Saturday, September 1, 2012


The sun's heat baked into my skin as I trudged up the steep mud driveway.  I could smell wild roses in full bloom in the ditches, could hear the distant song of crickets, could see to the right, more and more of the barn - first the roof, then the walls - as I got closer to the top of the hill.  At the top of the hill and to my left stood the old farmhouse.  

But what caught my eye first - and every time without fail - were the soft brown eyes of my friend Princess as she trotted toward me from the barn.  Princess was a dog - a yellow Labrador and border collie mix, most likely, with a few other things thrown in.  Nobody had purebred animals in this backwater community.  Her doggie grin welcomed me; her liquid brown eyes sparkled in excitement.

She turned, knowing I'd follow her, and trotted to the barn.  I'd never seen a dog before or since climb the built-in ladder to the hayloft, but she could.  She led me slowly over to a spot about twenty feet or so from the edge of the loft, well away from the place where anyone could fall off and get hurt.  She gingerly circled a spot in the floor where a pile of puppies lay sleeping, tangled and nestled up in each other's bodies.  She laid down and looked up at me, eyes ever expressive.  It was like she was saying, "These are my babies. Aren't they something?"  I'd pet them for at least ten minutes - this part I didn't want to rush.  In fact, I didn't want to rush ANY part of this... this refuge from my usual world.  

I'd gotten permission to walk up and go visit this place - with the understanding that I be back at a certain time.  There was so much to see there, that it would be a few hours before I was expected back. 

Reluctantly, I climbed out of the hay loft and made my way out of the barn and toward the house, dodging free-range chickens and their chicks bunched around them as I crossed the yard. Prince, the old retired guard dog, a Keeshond - Shepherd mix, wagged his tail at me from the side porch.  I turned and headed toward the back porch entrance.  I could have gone in the side where Prince was, but he was resting, and I wanted to see what was in the back hallway.  
Got this picture of cuteness HERE

There was usually a cardboard box half-way up the forty-foot hallway, which was a gigantic mud-room in today's terms.  In the box I would invariably find a litter of kittens and their mother.  I could visit with them for a little while too.  The animals soothed my soul.  They never asked anything from me but my presence. I needed that.  

After the kittens had gone to sleep - I got up and tip-toed toward the door that led to the kitchen.  The oil stove was on one wall and the wood stove - pressed into service for larger crowds - was to my right as I came in the door.  I could smell wood ash, galvanized steel (buckets), and something delectable that made me close my eyes in bliss. 

Gram was there.  She was making a pan of new-potato hash: these days I guess people call them hash browned potatoes.  My favorite.  

"You must be hungry.  Why don't you wash up and we'll sit and have a bite to eat."  It was more of a statement than a question.  Nobody dared turn down Gram's new-potato hash, made in an iron skillet with boiled new potatoes, and chopped fine using a "hash can" - an old tomato sauce can with one end open and honed sharp around the circular edge, and a hole in the top to let out steam, placed there by the kind of can openers you open a can of apple juice with.  The rhythmic "chock, chock, chock, chock, chock [pause] tap-tap-tap" of Gram chopping the potatoes and then tapping them out of the can is so vivid I can almost still hear it.  She served the steaming hot hash on a fluted old china plate and placed it on the table. I pulled a fork out of a cup of clean utensils on the table.

I'd sit and tuck into my food, and Gram would just talk about everything and nothing to me - as if I mattered.  Nothing she said was ever a criticism of me or of anyone else, as I recall.  I remember feeling as though I wanted to be there, to stay there.  It was so different from the home life I knew.  I offered to help her with the dishes and she accepted.  But it didn't feel like a chore. It was another way to interact with her, to experience the atmosphere that was this house, this refuge away from feeling like I was nothing.

I knew to stay out of her husband's way of course - he was that crotchety and mean, so I usually visited when he was away at work - but often Gram would give me the run of the house and let me play in the tiny upstairs bedrooms -there must have been about six of them - and peek through the rails in the banister into the parlor, where she would have a quilt set up in the frames ... or perhaps a card table for games with the neighbors later that evening.  

At the foot of the stairs, right beside a large black and white reproduction of a print of Queen Victoria, sat a large table on which was the biggest birdcage I'd ever seen with finches - at least four finches in it. Heep, heeeep, they would call to each other in thin, reedy voices.  I could listen to them and feel my muscles relax.  

When it was finally time to go, I would linger on the walk home - back to the normal world where there were expectations, and nothing I did pleased her - away from this one where Gram reigned with grace and gentleness.

I knew I would be back.  Again and again.

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