Breathing the Past

I don’t know where the old tin came from. Maybe it held cookies once upon a time, a gift to my parents. I suspect it was found in the old house when they first moved in. (A lot of things were left behind by the previous owner(s), much of it junk, but a few treasures like the full-sized pedestal mirror I still have, a handful of antique clothes irons (the sort that needs to be heated on the stove before using), a quilting frame, and old ice skates that tied on to one’s boots.)

My mom was a great one for keeping tins and reusing them; it was the Yankee in her. In our home, the adage “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without” was a rule to live by. An old toffee tin held bobby pins and those plastic picks to secure curlers. A large rectangular cookie tin held the curlers themselves. There was one for paperclips, one for rubber bands, one for spare bobbins for her sewing machine.

And one for my crayons.

I started drawing at an early age, and Mom encouraged it; partly for the artistic aspect, I suppose, but mostly because it kept me quiet and out of her hair. Give me enough paper and that collection of crayons and I would entertain myself for hours, and I became a purist early on. It must be Crayolas! None of those cheap crayons with their anemic colors, thank you very much! I wanted vibrancy! Ardor! Passion!

Back then, color names were sensible and understandable, none of today’s “Macaroni and Cheese,” “Neon Carrot,” “Inch Worm,” and “Timberwolf.” Instead, we had “Turquoise Blue,” “Violet,” “Melon,” and “Red Orange.” And, heck, we didn’t need names, we knew what they were, and what we wanted when we drew.

“We” here means me and my bestie, David Micklas, who I recently reconnected with (and wrote about) after something like 50 years apart. Dave and I mostly made Christmas cards together, four-square folded 8 1/2 x 11 paper drawn with reindeer, holly, snowmen, candy canes, fireplaces with stockings, trees…whatever images personified Christmas for us. I remember he also drew a lot of cars, which didn’t particular interest me, and I drew far too many horses, which likely didn’t interest him, but what was important was the act of creation and the fact that we were doing it together, often in silence, but also punctuated by bits of the sort of conversation experienced by only the very best of friends.

One year, Mom brought home a Christmas-themed coloring book, and I was over the moon! There was something special about that book – the line drawings inside were intricate, not childish, and I spent hours pouring over it, coloring in each one just so, endeavoring to stay within the lines, to create on the page what I imagined in my head. I loved that book and was sad when I’d filled it with color cover to cover. Mom hung on to it for years afterward, but it eventually went into the trash when she and Dad moved house. In fairness, she did ask if I wanted it, but I said no. I wish now I hadn’t.

Though I no longer have that much-loved book, I do still have the tin of crayons. A few are more modern, bits of color purchased for my nephews, now grown, who used the tin after I’d left my parents house. But some of the crayons are from when I was a kid. Like me, they’re a bit old and battered, their paper torn, some of them worn away to a nub. “Salmon.” “Yellow Green.” “Gray.” The coveted “Silver” and “Gold” we saved for Christmas. And precious few reds and greens, those having been sacrificed long ago to the holiday.

Every so often, I take the tin down from the shelf in my office where it lives just to lift the lid, bend down, and inhale that unique, heady odor; a big breath of the past.

Where is Grandma’s smile?

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My maternal grandmother, Geneva Lucy Shorey Crandall Sherman Burton

I can’t remember ever seeing my grandmother smile.  This studio portrait, taken God knows when, is the closest she comes to it.

As a child, I didn’t understand her lack of smiles and (I confess) took it personally. (I was an emotional, empathetic, introvert; of course I took it personally.) I now believe Life knocked the smiles out of her.

She was born November 1894 in Oakfield, Maine, way up in The County (Aroostook to the unenlightened). Grover Cleveland was President. Coca Cola was sold in bottles for the first time. Twelve thousand NYC tailors struck against sweatshop conditions. Norman Rockwell, Jack Benny, Bessie Smith, and Dashiell Hammett were also born that year.

Geneva was the youngest of five children (all “useless” daughters, God forbid) born to William and Minnie Shorey. Described by my mother as “the meanest woman that ever lived,” Minnie often locked her in a dark closet. William had a prodigious temper (the source, I believe, if what’s come to be known as the “Crandall Temper”). One one occasion, a neighbor returned a borrowed wagon broken. When William discovered it, he hacked at the wagon with an ax until he brought on a heart attack and fell over stone-dead.

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Minnie and William flank Napoleon Bonaparte Crandall (I’m not joking).

Look at these faces. Even given the era, and the need to hold very still for this portrait, they’re exceedingly grim. Can you imagine growing up in that household? Can you imagine what their childhoods must have been like?

(My mother’s family had a propensity for historically-derived names. “Uncle Bony,” as he was called, had a brother named George Washington Crandall. I’ve also discovered William Wallace Crandall, James Madison Crandall, and others. My husband believes if we search long enough, we’ll discover a Jesus Christ Crandall. Oh, and let’s not forget the unfortunately named “Weighty Marie.”)

It’s impossible for me to imagine Geneva as a child … as a young school teacher … or as a bride. She married Abel Crandall in either 1912, 1913, or 1915. (There’s documentation listing each of those dates.) Their children arrived in 1916, 1917, 1919, 1922, and my mother in 1923. (Roundabout five months after the birth of their first child, Abel was named in a paternity suit filed by a neighbor’s wife. The child, a daughter, was raised by the family into which she was born, and he never bore any responsibility for her, but this must have been a real treat for Geneva. Incidentally, this tidbit of news only came to light in 2019.)

In October 1923, Abel’s appendix ruptured. He died three weeks before my mother was born. So here’s Geneva: four children ranging in age from seven years to 15 months, 8 1/2 months pregnant, her husband dead, the Great Depression looming. And her mother refuses to help her.

For nine years, my grandmother did what she could to survive, taking in laundry, mending clothes, and selling eggs. Her fresh-churned butter was said to be the best in the area. She baked bread and became proficient at “Poverty Stew,” a watery mix of salt pork, onions or carrots when she could get them, a single potato diced fine.

In April 1932, Geneva married Abel’s best friend, Paul Sherman, for whom she worked as a housekeeper. (In the 1930 census, she’s listed as “servant.”) Their son Paul, Jr. arrived five months later. Make of that what you will. Two years later, Paul Sherman died of tuberculosis. In the 1940 census, she’s listed as “head of household” with four of her six children living with her. My mother, as the only girl at home, shouldered much of the domestic burden and her mother’s rancor, and married badly at 18 to escape. (Geneva was lenient with her boy, not so much with her girls, an unfortunate trend that continued throughout her life. Mom died at the age of 92 without ever hearing her mother say “I love you.”)

So it went. In 1957, Geneva married a third time, to Walter Burton (the man I knew as my grandfather), for whom she’d also kept house. And buried him in 1977.  So is it any wonder there were precious few smiles to go around?

And yet, Geneva had her pleasures, chief among them her involvement in her church, visits with old and dear friends, and most particularly, her youngest son’s three boys who lived next door and on whom she doted. Her preferential treatment put a crick in the nose of the rest of us grandkids, but we got over it.

Maybe.

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Geneva and her kids (l to r): Paul, Darrell, William, Virginia (my mom), Goldie, and Jean.

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And some of the grandkids: Paul, Patric, and Eric in back; Darrell, me, and Sterling in front.

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

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Circa early 50s

So begins the gothic novel Rebecca, written in 1938 by Dame Daphne du Maurier. My own version might begin, “Last night I dreamt of the house in Clifton Park.”

The old farmhouse on Plant Road wasn’t much to look at when my parents purchased it, the barn and garage across the road, and the surrounding acreage in the early 1950s for what was then the princely sum of ten thousand dollars. The house was old even then; how old, I don’t know although certainly in excess of one hundred years. A covered porch ran across the front in the years before I was born, ultimately torn down and a raised cement slab erected in its place. (I think Mom had some ideas of a patio, but that’s as far as it ever got and I don’t remember us using it for much of anything.) Dad and a friend, George Carley, built the chimney and fireplace that adorned the west end of the living room and became a central hub in winter, the place where we huddled on the coldest of nights.

An immense sycamore grew just outside the kitchen window, a tree so large that it took at least three adults, arms extended, to circle its trunk. It grew much too close to the house and its root system eventually invaded the foundation, slowing tearing the structure apart and precipitating my parents’ move to Saratoga. Dad hung first a tire and then a wooden-seated swing on a limb and I spent hours spinning myself to fall-down dizziness. (Mom hated the tree, with its propensity for shedding bark everywhere, but I loved it, and used the bark like parchment, scrawling messages.)

Each season in that house brings its memories: wet springs when the meadow would flood and the frogs appear; baking summers playing outdoors while Mom listened to her beloved Yankees on the radio; autumns of leaf piles made only for jumping; winters sailing down the hill out back in a metal saucer, the bottom of which Mom had polished with Pledge. (I think she harbored a secret desire to kill me; she once used Pledge on my metal slide, too. I shot down it so fast–and off the end, clearing several feet–that it scared me to tears.) I remember nights playing outdoors beyond sunset, rolling down the hill in the long grass and catching fireflies in a jar.

IMG_3122I best remember the house at Christmas, when I draped my pajamas over the hearth screen to warm before putting them on and Mom hung the cards we received against the brickwork. The fireplace had a raised marble hearthstone custom made for sitting, where I placed Santa’s plate of cookies and mug of hot chocolate on Christmas Eve. (Much later, Dad installed a matching mantelpiece that Mom festooned with garland.) The walls were an ugly pale gray/brown wallboard that Dad eventually replaced with the warm, golden glow of knotty pine. Mom was forever rearranging the furniture, so the Christmas tree might end up anywhere, so long as it wasn’t too near the fire. The windows were hung with red cellophane wreaths with electric candles, and a two-candle art deco piece I still own (which my husband is  rewiring so I can use it).

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That horrible wallboard

This was the house of my growing up; the house I was brought to after being born at Albany Medical Center in 1957; the house I learned to crawl in, then walk, then run. The house where I learned to ride a bike and enjoyed the pride of having my training wheels removed. The house where dogs and cats sprawled (and my mother once–under protest–housed a few gerbils overnight.) From there I set forth in late October to trick-or-treat with my then best friend, David Micklas, returning with plastic sacks bursting with swag. From there we set out together on bike adventures, or to roam the woods, play baseball or play pretend. On one memorable occasion we beat his older brothers, Tom and Bob, at war, ambushing poor Bob from inside a culvert that ran beneath the road, then ruthlessly hunting Tom with our plastic guns. This was home from kindergarten through high school graduation, and beyond. I married my first husband in that living room, and played with my first and second generation of nieces and nephews.

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Dad’s knotty pine

The house is gone now, torn down to make way for a Stewart’s. (For those of you unfamiliar with the franchise, it’s a chain of convenience stores.) The sycamore is still there, grand in its old age and, I hope, protected. (If the house was old, the tree is far older.) There’s a poignancy to visiting the old place in dreams, walking through those rooms. I see them so clearly, though its been well over 40 years. Each has its echo, a sound I will always hear.

 

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Circa 1970s

A Hill Runs Through It

A certain hill looms large in my memories, although it wasn’t particularly large itself.

The yard behind the house in Clifton Park, NY where I grew up (we had yards back then, rather than manicured lawns) was wide enough to contain a swing-set and a clothesline before it sloped down toward our elderly neighbor’s garden plot at about a 45-degree angle. It wasn’t a large area, but to child-me, it was the world.

In summer, clad in shorts and a sleeveless top, my mother would lounge on an ugly gray blanket and work on her tan, one eye on me and one on the mystery novel she was reading, ears tuned to the ballgame playing on the portable radio. (Go, Yankees!) My bedroom window looked out onto that hill and when my father mowed it, sheering the grass in long rows, the heavenly fragrance graced my dreams. My friends and I flung ourselves down on the crest of that  hill and, arms tucked tight, rolled to the bottom, then sat up and laughed as the world whirligig’d around us.

In fall, we did the same, the only difference being the vast pile of leaves raked into a heap at the bottom to catch us, because what’s the point of fallen eaves if you don’t jump into them? As the days grew shorter, we did our best to stretch the  hours lingering on the hill as late as possible, darting in and out of shadows, dancing in the light from the big bulb above the back door.

In winter–ah, winter!–the heavy snows packed and froze, then melted a bit and refroze, growing a crust thick enough to support my weight. In what I once thought was a bid to do me in, my mom waxed the bottom of my aluminum saucer with Pledge furniture polish and I careened down the hill, my heart in my throat, hanging on for dear life, laughing breathlessly, spinning in circlescirclescircles as I shot past the dead stalks in the neighbor’s garden and halfway up the distant embankment which, if breasted, would have landed me in the middle of Route 146. I never made it that far, the angle of the second hill being enough to turn me back the way I’d come, but it always seemed a close thing.

Spring was the hill’s quiet time, a sedate emergence from winter as brown grass slowly put out bright green shoots to match the budding iris in my dad’s flowerbeds. Games of pretend made us cowboys and Indians, and gave us horses our parents wouldn’t let us have in reality. As the evenings grew warmer, we sat on the brow of the hill, we kids, and counted the stars, pointing out the Big Dipper, the only constellation we knew at the time.

The hill is gone now, flattened in the wake of the property being sold and the house demolished. There’s a Stewart’s store where my home once stood, gas pumps where poppies grew. A few trees remain–old friends still–but nothing remains of the hill except for a ghostly outline only I can see, and the distant laughter of children.