family get-togethers to remember old times … by one o’the nine

Well it’s 2012 already but it feels about the same as the old one what with the Republicans still campaigning since they started around the end of 2008. I don’t make resolutions for the new years. Don’t believe in them. Like dieting, they don’t last long, so I don’t even bother. I did decide to work on a list of things that need doing soon. Like cleaning my half of the office. I’m prompted to do so because I can’t find my plugin for my (old-fashioned, outdated) Ipod. It took me two weeks to remember what the container I hid it in looks like. Now, with any luck, I’ll round it up in a few weeks so I can update and charge it and take it to the gym with me–I NEED the distraction! No matter what they tell me, exercising does NOT make me happy. No resolutions there–just a sincere effort to change lifestyle. That does work. I can tell already. The other big item on my list is to clean up my Wintersong archives–I’m sure there’s a lot in there that would embarrass me now. In fact, I’ve already been rewarded! Back in ’09, before the big C days of 2010, I put in drafts of many one o’the nine posts from my story-telling uncles (now deceased) down in Florida. Lots of people seem to like them, and I thought I’d used them all up and forgot they were there in the drafts. There are very few left now–here’s one I hope you like. With the holidays just past us, I expect some of you have your own stories to tell from your family gatherings. I’d enjoy them if you care to leave a comment.

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Last week I ate supper with all of my brothers who are still living except one. While we were eating, one of them–named “Speckle”–told me he wanted me to write a retraction on something I had written about him. About three weeks ago, I wrote about Speckle sitting in church winding his 75¢ pocket watch. Now the reason he was winding it was so people would know he had a watch. He wanted me to correct a big mistake about him and watch. He informed me that it cost 79¢ and he didn’t want people to get the idea that he was some kind of cheapskate that would buy a 75¢ watch. Well, here is the retraction, Speckle, but it sure looked and sounded just like a 75¢ watch to me. We had a wonderful time together at supper talking about the good old days when we were children growing up on the farm. We only have a chance to get together once in a great while, and when we do you can bet we always have to talk about the good old days.

There were nine of us boys and one girl. The dining room table was a long, homemade table with benches that sat on each side, also homemade. I well remember the good food my mama used to put on that old table for us younguns to eat. There were peas, potatoes, lima beans, cornbread and raw onions. There was all kinds of greens with pot likker. In case you don’t know what pot likker is, it was the juice or liquor that the vegetables cooked in. There is nothing better than a bowl of pot likker and a big chunk of Mama’s cornbread. We also had a big glass or fruit jar full of buttermilk or clabber to go with our meal.

While my brothers and I were together that evening, my brother we call “Goat” asked me to write a story about the times we went chinquapin hunting and also tell about the sassafras tea we used to drink. Well, I would mention it now, but I can’t spell chinquapin or sassafras. I will assure you when I learn to spell them I will tell you all about it.

We had a wonderful time together talking about good times, and may I suggest that you call all of your brothers and sisters and get together again and talk about the good old days. It doesn’t matter if you were raised on the farm or in the city, I’m sure you can find something worthwhile to talk and laugh about. A good laugh will do you more good than a dose of Castor oil.

Postscript: Speckle was my father, although I was not aware at the time that he carried that particular nickname. The reference to “cheapness” is right on. He bought everything according to price tag. My poor mother was never able to just buy something because she liked it even if she could afford it. That explains the plastic panels with garish flowers printed all over that we used on all the windows and called curtains. And the mohair couch we sat on to watch the wonder of the technological age of the times–television! When it was new it scratched your legs (girls were only allowed to wear dresses then) something awful! Does anyone know what Chinquapins are? They seem to grow all over the states, and even in Japan. Some species grow into large trees, but around the swamp land we lived on, they were more like large shrubs and the “fruit” looked very much like chestnuts covered with a protective, prickly bark. I never ate any that I remember because you need special expertise getting them out of the covering. However it’s spelled (Chinquapin seems to be preferred), Chinkapin is the English name. I’ve indulged in a lot of Sassafras tea since it’s something Mama would brew when we were sick and you could still find it in the woods for free, and of course I drank a lot of pot likker in my time. Now if you’re one of the few left who know what clabber is, you get an A and moved to the front of the history class! Cornbread was also legendary in our southern country home. My son-in-law, who grew up in Germany, thinks corn is for pigs, but I don’t care. I’m glad he refuses to touch my melt-in-your-mouth creamed corn, since it leaves more for me to enjoy. But the world, she does keep a-changing, doesn’t she! Don’t forget the family stories!  

Stealing Christmas Trees

Deck the halls with boughs of holly! And don’t forget the re-runs! Hope you enjoy this one of Christmas in a simpler time. Hope you’re having a magical season!

This is about the time of year that, for many years, my sister and I would take off for our long, once a year walk through the piney woods of the neighboring farm where we grew up in north Florida. Since I was six years younger and “the puny one”, my job would be to “lookout” for people–more specifically interfering grownups–while my sister scouted around looking for the perfectly shaped eastern red cedar to grace our living room for Christmas.

It wasn’t often that she included me in her adventures–that privilege was usually reserved for my brothers, nearer her age and older–so for several years it was one of the rare times I felt connected as a sibling. Most of the time, she had little use for a snot-nosed little sister who had come along and snatched away her notoriety as the only girl in the family. Naturally it was a highlight of my year, and even though there was a sense of urgency that kept my stomach in knots during those quick and yearly excursions, I didn’t call it stealing. I guess that’s exactly what it was.

Prior to these years, neither set of grandparents nor my family ever had Christmas trees as far as I can remember. And it wasn’t until my sister was old enough to take care of the details herself that we enjoyed one in our house. Even though my father was tight fisted with his money, if anyone could make him relent, it was me and she knew it.

So she would whisper to me what to beg him to buy the next time we were in our Uncle’s general store in Providence. That’s how we came to own one strand of exactly seven lights, and one box each of silver icicles and angel hair that we re-boxed and re-used every year. Our other decorations we made ourselves–from yarn-wrapped dried hickory pods or pinecones–and colored glass balls salvaged from used Christmas corsage available in McCrory’s dime store for around 50 cents.

Our neighbor planted white slash pines. They take about 30 years to reach saw-timber size, but trees should ideally be thinned out at an earlier stage and sold for use as pulpwood. On a good site, a well-stocked stand of slash pine can also produce about two cords of wood per acre per year. It was a good investment if you had a lot of land or didn’t like to do a lot of work, so there were acres of it growing in the two to three miles distance along a country road between our home and his.

There were also several big NO TRESPASSING signs posted along the way, but for some reason this was where all the best red cedar trees grew wild, scattered in an around the growing pines.

On the appointed day my big sister would take my hand in one hand and a handsaw held close to her front thigh in the other, and we’d sett off together on foot. To casual passers-by, we were just two sisters out for a walk on a Saturday afternoon. After we’d walked a distance where the trees began to grow thicker, we’d climb over a barbed wire fence, and disappear among the trees and begin to breathe a bit easier in our cover of foliage.

“There,” I’d say when I spotted my first cedar tree. Then, seeing another possibility, “No, there!” But my sister had her own idea of what constituted the perfect tree. When she found it, even if it was five- or six-feet tall or more–as it usually was–she would select the top 24 inches or so to saw off, leaving behind the carcass of a headless tree. She knew we couldn’t have managed getting a larger one back home. Even if we could have, we neither had lights, or icicles, nor angel hair enough to decorate it. She always had a penchant for insisting the smaller the tree, the prettier and more magical it looked.

Passing cars or trucks were usually few, and always far between along that country road, so we’d stand the tree upright against the barbed wire fence if we saw any coming into our view. We’d wave at whoever was driving by, and continue down the road after they were gone.

Once we were safely back home, we’d “root” the tree in wet sand in a small tub we used for washing feet. Then we’d set it on a small table in the middle of the living room window. Then we’d go to the barn and dig out the small but growing collection of Christmas decorations we hoarded from year to year to see what the rats had left intact. Being the oldest, of course my sister took control of the decorating. She put the lights on first, then she’d point to where I could hang each of the ornaments, and together we’d carefully drape the silver icicles evenly over the tree–until the very ends that were too short to drape. I’d fling those on and let them fall where they may. Decorations were far too sparse to leave any off.  When everything else was done to perfection, my sister would pull the angel hair from its box, and stretch it very carefully so that it enshrouded the entire tree.

When she finished, we’d plug the lights into the wall socket, then wait for darkness to fall so we could go outside and see how it looked to anyone driving by. From outside, the lights were enveloped with tiny halos–very like those around the virgin Mary’s and Christ child’s head in nativity scenes. Every year for what seemed like my whole childhood, though on reflection I know it couldn’t have been so, she and I created this magic again and again.

Naturally, then, my sister is on my mind every year around this time, especially since she died of breast cancer in March of 1995. She was only 59 years old. For many years since then, I’ve tried to scheduled my yearly mammogram during the month of December. I like to think it’s what she would want me to do now that I have a tall plastic tree to decorate each year now that it’s practically impossible to steal trees anymore. And while it’s beautiful with the fancier decorations I’ve collected between the years passed and now, a part of me has to admit it that plastic Christmas tree doesn’t hold nearly as much magic as those tiny little trees of long ago.

a day in nagpur looking for the old days & ways

Very early the second morning after our arrival in Bombay, we flew off once again–jet setters we are!–to visit Hubby’s sister and brother-in-law in Nagpur where  Hubby was born and often refers to as “home.” This is his sister Saradi.

And this is her husband, Dr. Nagarajan, the author of some of the more distinguished comments on a few of my Wintersong posts. Quite the educated pair, he holds several PhDs as well as one D. Litt already and currently working on a second. She earned her master’s degree after her kids were born. These are the posed versions of the two, the resulting likeness you get when you ask someone if it’s okay if you take their picture. Very nice, but only revealing how you looked the day the photograph was taken.

But do they show the real “you”? Invariably the pictures I like best are those taken without warning, preferably after someone has just cracked a joke or repeated an old family story. This is my favorite pictures of these two; it’s the image of them I now carry around in my head.

Then, as is often customary when you visit someone’s home for the very first time–particularly when you’re staying overnight–there’s a quick tour to show you where things are. This is Saradi’s kitchen with that familiar two burner stovetop similar to the others I’ve been seeing in homes I’ve visited (and the houseboat in Kerala).

When I spotted this sewing machine in an extra bedroom, it took me back to my childhood and my own mother’s old straight-stitch Singer sewing machine. This model is India’s answer to Singer, an Usha,  and is about 70 years old according to Hubby, probably purchased not too many years after India first produced their own indigenous sewing machine in 1934. This one works by turning the wheel on the right with your hand while pushing the pedal to and fro with your feet. I remember how tiring that was when I was forced to take a home conomics class in my old grade school in Florida.

Shelves in the living room are filled with books, several of which were authored by Dr. Nagarajan himself. Imagine my surprise–and pride–when I spied my own there as well (the book with the red spiral binding in this stack).

We made our way through several cups of tea and coffee and other treats Saradi had kept in store for us in short time. We spend a couple or more hours in the local Orthopedic clinic to check my thigh that was still quite bothersome and happy after the x-rays when Doc assures us there’s nothing more serious than hemotoma and that all that’s needed is a few days of rest. After lunch we take the car and driver hired for the day to explore the old haunts of Nagpur. Our first stop led to a short hike around a quiet garden alongside a very large lake. (I wish I’d taken more and better notes because now I can’t remember what it was called.) Not far in, we felt we’d been catapulted into a lover’s lane rather than a public garden.

Imagine the chagrin of the two couples from the photo above, shown closeup here. They obviously thought they’d found the perfect hideaway from prying eyes until I showed up with camera in hand. The couple on the left pull a thin scarf to cover their heads, but the seemingly oblivious couple on the green bench behind the umbrella, backs to us, are pretty sure they’re safe. Oooooh, despicable me!

 Hubby was really surprised to see so many college age men and women co-mingling along the path. That is not the India he remembered leaving behind 45 years ago. There were couples (some even smooching surreptitiously) everywhere.

We all wondered aloud if the parents of these students knew where their children were. Clearly, India today is not the India that Hubby remembers. Even Saradi was amused but still a bit taken aback at such public displays of affection. This behavior was unheard of during her college years.

Our tour continued with a search for the neighborhood where they had lived when they were young. Instead of the row of small bungalows they remembered, their old street was covered with a partially completed, several storied glass and aluminum shopping structure. It was hard to imagine what it had been like all those years ago. There’s the street corner where Dr. Gayaprasad’s practice had been–the building still standing where the family went when in need of medical treatment. They fondly recollected the doctor. In Hindi “Gaya” means gone and “Prasad” means blessings. They remembered that everytime they had to visit him, the doctor would jovially remind them that after he was born and given the name Gayaprasad, there were no blessings left. Funny, the memories of childhood that stay with you forever.

After I turned 25 or so, I began to realize the only constant in life is change. Various learned people have said so. Thomas Wolf reminded us of  it when he wrote You Can’t Go Home Again, and Greek philosopher Heralitus (c 535 BC-475 BC) when he said you cannot step twice into the same river, for other waters are continually flowing on. But I maintain that–for some of us–the only human begging routinely for change is a wet baby.

We did find another neighborhood nearby reminiscent of the old one, at least close enough that Hubby was quick to point it out to me. Even though the light of day was fast fading, I snapped a picture. With a bit of photoshopping, I could see a row of bungalows behind a shopping district with restaurants and clubs…unlit streets…young people milling about. I tried to imagine a little boy around 10 playing in the unlit streets with his three older brothers and the neighborhood gang of boys whose fathers could be heard cursing them for not being at home studying. By reputation, only Hubby and his three older brothers could afford to ignore their studies for play because they were all No. 1 in their classes, thus had no need to study.

No visit to a new city can be complete, of course, until we’ve had a meal in a fancy restaurant, even though Hubby pointed out I’d posted enough food pictures already. We ate in what appeared to be a restaurant popular with the locals. Dr. Nagarajan ordered family sized portions of some of our favorites shown here on my plate, left to right clockwise from 11 o’clock position, spinach saag, bhindi (okra–sometimes called “lady’s fingers” in India) masala, a curry of mixed vegetables, and dal. On the table are slices of raw onion and a flat Indian bread.

The restaurant’s decor was quite unlike that of the typical Indian restaurant in the U.S. This one featured artfully arranged, three dimensional thread spools on a quilted background of dark blue fabric.

Sculptured birds in flight above narrow fabric covered pastel panels create a colorful backdrop that suggest to me lakes, mountains, and other natural vistas.

Outside as we were looking for our car and driver, Dr. Nagarajan pointed at the theater across the street. He mentioned that he and his wife had often had dinner in the same restaurant and attended movies when they were younger.

I hadn’t seen them for several years, the last time being around 1995. I remembered Dr. N was feted a year ago with a celebration of his 80th birthday. Saradi, in her 70s, was several years younger. Measuring them in terms of my own aging, I expected to find an old, frail couple. For that reason we limited our visit to only an overnight stay. What we found instead was a couple with seemingly limitless energy and enthusiasm for life. While Dr. N and myself were less willing or able to scout about on foot, Saradi almost put all of us to shame during our shopping expeditions of the day to find the perfect gold earrings as a gift for me (I wear them nearly all the time now) and a stylish Indian Kurta (off-white with gold trim) for Hubby. When we left to return to Bombay early the next morning, we were wishing that we had been able to extend our stay a bit longer so we could have spent more time with them.

nights “down and out” in goa

In Florida, where I grew up, you can drive all the way south to Key West from about Savannah, Georgia on U.S. Highway A1A along the coastline. All the while the ocean will nearly always be within sight on your left. I guess I expected Goa to look something like that, but it wasn’t. On the long ride from the airport in Panaji, we’d get only occasional glimpses of water in the distance, but nothing really stupendous jumped out at me until we crossed this long bridge. The sight of oceans and marinas always stirs my blood a little, probably because of the Florida connection. (This begins the “out” portion to which the title refers. The “down” part will come a little later.)

During our stay we arranged to take a Sunset Cruise that featured a Goan dance troupe performing a program, for our cultural entertainment, of folk and religious dances with traditional dress. One of the dances was the Portuguese peasant dance, unsurprisingly spanish-influenced. It was still daylight when we got on the boat for departure, so there was a chance for a little sightseeing before the sun went down. If memory serves, the palatial tile-topped building in the skyline in the photo below is the Baga Marina Beach Resort Hotel. There’s also a church and a dome-topped orange temple, and you can see what appears to be homes along the edge of the river.

Then the sun begins to take on the appearance of a giant over-easy egg yolk as it begins its dip from a pink colored sky into the golden sun-rays splattered on the water. Then we hear the music and the dancers make their appearance. At its conclusion, the D.J. begins a selection of music, and invites the audience to come down to dance. The stage is quite small, so he designates couples only, ladies only, etc. so everybody has an equal chance to enjoy themselves. The rest of us watch and laugh and drink. The best part comes near the end when the men are invited to come on down! to dance Bollywood style. Yay! ML commented that she had never seen so many men dancing together and alone, except maybe on a trip to Greece many years ago, or maybe a gay dance bar. I reckon it all depends on how many drinks you’ve consumed that makes the difference, but it’s a sight none of us will ever forget. (Sorry the photo is so dark, but it is night as I said.)

We passed several boats that were mostly dark like the one we were on. This boat seemed to be a more glamorous casino-type cruise with lights flashing, but whenever we passed by I didn’t see many people about. Maybe the liquor on the lighted boat was better and everybody had already passed out on the lower decks. Or maybe the big spenders were just being tight that evening.

I wanted to show you this picture, (below) because it illustrates what I’ve said several times how you should always walk in India with your eyes cast downward to where you’re walking. Imagine if you were walking down this street on a dark night, maybe to drink a few bottles of Kingfisher (beer) at Molly Malone’s. And let’s say that there are parked cars,  and other cars passing you on your left, and you decide to move to your right to avoid the traffic. One minute you’re on solid land, the next minute you’re stepping into an abyss. An accident just waiting to happen.

That’s exactly what I did trying to avoid the traffic and ended up in the drainage ditch in the picture below. It doesn’t look very deep, but I’m sure it’s about 24 inches deep at least. What a thing to happen not even half way into our trip. I had a cut in my hand, dug some glass out in the bathroom of the restaurant we were going to, and a purple/black bruise from my hip to my knee. It only faded completely a couple of weeks after I returned home. There’s no such thing as a hazard warning for pedestrians. But this accident was one that waited for me!

By the way, the dogs usually lie in the streets. I asked Hubby why they lie in the streets where, by the looks of all those limping around on three legs, they’re being run over or killed. Because they don’t belong to anyone, he said, they’re fed or get their food from whatever they can find around town and on the beaches. Sometimes families will take turns feeding them, but if they go into a yard to rest they’re shushed away by the property owner. So if they’re not on the beaches, they’re in town. The only place they can rest is on the street. There are hundreds of these pye dogs, which literally means “ownerless half-wild Asian dog,” around. They’re very docile, but I try very hard not to look at them because they seem so sad. I think how horrible it would be to go through life with no one to care for and love you, and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it. If ML had not taken this picture, I would not have had the only photo  to remember my infamous fall at Goa. That and the bruise deep inside my thigh that I still feel two month later.

The next post will feature a close-up look at the Madagoan Railway Station and the train that takes us southward to Kochi. Hope you’ll join me.