Sunday, June 22, 2008

Childhood Reminders

We spent a few days with dear wife's sister and our niece in PA. They live in the beautiful area north of Philadelphia and the weather was perfect - cool, with variable clouds and a few short showers and fireflies for catching in the evenings. We toured several local sites, had a good visit, ate a lot of good food (prepared at their home and eaten out), and headed home very tired but happy. Today is a very quiet day at home, as we recharge our introverted batteries before getting into our hectic schedules on Monday. We might have stayed a day longer in PA, but we know we need this day of transition or we'll explode a few days into the week. There's also just enough culture difference between our home here in the NC South and the Northeast that we need a day to re-orient.

On trips like this to the Mid-Atlantic States, I'm always surprised how simple things remind me of my childhood in Gallatin, NY, about 120 miles north of NYC, in Columbia County. We lived on an old farm, that hadn't been worked in decades, with other farms in various states of use or re-use all around us. Old barns with silos remind me of then. On this trip I was also reminded by the smell of blooming linden trees, and the sight of sweet peas blooming on the way up route 29 into VA.

The bird songs struck me the most this trip. Several of the calls, red winged blackbirds, house wrens, song sparrows, in particular, took me instantly back to childhood. We saw and heard Baltimore orioles once, as well, and I recall what a fuss we would make each spring when a pair returned to make their grassy bag nest in our largest maple tree. My grandmother, who then lived in Highland, NY, but had lived in Maryland for a while as a young bride and mother, loved them dearly and always went outside to look for them when she visited. At the time I was too young to understand why, but the sight of the lovely orange and black birds made me choke up a bit with the combined recollection of my own childhood and the reflected realization of how much these birds might have meant to my Nana.

And I was stopped short in the restrooms at George Washington's Headquarters, in Valley Forge, PA, when we encountered this long serving relic of my past. Nearly every room in our big white elephant of a farm house in NY was heated by one or more of these beasts. The sound of them heating up or cooling off was our lights-out lullaby in the winter months. I recall the huge hot shiny version in the boys' room at elementary school, where boys would smuggle unwrapped Crayola crayons to leave on the top. They melted and created gorgeous colored stripes down the sides. My favorite stripes were aquamarine and vermilion. I can't remember if I had the guts to add my own, or if I just admired the others'.

I was also reminded of a big radiator in our aunt's and uncle's spare bedroom in Poughkeepsie, NY. They had wall-to-wall carpet, which was a novelty to us. Our house had beautiful wide-board floors, sanded and polished to perfection by my parents, with braided rugs in the centers of rooms, or by furniture, for a warm place for feet on cold days. At our aunt's and uncle's house my brother and I would shuffle around the dusky room after sunset, with slippers soled with the right material to build up a big charge, and when we felt our hair getting weird on our heads we would shuffle to the big iron radiator, stick out our tongues (the wet surface made the spark more intense, and it was close to our eyes), and reach slowly forward. I've never heard louder nor seen brighter sparks than those in that darkening room. We would howl with pain and laughter, showing our tongues to each other to see if we'd made a black charred spot on the tip THAT time, and then would repeat the entire operation, trying to build up an even larger spark. The urge for a bigger spark warred with impatience to go try it again.

And the sound of our nine year old son playing with his six year old cousin also reminded me of visits to cousins in New Paltz and Highland, NY. We also invented our own games using what we had at hand. We also caught fireflies in the yard after sunset. We also got toys stuck up in trees. We also played as hard as we could until long after bedtime, when we were carried off protesting to the car, and where we barely heard the engine start before we were out cold, waking an instant later in our own driveway, protesting further about the impossible walk on boneless legs to our beds upstairs.

(The painting above is a watercolor dream view of our home in Gallatin, NY. It's called From Turkey Hill and it looks across the stream rapids that colored the sound scape of my childhood. My brother owns this painting.)

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