Listening to the Land

Chuck Stead, our beloved camp storyteller, recounts a day spent coping with the floods of spring and learning an important lesson.

After the winter thaw, there come spring showers. They are gentle and deceptive and very inviting. The thing is, the earth is still saturated with a soaking from melted winter thaw, and spring showers have no place to go but over land, downhill. By the third week in the month, vernal ponds and freshets emerge all across the woodlands and eventually make their way into neighborhoods, flooding yards and seeping into basements. This is the soaking that brings forth a celebration of life, but it can also undermine the concrete and stone beneath our houses.

freshet

Uncle Mal had us kids (Me, Ricky Cramshaw, and Cindy Maloney) climb into the back of his International Pick-Up truck, where we found three red rubber buckets and three oversized sponges. He told us we were on a mission of good will and that we were to be rewarded with ice cream at Hagedorn’s Soda Shop. We drove down Fourth Street, over the Thruway Bridge, across the railroad tracks, and onwards to Suffern. We sat against the back of the cab and waved at the people driving behind us, as we watched the red buckets roll around in the truck bed. As you drive into the Village of Suffern, the road wraps around Nordkoff Mountain, takes you under an over pass, up Wayne Avenue, and under another over pass. Each time we drove under one of these, we looked up and watched the pigeons sail about just under the massive steel girders. The air along the road was a sweet mixture of early spring fragrance laced with concrete dust and a dank iron odor. Uncle Mal pulled the truck into a short yard that had a steep driveway dropping off toward Lake Antrim. We climbed out of the truck and found we were at the home of Mrs. Sutherland. Mal handed us each one of the buckets and one of the big sponges. We then followed him to the front door where he knocked twice and then opened the door and called out her name, “Mrs. Sutherland, we’re here!”

She came from the back room kitchen. She was a smallish woman who looked as if she didn’t want company. She was shaking her head and staring at us. I could not guess her age as she seemed older to look at but was younger to listen to. She said, “Oh, now look at this crew. What are they up to?”

Uncle Mal said, “We’re going to take a look at that big puddle in the basement and figure out where it’s coming from.”

She looked up at Mal and said, “Oh now I can’t have these kids getting all dirty down there in that old basement.”

Mal said, “Maybe you can’t, but I can!” Before she could protest he pushed his way past her and had us follow him into the kitchen, through a door and down a set of plank steps. We arrived in a basement that was walled in concrete and stone and only partially floored in concrete, with the rest being the dirt. Half the floor was covered in water which was the color of cocoa. Mal took up a mop and bucket with a double roller ringer on it that was sitting at the edge of the big puddle. He started sloshing it around, soaking up the cocoa colored water and ringing it out into the bucket, which he quickly filled. He told us to wait until he got most of the water out and then we were to sponge up the rest. He dumped out four buckets full of water before we could get started. He had us pat the floor water with the sponge, which caused the water to soak quickly.

Mal went back upstairs to talk with Mrs. Sutherland while we, down on our knees, continued our work. We kept getting little bits of grit, stones, and sand soaked up with the water, and our bucket mixture looked darker than the water Mal had mopped up. It was hard, dirty work, but it didn’t take all that long. Mal came clamoring back down the plank steps and was very pleased to see that we had completed the task. He then got down on his own knees and studied a seam in the floor right along the edge of the concrete. He pulled out a flashlight from his baggy trousers and scrutinized the seam with the light beam. He looked back at us and said, “That’s where it’s coming through. Only thing to do is seal off the rest of this floor.”

We went outside and dumped our buckets while Uncle Mal explained what he had discovered to Mrs. Sutherland, who was now smoking a cigarette by her back door. She thanked us and told us we were good workers. We walked back to the truck, and I noticed that down the narrow driveway there was an old open garage that was full of interesting looking stuff. But it was time to go. We climbed back into the truck and Mal rode us into the town.

At Hagedorn’s I ordered Vanilla, Ricky order Chocolate, and Cindy got Strawberry. Uncle Mal got a cup of coffee and drank it without any milk in it. He told us that Mrs. Sutherland’s husband had passed away and that he and a couple of fellows were going to fix up her basement, because it leaked every spring and sometimes again in the summer. I said I didn’t think Ricky, Cindy, and I had been of much help and Mal said, “Well what do you want me to do, take the ice cream back?”

Ricky said, “No!”

Cindy said, “All’s we did was sponge up some water and you probably could have done it faster than us anyway.”

Mal thought about this and nodded, “Well, maybe I could’ve…” he said. He sipped his coffee and then said to us, “But you see, you kids got to learn something about the old ways. You see, we’re a people of the land. And we act according to what the land is doing. It’s cold and freezes and we got to cope with it; it gets warm and floods and we got to cope with that. And some people, they don’t cope as well as others. So you got to pay attention to the land and it will tell you when you need to go out and help those who need the help. You see, it ain’t us against the land, it’s just us listening to what the land has got to tell us.”

We finished our ice dream and uncle Mal paid the bill. He turned around on his swivel stools and he said, “The world is changing and I think the old way of listening to the land is being forgotten.”

And even though we really had no idea what he was talking about, we promised him that we would never forget it. Mostly I think we promised this because the ice cream was good.

Maple Water

Chuck Stead, our beloved camp storyteller, tells us a tale of Maple Water in the mountains and gratitude for Mother Earth.

We always hated to see the last of winter. Along with snow holidays off from school, the seasonal blanket of white turned the woodlands into an Artic adventure. Come evening, the very earth itself seemed to be illuminated with a fairy landscape that hinted at nature’s mystery. There were so many stories to follow in the tracks of wildlife that even the sleeping forest was awake with animal speak. But as March moved us toward April, the snow started to melt, and the creeks ran high, and the early buds snuck out from their tiny stalks. Dainty white Snow Drops and bright purple crocuses suddenly appeared even before the last snow fell. The Black Capped Chickadee changed his sweet mournful two notes that seemed to tell us “Spring Soon,” to an excited four note celebration “Spring is Com-ing!”. My friends and I saddened as winter slipped away. But then! There was Jeff Masters’ annual tasting of Maple Water! This was the official recognition that winter was on its last legs.

We followed Jeff up a trail to one of his favorite sugar maples. He somehow moved fast, but looked like he was walking slowly. His was a long-ambled stride that seemed easy and relaxed, but actually moved along pretty fast. My uncle Mal used to describe Jeff’s walking style as ‘country’ or ‘mountaineer’ walking. He said my dad walked that way and that I would too eventually. Cindy Maloney was behind me and hers was a focused, purposeful walking style, while Ricky Cramshaw followed us with his easy-going wander that meandered more than directed. As for me, I couldn’t figure out how I walked, seeing as how I couldn’t see myself from a distance, but I once saw a home movie in which me as a littler kid walked by. I was startled at seeing how I looked and refused to look at it a second time. I think it scared me.

We got to the top of the small ridge and crossed over to the southern side where the winter sun had turned the snow pack into mush. We reached Jeff’s favorite tree. He hunkered down and with his brace and bit tool, he pressed the long curly metal bit against a good spot in the tree bark and began to drill. He cranked the open handle around many times until he got deep enough into the tree. Then he removed the drill bit and took out a small metal nozzle, which he pounded into the hole in the tree with a hammer. Almost immediately, drips of sap came down the open nozzle and Jeff hung his metal bucket on the nozzle. We all looked in and watched as the tree let out one drop after another. “Plunk! Plunk! Plunk!”. The sound spoke out to us. Jeff stood back and said, “Come evening, when the temperature drops, it will slow down. Then, as long as its real cold tonight and then warm tomorrow, it will pick up again.” We followed him to a second tree where a bucket was already hanging. Here, he took out four little tin cups from his pack. This bucket was more than half full and Jeff easily dipped the cups into the bucket and gave us each a half cup of Maple Sap.

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Sugaring bucket hanging from a maple tree

He said, “Now don’t drink it just yet. We gotta thank the earth mother for sharing with us.”

Ricky quickly said, “Thank you, Earth Mother!”

Jeff said, “Look up to the sky and thank Creator.”

We did this.

He then said, “Look down to the earth and thank the ancestors.”

We did.

He then said, “Thank you Earth Mother for all you share with us.”

I said, in this moment, “Amen.”

Cindy said, “Amen? What do you think? We’re praying?”

Before I could answer Jeff said, “Well, yes we are.”

We all sipped our sap. It’s Maple Water actually. If you boil it down, 40 quarts of this Maple Water will yield one quart of maple syrup—after most of the water has been boiled out of it. Jeff told us that the elders used to gather the maple water and let it freeze, then remove the ice on top, which was another way to extract the water part. The sugar would settle at the bottom, and would not freeze with the water. It took a lot of refreezing to get down to a sweet syrup.

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Maple water boiling over a fire

The maple water tasted just a bit like maple syrup but was cool and delicious to wash across your tongue and very rewarding to swallow. This sweet drink was like a promise from winter that things would be good when spring came. Nature would take care of us now that we survived a long, cold winter. Ricky looked at the grand, grey maple that reached out over our heads and he said, “So when you tap the maple water, does it all come down from way up there?”

Jeff smiled and said, “The tree gathers up water from the ground and even from the leaves. When the maple water gets made, it moves through the tree just like your blood moves through you. It moves up and down throughout the tree.”

Cindy asked, “Does the tree have a heart?”

Jeff looked at her and grinned, “You mean does a heart in the tree move sap like our heart moves our blood around inside of us?”

She said, “Well, yeah I guess, but I also mean, is it a living thing like us?”

Jeff put his open palm on the tree and said, “Well no, it does not have a heart like we have to pump our blood around. The whole tree helps in moving the maple water just by the way the tree breaths.”

Ricky shouted, “Trees breathe?”

“Yup and it is a living thing, not just like us, but kind of like us. It needs air and water and food, too.”

Ricky observed, “Well this tree has been eating well, because this maple water is tasty!”

Jeff looked at me and said, “You ain’t said much. What do you think of our maple water this year?”

“Good” I said, and then added, “Amen.”

Ice Fishing

Chuck Stead, our beloved camp storyteller, recounts an invigorating ice fishing experience.

The thing about ice fishing is you only do it when its block-hard cold. My dad, Walt, used to say ice needed to be six inches thick for good fishing. Six inches or more was the thickness of a block of ice the community used to cut out of the ice ponds to store in their ice houses, for use later in the warm season. Six inches was solid enough to hold any number of fishermen who chopped holes into the ice for fishing through. Some fellows chopped with a little ice hatchet. Others had a long-handled auger that they worked like a big hand drill. But Walt had my grandfather’s ice chopper. This was a three foot long iron handle with a straight forged blade, about five inches wide. The ice chopper was made by my grandfather at the Ramapo Iron Works years ago. The old man attached a solid blade to a switch machine handle. Sometimes the ice chopper needed some extra persuasion, so Walt would whack it with the back end of his hatchet and chisel his way down into the block-hard ice. Mostly Ricky and I stood and watched him chopping holes into the ice.

Once he cut a half dozen holes or more, spread out over a hundred-foot section of lake ice, we went about setting our tip-ups into the holes. These were little cross sticks of narrow wood that were rigged with a small reel of coarse line. The line was weighted with a lead sinker and hook and baited with worm or corn. You dropped the line into the hole and set the tip-up across the hole, such that if a fish took the bait and pulled, a little flag sprung into the air and a small sleigh bell jingled. Usually the fish caught itself, but then you had to pull it up through the chopped hole and get it off the hook. This was all a very cold way to fish. You were always having to pull off your gloves to grab the fish and de-hook it, or to re-set the bait and rig the tip-up. We also had little fishing poles to try and catch fish through the ice holes.

Ice Fishing

Walt took us ice fishing after he came home from work, so we usually didn’t get it all set up until early evening. Our tip-ups were out in a wide circle around us and we three sat on up-turned buckets around three small holes with our short fishing rods. Between us, Walt set up a wood camp fire on an open bucket that stood up off the ice on three short metal legs set on wooden pads. We were always amazed at how we could have a fire out there on the ice and how it didn’t melt its way through into the lake. And we were very grateful for the fire for, as I said, ice fishing was only done when it was block-hard cold.

This one evening, after we had caught a mess of perch and sunnies, me and Ricky were getting antsy with the drop in temperature. Walt added some more fire wood, but this only helped to warm up our front sides and then we had to turn around to warm up our back sides, only to find our front sides were chilling up again. Walt re-lit his pipe and started to tell us about the monster catfish in this lake. He spoke with the pipe clenched in his teeth. Each word sent out a little puff of white smoke.

“Some old-timers say there’s monster catfish in this lake. They call them granddaddy bullheads. These big old white bellied catfish seldom come to the surface but for late at night. In the winter, when the lake is froze over like it is tonight, they rest down deep sucking air out of the water. They don’t bother to take our bait, they just watch to see some other regular size fish steal our bait and then the big old bullhead cat fish rise up and swallow that regular size fish whole.”

Ricky rubbed his hands together and said, “So why don’t we take one of them regular size perch and bait our hook with that and maybe that granddaddy monster catfish will go for it!”

Walt said, “Well, that could be a good idea…and it might even work, but the problem is we’d never be able to pull one of them granddaddy bullhead catfish through our little fishing hole.”

Ricky said, “They is that big, Walt?”

Walt said, “Oh Ricky, they is fierce bigger than our fishing holes in the ice.”

We got up to check our fishing holes, as they sometimes froze over and the new ice needed to be cleared out. Just as we stood, one of the tip-ups started to jingle furiously. Rick and I ran over to it and together just managed to catch the tip-up as it was starting to break apart from the strike beneath the ice. We pulled, but the little reel broke apart, so Rick wound the line around his wrist. Then a great splash of water and ice thrust up through the little fishing hole and for a moment we saw the flash of a massive white belly slam against the hole and roll over such that we saw its black dorsal fine. Then the line went slack and we both fell over. Walt came over and picked up what was left of the mangled fish hook. It looked like it had been chewed. We looked up at Walt and he said, “Well sir, that was one of them granddaddy bullhead monster catfish!”

The Way of Things

Chuck Stead, our beloved camp storyteller, gives us a tale of birds, taking care, and the way of things for this month of January.  

Come the cold, hard freeze of January, Grandma Cramshaw supplied her back yard bird feeder with sunflower and safflower seed. She got angry with anyone who left bread out for the birds, as she said that bread is ‘people’ food and should not be eaten by the feathered ones. Ricky told me that his grandmother felt bread didn’t go down a bird’s gullet very well. I asked him what a gullet was and he said it was the bird’s throat. I asked him why they didn’t just call it a throat and he said because it was bird talk.

“You mean gullet is a bird word?”

He said, “Yeah, sometimes you hear the crows say ‘gullet gullet’. Didn’t you ever hear them say that?”

“I guess so…but why are they saying ‘throat throat’?”

Ricky said, “I don’t know. Maybe because they are talking about two throats?”

We watched the old woman go out into her little backyard right near to the Thruway fence. There she climbed up a short step ladder and dumped a portion of sunflower seeds into an open tray on top of an iron pipe. A foot below the tray was a wide, metal pie pan such that a squirrel could not shimmy up the pipe and get around the pie pan. Then down a little ways from the pie pan was a lower tray in which she dumped a portion of safflower seeds. Below this tray there was another metal pie pan just about two feet off the ground. The whole thing looked like some sort of antenna for a spy satellite.

The sunflower seeds in the top tray were all black. She called them ‘oilers’ as they were Black Oil Sunflower seeds. She said they were for the chickadees, but really all kinds of birds went for the ‘oilers’. We saw doves, robins, catbirds, jays, and even some crows go for the top tray. The lower tray looked light-colored, as safflower seeds are a dirty white. This tray was for the cardinals, as Grandma told us cardinals were very fond of safflower seeds. She also didn’t mind this tray being closer to the ground as she believed squirrels were not too keen on safflower seeds. She kept the bird feeder pole stocked up through the cold winter, but put smaller amounts in the trays as spring approached. She said she didn’t want the birds to get lazy and forget about finding their own wild food in the warm weather.

birds

But one freezing cold winter she took to walking up the back ledge of the thruway cliff with a small bag of feed for something. Ricky and I followed her one day when it was pretty dry and not slippery. There, high above the distant sound of the thruway traffic, we found her pouring out a couple of handfuls of cracked dry corn. Apparently there were a pair of ruffled grouse that had moved into the brush just back of the ledges, and she was worried about them.

She said, “No grouse in his right mind would live on top of this thruway cliff. I got a suspicion that one of them is hurt and needs to heal up before they can go on to wherever they were headed.”

Ricky asked her, “So why’s the other one here then?”

She said, “To take care of the hurt one, it’s the way of things.”

He said to her, “Is that what you do? Take care of birds in the winter cause it’s the way of things?”

She looked at us, her weathered face all carved up with wrinkles like an old piece of leather, but not in a scary way, sort of friendly-like, and she said, “Not just birds, Ricky. We only got one job, to take care of things.”

A few days later she found a raccoon was eating the dried corn and she no longer heard the grouse drumming their wings on the thruway cliff. She told us they flew off or got eaten by the coon. She said, “Either way, it’s the way of things.”

The Christmas Ornament Incident

Camp storyteller Chuck Stead spins us a tale of holiday mishap

 

It was not clear just who was responsible for the destruction of Grandma Kiely’s antique tree ornaments, but I was certainly involved.

Every year the half-dozen antique, glass ornaments handed down from my mother’s mother were the last things put on our tree. My mom, Tessie, hung them only after studying the decorated tree for some time. She told us she placed them according to how her mother used to hang them. We had a few other Kiely ornaments but these were the special ones. I thought they were the ugliest things I had ever seen.

We had not inherited any ornaments from the Stead side of the family. Steads were not much for dainty, elaborate decorations. They decorated their trees with unbreakable wood and plastic ones. Mom’s family was Irish Catholic, and they took Christmas seriously. Tessie was very solemn about her six Kiely ornaments…very.

When the incident happened Walt and Tessie were in the kitchen. Walt was pounding bread dough for our annual holiday breakfast and Tessie was trying to find Christmas music on our RCA radio. She slowly dialed the knob searching for the NBC station but all she could find on the Nabisco Broadcast was a discussion about Cuba. She complained, “Who cares about Cuba?”

Walt said, “Cubans.”

In the living room I stood sucking on a chunk of Tessie’s Christmas Fudge. My older sisters Muffin and Terry were arguing about the Sandy Becker Christmas Special. It was a televised puppet show. In those pre-muppet days puppets were hand-carved wooden figures, and every character in Sandy Becker’s Scrooge story was specially made. Terry loved the puppetry and she mimicked the voices used in the show. Muffin (who was older and questioned everything) was telling Terry that the Sandy Becker version had made a mockery of the Dickens classic. Terry countered that Muffin lacked true Christmas spirit, to which Muffin countered that the holiday was an excuse for marketing junk. Their voices rose in anger and Tessie kept calling from the kitchen, “That’s enough girls!” Then Terry, in an effort to change the subject, looked at me and observed the wet fudge dripping from my lips.

She said, “Disgusting! You’re a pig!”

Now the truth was I had been drinking Walt’s home-made root beer and I was seriously carbonated with soda. Having devoured three chunks of rich fudge I was ripe for a deeply flavored taste return. Staring at Terry I was struck with the sensation of a warm bubble working up from the depth of my belly. The burp was one of my best. Terry caught it in the face. She screamed and shoved me with both hands, but I caught her by the elbows and we crashed into Muffin, and then all three of us toppled into the decorated Christmas tree.

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The only things that broke were the six Kiely tree ornaments. After we put everything back together Walt carefully swept up the shattered glass ornament fragments and dumped them into a single, white business envelope. Later that night he used his hatchet to chop open a piece of frozen back yard. Tessie placed the envelope carefully into the hole and Walt covered it over with frozen ground, the final resting place of the six Kiely tree ornaments.

Uncle Doc and the Deer Call

November back in the village of Hillburn during my boyhood was not a time for contracting workers. The independent contractors of the Ramapo Valley went off into the mountains, shotguns in hand, looking for deer; everything else was put on hold. The first few days of hunting season brought the sounds of gun shots, and then the whitetail herd hunkered down and hunting got harder.

Uncle Doc loved his time in the woods, and despite his lack of success at bringing down a deer, he drove up to Hillburn and regularly met with my dad Walt and the other hunters in the wee hours of crisp November mornings. He carried a double barrel (traditional side-by-side) twelve gauge gun. He wore red and black checkered wool, and for all appearances was a local. Doc was Walt’s brother-in-law, and his real name was Herman. Herman had served in World War II, landed on Normandy and seldom talked about it. Some of the hunters who gathered in the morning hour believed Doc didn’t have the heart to kill a deer. I asked Walt that if this were true, then why did he bother? Walt said, “It’s just something he needs to do.”

And so it was that I followed these two men – my father Walt and Uncle Doc – up Torne Valley Road. They walked casually, toting their guns into the valley, up past the sand pit just as the night was slipping away. Walt stopped and took from his pocket a small wooden block with a rubber band stretched taught through an opening. He put it to his lips and blew hard. The sound it made was like that of a trumpet or an old dog passing gas. I was as amazed as Uncle Doc when Walt told us it was a deer call. Now I had heard the white tail deer snort, but this sound was nothing I believed any self-respecting deer would ever make. Walt blew it again and Doc begged him to stop, as it would surely scare any wild game for miles around. Walt said he made it for Doc, to help him call in a deer, but Doc wouldn’t have anything to do with it. I can’t say that I blamed him, either.

deer

We left Uncle Doc posted just below a short outcrop of moss-covered rock, and there he had a commanding view of a deer trail below. We then cut back and started a wide, slow movement north and then to the east, around a cedar swamp that eventually leads back to the place where Doc was. We were doing a careful dance across the swamp, stepping from hummock to log in order to drive any deer down in Doc’s direction. My uncle in the meantime had tucked himself in against a great hemlock trunk, pulled out his pipe and settled in for a smoke. He was comforted by the pleasant tobacco blend, the crisp air and the ready shot gun. He was in a near meditative state that was suddenly shattered by the snort of a single bugle of sound from the ridge behind him.

Without moving other then to take the pipe from his mouth, Doc said aloud, “Very funny, Walt!”

He was answered with an even louder indignant burst of flatulence.

He shouted, “I’m not turning around, Walt!”

This time the rattled, snorting response was filled with anger.

Doc shrugged and said, “My goodness, Walt”, as he turned to see a massive whitetail buck whose antler rack rose above his head like an ancient crown. The deer stared down at Doc and snorted again, a perfect copy of Walt’s call.

We were still crossing the swamp when we heard the double barrel blast from Doc’s gun. I stumbled and plunged my boot into a deep puddle of swamp water. Walt turned around and as he pulled me up he said, “Sounds like he fired both barrels together”. Doc didn’t hit the deer, but he did some serious damage to an oak tree. We found the buck’s tracks and confirmed it was as big an animal as Doc reported it to be. Walt then handed the deer call to Doc but he again refused it. He said the call was so good a deer sound that he feared a hunter might take a shot at anyone who blew it.

A year later Uncle Doc did get a deer (not the majestic buck) and he did it without the help of the deer call. I used to take that call into the woods and sit at Doc’s hemlock trunk and blow it. I never saw the great buck but I did manage to call in a few young does. And even though he never actually used the call, when I blew it I would always think of Uncle Doc.

Telling Stories with Chuck: New Baby

There was a new baby in our village. Not that I cared one way or another but people were talking about it and I heard some of what they said: adorable, remarkable for an early birth, doesn’t look like either of them, a little bit of heaven. I was the youngest in my family so I hadn’t seen another follow me up with all the crying, the diaper changing, and everybody in the house being tired. No, I didn’t much care about new babies and I could have done entirely without seeing it – but for Cindy it was different. She had two younger brothers (who supposedly both entered this world ready for a fight), so I was surprised that she was interested in seeing this new baby.

“It’s a girl” Cindy told me, “Girls are different and I want to check it out.”

We walked through the village streets and along the way Ricky Cramshaw found us and asked what we were up to. Cindy told him and he said, “Babies is mostly like looking at little, old, bald men.”

Cindy said, “This little bald man is a girl.”

So Ricky joined us. The three of us soon stepped onto the front porch where one of the Ramapough Indian women sat by a baby carriage and an old woman with her face mapped with many lines sat near by. Cindy asked the young woman if we could see her baby. The mother reached into the carriage and slowly lifted a small sack of blanket with a bulbous baby head wearing a knitted yellow cap. This infant was pink-faced and a little wet around the mouth. She looked up at Cindy and made a tiny sound. Cindy said, “Hello…”

The woman told us her name was Sadie.

Ricky said he had an uncle who owned a dog named Sadie.

I stepped closer to get a better look at the little, fat, gurgling thing and she turned her head and looked at me. The woman said, “She knows you Stead. Look at how she looks at you.”

I said, “How could she know me? I never met her before!”

Ricky said in a slow whisper, “Gram says babies is old souls who know a lot of things.”

The ancient woman watching us then said, “That’s right. Babies come into the world with old knowing. Most likely she knows you from another time.”

Baby Sadie kept her big eyes locked on me. Then in an ancient, eggshell voice she made a small sound, almost like a word. Her mother smiled and said, “She’s talking to you Stead.”

Ricky said, “Say something back, Chucky.”

I shrugged. I didn’t know what to say to this chubby lump of life.

Cindy whispered, “Chuck, she remembers you from another lifetime. You must have been close friends. Say something!”

So I leaned in and offered my right index finger and Sadie grabbed it with a tiny wrinkled hand. She held on tight and smiled a gummy, toothless smile.

I said, “Welcome back”.

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Grandma Cramshaw’s May Pole

In the backyard of the Cramwshaw house, tucked in near an ancient rock wall, there was on old pole, maybe fifteen feet high with straggling, faded ribbons hanging from the top. I never knew what it might be for. Along with the cast iron bathtub filled with smooth stones, the single large iron gear surrounded every spring with daisies, and the collection of Ford, Chrysler, and International hub caps nailed to the side of the barn, this pole topped with tattered ribbons was just another artifact of the Cramshaw way of life. But I did know this pole had something to do with grandma Cramshaw. Then the morning after one particularly strong night of April showers the pole was blown down.

Ricky Cramshaw came down to my folks house and found me looking for fish worms in my dad’s rose garden.

He said, “Chucky, no fishing now, we got to go help with the May pole.”

My dad, Walt, who was inspecting the new growth on his rose bushes said, “Your grandmother’s May pole?”

“Yup. It blew down last night and got busted. My big brother Lucky gone up the mountain to cut a new one and we need kids to dress it up.”

Walt looked again at the new little buds and seemed worried about them. He said, “She ain’t done any May dancing since I can remember.”

Ricky said, “Nope, I never seen it done neither. But she says with it coming down that’s a sign to do some dancing!”

“Dancing?” I asked with images of old time ballroom dancing in gowns and tuxedos.

Ricky said, “Sort of like dancing around a fire only it’s around a pole.”

Walt looked to our back porch and said, “Where’s your mother?”

“She went shopping, I think.”

Ricky said, “Oh then she’ll miss the dancing!”

Walt said, “Good, she don’t approve of things like May poles anyway.”

“What’s not to approve?” Ricky asked him. “It’s just dancing around a stick in the ground!”

Walt said, “It’s an old fashioned thing that scares her.” He told us to go on up.

At the top of the street we met up with Cindy Maloney, her friend Josephine, and her two brothers Mort and Wort. They had all been invited to help as well. When we got to the place where the old pole had been Lucky Cramshaw had already dragged it off and was tying long, many-colored ribbons to the top of the newly cut maple pole. Ricky explained that his Grandmother preferred a maple May pole to any other wood. Dougy Cramshaw was attaching old dried maple and oak leaves to his woolen shirt with safety pins. He told us he was going to be ‘leaf boy’ and give out the sticks. I was just asking what sticks he might be talking about when Ricky’s mom, July, came walking out with her mother, Lilian Cramshaw. July did not look pleased about this project. She was shaking her head and seemed annoyed. Her mother’s pig monster dogs were kept in the house and they were not happy about this. I could see their ugly, fat heads popping up in the lower kitchen window and hear them yapping to be let out. Even Ricky’s sister Luanne and her half sister Mary Jo were there. I did not see their father. The old lady came up to a little rise above the garden, and holding on to July’s hand she started to instruct us kids as to what we were to do. Once Lucky got the pole standing up straight and sure, we all had to take hold of the end of one of the long ribbons. Then Mary Jo (who was looking kind of teenage pretty these days) had a flat snare drum, and as she pounded it we were to dance around the pole. Each of us were given a direction to go in, and as we danced the idea was that the ribbons would get wrapped into a big braid around the pole… at least that was the idea. The ribbons were long, bright-colored cloth of blue, red, orange, green, yellow and violet. When Grandma gave the command Mary Jo starting drumming and we hopped into motion.

Photo by Mark Saunders for Green Meadow Waldorf School

Photo by Mark Saunders for Green Meadow Waldorf School

First of all, Mort and Wort went the wrong way, tripped and started to strangle each other with their ribbons. Lucky broke that up, but then Luanne tangled Cindy up and they both fell into me while I was trying to avoid Dougy, who was running around swinging fresh-cut maple limbs at everybody. July Cramshaw got us all back to our places and explained that this was a slow dance around the pole and that we weren’t supposed to be choking each other with the ribbons. We tried to start it again but Mort and Wort got into a fist fight which sent the indoor pig monsters into a frenzy, so we had to stop. Finally, Grandma Cramshaw got us all together, and looking very stern she told us what for.

“This is important, you kids. Now we got to do this right or there won’t be any good growing season. Up there on that mountain just like down here in the village the trees are listening. They hear us every day and they want to know we respect them!”

Wort Maloney then spoke up, his little reptilian voice croaking like some bog creature, “Then why’d you cut one down to make a pole with?”

It was a good question. A fine young maple had been cut for this May Pole. The old woman scowled at Wort and said, “Some sacrifice is sometimes necessary. Thing is…” she added, “we now got to hold ceremony for the living!” Her last remark was stern and just a bit angry.

We took our places again. With the determined, chiseled face of the old lady staring down at us we danced slowly to the beat of Mary Jo’s snare drum. I looked up and saw that the wrapping of the ribbons was working. Eventually we got to the bottom of the pole and each of us got to the end of our ribbon. Then Dougy the leaf boy danced about handing everybody a switch of fresh maple. Now old Grandma was smiling and all her meanness was gone. She said to us, “Take your maple stick as a sign of fresh new growth. Take it and know that things are now fertile.” She looked to July, who I think was pretty disapproving of the whole thing, and the old lady said to her, “A long time ago I took a fresh cut maple stick from a May Pole dance – and that year I gave birth to you!”

July laughed out loud.

Photo by Fernando Lopez for Green Meadow Waldorf School

Photo by Fernando Lopez for Green Meadow Waldorf School

When it Rains

Camp storyteller Chuck Stead spins us a tale of April showers

When it rains, the mountain above the village drinks up as much as it can and then lets go of the rest, which runs down in little streams and courses through the village streets. Leaves and old, half-eaten acorns and bits of unknown things sail along these little streams and are then strewn all across Mountain Avenue. Walking in the last of an April shower, we kids study the mountain debris that has come down. I found a piece of a dollar bill. Ricky Cramshaw found two pieces of crayon, a silver one and one that looked like olive green. Dougy found a small, caramel-colored bit of glass and we wondered if it was from a beer bottle or a soda bottle. Cindy Maloney laughed at us in the final sprinkling of rain up on Mountain Avenue.

She said, “Everything you found is people stuff! It all washes down off the mountain and it’s people stuff, not mountain stuff. How can that be?”

Ricky said to her, “Must be from the Motel!”

And yes, it was well known that atop of the little mountain overlooking our village was a place called the Motel on the Mountain. Folks used to come from far and wide to stay there, but the directions said it was in Suffern, not Hillburn. We guessed that when they wrote the directions they figured Suffern was bigger and therefore Suffern got the credit. Truth was we were happy to give Suffern the credit, as we never liked having the motel on top of our mountain. Folks would drive into the village and ask a local how to get up to the Motel on the Mountain. They would point at the motel that was up there and say, “Excuse me, how do I get up there?”

The local would ask, “Well, where is it you want to go?”

“Up there to that motel!” the lost traveler would insist.

The local would say, “Well, what town is that motel in?”

The frustrated traveler would say, “Suffern! It’s in Suffern!”

And then the local would direct the traveler back out of the village and over to Suffern which was further away from the motel.

So it wasn’t unusual for us kids to find things and assume that the ‘people stuff’ sort of things washed down from the motel. Cindy bent over and picked up a delicate little skull, it looked like a mouse skull, the bottom jaw was missing. She said, “Now here’s something that didn’t come down from the motel. This little mouse probably lived right up there under that old tree stump.”

“Or maybe…” Dougy suggested, “…that little mouse did live at the motel and lost his head until the rain brought it down here?”

She didn’t agree. “No”, she said, “this is part of nature and that stuff you guys found is just a bunch of garbage.”

So we were about to throw it all away when Dougy squealed that he wanted our finds. He took the tiny bit of a dollar bill, the two bits of crayons and his own bit of colored glass and held onto to them.

Ricky said, “And what are you going to do with it all?”

Dougy had no idea but he said he didn’t like things being thrown away.

Old postcard of the Motel on the Mountain

Old postcard of the Motel on the Mountain

The rain had pretty much let up and now some sunlight streaked through the scattered clouds. We four started walking in the direction of the river and as we came around to the corner of Fourth Street and Lake Road a big, red Ford sedan pulled up and a man in a white hat called to us.

“Hey you kids…” he said, “…how do I get up to the motel?”

We approached his car and I saw that his license plate was from Florida. I was about to tell him to go to Suffern when Dougy said, “You drive out that way on Mountain Avenue, then turn on Sixth Street and then make another turn to the highway called 17, then you follow that to the motel road, its up the back of this mountain here.”

It was all very well worked out and we were surprised that he told the man the right directions. The man looked a bit doubtful about this so he looked at us all and said, “Is that right?”

We agreed and the man shrugged, but before he left Dougy said, “Wait!”

The man looked at Doug, who then walked up to him and handed him our bits of junk. The man stared at the torn dollar, the crayon bits and the tiny glass fragment in his open hand and he said, “What’s this?”

Dougy said, “You got to bring this back to the motel where it belongs.”

The man stared at Dougy, who looked very serious about this, so the man agreed and took the bits of junk with him. As he drove away I noticed Cindy quietly putting the little mouse skull into a patch of wet grass just off the road.

Yes, when the rain comes in spring things start to happen.

Polecat Weed

Storyteller Chuck Stead spins us a timely tale of early spring

By March we kids knew that winter was nearing its end. The chickadees that survived the cold, the snow, and the long nights were now dancing around wet Hemlock trunks, picking for food and singing a song that declared “Spring is com—ing!” Deer now dug through the melting snow and found last season’s acorns while the squirrels desperately tried to remember where their hidden nut stash was. But most remarkable was the skunk cabbage. Down along the cold wetlands we kids found the thick nub of skunk cabbage surrounded, halo-like, by the melting snow. The skunk cabbage begins to heat up through the frozen ground. By the time it breaks the surface its warm cabbage heart has melted an opening in the snow crust.

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Ricky Cramshaw and I were sent up along the Ramapo River to find some new cabbage hoods, (which are called spathes) brownish with a purple, shell-like pod and splotched with a green splatter. We were to yank a few of them from the cold earth and bring them back to Grandma Cramshaw. Ricky’s grandmother woke up with a nagging toothache and wanted the cabbage for a remedy. We walked up river under the railroad trestle and into a low lying place just below the well field. Sometimes a few skunk cabbages could be seen here. As we stepped through old broken ice and felt the spongy earth below our boots, I entirely forgot about our mission upon spotting some mink tracks. Mink tend to print their tracks in sets of two, toes spread like little hand prints. I wanted to see what the mink was up to so I followed the tracks back to the water.

Ricky shouted, “Here’s some!”

I looked at him over in the wetland, pulling off his gloves and hunkering down to grab a brown-hooded pod. Walking over to him I spotted another little splotched spathe in an open snow hole. I pulled off my gloves, squatted and wrapped my hands around the warm, hooded pod and yanked upward, landing on my butt. I grabbed the skunk cabbage nub and pulled as hard as I could, but this cabbage must have been hanging onto a boulder underground. I gave up and walked over to help Rick with his. We wrapped our hands together, counted to three and pulled straight up. Then, with a sucking sound followed by a deep gurgling, a long, pale, slimy root came up out of the earth and popped free. By now, after wrestling with this brown-headed, purple pod, its pungent odor (for which it is named) was so strong we could taste it in back of our teeth.

I said, “Why does she want these?”

“She got a toothache.”

I looked at the gangly pod and root in our hands and I said, “Doesn’t she know about the dentist?”

He shook his head and said, “She won’t go to Doc Yankee.”

“Doc who?”

“Doc Yankee: she calls him that ‘cause he yanks teeth out of your head.”

So we took the skunk cabbages, spathe and root, muddy and cold back to his grandmother. The old woman chopped them up on a board near her sink and soon the whole room was deeply skunk-scented, even her pig monster dogs wandered back into the house and crawled under the furniture. She slid the mess of stinking, slimy skunk cabbage into a bowl and then set it on her kitchen table. Then, standing over the bowl, she inhaled the cabbage stench once, twice, and then a long, deep, third time. She touched her cheek and smiled, the toothache was gone. She looked at us and said, “Now that’s good Polecat Weed!”

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