Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Happy Fourth

All of the Fourth of July’s of my childhood involved clear blue skies and perfect warm days. I am sure in reality there were Fourth’s where it rained, where the lake valley in the mountains of Vermont reached the unbearable heat and humidity that happens. People think the mountains and they think cool air. They don’t know about the days that reached 100 with the air so thick you could cut it with a blunt saw.

I think that the reason that I remember these days as being so perfect is because those days were always spent with Grandma Brown.

Florence Brown, nee Mallette was my mother’s mother. She was a grandmother straight out of central casting. She wore cotton house dresses and pinafore aprons. She kept her hair in a sensible pageboy and wore equally sensible, black Dr. Scholl’s shoes. Grandma was a country woman, raised on a farm, who didn’t drink and from whom I never heard a swear word. The strongest expressions I ever heard from her being “golly” and “my gosh”. Her only vice was Raleigh cigarettes. Grandma baked and cooked and put up pickles and vegetables and preserves. She raised a garden every year and the bounty from her little patch graced her table year round.

But the Fourth was a special day. We were sent off down the road to Hydeville to the house she kept for her son, my Uncle Burt, to spend the day and have a picnic at Grandma’s.

She spent days preparing. We kids would be sent out to pick strawberries days before, tiny fraise des bois, smaller than the tip of your pinky and sweeter than sin. These were used in strawberry rhubarb pie. There were always three kinds of pie at least. Strawberry rhubarb, blueberry and lemon meringue and sometimes there would be apple turnovers if there were still apples in the root cellar. Potato salad, macaroni salad and a green salad from the garden with radishes and whatever else good was in season. I had escarole salad long before it was a trendy dish for yuppies. I remember bitter escarole fresh from the garden with chopped chives and sour cream. Of course there were hamburgers and hot dogs, but they were served with piccalilli, green tomato relish and pickle relish that she had put up. Then there were the pickles. Sweet pickles, dill pickles, mustard pickles and bread and butter pickles. And there were always cookies. My grandmother always had cookies in the house in case we boys dropped in, which we did frequently. What I remember most were the molasses cookies and the sugar cookies. The molasses cookies were thick and cakey, like the best gingerbread you have ever eaten and the sugar cookies were as crisp as a freshly starched collar and as light as a cloud.

By the time we got to Grandma’s the preparations had been made and we would help bring things out to the picnic table in the back yard near her clothesline, setting out the red and white gingham print oilcloth on the green picnic table. Then the parade of food would begin until the board was groaning under the food. Quite often the bluebird house would have a family going and the stage was set for a Fourth of July picnic that couldn’t possibly have happened outside a movie from the 1930’s. Grandma is one of the few people I have ever known that could actually get bluebirds to nest in a bluebird house.

Grandma would say grace and then we would begin eating and Grandma, encouraging us to eat more would tell us stories about her childhood.

Grandma had been born on December 31, 1900, one of 12 children of French Canadian immigrants. Born and raised in Vermont, she and her siblings were unusual in having finished high school. Her father had been a teacher in Quebec before moving to Vermont to become a farmer, he encouraged all his children to finish their education. Her love of learning colored her life and she passed this love of knowledge on to us.

She would tell us stories about her 2 favorite brothers Andy and Poly, (Napoleon), all of those stories began, “Andy, Poly and I…” how they terrorized one of their teachers in the one room school house that they attended as small children by making themselves bows and arrows out of reeds, putting tacks in the ends of the reeds they used for arrows and ambushing him, climbing rocks in forbidden areas, swimming holes and the pastimes of a long past era. She would tell us about the first time she ever saw a horseless carriage, the first time she saw and airplane, about the music that was made in a house of musically talented children, she the only one unable to master the violin. She had been taking German when the US entered WWI and the school stopped teaching the language. Grandma kept her text books and taught herself German.

Sometimes the stories were sad, once about the loss of a younger brother to diphtheria. Another about the brother who was the most talented of all at the violin and how he hung himself in the barn one day, no one ever knew why.

Grandma had a hard life. She had married a wild Scot from Nova Scotia, who turned out to be a drunk and a spendthrift and she had divorced him. She raised 4 children in the depression, making a living cleaning houses. The second world war came and both her sons were sent over seas. She suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized in the state mental institution for 14 years. The state hospital in Vermont was notorious and the fact that she was able to overcome her illness is a testament to the strength of her will.

After she was released from the hospital, she lived with us briefly and then for economic reasons, she remarried Carrol Brown, so that they could combine their resources and live on their Social Security. She had never had much, so living on social security did not present any challenge to her that she was unequal to.

I didn’t really understand as a child how much these meals meant to my grandmother. It was in some way defiance in the face of want and it was about generosity and thankfulness for those things in life she loved and it was about love.

Grandma loved us boys. I don’t think I had ever given it much thought as a child, but we were the only ones of her grandchildren who visited her frequently. It think it must have been painful for her that my Uncle Joe’s daughters rarely came to call. Joe had been her favorite child, and she would tell us how she had saved a dime every week in order to save up enough money to help him buy his first car. His infrequent visits and the lack of contact with his family must have hurt in a way that Grandma never let show.

I loved that kind and gentle woman and these many years since her death I still do. I wish there had been some way that I could have shown her how much I loved her in the way that she showed her grandsons her joy in us by her annual display of plenty and generosity. Carefully planned and saved for out of a meager income, brought out of the ground with her own hands, prepared and then presented to us and while we were sustained with these good things we in turn sustained her with our pleasure in her offerings and her company.

In a fairly miserable childhood, I was given the gift of many happy Fourth of July’s, enough to last any man a lifetime. So on this Independence Day, I wish for you all to have as good a Fourth as any of the ones I had as a child.