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a magical place

Everyone I know who comes to 00 Mead Road NY agrees it is a “magical” place. I often try to pinpoint why this is but I never manage to, probably because there are so many reasons. There is the stunning countryside property itself, the funky old farmhouse, and the traditions held there. And maybe most of all because the spirit of my grandmother affectionately known as MMC and grandfather (also affectionately) REC, live on today. With all its heartfelt memories Mead Road is a legacy for friends and family, although now it is owned by my aunt and uncle.
Mead Road wouldn’t be Mead Road without its iconic pond. Emerald green in the summer, silver with ice in the Winter, it held a powerful draw for us kids. Dragonflies and “skimmers” skated the top as we scooped glass jars full of murky water and tadpoles. We competed to see who would skip stones the furthest across the surface, and who caught the most frogs. It didn’t really lend itself to swimming but of course I tried. It was disgusting. Gloppy with algae and god knows what on the bottom (snapping turtles?), I did a lap or two and leapt out before running into a much feared and imagined poisonous snake.
Also quintessential Mead Road were the generations of giant Newfoundlands and fluffy cats. Numerous litters of kittens were farmed out to friends and family, and I can clearly see MMC combing her arthritic fingers through the cat’s fur, looking for ticks at the end of a hot summer day. Just as well loved and cared for were the Newfoundlands. A funeral they held for Effie makes me teary whenever I think about it. We all woke up one morning to find the gentle giant passed away. A small group of us gathered down by the pond as we read prayers and REC tenderly placed her in the big hole he had dug. It was the first and only time I saw MMC cry and her tears touched me with their vulnerability.
Back in the day, as I entered the side door and headed down the hallway hung with a chalkboard welcoming the names of each and every person expected, the familiar and comforting Mead Road scent greeted me. It smelled musty with a faint, comforting smell of mothballs. The underlying dankness of the basement wafted the scent of slightly fermented fruit. The aging wood of the myriad of antique tools REC collected, as well as the wood of the walls themselves, gave the house an aroma of not being old exactly, but more like historical. And if memory serves correctly, a hint of “eau de pets” also added to the mix.
Then a greeting echoed from the back rooms: “Ya-ho! Ya-ho!” My grandfather bellowed cheerfully
I’d hate to pick just one exemplary room in this museum of a house, but if pushed I would say the strongest “vibe” came from the cozy cave of a sitting room . A revolutionary period war rifle hung above the fireplace and a black iron kettle (also revolutionary?) hung on a swinging iron arm. Plenty of objects adorned the wide mantle but my most treasured was the menorah given to REC by his friend the rabbi. In fact, after my grandparents passed away and it came time to claim the items we wanted to take with us as keepsakes, my first choice was the menorah. It still moves from place to place with me, a consistent reminder. Also memorable, was the bulky old “hi-fi” which blasted out church services on Sundays, but I can’t imagine who claimed that one.
Another thing that made the house one of a kind: the many objects tagged with typewriter-printed labels describing the date and story of the item in question. Labels were stuck on the back of heirloom paintings, or looped around the legs of antique chairs. But my favorite label stuck, like a work of Dada art, to the dining room wall. It was a police report and bullet shell in a plastic sandwich baggy thumb-tacked below the bullet hole itself (later wallpapered over). REC presided on the board of the Mianus Gorge Preserve and apparently someone took against his political stance and shot at the house years and years before gang-related drive-bys appeared on the nightly news.
In the kitchen, family photos both old and new covered almost every cupboard. Cookie and cake tins always contained homemade goodies; an ancient black and red oriental one sits on the counter til this day. When reading late at night I often crept, heart thudding, down to sneak a mincemeat cookie or square of lemon cake up to the bedroom. With a satisfied stomach I fell asleep to the white noise of the big fan and the symphony of bull frogs and cicadas.
Food was a big deal at 00 Mead Road. A talented and gifted chef, MMC whipped up feasts for large groups of friends and family on a regular basis. Not the neatest cook (we did the cleaning up for her) she reminded me quite a bit of Julia Child. She rang the heavy dinner bell outside the back door calling all and sundry in to dinner, and somehow, no matter how many people present, we managed to fit around the rectangular dining room table. I usually ended up with the rickety piano chair, a table leg between my thighs. REC wedged himself between the piano and the table, and MMC sat at the other end with plenty of space and the family portraits behind her. Most magnificent of all, a huge oil painting of my grandmother in her wedding dress circa 1929, looked down upon us.
The cold pantry was perpetually stocked. Schwepps gingerale, Pabst Blue Ribbon or Scheaffers beer filled a shelf; REC was never one to splurge on alcohol. The deep freezer in the basement contained Pepperidge Farm cakes and plastic tubs of Mama’s version of Hungarian goulash, the date labeled on top with masking tape. Corn on the cob, a summer staple, always came from Hanker’s farm stand, or later after the Hanker family folded up business, from Schultz’s. Of course, mint jelly went with the lamb and horseradish sauce went with the roast beef and MMC’s perfectly baked Yorkshire pudding. The dinner table was not fully set without the salt cellars of coarsely ground Kosher salt and their tiny wooden spoons.
MMC and REC’s helpers were an integral part of the family. Carlotta, a lovable character and their house keeper for years and years, frequently had some sort of crisis with her large family. I clearly remember her Mennonite daughters drifting around Mead Road in their white caps and long skirts. Although I cannot no longer picture her face, I’ll never forget the presence of Ruth. Their caretaker, she went off on long weekends to a mysterious place called the ashram.
In fact, now it kind of seems to me maybe MMC and REC appreciated the eccentric. Or at least had a very open-minded and accepting view of people. A few times as a teen I brought over a mohawked boyfriend or one with a huge rockabilly quiff, but they never said a word or batted an eye. Back in the day an edgy look meant something, yet everyone was made to feel welcome.
Dare I even say it; were MMC and REC eccentric themselves? Certainly they seemed a bit bohemian in a sophisticated world-traveled kind of way. Artistic themselves, a succession of musicians or artists lived in their converted barn. I took for granted the large iron abstract sculptures dotting the landscape around their house. Growing up in such an atmosphere it never occurred to me that not every family lived this way. I feel unfailingly grateful to have inherited their appreciation for the artistic and unusual.
Not all of the Mead Road magic is about my grandparents, but you just can’t talk about the place without going into detail about them….
A receding hairline and shock of thick wavy white hair. Dapper polyester pants with suspenders and matching cardigan. A bow tie, fragrant pipe, and a sprig of whatever flower, plant, or tree inspired him that day at his lapel. That’s how I see REC.
Upon their passing I assumed I’d be more saddened by my grandmother’s death and miss her more than my grandfather because I related to her as a woman and a poet. But that’s not how it happened. I missed REC more. I realized after the fact that I spent more time with him and he taught me so much. In fact, he played a huge part in setting the foundation of who I am today: be of service to others, do your chores, and respect and revere nature. Plus he told the best bedtime stories about life on the farm in Kansas, peppered with tornados and coyotes..
A few things about him I regretfully did not appreciate at the time. He always introduced me with pride to every person we encountered. From the elderly women at the Osborne Retirement Home to the cashier at the market and many many more. He always added a brief introduction of my accomplishments and where I stood in the family. I was shy, awkward, and embarrassed. Why would those strangers care anything about me, and was it really necessary, I wondered? Now I can see his pride and love for me and I treasure those encounters.
I absolutely loved going on nature walks with him. REC relished nature walks, and the woods surrounding Mead Road provided endless opportunities. A well known conservationist, of which I am more appreciative of now than then, he never failed to pick up any litter he saw. On occasion he even pulled his car over to the side of the road to collect trash. Because of him I consider littering a federal offense, and am horrified whenever I see someone throw garbage out the window of a moving vehicle.
One Winter when I was a teen his love of exploration got him in trouble. We walked together across the frozen lake in the back property. He ventured out onto some suspiciously dark ice but when I cautioned him he dismissed me. I heard a funny noise and looked down to see a spider web of cracks forming in the ice underneath him. Sure enough he fell through. We both panicked but I knew the drill on how to deal with such an emergency, so with a big stick I pulled him out. Wordlessly we walked back to the house and once he changed into warm dry clothes, we had quite a tale to tell MMC. If truth be told, I felt quite proud of myself for knowing better in the first place, and for rescuing him in the end.
Despite her many chronic illnesses, and to the shock of us all, MMC was not the first of the two to die. Defying time and distance her stacks of sterling bracelets, magenta toenails, and slash of berry lipstick live on in my mind. She dressed for dinner in long skirts, drank whiskey and rye beforehand, and ended the meal savoring maple syrup poured over coffee ice cream (moderately during the diabetic years). And even though REC was described as the painter and Renaissance man, Mama qualified as a Renaissance woman in her own right. She taught me to knit and sew with colorful fabric from in her trunk of magical materials. She wrote poetry and threw pots and other sculptural pieces, many of which we ate and drank out of.
She was intelligent and sharp – always a crossword puzzle on her night stand and even puzzle books in bathroom. She was one of the very first fans of The Wheel Of Fortune which, way back in the day, the contestant’s heads floated surreal-like above the abundant stack of prizes. Indeed, never an evening went by without her solving a few puzzles on the closed captioned tv.
I cherish how Mama thoughtfully selected each and every one of our birthday gifts; many chosen from The Fingerhut catalogue which, at the time offered cheesy gadgets and monogramed doo-dads, and thing “as seen on tv”. But she also gave objects she picked up from her world travels. My favorite of those remains a coiled ivory snake in a brightly colored silk Chinese pouch, because she knew my Chinese horoscope sign was the year of the serpent.
And inspired by her long-time friend Pi, she never failed to send you off on your travels without a “Pi note”, a loving little missive signed with a squiggle, and a bit of traveling money too. You weren’t allowed to open it until you were on the train or plane though!
Extremely brave, Mama forbore her deafness and many other illnesses in her sturdy Scottish way, and she endured them with style. Even when bed ridden in later years she kept her toes cheerfully polished. My whole life I wanted to grow up to be a cool old lady like her.
My time at Mead Road has infused me with a strong sense of family and caring for others. I will never forget my grandparents holding hands into their dotage, the affectionate way he called her “Mrs. _____”. On your birthday you knew to expect a phone call from their heavy clunky hearing-impaired phone, and even though expected, it was none-the-less a heart-warming “surprise”. Later on they used a fax machine to keep in touch more frequently with loved ones overseas, but I can confidently say that if alive today they would still be making those phone calls – none of this text messaging nonsense.
And on the actual day of each grandchild’s birth MMC or REC either planted or anointed a tree on the property with a tin band bearing the newborn’s full name and birthdate. So special to me, I delight in visiting my Maple, watching it grow over the years, and I bet most of us have a similar bond with “our” trees.
MMC, REC, and Mead Road provided family and friends with many comforting traditions. Chief among them, they gathered everyone present to send off travelers with a reading of the 121st psalm, what they called the “going away” prayer. It was read by the eldest grandchild there and went like this:

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.
My help cometh from the Lord which made Heaven and earth.
He will not suffer they foot to be moved; he he that keepeth thee will not slumber.
Behold, he that keepeth Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord is thy keeper: the Lord is thy shade upon the right hand.
The sun shall not burn thee bay day neither the moon by night.
The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil; he shall preserve thy soul.
The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore.
And then they added: “Bless those coming and those going, and those for whom no one else will pray. Amen.”
Amen.

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