“Mother, where’s my testicles?”
This was my grandfather’s way of asking my grandmother where he had left his reading glasses.
Aside from the obviously implied innuendo as to who wore the pants around my grandparent’s house, my grandfather’s little word play of substituting a similar sounding word for “spectacles” always made everyone in the family smile. It never got old. Probably because every time he’d ask my grandmother this question, there was an extra twinkle in those blue eyes and an added dryness to his voice.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake Henry, they’re stuck in the cup on your bedside stand, where they always are when you ask.”
I was never sure whether my grandmother was playing along, or just ignoring our guffaws and giggles.
In that old ramshackled farmhouse, where my grandparents raised five children and ten grandchildren, there were countless traditions that were either passed down to us from their elders, or created by them, for us. Among them- leading a simple life that included hard work on the three family farms, respecting the sanctity of one’s heritage and the folks that came before you, understanding and relishing the opportunity to live, work, and play with family members, and the importance of being accountable to and for each other, and to and for the community in which you reside.
When I think of defining moments from my youth, I find myself playing little movies like this in my head. They remain so vivid and real to me. The proverbial “days of yore”-life of a different caliber, a different speed, and clearly, an entirely different attitude, that, I think, many of us boomers reflect upon to help guide us with our own approach to being the wise and sage grandparent or as a senior member of our community who may find themselves being approached for advice and guidance.
Traditions, the “tried and true”, respect for past generations and their commitment to a way of life that has passed most of us by. I think this may be coming back in vogue, or perhaps it is the usual adjustments we make as each generation climbs the rungs of age on this ladder of life. I have to admit, I pay much more homage to those days now, than I did when I was actually living them. However, now it seems more important than ever to ensure that the generations who have come after me, and the people from away who have settled here, who never really experienced the slow, sleepy, blue-collar, farming community and way of life that was, truly understand how important those traditions and that lifestyle was, and how it has made a major contribution in defining us, and perhaps, now saving us. This way of life is to be studied, relished, and respected. It should be celebrated…and in fact it is in many corners of Maine. I am happy to report that small family farms are on the upswing in Maine. The traditional way of life that I love to reflect on, is coming back. Do not let a few ego-driven and self-appointed “experts” who paint themselves as saviors to the poor creatures that somehow survived here before they came and rescued us from ourselves; skewer the facts of the past, or the wave of the future. They do this because they are frustrated and cannot find the key to “fitting in”. My guess is, it would be the same for these divisive souls no matter where they chose to reside and “grace” everyone with their presence. Do not mistake these clogged colon types with the many who have come here to settle, raise their families, and become highly regarded members of their communities. These fine folks exhibit respect and interest in our traditions, and also teach us some of theirs in return. These people have no issues fitting in, or finding acceptance.
The simple fact remains, in the days of my childhood, there was little to no unemployment, welfare, drug use, crime, hunger, or homelessness. There WERE plenty of problems, but not those. This is why I love to write stories about those days. We have made so many improvements in today’s society and clearly so many amazing technological advances, that I understand it is hard to make the comparison of today with yesteryear, but I worry for my grandchildren because so many of today’s “leaders” seem to be quick to let the best of those days slip away. I will not, and I will not shy away from pointing it out when I see it happen. Especially if the source is one of those colon-maligned individuals I pointed out earlier.
That’s a promise.
So anyway, I’ve been writing such stories about growing up in that era, on the family farms, with my large and boisterous family, for well over twenty years. Recently I have been encouraged to have some of those stories published as a book of short stories. That has happened, and the book seems to be growing in popularity. It seems that many of us like to “wax poetic” about the days of our youth, and I’ve been told many times that my feel good stories help stimulate my readers own memories of those days. This is very gratifying. However, I also have my critics, which is fine…alternative perspectives are valuable to each of us, and I appreciate them too. It occurs to me that my harshest critics may not realize this because they’ve never experienced anything that I write about, themselves. I stack it up to fear of the unknown. In any event, here’s to the “good ol’ days”, may they always be respected and celebrated. The following is an excerpt from Memories of Shucking Peas. I hope those who honor me by reading this blog enjoy it.
It was the summer of 1969. In fact it was the first day after school was out. I was blissful in my sleep that morning, dreaming of all the adventures this 13 year old was going to have on the farm over the course of the summer, when this distant voice intruded through the depth of my slumber, and popped the dream bubble in my head.
“Time to get up Mitch, I am heading over to the Other Farm to get some mushrooms, five minutes!”
My grandfather, hollering from the foot of the stairs, had plans that didnt include me lazing in bed all day. I pried my eyes open and bleary-eyed my watch.
4:30…am, that is.
It wasn’t even full daylight yet.
Then I remembered the mention of the Other Farm and mushrooms, and I knew what that meant! I piled out of bed, ran to the bathroom, did my business, hot-footed-it back to my room, pulled on some jeans, my sneakers and a t-shirt, then scampered down the stairs to the kitchen, where Pup was sitting at the table, with a cup of coffee, reading the latest edition of “th Grit”….4 minutes flat. Ha!
I grinned at my grandfather.
“Sounds like a great idea to me Pup….need some help?”
He chuckled and looked at me with the ever-present twinkle in his blue eyes,
“I could probably use a little, dont s’pose you’d be willing to drive me over would ya?”
My grandfather knew that like all boys who were approaching teen-hood, I craved every opportunity I got to drive any of the farm equipment, and considered it a real coup indeed to be allowed to drive the pickup from one farm to the other…over the public roads. It was one of a thousand “passages of manhood”, so to speak. It was something that every boy dreamed of doing. It was also illegal. I wasn’t even quite 13 yet, my birthday was a month away. It would be another four years before I garnered my Maine State drivers license.
Made it all that more irresistible.
I also knew that a quick trip to the Other Farm to gather mushrooms meant my favorite breakfast was on tap.
Venison back-strap sautéed with butter, garlic, and mushrooms. A few fried potatoes, and Pup’s drop biscuits, which he referred to as “door-stops”, was a meal fit for a king, or a farm-boy.
So, Pup heads out through the shed, stopping to grab his sage green Dickeys cap, and we wander out to the driveway where his old 1956 Ford sat. The truck was once dark blue but now was a faded rusty blue/brown, and the bed of the truck had been replaced by a wooden body with wooden rack sides that were five feet tall. Didn’t want the assortment of farm animals that were occasionally hauled in the truck to get “any ideas” so the rack sides were tall enough so they would feel enclosed.
We climbed into the ol’ girl, Pup on the passenger side, me behind the wheel. Even at almost 13, I was fairly tall, so I could reach the pedals and see over the steering wheel at the same time….but, the whole idea of pushing the clutch and shifting the gears was where my inexperience showed. After several attempts to back the ol’ girl up, which damn near caused whiplash for both Pup and I, I was able to get the ol’ girl turned around and headed down the driveway, a-lurching and a-jerking every inch of the way until I hit the road where the truck and I, became one.
Well, at least the truck wasn’t shaking like a dog pooping razor blades anymore and Pup was able to take his hand off his cap.
“Now, that is one way to get a man’s blood a-flowing.” Pup commented. “And”, he added, “You didnt hit anything.”
I had a smile from ear to ear, but didnt dare to take my eyes from the road to see if Pup was ok. I was thrilled. I managed to get into fourth gear and had the ol’ girl racing down the road at 30 miles per hour. I even did fairly well down-shifting to take the almost 180 degree turn from our road onto the Poors Mills road which led to the Other Farm without much problem. Of course it was downhill, so that helped. In a few short minutes we were wheeling into the driveway of the Other Farm where we lurched to a stop, a few yards short of the gate into the pasture, beside the barn.
I managed to get the truck through the gate with a couple of backfires and lurches, stopping so Pup could get back in after he closed the gate. Perhaps it was just my imagination but he seemed a little reticent to climb back aboard. In fact, he suggested we walk to the area of the pasture where the ground was littered with white button mushrooms.
I stepped out of the truck to join my grandfather and took in the scene before me. It was nothing short of amazing. We were facing east and the sun was starting to rise, creating the long shadows of early morning. The land in front of us sloped downward to a valley, which held a babbling brook, at its lowest point. The neon green grass of the fields was punctuated by the iridescent yellow of thousands of dandelions, and further illustrated by the puffs of white wool, and the surreal pattern of black and white cowhide as the sheep and the Holstein cows milled aimlessly about, nibbling the tender green grasses. I could hear the mournful cry of a mourning dove, and the beginnings of the daytime sounds of nature as another summer day in rural Maine came to be. As we meandered down the slope to the area where the mushrooms had always grown in abundance, drinking in the beauty of our surroundings, the bucolic moment was assaulted by the harsh bitchin’ of a couple of crows. Mouthy creatures to be sure. I remarked,
“Damned old crows..always making a racket.”
Pup’s eyes twinkled as he replied, “I think they may be warning the other critters you are driving.”
We both laughed at this, as he patted my shoulder and pointed to a patch of button mushrooms standing proudly about 20 feet in front of us. This is where we started to clip them, using our pocket knives, at the base, and put them in a paper bag. We didnt take long, within 10 minutes we both had our bags better than half full. Pup always said,
“Dont take more than you’re gonna eat, Ma Nature will preserve them better than our refrigerator.”
We walked back to the truck, and it was not spoken, but understood, that Pup would drive home. I was happy, I was out of school for the summer, I had the chance to drive over, I got to see the sun coming up over what I thought was the most beautiful place on earth, and I was in for a treat for breakfast. Who could complain?
So, we drive back to Pup’s farm, with him putt-putting along at a robust speed of, oh say…15mph, waving at the one other early morning vehicle as it passed. It happened to be a neighboring farmer, Harry Copson. Pup remarked,
“Harry must be headed over to Bowen’s, only place open this time of day.”
Bowen’s was a little ramshackled country store, located about two miles from both Harry’s and our farms, and it was indeed open every morning at 5:00 am. Bowen’s was the place to go if you were of the farming community in and around the west Belfast countryside.
At this point my belly was growling and I was day-dreaming about back-strap and biskets. We finally made it back to the homestead and lugged natures bounty inside. I brushed the mushrooms clean with a 1 ½ inch paint brush used specifically for this purpose. Never wash mushrooms in water. Pup, meanwhile, was preparing his drop biskets and had sliced up some of last night’s left over supper potatoes and pelted them with salt and pepper. Next he laid them in a skillet with some home-churned butter, and adjusted the knob on the stove so the pan was sizzling slightly….gotta be careful with the temperature, butter burns easily.
He dropped large gobs of goo that comprised his bisket mix on a cookie sheet and shoved them in the oven and then he began to prepare this mornings entree. He sliced the tenderloin about 3/4’s of an inch thick, creating little butterfly steaks, sprinkled a bit of pepper and garlic powder on them, then sliced the mushrooms and pelted them with salt and pepper, and a bit more garlic powder, laid this all in another huge black cast iron skillet which was just coming to the perfect temp and the butter was just starting to bubble. The kitchen was beginning to smell really good and my belly began to growl even louder.
About this time, my grandmother, Mamie, came into the kitchen to prepare herself a morning cup of tea, some toast, and receive a hug from her grandson. As she always did when Pup cooked, she wrinkled her nose and asked,
“Henry, what stinks?”
“Must be my feet Mother.”
I chuckled, Mamie snickered, and she went to the stove to snag a piece of potato to nibble on and gave Pup a smile and a quick hug. She then took her tea and toast to the living room to enjoy over the morning news on TV.
Mamie was beloved by not only her entire brood, but by everyone that knew her. She was truly a mother who nurtured each and every one who spent time with her. And, she was an incredible cook like most ladies of her generation. But, she had a nose like a bloodhound, and she would often make my grandfather cook out in the shed on a hot plate if he cooked something she found offensive to her oh so sensitive nose. This particular morning, I think she was pulling his leg a little, but she didnt use garlic and usually complained about the smell of it cooking when he did. Fish was out of the question, but she loved to eat fish. Go figure.
About this time, which was all of 5:30 am, my father and my uncle Stubby walked in. They typically would join Pup for breakfast before my Dad would head to his job, and Unc Stub would head to the chicken houses to start his day on the farm. They looked a bit bleary-eyed and were customarily quiet until they had a cup or two of coffee to get their systems going. They smelled what Pup was cooking and that seemed to rouse them, but perhaps it was that initial jolt of caffeine. As we all chatted over the coffee, Pup began to dole out helpings on the plates sitting in front of each of us at the kitchen table. First came the potatoes, perfectly browned and slightly crispy, sizzling with the homemade butter they were cooked in. Then a large serving bowl of the steaming hot biscuits was set on the table beside the small bowl of Pup’s own home-churned butter, and a jar of Mamie’s raspberry preserves. Finally, Pup carried the large skillet containing the tenderloin and mushrooms around the table, shuffling off a helping for each of us with his spatula. Coffee cups were filled and then we all proceeded to eat this incredible breakfast, enjoying the company, the conversation, and the food.
These moments were snippets of time that we all looked forward to then, and the memories now of those mornings in my grandparent’s kitchen with them and my other family members are still cherished by all of us who survive today. We often reminisce about those days when we are together at family gatherings these days, and breakfast with Mamie and Pup are always some of the favorite memories.
Keep your memories of your heritage alive folks. Your children’s children will thank you for it.