My Great Grandmother was born in Quebec, Canada in 1880. She had seen a lot in her lifetime. Born only 15 years after the Civil War, she witnessed two World Wars, Korea and Vietnam, the onset of the automobile and the beginnings of space travel before her passing in 1967. Home was a houseboat on the Hudson River between New Jersey and Manhattan during the 1920s where she lived with her husband, daughter and granddaughters (my mother and her sister), along with an assortment of other family members. Later, they bought a farm in East Postenkill where they would raise a very, very extended family. Moving from there once the house was free of kids and sundry guests, her and Grandpa Day purchased a house in Brunswick in the mid-1940s that had been constructed near the close of the 18th century.
That was the house she lived in when she would care for me after school and on holidays, until my parents picked my up after work. The place had quite the ambiance. The second floor bedrooms had tiny attic storage-spaces, tucked away under the eaves, that were specially designed to be the holds of pirate ships and caves for a little boy to explore. It didn’t take a lot of imagination as their occupants were old steamer trunks and clothing that smelled of must and mothballs. Heat was transferred from the first floor stoves through holes in the floor that were covered with black iron decorative grates. Lying on the floor and peering through them, that same boy was an international spy doing surveillance on the Communist bad-guys during the Cold War.
I remember a picture in the “front room” of Ike and Maime (you kids may have to look that one up) and the old coal stoves in the front room and kitchen. She used other words that are unfamiliar today, like Davenport and Victrola describing common, everyday items.
Autumn afternoons were spent playing in the leaves that were deposited in the front yard by the three large sugar maples. The railing on her front porch served well as a horse that stormed through the fields, his hooves nosily crushing the downed foliage, carrying the rider in and out of the hedgerows in pursuit of bank robbers and such. During the winter when I would arrive there after school, she would shake-down the coal stoves. I would then take the “clinkers” (products of combustion), as she called them, outdoors and spread their dusty remains on the driveway that led to the house. Theoretically, this would make it easier for visitors’ cars to climb the small grade to the road in the snow. Sounded good to me as I didn’t want to shovel the snow anyway. Once back inside, I would have to retrieve enough coal from the bin in the dimly-lit, dirt-floor basement to get the stoves ready for nighttime. Pretty good exercise for a little guy, though. The full buckets were heavy enough that I had to take them one step at time, resting between stairs. I remember seeing the coal delivery truck outside, with the man on the platform pouring the black stones from the white bags into the coal chute that led to the cellar, thinking about carrying all that stuff back up the stairs to the kitchen and front room.
Sometimes, she would reward my efforts with a snack of Wonder Bread topped with mayonnaise and sliced into neat little squares. When I was there in the mornings, it was a breakfast of oatmeal with a big dollop of butter floating in fresh cream. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. Those golden chunks of butter made their way to her hot, homemade apple pies, melting like snow in the sunshine, on top of her flaky crust.
Springtime brought tender shoots of rhubarb to her small garden in the backyard. I’d grab the sugar bowl from the kitchen table and head outside where I would break off a fresh piece of the delightful crimson vegetable and do my double-dipping routine, all the while my jaws torquing from the tartness.
She loved her Tetley Tea with it’s “tiny little tea leaves'”. She’d drown it with canned condensed milk and let it steep for about an hour, pouring it into a saucer, as if it was hot, then slurp it slowly. Haven’t figured out the attraction to that one yet but I really did find the routine fascinating.
Then there was that old 14″ iron skillet that she used to fry everything. She’d cook bacon and eggs for breakfast then, without washing it or removing the grease, sliding it into the cold oven for storage. Out it would come for lunch to reheat yesterday’s dinner leftovers. Back in the oven, without visiting the dish pan. Right up on the stove-top for dinner to cook those fried potatoes. She put that bucket of artery-clogging grease back into it’s little hiding place, ready to begin the cycle all over the next morning. The flavors exploded on your taste buds and had a somewhat similar effect on the lower digestive tract, a little later on in the evening. Grandma Day lived through the Depression and knew first-hand the value of using everything available. Nothing went in the garbage, if it could be consumed.
With the hectic Holidays approaching, it’s easy to get caught up in the bustle of activities. Like that old fry pan, we all need to be absorbing the flavors of life, making the most of every ingredient and using the leftover memories to savor the days.