Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Summer, 1949

Looking over the backseat of a ‘36 Chevy is an early memory I have about cars. I stood, holding onto the back seat and peering over it, across my parents’ shoulders. We were probably on our way to my Grandpa’s house in our small Ohio town, the place where all the family I had still lived. The actual year is cloudy; perhaps it was 1949, just post war. The car had probably been grandpa’s. It was the sort of hand-me-down + all-in-the-family cash-deal that people did a lot of in those days. So many young men were back from the War, and jobs -- and cars -- were hard to get.

“Hold on,” Mother always said. Maybe she’d repeat the story about the inattentive kid who got his teeth bashed out when the car he was riding in stopped suddenly. This reminded me to pay attention to what was going on as we traveled. In 1949, that was good mothering, sufficient unto the day.

We probably never drove faster than 25 mph to get to Grandpa’s because we went through town. With a small thriving college there, the streets were always busy with an odd mix of farmers and students from big Eastern cities.

I remember a tall stick shift protruding from the floor, and the strength it seemed to need to move it. My Mother could manage shifting as well as Daddy, though, a thing which gave her potency in my eyes, even though she was a small woman. She put a cushion in the driver's seat for height, and she drove like a champ. I remember her small, broad saddle-shoed feet stomping on brake or clutch while she shifted with great dispatch and authority.

Even as young as I was, I knew it was bad form to grind the gears, although I heard a lot of others do it. Not my parents! As the car had been Grandpa’s it was probably in perfect shape. My Father, who painted houses and studied to be an engineer, was every bit as good at taking care of things.

It was summer, so I think we might have been going to a picnic at Grandpa and Grandma’s house. They had a big white four-square along wide Xenia Avenue, which still had trolley tracks running down the middle. Behind the house was a spacious red brick patio that Grandpa had laid himself. It was flat and smooth and surrounded the largest, shapeliest sugar maple in town.

It was a lovely shady spot, always cool and filled with birdsong. Sometimes my Aunt Jeanie and her husband, Richard DeWine, would be there with Cousin Michael, who was younger than me, but fun to hang out with anyway. If it was a special occasion, Richard’s parents, George and Alice, might be there, or maybe our Aunt Judy would have come home from Ohio State. Mike and I both liked our lively, attentive Aunt Judy.

A table with a checkered oil cloth waited for whatever was about to be served, a lot, if I’m remembering correctly, of fried chicken with either biscuits or homemade bread. I'm sure there were pickles, coleslaw, potato salad and baked beans, but like most kids, I didn't eat that stuff. For dessert, there was certainly homemade cake or fresh fruit pie. If there wasn’t, the grand finale might have been Grandpa’s ice cream, which was so sublime that even kids knew it didn’t have to be chocolate.

Another Nirvana-like childhood dining experience came the day Grandpa and George DeWine served us morels. These I’ve never had since, but I’ve never forgotten them, either, the Holy Grail of Mushrooms, fresh, fragrant, and lovingly fried in sweet butter.