Funny how one word, image or sound will trigger a memory. Glimpses I thought were long gone came back quickly when I started cataloging memories. One memory morsel seemed to spawn the next.
The “Sound of Music” song, “My Favorite Things” is a directory of memory images. Many of them are universal or at least the process it triggers is. You can’t listen to the song without having some memory ignited.
My list is not as universal and it would never make a good song but it might start a memory song for you.
- Grandma Casey’s Corner
Grandma Casey had a garden with raspberry bushes growing on both sides of a wooden planked path which stretched from one end of the garden to the other. When you stepped on the first plank it rose like a happy dog wanting to jump in to your arms. When the plank came back down it slammed a hollow spot starting a cadence of footsteps all the way down the path. With each rise and fall of the planks, a hint of raspberry touched the air.
I can still taste the cold milk and sugar mixed in a bowl of black raspberries all held in a heavy white ceramic bowl.
At the end of the wooden tightrope path was a two-hole outhouse and garden shed. It was years later I learned that Grandma built the shed herself. Grandma’s house was my halfway stop while walking from kindergarten to home. I went to afternoon kindergarten and by three o’clock and a bottle of the coldest milk sucked through a paper straw, I was probably ready for a bathroom stop. The door of the shed never closed tight as you did your business. A ray of light through the door would drop on the dark wood making it look black as golden dust fairies descended on it from the outside. A hint of dill growing alongside the shed along with cherry trees dropping blossoms around the door covered any odor.
Who needed air fresheners?
Grandma always had filled wafer cookies waiting for me in the kitchen ice box and it WAS an ice box. Or, for a special treat she had Hostess Snow Balls. their thick coconut covering always fell on the floor no matter how neat I tried to be. To make it to the kitchen I had to pass through a back porch with windows usually covered by sheets of foggy plastic. It was Dad’s job every fall to go up and “put up the storm windows.”
Hanging inside the door to the kitchen was Grandma’s outside apron. It always had smudges of dirt and a few clothes pins in the pocket.
Morton Street in front of Grandma’s was a dirt road for many years. Morton Street came to an end there and if you stepped off the street at that end you were in a field that sometimes was planted with corn or was often used as a temporary pasture for a few cows. It was also a favorite place to fly kites; many Casey experimental kites had their first solo in the field.
Usually once a year the road was oiled to keep the dust down. After fresh oil the road would shine like a street of gold. If the rain came shortly after oiling, there were oil slick rainbow reflection up and down Grandma’s street. The colors would reflect up on the white houses lining the street giving the whole block a “Wizard of Oz” effect.
A big oak sat on Grandma’s corner and stretched limps over the road as if it was holding an umbrella to protect the neighbors. It was the first tree on Morton Street and it ruled like a king. In an effort to show his dominance and title as well as to fight the intrusion on his territory, the oak raised the sidewalk walk which stretched across his roots. His powerful arms reached deep into the yard like a rescuer holding on desperately with one hand while stretching the other to save a passer in distress. The city decided not to honor his valor and instead opted to flatten the walk to make it safer for walkers. In the process they sliced the roots and the tree died a slow death but not until Grandma moved out of the house. He hung in there long enough to give her cool shade in the summer and plenty of leaves to burn in the fall. He arched over a patch of peonies that bloomed every Memorial Day with a perfume that made roses weep with envy and the lilac hedge on the side of yard turn and bow in submission.
Grandma’s house is gone.
The oak is gone and lesser maples have replaced the oak along the now cemented street.
A double wide sits where Grandma’s house once filled the yard.
Three bunches of peonies and a lone lilac bush still stand on the corner and every spring they let the rest of the neighborhood know they are now the seniors on the block.
I can see the oak and Grandma sitting on the corner taking it all in together.
- Fishing at Stanton Lake
Many summer days were spent fishing at Stanton Lake on the west end of town. The lake was an easy ride from home on a bike and not a hard walk if you decided to take that path. the walking route took you straight up Morton and turned at Grandma’s corner then right on Harlan till you reached North School, past the water tower then down the long divided entrance to the lake park. The hardest part of the walk was coming back up the entrance lane. It was one of the few “hills” in town and it taxed your calf muscles climbing back up.
The lake was a place for many family picnics, a few rocket launches and numerous sunburns.
Stanton Lake didn’t contain any fancy game fish like bass or trout. It was a working man’s lake filled with carp, catfish and bullhead. The kind of fish you go after when you just want to sit and relax and let fish do all of the work.
There were two lakes on the property, a small lake which yielded mainly bullhead and few respectable carp. The big lake was where the big fish roamed but we rarely fished it, opting for the privacy and calmness of the smaller lake.
The small lake is all dried up now but in it’s day, it was surrounded by waist high grass that was cut away at favorite fishing spots around the banks. During the day it was in full Nebraska sun. Sometimes it felt like you were at mirage you see in cartoons where the dry dust crawler comes upon a lake in his sun baked surroundings.
By late day this changed.
When the sun dropped lower in the west the trees growing along the railroad tracks cast cooling shadows first on the west side of the lake then they rolled across the banks to give some relief to the opposite shore. The sun coming through the cottonwoods cast gold coins on the lake while swallows made strafing runs for insects venturing out in the cool water.
Your bobber would sit there in the midst of the entertainment. Not really a part of the natural order but allowed by its occupation and purpose. Focusing on a red and white bobber undulating in the trivial ripples of the lake tends to blocks out the rest of the world. You become absorbed in a slow motion world that squeezes troubles out and allows the drone of a dragon fly’s wings to be the loudest vibration. Even the Burlington Northern coal trains coming through on the tracks did not drown the water lapping sounds of the Zen zoned Buddhist fisherman.
As fish passed by and bumped the hook or took a nibble of Dad’s special doughball bait dangling from the surface bobber, radiating rings like code signals from deep in the watery world would begin to spread out. This indicator was usually followed by the bobber diving under like a panicked swimmer then immediately popping back up for another suck of air then, diving right back down as if it lost something on the bottom.
The unfortunate fish that took the bait was usually released to fight another day. The fun was in the wait and reward, not in the killing and eating. Besides, we were never sure if we were just catching the same fish over and over, or if there were more fish in the little pond than we anticipated.
- Movie Popcorn
As a Casey, you were raised on popcorn. Not popcorn thrown in a microwave or popcorn from a bag stacked on a convenience store shelf. No, we had popcorn created on the stove in a pot that was “the popcorn pot.” Mom stored the popcorn in the fridge in a sealed jar thinking that kept it fresh and popped larger kernels.
Friday night was usually popcorn night.
Mom would pull out the pot, corn, vegetable oil and an assortment of ceramic bowls, one bowl for each person. You knew you reached the age of maturity when on Friday night, you got your own popcorn bowl.
Mom was always in charge of the popping process until years later when she taught me the secret and I took over. Dad’s job was to crush the ice for the soft drinks. For some reason they were big on crushed ice. The manual ice crusher hung on the door frame going from the kitchen into the pantry/downstairs bathroom. Dad would fill the funnel shaped reservoir with ice cubes then on Mom’s command, he would start cranking the handle like he was trying to wind the prop on Lindbergh’s plane. Once contact with the ice was made the whole north side of the house felt the vibrations through the walls and down into the foundation. The crushed ice, timed perfect for the end of the popping process, was poured into tall glasses each with a knitted booty attached to the bottom to protect the furniture.
No one ever received a full can of soft drink. With the crushed ice almost three quarters of the way up the glass, Dad was able to fill three glasses from one can. A full can of soda was another great revelation when I went to the seminary. I never realized some people actually drank the whole can!
All of this ritual did not compare to the taste, smell and process of popcorn served at the Rivoli Theater up on Stone Street. If you didn’t know what was showing or even if you had no real desire to see a movie, the essence of popcorn lured you in like a puppy seeking a favorite chew toy. It was a smell and texture that had to be satisfied.
The lobby of the Rivoli was lined with posters in glass cases imbedded in the walls. Each one listed an exciting coming attractions. A glass ticket booth decorated with ornate iron work around the top jutted out into the center of the lobby. You paid maybe a quarter or fifty cents to one of the senior members of the managing family. The ticket booth was connected to a the refreshment counter filled with Snowcaps, Jujubes, licorice, Gum Drops and assorted chocolate bars and soft drinks.
at the end of the counter was the crowning glory, the perfume factory extraordinaire, a buttery swirl of popped kernels and salt that could get you through the worst movie or provide you with a sense of calm and all is right with the world on a cold wet Saturday.
Rivoli popcorn rated so high on the approval scale with the Casey connoisseurs of popcorn that trips were made to the Rivoli, not for a movie but just to buy popcorn which, leads into my last favorite thing.
- People Watching
If you are not from a small town you might think this is an odd pastime, but in small communities across the country, people watching is cherished pastime.
On Thursday nights, when the stores on Stone Street were open late, Dad would park “Black Beauty” on his way home from work, feed the meter with plenty of dimes then come on home for supper. As a family, we would walk back up town and meet up with the car on the street in front of the Woolworth store between 17th and 16th street. Dad would load the meter with more dimes then Dad and I would walk to the Rivoli a block north and buy a bag of popcorn for everyone in the car. Mom and Dad would comment on the people passing wondering where so and so was tonight, or every once in a while, one of Dad’s guard buddies would walk past, stop and talk for a minute through the car window then rejoin their family.
You didn’t eat handfuls of the Rivoli popcorn. You savored one popped kernel at a time. The longer you could make the bag of popcorn last the longer we stayed parked enjoying the lights of town as they sparked on, the nighthawks chasing bugs above and the lounge chair size back seat of the old Desoto.
Thursday night’s, not Fridays are popcorn nights for Tina and I. We still pop it on the stove with the official popcorn pot. I store the popcorn in the fridge just like mom and I still use her timing for a perfect pop of almost every kernel. I still have a hard time finishing a whole can of soft drink.
I haven’t wet a fishing line in years, but every year I say I am going to.
I zero in on Grandma’s corner using Google Earth just to check on the peonies but they have yet to add fragrance to the program so it just not the same.
Some things change, others don’t, it is just…all part of growing up.
Illustrations by BWC