Monday, July 4, 2011


My father’s parents lived near us, a short jaunt up the road. Because of our proximity to them and because my grandmother couldn’t seem to cook a meal for just two, we spent a great deal of time there. My mother’s parents lived several towns over, and we visited them about once a month. We often went on a Sunday to sit around the dining room table and catch up what had happened since we last saw each other. Most of the year we were served hot tea, which included an ice cube for the little ones. There was always toast with butter and jam, though sometimes we stayed for dinner.

My mother had several sisters who lived nearby, but their brother lived several states away. It was always a special occasion when he came to visit, bringing with him his wife and two daughters. Each time he came was like a reenactment of the prodigal son returning home. Given that my grandfather was a dairy farmer, there may have been the slaughtering of the fatted calf, but I have most likely blocked those scenes from my memory. These cousins were a little older than I was but we shared so much in common that I thought of them as sisters. Being the oldest in a family of girls, it was fun to pretend to be a younger sibling. Having them come to stay was a real treat and after dinner we would “retire to the sitting room.” This was a special room behind the kitchen that was rarely ever used. The rest of the time the couches just seemed to be there with their starched pillows silently begging for someone to sit on them. Sadly it wasn’t even an option, lest you run the risk of not being allowed to run around outside with the cousins. At that age I would much rather climb a tree then sit on a prissy, doily covered couch.

But when my uncle came to town we always gathered in that room to hear of all the latest adventures. I remember sitting on the floor amongst the cousins, all eyes and ears focusing as one. In my mind he is a great storyteller, much like an explorer arriving home with tales of foreign lands, plants and spices. Before he started he would always fill his pipe with tobacco and smoke it as he went along. I remember the smell and being rich and earthy, somewhat sweet even. He spoke eloquently, of what I can’t recall, but we hung on every word.

I can’t imagine how this scene would play out today. The world has gotten smaller and people have the opportunity to stay in contact in ways that weren’t possible years ago. And ironically if I saw someone smoking a pipe, I would certainly head the other way--I would surely cough from the smoke and the speaker’s words would be lost. I guess my lungs aren’t what they used to be. Still it is the ritual of these events that I miss the most. Letter writing, filling a pipe or making the pilgrimage to a relative’s house, they all carry with them a sense of tradition. There is a certain way of carrying out that action that can only be replicated intentionally and thoughtfully, with a particular mindset and mindfulness. These memories and others from my childhood patiently sit and wait for me to notice their beauty. I occasionally take them out and share them with others. Some are polished from so much use, I touch them often like beads on a necklace. Others are almost half-forgotten, buried in the muck until something triggers their ascension to the surface. As tarnished as an old tin, they are waiting for the day I take them out and hold them to the light for everyone to see.

When I was eight years old I wanted to be Ramona Quimby. Remember Ramona, from Beverly Cleary's books?  Boisterous, outspoken, brave, annoying, insatiable...  I've always been more like her big sister Beezus - responsible, contemplative, cautious. Ahem, boring. But I'm no fool. Ramona is where it's at. So I taped a Ramona name tag to my shirt and started begging for tin-can stilts. But our house was low on tin cans. Didn't my parents drink coffee? Didn't we recycle back then? Anyway, I found a couple of plastic tubs that worked find, except they collapsed around my eight-year-old feet and turned into a kind of leg trap that was difficult to get out of. And the noise on the pavement was tamer than it might've been with tin. But I was happy. I was just like Ramona, except my hair was long. Except that I never talked back to adults. Except that in my family there was one girl and hers had three.

The plastic tubs, before they became my tin-can stilts, held my grandfather's tobacco. He smoked a pipe - you'd never see him without a pipe. He smoked while he watched the Solid Gold dancers on the television, while he drove, while he painted at the picnic table in the backyard under the maple trees that made our world cool even while the rest of the world boiled in July heat. I can't tell you the name of the tobacco. The tubs it came in were white with black lettering. There may have been a picture of an old English cobblestone street. I used these same tubs to make paper mache pumpkins with a babysitter. Stranded bolts and nails wound up in these tubs and were forgotten on ancient windowsills in the big red barn. Grandpa's tobacco tubs ran their own highly successful breeding program and as a result we were never for want of a container.  Who needs tin cans?

What I could use these tobacco tubs for now: toys, compost, pens, dog food bowls, tomato plants. Tin can stilts.


  1. Great post.

    When I was 8, I was completely drawn in by the Ramona series and all the other Beverly Cleary books. I, too, was the oldest girl in my family and it was nice to get a little nuts with Ramona...another one I liked was Sheila The Great. I think I indentified more with that kooky character...I even slept with the covers over my ears because I was afraid a spider would crawl in there...

    It is strange to have communication with far flung members of the family at the touch of a finger. I can't help but feeling that having them that near makes us value them less. We're never seized by the imperative of the moment...we think we'll chat with them tomorrow or next week...and then it never happens.

  2. Oh, Sheila the Great! Loved her. And Vicky Austin. Old friends...

  3. Your description of the pipe tobacco containers was precious - of course I too used them as a child and they always smelled good - when I was small he smoked Briggs pipe tobacco that came in a brown container with gold lettering; he then switched to others, the names of which escape me. He also occasionally smoked cigars (Cohiba) and cigarettes (Paul Mall reds - king size). But the pipe in his mouth always is what I remember - and his reaction when he'd loose the pipe from his mouth and set his lap on fire - he could really move fast. Love, Eric

  4. I had a pair of stilts, too, only mine were made from 2 x 4s and my Dad made them for me. I would stalk around the neighborhood on them, loving the tok-tok-tok sound they made! (and there is no way that you were EVER boring!)