This post was composed for the 3rd Edition of Smile For The Camera ~ A Carnival of Images
Author's note: this is a very long story that I've been working on for some time. The Summer Jar falls into the genre of autobiographical fantasy (in which I re-create the events of my youth) and tells of my summers spent as a child at the home of my great-grandparents, John Ralph Austin and Therese McGinnis Austin.
While I usually don't tell readers how to read my posts, this is one to savor and take slow, like a piece of blueberry pie out on the front porch on a hot summer night. Enjoy!
"Where did you spend most of your summers?" my niece Rosie asked one evening during a way too short visit here. She was the only pint-sized relation who seemed to connect with me on the concept of family history and preserving the past.
I had to think. Not that I couldn't remember or give an answer right away, but wanting to gather all the memories of summers spent with my great-grandparents in Grahamsville and forget not one. Then I remembered The Summer Jar.
"Probably the same types of things you do now during your summers," I said. "Want to see?"
"How can I see into the past? Are we going to use some sort of time-machine?" she said in disbelief. At age 10 she could be very vocal, have strong likes and dislikes and not be shy about picking apart one's statements. The trait of strong-willed independent women in the family endures.
"Let's go get the Summer Jar," I said as I stood up to go back inside the house. I was already 20 feet into a gallop before she could even ask what a summer jar was.
Both of us had spent the last half-hour watching and gathering fire flies, just as I had done at Grandma's house on still half-baked summer nights. My brother and cousins and I would run around the house trying to trap as many as we could, anxious to have enough to power a lantern so we could find our way in the dark. Up here, in "The Country" as the city people called it, there were no streetlights, no barriers to star gazing. It could get very dark and a firefly lantern was not only fun to make but useful too.
She tagged along behind me, as we left our lanterns on the weathered picnic table in the gathering dusk. On the front porch, tucked away behind some childhood books - the Hardy Boys series were my favorites - was a large mason jar, the kind with the old-fashioned lid with a metal cage, rubber seal and locking mechanism. Rosie's eyes grew wide as she looked at the contents crammed inside.
And as I opened the jar, and tilted the contents out, a feast for the eyes as well as the nose revealed itself. Despite being able to see clear through, there were little hidden gems inside, gems that I didn't remember until they tumbled forward like rain drops off the old rusty gutters of that summer house of my youth. The memories that started as a trickle soon became a torrent.
I decided to take an inventory and explain each item but at my own pace. Children of a certain age can become impatient, discarding a moment to move on to the next, unaware that some things require a longer gaze, a stronger focus. So before Rosie could chime in with a dozen "what's thats," I told her I would go over everything in the Summer Jar and explain what it was, where it came from and why I decided to keep it.
Luckily for me and my fading memory, years ago I wrote out a small inventory sheet, in my not-so-perfect Palmer method hand-writing despite the admonitions and incantations of Sister Mary Joseph.
Berry Smears and Butternut
Piece of Wood
The jar contained several photos, all taken over the years at the Grahamsville house where generations had spent their summers. As Rosie pored over them, I gave a narration for each even though they all had been labeled with information on the rear of each picture.
Therese McGinnis Austin and John Ralph Austin. Photograph. Abt 1947. Digital image. Privately held by Thomas MacEntee, [ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE,] Chicago, Illinois. 2008
My great-grandparents, whom I affectionately called Grandma and Grandpa, bought the house around 1944 and moved up from New York City sometime thereafter. The house is shown behind them, painted white all over.
Jacqueline Austin. Photograph. Abt 1952. Digital image. Privately held by Thomas MacEntee, [ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE,] Chicago, Illinois. 2008
My mother at around age 11 with a coloring book out in front of the house. You can see the outline of where the front porch used to be (see Stories below for more info).
Great-grandparents' house in Grahamsville, NY. Photograph. Abt 1975. Digital image. Privately held by Thomas MacEntee, [ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE,] Chicago, Illinois. 2008
This photo was taken on May 30, 1975 just prior to my great-grandparents' 60th anniversary party. This is how I remember the house during my summers there.
Berry Smears and a Butternut
Many of my summer memories at the Grahamsville house involve berry picking. Most of my cousins saw this as a chore - they hated having to wander the 33 acres of land, walking on stone fences filled with snakes, and picking berries until the metal pot attached to your waist with a piece of rope was full. There were rules about berry picking: pick more than you eat, no green berries and no leaves or twigs.
Blueberries were the type of berry picked most often. We would start picking in July and Grandma would cook them down for jam, make pies, or my favorite, Blueberry Buckle. In later years, she had a chest freezer and would freeze the berries for use during the winter.
Besides blueberries we also could pick raspberries, blackberries, currants and gooseberries. A way for me to capture the memory of berry picking was to smear a few on heavy cardstock and let it dry.
The butternut tree was the main focus of the backyard of the house, before the hay fields started to fan out in every direction. I don't remember gathering the nuts or seeing Grandma use them for anything. I just know that I had never seen a real nut tree before in my life.
A Crushed Penny
I could see Rosie was playing with a very thin piece of copper that looked like a slug. And before I could hear the first "what's that," I said, "It's a penny that was crushed by one of the last steam locomotives to come through Sullivan County."
Now I wished I had written down the details of that day - I believe it was 1970 or 1971 which would have made me about 9 years old. I think my niece was just amazed that I had seen an actual locomotive, "like in old movies" as she kindly pointed out. The amazing part is that I had witnessed the passing of an era.
The event took place in Callicoon which is on the Delaware River right across from Pennsylvania. It was a Memorial Day weekend and the organizers of the event (which I am sure were railroad enthusiasts), in making sure that all the little tykes were safe, brought them to an area where they could place a penny to be crushed by the train as it went by. For me and my brother this was loads of fun.
We were able to look around the steam engine once it had stopped, and learn more about the ins and outs of its operations. Steam engine trains traveled in Sullivan County along the Erie railroad built in the mid-19th century. At the turn of the century the trains brought tuberculosis sufferers up to "the mountains" where many sanitariums had been built to provide fresh air, good food and rest. After the epidemic, these same places were turned into boarding house and then hotels to be used by New York City residents looking to escape the heat of summer.
By 1970, when the last steam locomotive ran, the heyday of the Borscht Belt with its all inclusive resorts like The Grossinger and The Concord had passed off into the distance as well.
I picked up the small, dark red velvet pillow and gave it a squeeze. I knew what was inside and I also knew for certain that Rosie didn't. "Have you ever heard of milkweed?" I asked her. With a perplexed look, I knew what her response would be, and sure enough: "Why do they call it milkweed?"
I explained that at Grandma's there were plenty of milkweed plants littered across the many acres. The plants grew up to 6 feet tall and if you cut one of the "pods" before it opened, a milky substance, sort of like latex, came out. Besides most of the plant being toxic, the pods opened to reveal long fibers attached to seeds which the wind would carry away.
At the Grahamsville house the variety found was known as the Common Milkweed and since Colonial times it had been used for various medicinal and household purposes. Some people deem the plant edible if it is cooked properly, while others think the white sap can be used for a variety of ailments. But the most common use was as a stuffing for pillows and quilts.
Grandma would remove the long fibers just before they had a chance to scatter in the breeze, and place them on trays inside the house to dry. Sometimes she would remove the dark seed ends but they involved quite a bit of work. Once dry, she fluffed up the fibers and placed them in a bag for future use. Almost all of the pillows that she made were stuffed with milkweed fibers as many of our ancestors in upstate New York and New England probably did over 300 years ago.
These smooth rocks are from one of the local swimming holes - my favorite being the river and falls near Accord in Ulster County. I detested lake swimming - lakes were abundant where I grew up but the rocks were slimy, there were many fish and other creatures, and you always smelled like The Swamp Thing when you got home. It made no sense to me to have to take a bath after you went swimming in a lake!
My brother and I had a game of communicating using two rocks underneath water - it also kept the fish away. Of course, it annoyed anyone who was underwater at the time since they didn't know where the sound was coming from.
Grandma always had a garden, even late in life, despite the fact that there could be frost as late as Memorial Day, making for a rather short growing season. By the time I began spending my summers there, the large vegetable garden beside the house was long gone. During the 1940s and 1950s, it was used to feed the 12 grandchildren (my mother and her siblings) and other visitors for the summer.
Gardening was not a hobby - it was a necessity! I am sure that Grandma started out with a Victory Garden like so many other families. Being a "city girl" somehow she got the hang of it, often relying upon neighbors for advice. There were all sorts of vegetables, mostly the type that commonly grew best in upstate New York: green beans, wax beans, peppers, tomatoes, squashes, cucumbers, radishes, potatoes, cauliflower, cabbage, etc. Nothing too exotic.
And what wasn't consumed right away was canned - Grandma had a big canning operation, especially since she had a dozen pint-sized assistants available! I do remember one story that Grandma was up to her neck in canning green beans - perhaps there was an impending frost and she had to harvest what she could. Well, despite having the canning operation at full tilt, she did take time to run out and see High Noon one night since it starred Gary Cooper! Beans or no beans, she was not going to miss it!
The pressed flower is from the gardens in front of the house where Grandma grew roses, marigolds, zinnias and columbine which were my favorite. This particular flower is from something Grandma called a "Memorial Day plant" with white lemon-scented blossoms. I actually think it was lemon verbena - perhaps the name was one used by locals since the plant broke its dormancy right around Memorial Day.
Piece of Wood
Before I could get to it, my niece had found a small piece of weathered barn siding still with its red pigment.
"Is this a piece of wood from the barn on the property?"
"Sort of," I said. "It is actually from an outbuilding that my mother and her brothers and sisters called 'The Dollhouse.'"
The Dollhouse was rumored to be the original house built in the mid-1840s before the larger house was built at the turn of the century. It was two stories, had been stained a "barn red" color during the 20th century so as to match the chicken coop next to it and the barn up and across the road.
I remember Mom telling me how it got its name: basically it was used by her and her sisters so that they could play with their dolls. When I spent my summers, the Dollhouse was definitely not safe enough to play in. There were no stairs and part of the roof had fallen through. But I can only imagine the kind of fun that those girls must have had with their dolls and their refuge from their four brothers.
I had to laugh out loud when I saw the cassette tape. My brother and I had received a tape recorder as a Christmas gift one year and like many toys and gadgets, it became "uninteresting" by mid-January. But for some reason, we had it with us one summer at Grandma's. We would laugh and giggle as we recorded each other talking and then listen on the playback, thinking our voices sounded so funny. We'd also try to sneak into the living room at Grandma's and secretly tape record some "adult conversation" especially when someone was telling a risque joke. One night, right around this same time, we decided to set up the tape recorder on one of the stone fences at the house and see what wild animals we could record. Our imaginations ran wild as we thought for sure we'd hear snakes slithering among the rocks, or deer coming out to drink from the stream, or even the beavers chopping down trees near their dam on the propery. So we had everything set, made sure we had a good tape with 45 minutes available on one side, set it to record and ran back to the house.
The next morning, Grandma thought it was odd that we wanted to go outside even before getting dressed or having breakfast. But she didn't know the treasure that awaited us outside! Besides, at the Grahamsville house breakfast was the least interesting and the scariest meal of the day. It usually consisted of eggs, bacon or scrapple, toast, prunes stewed in tea and some 100% bran cereal that made Grandma sneeze half the day after she ate it. Oh the things she did for fiber!
So as not to embarass Grandma by running down the road in our pajamas lest the neighbors three miles away should see, Michael and I went through the mechanics of washing up, getting dressed and eating breakfast. With a quick, "May I please be excused?" to Grandpa, we took off on a tear.
We ran down the hill as fast as we could and veered towards the stone fence on the left. First we had to make sure that someone or better yet some thing hadn't run off with our recorder. It was still there! And luckily the machine shut off once it had reached the end of the first side (note to current youth: yes, you had to flip the tape over to record to the other side. These were the dark days before CDs and MP3 players). In anticipation we hit the large Play button and listened carefully. For the first five minutes there was nothing. Nothing at all.
"Maybe we hit Play instead of Play and Record?" I said.
My brother was insistent that we set the machine up perfectly. "Why don't we fast forward a little?" he said.
Good idea. So about half-way through, we started hearing weird noises like grunts and groans, and then the sound of crunching trees or brush. This went on for a few minutes and then you could hear whatever it was scatter away.
Amazing! We actually caught the sound of something! As I wondered what it might be, my brother suggested we set the recorder out again, but a little earlier than the night before. That way we could possibly observe and catch a peek at this creature if it came back again.
So as the setup was done and we went off to the other side of Low Road, which saw all of three cars of through traffic a day, and waited. Within five minutes, one of the neighbor cats up the road sauntered its way down the hill and took a turn to the left, hopping up on the stone fence. And wouldn't you know that it went right for the tape recorder? It sat there for several minutes rubbing its head against it, and laying on top of it.
Disappointed that we didn't catch the sounds of any exotic creatures, we were kind of relieved that it was only a cat wanting some human attention.
Rosie was flabbergasted that I didn't watch television (or play video games for that matter) during my summers in Grahamsville.
"Didn't your great-grandparents have a tv?" she asked.
"Sure they did but the reception was horrible since there was no cable (and there still isn't). Plus who needed television when there was so much other stuff to do: play outside, read, and talk."
"Talk? That's not entertainment."
I explained to her that I didn't mean talk in terms of just every day conversation with another person. Evenings after supper were a time to retell old stories or discuss the events of the day and politics. My favorite part were the stories, especially stories about the house in Grahamsville.
There are so many stories, and for fear of not being able to retain them in my memory, one year I took to writing some of them down on 3 x 5" file cards. Here are a few:
- the time a stampede of cows came down from the Mateer dairy farm up the hill and took the entire front porch off the house. It never was rebuilt - there was just a small stoop to the front door which opened into the dining room. If you looked closely at the clapboard siding, you could see the outline of where the porch had been. I know that there was a photo of the stampede and I wish I could find it - that would be a great addition to the jar.
- the time Grandma went out berry picking in a fur coat since it was a very cold July morning. Unfortunately Grandpa thought it was a bear and went for his shotgun before he realized who or what it actually was.
Back On The Shelf
After what seemed like minutes but was actually over an hour, we both gathered up the items and placed them back in the jar. While the entire review of items and the ability to pass along the stories to another generation was thoroughly enjoyable and satisfying for my soul, there was still some sad news that I did not convey to Rosie. The Grahamsville house burned down in April 1979 while my great-grandmother was staying with us. She had spent her winter in Florida with her nieces and was waiting for warmer weather before opening up the house. Apparently, someone had broken into the house intent on finding great foturne and either they set the place on fire to cover their tracks or as revenge for not finding much of monetary value. The house and most of its conents were a total loss.
There were so many family artifacts that went up in smoke that day but no amount of tears or speculation can bring them back. But I am so glad I made that Summer Jar one year as the season came to an end. It has been a source of fascination for my niece, nephew and others who could not be there to spend summers so enchanting and adventurous that you thought that the next day could never beat the one that had just ended.
"Uncle Tom?" Rosie said as she interrupted my thoughts. "Do you think I should make a Summer Jar? Can you help me?"
"Sure thing kiddo. Why don't we start by making a list of all the things to put into it and then in the morning we'll start to gather them up."
Like capturing fire flies, I hoped she could catch as many momentos and memories as possible and fill that jar. And realize its value years from now.