When I was a kid, we used to visit my great Aunt Rose in Kent, Ohio. My dad, who was either a student or later a pastor, seldom came with us, but mom would pack up my younger sisters and I and head off to Ohio about once a year.
Sometimes this was in the winter, and for a boy who grew up on the coast of south Florida, snow was a lot more interesting then than it is now, after 25 years in Michigan.
Aunt Rose had retired from working in food service at Kent State and ran a boarding house, a dark, gloomy place filled with unfamiliar smells. Kids made Aunt Rose anxious, but if I was really, really good (which I seldom was) she would make apple dumplings.
Christmas was the worst, because her parlor was filled with amazing ornaments and decorations you weren’t allowed to touch, including an entire village of miniature houses and shops as well as a train that circled the entire room—although she would hardly ever turn it on.
I was in Kent this weekend and tried to find her house, which appears to have become a Burger King. But just around the corner from her house there was a university bookstore, and for a bookish kid like me, it was beyond amazing. I found it today, quite unlike what I remember. All the books are behind the counter, and the store is filled with fraternity and sorority junk as well KSU branded apparel.
Back then I would spend hours browsing at textbooks for courses I had never imagined existed. I sat on the floor and read literature that wasn’t on the shelf at my elementary school. And by the time I was twelve I may have spent too much time flipping through anatomy books. But the place was magical. There were microscopes and telescopes. Maybe even calculators. Art supplies and notebooks. I still remember the smell of old books and new books and real books.
But after a couple of days I would start pestering my mom to let me go to her cousin Walt’s farm, where the enticements were even greater. It seemed like it would take forever to get there—but they must have moved it, since it turns out now to be only three miles away in Brimfield.
Walt and Ruby had four kids—Kenny and Tom were both within a year of me, and their older sister Judy was close enough in age for us to aggravate, at least until she outgrew us and got to high school. There was an older brother Bob who had his own friends and his own life.
But the list of pleasures was endless, starting with waffles and other delights from Ruby’s kitchen—including apple butter. We often went in late summer, and there would be a huge picnic with relatives I didn’t know and can’t remember.
I do remember the huge pot of fresh sweet corn over an open fire in the backyard and the hamburger and sausage patties on the grill. I remember fresh vegetables from the garden, the hay loft, the apple orchard, the pigs in the barn and the woods—towering hardwoods compared to the short, scrubby pines of my own sandy home.
Tom and Kenny and I would play for hours in these woods. We would camp out, cook out, and sometimes fight it out. We played army. We built forts. We ran and biked and screamed—the freedom of innocence and the delirium of childhood.
They thought it strange that I couldn’t name any players from the Browns or the Indians. I thought it strange they couldn’t name any Confederate generals. (Hadn’t everyone heard of Robert E. Lee?)
And yet we forged a stable bond of memory.
I may have been here once since then, 35 years ago, just a few years after Kenny and Tom stood up at our wedding. The farm is gone, sold to a developer. But friends remain, second cousins as close then as the brothers I never had.
Ironically, Tom was in Florida visiting my sister. Kenny had just reentered our life three weeks ago, calling as he was passing nearby. So we spent the weekend getting to know his wife Debbie and their kids Michael and Laura, second cousins once removed if I got that right. We had dinner with Judy and her husband Guy. And with Walt, now 88.
It was better than finding someone on Facebook.
There was apple butter, of course.
And a taste of remembered joy.
What about you? Childhood memories of distant places or relations? Old relationship made new, on or off Facebook?