Since this is my initial post on this blog, I'm “planting the seeds” in this ongoing garden of musing and stories from a man who was fortunate enough to be born into a large loving family who owned and operated three farms in rural Maine when I was growing up. I figure I ought to tell a story worth reading to anyone who honors me by reading it.
So, in this first installment, I will tell you the following story as I feel it gives the reader a good sample of my “voice.” In subsequent submissions, I will tell stories of this life I cherished as a farm boy and the people who made it a life that I will continue to honor with the same dry witty humor that was so prevalent from my elders. I hope you enjoy:
It was the summer of 1969. In fact it was the first day after school ended for the year. 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 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 didn't include me lazing in bed all day. I pried my eyes open and bleary-eyed my watch.
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 The Grit … four 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. Don't 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 could get to drive any of the farm equipment, and considered it a real coup to be allowed to drive the pick-up over the public roads from one farm to the other. 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 quite 13 yet. My birthday was a month away. It would be another four years before I garnered my Maine state driver's 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 backstrap sauteed 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 headed out through the shed, stopped to grab his sage green Dickies cap, then we wandered out to the driveway where his old 1956 Ford sat. The truck was once dark blue but had faded to a rusty blue/brown, and the bed of the truck had been replaced by a wooden body with wooden rack sides that were 5 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 truck up, which darn near caused whiplash for both Pup and I, I was able to get 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 didn't hit anything.”
I had a grin from ear to ear, but didn't dare 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 reluctant 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 at its lowest point held a babbling brook. The neon green grass of the fields was punctuated by the iridescent yellow of thousands of dandelions, further illustrated by the puffs of white wool and the abstract pattern of back 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 cries of a couple of crows. Mouthy creatures to be sure. I remarked, “Darned old crows … always making a racket.”
Pup's eyes twinkled as he replied, “I think they may be warning the other critters that you were 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. Using our pocket knives, we started to clip them at the base and put them in a paper bag. We didn't take long, within 10 minutes we both had our bags better than half full.
Pup always said, “Don t 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, and I'd 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. Life was good. Who could complain?
So, we drove 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.
“Harry must be headed over to Bowen's, only place open this time of day,” Pup said.
Bowen's was a little ramshackle country store, located about 2 miles from both Harry's and our farms, and it was indeed open every morning at 5 a.m. 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 biscuits. We finally made it back to the homestead and lugged nature's bounty inside. I brushed the mushrooms clean with a small paint brush used specifically for this purpose. Never wash mushrooms in water. Pup, meanwhile, was preparing his drop biscuits and had sliced up some of last night's leftover 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 biscuit mix on a cookie sheet and shoved them in the oven and then he began to prepare this morning's entree. He sliced the tenderloin about 3/4 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. He laid this all in another huge black cast-iron skillet that was just coming to the perfect temp with the butter 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 with the morning news on TV.
Mamie was beloved by not only her entire brood, but by everyone who knew her. She was truly a mother who nurtured each and every person who spent time with her. And, she was an incredible cook like most women 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 didn't 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 a.m., my father and my uncle Stubby walked in. They typically joined 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, and the memories of those mornings in my grandparents' kitchen with them and 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 is always among the favorite memories.