My mother gave me a wedge of her own childhood, perfect as pie. It was not something she could hold out in her hand for me to receive. It was not even one thing, although if I were to somehow distill it down to its essence it would probably be a tool shed or a rose arbor, a cluster of sour cherry trees down by the back garden. It was a place, and a time, two or three charmed weeks every summer when my mom and my three siblings and I would go out to her family home in eastern Ohio. The enchantment was total. It included a white 19th-century farmhouse on seemingly endless acres of land, with a fish pond and a burning pile and silvered outbuildings too many to count. There was a sprawling vegetable garden and a formal rose garden with a sundial in the center, there was a pin oak at the end of the back walk that was so impossibly tall that I had nothing in my limited experience of trees with which to compare it. There was even an old codger named Earl, with missing teeth and one bad leg, whose task it was to clip the mile upon mile of privet hedge.
I could write a hundred pages just describing the physical place (and perhaps I have, over the years); it still has that kind of hold on me. My recall is astounding: the tiles in the breakfast room, the rubber hose attached to the claw-foot tub in the washroom off my grandfather’s study. The ancient tools in the work shed and the sour cherries bobbing up and down in the double porcelain sink. The things we built and the things we ate. Even the bathrooms were extraordinary: the water was mysteriously “hard,” so that we threw special salts into our baths; and at the pedestal sink, we brushed our teeth with Colgate tooth powder out of a can. The details are so cleanly etched into my memory that I wonder sometimes why two weeks out of a child’s year could claim such disproportionate weight.
But what is most interesting to me now is just what exactly those weeks were to me – why in some cosmic accounting they seem to add up to the heart of my childhood. I’ve had some 40 years to mull on these questions, and what I’ve concluded is that what my mother gave to me and my brothers and sister those endless two-week summers was a slice of another era, a simpler time, one so steeped in the natural world that our days were defined by it and our lives forever altered by it. From the time we rolled out of bed in the morning we were simply in it: barefoot and overalls, up to our hands and knees in dirt, picking corn or making jam or stringing beans on the back stoop. We had no boundaries, no television, a horizon uncluttered, full run of the fields and the gardens and the forest, a sense of freedom so exhilarating that I can think of nothing in adult life to compare it to. We learned about birds. We rode the tractor, picked blueberries and turned them into cobbler; pored over my grandfather’s old nature books. On one memorable visit, we woke every morning to the drilling whine of the 17-year locusts; collected their husks like manna when they left them behind.
We lay out under the trees, stared up at the sky.
My grandfather was sick during these years, so my memories are mostly peopled by women. Those summers, time was kept by meals. It was the only way we saw the days passing, the coming and going of breakfasts and lunches and dinners, the work involved in preparing them and the time we’d spend on the step stool in the kitchen doing the dishes by hand. We ate what we picked: corn and lima beans for succotash, German potato salad, butter beans, fat asparagus spears most often cooked to within an inch of their lives. Jams – blueberry, strawberry, blackberry, sour cherry – were stored in ball jars with small paper labels, the fruit and the year of harvest written simply in my grandmother’s neat script. Bread, which seemed always to be warm, was made by a neighbor and picked up daily down the road.
The greatest meals of all were those eaten out under the big maple, usually on a Sunday and often attended by one or two of the Aunt Flo’s (“Big Flo”; “Little Flo”) and assorted friends of my grandmother’s. In my recollection of them these events are always golden, drenched in late-day sun, spilling over with simple bowls filled with comfort food. There was always someone running back and forth to the kitchen for iced tea or mustard or sliced ham, my grandmother’s no-nonsense cakes in their non-nonsense pans. Best of all, after everything was cleared away and washed up and the sky had tipped into evening, my siblings and I would listen from our upstairs windows as the crickets played their tinny violins and the adults relaxed in their aluminum chairs, my mother snorting with laughter, expanding in the presence of these loving, bosomy, plain-spoken women.
So maybe that’s what she gave me: that young-mother laugh, the mid-Western lilt that slipped back into her voice when surrounded by her own. Those glimpses of her as a child, daughter to her mother, niece to her doting aunts. Under those impossibly tall trees she gave me a snapshot of her own childhood, and the heart-warm embrace that carried her through it. She gave me days of exquisite beauty and absolute freedom, an experience only a child can know and – once known – never forget. And she gave me a connection to the earth so long and deep that it has inhabited me – filled me and sustained me – so that to this day I can still feel the dirt beneath my fingernails, the thick East Liverpool grass under my feet. More valuable than any heirloom, she gave me a footprint of home.