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Bolivers

Our beloved camp storyteller, Chuck Stead, writes about a holiday tradition with humble roots…

Bolivers, my dad Walt told us, was what they called the fried bread dough that my grandmother offered as a regular meal when there was nothing else to eat during the Great Depression in the 1930s. Growing up, it was my family’s tradition that we ate bolivers every Christmas morning before unwrapping our gifts. One usually poured molasses or maple syrup over the boliver.

As Christmas drew near, Walt would make a great pillow of bread dough and then park it in a covered pot on the steam radiator so as to rise overnight. He usually did this three nights in advance of Christmas. Ricky Cramshaw always came over to have a boliver after his folks unwrapped their presents. Through the years various other friends joined in with this tradition and chomped down on a sticky, chewy boliver. Watching Walt stretch a wad of bread dough as thin as he could, and then toss it into a sizzling pan of fat, was also part of the tradition. After one ate a boliver, there was a period of sitting and falling half asleep as the boliver settled like warm sand into your belly. Truth is, no one really much cared for bolivers themselves – it was all about tradition…the tradition that was set down by Gram Hulga Stead.

One year, the day after Christmas, Ricky Cramshaw and I were playing with these wonderful electric Lionel trains I had received. That year, Tessie was not proud of the fact that they had bought me ‘used’ trains, but actually I couldn’t have been happier. My grandfather (who passed when I was four) had worked in the Ramapo Iron Works shop on railroading equipment, so I equated the old-style toy trains with him. Ricky and I were configuring a track set-up when Walt called us up for bolivers.

In the kitchen he first powdered his hands with flour and then started stretching two wads of bread dough. He told us this was his mother’s way of keeping the family eating during the Depression. Ricky asked him, “Why was everybody so depressed back then?”

Walt tossed our bolivers into the snapping and crackling hot fat. Then he looked at us and said, “Well sir, back then, a lot of rich people fixed it so that most people ended up stone-broke. Pretty soon no one had jobs or if they did, they didn’t earn much money and they couldn’t feed their families. It was a bad time.”

Ricky said, “But your mother fed everybody, right?”

“Well, she fed us just like other mothers found a way to feed their families. Bolivers is poor people food.”

Ricky said, “So, I guess that means we are poor, huh?”

“Nope, it means that at this time of season we remember our poor background and maybe that makes us a little kinder to those in need.”

He had already flipped our bolivers and was now forking them out of the spitting fat. He plopped one down on a plate for each of us and set them on the table. We buttered and poured maple syrup over them. He made another one that cooked fast enough for him to join us. As we sat there eating the bolivers, Walt admitted something to us both, he said, “You know, I don’t think anyone really likes bolivers, but at this time of year we have our traditions.”

We agreed and once we finished eating, we slunk off to the electric trains but soon were both sound asleep on the floor, our bellies full of warm sand.

Grandma Cramshaw’s May Pole

by Chuck Stead

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