I remember faces I haven’t seen in forty, fifty years. Some are old, but younger than I am now. Some are young, and many of them are now grandparents. But they are all caught in a series of Kodak-like snapshots, frozen in my mind as they were and as I knew them then.
On the afternoon of the 4th of July, we would begin arranging long, homemade tables on the lawn to the side of the house. Wooden folding chairs, borrowed from everywhere, were then arranged around the table. Mom, inside the house, was boiling potatoes, cleaning beans, and slicing tomatoes. And making pies. That was what she did when two or more relatives gathered together, and my brother and I would still call her pies the best pies ever. (Others thought so, too; she sold hundreds of them over the years.) There would be apple and peach pies this day. At Christmas, it was pumpkin and mincemeat.
About 3:30 or 4 in the afternoon, Dad would take off in the car to pick up the widowed aunts, Ethel and Ethel. One Ethel would complain about drafts whatever the setting, and the other Ethel was a Jehovah’s Witness. While I remember most of the lines of their faces, and the dresses, and sweaters (no matter the temperature) that they wore, I know very little else about them. I wasn’t listening very well to the songs I would have heard, had I been listening, when I was ten.
After picking Ethel and Ethel up, Dad would stop on the way back home at a truck stop where, near the back of the parking lot, was a large, rust-covered, ice machine. It was the size of a garage, and in the front of it was a place to deposit a quarter. That caused a large block of ice- one foot square- to noisily slide from somewhere to a bin below the quarter-slot. The block of ice was moved from that bin to the trunk of the car with a pair of ice tongs that hung nearby, after being placed first into a burlap bag Dad had brought. At home, my brother and I, after seeing what other relatives had arrived while we were gone, would hammer that block, still in the bag, into small enough chunks to fit into ice cream freezers.
Ice cream, always vanilla, at least three freezersful, were as much a part of the afternoon as the six or seven cousins who would be rounded up to turn and turn and turn the freezer cranks under the watchful eyes of various uncles, all of whom seemed to have deep and almost mysterious experience with the amounts of salt to be added to the ice to make it melt faster, and were ready always to warn about getting salt (somehow. how?) into the freezing cream, thereby ‘spoiling’ it. I remember even then wondering what the heck ‘spoiled’ ice cream could be.
Those same uncles would be ready to make the last several turns of the crank before it was pronounced as “ready,” and so that they could collect the full collective credit for making it from everyone who would soon be eating it. But that was O.K.; when we were 10, we weren’t yet concerned about who got credit for what as long as we got some of the ice cream.
Ralph, Ott, Clarence and Olive, Jim and Emma, Bill and Alice, Harvey and Edna, Bob and Lou (some years, anyway- they lived in faraway Florida), Ethel, and Ethel. Even now, as I write those names, all aunts and uncles long gone, I can see them, their cars, their backyards, even their shoes. Their kids were my cousins and their grandchildren were second-cousins, and there were a lot of them- a lot of us. My brother and I called our Aunts, “Auntie.” I don’t know why. Auntie Alice, Auntie Emma, Aunties Olive, Edna, Lou, Ethel, and Ethel. Those names, and my uncles’ names, feel like tap roots from my heart into the history of the 20th Century. Some of the men fought in World War I- Uncle Bill was a balloonist over Belgium. Auntie Emma met the young General Eisenhower at a dinner she helped prepare in 1919. Auntie Olive was born under Haley’s Comet. The other brothers, and Dad, fought in WWII.
Holy cow, I wish I had just sat down and asked questions and questions and listened and listened!
But we had to play, instead. On big rubber tractor tire tubes, of which there were at least ten spread over the lawn, and which were about ten times more fun than modern trampolines because we could roll down hills in them, stack them five or six high and jump onto another one from the top, or, as the day wore on, lay in them and talk about the Canfield Fair next month, or “Leave it to Beaver” last week, or Sputnik. And we would play Hide and Seek, over two or three acres, girls and boys both; teens, pre-teens, and little ones. Or good guys/bad guys, sometimes Cops/Robbers, sometimes Cowboys/Indians. It didn’t really matter, I guess, since we all had lethal finger guns which somehow really did cause other cousins to fall: “I’m dead.” Thump.
Then hamburgers, hotdogs, fried chicken, potato salad, ceramic pitchers of Kool-aid, and plate after plate of “relish” which the adults seemed to adore, full of Auntie Olive’s sliced tomatoes and Auntie Alice’s green, very green, pickles. All of it was stuff from the garden or the freezer, except the buns and the ice. (At Christmas, even the ice would come off the lake in back of the house.)
Then, after everyone was full, came the pies, somebody’s cakes, and the ice cream which now had “set” in the shade under wrappings of towels. We’d eat the ice cream and get freeze headaches (we called them “Weber headaches” then) and eat more, anyway. And then we would play some more and the men would sit and talk, some would smoke, and the women gathered everything up, including the real dishes and silverware they’d brought and which they would wash at home. Our dog- Joker, a beagle mix- was, for awhile, in scraps-from-the-table heaven.
And then, one by one, the families would go home. We’d see most of them numerous times over the next several months, but we would not see all of them together again until Christmas. And everyone left the Fourth, looking forward to Christmas, because those were good, good days, and we were all part of each other, and we knew that even without saying it.
Over the next few, too few years, also one by one, first Uncles Ed, Ott, and Ralph, then Ethel, then Ethel, then all the rest, went home, too. Now, only Mom, of the adults of those days forty-five years ago, remains. I will not talk to her about these memories when I go see her in awhile because those names are gone for her now, except for Dads name, and it would only make her more confused. I will remember peach pies and apple pies while I talk with her about what she had for lunch today, and I will be thinking about Ethel and Ethel and instructions on salting the ice and the piles of inner tubes while I look for her hearing aid which I know she will have misplaced since I found it yesterday.
Snap shots. I’ll get them back out at Christmas, because they are there, after all, to be looked at.