My earliest memory is seeing Canada geese. Today these birds are suburban pests, failing to migrate away seasonally, fouling lawns and sidewalks across the Northeast and Midwest. When I was very small and we still lived in Shelton, WA, we went to visit friends who kept geese in a pen behind their house. I remember looking through a fence at huge birds, easily as high as my shoulder. There may have been a photo, too, because for years I knew that I had seen huge geese out west.
When I was in middle school, we were riding along somewhere and I was seated in the back seat of the huge station wagon we always seemed to have, when mom said, “Oh, look at that, Canada geese!” I immediately wanted to know where so I could see them, the giant birds I remembered. Mom may even have pulled over. I looked and looked and finally identified some small, dark, duck-like birds. They were geese, but not monster geese. I asked my mom if they were always so small, and together we worked out that I remembered the shoulder high geese from a time when I was less than three feet tall myself. I had grown a great deal, and had never adjusted my rule of thumb for the height of geese. I have never been so disappointed, among my first lessons that the world is not always as we imagine.
I have three sisters and a brother. The five of us made a busy life for mom and dad. We did not go on many trips. Until I was about ten, our annual two-week vacations were to visit relatives, or go camping. Mom wasn’t big on playdates, either, because they involved driving to someone’s house. As I finally understood when I became a parent, driving to a playdate involves loading the child and possibly one or more siblings, with his/her/their accoutrements, into the car after a prolonged period of going to the bathroom and putting on shoes and appropriate outerwear. Once deposited with the friend, the process had to be reversed to bring the young person home again. The alternative is hosting a friend, which meant adding yet another young person to the household for a while and provoking the need for special snacks, drinks, and possibly meals, in honor of the guest. No wonder my mom preferred that we stay home and play with each other, preferably outdoors.
I might have complained about playing around the house, but we had some great moments. One that I remember vividly involved standing around a big galvanized washtub of water and whacking it with plastic badminton rackets. I was too young to recall what it was all about, but it was a lot of fun. Paula was there, and some neighbor kids, and we were all splashing and shrieking and having a great time until mom emerged into the yard and said there could be no more shrieking. Possibly a younger sibling was trying to nap? I couldn’t help myself, apparently, because mom emerged again, even more harried, and this time threatened to wash out our mouths with soap if we kept it up. I tried, I think, but failed, and when mom stomped out, really, really, mad, I was in big trouble. In we went, me making some kind of noises, and right into the bathroom, where I learned what Dial soap tasted like. Ack! Bad! Terrible! Ack!
We had a very large yard, so there was space to play and run around. The back porch was where we played “school,” drawing on papers, and raising our hands. Everyone wanted to be the teacher and boss around the friends and younger siblings. One rainy day, when we had to play indoors, Paula and I somehow ended up playing with Tim, who was very little, maybe three years old, still small enough to be interesting. We were under the stairs, using the open treads as pull up bars. Paula went to pick Tim up to reach a higher tread, or something, and he fell and bumped his head. It started to bleed, and we were terrified. We got mom, who was justifiably furious, loaded us all in the car, and took us to have his cut examined. He was fine, but Paula and I got a rather stern talk from our ancient chain-smoking pediatrician, Dr. Mary Light Cassidy. In her raspy voice, she calmly told us that there was no more picking up our brother to use as a dolly. I don’t recall being punished, but I still remember the day.
Most adventures were small and close to home. Going down two houses to pet the Murphy’s collie was an adventure. Going to the Vanoli’s front yard to collect and crack hickory nuts was an adventure. Climbing a tree in the backyard was an adventure. There was a cave-like dirt-floored crawl space under the porch that almost became the family fallout shelter during the 1960s. Playing there was an adventure. Occasionally, though, we had a real adventure, like the day dad took us all to Bear Mt. State Park.
It was spring, warm but not hot, and there were at least four of us, Paula and I, Tim, and Catherine. Mom may have stayed home with baby Sheila. I’d like to think she stayed home to have a rare Saturday to herself, but it was probably Sheila. Dad’s plan was that we’d all take our boots so that we could walk in the streams, then have a cookout. It was so unusual for dad to handle all of us that it was an exciting event. I remember nothing of the drive, over an hour, though we probably jostled and fought while dad talked about where we were going. We bundled out of the car and made our way to a cookout spot by a stream, set down our stuff and went to find sticks and poke things and walk in the water. It was at this point that it turned out we were a boot short. I’d forgotten one of mine. I’m pretty sure dad had no idea how to deal with this situation, and in the end I stood with one foot on a rock and my booted foot in the stream, until, naturally, my foot slipped into the water. The stream was very, very cold, and that was probably the impetus for building the fire and cooking our hotdogs. I recall the day going by very fast, though it could have been shortened by me and my wet foot.
When we were around the neighborhood, we knew to return home when mom rang the big bell that hung outside the back door. I recall being able to hear it a long way away. It was a different time, when parents didn’t worry about their children being abused or kidnapped, they worried about cuts and scrapes and kids being late for dinner. As we grew older, we could stay out until just before dinner time. In the winter, it was already dusk by 5 o’clock, and we might be sledding on the hill next door or building a snowman in someone’s yard. In summer and fall, we’d be in the woods that began just one house over from us to the south and east. It was a wonder of interesting places. We made forts, and walked along old tumbledown walls that threaded through the woods, part of farms that predated the reservoir in the distance. There were gnarled apple trees where we could sometimes find an edible apple or two. We collected leaves, sticks, and rocks, and made caches that we never returned for. At home, we asked about the walls and heard stories about the town of Kensico, drowned to make the reservoir that holds drinking water for New York City. It was a real-life ghost story, and it was said that the steeple of the church became visible when the water level dropped. I wanted to go out in a boat and look down on the former town, though we never did. Another of our adventures with dad was to go fishing in the Kensico reservoir, where we caught perch and sunnies about six inches long. We took them home and had fried fish for lunch. Mom deserves high praise for turning our tiny catch into a meal.
We did travel in the summer. On the occasions we didn’t visit relatives for our vacation, we went camping at Rogers Rock State Park, just outside Ticonderoga, NY. We joined a group of families who were friends of our parents, and set up for two weeks at the campgrounds beside Lake George, one of the deepest and clearest lakes in the US. The whole family slept in one 8 x 10 ft. canvas tent. Two cots were set up in the center, with children ranged down the sides, tucking their feet underneath. We must have kept some of our clothing in the car, I can’t imagine it would have fit into the tent. I remember wearing my bathing suit most of the time; maybe we didn’t bring that much clothing.
For children, the campground was a delight, full of new kids to play with, lots of space to run around, a swimming beach along the lake, the occasional hike or boat ride. When it rained, we went to the laundromat in Ticonderoga to stay warm (and do laundry). We cooked on a Coleman stone, and an open fire of wood and charcoal. My mother used all her gym teacher and Girl Scout leader training to manage the camp and get us all fed. In the evenings, the adults would cluster their lawn chairs around a fire to chat and sip, sometimes late into the night.
Our camping ended the year it rained ten out of our 14 vacation days and mom got bronchitis by the first weekend. The doctor told her to go stay at a motel and she was probably happy to comply. We fought to visit her and take hot showers. By the end of our stay, mom and dad had spent a few afternoons visiting lake properties, and the next summer we moved into our “camp” on the lake, a little house perched on cement blocks with a separate “bunk house.” It was small, but much bigger than the tent, and we spent subsequent summers by the lake, learning to swim across the bay to jump off “the rock,” or try the tire swing. In the early years, there was a restaurant/bar nearby, the Casino, where we could play pool in the afternoon. It was here, and swimming out to the rock, that we met local boys, sons of farmers who came down to the lake between bouts of working in hayfields or cattle pastures. I rode on the back of a motorcycle for the first time at the lake, behind a young man I barely knew, and was grounded for a week. We made friends with neighbors from the Albany area, and spent hours talking about nothing, reading books, and lying on the rock. We returned home the week before school started again, until the summer I turned 16 and was able to get a summer job.
Mom held the household together, alone with all us kids week after week. We still had to go to the laundromat in Ticonderoga, where I think we eventually had to help manage laundry while mom went for groceries. Though she took time to go for a swim, she did a lot of cooking and cleanup. We all had chores to do, a drop in the bucket of household maintenance, I suspect. Locally mom became known for her straw hat. I have no idea where she bought it, possibly on a Caribbean trip. It was an inverted bucket of mustard-colored straw with a bowl of raffia vegetables in the crown; a whole red onion, tomato, zucchini, bulb of garlic and a carrot, all peeking over the top of her head. Mom was afraid of the bats that lived in the roof of the mostly abandoned hotel down the street. She always wore her straw hat when she went out in the late afternoon or evening. We began to call it her ‘bat hat’ and the name stuck. She’d protest, but if she went out without it or stayed out too late in the afternoon, she’d send one of us home to get her bat hat and bring it to her before she would walk home.
Once Paula and I were able to work, we drove to the lake with dad after work on Friday and returned to the suburbs on Sunday. I had my drivers license by then and learned about Sunday evening traffic on the Taconic parkway, and about the risk of falling asleep on the drive up. I think we almost drove off a bridge into the Hudson River one night, though dad would never admit that he had actually fallen asleep and was awakened in the nick of time by an “are we there yet” from the back seat. Once at the lake, Paula and I had teen-age adventures. We snuck off to meet the local boys and drove into Ticonderoga, a vast 16 miles away, to sit in the Burleigh house and buy beer with fake ids. When that was too much effort, we met up at the rock, sitting on its still-warm slope in the dark. We built campfires, drank beer, talked, and made out. I don’t think we realized quite how visible we were to our parents and neighbors who were just across the bay, but we never seemed to get into too much trouble. I still don’t know whether they knew all we were up to. It was an easier time, when drunk driving and teenage pregnancy were our major hazards, not heroin, meth, and child abuse. There was no racism only because we were all white. We learned about the gulf between rich and poor as our friends from the hayfields married and had their first children at 18, while we gradually disappeared back to the suburbs and to college.