Today I had a rare day spent in the company of myself. After getting my cholesterol screening (12 hour fast) out of the way, the day was my oyster. I started the migration of my summer writing space from the back porch overlooking the field and barn, to my spare bedroom office with Aunt Mary’s desk and window overlooking the side yard. I brought in half of the plants, and promised the others they would soon follow. It’s cozier, and less of a daydreaming kind of space. Maybe that will be good for my writing.
Then I cleaned the stalls and lingered in the barn, to give the equine kids a good scratch, warm hug and fresh hay. I have not once turned on the television, or a radio. Even the birds are silent, except for the gorgeous hawk I disturbed this morning on my damp walk through the woods and fields next door. The silence of the woods was such a stark contrast to even just a little while ago, when a chorus of birds, crickets and distant lawnmowers serenaded in a buzz of the late summer’s mix tape. Today the silence was only pierced once by the cry of the hawk, and the gentle tap of raindrops as they dripped off the red and gold leaves of the maples and oaks bordering my property line.
Later, I broke my fast with a hearty tomato soup in which I mixed red lentils. What is it about tomato soup that brings me back to the comfort of childhood when my mother served steaming bowls of Campbell’s tomato soup with grilled cheese sandwiches on toasted white bread? The richness of the butter melted into the golden crisp surface of the bread, the tangy taste of the soup and melted cheese, that first bite when your teeth crunched through to the soft belly of the Wonder Bread. I still remember the cheerful blue and red balloons printed on the Wonder Bread wrapper peeking over the tops of my winter boots. Did all of our mothers use the bread bags to line our winter boots and keep out the dampness? Remember the smell of the plastic , wool and wet boots that emanated from the coat room in school as our winter coats, boots scarves, hats and gloves dried in front of the radiators? We were a community of children who walked to school, in any weather, and who (most of us) came home for lunch to our Mothers, who had a hot lunch waiting on a TV tray in the living room, our favorite tv show tuned (Kimba the White Lion was mine) I know the world was far from perfect, even then, but parts of it sure felt that way. Today was a beautiful escape from the real world where, fortunately, parts of it are still perfect enough for me.
And now I need a tissue, the rain seems to have gotten in my eyes.
When I was born, my dad was serving in the US Navy. One of my earliest memories is of my mom singing to me:
“Bell bottom trousers,
Coat of Navy Blue,
My Dad’s a sailor
And he loves me too.
When you get married
And have a family,
You’ll dress your kiddies in sailor’s dungarees!”
I think I will always be able to conjure up her beautiful voice and those sweet words until the day I die. Mom always claimed she cannot carry a tune, but I think she has the most mellifluous voice in the world. Every day, Mom would wake us up with her sweet greeting; “Rise and shine!” I was a grumpy, moody child. Never a morning person.I would grumble back from under the covers, “I’ll rise but I won’t shine!” I felt wickedly clever for saying that. To her eternal credit, It did not deter her from her daily greeting. Every night at bed she hugged and kissed us and tucked us in saying “Good Night, sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite!” Always in the same cheerful tone. She could have had the worst day of her life, but would never let it show to us kids. Her love for her children was and still is unconditional, and as consistent as the sunrise.
My early years were spent in a small village in upstate New York. You could walk to school and I did; every day to Kindergarten then home to Mom and peanut butter sandwiches and milk on a TV tray in front of my favorite cartoons. Mom and I and my brother walked downtown and had milkshakes and ice cream sodas at the local lunch counter. Every day in summer I could play outside to my heart’s content and Mom was always there to run to for comfort, food, and hugs and kisses as needed. I had a pretty normal childhood spent running in and out of a slamming squeaky screen door and being told “in or out, one or the other!” We could spend hours buying penny candy and melted popsicles with nothing but a dime at the corner store all summer. I recall ice skating at the local park down the street in winter. Mom stuffed the toes of her own childhood skates with newspaper so I could wear them. We greased the blades with Vaseline and polished the leather with white shoe polish. I remember the pride I felt that I could fit into Mom’s skates.I imagined her laughing and skating with her friends, an image I took with me every time I circled around that iced-over lot at the end of the street. Those ice skates were more valuable to me than any brand new store bought pair of skates could ever have been.
I was never a girly girl who welcomed dresses and pink hair ribbons. If Mom had hoped for that kind of daughter, she sure hid it well. I was the kid who tore up her new winter coat sledding under a barbed wire fence and barely ducking in time to avoid getting clotheslined from it. My buster browns were permanently scuffed, my permed and set hairdos went frizzy, and my clothes never stayed clean very long. When we moved to the country, Mom was the one who set me free to roam the lush pastures and cool, green forests and creeks every single day. I would return home grass stained, sweaty and brown as shoe leather, and happy as a clam. If my dad nurtured my love for adventure and animals, my mom was the one who sent me out into that world, unfettered and free to live out those adventures and loves. I don’t think I ever realized her part in giving me my independence and letting me decide who I was, without judgement or restriction.
Just because she was cheerful and loving does not mean she was or is a pushover. My Dad always said my mother is the best judge of character he knows, and it is entirely true. Woe to those who hurt the ones she loves, and if Mom doesn’t like someone, which is rare, you know that person has a very serious character flaw.
When I was at the lowest point in my life, pregnant, a single mom to a two year old, alone and afraid, not knowing where I would live the very next day, I called her. I hadn’t told her much about my dilemma when she interrupted me with the two most beautiful words I have ever heard: “Come home.” She knew I would never ask. This allowed me to safely prepare for a new life with my two wonderful boys. It probably saved my life. She was a believer in tough love, to my eternal benefit, but she also knew when I truly needed her. No matter where I go, Mom is always home to me.
Mom has done so many things in her lifetime. She worked retail, at a local department store when I was in high school. Her sense of fashion and style sure helped me out, since I had no interest in such things. Thanks to her, I didn’t go to school looking like a bumpkin. I can still remember showing up at the breakfast table dressed for work, barely awake only to have her order me to remove my skirt or dress so she could properly iron it. “You are NOT going out looking like that.” And I wasn’t the most grateful teenager for all her attempts to make me presentable. She also was an aerobics instructor, and ran programs for the YWCA. She wrote grants and obtained funding that benefitted a lot of people. She hiked mountains – she and my dad took my sons to hike up Mount Washington when they were very young. She is an artist – she creates the most beautiful quilts I have ever seen! She is a merciless Scrabble player. All the grandkids know they can truly brag if they can beat their Grammy. Ultimately, I think it is her role as a Grandmother which she cherishes the most. She is the proudest, and most loving grandmother on the planet. Not many Grammies can boast that their teenage grandsons invite themselves to dinner and to play Scrabble. My boys did that, and to this day they travel the 5 hours up to Maine to spend time with their grandparents, as do all of their children and grandchildren.
We are so blessed to have you for our Matriarch, Mom. I love you a bushel and a peck. Happy Mother’s Day!
It is finally spring here in Southern New Hampshire, only a month late, and for all we know the snow may not yet be done with us. But, today dawned glorious, not a cloud in the sky, and no pesky wind to slip its icy fingers down our collars. Nothing but sunshine and (for us) warm temperatures in the high fifties, possibly sixty!
I started my latest chapter of the book based on my childhood experiences living in the country in Upstate New York. It’s rough and unfinished but I feel like sharing it. Let me know, do you think this interesting enough to keep going? I will anyway, because it brings me great joy to pull out memories, dust them off and relive them in my imagination. How fun it is to elaborate and fictionalize them a bit and to use them to entertain myself and hopefully others.
It is the eve before I go for my hysterectomy surgery. The process of opening myself up, with my writing and my thinking and my intentions, somehow seems to have coincided with the advent of the surgery, which is a quite literal way of opening up. Somehow, these two are connected in a profound way I haven’t quite sorted out yet. But, I welcome it all. I have learned that opening up and sharing your deepest thoughts is a requirement if you wish to write truthfully and authentically. I am grateful for the people and the beauty that have come through the doors and windows I have thrown open with complete abandon. Or at least what is for me, complete abandon! With that, I share the unfinished work of Chapter 3. I have six weeks of physical recovery ahead of me, and I think this will generate a lot of writing.
Please send my your healing and positive thoughts as I journey through my surgery in the early morning hours tomorrow, April 23rd. Thank you!
Chapter Three – The “Crick” (unfinished draft)
“Maaaa, I’m BORED!”I hung over the back of a kitchen chair, vulture-like, as my mother sipped coffee and worked a crossword puzzle. The vinyl stuck to my sweaty arms as I dangled them over the back. It was a triple H day in Upstate New York: Hazy, Hot and HUMID. The mild and breezy spring had run smack into a wall of thick, cloistering air that heralded a New York Mohawk Valley summer. It hung in a yellowish haze over the rolling farmland. Cows lolled under shade trees in clusters at the very edge of the pasture, and refused to go home at milking time, prompting the farmer down the road to phone a request that we kids chase them down to the cow paths at dusk. My brother and I were thrilled to oblige, bringing our collie Shepard mix, Poochie to assist. We’d return home panting, our shiny, red faces dripping with grimy sweat mixed with the dust kicked up by the panicked bovines. “I’m surprised those cows could still give milk by the time you kids are done scaring the bejesus out of them,” my mother would remark before she ordered us into the bath tub. We’d had a close call one evening, and it toned down our exuberance just a hair. The second-to-last heifer took acceptance at the unfortunate last in line bovine, who had scrambled up her backside in a panic in an attempt to get away from the deranged,whooping gang of child and pup. The angered cow stopped dead in her tracks and head butted the offending little bossy, resulting in a domino effect of tumbling cow, dog and kids. My brother and I hit the deck and rolled out of the way in the nick of time to avoid a “cow crash” as we came to call it later on. Of course we never told our mother.
“Go watch cartoons with your brother,” she now suggested. From the living room, strains of “Captain Kangaroo” floated into the kitchen and sparking a surge of irritation through my body. My brother and I had just had a fight over which station to watch, and who sat where. Fists had flown, and he had won, and then had triumphantly stretched out with his favorite blanket to watch the babyish show. For a few minutes I sat at the edge of the couch and halfheartedly exchanged kicks with him, but it was too hot to continue the fight.
“Bore-Ring!” I said, in a sing-song voice.
Mom sipped from her mug and without looking up said,”If you’re bored I can give you something to do.”
Ugh, she always said this. Plenty of dishes to wash, tables to dust, rooms to clean. I did my inward eye roll and flounced out of the kitchen before she could assign me any equally boring tasks.
“I’m going outside,” I pushed at the screen door.
“Don’t go any further than you can hear me call you!”
I grunted and let the door slam behind me.
Outside in the blinding morning sunshine, the beauty of the summer day eclipsed any discomfort resulting from the heat. The corn stalks wore their early July dark, green color, and their usual whispering was laid low by the humidity. Whisps of ghostly mist rose in fingers of steamy vapor from the tall grass of the fields. Snowy white Queen Anne’s lace dotted an expanse of mustard yellow goldenrod. I grabbed one of the delicate blooms and examined a lone ladybug clinging to one of the tiny blossoms.My body surged with the realization I was free as the red winged blackbirds sitting on the stalks of milkweed in the field. Their lyrical call “Chereeeeee! Cheereeeeee!”beckoned.I was completely unencumbered by pesky little brothers, blaring television sets, crying baby sisters and irritable adults looking to hand out responsibilities for my own good. My dog, Pooch, looked up briefly from her shady spot where she lay next to the cornfield, then dropped her head in disinterest and closed her eyes. So I was on my own today. The world was my oyster, and I did not have to share it with anyone else. I decided to slip under the barbed wire of the pasture fence and explore the shaded dark cow paths that bordered the edge of the hay field adjacent to our back yard. I always wondered what lay at the end of the paths, which we never really got to see once we chased the cows into the murky depths. That was the point where we usually turned back for home, since it was getting dark and we knew the cows would keep going. Cows were like that; once they started moving, they usually kept going to their next destination, as long as nothing too daunting crossed their path.
When I was born, my father was serving on a Naval ship docked in Boston Harbor. A telegram announced my birth. He ran excitedly around the ship spreading the happy news to his shipmates. Finally, someone asked him “Is it a boy or a girl?” He stopped in his tracks and said, “I don’t know!” He was so excited he didn’t read the telegram completely. He had to return to retrieve it to find out he had a daughter.He was 20 years old.
I love this story, because it is really fun to picture a handsome, dark eyed smiling young sailor hopping with excitement at my arrival on this planet. I also love it because it truly didn’t matter to him which gender I was. He just loved me. He has always loved me for ME.
When I was small, he made up wonderful bedtime stories, starring ME, with a cast of animals in supporting roles. I was the rescuer of baby Robins who fell out of their nests, mending them with nothing more than mercurochrome and a band aid, and sending them back home to mama bird, with a dropper of water and a worm for the road. I couldn’t wait to hear what wonderful things I would do next. Dad would brush my long hair, and tell me I was Pocahontas , his Indian princess. He always had a white hanky handy to dry tears or daub at a scraped knee or elbow. These are some of my earliest memories.
Dad did what lots of Dads do; he stayed up late on Christmas Eve, putting together an elaborate cardboard house for us kids to inhabit on Christmas morning. Until one day in Summer, when my brother and I discovered if you collapsed the cardboard on the garage floor you could run and leap belly first and slide a long way. This is what poor Dad found us and the neighbor kids doing when he drove in the driveway from a long day’s work. All his hard labor flattened and trod upon by an army of kids, led by me. One day I spied Dad through my bedroom window when I should have been asleep one summer evening. He was walking a battered navy blue bicycle up the driveway and into the garage. On Christmas Day that year, I never connected the shiny, red two wheeler bike equipped with training wheels glistening under the sparkling Christmas tree with that junker he brought home that coincidentally, I never saw again. He pulled us in wagons, on sleds, gave us hundreds of piggy back rides. He once entertained us by chewing an entire pink bubble gum cigar and blowing a bubble as large as his head. We sat with our mouths hanging open in awe, until the bubble burst all over his face, getting stuck in his five o’clock shadow. Pink shreds fluttered from his eyebrows which were raised in arched black and pink caterpillars of disbelief and shock. There was gum in his hair, and on his earlobes. My brother and I burst into hilarious belly laughs that followed him as he ran for the bathroom and a warm wash cloth to clean the sticky mess off. He was a pretty good sport about it all. (We were never allowed to have a whole bubble gum cigar; we were “too little”. After that, we never really wanted to, either.)
He taught me how to read before I started school. I learned to love stories, a gift that has lasted a lifetime. How I loved going to the library, choosing a book, usually about animals, and proudly adding it to my book list every week. My love for reading got me into trouble when I started school. Very often, I finished my lessons early in class, so I could read my latest book choice under the desk. It often appeared I wasn’t paying attention when called upon in class. The truth was, I knew the material, but read the lessons faster than the others, and was deeply engrossed in my stories or daydreams and didn’t hear the question being asked. As a result, a nun accused me of cheating in second grade, when I got a 100% on a test. She was convinced I couldn’t possibly know the answers because I was always daydreaming. I was horrified to take home a paper sporting a giant red F. I tried to erase it in class, and Sister Regina snatched the paper back, and emblazoned it with a larger red F and a note home that my dad had to sign the failed paper. Dad read the note, while I looked down at my shoes in shame. He met my eyes. “Did you cheat?” He asked. I shook my head no. “I believe you,” he said. Three very powerful words. We went to the school and he assured that nun I was perfectly capable of passing that test on the spot, verbally if she would like proof that I did not cheat. I got my 100% and my dignity back. Dad has always believed in me.
Dad encouraged me to achieve. He quizzed me on what I wanted to be when I grew up. He talked at length about his dream of me going to college, ever since I can remember. This clearly meant the world to him, to give me this wonderful opportunity. I told him I wanted to be a Navy nurse. I wanted to “save the soldiers in Vietnam.” I thought they were “fighting the Germans” A little confused? Yes. No matter, Dad thought that was just swell.
Dad made everything an adventure. New places were to be explored and enjoyed. We hiked, we boated, we swam the Finger Lakes, and we roamed every corner of each place we lived. He encouraged me to love music, and to sing. I could belt out Patti Page’s “Cross Over the Bridge” like a nightclub singer at age 7. Although, I confess, I always confused the words “fickle past” with “pickerel bass” And I wondered why someone would go fishing and leave their “Pickerel Bass” behind them. Speaking of fishing, Dad also taught me how to fish, something I enjoy to this day. He even forgave me for using up all of his rubber worms, as I could practically hear the real worms screaming in pain as they writhed when put on hooks. I couldn’t bear it, and he understood. (However, for the record, it was my sister, not I, who lost his cherished “Red Eyed Warbler” lure. He forgave her too.)
It wasn’t all sunny days and fishing trips between us. We both have regrets; this I know, because we have since spent many wonderful hours snowshoeing in the woods of Maine, talking everything out amongst the tall pines of what we call The Enchanted Forest. I am so grateful I had the chance to mature enough to make things right between us! We had our share of differences and angst during my teenage years. I know I broke his heart many times. I quit college after a month. What a bitter disappointment that had to be. And how frightening it must have been for him to watch as I made bad choices and stuck with them long after I should have. There were periods of time I stayed isolated from family trying to figure things out for myself. He never abandoned me. When I needed help the most, he and my mother were always there. After my children were born, things began to change. I righted my ship, and eventually sailed back to home port. Dad was a wonderful role model for my boys. He took them hiking in the White Mountains, and he and my mother took them up Mount Washington. They spent summer days on the Maine shore. They played cutthroat games of Scrabble, (and still do) In Winter, Dad took them to the slopes and taught them how to ski. They went animal tracking in the woods, and identified leaves and plants. He was always there for them as much as he was for me. He taught them things a father would teach. He filled a great void in their lives.
Dad can get me through anything. If I close my eyes, I can feel his hand on my elbow at the graveside of my children’s father; his hand over mine as he got me across the Ridge trail in the White Mountains when my fear of heights had overtaken me and had me frozen in place. When asked, he shared his wise counsel when I had my own issues with the daunting task of parenting two very independent teens. I remember wondering just when he got so darned smart. He shined the light when I couldn’t see the forest for the trees.
We always want to please our parents, even when we think we don’t. I will never forget that day in 1979 when I called home, crying, on a pay phone from college, after barely a month in, telling my family I planned to quit. I just wanted to go home. My father tried everything to convince me to stay. He was hurt, angry and probably extremely worried for my future. Nothing he could say would change my mind. So, he came and got me, and brought me home. And spent the next thirty years praying, hoping, watching, most likely at times, crying and worrying, sometimes celebrating and above all, loving me. The proudest moment of my life was the day I finally walked for my college diploma, at age 47. My boys were there, my husband, and my family. But the person I searched for first in the crowd was Dad. There were he and Mom, beaming, as if they always knew this day would come. They had more faith than I did.
What more can a person ask for in a father? Someone who from the start loves you for who you are, who always stood in the wings waiting to catch you, and who always, always is ready to celebrate you. My biggest fan. There is nobody on Earth who could do it better.
Happy, Happy birthday DAD. Thank you for loving me. And by the way you may have noticed I left out a certain story involving you, an umbrella, a herd of rogue cows and a school bus full of kids. This time.
The great race on Johnnycake Road was not my first or last encounter with my nemesis The Snake. In fact, we had a rather complicated history, the snake and I. Back at my old house, my next door neighbor, Billy Branson, once kept a pet “Garden” snake in a cardboard box filled with grass and twigs. Billy was a few years older than me, and teased me mercilessly. One eventful summer day, I got all suited up for the great outdoors dressed in my play clothes – jean shorts, a tee shirt and keds with no socks. Fortified with my Kellogg’s breakfast cereal and orange juice, I pushed the screen door open and stepped out onto the concrete patio overlooking our backyard and the Branson’s backyard. Our driveway separated the two properties. Almost immediately, I heard Billy’s reedy voice float over from next door.
“Hey, Kimmy, c’mere” said Billy.
Immediately suspicious, I asked, “Why?”
“I wanna show you something.”
Hmm. Why was he being nice to me? Somehow, I knew that didn’t bode well.
“It’s something really neat.”
“I have to ask my Mom,” I stalled.
“Oh come on, it’s just right over here! What are you some baby that can’t walk across your driveway without asking Mommy?”
At seven years old, I was most definitely not a baby, and so that is how I found myself in the neighbors yard without my mother’s permission, following Billy into his garage. He led me to a corner and it took a minute for my eyes to get used to the dark after the blinding sunshine outside. The garage smells were overwhelming; aromas of musty motor oil mixed with dirt, old unwashed garbage can and rotting wood assailed my nostrils. I wrinkled my nose and longed for the fresh air of summer. This better be worth it, I thought.
Billy was bent over a cardboard soda carton box on a work table that might have once been his father’s. Broken tools littered the space, covered with thick dust and cobwebs. Nobody talked about Billy’s father, and when I asked my Mom where he was (because in my little bubble of the world everyone had a father)she just said he didn’t live there. When I pushed it she told me to stop being nosy and never talk about it to Billy, and she meant it. So, I didn’t. Billy motioned me over to the bench, which was about chest high to me. I looked into the box and recoiled. A skinny, greenish snake lay stretched out on clumps of grass. It’s eyes were sharp and shiny.
“He won’t hurt you,” said Billy gently. I raised my eyebrows at his conciliatory tone.
“Why are you being nice to me?”
“Maybe cuz you aren’t being a brat today.”
“I am NOT a brat!”
Somehow it felt better when he was being a little mean. I could trust that. I recovered my initial suspicion and repugnance and took a closer look. I had never seen a snake up close before. He looked so vulnerable in the box. But not afraid. He just looked back at us with similar curiosity, and perhaps, shared a little of my suspicion. A tiny forked tongue flicked in and out so quickly, you almost didn’t even see it. Billy stroked the snake’s head with the tip of his index finger.
“See, he likes to be petted.”
“Is he slimy?” I asked. “Because he looks so shiny, like his skin is wet.” I shuddered a little bit.
“No, he isn’t. Go ahead, pet him!”
I glanced up at Billy’s freckled face, looking for any hint of mischief glinting in his maple syrup colored eyes. To my surprise, they looked kind, in a good big brother kind of way. I always wanted to have a big brother, someone older and stronger who could teach me cool things and protect me from the world. Someone else to be the “responsible one” and “set a good example”. As the eldest child in my family, that mantle fell on my skinny shoulders, and I always felt like that got in the way of all my fun. It sure could put a damper on a kid’s daily decisions. I mean, who could have fun stomping in mud, or jumping out of trees if you had to worry about whether your little brother would get dirty or break his neck following you?
Billy’s mouth curved up in a friendly smile. “Go ahead, he said. I won’t let him hurt you.” That clinched it. I reached out to the snake’s head with my finger. He didn’t move a muscle, except for his flickering tongue. Very slowly, I held my breath, and touched his shiny, scaled head. It felt dry and very smooth.
“Wow,” I breathed.
“That’s great, Kimmy! I think he likes you.”
“Do ya think so?” Wow, I just touched a snake, I thought. Wow.
Billy’s eyes lit up. “Hey, do you wanna hold him?”
Whoa! Hold a snake? “I don’t know…”
Billy’s golden hair caught a ray of sunshine filtering through the dirty garage window. His face had a cherubic quality as he smiled down on me. “Don’t worry, I will show you how. It’s easy.”
Well, that did it. Just like a big brother, he was going to teach me something really cool. I could not believe how great this day was going, right off the bat. I watched closely as Billy gently lifted the snake out of the box. He showed me how to hold he snake behind it’s head in one hand, and drape the rest of the snake’s long body around the other hand. The snake’s green tail curled around his outspread fingers and he gently closed his hand around it. I was mesmerized. The snake seemed so calm, almost sweet. I was eager to try. Billy held the snake toward me, and I did everything exactly the way he showed me. Before long, the snake was in my hands.
“Wow! He’s really neat! I thought snakes were mean.” I whispered.
“Snakes are good! They eat mice, for example,”Billy explained all the virtues of the lowly snake to me.
“You are really good at holding snakes,” he said. A happy warmth spread through my chest at this praise. Billy never said anything nice to me before. I smiled up at him.
He smiled back with big brotherly pride.
“You know,” he said, and his smile got bigger. “You should go show your mother how you can hold a snake! She will be really surprised. Most girls could never even touch a snake, much less hold one!”
What a great idea! “Yeah!” I said.
“Go ahead,” said Billy. He followed me across the driveway and up the cement steps. He held the screen door for me and gave an encouraging wave as I went inside to the kitchen, where my Mom was washing dishes, her back to the door.
“Mom!” I shouted. “Mom!”
Mom turned around, wiping a dirty glass with glistening suds. “What? What is….” She stopped in mid sentence.
“Look what I can do!” I thrust the snake at my mother, waiting for her wonder and amazement at how talented I was.
She stared with a funny half smile on her face. Clearly she was speechless. She did not make a move away from the sink.
“See? I can hold a SNAKE! Billy showed me how!”
“That’s… that’s nice dear. “
“Do you want me to show you how?” I was brimming with a generous desire to share my newfound expertise with my mother. As far as I knew we would be the only two girls on Prospect Avenue who could hold a snake. I imagined her having coffee with her friend JoAnn. “Well you know what my daughter showed me how to do today?” The coffee spoons would stop tapping as my mother bragged to JoAnn. “Really?” JoAnn would drawl and her penciled on eyebrows would arch wide and high above her surprised eyes. “Wow.”
My mother’s voice broke into my daydream. “Now, why don’t you take the snake back outside and give it back to Billy.”
“Okay!” I happily skipped out of the kitchen and through the back door to the patio where Billy was waiting eagerly.
“Here’s your snake,” I handed him back.
“Well? What did your mother say?” He seemed a little less big brotherly. His golden smile was replaced with the typical smirk he wore when he was about to pick on me. He took the snake back.
“She said it was nice. She said she was PROUD of me.” A bit of a white lie, but I knew she thought it.
Billy frowned and stalked back to his garage. I started to follow. “Hey! What can we do now? Can we feed him? What’s his name, huh? You never said his name.”
Billy kept his back turned and bent down next to his mother’s garden and let the snake go. I watched the snake slither into the bushes and disappear.
“Hey!Why’d you do that?”
“You don’t name snakes, stupid,” he said. “That’s a dumb girl thing! Go home and play with your dollies.” He went inside his house and slammed the door on me, and all of my hopes and dreams for a new big brother.
I stood there for a little while, puzzling over the strange turn of events. I looked at the empty snake box in the empty garage. In our garage, my father’s lawnmower and tools were clean and neat, and waiting for him to come home and build us a fort, or mow the lawn. My father would smile and show us how to plant a tree, or pull us around the neighborhood in a red wagon he fixed up. Inside my house, my mother would always be there to witness my latest adventures, to bandage my scraped knees and console me when Billy’s teasing got too mean. She would tell me to ignore him and present me with bologna and cheese sandwiches at lunchtime, and insist I take a nap while she watched her soap operas. Billy’s mother worked and was not home during the day. I often thought he was lucky to be able to spend all day doing whatever he wanted with no adults around to tell him what to do. But I thought now, maybe that wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
As if summoned by my thoughts, my own mother appeared at the screen door, wiping her hands. “Did you give that snake back to Billy?”
“Good, now come inside and wash your hands. Those creatures are dirty!”
I stood on the steps a minute longer.I thought I saw a curtain move behind a window next door.
“I’m coming!” I ran up the steps and let the screen door slam behind me.
I go back here so often in my memory, I have written many pages in my journals, and dreamed of going back. I suppose everyone has at least one idyllic moment in their life they remember fondly. For me, this time period became an obsession that stayed with me for over forty years. How could a two year time period have had such a lasting influence, which, ultimately shaped who I am today? Maybe there is a window in every childhood that opens up in our soul and allows us to take in our environment, all of it, the good and bad, in its purest form. In my case these memories set up camp in my writer’s soul, lit a fire in the darkness, and fed that fire while it waited for me to be ready to pour it onto the page.
And so the time has come. If you want to know who I am, if you wonder why I love nature and and animals so, or if you ever felt rebuffed by my desire for long periods of solitude, or puzzled over my lack of interest in wearing shoes or nail polish or makeup, this may give some insight.
But most of all if you like a good story, and you ever played outside in the “country” then I hope you will read on and enjoy the tales of Johnnycake Road.
Disclaimer: what you are about to read is based on true stories as recalled by me with a little fictionalization thrown in to make it more interesting when necessary .
I would love to hear your feedback whether it is good or bad!
The Move to Johnnycake Road
By Kimberly Nash
Chapter 1: The Adventure
When I was nine years old my family left my one and only childhood home in a small Upstate New York village and moved to the country, to a place that has forever lived in my memory as “Johnnycake.” Johnnycake Road became as true an oasis in my childhood as any fictionalized middle of the desert dream escape.
The day was a warm and sunny one in mid summer when my father took us to see our new house. The sky was such a bright blue, and a light breeze was whispering over the tops of tall grasses, and gently shaking the thick green leaves on the Maple trees lining the driveway.Our new house was a tiny, ranch style box of a home, seated up high on one acre of weedy grass. It was surrounded on all sides by a green and yellow checkerboard of pastures and corn fields, as far as the eye could see. It seemed a wild place to me, a place with an eerie absence of civilized sounds. There were none of the small town noises of life I was accustomed to. No droning lawnmower, no shouts of neighborhood kids playing, no complaining neighbor voices filtered through window screens between houses so close you could lean out and touch the one next door to you. There were no squeaky tricycles wheels or bicycle bells, the usual summer music of my childhood. Just the shushing sound of the wind blowing through the corn stalks in the field that rose behind the house.
“The quiet is deafening,” stated my mother. She clutched her pocketbook in one hand, and my baby sister’s hand in the other, and cast an inscrutable gaze around her. A cloud buoyed by the wind far away blocked the sun and the brief darkness made me shiver, and I wondered at how something so far away could cast such a long shadow. My sister pulled her hand away and flounced out of reach of my mother.
“How about an adventure?” My father’s dark eyes smiled and the sun came out again. “Let’s explore the cornfield!” He turned toward the back of the house where the green expanse beckoned with it’s leafy, swaying arms.
The cornfield towered over the heads of me and my two younger siblings. My sister was just 4 years old, a sunny towhead whose thumb was permanently plugged into her rosy bow lips. Her index finger rested on her button nose. Like a cat’s tail, you could tell her mood by the twitch of her finger over the bridge of her nose; lazy sweeping finger meant all was well, but stay away if her finger clamped tightly over the end of her little schnoz. Today it scratched the area between her white eyebrows in a contemplative way and after careful consideration she turned away and rejoined our mother who stood staring at the house. My brother who was six at the time opted to stick close to me. We often were together, he and I, and we had one of those tight sibling bonds; the kind where we could beat each other up, but woe to the outsider who even made a hint of a threat. We followed my father’s disappearing back into the undulating green wall of cornstalks.
Part of the cornfield had been harvested in a seemingly random pattern. The result was a twisting path that made a trail and disappeared into the dark green stalks. The stalks were tightly planted together in rows as dense as a jungle. It seemed to me like without our father, we could get lost forever in this place. I clung to my father’s hard knuckled hand, and wondered what would happen to us if he faltered and became lost. I had to swallow my fear in front of my brother, who was always the braver of the two of us, much to my shame as the oldest child. It was so easy for him; if my parents told him not to be afraid, then he simply wasn’t. For example, He always stood quietly in the long clinic lines where we had to get our shots, and closed his eyes and held his breath while they poked both arms. Me, I started crying in the parking lot, and never stopped until we were back home.Ever the bad example. It was embarrassing but I couldn’t help myself. I never could completely believe in the infallibility of the adults surrounding me. It’s just how I was wired. I was often very privately and quietly afraid. In the cornfield, I worried about getting lost. I worried that the farmer would be angry if he knew we were trespassing. I worried that at any moment a tractor could come chugging around the corner and mow us down along with the cornstalks.I spoke of none of this to my father. He was the one person I tried very hard not to question.
My father began pointing out landmarks as we passed them. He explained that paying attention to your surroundings would help you find your way back home if you became lost. Here were twisty tangly grape vines on the edge of the field, there was the “bob”wire fence to keep the cows in the pasture. A wood chuck hole over there, partially covered by a tuft of grass next to a rock was probably the home of an entire family beneath the ground. With each discovery, my fear of the unknown melted away, and I felt reassured by the rare and pleasing sound of delight in my father’s voice. Happiness began to course through my body like liquid sunshine poured straight into my veins.
I began to relax enough to notice the clods of dry dirt underfoot, making my patent leather black shoes dull with dust. I longed to kick them off and peel the sweaty ruffled ankle socks from my captive feet, and sink my toes into the soft dust. I noticed the way the roots of each cornstalk heaved up out of the ground, as if an invisible giant’s hand had tried to yank it out, then gave up halfway from sheer exhaustion. The bottom of the corn stalks were yellow, thick and resilient, gripping the earth for dear life, while, at the same time the deep green middle and top of the stalks strained upward toward the bright sunshine. I could relate to the struggle.
”Corn plants are like giant stalks of grass,” my father explained. “They need three things: nitrogen, water and sunshine. Farmers spread cow manure before they plant to help the soil become more nourishing. In the old days, Indians would plant fish heads with each hill of seeds.”
”Sometimes,” he added, “The farmer must plant a different crop because the corn uses up all of the nitrogen and won’t grow as well.” I blinked. I was lost in a daydream, imagining the Indians living here so many years ago, planting their corn by hand with fish heads, from fish pulled straight from the Mohawk River nearby. I wondered if tepees had dotted this very hill. I pictured many beautiful Indian warrior horses standing under the apple trees out in the pasture. Maybe, one day, Mom would buy me some beaded moccasins instead of Buster Browns. Maybe I could even have my own pony. I could pretend to be one of the Mohawk Indians who had once inhabited the valley we were moving to very soon.The uncertain future suddenly began taking shape in a hundred happy ways. My reverie was interrupted by my brother’s singsong voice.
”Daddeee, I hafta got to the bafroom!”
We hightailed it out of the cornfield back to the house. My mind was spinning with new plans. I felt slivers of hope pierce through my fearful soul’s heavy armor.
Chapter 2 The Race
Before we could move in, the house needed some work. I have since learned it was a foreclosure, and being so, it had been abandoned and neglected for some time. As a result, my parents could buy it for a “song”. All of this went over my 9 year old head, of course. I just knew it would be a wonderful day to play outside in the country!
“You kids go and play! Stay away from the work area! All kinds of stuff you could get hurt on, nails, glass or who knows!You keep your shoes on!” My mother looked so pretty standing there shielding her eyes from the sun. Her dark hair was tied back with a blue kerchief and the pale skin on her face had developed a sprinkling of ginger colored freckles across the bridge of her nose and under her hazel eyes. She wore pedal pusher shorts and an old button down shirt of my father’s. She and Kat, my sister, would stay inside the house cleaning, leaving my brother and I free to explore.
A neighbor named Harris Harvey had volunteered to help my father out with some of the junk piles of old construction debris left outside in the overgrown yard. Mr. Harvey wore horn rimmed glasses and sported a black handlebar mustache. He brought a six pack of beer for he and my dad, and his three sons to meet and play with my brother and I. Much to my disappointment, there seemed to be a shortage girls my age in the immediate vicinity. The Harvey family lived about a mile down the road from us, on a dirt road that dead ended at the Johnson farm. I had overheard my mother refer to it as “Tobacco Road” on the phone to one of her friends. I didn’t know what that meant, but her tone suggested something not so good. I asked her and she told me to “never mind” and go play. The Johnson farm was one of four dairy farms in the area. The three Harvey boys were close to mine and my brother’s ages. Curiously, their names all started with the letter D. Danny was 6 years old, Damien was 8, and David was ten, a little older than me. Danny and Damien seemed a little shy, and let David do most of the talking.
“So, I guess you guys are a coupla city slickers!” David sneered at my brother and I.
What the heck is a city slicker? Not something good, apparently. “Are NOT!” I bristled, and folded my arms.
“Oh yeah? Well prove it.”
I would be happy to, but wasn’t at all sure how, since I didn’t even know what it was I was accused of being. Rather than admit ignorance, I began to think. Obviously a contest of some sort was being suggested. What was the one thing I could possibly do better than this boy? Lots of things probably, like read, spell, and sing, for example. I smirked to myself. But, what BOY thing could I do to prove myself right here and now? An idea struck like a flash.
“OK, then let’s have a race,” I said. I pointed to the cornfield. “From the corner of the cornfield up the hill to the grape vines, and back. Loser’s a city slicker.”(Whatever that was!)
Little Danny spoke up. “You’re a girl!” His little boy voice squeaked in outrage. “You can’t beat a boy!”
“She can beat ALL of you!” My little brother Robbie had came to life. Nobody was going to best his big sister. And he knew I could run.
Oh brother, I thought. Now I had to race all of them to prove I was not something that, for all I knew, I very well may in fact, be! But, from beneath the withering glare of four sets of beady male eyeballs, I knew there was no turning back now. I pulled a tall piece of grass, put it between my teeth and chewed, while I sized up my three opponents. Danny was a non-contender, being barely out of Kindergarten. Damien was tall and lank, with gangly legs. He had a chance. David was the wildcard. He was my height, but more solidly built, with wiry looking legs. His chest looked less concave than an average adolescent boy, and he likely had pretty good wind. Plus, he had the swagger of someone twice his age. Swagger gave him the mental edge, I knew. But, I had my own mental edge. Of course, it would be necessary to pretend I was a horse. I was big into The Black Stallion books at that time. There was the Black Stallions’ sulky colt, a fiery trotter, or Flame, the crazy speedster. No, neither of them would do. Today, I would be The Black himself. I tossed my imaginary mane and that was when I noticed the footwear of my opponents. All three boys were wearing leather workboots, like their father’s. They were unwieldy for running gear. I knew I found their Achilles heel, so to speak. I smiled.
“I’ll make it easier for you guys,” I said. “I’ll run BAREFOOT. And I’ll race all three of you at the same time!” I had some swagger of my own. Huh. I was even willing to risk contracting lockjaw. My mother forever warned me about going barefoot lest I step on a rusty nail and God forbid, get lockjaw. I looked up the symptoms in her medical book once, and wished I hadn’t. I felt lockjaw-ish for weeks afterward, randomly clenching and unclenching my jaw just to make sure it wasn’t stuck, which of course, had made it hurt after a while which surely had to be a symptom of – LOCKJAW. I awaited in fear of death, until I confided in my mother who sighed, rolled her eyes and told me to “stop the melodrama” because I did NOT have lockjaw. At least not yet!
I kicked off my keds before they could disagree about the shoes. Danny and Damien snickered and held their noses. “PEEE YEWWW! You’re gonna lose!”
David’s eyes narrowed a bit, and I held my breath hoping he wasn’t smart enough to catch on. But I needn’t have worried. His expression changed, and he clapped his hands together in glee. “Robbie can be the starter guy.” He put a stick on the ground. “Everybody lines up behind the stick. When you get to the vines, you hafta touch the fence post, then run back down to the stick, which is the finish line. Robbie calls the winner. And no cheating cuz it’s your sister!” He warned with a raised finger.
“I don’t cheat!” Robbie snarled. This was a touchy subject for him, as he had been known to produce very suspicious windfalls at critical times during our heated Monopoly games which often ended in fistfights.
I looked up the hill at the grape vines, which were located in a woodsy corner of the pasture, and dangled haphazardly over the barbed wire fence. Behind them lay a tantalizing thicket of maple trees and blackberry bushes I had been meaning to explore. I would pretend to be an Indian scout and spy on my house from high up the hill. I had beautiful plans that were right now being spoiled by a bunch of freckle-faced bratty hillbilly boys. Maybe if I beat them, they’d run home in embarrassment!
We lined up behind the stick. Robbie made sure everyone was evenly lined up. I leaned forward on my right foot, ready to springboard off my left foot which I stretched out behind me in a starting position like the track stars I saw on TV. The grapevines suddenly looked far away. All was quiet except for the men’s voices drifting from the back of the house. Time almost stood still. Then Robbie’s shrill voice rose excitedly.
“On your mark! Get set! GO!”
We were off! I became The Black. I knew from the many books I read that it’s necessary to pace yourself and be strategic about running. But The Black could not be controlled; he was all heart and ran like his soul was on fire. I quickly left Danny in the dust. I came up behind Damien, who shuffled to the right to block my way but I skipped sideways and he missed, and immediately fell down hard. I tried not to laugh in order to save my breath. I could see David was way ahead of me, as I had feared. He was touching the fence post and already heading back my way! He was on the downhill and there was no way I could catch up! I pushed myself hard, like The Black, who would run himself right to death if he had to in order to win. In two strides I was at the fence post. I stretched my hand out toward the post and had one more step to go before I could wheel around to face downhill and and my impending loss. As I grabbed the post and began to put my right foot down, a horrible sight met me: a green head with glittering gold eyes and a forked tongue raised itself from the grass directly beneath my lowering foot. “SNAKE!” I shrieked. Without breaking my stride, or putting my right foot down, I whirled around on my left foot in an unplanned pirouette. Screaming like a banshee and propelled by terror, I flew down the hill. I don’t think my feet even touched the ground. Down the hill past the whispering cornstalks, past an open-mouthed David, over the finish line I went, and kept going. Right through the back door and into the house and straight into the kitchen where my mother was cleaning the sink.
“What happened?” She cried, as I threw myself into her arms.”Did you step on a nail?” She looked sharply at my dirty bare feet. “I told you a hundred times to wear your shoes outside!”
“I almost s-s-s-stepped on a snake!” I sobbed at the thought of how perilously close I had come to touching a snake, perhaps even squishing it between my toes! After a few minutes I heard a sound. I looked up and over my mother’s shoulder I saw the four boys staring through the screen door. “Yup, she’s a city slicker alright, afraid of a little garden snake,” said David. But instead of derision I distinctly heard a hint of admiration. “But she sure is fast!” All four heads nodded in unison. “She sure is,” my brother crowed. “She won fair and square!