Yea you read that right. Rocks. We picked them. Not by choice, you understand, but because we were instructed to. By Dad.
You see he was a cement man. He loved to mix cement and make things. Like steps and walkways, and every one of those things needed rocks for their foundations. Now at the house in Hopatcong, there were plenty of opportunities for him to plan such projects. One summer, maybe it was two, he built a walkway on the side of the house that then led to stairs that connected the front lower level of the property to the higher back end of the house. Now some people would have been satisfied with just walking up a grassy hill to get to the back, but not Dad. He wanted steps.
As anyone knows who has done such a project, you first have to dig out and level the ground that you want to build on. That was then filled with rocks and covered with wire mesh. The rocks had to “fit” together so that the wet cement would fill the crevices, and eventually form a solid. The gathering of the rocks, a sacred ritual in our house, a solemn task, was given to Don and me.
Now at the time, ours was one of the few houses in the area; the rest was woods, and meadows. So we, who let’s face it wanted to be playing whiffle ball on a bright sunny summer afternoon were sent out into said woods and meadows to pick the necessary rocks.
We were each given two buckets, to be filled with the right size rocks – that was problematic right there – and bring them back to Dad, who would be framing out the walk with two by fours. A wheelbarrow would have been helpful, but God Forbid we have one of those; no, we had plastic buckets that grew increasingly heavy with each successive trip. And we, not being experts at rock picking, of course, picked rocks closest to the house, which then meant that you had to go further each time to get more rocks, and carry the heavy load further and further each time. The rocks, of course, couldn’t be too big, nor too small, they had to be “just right” for the frame Dad had built. It took at least ten trips before we got a general idea of the size and shape of rock Dad wanted. There was nothing as frustrating as hauling a bucket of rocks in the hot afternoon, sweating from a powerful sun, only to have Dad reject what we had brought back as being the “wrong” rocks. “How can a rock be wrong??” Don would ask with exasperation (and a good deal of perspiration as well). Dad would give him “the look”, and he would know to not ask any further questions. Instead, he upturned his bucket of wrong sized rocks and set out to find the right ones. I followed my brother’s lead.
This went on for weekend after weekend. It came to the point where we prayed for heavy rain so we could get a break from the rock gathering. When it happened Dad would shake his head, disappointed that the project couldn’t progress. Don and I secretly rejoiced and stayed inside to watch television.
Eventually maybe by mid-August, our summer vacation slowly slipping away, we had amassed enough right sized rocks that Dad deemed it the right time to mix the cement.
This was done on an old piece of sheet metal, jagged at its edges, and bent in the center, that we would pour bags of dry concrete onto, and then make a depression in the middle of the pile to pour the water in. Now timing was very important here, because once the water came into contact with the dry concrete, it would immediately start to bind, so whoever was manning the shovel, most likely Dad, had to fold the cement into the water and keep on scooping and folding until it became a sloppy wet mass of cement. Then all hands on the shovels, the three of us would scoop the cement out and plop it on top of the wire mesh and the rocks underneath. This had to be done in stages as the amount of cement you can mix on one warped piece of metal is limited, so we frantically kept pouring more dry cement onto the pile and adding water and insanely kept trying to fold it into itself before it hardened.
The weather Gods were with us, or at least with Dad, as after a couple of weekends we had formed what was beginning to, lo and behold look like steps and a walkway. After that, even Don and I prayed it didn’t rain overnight and wash away what we had done, as it would have meant just more work the following weekend.
Finally, it was complete. It was left to harden, and the next morning, a bright sunny Sunday, Mom stepped out of the house and said: “How beautiful”. And we knew we had passed the test.
Looking it over at the time, as a child, I couldn’t see what the big deal was about. I was perfectly content to run up a hill, but Dad beamed with pride both at the job well done and at us for being an integral part of its completion. I suppose that alone made it worthwhile.
As I think I mentioned in a previous post one year, many years later I made a pilgrimage back to see the house. When I first got out of the car, I, of course, looked up at the house itself, its familiar façade, big windows on the front porch, still painted white with green trim. And then off to the side, I looked and there it still was, the walk leading to the stairs that led to the back of the house. They had held up all those years, and though of course time had taken a toll, they looked as sound as the day we finished the project. The house was empty by then, so nothing stopped me from wandering about, and before I went back to take one more look. I noticed a corner of the bottom step had cracked and the concrete was loose. I reached down and picked a piece of it off, and put it in my pocket.
I still have it.
Every once in a while I open the box it is stored in, take it out and gaze at what is really just a small slab of broken concrete.
But that’s not all I see.
I see a whole summer, no two summers, and I see Dad and Don, and piles of rocks, and cement, and I see Mom, standing proudly at the top of the stairs, smiling and saying simply: