An irregular series of memories and observations of no significance, about nothing in particular.
When I was a little kid, not long after WWII, my family would spend a small bit of our summer holidays visiting a friend of my grandmother- Mrs. Chase. Early in the morning we would get in my father’s Packard (the automotive equivalent of a Sherman tank) and head for the foothills of upstate New York. I have no idea now where her ‘farm’ was located, but I remember it was an all day trip from Rochester. We’d stop at small town diners for breakfast and lunch and without dallying be off on the road again.
I say ‘farm’ because it wasn’t much of a going concern. I remember Mrs. Chase, a deaf mute, kept a few cows, goats and chickens but that was about it. There was a run-down old grey house, built sometime in the previous century, with narrow, steep stairs, no heating other than fireplaces, and a pump at the kitchen sink. Lighting was by oil lamp and when it was dark you went to bed. The toilet was an outhouse, a few yards from the back door. It seemed like a healthy environment, though. I remember how crisp, clear and clean the air and water were.
I remember Mrs. Chase made her own clothes and wove blankets on a hand loom. She was dirt-poor, but that doesn’t imply squalor. Everything was neat, clean and shipshape.
Anyway, I remember that at sometime in the late afternoon we’d turn off into a barely visible dirt road, climbing slowly toward the top of a ridge, the Packard clinking it’s way through the ruts and potholes. I say clinking because its cavernous trunk would be packed with canned fruits and vegetables. Not supermarket canned, mind you, but grandmother canned, in quart size glass mason jars.
Each fall, for several weekends we’d make road trips along the two-lane country blacktop, searching for farms with ramshackle wooden stalls out front at the end of the drive. We’d find plenty, because upstate was thick with farms in that era. We’d load up the trunk with bushels of twenty-ounce apples bigger than a softball and excellent for pies; freestone peaches so easy to peel we always had a market basket in the car to eat on the way home; tomatoes, rhubarb, etc.
When we arrived with our loot it would be unloaded into my grandmothers kitchen. That would be the beginning of an industrious few days that would put any assembly line to shame. Everyone had a task. As I was little, mine was to clean, peel, core and otherwise do many of the preliminaries. Eventually, when I was older I was given an additional post of honor- melting the paraffin. Everything wound up in my grandmother’s fruit cellar, a wooden-partitioned area of the basement about eight foot square, crammed with shelves that were crammed with jars. The following weekend we’d start the whole thing over, until the season ended. The following summer Mrs. Chase would inherit the remains, in order to clear the decks for action in the coming fall. And by ‘remains’ I don’t mean to imply leftovers. There was always plenty of top of the line canning left. My grandmother did tons.
After an interminable period of jolting and bouncing, we’d finally arrive at the isolated house. And it was isolated- not another human being for miles. In a time when service was paramount, we had two mail deliveries a day in the city. She had three deliveries a week. That’s how isolated.
Even though it sounds like some sort of Green-Acres-yuppie-nightmare, to me it was idyllic. I was allowed more freedom than I had in the city, and could explore the house, barn and farmyard to my heart’s content. There were strange (to me) creatures. Chickens scattering ahead of me as I walked (something that was afraid of me for a change). Scary cows (yes, I know, but remember-I was little and, to me, they looked the size of elephants). Goats. They gave me my first Don Quixote moment. I was playing with a kid, and the mama goat took exception. She butted me firmly, but not too hard, square in the chest, knocking me flat on my behind, knocking the wind out of me. The goats won that argument.
I was even allowed to wander around at night on my own. Well, go to the outhouse, anyway. I remember hearing all sorts of strange shuffling, snuffling and rustling noises from the woods. At this late date and being no naturalist, I have no idea what might have been making them. This was long before I had been exposed to stories of bigfoot, phantom cats, chupacabras and such-like that occupy the minds of cryptozoologists, paranormal investigators and horror film writers, so I wasn’t scared. I had been told that occasionally there were bears about, but I think that was just to keep me from wandering off into the woods. It could have been the semi-feral barn cats, of which there were quite a few, doing some nocturnal hunting.
After a few days of helping around the place (my father would spend most of his time chopping wood) we would load the trunk with the empty jars, lids and rubber rings from last year’s delivery and return to civilization. I heard that Mrs. Chase died at some point. I know the last trip we made was the year I was nine. All things come to an end, but sometimes they leave pleasant memories, at least.