Rituals of Spring, When Summer is Short

We were small. Winter was long. Summer would fly by.

We had to be ready.

The rituals of spring for my sister and I were often tied up with being ready for what came next. We wanted to rush summer!

As soon as the snow was off our driveway, we would start walking barefoot on the crushed stones, in order to toughen our feet up for going barefoot all summer. A long winter in socks and boots had made our feet soft and we’d lost the calluses. We needed to get ready!

We would wait, in the bedroom at the back of the house. Outside the window there was a thermometer. Our mother, tired of hearing us nag, had told us we could go without jackets when the temperature reached 60. We stared at the mercury, willing it to rise, so we wouldn’t miss a moment.

We spent a good deal of our summer time at the “little beach,” a pond 6 or 7 miles from our house. We knew we needed to be ready for the cold water of early summer so we took cold baths at home to prepare ourselves. We squealed and shivered in the tub, but we knew it would be worth it.

Even on cloudy days of iffy weather, we wanted to go to the little beach. My mother, tired of hearing us nag, would tell us to go away and, if we had 15 minutes of sunshine, she’d take us.

We would sit on a big stone by the road and, when the sun came out, we would start to count—one-thousand, two-thousand–as the seconds and minutes passed and the sun stayed with us. Then, when it deserted, we’d wait for it, and start again. Some days we were lucky and we’d get our 15 minutes of continuous sun and mom would drive up to take us to that little beach.

Now, I don’t know how long it has been since I’ve walked barefoot outside or gone swimming in water so cold.

But, even as adults, winter is still long and summer is short, so we get ready.

A lot of spring activity at my house now involves doing chores–get the deck furniture out, clean the glassed-in porch from a winter of using it as storage space, rake leaves off garden beds. These chores don’t feel so onerous in spring. Even as we shoulder the load, we have that sense of thrill . . . we’re getting ready for the short, intense summer ahead.

And we still rush summer–the first campfire of the season will be lit when it’s still way too chilly outside. The first trip for soft ice cream will be on a day when eating the treat gives me the shivers. We’ll buy annuals long before it’s safe to plant them outside.

We are all big now. But winter is still long. Summer will fly by.

We have to be ready.

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The Living Was Easy

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It’s summertime.

Look at those self-satisfied faces.*

They know.

Those girls know, even though the oldest is only 9, they know how lucky they are.

They are lucky to spend their summer days on a farm, a farm where they have the freedom to roam, to sit in the haymow and dream, to chew a stalk of hay.

Four cousins, together for only the summer months. They are lucky to play together with absolutely nothing to worry about except breaking a plastic flip flop or getting sticky drips of Popsicle running down an arm.

School doesn’t start again for a month. Their moms will take them to the “little beach” down the road and their bathing suits will never completely dry out all summer. Their dads will call them away from the TV in the evenings, to help corral cows that have wandered beyond the fence line.

Later they and a dad and a dog or two will make the trip for soft ice cream. The ice cream shop has not yet gotten the technology to make a twist of two flavors so the hardest decision of the day will be chocolate or vanilla.

These girls were so lucky to have this childhood. They knew it then and they are even more convinced now.

Every year, when summer arrives, the scent of new-mown hay or the taste of the first corn off the stalk transports them back to those days, and they smile those self-satisfied smiles and remember how it was summertime and the living was easy.


* I just saw this photo of my sister, my cousins, and me for the first time (that’s me on the left, then cousin Paula, sister Kathy, and cousin Jill). Paula gave it to me a couple days ago and I’m not sure I have a photo I like better! Do you have a photo that sums up your childhood? Shouldn’t you write a blog post about it?!

A couple of bloggers took me up on this!

Deb at SevenCub’s Blog

Deb at A Daily Dose of Fiber

“It’s All About Me” Monday: The Balsam Pillows

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Nothing revives the past so completely as a smell that was once associated with it.
–Vladimir Nabokov

When I was a child in upstate New York, I took naps on a sunny glassed-in porch at the farm. On my couch was a special pillow. It was small and floppy and not soft. In fact, it was lumpy and sort of scratchy but . . . it had the most amazing smell.

The smell was faint, just a hint of something special remained. If I squeezed the pillow, I could coax a stronger breath of it out but just for a moment. The fragrance was of all outdoors and mountains and pine trees. It spoke of my grandmother’s house, of the farm, of the region, that place of my birth.

The small pillow was filled with needles of balsam fir. Then, and still now, these small pillows can be found all over the northeast, and especially, it seems, in the Adirondack Mountains of New York and in Maine. They were, and are, sold as souvenirs of a particular kind of wilderness.

I’ve had a thing for these balsam pillows all my life. I wander around my house and can count at least 35 of them—some are vintage, with corny sayings, like “I pine for yew and balsam, too,” printed on the pillows. Some are newer, made of bright Pendleton wool, embroidered cotton, and even one of velveteen.

Of the pillows lying around, probably 10 or more are ones I’ve made over the years. I can buy balsam needles locally for $5.50 a pound. It’s fresh and aromatic and condenses forest-mountains-lakes-sun-breeze-summer into one sniff.

I have usually made my pillows using a quilter’s technique called Cathedral Windows. A solid-colored fabric is folded and sewn in a particular way, until small bits can be turned back to frame an inserted scrap of special fabric, which is featured like the glowing pieces of stained glass.

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A Cathedral Window quilt. Photo by Kristen

Over the years, my featured fabrics have been of Adirondack images—apples, acorns, and pine cones—but my most recent pillows are a little different.

Of all the vintage linens that go though my hands, some of my favorites are classic, hard-working, striped linen dishtowels. They look tailored and efficient and elegant in their perfect design for a job of work.

But some of the towels I handle are damaged by a big hole or dark stain. It pains me to throw such a towel away so I use scraps to decorate my balsam pillows. Some plain muslin fabric, a small square of dishtowel, a random old button—together they make a perfect envelope for that special fragrance.

These are very small pillows, less than 4 inches across. I can use them as sachets and tuck them almost anywhere so that, unexpectedly, I’ll walk through a room and get a hit of that astringent fragrance, evocative, not too sweet, full of memories.

When I smell balsam, it’s always summer and the sun is always shining onto fir needles. I’m a small girl again, taking a nap in a cozy, secure place in the country. When I smell it, I smell home.

But, enough about me! Let’s talk about you. How do you like my balsam pillows? If you craft and make things, is fragrance a part of the making? Is there a smell that transports you back to childhood?

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Iron Woman

IMG_7938I’ve been ironing again.

And you know what I’m going to say—I love it so!

I don’t like ironing just anything. I don’t like ironing clothing so I have blouses I never wear.

And I don’t like ironing great big tablecloths that don’t fit on my ironing board but I do those anyway because I want to sell them. When I sell them, I’ll never have to iron them again!

I like ironing smaller items that fit on the board in front of me. I like them quite wrinkled to begin with so I really see the transformation that heat and pressure bring.

And I like ironing a random stack of linens, where I’m not sure what is going to turn up next. With each new item I press, my thoughts wander. I think about how I will describe it when I list the item on Etsy. What can I say to communicate clearly to a potential buyer—why is this special? What home does it deserve?

I wonder about how the items were made. What was this lace made for? How does any human hand make stitches that small and precise?

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Done by hand–how incredible.

But much of the time ironing allows me to let my mind wander wherever it will go.

And often my mind goes where nostalgia will take it.

These homely placemats made me think of the days, in the early 1960s, I guess, when liquid embroidery was all the rage. Instead of needle and thread the “embroiderer” used little tubes of paint to follow the transfer design on the fabric.

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When I was about 10, my grandmother was my Sunday School teacher and she got all the girls in the Sunday School class together, at the farm, and we “embroidered” aprons for our mothers as Mothers’ Day presents.

I remember aqua fabric, an easy-care blend, no doubt. I remember wondering about the paints—I knew how to embroider with a needle and thread and couldn’t see the improvement. I don’t remember wondering if my mother would like the gift, although I have absolutely no memory of her ever wearing any apron, let alone this one. I was sure she’d love it because I had made it.

These memories—from the farm, of my Mama and my Mom, of working on a project with the other girls—are warmer than the steam coming off my iron.

These hand crocheted placemats take my memories another direction. When I was a teenager, I visited a girlfriend a lot and she lived with her grandmother. Her grandmother was a lot like my grandmother had been . . . but my grandmother was gone by that time.

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I remember her grandmother working on an amazing hand crocheted bedspread, done in natural cotton thread. It was very intricate and very impressive and I remember seeing it, finished, on the bed over a bright underspread. I couldn’t believe anyone would have the patience and ability for such a project. She also made dandelion wine . . .

Another grandmother, another warm house, and warm memories.

Every time I come across a towel or napkin monogrammed with a “W” or an “S,” I think of my grandparents. Printed towels from the 1950s with butter churns and sad irons? Or a funny apron from the ’40s? The farm.

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When I fold pillowcases just so, my mother’s mother is in my ear, telling me how to do it, to minimize wrinkles.

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It’s cold outside now. The warmer lake makes big billows of fog against the frigid air. Close to shore, the ice fishermen take their chances and shiver.

But, oh my, it’s warm at my iron. The steam rises, the memories swirl . . .

The Penny Candy Store

City_Mercado_Dulces_2The pennycandystore beyond the El

is where I first

fell in love

with unreality . . .

–from “The pennycandystore beyond the El,” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

When I spend time around small children these days, as I just have, and I see them obsessed with sweets, I think, “Tsk. They shouldn’t be eating that stuff.”

And then I remember when I was that age, when the happiest occasion in my life was to go to the penny candy store and stock up on treats that were garishly colored, unremitting, unrepentant sugar. Pure crap.

Pure heaven.

Our penny candy store was not beyond the El. We grew up on that farm I am always talking about and the nearest store, about 8 miles away, was a small, old-fashioned corner store run by the Delormes.

This kind of store was the more honest, more interesting version of today’s convenience stores. It was small and carried everyday items. It had a wooden floor that buckled and heaved as the temperatures changed and it had twine, for wrapping your parcels, in a dispenser hanging from the ceiling.

But I’m surprised I even remember those details because when I went to Delormes’ store, I only had eyes for the candy.

The candy was behind the counter but kids were allowed to go back there to feast their eyes on an array of pure bliss, and to make their momentous choices.

The choices weren’t easy. Delormes had it all.

Those little dots of hard frosting on paper that you peeled off, sometimes getting a shred of paper on your tongue with the candy.

Those paper straws full of powdered candy that you poured into your mouth to mix with your saliva and create a sludge that was hard to swallow. I wonder how many kids got vestiges of that powder into their lungs.

Those candy necklaces, little disks of colored candy strung on an elastic cord, that you could wear around your neck or your wrist. I know from experience that, if you wore it around our neck, you could stretch it up to reach your mouth in order to munch away. The string got sticky and wet and then got tangled up in your hair and made it sticky and wet. Incredibly unhygienic.

Incredibly fun.

The store had red and black licorice sticks, of course, unwrapped so you could buy a few and not use all your pennies on a full packet. They had Bonomo taffy and red hot dollars and atomic fire balls and peppermint patties. And Mary Janes, although I would never choose those!

My sister and I loved the Mallo Cups, which cost 5 cents but were worth it.. A Mallo Cup, for the uninitiated, is a perfect cup of milk chocolate, studded with toasted coconut and filled inside with marshmallow crème. And, AND, in the Mallo Cup package, you always got a little cardboard coupon. When you collected enough cardboard coupons, you could send them in and redeem them for more Mallo Cups! Free! For two nerdy little farm girls, getting a package in the mail with free Mallo Cups was about as thrilling as life got.

A trip to Delormes meant you left with a small brown paper sack, stuffed with goodies. If you were really lucky, your grandmother or mother would buy you a Fudgsicle to eat right away so you could save your candy for later.

You would sit with your sister, just you two in the parlor on the blue Oriental rug, and review and your compare your purchases. You might trade or split some candy to share. You would always try to make your last longer than hers, so you could gloat.

Ferlinghetti says that the penny candy store is where he first fell in love with unreality.

The whole concept of penny candy certainly feels unreal now. It’s unreal to think of buying anything for a penny. It’s unreal to think that the candy would be there in bins, open to the air and dozens of grimy little hands.

It felt unreal to us then, too, but in wonderful, magical ways. Unreal that you could feel so rich, with just a quarter to your name. Unreal that the candy was colorful and whimsical and so varied that a person’s goal for their whole childhood could be to try every single one.

Unreal that such a simple thing could provide such silly, simple joy that the memory has lasted my entire life.

Did you have a penny candy store to go to when you were little? Do you even remember penny candy?

“Hands at Home” Heritage–Who Taught You?

Where did your interest in handmade start? Do you remember the first thing you made?

I have all these little snippets of memory from growing up, of being exposed to people making stuff and teaching me how. We lived on a farm so my paternal grandmother was always making food. She made the bread for the household and, when she took the loaves out of the oven, she’d use a stick of butter and rub the end over the tops of the loaves to give them a nice finish. My sister and I would sneak in and use our fingernails to pick the buttery crust off the bread to eat. And I don’t remember anyone ever speaking harshly to us about that!

My maternal grandfather was a serial craftsman. He ALWAYS had a hobby, one hobby, that he would do intensely and master. And then he would drop it and move on. He built houses. He took and developed photographs. He was a rockhound and collected rocks and gems all over the country. He made the most amazing wood furniture. But, once he was really, really good at something, it seems to have lost its hold on him and he’d find another outlet because he just seemed to need to make things.

My mother inherited the serial crafting gene from him. When I was little, she was into sewing. She made her clothes and our clothes. She was a first-grade teacher so she would do that all day and then stay up late, late at night and sew fabulous clothes. And then, one day, she just stopped. And took up knitting. She read knitting patterns to fall asleep at night. She made up her own patterns. She knit fabulous sweaters. And then, one day, she just stopped. I could go on and on . . .

So I’ve come honestly by my desire to make things! The first thing I really remember making, other than the typical drawings a little kid makes, was a piece of embroidery. My farm grandmother started me on it. It was a transfer design of a basket with flowers in it and I remember working really hard on it. I wish I still had that little piece of cloth and I think of it sometimes, when I’m ironing embroidered linens for my Etsy shop.

I cherish the “hands at home” history of my family and I can see, everyday, how it has influenced my style and aesthetic sense. I wonder if most artisans learn their love of crafting at home?  Or do some people come to it later, without the influence from an early age?

How about you? What was the first thing you made? Who taught you?