Skaneateles, When Visiting Was an Art

There is at least one place you’ve gone in your life that grabs hold of your memory and becomes entrenched and untouched. For me, it’s Skaneateles.

My mom grew up in Skaneateles, and each summer in the ’70s and ’80s, we would travel there from our home in Cleveland to spend a week with my grandparents. My brothers and I would groan throughout the six-hour trip, “There’s nothing to do there, Mom and Dad,” and then, as we passed the Weedsport Pizzeria, “See! They don’t have a McDonald’s!” (Horrors!)They’d tell us how much our Grandma and Grandpa, Allen and Elizabeth Harse, loved us. They’d remind us it might be the last time we saw Nanny, my great grandmother Margaret Harse of East Genesee Street. We’d say, “Okay we’ll go,” as if kids trapped in a 1970s Hornet had a choice.

Minutes after we pulled into the driveway on East Street, my parents would be sitting on the screened-in patio where Grandpa would host cocktail hour. They’d chat about all things Skaneateles, the Presbyterian Church and Grandpa’s commute from Miller Paper Company in Syracuse on the Onondaga Coach. My brothers and I played baseball in the backyard where there were no neighbors to complain about the noise.

The next day, we’d drive into town – a minute-and-a-half-long ride. I was grateful to get out of the house. They smoked and owned a cat, and I was allergic to both. We’d pass Waterman school where Grandma would say, “You should be going there, because I pay so much in taxes.”

We’d buy Skaneateles shirts at the five and dime and look at the crystal-clear lake, which didn’t resemble murky Lake Erie at all. When we passed the Skaneateles Press office, my grandmother would say, “You should work there someday.”

We enjoyed the quiet downtown, a far cry from the noise of Cleveland. No one beeped if there was traffic, only to say “Hi.” We always ran into a friend. “They’re visiting from Cleveland,” said Grandma. The acquaintance would say, “Yes, I heard about your report cards, kids!”

We’d hit the Holy Grail of friendliness at the A&P, where my Grandpa stopped every day to pick us up Eskimo Pies. In every aisle I’d hear folks say, “Al! How are ya?”

When our shopping spree ended, we’d only be two hours into the vacation. I didn’t know what we else we’d do.

I shouldn’t have worried. We’d stop at Nanny’s house on the way home. I gobbled up her Chiclets; then we’d take her over to Grandma and Grandpa’s where a steady stream of friends and neighbors paraded through the living room. “Do you remember Thelma?” Grandma asked.

I had to admit, “No I don’t. I only come here once a year. Besides, I’m only 10.”

The adults would reminisce about the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, while I tinkered with Grandma’s keyboard. It only played “America the Beautiful.” Grandpa would bring out vinyl: Frank Sinatra, Glen Miller or a young comedian named Cosby. My brothers and I would roll our eyes and then escape. We’d bang on the neighbors’ doors, begging for their kids – real entertainment.

The rest of the week went like this: visits by people, visits to people, visits with Kerstens on Griffin Street, visits with Johnsons on Goodspeed Place, visits to the outer reaches, Marcellus and Auburn, and visits over lunches at the Pioneer, checking in with 15 friends while checking out at the A&P, Grandma’s retelling – during more visits – of the blizzard of ’66, during my parents’ wedding, when guests were marooned at the Sherwood Inn, enduring a longer stay than they had expected. “Maybe someday, Kristi, you could write about it for the Skaneateles Press?

The week blew by like the years eventually would. In college I got the news our beloved 99-year-old Nanny died shortly before her debut with Willard Scott. Then, when I started my career in a D.C. press office, I took a call at work from my parents when Grandpa had a fatal heart attack. We stood shocked at the wake, while friends from Grandpa’s service in World War II and the American Legion told us how proud he was of his family. “You don’t remember me, but I met you at the A&P,” said one man. I smiled. All I could think was “Why didn’t I come back more?”

My grandmother moved to Ohio and when I visited, she’d show me pictures of her old house. She’d tell us about the football player Tim Green, a Skaneateles resident. She rooted for the PGA golfer Tommy Scherrer, also from Skaneateles. Did I know that then-Senator Biden and his first wife were married at the same church as my mom and dad? “And you remember Thelma …” Grandma would say, only I didn’t remember.

Then, we lost my dad suddenly at age 58, and we were adrift. Grandma cried she was the one who was supposed to go next. Just as suddenly the following year, on a chilly November day in Virginia, I got a call as I headed to the first teacher’s conference for my kindergartner. My grandma had died in the same Cleveland hospital as my father, far away from her beloved Skaneateles.

As I tried to digest the words, “Your son isn’t paying attention,” I couldn’t, either. On my mind were the peanut-butter/butterscotch cookies Grandma had sent me in college care packages, her ham loaf that I hated, and Grandpa’s Planters Peanuts at happy hour. I was recalling the muggy summers swimming in Skaneateles swimming pools, Chiclets from Nanny, and the Shirley Temple drinks at the Pioneer. I remembered their friends over a Skaneateles lifetime, how they all visited each other. With e-mail, Facebook and Twitter, does anyone visit with real people now?

A few years ago, I convinced my husband and children to visit Skaneateles again. We stayed at the Holiday Inn in Auburn, near the prison where my great-grandfather Ryan had worked. It was weird staying at a hotel instead of sneezing all week. Driving by Nanny’s old house, which the new owners restored beautifully, was bittersweet. I’ll bet there are no Chiclets there.

We visited my grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ graves, and the historical society. The people there kindly showed me photos of Harse’s Grocery and Meat Market Store and Harse’s butcher business, owned by my great-grandfather Lester and his brother Frank. It’s now Roland’s.

We meandered around town a little longer with a quiet ache for yesteryear. The kids liked the breezy boat ride on the lake, but loved the putt-putt on Route 20 because when they got a hole in one, the manager gave them a coupon for a free game. That doesn’t happen much in Washington.

The coupon sits in my husband’s wallet now, an invitation to go back. Maybe. The kids want to, but I don’t know. We’ve lost the entire generation I visited, and I don’t want to think about loss. I want to sit in that living room once more, gasping for air in a cloud of smoke and pet dander. I want to have the whole family around me, telling stories, while friends drop by and reminisce. I want to be where your drink is filled, where the peanuts never run out, where someone who claims to know you gives you a hug, and where the tales of a lake grow taller by the year.

Near my husband’s wallet sit two books, my boys’ favorites, authored by the pro player Tim Green.“Did I tell you he lives in Skaneateles?” I ask my boys, who only remember visiting the putt-putt on Route 20.


by Kristine Meldrum Denholm

Kristine Meldrum Denholm is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. Her work has been published in books, magazines and newspapers. She longs to live where people visit each other, cocktail hour lasts four hours, and people know her at the grocery store. She dedicates this story to her late grandparents who predicted she would write one day … but for the Skaneateles Press. Visit www.kristinemeldrumdenholm.com.