney

No matter how old we are, when it comes to Christmas that little child within us goes back to a place we keep tucked away in our hearts-a place we called home when Santa came down the chimney; a place where we'd put the cookies and glass of milk and sugar for the reindeer out-then hurry to bed but hardly to sleep.

I remember such a place. It wasn't in the country with those four houses in a row. Rather it was a few miles away in th
e small town where I grew up. Occasionally I'll drive by; feel a little anxious as down the hill I go,slowing when approaching the place still sneaking into my dreams. I can visualize my mother sitting on the front steps-smiling and waving-looking beautiful-watching me and my brother cross the road to play with neighbors who remain young in my mind. Although it is no longer a pale yellow and a 2-car garage stands where lilac bushes once bloomed, that house sitting next to the lane is where Santa made every Christmas magical for me. Somehow he came down the chimney although we never had one. My parents did put together a cardboard fireplace; the kind where you fit a tab into a slot and instantly you have a teetering fireplace complete with cardboard mantle,logs and flames. It was ok for me and my brother. We we were able to hang our stockings on it before running up the backstairs to bed.

The house had a double living room separated by a wide archway. The tree was always in the front nudged into the corner by the window. After my father meticulously hid the huge,blue lights back between the banches and the ornaments from the 5 and dime were in place, my mother would take over-covering every inch of the tree with strands upon strands of sparkling silver tinsel. My mother loved the stuff. She'd buy whatever Woolworth's and Newberry's had to offer. By today's standards it'd probably be condemned as I bet it was full of lead. But no one cared about that kind of stuff back then especially with Christmas approaching.

There was a smaller area off the second living room which my mother used as a dining room only on Christmas Eve. She'd set the table the same way every year-with linens and china, tall-stemmed, etched crystal glasses and a silver soup ladle for serving her oyster broth. Red taper candles sat in polished holders. Her parents and sister would come for dinner; usually later than normal and then we'd all go to midnight mass. Now that I am the adult I wonder what time my parents went to bed for after mass they still had to bring us home and get us upstairs and quieted down; making sure we were asleep before assuming the role of Santa Claus. Kids don't ever think of such things. That is the blessing of childhood.

My brother was usually up first; making just enough noise so that I'd follow right behind. Rushing down the front stairs that creaked with age I'd pause at the bottom before looking into Christmas.Cinnamon was coming from the kitchen; stockings were overflowing-sitting on the floor lopsided beside the cardboard fireplace. Piles of presents from Santa were in front of other gifts wrapped in tissue paper. Those were from our parents. As the heat came through the old registers and the snow fell ever so softly I'd rush into that front room in embrace of Santa's visit.

I was in third grade when we moved to the country. Although so many wonderful Christmas memories of family followed I still feel a twinge when thinking back to that pale yellow house with its small stoop and screened-in side porch.I remember being so excited when I'd bought my brother a 5-cent pack of Wrigley gum. I mulled over what wrapping paper to use; couldn't wait to see his expression when he opened it. While he liked the gum it was his Hopalong Cassidy radio that stole the show that year. It didn't matter for he shared the pack of gum with me.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

It's December!

Well now the longest wait known to mankind would have officially begun; the countdown to Christmas would have been underway out there in the country. Any indication of it approaching would have been noted and talked about between my cousins and me over and over again. That aunt with the bright red lipstick took such care in buying her presents. She truly made her list and checked it more than twice. Even the paper she used for each gift was taken into consideration. There was a room where she would pile the presents in wait of Christmas. Whenever my cousin and I were at the house we'd go in that room and touch and feel and hold the gifts to our ears to see if we could possibly get a hint as to what was inside.We noted each sticker used to keep the present wrapped; each illustration on each tag. I don't recall we ever figured anything out.

When the creek froze we'd spend hours down there talking Christmas; exchanging anything we might have heard. Some evenings we'd lay on top of the ice under the stars and tell each other what we thought so and so was getting us. I can still hear the ice crack and the wind blow through the baren trees along the creek's bank; hear the blades of creek grass grind in winter's capture. I don't remember feeling cold. Rather we would get so excited it might as well have been summer!

More blogs to come about Christmas and those 4 houses full of relatives sitting along a rambling stretch of country road!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Two Reading Suggestions

If you enjoy reading my reminiscing posts you might like to read my short story, "In Anticipation of Doll Beds", published in the Chicken Soup for the Soul book entitled, "Christmas Magic". It was released October, 2010 and includes 101 heartwarming stories.

Another suggestion: Log onto Boomer Living; click on Coffee House Blog; scroll down to Hodge Podge-the name of my blog where you will find "A Plastic Santa-A Holiday Tradition." This entry looks back to the downtown of my hometown years ago when we had a downtown; of shopping in the hustle and bustle where everyone knew each other; where Newberrys and Woolworths each had live Santas and toy departments to die for!

Hope you enjoy. If you feel like sharing traditions you remember from your hometown I'd love to hear from you! Wishing you a Happy Holiday season!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving

Although we gathered frequently there was something extra special about Thanksgiving. Besides the turkey and all those marvelous trimmings with homemade pies and my grandmother's famous-much anticipated Christmas bread-there was something else going on. Looking back it was an appreciation of and respect for this day set aside for gathering together and giving thanks. Whether in red vests or a suit and tie, my father and uncles dressed for the occasion. That one particular uncle who lived 45 minutes away was always dressed in his suit and tie. To this day I've never met a man so respectful of or in love with his wife-a spitfire of a woman who was small in stature but full of spirit.

Of course the women dressed extra special too. My one aunt in particular always wore red lipstick and her hair was long and flipped up. I thought she was so beautiful. Many of the women wore aprons over their attire as they bustled about the kitchen. There were two tables set; one for the adults; one for the children. It was a right of passage when graduating from the smaller to the larger table-leaving behind wiggling kids with thoughts of that next holdiay fast approaching or itching to get back down to the creek and continue skating if the weather had been cooperative.

Seasonal music and aromas I can still tap back into filled the air. A lover of Dean Martin, my mother would play his "Marshmallow World" over and over. We'd join in as Dean took us though that classic song as only he could. Hushed conversations of Christmas surprises were held between adults as potaotes were whipped and vegetables were placed in serving bowls.Hard as we tried we never caught a word of what they were saying.
Dinner was a flurry of dishes passed and plates filled. One particular uncle was always in charge of which way the food was passed so there'd be no traffic jam holding up the flow.

Even after the turkey and pies had been enjoyed there was one more tradition we shared. A few of us older kids would cut strips of paper into smaller pieces. On each piece we would write the name of a family member. All of the names were put into a ceramic Santa Claus with a handle and after dinner we would go around the table. Everyone would take one name from the pile. That person was responsible to buy the person whose name was on the slip of paper a small gift which would be handed out on Christmas after dinner. We called them "Table Tree Gifts". It was fun to guess who had chosen whom. We'd mumble if we'd chosen someone we "didn't like" which really meant we felt they weren't that exciting to buy for. We'd spend hours trying to figue out who'd chosen our names for some bought better things than others-we thought. One particular uncle would never tell.

Of couse Thanksgiving meant "Miracle on 34th Street" would be on the tv along with great family Christmas specials such as Perry Como, Red Skelton, Dean Martin, Lawrence Welk,Carol Burnett-to name a few.

To say we were lucky living out there in the country on that certain stretch of road will never to it justice. So I will just say "Happy Thanksgiving" to all-and especially to those of us who were but little ones sitting at that smaller table. We were cetainly blessed weren't we!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Grinding Cranberries

Back when we all lived in those 4 houses in a row Thanksgiving was often at our house. Of course the hope was my father wasn't called out on an ambulance call or had calling hours at the funeral home to tend to but if any such scenarios arose Thanksgiving went on as planned for such happenings were a part of our daily lives.

I loved the anticipation just as much as the dinner itself. My parents always ordered a Butterball turkey from a local family-owned grocery. They'd both go to pick it up. I can still see my father walking into the house with his hat and tie and long coat unbuttoned proudly carrying the thick cardboard box with Tom Turkey inside. He'd strut into the kitchen as if he'd gone to the woods himself in hunt of the perfect bird.
The hustle and bustle was contagious as potatoes were peeled; stale bread cut up; seasonings gathered; squash readied to be split open; pie crusts made from scratch rolled out on floured boards; china taken out of the cupboard; chairs counted; house cleaned-and cranberries crunched.

That's where I came in-grinding the cranberries for my mother as she hurried about while keeping an eye on me. She had a simple, non-fancy, non-electric blender, grinder, mixer thing. It attached tightly to the end of the kitchen table. After the handle with a wooden end was fit into place and a large saucepan was placed on the floor to catch the escaping berry juice, I was good to go. It was time to massacre the waiting fruit.

It was so much fun; putting those dark red berries in the top of the grinder; then pushing them down through as I turned the handle; listening to them pop as they became blops of mush with the juice streaming out and the blobs falling into a waiting bowl. After my mother thought I'd massacred enough berries she handed me some oranges-peeled and sliced- which I'd put into the grinder one at a time for I loved watching the wedges disappear only to reappear as more mush. I did the same for apple slices which were even more fun because they put up a good fight only to momentarily join their fellow fruits in the big yellow bowl.

Somehow I inherited that non-fancy, non-electric blender, grinder, mixer thing. It's in my kitchen cupboard all ready to go-and when it does I'll be thinking of those 4 houses in a row as we gathered in Thanksgiving-enjoying the mush I so proudly prepared.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Now that's a lot of Bull!

There was a favorite story we asked to hear over and over when sitting at our grandmother's kitchen table with a favorite aunt who'd never married. It was this aunt we'd wait for a little after five o'clock in the summer heat; hoping she'd take us swimming across the road and down to that river with an Indian name. I couldn't really swim. I'd hold on to a big rock and kick while I watched my aunt. She was a beautiful swimmer; voted prettiest girl in her class. She'd methodically tuck her hair into a white plastic swim cap; then stand there-wetting her arms a few times while checking to see where we were; then stir the water a bit with her hands before diving in like Esther Williams. The best part came after the swim. That's when the graham crackers came out. They tasted so good as we made our way back home dodging cow pies. But it was when this aunt told a certain bull story that we became numb in silence around the kitchen table. No matter how many times we heard it we wanted to hear it again.

My mother was the 2nd born of the 6 daughters. Each had their chores to do. My mother's were in the barn beside my grandfather.She'd always tell me she was meant to be the boy helping in the barn for she was named after him. His name was Frank. Her's was Frances which led to an unspoken bond between the two. That near catastrophic bull event happened as she was racing out of the barn one Saturday-trying to get ahead of the cows to open the gate that would take them across the road and into the pasture.In her rush she smacked right into a grazing bull. She never thought anything about it. She was in a hurry to beat the herd.

But on her way back to the barn that grazing bull had her in his sights. He was ready to pay her back for disturbing him. According to our aunt, that bull put his head down and barreled right for my mother who was skipping her way back to finish her chores. I don't remember how many of her sisters or farmhands were around but anyone who was there and saw the impending tragedy about to happen started screaming in an attempt to warn her of that raging machine picking up speed. The chaos of the moment alerted my grandfather who rushed to the front of the barn just as my mother-now aware and sprinting towards the finish line-was about to fly through the doorway. Lunging forth, my grandfather grabbed her; pulled her in; then took a pitch fork and embedded it into the bull's backside. End of the bull and the bull story-no bull!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Veranda

I always liked the word-Veranda when used by the adults describing the screened-in front porch of the farmhouse. It was an elusive term; fancier than needed but it intrigued me; made me feel as if that farmhouse was a castle and my cousin and I were princesses-or something. We could have been whatever we chose for when pretending became part of the play-verandas or tree limbs or hayfields or rambling streams transformed into whatever it was that wo
rked into the script of the moment.

My most vivid memory of being on the veranda was far from the world of our imaginations. It was real. It was frightening and everytime I hear a clap of thunder and see a bolt of lightning sizzle the landscape I go back to that particular hot, summer night where we gathered together to watch it storm. Yes-watch it storm. My grandmother called us to join her as the wind began to pick up speed and little whirlwinds in the cinder driveway were whipping around like the warm-up-show of things to come.

And come they did-with my cousin and I on either side of this grandmother who had an adventurous flair about her despite her days so structured in chores and cooking and baking and caring and doing. With each jolt we dug in closer. With each electrifying flash that lit the yard up like spotlights we threw our hands over our eyes and wormed down farther into our chairs. And when the flash and the jolt combined into one huge, gigantic, earth-shaking crack my cousin and I shot to our feet and went screaming off that veranda-through the door leading to the front parlor and then straight into the coat closet under the stairway and slammed the door shut. It seemed like we were there for hours. We weren't for the storm soon drifted over the backfield-rumbling and grumbling all the way. Our grandmother sat straight through every act of that rambling storm. Something tells me her imagination was soaring that hot, summer night on the veranda.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Baldy

I don't remember much about the days when my grandparents' farm was thriving but I've heard the stories. It was always fun to sit around the kitchen table where my grandparents and aunt lived. We'd have a cup of coffee made in my aunt's simple coffee pot that only made 6 cups and enjoy whatever delight my grandmother was baking while we listened to the stories about "back then."
"Tell us another one," we'd say. We never could get enough of tho
se stories.

One particular story was told over and over. It had to do with one mean chicken named Baldy. This bird earned the nickname because of the many fights he'd partake in around the barnyard. Baldy ruled the roost if you know what I mean-winning every battle he chose-leaving him "hairless" in the process.

One battle he won every time the opportunity arose was with my oldest brother who was the first grandchild and constantly at the farm. Something tells me he was my grandfather's sidekick around the barn and a frequent passenger in Grampie's old truck. But whenever he was toddling around that barnyard and Baldy spotted him-the scurry began. Baldy would go right for this what had to be strange creature running about his domain with red hair flying and freckles plastering his face. What must have Baldy thought of this intruder at my grandparents' beck and call. Maybe it was jealously; maybe he didn't like foreigners. Whatever Baldy's reason, he would go right after my brother. With his head down and those twigs for legs flying he'd dig right in and chase my brother at high speed leaving clouds of dust and dirt behind him and one little boy screaming. No matter how many times he'd be reprimanded Baldy would do it again and again whenever it became necessary to declare just who was King of the barnyard.

Eventually Baldy earned his own private living quarters at the farm-a small buidling about the size of an outhouse where he lived in exile of fellow foul and one red-headed toddler. I don't know what ever happened to him but Baldy's house (which we family members still refer to it as)remains intact and my brother-to this day-has a fear of chickens-especially bald ones!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Cooking berries in a rusted can

I really make an effort this time of the year to absorb all that's going on for it's a smorgasbord of the senses-just as it was when growing up in the country. When I hear the geese flying overhead I remember back to those times we'd be playing at the creek as fall was thinking about turning into winter. Making fortresses along that creek's bed by building walls of leaves all around us, we were able to see up and down that murky waterway just in
case an enemy approached. Don't tell any grown-ups but one time intent in play we picked lots of berries of some sorts; then put them in a rusty old can full of creek water and built up leaves underneath and around the can;then we lit the leaves on fire. (I really can't remember who had the matches)! It fit right into the script of what was going on-surviving in an unknown territory or something like that.

So our leaf fire quickly turned to smoke-lots of smoke. My two cousins were scoping the nearby field for twigs and when they returned they asked me if the berries were ready. Guess we were thinking of eating them?
Anyway I remember the next second as clear today as if it was yesterday. I was sitting cross-legged stirring our "supper' with my eyes shut and tears streaming down my cheeks. Smoke had taken over but I was sticking it out. After all we were on some foreign soil and needed to survive by any means-even if it meant eating berries-maybe. I looked up-still with my smoke-filled eyes shut-and said, "I don't know. I can't see!"

And then the three of us lost it on the banks of Sucker Creek. For some unknown reason we found my answer funny-really funny. One of those moments when you laugh so out of control and when you look back you wonder what was so funny. Well we thought this was so, so funny that it turned into rolling around in that field funny! We laughed so hard we couldn't breathe, lying there with the geese flying by. It was a moment of pure childhood-pure spontaneous childhood.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Chicken Coop Clubhouse

It was like combining FAO Schwarz, Disney Land, and the North Pole into one. That's what it felt like when our grandparents, aunts, uncles and parents bought the remaining items from an abandoned schoolhouse and filled the old chicken coop with those desks, chalkboards, and books-lots of books. It'd been void of chickens for some time but there were still bits of feathers drifting about. Most of the windows were missing glass; the door crooked but none of that mattered to us even when it snowed inside.

We declared it to be the Girls Club but allowed our boy cousin to join and when that cousin who wore dresses came to visit she was allowed in too but I think we might have been mean to her at times. Not really mean but throwing our weight around because we were older-and we certainly didn't wear dresses as we played and pretended in that old coop.

Looking back we were babysitters of the younger cousins in the summertime and we didn't even realize it. To us,they were our students to the point that we even handed out report cards which included our personal remarks. We had all the tools-workbooks, chalk for the chalkboard, those desks like on Little House on the Prairie that had the round hole to the right at the top for holding bottles of ink. We taught math and read stories and sent home papers and notes if they'd misbehaved.
We even "published" a family newspaper and delivered it to each home on Sunday mornings. It contained family news, sports, and hand-drawn ads for those businesses akin to the family. I wish I could remember how we advertised my father's funeral home!

When we weren't teaching we were putting on cicuses which included getting huge empty boxes from our uncle who owned a shoe store and using them for our tumbling act. We held art shows; went out and got a small tree at Christmas and decorated it. One particular "show" where we'd invite all the adults to attend and worked so hard on organizing got washed out. It was an Easter extravaganza. We'd planned quite the event complete with pink and yellow marshmallow chicks and jelly beans. The night before it poured-really poured and all of our cardboard props and Easter candy were destroyed. The show was cancelled. But more shows were to follow.

To say we were blessed just doesn't describe what that old chicken coop with the remains of an abandoned schoolhouse gave us every single day as we experienced the pricelss gift of free play; opportunities to drop barriers in our minds and let our imaginations soar-every time we stepped through that crooked door.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

H-O-L-Y Cows!

You won't believe what I'm going to tell you but even though I grew up in the country I never liked cows-with maybe the exception of black angus. My brother had a small herd of angus cows and when he went away to visit relatives I was left in charge of caring for them. I'd get up way before the bus came and go out to the barn; returning when I got off the bus in the afternoon. I didn't mind. I most likely would have been playing around there anyway. His cows never bothered me. They just wanted to be fed and let in and out of the barn that for years housed herds of dairy cows.

By the time we all came along the herds were gone. Stanchions were vacant so it wasn't as if I'd grown up surrounded by cows. There was just something about those black and white beasts grazing in the fields of neighboring farms. With their big, bulging eyes, they'd stare as my cousin and I walked by; staring and chewing-and chewing some more as their tails constantly tried keeping the flies away. Then there was the fact they'd just let it all out standing there chewing and then after they were finished, their tails would go even faster as they kept chewing.

My gut instinct proved valid when I was a little older and went for a walk down into the woods across the road. Two of my friends and my younger brother joined me. When we reached the area of those woods where the orphans spent their summers we lingered. It was a beautiful spot. Pine and maple surrounded the open area where the orpans pitched their tents. There was a small building where the nuns slept and a much larger building where everyone ate. Caretakers lived in the back. They only stayed in the summertime so no one was around. Off in the fields there were some cows but cows were always in those fields. I guess we were so intent in what we were doing that we didn't notice more and more cows gathering-and heading straight towards us at a full, galloping gait. It was a stampede of those mighty beasts and it was obvious we were their target.

We made a dash inside the sacred building that housed the nuns; slammed the door shut and moved whatever we could in front of the door. Shaking in fear, we thought those warriors of the fields would do us in. They tried. Oh how they tried, butting their big, hard heads against the building. It was deafening-especially if you're young and despise cows in the first place. I can't remember how long they kept us prisoners in the woods but eventually they moved on and we darted home-keeping a watch over our shoulders and elated we'd escaped the attack of those H-O-L-Y Cows!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Grampie's tractor

I was in the 6th grade when my grandfather passed away. Glimpses of him remain vivid in my mind; suspenders holding his pants up; hands worn yet strong; his chewing tobacco in the checkered pouch. I can still hear the put-put of his tractor pulling a wagon full of hay over the plank bridge and up the hill; then down across the flatrock to the barn. We loved his tractor. We'd play on it when he went inside the farmhouse; pretending to shift it into gear and go on wild adventures through alfalfa and clover and then out of sight and into the big, exciting world beyond the horizon.

It was small in size. Red-maybe an orangish-red with a seat sitting on springs that would bounce up and down. The bigger the bump, the greater the bounce. There was some kind of compartment that held nuts and bolts and screwdrivers and stray nails-anything he'd need should he break down in the back fields. He must have greased that tractor daily for it constantly smelled like those cans you'd squeeze and out would come that slimy guck. It was all over the tractor-in every little crevice; over every bolt. Old rags were always near and covered in it as were his work gloves. We got covered too but it never bothered us. It was part of playing on Grampie's tractor.

I wonder what he'd say about the size of tractors today. To me they just don't look like alot of fun if you're a kid and ready to head off into the sunset-or sit by your grandfather and put-put up the back hill to the barn. I bet the seats don't bounce either no matter how big the bump!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Halloween in the Country

Just by virtue of being in the country made Halloween even scarier than it really was when interpreted through the eyes and minds of a kid. What might have been a cluster of leaves dancing past the cinder driveway or swirling atop an open field was actually a pack of menancing rats out to attack and devour trick or treaters. Barren trees became gnarled enemies that at any minute would join forces and nab all the children of the earth and take them off to certain demise. What cornstalks there were left standing in deserted fields transformed into haunting souls ready to avenge their fallen comrades of the field. Twisting vines once the lifelines of pumpkins now picked and gutted, carved and painted with candles flickering in their bellies, slithered about the fields anxious to grab hold of those who'd taken their fruit. Certainly under the cover of that purplish black sky they were not vines at all. Rather they were serpents-angry serpents who'd coil around innocent children and leave them to the fate of those scurrying rats.

Acting as a prop the harvest moon would disappear behind passing clouds just when its light was desperately needed. Nothing-not even the moon-could be trusted on Halloween. The barn became a fortress of gloom and doom, full of monsters and dragons about to settle the score with children who ran about their castle in the daylight-laughing and playing while they lay dormant waiting for the dark of night.

Throw in grownups who'd never grown up and the scene was set for even more of a harrowing experience. You never knew where they'd appear. A grandmother who took her hair combs out-unleashing long strands of grey that seemed even longer when evolving into the Wicked Witch of the North might have peered through kitchen windows or hidden in wait behind one of those gnarled enemies. With a nose that was a natural and a cackle perfected, this country witch was better than any Hollywood version. And then there was that uncle who made us rafts and set us off on day long treasure hunts. He was never to be found on Halloween. We could have used his help when escaping from Frankenstein himself!

Halloween in the country alerted our senses; the smell of the leaves that weren't actually leaves; the sound of the wind through nasty branches; the touch of a witch's grasp; the sight of ghosts and goblins peering out at every turn. Even after returning back home-after sorting through the lollipops and candy bars and Bazooka gum-it was unsettling to peer through any window. That Wicked Witch of the North might have peered right back!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Creek Grass

Because my father was a funeral director when I was growing up we never really went on extended vacations. Back then funeral directors were also the local rescue squad-on duty 24 hours a day-7 days a week. I remember hearing him going off into the night after an accident call had awakened him. Besides that he was dedicated to the families who came to him in grief. He treated them as he would have treated his own family.

With that said I never felt we missed out on a thing. The backfields and creek and barn with its pastures and pine trees across the road all were like a Disneyworld to me-maybe even better for there were no crowds or anyone trying to sell me a thing. It was full steam ahead for my imagination every time I stepped out the door no matter the season.

Props were everywhere for me and my cousins-from haylofts to the grain shed; empty silo to creek grass. Our parents didn't have to spend a penny to keep us amused. Mother Nature took care of that. Looking back I remember the creek grass had its own smell. To this day I turn my head going by a meandering creek which to me still looks like a great place to linger as the world rushes by for you see creek grass to us was not just creek grass. It became forts and hideaways. It'd protect us from the evils of our imaginary world or become a secret spot to sit and talk and dream. It never mattered that we might be getting wet. We never even noticed. We were off on childhood adventures-nurtured by the amazing world around us. Pretty good considering it was all free-all at our fingertips without standing in line-waiting and waiting and waiting some more.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

More weathered the old barn the better

Yesterday I was joined by the award-winning illustrator of "The Reindeer Keeper"-Suzanne Langelier-Lebeda at a book signing held at St. Lawrence University's Brewer Bookstore. The response to "The Reindeer Keeper" was tremendous. In fact, we sold out! The bookstore will be restocking their shelves with more copies and another signing will be announced soon. Interestingly many who stopped for their signed copy (in some cases-"copies")lingered. Conversations flowed-from personal Christmas memories and love of Christmas stories-to infatuations with old barns.

I've let it be known that when I was growing up, my grandfather's barn was a favorite place for me and my cousins. We'd heard the stories of wayback when my grandfather and his hired hands would bring the hay in from surrounding fields under the sweltering June sun. Wagons overflowing with the hay made their way over the plank bridge to the side of the barn where it was then brought up and into the silo.

Haylofts provided us the perfect places to play-or hide-or watch barn swallows swoop in and out of broken windows of that eventually abandoned barn. We'd heard names of favorite horses; imagined what it was like when that barn brimming with memories was bustling. Chickens pecking;pigs wallowing and cows lazily making their way back and forth-that barn with its two haylofts chronicled life as it was for my grandparents; their six daughters and my grandmother's parents who'd sit at night and read to the little ones.

To hear others tell me yesterday how they too were infatuated with barns-old barns-the more weathered the better; that they too kept fond memories of old barns once part of their families close to heart was music to my ears. Old barns are history. Old barns link one generation to the next. Old barns provide us a tapestry of yesterday just as a history book provides. And that old barn of my grandfather's played a role in my writing, "The Reindeer Keeper." It was a main character!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Corny

When growing up in the country-an aunt, uncle, four cousins and a black lab named Ranger lived for awhile in the farmhouse that once housed my grandparents and their six daughters. My uncle was a teacher and coach and my aunt-a nurse. They'd met when they were in the service. He was originally from Indiana and what I remember most about him was his rendition of "Little Orphan Annie." We'd sit in silence in the kitchen or on the veranda of the screened-in porch and listen to him. In his laid back voice he'd recite the lines until he reached the end. Then with a twinkle in his eye he'd look right at us and say in a stern and scary voice-"The Goblins will get you if you don't watch out!"

I loved playing in that old home with my cousins. Inside and out we had so much fun-climbing trees, playing baseball or stomping around in a rambling stream running alongside the farmhouse.The water flowed through a tunnel underneath the road and wandered on down to Sucker Creek. It'd usually disappear in the summer heat but in the spring it was a must-to-be-played in spot. We'd have races to see whose twig-turned-raceboat would make it to a certain point first. We'd go on adventures-all the while getting soaking wet yet never feeling cold.

There were four cousins in that house. The third-a beautiful little girl with beautiful eyes like her dad-had a favorite friend named Corny. Everyone knew Corny-a small swatch of cloth once a full-sized blanket. But due to her constant holding and feeling, that blanket had been reduced to a mere piece of frazzled material. None of that mattered to my little cousin. That was her Corny. One particular summer evening at suppertime as we were all gathered outside under my aunt's pine trees for a picnic a shout of desperation came from the farmhouse. It was my aunt letting everyone know Corny was missing! Everything was dropped! Hot dishes turned cold! Salads with mayonaisse were abandoned! The hunt began! How could we sit and eat our dinner when Corny wouldn't be joining us?
I can't remember how long it took but Corny was found. We all celebrated and supper went on as usual-with one very happy little girl and her best friend named Corny.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Joy Rides in the Backfields

My father was a funeral director and ever so often in the summertime he'd drive a big, black transport-of-coffins type van home for lunch. Back then the vans were not sleek and shiny and full of bells and whistles like they are today. This was more the type of a haunting getaway car for the gangsters in a "Godfather" type film. It didn't matter to us. It made the vehicle all the more intriguing so while my father was eating lunch my cousins and I would take the van for a ride-a marvelous joy ride amongst the clover and hay. Of course we told him we'd be careful; that we'd be right back but once we made it over the rickety bridge spanning Sucker Creek and then up the hill-it was a straight shot to those backfields. I can't remember how old we were. I don't think that old for my mother had a fit. (My father was always the one we'd go to first.)

Once we were on that straightaway the fun began. Down came the windows as we stepped on the gas; our hair flying in the breeze as we flew over one bump and then another; turning in circles; dodging trees and shrubs and any little creatures that might have been curious. We never wore seat belts. No one did back then. Our heads would hit the top of the van but we never felt a thing. We were free spirits. Nothing else mattered until zipping around that raceway we saw my father in the distance flagging us in. Lunchtime was over and so was our joy ride in the backfields-until the next time.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Autumn

I took part in an Authors event today held at a community library about two hours from where I live.I love doing these events especially when held in libraries. The smell of the books and quiet respect for one another does something to my soul.
It was a crisp autumn day. Shuffling leaves as I carried my books into the building brought me back to growing up in the country and going across the road; then down to the woods with my cousin. Our grandparents owned the property. It was never referenced as the woods. To the family it was "the camp." Not your regular camp but rather a camp for orphans in the summertime. You see,in the nearby town there was an orphanage run by nuns. I remember going there with my grandmother who sometimes cooked for the children. I loved going there. In fact I think I would have stayed there if possible. Clean and bright with rows and rows of beds and children of all sizes and ages made it look like one big, happy family to me. Obviously I didn't understand the situation.
My grandparents grew quite close to the nuns so that's how "the camp" came to be. Only the boys came out and stayed. They walked out; brought tents and whatever else might be needed and stayed right up to Labor Day. A couple stayed there along with the nuns. They did the cooking and any maintenance. There was a little house where the nuns slept. The boys' tents were pitched nearby.
But today's drifting leaves took me back to when my cousin and I went on adventures down there; collecting pine cones and shiny stones while making sure to step over cowpies plopped haphazardly about the landscape.Fall was the best. With a richness in the air;with oranges and yellows sparkling in the sunshine walking down to and playing around "the camp" was invigorating-just like today as I carried my books inside that charming library full of charming people.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Sucker Creek

I grew up along Sucker Creek-a meandering little beast that overflowed its banks in the spring and became an outdoor skating rink in the winter. It was an all-season playground for me and my cousins. Our Uncle Paddy who just turned eighty this past July and is still a kid at heart built us rafts out of telephone poles. There were two rafts; one for the boys; one for the girls. All summer long we'd board our rafts; then steer our way around the creek by prodding a long steel pole down to the creek bed and then back up then down again-over and over while fighting off pirates or traveling to the ends of the earth-or at least the opposite shore. Whenever a bloodsucker found its way onboard, we'd swipe it off with our pipe and continue on. We could never swim in Sucker Creek. I don't remember ever wanting to.

Spring's awakening brought overflowing banks and miniature icebergs crashing into one another. I loved their moaning sounds; twisting and shoving their way down Sucker Creek. From our kitchen window we'd watch beaver and muskrats ride those frozen pieces until they disappeared around the bend.

Still to this day biting into an apple brings me back to those breathtaking autumn days by the creek. In a matter of minutes getting off the school bus we'd be down at the creek with apples in our pockets.It always seemed we'd just gotten there that we'd be called back home for dinner.

Despite the cold and wind we'd spend hours at the creek shoveling-then skating. Winter was my favorite season. It still is. There were places where we could look straight down through the ice into the eerie yet spectacular underwater world of reeds and grasses suspended in time. Some evenings my cousin and I would lie atop the ice under silver stars; dreaming and talking.It was just as much fun when it was snowing. We'd lie in a nearby field making snow angels-doing the same. On days off we'd pack a lunch and skate up the creek as far as we dared to go. Hot chocolate was always a treat when we returned home.

Life was a treat along the banks of that rambling stream-providing young imaginations a stage no matter what the season.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Molasses Cookies

She never referenced a cook book. I never saw a measuring cup sitting on the counter; no fancy utensils or designer cookware. Despite the lack of what all the celebrity chefs saturating television these days use, my grandmother's plain bowls and wooden spoons were what she used when baking in her worn woodstove-the focal point in that kitchen of the old farmhouse. From her ability to judge a pinch of this and a dash of that to realizing by aroma that whatever she was baking was baked to perfection, my grandmother brought forth memories wrapped in pot holders for generations to come.

My favorite memory coming out of that stove were her molasses cookies; melt-in-your-mouth molasses cookies so big that it took putting your hands together to hold just one-when you were a little child in your grandmother's kitchen.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Bubble

I often laugh to myself when drinking a bottle of water. So much money is spent on those plastic bottles. Growing up in the country we had an endless supply of pure,fresh water. We didn't have to pump it. We certainly couldn't buy it. It came directly from a crack in the flat rock that spanned the lower hill down from the farmhouse going up to the barn. It was the coldest; most pure water I've ever tasted. One by one we'd lay flat out straight on our stomachs on the bed of rock and reach for the bubble. Some hot summer days it would be covered in stringy, green moss. We didn't care. We'd find a stick; then clear the moss away and enjoy that bubble. It was always there except when winter put an end to anything as spontaneous as a bubble laughing its way up from the earth.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Donut holes

I've described the old farmhouse where my grandparents lived when I was growing up in my previous blog. It sneaks into my dreams ever so often and when I wake up I am always disappointed that it was only a dream. I loved that farmhouse with all its imperfections. But when you're a kid imperfections go unnoticed especially when you're having fun.
We were always having fun. And when our grandmother made donut holes we had lots of fun eating the warm little morsels.They were plain donut holes. We didn't need different flavors. We'd just fill little paper bags with them and run back outside to play. I hope I dream about those donut holes tonight!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The old farmhouse

Throughout "The Reindeer Keeper" I made reference to an old farmhouse which played an integral role in the setting of the story. Subconsciously when writing I was going back to my childhood; back to the old farmhouse which was home to my grandparents and their six daughters. There would have been a son-he would have been the oldest-but my grandmother fell while taking my grandfather water to drink. He was out in a backfield haying in the heavy heat of a June afternoon.

I can still smell the cookies and breads; donuts and full-course meals coming from my grandmother's woodstove which she directed like a conductor of an orchestra. The kitchen was enormous with wainscoating and a built-in hutch to die for. The floor in the dining room was slanted but we didn't care. One room led to another. Bookshelves held my grandfather's western novels. African violets hugged the windows especially when the sun drenched them in warmth no matter what the season. A pantry full of shelves made a great place to hide when playing with cousins.

There were five bedrooms with a "secret" tunnel connected two of them. At least that's what we thought back then. The lone bathroom was at the end of the upstairs hallway. You could walk straight through it to get to the backstairs.
The front veranda was marvelous. Screened in-it spread out along the length of the house and was a great place sit through thunderstorms.
My grandmother's peony bushes with their smiling faces were everywhere as were her lilacs and poplar trees.
So many memories stem from within that old farmhouse. Some made their way into the pages of "The Reindeer Keeper." More to come. And just a reminder, "The Reindeer Keeper" is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and will soon be available on Kindle.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

"The Reindeer Keeper"

Follow me and get to know me; read my posts about growing up in the country for it is from such a setting that the basis for my wondrous Christmas story for adults stems. "The Reindeer Keeper" is a heartwarming must read of family and struggle; joy and sadness meant for anyone who remembers that feeling of truly believing in Santa Claus.Below is my first "Get-to-know-me" entry and check out www.thereindeerkeeper.com for more information.

*Once you round the corner of that stretch of country road about a mile out from a town in northern New York you're getting closer to where 4 houses full of relatives once sat. Go over the small bridge; then up a little knoll and you are there.For those passing by there's nothing in particular about that stretch of asphalt. But then, they didn't grow up there.

The property had been in the family for generations. My grandfather worked the fields; bringing hay to the barn-then up and into the silo in the sweltering June heat. Clover and timothy seemed to stretch all the way to the back woods. Dividing the front pasture from the back fields was a creek; connecting the two was a wooden bridge made of uneven planks. In spring when the creek would rise the bridge would do the same. Sometimes it'd be washed away by flowing ice. I spent hours with my cousins alongside this stream full of frogs, toads, blood suckers, and who knows what else. Its banks overloaded with creek grass and cattails became cabins and fortresses. We fished with safety pins attached to string tied to bamboo poles. Once in awhile we'd catch an old, rusted can but most times it was just a tangled mass of weeds coming out of that murky water. It never mattered. Whatever the season, we were on adventures! (More to follow-keep watching).