Shared Memories, Shared Roots

She’s the last of the neighborhood moms. Her house sits across the street from ours, perched on a hill once owned by her dad, a successful pig farmer. I’ve known Shirley almost all my life – her oldest daughter and I became playmates when we were six. I began visiting Shirley regularly a few years ago, a handful of hours a week. Now at over ninety years of age, she needs a little help getting around and the opportunity to just sit and talk with a friend. I love this time we share and never tire of her stories about growing up on the hill.

Although Shirley’s short-term memory is fading quickly, she has done well remembering the distant past. I’ve learned that’s the typical pattern of memory loss as we age. She doesn’t remember that I’ve heard the triple egg yolk story four times in one day or her remembrances of sledding down the hill as a young girl. I don’t care. I could hear them forever, because one day, much sooner than later, I won’t be able to. Besides, many of the stories she shares are of our neighborhood where we both grew up and some stories in particular, are of the old farm that I call home.

Image by Couleur on Pixabay

I listen to each retelling, enraptured, my imagination racing as my mind becomes a movie camera, putting faces to names, dusty clothes on rambunctious farm boys and cows grazing in a sprawling orchard. Her stories are the next best thing to me being alive before my time, a time traveler peeking through a portal at my beloved home.

During Shirley’s childhood, there were only three dwellings in our neighborhood – her grandmother’s, her home and our farm. Observations on the neighbors’ activities were easy to make in such a sparsely settled area, and especially any observations of something out of the ordinary. So it was with our farm, where nine or ten children were said to have lived at any one time, many of them wards of the state. One day before Shirley was born, their rollicking play in the front yard prompted her mother to ask her new husband to build their home farther down on the hill, and not across from this rambling farm with its band of ruffians. Shirley’s recounting corroborated with stories I had heard from other sources years before – the boys at Hartwell’s were a rowdy crew.

But the Hartwell’s reign on the farm came to a sad demise, when at the close of the Great Depression, a bank loan could not be repaid. One day in October when Shirley was walking home from the bus stop, she noticed a strange gathering in the farm’s front yard where the boys routinely played. Farm equipment of all types and household appliances were sitting on the front grass. Cars clogged the yard. People swarmed about, giving close inspection to the goods before auction. I had read about this tragic turn of events in archived deeds, but Shirley’s memories brought it to painful life. Her story brings a dimension of heartache to the initials painted by the boys on the brick and timbers of our cellar.

Hartwell initials in basement of Willis House – Lynn Wright Kreutz photo

Growing up, Shirley was an outdoor girl, as were many children in an era without entertainment technology. Wetlands and large ponds surround the neighborhood, which children made frequent use of in summer and winter. Willis Lake, as the locals call it although by definition it’s a pond, sits about half a mile through the woods behind our farm. Shallow and long, it provided quick wintertime transportation for Shirley, an able skater.

Image by Sonja Rieck on Pixabay

Tossing her skates over her shoulder, she’d begin the long trek from her house to visit her girlfriend, Ann, who lived at the far end of the lake. Down the street to our farm she’d stroll, around the back of our barn to the edge of a frozen field. There, she’d climb over a stone wall before finding the old road in the woods. After taking this road to the lake’s edge, Shirley would don her skates and glide another half-mile or so across the ice to see Ann.

There were half a dozen or so of these cart paths crisscrossing through the pines, shortcuts made by farmers long ago to get to various pasture or woodlots or perhaps to harvest ice from the lake. They remained for most of my childhood, too, before being lost to development. These paths to the lake were part of my earliest memories and always seemed enchanted to me, wide trails carpeted in needles of white pine, shrouded by dark woods. Never foreboding, the paths beckoned me to follow, to discover their guarded treasures of pink lady slippers or clearings of marsh where painted turtles lined up on logs to soak in the sun.

Image by Aaron Doucette on Unsplash

Although I never ambled down the cart paths in winter as Shirley did, I can imagine the deep woods must’ve seemed curiously silent to her under its covering of snow. To this day, Shirley can still recall the layout of each road, from beginning to end. I can, too, a lasting part of my childhood psyche, one that I hope will never fade.

Remnants of old cart path to Willis Lake – Lynn Wright Kreutz photo

Shirley loves telling me stories of Dewey, a younger boy from the city who’d spend part of his summer visiting his aunt on our farm. Shirley’s two sisters, older and engaged in their own social affairs, and her little brother, too young to be a viable candidate, conveniently evaded the role of keeping little Dewey company. However, Shirley, volunteered by her mother, landed the part.

To hear Shirley tell it, she had nothing better to do with no one else around, and it gave her a chance to play in the farm’s barn. Its capaciousness was a child’s dream to explore with two stories of haylofts lining the barn’s walls, the upper one thirty feet or more from the ground floor. No railings or partitions at their edges made for easier access when loading in hay. The lofts were a dangerous place to be for children, and there is record of someone who, during a load-in during the 1800’s, died of his injuries from a fall. No matter for Shirley and Dewey. Up the wooden ladders they climbed to play. Scattered hay on the ground floor finally gave away their position, where they were promptly ordered down.

I don’t share Shirley’s memories of playing in the lofts. Their open sides and structural integrity prohibited it. I also didn’t like heights, so it was never a temptation. But I do remember gazing at them from the ground floor and wondering what mysterious treasures could be laying up there in darkness. I did know that it was a haven for bats, and counting them as they flew out from a hole in the hay door was a fun pastime on a summer’s night. But there are other memories I do share with her; rows of empty cow stanchions in the rear shed, bouncing balls against the barn doors and finding the right spot to echo your voice through its wide entrance.  

Shirley also tells stories of her first and second grade teacher, Miss Adams. She was a young woman then, just beginning her teaching career, known to be tough, but also patient and kind. Over thirty years later, Miss Adams ruled my third grade class, but she was no longer patient. Perhaps thirty years of being an educator had slowly burned her fuse. By the time I sat in her class, she was a force to be reckoned with. A schoolmarm harkening back to the 1930’s, she was a heavyset woman with wire glasses resting halfway down her nose and shoulder-length gray hair rolled into a net. But her shoes were the most imposing feature: black tie-ups with chunky square heels that firmly staked her claim to the linoleum she walked on.

Image by Rebecca Matthews on Pixabay

I feared her. Shirley loved her. Many students loved her, but we all knew to step in line precisely when ordered. It was then quite incongruous to me to hear Shirley’s girlhood story of spying her at the local drive-in. There, just a few cars over, was Miss Adams with her boyfriend, both of whom were apparently missing much of the show, but creating one themselves. The image of young love and my third grade teacher with gray hair and combat boots grated in my brain. It still does, but it does make me smile.

Although I was born and raised in this town, I have felt at times as an adult that my roots don’t run deeply enough to be considered a true native. My family arrived here only a month before my birth. The old saying, “Just because a cat has kittens in the oven doesn’t make ‘em muffins”, refers to transients not really being from a certain area just because they were born there. Compared to Shirley and some others whose families have lived in our town for centuries, I feared that I could be regarded, somewhat disparagingly, as someone of the feline persuasion.

One day, as Shirley and I chatted up more town memories, the old feeling of being a bit of an outsider crept over me. I felt the need to come clean in the presence of town royalty and openly admitted that I wasn’t in the same league as Shirley, that being only first generation didn’t give me claim to being a Sudburyite like her. Looking me square in the eye, Shirley said, “Oh no. Don’t you worry. You’re a Sudburyite all right”, and gave me a wink and a smile. I have not doubted my status since.

The childhood memories that Shirley and I have of this place are precious, not only in themselves, but because they closely parallel each other. Although we are a generation apart, we have walked the same wooded paths, played in the same barn and shared an unforgettable teacher. We have experienced both people and places that others who follow us will never know, but for a time at least, remain secure in the archives of our memory.

But bonding to place doesn’t have to take generations of shared or parallel memories. It can happen over a much shorter span of time, taking surprisingly little for people to identify with each other and feel connected to somewhere special. But we must be willing to create memories of a certain place with others, which become our shared histories and ultimately, the history of where we live, work or play. That is a bond given to us by place, a gift received through our own awareness and intent. Alone, place and memory are powerful; together, shared or parallel memories of place are even stronger, forever telling us we belong.

Image by Jorg Vieli on Pixabay

Feet to Ground:  A Way of Connecting

I have always loved to walk. As a young child I felt as though I could walk forever, fueled by experiencing places up close, not detached from the world inside a car. The ambulant bug never left me and as an adult, I walked and ran for years. My outings became quite addicting, each time lifting my spirits immeasurably, giving me energy and a feeling of centeredness. Every footstep reaffirmed my place on the ground, my place in the here and now.

It was also my playtime, a mid-afternoon reward when most of my work was done. I’d go out several times a week, in all weather, forgoing it only when the temps hit below 17 degrees, for which I felt no shame. But jogging in a light snowfall was my favorite. The air is different when it snows as though the cold moisture has washed it clean. I found an instinctual joy gulping in the chilled freshness while tiny flakes kissed my face and softened the ground. I thought that this must be the rapture of sled dogs, spurring them on for hours through a frozen and unyielding landscape.

Chandler Cruttenden photo on Unsplash

Jogging and walking engaged so much more of me than my vision. My senses rambled over and through my surroundings, tingling my curiosity and imagination. Frequently, I would shorten my stride to better inspect a path drifting off into the woods or catch sight of the muskrat I once spotted along a meandering brook.  

Run Brook Lynn Wright Kreutz photo

My usual route began not more than two hundred yards from my door, down a less traveled road than my own. The sidewalk, a serpentine trail wending around mature trees, never failed to beckon me forward. It’s a peaceful suburban neighborhood here, nestled among tall pines and oak giving it a sense of settled comfort.  

Lynn Wright Kreutz photo

Less than a mile down this street, I’d turn onto an even smaller road, usually quiet to the point of feeling hushed. It’s a recently transformed neighborhood here, starting out a century ago as a thickly settled lake community. Now, its vacation cottages neatly converted to year round homes, give it an air of small town sociability.

Halfway down this road, just before an ‘S’ curve, the lake can be seen twinkling seductively behind trees and porches. This is where my thoughts could really open up. Tension released, I’d breathe deeply and imagine I was somewhere up country, not smack in the middle of fast-paced suburbia.

Willis Lake Lynn Wright Kreutz photo

After over 10 years of traversing this route, I became visually acquainted with many of its inhabitants. I witnessed avid gardeners and their loyal dogs slowly age, some making fewer and fewer outdoor appearances until neither were seen at all. I learned people’s proclivities, such as an older gentleman’s love for a disturbingly clean driveway that he routinely swept bare. I found myself worrying about him the few times his driveway was scattered with leaves.

Then there was his neighbor, maybe a few years younger than he, who managed his gardens with admirable devotion. Like his clean driveway-loving neighbor, his house and yard were always neat as a pin, testimony to regarding home as sanctuary. I may have known their names only by seeing them on their mailboxes (we are New Englanders after all and not prone to idle chat with strangers), but in time a friendly wave, compliment or warm smile were always forthcoming.

Different times of day revealed routine habits of these quiet communities and the reliable schedule of living. The burning light of late morning declared a day well underway with streets tranquil until three. Under the climbing sun, peaceful vignettes played out in the microcosm of each home. Here and there, toddlers furiously pedaled their plastic trikes up and down their driveway, too young yet for school. Young mothers returned from morning errands while an older woman, on her own schedule in curlers and housecoat, stood patiently in her yard while her schnauzer trotted to his morning spot.

In mid-afternoon, kids of all ages strolled home, backpacks stuffed to bursting and maybe a lacrosse stick carried by a teen or two. Soon, the hollow sound of a basketball bouncing on asphalt would announce that at last, it was time to shoot hoops.

But for me, the best time to be out was towards day’s end. Wisps of garlic on the wind conjured images of a family meal in a kitchen I’d never been in. Sunsets, glorious in their sweeping displays, played peek-a-boo with me through the trees. I soon learned which homes best caught the slanting rays, reflecting copper and rose off west-facing windows. During summer, chills might trickle down my legs at the deep thrumming of bullfrogs at dusk, or the haunting twang of a solitary frog warning me of night.

Karl Heinz Muller photo on Unsplash

I grew quite attached to a few homes along the way. There was one I called the Strega Nona cottage, a red-roofed white cottage snuggled deep in the woods. The white pines surrounding it had long since shed their lower branches, providing a clear view and the feeling I had just stepped into a child’s storybook. Trails of smoke invariably floated from its brick chimney when it was cold, and in summer, the aroma of fallen pine needles filled the air. I’d walk slower past this place, wanting to soak it all in. Years later, the bewitching cottage and many of its towering pines disappeared, replaced by a cul-de-sac and three enormous homes.

Brett Jordan photo on Unsplash

Then there was the little bungalow sitting on a stone-walled rise, the site of an old chicken farm. Clearly well-cared for, it was a charming relic of the neighborhood’s rural past. I’d try to imagine what it must’ve been like, the color of the chickens, the arrangement of the outbuildings and the expanse of open land. On sultry evenings before dusk I’d hear the television through the screened-in porch reminding me of childhood summer nights and in winter the glow of the kitchen light nudged me faster towards loved ones waiting at home. But eventually, and inevitably, the sign went up, and the farm bungalow came down.

I became a vicarious neighbor of sorts and an incidental observer of what would become part of the neighborhood’s history. Over time I felt myself being pulled in, drawn to its life and rhythms, its changes and charms. Body mechanics keep me from jogging these days, and walks are short if I go at all. I miss the time for my feet and thoughts to wander, but I mostly miss the connection and witnessing the nuances of daily life in this one special place.

My walking adventures enforced the idea that as human animals we need connection. Needing a sense of recognition, acceptance and belonging is hard-wired into us and feels much like belonging to a pack. The lone wolf is the exception. To be a part of the life of a place and part of the lives of its people, even passively, will satisfy. Routinely seeing and being seen creates a familiarity between people, which helps bind us together. So it is with place.

We feel the energy of a place when we choose to stop walking for a bit to spend some time on a park bench or a rock by a lake. Sensing that energy is probably why we have stopped walking at all. We have been invited. We ruminate while place becomes our mental backdrop, easing us into thought. This is one way that the process, the two-way relationship we have with place, can begin, by stopping, thinking and feeling.

Metin Ozer photo on Unsplash

And when our thoughts leave us and we are roused back into real time, place is there, a silent companion waiting for us should we ever need to come by again. We know we’ll be back. We’ll be back to our ‘thinking rock’ or our favorite park bench, or our beloved walking route. We’ll return with the knowledge that this special place, as alive as we are, sees us, feels us, and is glad we’ve come along.  

Blood in the Soil

We arrived just after sunset in what seemed to be typical Smalltown, USA. Shamefully, I had no solid knowledge about the history of Gettysburg before our visit. I knew, of course, that an important battle had been fought there during the Civil War and Lincoln had given his famous speech somewhere in a cemetery close by. Other than that, I had no clue.

But I wasn’t totally ignorant of our country’s history. Being Revolutionary War reenactors for almost ten years, my husband and I had visited and ‘fought’ on many battlefields in the Northeast. From shouldering muskets to firing cannon, we recreated, along with hundreds of other living history enthusiasts, many defining moments in the birth of our nation. To me, Gettysburg was another town with yet another battlefield. I was wrong.

After a long day of driving down from the Boston area, my husband and I were finally able to kick back on the balcony of our room. A refreshing breeze swayed the treetops along the horizon. The moon, a sliver of ghostly white, floated against a darkening sky while a few early stars poked through like pinholes to another world. I settled back in my chair and sipped my cold wine. I looked at the horizon again. It wasn’t happening. The stress of hours of highway travel was not melting away. In fact, a strange unease unlike anything I had ever felt crept into my core. I took another, longer sip and a deep cleansing breath. To my surprise, it only made it worse. It seemed that each breath infused me with a miasma of despair.  

“So, when are we leaving?” I blurted. I’ve always loved to travel and explore, so dropping this question moments after arriving was out of character.

            “Day after tomorrow”, my husband replied. “I figure that’ll give us enough time to look around here. Why?”

            “I don’t know. Just curious”, I lied. I couldn’t have been happier if he’d said ‘as soon as you finish your wine’.

I chalked up my uneasiness to jangled highway nerves and told myself that dinner at a bright and busy restaurant will chase away the oogy woogies. Wrong again. Waitresses scurrying with loaded trays and babbling babies in high chairs were as ineffective as the wine. The bright lights weren’t cheery or reassuring at all, and seemed glaring and intrusive. A good night’s sleep, I thought, will hopefully put an end to the gloom.

The next morning did bring some relief and we set out to explore the battlefields of Gettysburg. We signed up for a guided tour with a park historian who’d drive us to each battlefield, which turned out to be a large chunk of the town. For a little more than three hours, we were a captive audience to stories of courage and horror. Mostly horror. We learned that in only three gruesome days, from July 1st to the 3rd, 1863, the town of Gettysburg gave witness to the bloodiest battle of the entire war.

One of the many spots of interest that our guide took us to was Little Round Top, the second highest hill on the battlefield. We climbed its rocky slopes and scanned the view. Thousands of acres of battlefield lay below, now allocated to the National Park Service and preserved much as it was during the war. Fields, valleys and ridges could be clearly seen for miles. Humble farms dotted the landscape, giving way to haunting images as the guide told stories of families rounding up whatever livestock they could and fleeing for safety in the early hours of July 1st.

Two days later, there were over 50,000 military casualties, dead, wounded and missing. The carnage was so extensive, soldiers talked of running over the bodies of both men and animals during the fight, their feet hardly touching the ground. Over 5,000 horses and mules were killed in the fight and then burned at battle’s end, the stench of their pyres hanging in the sultry air for weeks.

We learned the heart wrenching story of Jennie Wade, who bravely scurried up the basement steps from her family’s place of hiding to make bread. While kneading dough in the kitchen, a stray bullet pierced her heart. She was killed instantly at the age of twenty.

That day left me filled with shock and embarrassment. It was shameful what this country had so willingly done to itself, and for months I remained ashamed for something I had no part in. But a form of grief also came over me, grief for Jennie and men I had never met.

I easily imagined the bloated corpses of man and beast waiting for burial in the summer sun and the screaming, fear and agony as blood flowed and pooled in the grass. And my lessons were not yet over.

The next day we stopped at the visitor’s shop on our way out of town. Their inventory of books and artifacts did not disappoint us. But what we found in the back of the store was staggering. There, in boxes and barrels full to their brims, were genuine musket balls fired during those three days of hell. There were thousands, and more we were told, not yet discovered and pulled from the ground. I stood frozen, a few bullets gently rolling in the palm of my hand.

For me, those two or three bullets, along with the accounts given during our tour, illuminated one of life’s phenomena, the living bridge between the corporeal and the ethereal. At that moment, it felt like the walls of my mind were being pushed outward, expanded in order to take in a new level of understanding. I let the musket balls roll out of my hand and back into the barrel as I thought about Jennie, her bloodstained corset, and the stacks of bodies of animals and men.

Aaron Burden photo

There was more still, than musket balls left in this soil. Perhaps to that day, there were a number of undiscovered men, sons, brothers and fathers without a proper grave, moldering beneath the earth, the very earth beneath our feet. But these bodies and bullets were also mixed with blood, rivers of blood, and the tears of both the dying and their survivors. And it all remains in the soil.

Although the tears and blood have long since dried, they have, along with the dust of uniforms and bones, bonded with the stones, rocks and dirt. The screams and crying hang in the air, the very air I breathed that first night on the balcony. It was all too soon, too soon for it to fade quietly into the archives of the universe. Or, would that ever happen, I wondered? Had it been too much in one small space to ever really disperse to the point where the air would clear? Would these events taint this ground forever?

Although there is no way to ever know the answers to these questions, one thing became clear. Our life events leave an imprint on the earth and in its atmosphere. And what was also clear was that these imprints have the capacity to impact our impressions of a place. They needn’t always be fed from tragic events, far from it, but nevertheless they are there, waiting for us to feel them and to learn.

We will see that there is a relationship between us, the earth and the universe, if we choose to become aware and plug ourselves in to the soul of what is around us. And as we do, the imprints of our lives will be left in the ether for those in the future to discover. And for that, we must be mindful of what we will eternally leave behind.

Photos from Unsplash & Pixabay

Place Reflections

Welcome to my blog, Place Reflections! Here you’ll find remembrances, thoughts and articles on the power of special places as well as recommendations for further place reading.

We have all experienced a feeling that certain places give us, whether those feelings are good, bad or indifferent. Oftentimes, it’s a feeling we get in our gut the moment we set foot in a new place, or a feeling that warms the heart as we come to know somewhere more deeply.

Do these feelings even matter? Are they leftover evolutionary tools of survival now useless in a modern world? Or do they remain powerful guides to living, shaping our choices and identities?

Follow Place Reflections and discover a primal and undeniable element of the human experience! And please feel free to leave a comment!

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