Thought this would be a nice follow up to Don’s last post. I wrote it months ago waiting for the right time; seems like this is it.
Aunt Mildred and Uncle San had a country home in Taconic Connecticut, a beautiful place nestled on the Massachusetts border. I am not sure what year they purchased the home and the land, but they added to it over the years, and there are old photographs of San, Uncle Dick and Dad breaking their collective backs to build a fish pond out in front of the home.
We would go to the house at Thanksgiving very early on, along with Uncle Dick, Aunt Mary, our cousins Lorraine and Robin, and going way way back Aunt Flo and Uncle Joe. I don’t have too many memories of my times there with Flo and Joe because Joe died at a very early age and I was just too young to remember him well but there are some vague ones floating around in my mind. And he became immortal with one great line.
The house was a classic country home, the genesis of which was a small colonial-era stone structure with a kitchen and dining room on the ground level and two bedrooms on the second floor. In time a breezeway, formal dining room, living room, recreation room, and extra bedrooms would be added, so my last memories of the place were of a large sprawling expanse of a house that could in the right circumstances, as Don pointed out, be downright scary.
Besides Thanksgiving, our the usually went for a week in the summertime as well. Back then the area was pretty rural, with a few more large stone homes in walking distance, but mostly it was horse and dairy farms; and there were lots and lots of deer everywhere. This, of course, delighted me no end as a little city kid, but just as today some people value their geraniums more than they do a beautiful creature like that, it was hunting country as well. Uncle San kept a couple of rifles hanging on the stone wall in the large dining room above a huge fireplace. There was also one of those long horns that you hear at horse shows to trumpet the arrival of a fancy coach or signal the start of a fox hunt. Thankfully I never witnessed a fox hunt as you can guess whose side I would be on in that one so the only use the horn or trumpet or whatever you call it got was when Uncle Joe was up extra early and wanted company. He would sound the thing and wake the nearby dead.
We would take many walks through the countryside each of us children being allowed to choose one of Uncle San’s wooden walking sticks and we were allowed to visit the cows and sheep in the surrounding farms. Kinda cool for a city kid. These walks were usually before breakfast which was a big meal then, and Aunt Mildred would never attend them, given her role as hostess and also because she was rather large and had trouble walking. As our crowd walked back to the house one morning, Joe would utter that immortal line I referred to. Mildred waited at the top of the steps as we came around a turn in the road, he quietly said to us, so that Uncle San couldn’t hear:
“Don’t shoot, don’t shoot – it’s Mildred, not a deer!”
Needless to say, Mildred and San wanted to know why us kids were all trying so valiantly not to laugh at breakfast.
But as I said Joe left us early and Flo never came herself again in my memory at least. We still went and enjoyed our visits even though food-wise there was a problem. In the basement of the house was a large freezer and shelves for canned goods. Mildred was a believer in freezing leftovers more sane people would throw in the trash or give to a hog.
So when it came to planning dinner, and Mom and Mary would suggest a run to one of the many very nice farmers’ markets, Mildred would object as she said there was all the food we needed in the basement.
Now Mildred was no cook; that was clear from the get-go, but even a bad cook can make a passable meal with good ingredients. But when you start with food that was moldy when you froze it five years ago, you can count on not having a gastronomic treat at the dinner table. We all, adults and children, sat smiling complimenting her on corn that was undercooked, beans that smelled like they had been baked weeks ago, meat that a leather shoe would give a good run for its money, and the vegetables…well, forget about them. Dessert was cream pies, freshly defrosted and about ten years old. The only thing that I found myself eating was bread and butter and lots of it, though of course, I was under orders to eat everything and like it. What was needed was a dog with a death wish, that we could feed under the table and get rid of the junk. And in fact, Lorraine and Robin did get a dog one year and brought him and yes he was the recipient of lots of things I wouldn’t touch. One particular dinner, however, my brother and I and Cousin Lorraine watched in stunned silence as Cousin Robin took seconds and thirds of the granite corn and moldy greens. Later when we were alone we all asked him the obvious question:
“Are you fucking nuts? What was up with all the food?! And his answer shamed us. Turns out he was taking one for the team. “ I figured,” he said, “If we didn’t eat it all tonight, as bad as it was, she would just feed it to us again tomorrow night and it would be one day worse.” Gotta hand it to him. I couldn’t have done it. Later he showed us the rolls of Tums he evidently bought wholesale, popping them continuously all day long.
And then there was the memorable night Mildred wanted to take us all to see a wholesome family film, The Song of Norway. To this day I hate that film; get ill when I hear the soundtrack (thankfully not often). Mildred, however, hummed along the whole time embarrassing us even in the empty theater and I would guess maybe Mom and Mary liked it. But I remember having my first thoughts of what would someday be called “going postal”.
But the evening was not all lost for on the way home, a strange thing occurred which to this day we cannot explain. The roads around us were lonely two-lane country ones, with no light except what the moon and your car’s headlights gave you. We were the only car on the road as we drove back to the house until suddenly there appeared a pair of headlights behind us, gaining fast. Within seconds a car was tailgating us, but it never honked, or more logically tried to go around us. At least at first. And then in a flash it did; it shot out into the other lane quickly overtook us, got in front of us……and slowed down. Dad was in the front passenger seat and didn’t like that at all. No wonder. And then to add some more madness to the scene we happened to be passing a cemetery and up ahead on the side of the road was one lone man waving and pointing the way into the graveyard as if to say “ this way in…room for a few more”. Ok, now we were scared or at least I remember Lorraine and I were scared. The car in front continued to slow, forcing Mildred to slow. Now why she didn’t just go around it, I don’t know but it’s a good question. In hindsight what was probably happening was there was something going on in the cemetery, one hopes legal and of this world, and the guy out front was waving in the car in front of us, and not us at all. But who was thinking clearly at that point? Dad, being the Marine he was decided on a tactic. He simply said.
“Don’t stop Mildred…just ram right through him” meaning the car ahead.
To which we in the back seat were like: “Ummm…hellooo.. wait maybe we don’t need to do that” but who was listening to us kids? And honestly I think Mildred would have done it; the car was a huge station wagon with enough horsepower and real metal to probably have accomplished it, but why anyone would choose that line of action was beyond me. I remember at the time thinking:’ Note to self – maybe don’t always take Dad’s advice”.
Anyway the crisis was averted. The car ahead indeed calmly turned into the cemetery, the guy waving him in disappeared and all of a sudden we were the only car on the lonely country road again.
When we got home, Mildred broke out the brandy and even us kids got a small taste, as we sat around the kitchen table. I remember Cousin Robin’s hands shaking as he took the glass to his mouth. And I don’t blame him one damn bit. It was devilish odd as they say, and we heard no more about it though we scoured the newspapers, and listened to the radio to hear something about a project going on in the nearby cemetery. But nothing.
Maybe it wasn’t legal.
Or of this world.
So no neat ending to that story, except I slept well that night having discovered my love for brandy.
If only the next day at dinner, we were allowed a glass or two, the boiled beef would have gone down a little easier.