Summer Musings

The pungent smell of chicken being grilled on skewers caught my attention as I walked out of my Manhattan apartment building last Sunday. That and the sound of 50’s big-band music blaring from a speaker.

The Second Avenue Street Fair was in full swing. The event is held every year on the second Sunday in June. It promises tasty food, free entertainment, and unparalleled people watching.

I wandered to the end of the block. Amid all the milling people, my eyes were drawn to a couple with three young children. The smallest rode on his father’s shoulders. The tallest girl held her mother’s hand. But the middle child, a boy, was impatient and kept dashing ahead. In the short time that I stood there watching them, the mother called to him three times, “Come back, you must stay near us!”

The children’s excitement, the cooking odors, the sun beating down—welcome after a dreary winter—took me back to my childhood in South Dakota.

Each year the Farmers’ Club picnic was held near the river in a field not far from our house. The event was always planned on a Sunday in late June, after the fields had been planted and before the big push to harvest had begun. The hour was selected so the women could attend church services, but still have enough time to put finishing touches on the dishes they’d bring to the picnic.

My mother was able to relax and listen intently to the priest’s sermon knowing that four pies were cooling on the kitchen counter and a pot of baked beans was reaching perfection in the oven of our wood-burning range. On Saturday she’d chased, slaughtered, and plucked eight chickens. Early that Sunday morning she baked them in batches, two at a time. One of my brothers pulled potatoes from the garden, and one of us girls cleaned and peeled them. While the potatoes cooked, my mother made mayonnaise by blending her special mix of ingredients into egg yolks.

Chickens, beans, potato salad, pies, dinner rolls, the card table with an oil cloth covering, serving and eating utensils, glasses and cups were loaded into our car. With our mother seated beside him, Dad drove down the driveway, past the cottonwood and the old oak, and continued eastward along a rough hilly road. He parked the car at the edge of a large untilled field.

Other families also pulled up and parked. Everyone unloaded their goods and then, while the women set up the tables and the men heated up the grill, boys and girls grabbed cane poles and small tin buckets of bait and rushed to the river bank. As the youngsters caught fish, the men cleaned and grilled them. Everyone served themselves from the bounty, taking seconds and thirds until they thought they could eat no more.

But dessert was still to come! Scoops of the best-ever ice cream (made by the local creamery) topped off slices of pie. Later slivers of icy watermelon cooled everyone down.

The women huddled in the shade catching up on the town news, while the men, after kicking large stones aside, drove stakes into the ground in preparation for rambunctious rounds of horseshoe.

Young boys waded in the river and laughed when schools of small fish tickled their feet. Girls made mud pies decorated with twigs and red berries. The older kids ran around with abandon—playing hide and seek and tag amongst the old oaks and in the thickets.

The impatient voice of the Upper East Side mom broke through my memory and returned my attention to the present.

“Stay where I can see you!”

I watched as the little boy reluctantly made his way back through the crowded street and felt sorry for him.

On those splendid afternoons of the Farmers’ Club picnics, we children had been entirely free to wander and explore. No parent would call upon us to do a chore. There’d be no order to go feed the chickens, pull weeds, or check on newborn animals. On those splendid afternoons we had been simply kids.

© Barbara Scoblic 2019

The Ants

Do ants mourn? It’s been proven scientifically that elephants mourn and anecdotally that horses, dogs, and cats mourn. But ants? Yes, they do. After a serious twelve-hour study observing errant ants, I have concluded that ants do mourn.

The other day when I had my second cup of morning coffee sitting on the couch looking at the paper I glanced over to pick up my coffee cup when I saw an ant. Then another, then another. I started squishing them with a Kleenex, running back and forth to the bathroom to flush them down. It turned out that these ants were strong. They often didn’t squish and I had to be careful that they didn’t creep out of the tissue and up my arm. I captured several of these ants. Then I noticed that they were wandering around walking back and forth in this one particular area. What could that be? Why were they doing that? I kept on squishing, but I was still curious. I looked closer. There was a dead ant that I had squished but not picked up. They were coming to pay their respects. I felt a little bad as I kept capturing the ants. But eventually I thought I had them all.

Later in the afternoon there were another two ants, then three. I got them also. Much later at about ten o’clock at night I glanced over and saw one more ant. He’d returned to the spot where I’d removed the squished ant. He paid his respects. Did he expect a monument or some sort of memorial? Well, there was none.

And then, with a phantom apology to my young grandson who loves all things that creep and crawl, slither and slide, I squashed that ant, too.

My conclusion after this long exhausting study is that ants do mourn. 

© Barbara Scoblic 2019

 

 

Tastes and Smells of Spring

On a morning last week when the sun had risen high enough to brighten my apartment, I heard songbirds from the courtyard eleven floors below. Spring! I felt a deep longing to be out in the midst of nature. That feeling lingered all day.

I called my three brothers and my sister in turn. What do you remember about the smells and tastes of spring on our farm? I asked each one.

Bill in Illinois answered his cell when he was about to enter the market where he’d stopped to pick up some fruit.

“I remember, when stepping out onto our South Porch, the smell of the wet chips beneath the basswood tree and the fragrant aroma of the lilac blossoms that grew a few yards away. Those scents combined to make—” he paused for a moment, “—a special sweet perfume.”

John picked up the phone in Indiana. He remembers the long-awaited end to winter’s frigid bite. And recalls how when he left the house first thing in the morning, the air felt soft and caressed his skin.

Helen, talking to me from the kitchen of her house in Minnesota, still vividly recalls sitting on the Big Rock preparing to bait her hook, and the distinctive scent that wafted out when she opened the tin can and pulled a worm from the damp earth.

In North Dakota, Bob excused himself from his breakfast partners at the local hang-out café and stepped into its lobby to hear me better. As we talked he remembered our mother’s salad made from the first lettuce of the season and the indescribable taste of those leaves topped with the dressing she’d prepared.

I remember watching our mother as she tossed it together. My father and brothers were seated at the table waiting to be served, but in this task she would not be hurried.  Carefully, methodically she worked to blend all of the brown sugar granules and flecks of dry mustard into a small bowl of cream, separated from our cow’s milk, that she’d purposefully allowed to sour on the kitchen counter.

At four years old I was aware of the tension emanating from the other room where my father and brothers waited impatiently. It was planting season, and they were anxious to get back to the fields. Even at that age I was amazed at my mother’s serenity as she performed this ritual of Spring. 

© Barbara Scoblic 2019

 

Dance of the Dragonflies

2004

On the Saturday following Labor Day, our property had been transformed into a different ecological zone. After a summer of weekend rains, it was raining again.  By early evening the rain had stopped, but the land, and everything on it, had become saturated.  There was standing water on top of the hill. Frogs were hopping in and out the newly created ponds. Below the hill, patches of fog dulled the vivid autumn colors of trees in the distance.

Overnight a cold front moved in, banishing the fog, and in the morning trees, flowers and grasses stood sharp again.  There was only a short time before we’d begin the drive back to the city, and I hurriedly set out, camera over my shoulder. 

I’d been working hard to identify and photograph the flora on our property. I’d made a lot of progress the past spring, using blossoms of flowers and trees as the guiding feature. But at this time, early fall, I was reminded of how many species I still couldn’t identify. The bushes and low trees along the edge of the meadows were dense.  In summer they’d made an uninterrupted palisade of green. 

In fall, however, their individuality became apparent. The leaves were beginning to turn, and there were berries of different colors. Now I could easily identify different varieties of dogwood by their sprigs of red or white berries. There were smooth deep purple berries on some branches, bumpy deep purple on others. Were they viburnum berries, mulberries, or serviceberries?  The week before, guidebook in hand, I’d discovered we had bittersweet on our land.  In late summer bittersweet berries are plump balls of delicate green, not the easily recognizable crinkled-up orange ones.  I walked around Pine Island to check on the pin cherry that I’d located last autumn. Once again it was decorated with graceful dangles of pink and green berries.

A change in the light made me realize I’d spent more time in my discovery mode than I’d planned.  The sun was going down. As I quickly hiked back to the car, I stepped into a band of  soft amber light.  It highlighted a small patch of meadow near the treeline that the farmer hadn’t bothered to mow. White Queen Anne’s lace, yellow goldenrod, pink clover, and purple wild asters stood above dull-colored grass.  In that leftover ragtag of summer, dozens of dragonflies dipped and rose, alighting on each flower for only a moment, before they lifted and flew again. The light picked up the colors of the wildflowers and transferred them to the dragonflies’ delicate, translucent wings.  Through my entire field of vision little glints of  pale yellow, pink, and lavender rose and fell to nature’s silent music.

I didn’t bother to take out my camera. No photograph could capture this scene. I stood and tried to imprint the intricate dance into my memory.

© Barbara Scoblic 2019

Bird’s-eye View

                                               

 1960

In a Cesna, my boyfriend and I flew a few hundred feet above the twisting Whetstone River, and then he swooped us down even lower over my childhood farm.

 The gentle hills were flattened. They lost their contours. The great twists of the river were diminished; the proud oaks and cottonwoods lost their height, and their pride. And then with a shift of the clouds the deep green leaves, the bronze of the river, even the black spots of my father’s cows (that I spied in the pasture) lightened. All that I love faded to shades of gray. That beloved parcel of land had become an unfamiliar fading photograph.

© Barbara Scoblic 2019

Skipping Stones on Walden Pond

1995

If on that January afternoon

you had been standing near the ragged heap of rocks

where we had just added ours

and heard our laughter (but not seen us),

you would have guessed, perhaps,

three twelve-year-old girls escaped from a boring class,

not three women.

 

A thin layer of ice,

not quite reaching the shore,

created a large crystal drum, as we three sisters by choice

(when would we be together again?)

skipped our stones, making music,

zinging notes that echoed on to

the far edge of the dark tree-bordered bowl.

 

For a few minutes we competed,

searching along the shore for the best stone

and then aiming it carefully

to see who could make the music last longest,

but competing was not for us

and so,

we laughed and marveled at this moment.

 

Then, together, we each threw one last stone,

And hurried away,

Before silence could begin.

© Barbara Scoblic 2019