Probably the most stereotypical of all the memories we hold of our teachers is the homework assignment one of them would give us at the beginning of every school year.
It would go something like - “Please write a composition entitled “What I Did During My Summer Vacation” – and amidst groans we would press our little heads and try to figure out just what it was, indeed, we did during those past few months, which seemed to pass much too quickly.
So to ease the ghost of “themes” past – here is what I did many times when I was young during my summer holiday
Over the river, and through the wood,
When Grandmother sees us come,
She will say, "Oh, dear, the children are here,
Bring a pie for everyone." - from "Over the River and Through the Woods" Lydia Maria Childs (1844)
I passed the place where they used to live yesterday.
I was on some errand, heading to Wal Mart. I have passed that empty weed choked lot hundreds of times in the last forty years since they tore down the house, and until that moment, had given it very little thought.
My grandmother and grandfather lived in one side of a duplex on Union Avenue in Lakeport NH for about thirty years. It is a place I visit in my dreams quite often.
And when I do, I see them very clearly.
It’s the start of my summer vacation and they are still there; hale and hearty. As the back door opens onto her kitchen, Nana is inside and smiling. She was a fragile bird of a woman - full of gentle patience. Her kitchen (for it was truly “her’s” in every sense of the word) is always warm and always contains the odor of fresh baked molasses or sugar cookies.
I cannot free my mind of that smell. There is peace and security in the simple combination of vanilla, flour, sugar, molasses and other spices and the heat from a wood fired oven.
My family would often visit my mothers’ girl-hood home, most of the time on that week or so the old man got during the summer.
There was excitement in preparing the car to travel the hundred miles or so from Wilmington Vt. to Laconia and Lakeport NH.
I looked forward to the trip, though I would occasionally suffer from car-sickness on the way, and couldn’t wait till the old ’48 Chevy would pull into the dirt drive just across from the marina on Paugus Bay and Lake Winnipesaukee.
The engine would ping in heated contraction from the long trip and I would rush out of the car.
Nana was always waiting with a kiss and a hug and her husband, Pappy wouldn’t be too far behind, unless he was working late that day at the “Tekwood” plant down the road a ways. “Tekwood” was the name of a press-board building material.
Sometimes he would have a little whiskey on his breath, but, well that was Pappy. It never bothered me, although it was always a source of concern for Nana. “Norris”, she would say, “No more drinks tonight. That’s enough.” And he would obey – for a little while.
After the hugs and kisses, I would run to the hall and I would fly up the stairs to the spare bedroom where my parents and I would sleep, and I would flop on the folding bed which had already been made up with fresh smelling sheets and blankets.
I would roll over and stare up at the white plaster ceiling and feel incredibly happy. I had nothing to worry about for awhile.
When my sister was born, there was always a little crib crammed into the room and when she woke in the morning, I would talk to her for a few moments. Usually it was about what I was going to do that day.
Sometimes it was just to look out the second floor window onto the B&M switching yard next to the marina. A small, black six hundred horsepower SW-1 diesel engine would whine and roar in the early morning; pulling cars with their consist to a siding and then it would tug them to the Tekwood plant or to the lumber yard. The room would quickly fill with the smell of diesel smoke and that, to me, was the smell of adventure.
Occasionally I would spend the day fishing from the marina docks, catching pails of crayfish until their tiny claws were snapping over the tin rims. Then I would bring them to Nana and Pappys’ where I would hear the same question from my Nana. “What do you want me to do with those things?”
So I would cart them across the road again, carefully watching for traffic and release them from their round, metal prison where they would whoosh and scuttle and hide once again in the cold water only to poke their waving antennas out from behind creosote covered pilings and wharves, waiting to be duped by my bait once more on the next day.
The crayfish and I had an understanding. No one would be injured in the performance of these daily dancing fishing dramas.
I couldn’t say the same for the occasional perch I would haul up, flopping and wiggling on the wet docks, or the “punkin’ seeds” or sun fish. They would sometimes die before I had the sense to toss them back in or the perch would be brought to Nana’s and after careful filleting by Pappy, they would be fried up golden brown and crunchy in a quarter inch of melted lard.
Pappy was a deep woods guide in northern New Hampshire and Vermont. He hunted and fished with great skill and always said the key to a good fish dinner was a sharp fillet knife. That skill was passed on to his only son, John who, years later would clean and cook up fish that my own son and daughter had caught.
I would often duck into the marina (where years later I worked – and there is a story in that!) and admire all the gleaming, wood-hulled boats, neatly trimmed in shiny nickel or chrome. The Chris-Craft, Mullins, Dodge, Seacraft and so many more, all tied up and waiting for their owners, the flat-landers from Massachusetts and beyond. Occasionally I would be shooed out the door by the management, but often enough I would be told I could – “look, but don’t touch!”
If it was a rainy day I would explore the old house, making up my own games and letting my mind run its course.
Once I opened a closet door in the room where I slept and saw, peeking from the depths, the gleam of a Sousa phone and a baritone horn. When I hauled them out and showed them to Nana and Pappy a sepia toned smile would wash over them with memories that were fifty years and hundreds of miles away.
Pappy could play just about any horn that had ever been stamped, braised and polished. He blew those horns in local bands and wherever the music took him, always with a glass of something at his side.
There were days I ran to play in that tiny lawn that bordered Union Avenue and Walnut Street - a sharp angled stretch of asphalt no more then 500 feet in length but with a 45 degree of difficulty towards the bottom. My family would live in a house half-way up the hill some years later, and it was always a measure of my physical acumen during the winter to slide ski-less down that hill to visit my grandparents without falling.
Sometimes our vacation would coincide with the “Laconia Motorcycle Weekend”, an annual and nationally attended rally (often called a “Gypsy Tour”) where motorcyclist from everywhere descend on this small New Hampshire town, I would haul out a chair or just perch on the stone and concrete walls that lined the main drag near my grandparents and watch with awe the massive living wall of bikers roaring up and down Union Avenue from the “Weirs” to the center of Laconia.
During the summer and in that house, there was always something new for a boy to discover, to do or to dream.
My cousin would slide a box of comics out from someplace and I would riffle the titles (“Got it. Don’t got it. Got it. Maybe got it!”). And then in the evening after Nana would pop a huge bowl of popcorn for the adults to snack on while listening to the radio or just sitting around the kitchen talking, I would fill a big bowl with the salty, greasy oleo covered snack and run up stairs, with a hand full of faded, somewhat torn funny books and jump in bed. This was my idea of heaven.
I eagerly devoured dozens of issues of “Archie”, “Little Lulu” (with my favorite character, the morbidly obese “Tubby”), “Wonder Woman” (the name of her side-kick, “Candy”, would become my sisters name) but I was especially fond of “Scrooge McDuck”, the tight-fisted waddler with a money bin the size of the Parthenon, who would dive in the huge piles of dollars and change, burrow through it like a mole and throw it up in the air and let it hit him on the head. His adventures, brought to life by artist Carl Barks, took me places no one had ever gone.
It’s all gone now. The bedroom, the funny upstairs bathroom with a circular ventilator where I would hunch quietly in the cool of a summers evening and surreptitiously listen to all the lazy talk down-stairs by the adults that drifted past the painted cast iron.
The truth be told, it was never that interesting.
And I miss the back-porch at Nana and Pappys. An out door “man-cave” before there we named them such, where the old man, Pappy, and my uncles would hunker on a hot afternoon in summer to hear Jim Britt, or Curt Gowdy broadcast the games played by the woebegone Red Sox and their titanic struggles with the Bronx Bombers over a little ivory colored plastic Philco radio. And the ads? I still remember – “Hi Neighbor. Have a “Gansette” – or - “Mable! Black Label! Carlings Black Label Beer!”
There were oceans of that amber fluid consumed on that back porch in just one Saturday afternoon in the heated lazy days of summer. The cicadas would scream their songs of love high in the leafy tops of the Dutch elms and the old man always kept a glass topped with slowly diminishing concentric rings of white foam near his chair.
But now, only a hollow breath of air tumbles through the milkweed pods and heaps of dust where a swing, “for the grandkids” was built and from which I developed my Tarzan-ic skills. Plowed under was Pappys garden where collindars of fresh beans and peas were once so proudly gathered - remnants of Victory gardens and wars past.
Overgrown are our memories and forever frozen in fields of grass and warm sunny days.