At the time, of course, there was no way I could appreciate that we were living in something of a time warp, since a lot of what we were doing was about as out of date as a steam locomotive or a Model T. Maybe ten miles from our 1960s ranch-style house was where my parents had grown up, on farms outside a leafy little town called Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania. The name derives from a cluster of springs perpetually bubbling up and forming a large shallow lake.
In the early 1970s, before I was even ten years old, my maternal grandmother would take me with her on her rounds in and around Boiling Springs. In 1961, “Burning for Burning,” an episode of a now classic television series, Route 66, was filmed there, and the place had not changed much since that time. For my grandmother, shopping was like change, something that should happen very slowly. She was a retired school teacher, and, whether she intended it, taking me with her on those shopping trips was part of my education.
Sometimes my grandmother would take me along to get eggs. From a local farmer she got dozens of big brown eggs for herself and for my mother. One advantage brown eggs had was at Easter, when they were better for dyeing in red onion skins. All winter my mother and grandmother would save red onion skins just for dyeing Easter eggs.
Many years later I read in Georg Ratzinger’s memoir, My Brother, the Pope, his account of how their mother would dye Easter eggs with red onion skins. Both in Europe and in the European diaspora, people still knew how to use what was naturally available. Very little went to waste.
Grandma was friends with the farmer’s wife, and they always had a long visit in the kitchen. Their conversation over coffee was about people and subjects I didn’t know, but I kept busy with homemade chocolate chip cookies and milk that had come straight from a cow.
Much more memorable, Grandma also took me along to visit her aunt, a widow living on a secluded side street in Boiling Springs. Rooftops and maples and walnut trees across the street kept us from seeing the town’s sprawling lake and its benches and many mallards.
Needless to say, to me, Aunt Annie Weaver seemed about as old as Ramses’ mummy. Despite being ancient, she was an active and alert old lady, what is often called spry. Again, as elderly kitchen table conversation over coffee drifted by me as so many elusive syllables, I enjoyed homemade ginger snaps, dipping them in milk that was, as folks in our area used to say, store-boughten.
It was an era when children were not to speak unless spoken to, so no one would have given a thought to me being left out of their rambling talks. Likewise, it would never have entered my head to interject. During their chatting, I had plenty of time to look around. From my chair I could see into the front room, and I could also see into the long back yard and, through the loop fence, into a neighboring yard.
Aunt Annie’s small house was all claw-footed Victorian furniture and lace curtains, African violets and doilies. Even on bright summer days, the interior of her old clapboard house was dim, since Aunt Annie never turned on an electric light when there was sunlight. However, except for the kitchen, she kept the blinds drawn so the sunlight would not fade the rosebud wallpaper or the damask upholstery. Above the cluttered mantelpiece was a black framed lithograph depicting the climactic chariot race from Ben-Hur.
While Grandma and Aunt Annie were “exchanging the news” (a phrase they preferred to “gossiping”), I watched a frantic dog next door. A sinewy black mongrel, it apparently disliked being chained up under a maple tree in its back yard. It never seemed to get exhausted from endlessly barking and jumping up and down.
One time when we visited Aunt Annie, she got me a glass of milk and pointed to the square clear glass jar of her ginger snaps, saying, “You dare have some.” She then got coffee for Grandma and herself. For all their arcane talk of small-town goings on, one statement struck me so strongly, it has stayed with me close to fifty years.
While I inwardly noticed how quiet it was outside, Aunt Annie announced out of the blue, “That dog committed suicide!”
She said that yesterday morning when she got awake and came downstairs and looked outside, she saw the dog hanging from a tree limb.
As near as anyone could figure out, in its jumping about, the barky dog had leapt over the lowest branch of the maple tree. In so doing, its chain strangled the dog to death.
A rather Gothic tale of a suicidal dog haunted my silent dunking of ginger snaps in milk. Not one to dwell on the macabre, Aunt Annie then launched into the rest of whatever she wanted to tell Grandma about the latest doings in Boiling Springs.
Relaying news that never made it into the daily newspaper was only preliminary to the real object of our visit. Aside from baking cookies and being well informed about local events, Aunt Annie also had the distinction of making her own lye soap, and we went home with cakes of it. In my mind’s eye, I saw her at her fireplace, stirring a bubbling black iron cauldron of beef fat and wood ash. How and where she made her soap, though, I never found out.
Being just a boy, it never occurred to me that brown eggs could come from a grocery store, or that Easter eggs were any color but brown. Likewise, I was puzzled why friends and neighbors looked quizzically at our brownish-yellow cubes of homemade lye soap. That was just the way soap was.
Before long, these visits to Aunt Annie came to an end. In 1976, Aunt Annie died at age 93. Looking back, those visits during the Gerald Ford administration might as well have been in the days of Calvin Coolidge. As a boy, though, it was just par for the course, hours spent with Grandma and her aunt, with homemade ginger snaps, homemade lye soap, and unforgettable news of a dog that jumped too high.