FADING TRACES AND OLD MEMORIES

Who left the lavender flowers by the old tombstone? It could have been anyone in a town where memories are long and roots run deep.

Traces

The cemetery is in the center of the town, across from the dam and just a hundred or so yards from the river itself. It’s up on a hill, so it never floods, even when the rivers rush over their banks. The people who created that cemetery knew about the rivers. And flooding. They picked a beautiful spot, but dry and safe for the bones and memories.

An old cemetery, dating back to the early 1700s. It contains traces of many generations of those who lived and died in this town, this valley. Folks who lived along the Blackstone and its many tributaries, fished in its lakes and streams. They fought in our wars and are buried here — Revolutionary War soldiers, Civil War veterans as well as those who fought in all the American wars since.

Every Independence Day, Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day, the cemetery blooms with bouquets and flags. The schools bring the children here, so they will remember too and traditions will be maintained. They bring bouquets of wild flowers or from the back garden. Lilacs and lilies, scarlet poppies … and always a miniature American flag. Even if there’s no special holiday, the cemetery always shows signs of caring, remembering.

Revolutionary CemetaryMaybe it’s easier to remember here, with such a small population. Is that it? Or it’s just part of the air, the character, the history. Remembering is what we do in the Valley.

The cemetery is one of my favorite places. We’re newcomers after all, only living here 13 years. Our ancestors — Garry’s and mine — come from Sligo, Antigua, Minsk, Bialystok … from tiny villages in Ireland and the West Indies and the shtetls of eastern Europe.

Valley people have been here longer. Many came from French Canada in the late 19th century to work in the mills. Another large group formed the dominant Dutch population. They built churches, businesses and factories, dairy and truck farms, shops, horse farms and sawmills. Their names are prominent wherever the rivers run.

Newcomers, like us, aren’t rare anymore but far from common. We have no ancestors in the cemetery, at least none about whom we know. Anything is possible in America.

The valley is the only place I’ve lived where the majority of families have lived in the town or in a nearby villages for three, four, five generations.

“We’ve always lived in the Valley,” they say, meaning as long as anyone can remember. If gently prodded, they may recall at some point, long ago, they came from somewhere else … but some can’t remember when or if it’s true.

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I point out they must have come from somewhere because unless they are Native American, they came to this place, even if a long time since. They get misty-eyed trying to remember old family stories handed down when they were young. Hard to remember, they tell you. “You know, that was 75 years ago … a long time.”

We nod, because it was a long time ago, longer than we’ve been alive and we aren’t young.

So another year passes and little flags and flowers bloom in the old cemetery in the middle of town.

PICKING AND CHEWING

Once upon a time, in a far away land, The Boss assigned me a secretary. Not part of a pool, but a whole person. With a master’s degree from Mt. Holyoke. Pretty daunting, me with my little B.A. from Hofstra. So I said to The Boss:

“What is she supposed to do?”

“You write, she does all the typing.”

English: IBM Selectric II typewriter (dual Lat...
English: IBM Selectric II typewriter (dual Latin/Hebrew typeball and keyboard) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He apparently thought I wrote my drafts in longhand. On paper. Although this was the early 1980s, I had long since given up pen and paper. Initially for an old manual Royal with glass sides, then for a basic electric machine, and eventually for the ubiquitous IBM Selectric, the ultimate achievement in typewriter technology before computers blew them off the scene.

I had been using computers since they became available. I was, as we say, an early adopter. Very early adopter. The moment I touched a computer, I knew I had found My Thing. It went beyond love, beyond passion. I was … An Original Geek. (Dum de dum dum … DUM!)

Now, I had a secretary. Who was supposed to type for me. I cannot think in longhand. I can barely write out a shopping list, much less a book. I doodle like someone demented and wish I could save the mad creations that emerge on the borders of papers on which I’m supposedly taking notes at the meeting. Really, I’m trying to keep awake and look busy. Also, I can’t help myself. Give me a pen and paper. I will doodle.

And there was my secretary. American, like me. Thin. Tall. Blonde. Very very nervous. A bit of what we might call “a twitch.” We discovered we shared a mutual passion for horses and went riding together (no, not on company time). She rode better than me (a lot better) and had her own helmet, crop, jacket … the whole regalia. I had jeans and a pair of battered boots. I’d never worn a helmet. Probably this explains a lot about me. That’s when I discovered that Israel is the largest breeder of Arabian horses anywhere, but they get trans-shipped to Arab countries because you know, they can’t buy Israeli horses. They might turn out to be a Zionists!

One day, I realized my secretary had a little compulsive habit. Maybe not so little. She was a dedicated nose picker. And she ate it. She was fast and sneaky, but when you spend every working day with a person, it’s hard not to realize she’s got one of those long, nervous fingers up her nose all the time.

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Everyone probably picks their nose sometimes, usually to get something that’s blocking air. But this wasn’t like that. She just couldn’t stop. She admitted eventually she’d caused permanent damage to the lining of her nostrils from constantly attacking them with her fingernails. Oy.

Our offices were located on the fourth floor of a warehouse. No elevator, so you got exercise. You didn’t have to go out for lunch. It was catered, delivered daily and we all ate at a long table amidst many prayers. The Boss was an orthodox Jew from Belgium. Other than Judaism, he believed in feeding His People and giving everyone lots of vacation time. It was a good job; he was one of the kindest, most decent men for whom I ever worked.

Two floors below us was a chocolate factory. They made all kinds dark chocolate-covered citrus fruits (my favorite was grapefruit). No milk, so if you were Kosher, you could eat them with meat or dairy. And oh my, they were so good. Around two in the afternoon, they fired up the chocolate vats and the smell would start drifting upward. I sent my secretary to get me chocolate. I didn’t know what else to do with her and watching her ream out her nose was getting to me. By mid afternoon, I not only needed chocolate. I needed a break.

She was such a nice woman. Smart. Well-educated. Over-qualified as a secretary, but she didn’t have qualifications for anything else, either … just a Masters in English Literature. Not the ticket to success in Israel in the early 1980s. Probably not now, either.

She objected to being sent on errands. I sighed. I didn’t really have much else for her to do. The nose-picking was wearing me down. I found myself trying to not look at her lest I catch her digging with a finger in there up to a second knuckle. One day I was sure she’d hit brain matter.

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Finally, she refused to get me chocolate and I had no work for her. Moreover, she was unable to keep her fingers where they belonged. I went to The Boss. I said I felt my secretary needed to move on, perhaps to someone else in the company who needed her services more than I. He looked at me.

“What is the real problem?”

“It’s embarrassing.”

“Tell me.”

“She picks her nose. And eats it.”

I thought he was going to toss his cookies on the desk. That was the end of the story. In reality, not only did I not need a secretary, no one did. It was a computer development company. We all worked on keyboards. So her departure was inevitable. I just speeded it up by a few weeks.

I was nice about it. I didn’t mention the picking thing, but I suspect she knew. She also had to realize she was underemployed. I’ve been in that position. You always know when you’re redundant and sooner or later, you’re going to have to leave. No one will keep paying you forever if you aren’t doing something worth a paycheck.

Still, if it hadn’t been for the nose picking and her flat refusal to go down to the first floor and get me chocolate, she’d have had a little more time.

SASSAFRAS AND FERNS

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Of all the hardwoods, sassafras is the most interesting. It makes tea and soda pop. When you peel it, it smells like peppermint. It has three different leaf shapes on a single tree and it turns the most remarkable colors in the fall. Not a big tree, not as hard as oak, but harder than maple, it isn’t used for furniture (at least not to my knowledge) but it made some great poles for the teepee.

I hadn’t known until this year that the ferns change color in autumn. Our ferns, mostly fiddleheads, are pretty much gone by the fall. They have their moments early in the summer, in May and June, then gradually disappear. But other ferns hang around and turn gold. Like these.

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