A Warm Memory of Cold Winter Nights
Jeannie Peck, 2015
ca - mid-1930s Although Marilyn, Buddy and Jeannie were only summertime “country kids”, there were occasions during the colder months when we would visit our grandparents in Purdys — Thanksgiving and Christmas most notable, but other weekend visits as well. Either snowfalls were a lot deeper back then, or perhaps it was just that I was a whole lot shorter, but I remember snows well above my waist. I also remember sitting in an unheated car under a shedding leopard lap robe, while my father helped to dig out the stuck town snow-plow so that it, and we, could continue on our respective journeys. I have to tell you at the outset that, although I played in the snow and went sledding, as most children do - I have never been much enamored of cold weather. I am, and always have been, a warmth and sunshine kid. And Purdys was cold in the winter. The house, uninsulated and unheated, derived what warmth there was from the large iron cooking stove in the kitchen… and, by the Grace of God, some sunny days. No offense intended to the Good Lord, but the stove was the more dependable source of heat, and was kept going perhaps twenty of every twenty-four hours. I think there may have been a kerosene heater or two, but my memory is vague about that. The only rooms that were ever approaching comfortable were the kitchen and the adjoining sitting room. All other rooms were closed off. The upstairs bedrooms were freezing. Which brings me to the point of this particular story. We children hated bedtime because we had to climb out of our warm clothes and into pajamas - teeth chattering and whimpering and hollering the whole time. Until we got into bed. Jenny had devised her own version of sleeping bags for each of us. A large blanket was folded in half, bottom to top, stitched up the sides, and snaps sewn across the top. We would each be snapped in - and settle on to a soft feather mattress, and be covered over with a feather comforter. It felt like being wrapped inside of a large soft fluffy cloud. Instantly, within a split second we felt overwhelmed by a delicious, toasty warmth. We accused Jenny of heating the beds with hot water bottles, but she said not - that it was just the feathers that felt so warm. We kids always felt that there must have been some mysterious magic involved. But then again, the whole world is mysterious and magical to imaginative six or seven-year olds. Then we recited the “Now I lay me down to sleep…” mantra, known to so many children the world over. Grandma then assured each of us that we were as “snug as a bug in a rug”. I wonder if there was ever a child in the 1930s who was tucked into bed without hearing that phrase. We slept cozy and warm until morning when we had to gather up our cold clothes and repeat the mad dash through unheated rooms until we reached the welcome warmth of the kitchen and were able to dress next to the wood stove. We would then fill up little bellies with oatmeal, cornmeal mush or whatever breakfast porridge Grandma had cooking on that blessed wood stove. At this point I ask your indulgence to allow an old woman a bit of sticky sentimentality… Reliving those experiences in my mind I have come to believe that the source of all that warmth that we felt when snuggling into our beds on those cold winter nights had to do with neither magic nor feathers, but the abundance of love by which we were surrounded.
Jenny, The Mister & the Christmas Tree
Jeanne Peck, 2011
Ca 1925 – or so This is one of those well-worn, beloved family stories (all families have them) that is, with great relish, oft-repeated and never dulls – at least not to the family. It is however, the kind of a story that is incredibly boring to those outside the family, much as someone else’s home movies once were. But it is I who am writing this story, about and for my family. So it is mine to tell, and you who must suffer through it – or not. Your choice. But for you to fully understand this strange little tale of love and accommodation, some background information is necessary. “Jenny” is the wife in this tale (her given name was actually Jennifer, but much to her mother’s displeasure, she preferred Jenny. Her mother had been heard on more than one occasion, to allow as how the name “Jenny” was more appropriate for a mule than for a proper grown woman.) “The Mister” is the husband in the story. Jenny never referred to him as “my husband” or even “Charlie” (as he was known to friends and family). Whenever she mentioned him it was as “The Mister” or “Mr. DeMar”. If there ever had been an explanation for this verbal idiosyncrasy, it was not shared with me. Indeed it had been going on for so long, I doubt that it was ever considered a subject for wonderment by anyone. I certainly never thought to ask (although I wish now that I had). Anyway… Each year, as surely as August follows July, right after Christmas there would be a rip-roarin’ all-out battle between the couple. After so many years, their grown children not only anticipated it, but actually made bets about the subject matter. One year, strangely, it had been about facial hair. The Mister had a thick head of what his daughter always described as “the most beautiful horse-chestnut brown color hair you’ve ever seen”. His mustache however, grew in a bright red – the color usually referred to as “carrot-top”. It was really most impressive. Unfortunately his wife took exception to facial hair of any kind – never mind a mustache the color of a root vegetable. That year along about Thanksgiving, The Mister knew that what with Christmas coming, the inevitable ensuing argument would require a “raison d’etre”. Being a thoughtful and considerate man, he grew the offensive mustache. But I digress. That was a previous year’s battle and not the one of which I write here. Oh yes – I almost forgot. There is one more piece of information you will need for understanding – to wit: Jenny’s mother disliked the cold weather intensely, and so immediately following the holidays each year she left her husband in their New Jersey home to spend the Winter in her home in Florida. Jenny shared her mother’s disdain for the cold, but felt that it would be unseemly to just go off for three or four months leaving her husband and children to fend for themselves (even though they were more than capable of doing just that.) But – if there were a good reason to go home to her mother for a while… well… Hence the yearly dust-up. It was one of those family “secrets” known to all and mentioned by none. On the Christmas Eve of the year in question, The Mister did not arrive home until rather late. (No one recalled the exact reason – but it was an excusable absence.) Jenny had John, the only member of her brood who had not yet left the house for a party or a date, put the tree in the stand for her. (In those old-fashioned days, the tree was decorated on Christmas Eve – not a month before as is the current practice.) She proceeded to light, hang and tinsel by herself. Truth be told, she enjoyed the luxury of unpacking each ornament and placing it in just the right spot. Not to mention that the other members of her family had the strange notion that tinsel was to be thrown at the tree in clumps rather than carefully placed a strand at a time as the Good Lord intended. On Christmas Day family and friends declared it was the prettiest tree ever. Jenny beamed all day and all the next week. On New Year’s Eve the declaration came – and the gauntlet tossed. “I’m so glad you liked what I did with the tree this year, Mr. DeMar. It wasn’t an easy job you know, all by myself. So now it will be your job to take it down and pack everything away. I put it up. You will take it down.” “Oh no I won’t!” “Oh yes you will!” And this year’s battle was on …and on… and on…and on. You get the idea. On her way out the door to the train station and sunny Florida, Jenny’s last word to The Mister were, “You will take down that tree, pack everything carefully, and put the boxes in the attic.” The last response to Jenny from The Mister was “I will do no such thing.” On the day Jenny was to arrive home from her Florida trip, it was John who was sent to the station to meet her. Even though Jenny’s children had all reached the age of majority, the sibling pecking order remained in force. John was the youngest. It was he who was still pushed to the forefront at the first sign of parental displeasure. As the “baby” of the group he had, over the years, developed a certain disarming diplomacy in dealing with unpleasant family situations. (As an aside – I wonder whether this is true in every family – No matter.) The Mister and the siblings were all in the parlor (this story predates either the term “living room” or “Family room” – or the very recent “great room”) awaiting the arrival of wife and mother. Even though she had not yet entered the house, voices were hushed and one or two perhaps a pitch higher than usual. “She’s going to be really mad, Pop – I told you this was a mistake.” This from Sydney, the oldest He was grasping his violin, as a good luck talisman probably. (His mother loved hearing him play.) “She won’t stay mad long, the weather’s getting warm and we’ll be going up to the lake soon.” This from Joe, the somewhat unrealistic rationalizer! “She’s going to blame me. I know it. I always get blamed for everything.” This from Charlotte, the only girl living at home. The Mister just shook his head and smiled “You’ll see – don’t worry.” Finally they heard the car pull in and the back door open. They knew Jenny would be taking off her coat and putting her hat on the shelf above it. (Ladies always wore hats back then.) It seemed like forever until the footsteps finally stopped at the parlor door. (At this point whichever family member was recounting the incident would pause dramatically – trying to build suspense.) There was absolute silence while Jenny stood and took in the scene. There, in all of its pathetic, bedraggled splendor, stood an eight foot Christmas tree topped with a glistening and sparkly store – listing to port – draped in brightly lit dangling strings of lights, drooping ornaments and clinquant tinsel. With nary a needle on it. The needles once supple, green and fragrant were now beneath the tree’s skeleton in piles on the carpet – brown and decidedly crunchy underfoot. There was a hushed silence. The secondary players in the scene (the siblings) fidgeted and shifted nervously. Jenny calmly looked away from the tree, stone-faced. Then slowly and deliberately let her eyes rest on each of her offspring – the co-conspirators – in turn. Finally her gaze came to a halt upon her husband. Jenny and The Mister stood, eyes locked, expressionless, until finally the tell-tale upturn at the corners of the mouth and the simultaneous burst of uncontrollable laughter – abandoned, wild and extremely contagious. All who participated always swore it was the most delicious eyes-tearing, belly-hurting laugh any of them ever had. When, after a while, the hoots and hollers and giggles and guffaws finally subsided, Jenny looked at her husband with great affection “I cannot believe that you were willing to put up with this mess all winter just so we could all have a good laugh.” Turning to the group, “We had better get this place cleaned up before the neighbors decide to visit and think we’ve lost our minds. But it really was a very pretty tree, wasn’t it? And the best damn laugh I ever had. Sydney, why don’t you play something – I’ve missed your music. The rest of you – let’s get to work.” And Fade to Black
Snapshot of a Little Girl Laughing
Jeannie Peck, 2013
The request, as I understood it, was to locate a photo or snapshot of something significant in my life that I would like to tell about. Going through all of those glimpses of past moments in time, I was struck by how many could evoke an unexpected somatic or emotional response. The snapshot of the adobe chapel outside of Chimayo brought back the sharp clean odor of pinyon and juniper burning in a beehive fireplace. The picture of the family gathered at the Lake conjured up the memory of warm sun on bare back and arms, and the sound of children laughing as they cannonballed off the diving board. There were snapshots of parties, vacations, weddings and all kinds of events, both exciting and ordinary. I chose this one. I don’t know the exact location – nor do I know the occasion. But I did know this child – and I’d like to tell a little about her. Just look at her. Have you ever seen any little girl as supremely secure and self-confident in the knowledge of her own specialness? She is obviously a happy little being. Why wouldn’t she be – her world is happy. Her Daddy has probably just said something funny to make her laugh. He did that all the time. Grandpa’s coat pocket always contained a surprise of some kind – a small toy, a chocolate bar, or sometimes two Chiclets in a little cardboard box from a subway station vending machine. (She liked spearmint the best.) On cold mornings when her mother went to the back porch and brought in the glass milk bottle – and the cream had frozen and pushed the pleated white and orange cardboard top way over the neck of the bottle – it was she, and no one else, who was given a spoon with which to eat that delicious frozen column. Because she was special! No doubt about it! Yes indeed, it was a wonderful world she lived in. Even an occasional skinned knee was promptly kissed and made better. Every night she said her prayers at bedtime. She didn’t quite have the God/Jesus/Angels thing all sorted out yet, but she asked God to Bless everybody anyway. (It seemed as though he was the one in charge.) Some nights when she wasn’t all that sleepy, the blessing list grew considerably longer, and included not only the immediate family, pets and friends – but shirttail relatives she hardly ever saw, the neighbors she barely knew on the next block over, all the shopkeepers and trades-people in the area, and ended up with “and everybody else in the whole world”. It made her feel good to think about all the people in her life that God would bless. She went to sleep every night knowing that tomorrow would be a happy day. All of her days were happy. Life was good. Many years have passed since then. Milk is homogenized. A cold winter morning no longer yields the delight of a column of frozen cream atop a cold glass milk bottle. The little girl is no more. In her place is someone who might be best described as an “old woman”. Mommie, Daddy, Grandma and Grandpa, and all the people who loved her are gone. She’s alone. And the old woman wishes that she could, once again, feel that unabashed joy in being alive, and that same serene sense of security that she felt on the day when that snapshot was taken – when there was always someone to love her and hold her, take care of her and protect her. I guess it sure is really good that she finally got that God/Jesus/Angels thing all sorted out. Snapshot ca. 1934-5
On Facing Death
Jeannie Peck, 2014
A very short story to ponder: Two little old ladies, both in their 80s. Both have been suddenly stricken with a terminal illness. Each has been given two months to live. One woman is blessed with a loving family: a thoughtful and caring husband; three children; five grandchildren; and a faithful companion - her dog. She will be facing death surrounded by those who love her. The second woman is childless, and has been predeceased by her husband, all of her family members, both of her closest long-time friends, and even her pets. She will be facing death alone. If you were to be asked which of these women you feel sorrier for, chances are your sympathy would be for the solitary woman. It’s just possible that you might be so wrong. The familied woman is too heavily invested in life to want to let go of it. She doesn’t want to miss the graduations, weddings, and babies yet to come. She’s worried that she won’t be around to help should trouble befall any of her family. She's distraught, and trying to bargain with God for even just one more year. On the other hand, the woman alone feels that she’s been lucky to have had a good long run. Those she has loved are gone. There’s nothing really inviting her into the future. Even chocolate cake doesn’t seem to taste as good as it once did — not even when it’s topped with a great big mound of vanilla fudge ripple ice cream. So when the Doctor tells her she’s got only two more months, she smiles, shrugs her shoulders and quips, “Well, let’s look on the bright side, Doc, just think of all the money i’ll be saving on pain medication.” And that’s the end of the story. So — what do you think … who’s the lucky one? Jeannie Peck Southbury, CT © 2014
A Family Tradition
Connie Westreich, November 1, 2012
The importance of bringing the family together is something that we all believe in. However in today’s world, it is hard to achieve. Most families are scattered all over the United States and some even overseas. My family always celebrated birthdays and anniversaries as I was growing up. My brother and I always had a party for our friends and if it was a special birthday, my mother would make a family dinner for cousins and aunts that lived near-by. When I was first married we lived near my parents in the Jamaica Hill area in Queens, N.Y. I especially remember celebrating my “4th Wedding Anniversary” with my parents in a restaurant call “Patricia Murphy’s” in Manhasset, L.I. The baby-sitter arrived and was settling in with my children. My father and mother drove up in my Dad’s new car, (1953 Dodge, to pick up my husband, Gerry, and myself. It was about a 25 minute ride on the Parkway to the restaurant. I was married Dec. 24 1950 and this celebration was on Dec. 20th. The houses and trees that we sped by were lit up with holiday lights and festive decorations. This is always a very memorable time of the year! We had dinner reservations and my father dropped us off and parked the car. Sounds of music – “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” – were coming from the dining-room. The waitress led us to our reserved table and we studied the menu. The room was decorated with Christmas Bells and Santa Claus figures. A small decorated Christmas tree stood in a corner. It was a sight to behold! We ordered our dinners and the waitress brought a basket of rolls with “pop-overs” – the restaurant’s specialty. We all enjoyed our dinners and the closeness of being with family on a special occasion. It really was a very special day! I looked forward to the next family celebration….
I Love November
Jeanie Henry, 4/30/12
I love November. Many people don’t. If you live in New England, as I do, it can be cold and raw and a bit bleak, but the light has a different quality to it – there seems to be so much more of it. We don’t live in wide open spaces and the trees tend to confine us. To be sure, we need their shade in the hot summer months and we treasure the usual October brilliance, but once the leaves fall, the trees become distinct again; the woods are open to the sky. The whole world seems to expand. Sunsets tend to be dramatic – the air itself turns golden. I feel nostalgic and more alive. Summers can make me tired – the heat is enervating but the fall revives me and never disappoints. This is not a story – tho’ November brings abundant memories. Those from college years include football games and tail gaiting; trolley rides from New Haven to the Yale Bowl; Thanksgiving treats and turkeys; families and friends gathered together and all of us always thankful beyond any words for our many, manifold blessings.
Pat Broman, 2014
“I have arthritis” my mother said. “I need bed rest.” That was the cure for most of my mother’s aging ailments - complete rest - certainly no exercise. Indeed she was a a rather frail lady, but her generation did not usually believe in walking, fresh air and exercise as beneficial. Now we are told by every media the importance of exercise in our healthy lives. With all this however obesity is a national problem. In my parents’ generation, there were no “fast foods” and most foods were enjoyed in season and there were fewer choices. I find aging to be something of a struggle with attending physical problems and losses, but also strangely rewarding. One learns to appreciate what we have, even as our material possessions dwindle down and we adjust to smaller quarters. What we have are friends, family, good meals, a cozy place to live, exercise for mind and body, and time to learn and reflect. We here at Pomperaug Woods are fortunate as opposed to many who must decide between food and medicine. Their tales of aging would be a different story. I do wish I could take back some of the glib statements I made to my mother, for now I have a keener understanding of her aging problems. I also wish I had asked more questions and listened more closely to my parents in regard to their lives and the generations before. I know my mother used to say, “I may look like an old lady, but inside I’m still the young girl I was.” I have a friend who is 101, lives by herself on Cape Cod and is quite well - mentally and physically. She has had consuming artistic interests and talents all her life. She said to me: “Pat, we’ve had the best of it.” Yes, looking back, I think she is right. We’ve experienced so much - a safe and happy childhood, prosperity and then the Depression. During the crash, banks closed in 40 states out of 48. It was a tragic time as was World War II. Then there was the landing on the moon - still unbelievable, and the rapid growth of technology. Through the 30s and 40s there were artistic talents and developments in music, theater, art and film. They enrich our memories today. Sadly, we live now in a world of fear with new disclosures every day. Technology is developing faster than ever, but is it always a good thing? I feel it might be further isolating people. The computer is a wonderful tool, but there is a downside. Use of the cell phone, iPhone or smart phone have benefits but also have resulted in a certain coldness and loss of physical contact with family, friends and business associates. My son tells me it is important to always be available in business - nights, weekends, on vacation. Information is needed instantly. “The early bird gets the worm.” I have learned that eating a leisurely meal with others is beneficial socially, and mentally. I find the rich experiences of others interesting and stimulating. In communal living I have found one develops patience, understanding, tolerance and cooperation, hopefully becoming less self-centered. My grandmother lived with us until I went away to college. She was my dearest friend and the most rewarding influence of my life. I wish I had told her so. My advice to the next generation is to put down your cell phones, ask questions, and listen to what your peers and older people are really saying. One day you will be glad you did.