I can remember those days as vividly as if they happened yesterday. We would all pile into the car and head for the country, to the place where my father was raised: Moravia. It’s a small town nestled in at the southern end of Owasco Lake. My three brothers and I jammed into the blue Chevy station wagon with Mom and Dad up front. The trip only lasted a little over an hour, but it seemed to drag on forever. The thoughts of the wooded hillside, minnow-filled streams and the smell of freshly baked cookies eased the wait.
There it was, the majestic white farmhouse. Little had changed since it was built in the 1800s. As we ran down the sidewalk toward the homestead, the feelings of warmth and love would swoop down upon us. Aunt Pat, Aunt Lucy and Aunt Nora would come out the screen door to greet us on the porch. They were possibly the three kindest people I have ever been fortunate enough to know. Hugs and kisses would abound as we tried with no avail to squirm and sneak by them into the old house.
Once inside, it was as if time stood still. Mile-high ceilings and large crystal chandeliers graced the dining room entrance. The smell of cookies hit us like a wall of hot, humid air. In the kitchen, pine cupboards reached from the floor to the ceiling. Oak rockers were strategically located to be most accessible to the wiry cooks. In the corner stood the giant iron woodstove. Split white ash and cherry was piled high on the back porch, waiting the next refueling. The smell of burned wood filled the kitchen air.
Then there was the large rocker by the big window. Many arguments over that rocker took place, since it was the most exciting place in the kitchen. From this vantage point, one could view the many bird feeders spread around the bank, as well as the fast-moving stream carving its way down the hillside.
Also visible from the rocker was the old haunted house. Across the creek, overgrown with years of weeds and moss, was one of the most exciting adventures a kid could dream of. Once Aunt Pat’s home years ago, this old dwelling was now home to wasps and mice. We had to explore this, even though it was spooky enough to give one chills even from the distance of the rocker.
My brothers and I ventured across the overgrown field. For some reason, the big black clouds always seemed to hang right over the old house. We walked around the house to the back door. The old rusty padlock on the weather-beaten door had been broken free. Jim, the oldest, would enter first, pushing open the dusty, creaking door. Cobwebs would greet us as we entered. A blanket of dust covered the walls and floors. As we continued through, a trail would be left from our presence. Light streamed through the cracks in the boarded windows, illuminating the dust we stirred loose. Tales of huge bats and ghosts would be in our minds as we eased our way into the rooms. We never explored the basement. Maybe it was because even my oldest brother had limits to his courage. There was never much to be found in that old house besides a feeling of adventure and closeness among us.
We walked back to the homestead, covered head to toe in cobwebs and ghost dust. Aunt Pat always made us take off our shoes on the back patio, since we were so filthy. Flowers capped the large stone wall lining the patio, home for many chipmunks and the object of many chipmunk hunts for us. The patio was our home base. After every adventure, whether it be hiking in the woods or exploring the cattails in the swamp below, this was our point of return.
On one such adventure, we made our way down below the road to search for pheasants in the high cattail swamp. Almost at seed stage, the cattails were starting to shed their silk interiors. We each collected as many as a little kid could hold in two hands and made our way back up the hillside to the patio. Melee ensued with the biggest cattail fight ever known to man. Stalks with cattails on the end were swung about, crashing into each other with loud smacks. Silk flew all over, as if a major snow storm had just moved into the area. Cattail silk was in our ears, shirts and shorts. It covered every square inch of the stone-lined patio. Clean up time. With a broom in hand I thought to myself, “This is the only time I have ever seen Aunt Pat angry. Ever!”
Adventures with Uncle Bum
Uncle Bum lived about a mile down the road from the aunts’ homestead. His farm was full of animals, as well as many other things to lead kids into a heap of trouble. My two oldest brothers, Jim and John, would always want to walk the mile stretch of road to Uncle Bum’s farm. Joe and I were still too young to walk the country roads, so we would blast by them with Dad in the Chevy. We’d run across the road and into the barn doors. Uncle Bum always had a Jeep, a red one to be specific. The cab would hold two people: my father and Uncle Bum. The open benches in the back provided just enough room for us four kids. Jim and John would always get the outside. They were, of course, the oldest.
First stop up the flower-covered hills was the coconut. Fresh spring water poured from a pipe Uncle Bum had placed in the bank. This cool water treat was for the cows to drink, as well as refreshment for excited kids. Dangling on a rusty wire hook high up in a beech tree, out of the reach of hungry cows, hung a coconut shell. Nothing to this day tastes as refreshing as the cool spring water we drank out of the coconut.
Rocky, dirt roads twisted through the woods and into open pastures. We splashed through the creek up to the next hillside. Curious cows would meander up to the jeep as Uncle Bum made his way back down the hillside. One quick stop for a bellyful of mouthwatering black long berries, then down the pasture and into the barn we went.
A large door on the north side of the barn opened to the creek, 15 feet below. We could see minnows darting into the shadows as we swung open the creaking wooden door. Cane fishing poles, rigged with string, a bobber, and a hook, were nestled in the corner of the barn. Some of these poles stood over 10 feet tall. They were always covered in a thick layer of dust, collected since our last visit. After a short trip to John’s Grocery for night crawlers, we headed back for the inlet.
Bluegill and bullhead were enticed to bite our hooks as we all took our preferred secret spots on the water’s edge. Then the adventure moved onto the boat named Lucky Bum. Pontoons held the large platform boat high atop the water. A colorful canvas stretched over a pole frame to create a sun shield covering the seats and the large white steering wheel. Each of us took turns commanding the ship, even though Uncle Bum never let go of the wheel. After we grew tired of the boat trip, the fishing, and the exploration of the barn, we would head back to Aunt Pat’s for dinner and bedtime.
Resting and refueling for another day of fun
The stairway leading upstairs was so steep, we had to hang on to the step above us as we climbed to the rooms above. The landing was like the summit reached upon successful climbing of Mount Staircase. At the top of the steps, a right turn would lead into the hallway or a left would lead into the bathroom. Hopping across the landing of the stairs, the bedrooms would be to the right or left. I always slept in the large brass bed, sitting high above the floor. One step down led into the back rooms, small and cozy, each decorated in old country furniture from years gone by. The smell of mothballs and linen filled the rooms. The country nights were darker than dark, no streetlights, no city lights. Sleep came quickly to us kids. The day’s adventures were enough to tire anyone, and the adults were very thankful for that.
I would always wake first from the smell of fresh perked coffee drifting up the staircase. Bacon and eggs could be heard sizzling in the cast iron pans on the wood stove. I would walk down the treacherous stairs and across the oriental rugs, feeling the cool wool fibers under my bare feet. Dad, Mom and Aunt Nora would be seated at the table with their cups of morning coffee. Aunt Pat and Aunt Lucy were always hard at work making breakfast for all us rested kids. One by one, Jim, John and Joe ventured down to the kitchen. Each of us took our reserved seats at the table, preparing to refuel for another day of adventures.
These memories are as great today as they were during the trip back home in the old Chevy wagon. Now, each day my own boys wake to the smell of fresh coffee and walk across those exact rugs, which are now in our home. Maybe someday they will remember growing up with the feel of the wool between their toes. I know I still do.
by Tom Heffernan
Tom Heffernan lives in Corning with his wife and two sons. Even though Tom and his brothers are separated by many states, they are still as close to each other now as they were when they explored the old dusty barn thirty years ago.