Posts Tagged ‘Tradition’

When I was a teenager, we lived in Scrambletown, Florida, a small community in the Ocala National Forest. Scrambletown is a tale unto its self which I may tell one day. Living some twenty miles from the nearest city, there was little an adolescent without a car could do to earn money. Even the adults had to be creative to make a living. One Mr. Godwin, who lived a few miles from us, dealt in Deer Tongue, among other pursuits.

Deer Tongue, which goes by many names, including Vanilla Plant, is a wildflower. A rosette of basal leaves grows close to the ground. These are long and shaped, I suppose, like a deer’s tongue. In its second year, a tall stem shoots up and produces a spike of beautiful purple flowers. If you brush against the plant it emits a pleasant fragrance. In the past it was used as a tobacco additive and in some cosmetics.

Picking Deer Tongue was a way for us country kids to make spending money. My brothers and sisters and I would go out into the woods with burlap bags in search of the plants. We would collect the basal leaves and go home once the sack was full. My dad would take our harvest to Mr. Godwin, who would pay us by the pound. If you went to his house, you would see his front yard covered with Deer Tongue leaves drying in the sun. Once dry, he would sell them to tobacco companies.

Even as a kid, I was mindful of the need for these plants to reseed themselves, so I was careful not to disturb the flowering stalks, but I doubt that every picker was so vigilant. As the years went by, Deer Tongue became harder to find. But I grew up and went on to greater pursuits.

Deer Tongue grows in the woods where I now live. Occasionally I catch a whiff of its fragrance. One day I noticed some growing on the margin of my son’s yard, close to a stand of pine trees.

“When I was a kid…” I went on to tell him the story about picking Deer Tongue for money. He listened patiently as I related this bit of family lore.

Then he said, “When I was a kid, when I visited my grandparents, Grandpa would send me and my cousins out into the woods to pick Deer Tongue. Then he would pay us for it. He dried it and sold it somewhere.”

Well. What can I say?

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Every year, the commercial Christmas season seems to distend earlier into autumn. This year, stores set out Christmas decorations before Halloween and soon broadcast Christmas music.

Bah! Humbug! Even store employees agreed.

I remember Grandma Rogers, one of the nicest people I’ve ever known, saying, “I’m going to join the Jehovah’s Witnesses”. This seemed so out of character. She was no Scrooge, but grew up in a family of modest means and reared her children during the Great Depression. The increasing commercialization of Christmas must have grated on her. Now I understand. I find myself making the same threat.

But TODAY is the day after Thanksgiving. The Spirit of Christmas beckons. Don’t worry, you won’t find me at the mall, or even a convenience store. I may or may not glance through the stack of catalogs that have cluttered my mailbox for weeks, but I will start making lists. After almost two months of Scrooge, it is time to welcome Christmas.

This holiday embodies a magic unrelated to material things and goes beyond the joy of giving. Remember the Christmas Truce of 1914? During World War I, Allied and German soldiers in the trenches spontaneously stopped fighting, sang Christmas carols, and crossed battle lines to exchange fellowship, food, and souvenirs. Unsanctioned by their superiors, this event will long be remembered as a triumph, however brief, of love over hate.

The magic of Christmas survives adversity. In 1989, we had an ice storm.  On December 22nd, my children and I visited my parents in Scrambletown, planning to spend one night. My parents didn’t know that my sister Lorraine, a missionary in Africa, was coming home for Christmas.  She arrived with the freezing rain and snow.  Our parents were surprised and overjoyed and no one minded the bitter cold.

 But we cold not get home. The Ocala National Forest is a veritable island, surrounded on two sides by the Ocklawaha River and the St. Johns River on a third. The bridges were iced and closed. The only way out was south through Lake County, but weather conditions made travel inadvisable. Our northern friends may scoff, but they do not want to share icy roads with Floridians. We are a menace.

Sunshine melted the ice and I drove home Christmas Eve. Patches of frost remained on shady areas of roadway, but we arrived safely. We came home to no electricity or heat. Water left in a jar was frozen and my houseplants were history. However, our spirits were not chilled. With a gas stove, we could cook. Somehow I procured a kerosene heater. We survived and celebrated a very happy Christmas.

 Of course, Christmas cannot overcome all misfortune. A neighbor of my parents was killed one Christmas Eve riding home on a mini-bike intended for his children. These things happen. Lesser troubles occur. When I was about eleven, some of my brothers and sisters came down with measles and my mother had to stay home with them while the rest of us visited our grandparents on Christmas. The last year of my marriage, I was heartbroken when my spouse neglected to give me a gift. But my children’s generosity buoyed my spirits.

Christmas brings anxiety. As a parent, I always worried I wasn’t doing enough for my children. Then one year, when my oldest boy was about five, he remarked that he got too many presents. I used to have a recurring dream, that it was Christmas Eve and I did not have gifts for some of my loved ones. After a few years, the dream ceased to bother me. Then one year the dream did not come! I worried that I would actually forget someone.

Most of my memories of Christmas are happy. As a child, we would wake at 3:00 am and find our stockings filled. Santa must have come by at 2:30. One Christmas we woke to a living room full of child-size wicker chairs, one for each of us. I still wonder how Santa managed that.  One season we tried to peek into what our parents had bought us. That ruined our fun and we never did it again. Before we moved to Florida, Christmas lasted all day. We ate breakfast at home and opened presents. Then we went to Grandma Rogers’ for dinner and more gifts. For supper, we went to Grandma Masters’ for aunts, uncles, cousins, and even more presents.

Maybe that’s why I still try to make Christmas last all day. My children were allowed to get their stockings when they woke up, but they were not to open presents until Mama had a cup of coffee. Even then, my preference was to limit it to one gift before breakfast, which of course drove the kids nuts.

Occasionally, we went to the Christmas Eve service at church, but I prefer to spend that night at home. Before my children grew up and moved away, we had a tradition of snacking on hors d’oeuvres and wrapping gifts until bedtime. Last year, my daughter-in-law’s gift was to take me to the Christmas Eve matinee at the Alhambra Dinner Theatre in Jacksonville. The food was delicious and  “White Christmas” brought me to tears. Although the cast faced an evening performance, their spirits were high and some took time to chat with us afterwards and sign autographs for my granddaughter.

The magic didn’t end there. We stopped at the riverfront on the way home and enjoyed the scenery and the cool but pleasant evening. A handful of other pedestrians and bicyclists were abroad. Total strangers, we greeted one another with, “Merry Christmas!”

Today, after I post this, I will start my lists: cards, gifts, cookies, fruitcakes, and groceries. I will retrieve decorations from the attic and stick plastic poinsettias in my houseplants. That makes them happy. In a few weeks I will search the woods for a suitable tree.

Today is the day after Thanksgiving.  Scrooge has been visited by his ghosts. It is now the time to look forward to Christmas.

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          Let me take you back in time to a place that no longer exists.

On a warm day in early September, my mother walked me up the road to the corner of my grandparents’ hay field, where their property abutted my great-grandfather’s farm. There my cousin Mike, some two years older than I, met us. Mom returned to the house and the younger children, and Mike walked me the half mile up East Maine Road to Barnum Hill School. This one room schoolhouse had seen the education of my father and his brother and my grandfather and his brothers. Now I was the third generation, and Mike and I were the last of the family to attend.

Over time, memories become incomplete or altered but this is what I remember. I had not been introduced to the teacher or my classmates before this day. Having led a sheltered life, I felt intimidated by all those new people. There seemed to be such a crowd, but I estimate the whole school consisted of fewer than twenty children.

Small for my age, I sat in a front seat, the second row from the north windows. These were the old fashioned desks you see in pictures, the kind that were bolted to the floor. My “desk” was actually part of two units. Underneath the writing surface was a shelf-like compartment for books , and in front was a seat where another student could sit if an additional desk were added to the row. Those front seats generally remained folded up and not used, except on occasion to hold books or papers. My seat was attached to the front part of the desk behind me.  To my left were three more rows. As you looked in that direction and towards the rear wall, the desks got larger, for the older children.

I was five and a half and this was my first school experience. The city schools offered Kindergarten to familiarize young children to the disciplines of formal education, but Barnum Hill started at first grade. As a concession, the first and second graders attended only until lunch time. Mrs. Cobley, our teacher, was able to give the older children more individualized instruction in the afternoons when her attention was less divided.

My mother had taught me to read and write my name, but in those days you did not learn to read until you were in first grade. Mrs. Cobley gave us a list of rules and wrote them on the blackboard. To avoid constant disruptions, we were to make silent requests by holding up a certain number of fingers. Mrs. Cobley could then grant permission for a student to sharpen his pencil, go the bathroom, etc. with a nod. The list seemed long and complicated. Since I could not read the rules, when I had to use the bathroom, I was in a quandary. I took a chance and held up one finger. Thank goodness, it was the correct signal and I was allowed to go.

We had electricity at Barnum Hill but no running water. Behind the school were two outhouses. The girls’ had three holes in the seat and the boys’ had two. That was in the days before potty parity, but it was an acknowledgement that girls usually needed more time to do their business than did boys. I don’t remember whether we had any way to wash our hands, but we did have a water cooler and paper cups in the classroom, and an oil furnace stood in the back of the room.

The school technically had more than one room. You entered through a small chamber where coats were hung in cold weather. Opening from this were two closet size spaces where an older student occasionally worked with a small handful of us younger children on reading.

That half day seemed very long to me. It was broken up by recess when we could eat snacks we brought and spend a few minutes playing outdoors. The school yard was a long triangle, boarded on one side by the road and the other two sides by farmland. The right size for a baseball diamond, the older children had time for a short inning during recess. Along the fences, chokecherry trees and other wild things had grown up into a hedge.

A first grade girl named Esther sat next to me in the first row. A few of the other children I remember were Marcene Ritch and her older sister Karen. They lived not far from me, on Lindberg Street. Granddad had sold a row of building lots and named the road after the great hero, Charles Lindbergh  Another first grader was Larry who had a brother in the second grade, but I do not recall his name. They lived up Reynolds Road, at the top of the hill. Then there was Johnny McNish who lived next door to the school. The first and second grades were largest classes, then class size dwindled down to only two students in the sixth grade, a boy and a girl. They looked so big and mature to me.

I do not remember any child being driven to school. In those days the country road had little traffic and parents had less to worry about. Also, children then had more autonomy than they are given now. After the long morning, we were excused to go home. Those of us who lived down hill from the school walked together until our ways parted. The Ritch girls walked with me as far as Lindberg Street, and I was almost home, ready for lunch and a well earned nap

Today, few of the familiar places remain. My grandparents’ farm is now a school bus facility. Granddad’s house burned down a number of years ago. The old folks have passed on and my cousins live far away. I Google “Barnum Hill School (historical)” and find a website that shows its location, now overgrown with trees. Maybe it’s time to revive some memories.


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I started to call this “Riding Dutchess”, but this title seems more apt. It is also a story about how events from the forgotten past can influence what we do today.
When I was in junior high school, most of my friends were horse crazy, which is certainly better than being boy crazy at that age. Few of the girls actually had horses, but one claimed to work at a riding stable and would talk about it. Her favorite horse, she maintained, was a descendant of Man of War. We were never sure how much to believe. Skepticism is a good mask for jealousy.
One of the privileged few, I did have a horse available to me, a Belgian draft horse named Dutchess. When I was small, Grandpa worked the farm with her and her teammate Jessie. After he got his Massey Harris tractor, the horses no longer had to work and would pass their time in the barn munching hay. My family was too sentimental to be good business people. Animals who had outlived their usefulness were kept around as pets. And they loved horses.
Jessie was a sweet tempered sorrel. One day I noticed her absence and was told she had been sent to a retirement farm for old horses. I did not question why she had to go to a special farm when she had actually been retired for years.
Fortunately, Dutchess stayed around for my horse crazy days. Not as even tempered as Jessie, she was almost as beautiful, a chestnut with a white blaze down her face. When I expressed a desire to ride her, my elders acquiesced. Grandpa built a mounting bench by the barn so I could climb aboard. I began feeding and grooming her and was shown how to bridle her. I was taught to put my finger into her mouth behind her back teeth, tickling her tongue to get her to accept the bit. That can be scary for a kid, even if the half-ton beast is a vegetarian. Soon I learned that Dutchess would open her mouth for me if I just put the bit up to her teeth. But that was the extent of her cooperation.
I was not allowed to use a saddle. I was told it was too dangerous, that I might fall off, catch my foot in the stirrup, and be drug to death. Apparently, tumbling down from sixteen hands high was an acceptable risk.
Possibly because she associated the outdoors with work, Dutchess liked to stay in her stall. The only way to get her to leave the barnyard was to use a switch. Only then could I coax her to carry me to my proposed destination, somewhere in the pasture. Grandpa said Dutchess had some race horse in her. I know that the moment I turned her head back toward the barn she would take off like a thoroughbred from the starting gate. I would grab her mane and if I managed to stay on, it was a wonderful ride. She had a smooth gallop, but if she trotted, I would bounce off. Sometimes she would wheel around without warning and make for the barn, leaving me behind in the mud.
My elders knew I was falling off. They could not help noticing how many times Dutchess returned to the barn without me. Once Grandma was walking down through the pasture as Dutchess and I went flying back toward the barn. Suddenly, Dutchess turned a sharp corner and I kept going straight. Grandma was alarmed, but I was unhurt.
Another time, my sister Jenny and I were riding Dutchess together, she behind me holding on around my waist. We made it to the farthest reaches of the pasture, turned around smoothly, and at breakneck speed down the hill, we came to the creek. Dutchess could not be bothered to slow down. We usually crossed the creek at the path built for farm equipment, but today she chose to jump over a deep part. What a thrill – just like in the movies! The three of us cleared the creek successfully, but when she landed on the far side, I could not hold on well enough for two of us. I guess kids were pretty indestructible in those days.
I didn’t fall off every time I rode Dutchess. I have a photo of myself sitting proudly on the back of a calm steed, but the times I fell off stick in my memory more than the times we successfully returned to the barn together. I was never injured and I was never prohibited from riding her but I could never understand why I could not use a saddle. Now I have the answer.

A Family Mystery Solved

Long before my father was born, when my grandfather’s parents were just newlyweds, on August 31, 1899, one Francis Marion Kidwell “bought a box of nails at a Higginsville, West Virginia store. The nails’ rattling spooked the horse. Since his feet were not completely in the stirrups, he died from being drug to the river.”
But what did this have to do with me? His sister, Mary Virginia Kidwell McDonald, was my great-great grandmother. I discovered this story last year when I was in Hampshire County, West Virginia doing genealogical research.
Uncle Frank’s death must have been a terrible shock to the family. This summer I visited the Kidwell Cemetery in Slanesville, West Virginia, where the graves are laid out in the usual neat rows, except for Uncle Frank’s, which lies at an angle to the others. It was as though his survivors wanted to make a statement that would impact the generations. It did.
This tale would have been told to Grandpa when he was a child, then some version to Dad when he was a boy, but I never heard it. Was this the reason I was not allowed to ride with a saddle? Unfortunately, neither is available today to enlighten me. So I asked my mother, who said Dad wouldn’t let any of us use a saddle because someone Grandpa knew about a long time ago was killed when his foot got caught in the stirrups. Three generations later, Uncle Frank’s name may have been forgotten, but the wisdom that stirrups were dangerous survived. Better just to fall off.
When I had children, they had a pony, but they showed little interest in riding her. We did not have a saddle. If they had asked for one, would Uncle Frank’s ghost have haunted my decision? Or would I have succumbed to reason and bought one? I hope so.
I am sure of one thing, that if I ever take up horse riding again, I will definitely use a saddle. But maybe I won’t ride to the store for nails.

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Almost 150 years ago, a boy wanted to ride a carousel, but he was too poor to buy a ticket. He must have been fascinated by the brightly painted horses that galloped around and around to the cheery music. He made himself a promise that if he ever became rich, he would build carousels for children to ride for free.
When he grew up, he became an industrialist and owned several factories. He was a good employer and a benefactor to the communities that housed his factories. Among many other things, he built parks and donated carousels to the parks. There was one condition, that the cities would never charge money for riding his carousels.
This is a true story. My grandfather worked in one of those factories, and as a child, I rode those carousels.
My siblings and I were very fortunate. We lived out in the country where we could climb trees, swim in ponds, wade in creeks, catch fish, and roam about the fields and woods. The city children had to be content only with playgrounds. I’m sure that going out to the country was as much a treat to them as going to a playground was for us. But they were able to walk to their parks, and we depended on adults to take us there, so going to a playground was only an occasional pleasure for us.
The swings and slides were fun, of course, but the best of all were the merry-go-rounds. They were magic. The horses came in all colors and styles and there were also lions, tigers, and other wild beasts. For parents with babies too small to sit on a horse, there were chariots where they could be seated and enjoy the ride. Being a fan of the Black Stallion books, my mount of choice would usually be a black horse with a flowing mane.
My favorite merry-go-round had music from a Wurlitzer band organ. In my memory, it played one tune over and over but I never got tired of it. I do not know the name of the song but I can recall the melody and the words I put to it in my head. Beside the organ was a bass drum. A mechanical arm would strike the drum to the beat of the music. The drumstick had hit that drumhead so many times, it had worn a hole in the center, which was patched with tape.
Riding around and around with the music in my head, in my fantasies I was riding a real horse. When the ride ended, we would all exit and run around the pavilion to line up for another ride, over and over again, until we had to go home.
This summer, my son Joel told me he wanted to show his family where I had lived as a child and where his grandparents and mine had lived, worked, and gone to school. I did not tell him about the carousels before we made the trip. I wanted it to be a surprise. My favorite was closed for repairs, which is forgivable after nearly 100 years of delighting children, but my second choice was open and running.
This merry-go-round was in pristine condition. The pavilion it is housed in looked newly painted. Inside, around the top of the carousel, the panels painted with pastoral scenes and faces of Indians and frontiersmen looked as fresh as they had when they were first made. There were no wild animals to ride, but the horses were beautiful. They were of all colors and styles: some tossing their heads, some with fierce defiance in their eyes, and some intent on racing forward. The old music had been replaced with a modern sound system. This music was more varied, but it was still instrumental, with no lyrics to impinge on a private fantasy.
My son pointed out what a feat of engineering the carousel was. As a child I had never taken note of this. The large, round platform held 72 horses, four abreast. Each horse was suspended on a pole from a jointed rod which extended from the center pole. As this rod turned, each horse galloped independently of its mates. Platform, horses, hardware, and riders were all supported by guy rods from the single pole in the center. A motor turned the whole mechanism through a complex series of gears. Our ancestors managed to work wonders without the help of computers.
With still no admission price, and no posted age limit, I mounted a horse beside my grandson James and was carried away. The magic is still there.
I did not ride over and over again like I had when I was a child. Once or twice was enough. I wanted to take pictures, which was a challenge since the merry-go-round moves faster than my shutter finger, but it was pleasant to sit on a bench alongside the wall and watch my child and his enjoying themselves.
I look forward to going back again to ride the merry-go-rounds. Of course, it would be best if I were to take grandchildren with me.

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When I was a small child, one room school houses were still in existence in some rural areas. One by one they were being closed as citizens succumbed to the progressive wisdom that children would be better educated in the large consolidated schools. I was fortunate enough to attend a little schoolhouse in the first grade. This was the same school where my father and grandfather had been educated in their days, but that’s another story. Unfortunately, by the end of that year, our school district had voted to close the school and bus the students to the education factories in town.

In our area, the county did not provide school buses. Each school district would contract with a bus company. Ours was a one-man operation owned by a fellow named John Sokol. Here was a character if ever there was one. He seemed to enjoy his job and most of his kids, and the students, for the most part, liked him.

On my first day of second grade, I stood dutifully at the foot of our sidewalk as the bus jiggled down the road toward my house. But I was small for my age, and along the road was a hedge of barberry bushes. I was already nervous about the new school and it did not help that, instead of stopping for me, the bus just kept on going! I heard the children on the bus yelling, and the bus screeched to a stop and backed up. Mr. Sokol said something about my being smaller than a bush and from that day on, he called me “Bush.”

I don’t remember any discipline problems on the bus. Even though Mr. Sokol could be as rowdy as the roughest boy, the kids behaved for him. I remember him laughing more than any thing else, but he was certainly no angel. Usually, if a child was not at the bus stop but could be seen running down the driveway, or if a parent came out and said Johnny was putting on his coat, he would wait for him. Mr. Sokol had some favorites among the children but there was one family he clearly did not like and I never knew why. The oldest boy was no longer in school but Chester must have been in high school at the time. Mr. Sokol would make unkind remarks about Chester, in and out of the boy’s hearing, and the older children would jeer Chester. The boy appeared to be clean, did not smell bad, and to my knowledge he was from a respectable family, but there may have been some past quarrel I was unaware of. If Mr. Sokol could leave Chester behind, he would. One morning the older brother came out and asked Mr. Sokol to wait for a few minutes. He did, but the second Chester came out the front door, Mr. Sokol drove away, laughing.

We made up a song about Mr. Sokol, to the tune of “The Old Gray Mare”:

                    Old John Sokol jumped in the Delaware,
                    Pulled off his underwear,
                    Smashed all the silverware.
                    Old John Sokol jumped in the Delaware
                    Many long years ago.

When we sang that song, he would laugh and laugh. Once he resorted to a serious voice and said there was some truth to it. He used to have a campsite on the Delaware River with an old school bus for a cabin, and he said he had jumped in the Delaware many times.

At the end of the school year, it was traditional for the bus companies to host a “bus picnic” for the students and their families at a local park. The usual fare was hot dogs and ice cream. I remember seeing a supply of Dixie cups packed in a cardboard box covered by a heavy gray army blanket. I wondered why they would cover the ice cream with a blanket on a warm day. The explanation that the blanket would keep it cold just didn’t make sense to my seven year old mind. Blankets keep you warm, right?

All good things come to an end. I’m not sure whether his treatment of Chester had anything to do with it, or what the reason was, but after a few years our school district stopped contracting with Mr. Sokol and went with the larger company that served much of the area. The buses were newer and probably better maintained, and our new driver was nice enough, but it just wasn’t the same. He was a quiet man who lacked Mr. Sokol’s sense of humor.

Eventually my family moved away. The last news I had of Mr. Sokol was a newspaper clipping my grandmother sent me. It showed an old school bus, our old bus, rusting in a field. In the caption under the picture some upstanding citizen was bemoaning the fact that the county was full of such “eyesores” and they should be removed.

I thought it was sad, not that the old bus was rusting in a field, but that someone would call it an eyesore. I thought about how beauty can be more than a well manicured roadside, and how memory, laughter, and tradition, while sometimes untidy, have an important place in our hearts.

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