Monday, October 16, 2006

The Country Living Fair

Fall—my most favorite time of year! The leaves are just starting to get serious about turning color in my part of the Eastern Seaboard. By Halloween, we will have lost most of our leaves after a day or two of rain and wind, but now they’re going orange, red and gold in sequence: vines first, deciduous trees next and the sturdier shrubs last. Even if we haven’t had any cool weather by the middle of September, the vining plants tip us off to the unofficial beginning of autumn.

Every fall we have the holiday I’ve invented for my family—my Annual Breakfast before the Country Living Fair at Batsto, New Jersey, held this year on October 15. Most holidays just depress me. There are a lot of memories about late family members who had their birthdays or died on the major holidays, but the month of October has no sad memories or associations for me.

I don’t even know how many years the Country Living Fair has been held at the restored 19th-century village of Batsto. Composed of thirty-three historic buildings and structures--including the Batsto Mansion, gristmill, sawmill, general store, workers' homes and post office--Batsto Village is a New Jersey Historic site and is listed on the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places.

Historically, this area was the homeland of the indigenous Lenni-Lenape, who signed the first Native American treaty with the newly-formed United States Government on September 17, 1778. Although some small Lenni-Lenape communities remain in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, the modern Delaware Native American tribes are located in Oklahoma. (See also Lee Sultzman’s Delaware History, Susan Ditmire’s Native People of New Jersey and Terrie Winson’s Lenni Lenape)

In 1784, William Richards bought the Batsto Iron Works (originally built in 1766). It remained in his family and was operated by his son and grandson (who built most of the village) for the next 92 years. Along with the pig iron industry in general, Batsto declined in the mid-1800's, finally falling into receivership after a brief period as a glassworks. The complex was purchased by Joseph Wharton at a Masters Sale in 1876. Wharton made improvements to the mansion and many of the village buildings, built a sawmill, cleared the land, planted cranberries and other crops, and ran a forest products and agriculture business until he died in 1909.

Wheeeee! Cranberries!

Managed by the Girard Trust Company in Philadelphia from the time of Wharton’s death, Batsto was purchased by the State of New Jersey in 1954. The few people still living in the Village houses remained as long as they wanted, and in 1989 the last house was vacated. Today the village is the core of Wharton State Forest, which in turn is part of the Pinelands National Reserve. (See also The Pinelands National Reserve and

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Family and friends are to meet at my house at 9:00am sharp! Well, the sharp part is negotiable. It’s hard to get out of bed that early on weekends, and we usually get a call saying several people will be straggling. Brother brings his pure-bred Westie and his pure-bred basset hound, since most fairgoers bring their pure-bred dogs. I would bring Daisy the Terrier, even though her lineage is a little jumbled (just like mine!) but, unlike her superchilled cousins, she can’t behave herself for five minutes (just like me!).

Mr. Pseudonym kindly helps with the last-minute "desperation" house cleaning and I work hard on breakfast, making a lot of things from “scratch” and setting a beautiful table. I receive many compliments and a bit of criticism from my family for using the “good china,” so to speak: “Why do you have to use fancy glassware? Why not just put out the carton of juice? jug of maple syrup? jars of jam?” Oh, well, they can’t help it; people from the Pine Barrens tend to be a bit…uh…how shall we say… primeval. We finish up breakfast while yelling at the dogs to stop racing around the house like ferrets on speed (Daisy's influence), and we finally pile into several cars for the trip down to Batsto.

This year, we had perfect weather--not too hot, not too cold, lots of sunshine and a crisp, autumn breeze. There are always a lot of crafters at the fair, but I'm not especially into buying old washboards costing $32 because they're decorated with artificial flowers and hemp-vine bows. But there's also music and dancing onstage, food and drink vendors, a see-through beehive, pony rides, antiques, a footbridge over the cedar-water river and a display of old cars, tractors and various motors. (A side trip to the Batsto-Pleasant Mills United Methodist Church will take place on another day, but it is of special interest to our family since Brother and Sis-In-Law were married there!)

The Village itself is worth walking even if there is no special event going on. The mansion is huge, with tall windows and a wide porch three-quarters the way around it. Some of the worker's homes have been partially restored, and the visitor's center has a gift shop and flush toilets for the faint of heart. (We studiously avoid the Porta-Potties sprinkled here and there because, you know, ewwwwwwwww!)

Using the mansion as a rendezvous point, our party splits up to pursue our varying interests. Brother leans backward and takes off at a trot, to be yanked around by his dogs at about 10mph for the entire day. I make a bee-line for the antiques and the kids seek out the food vendors lest they faint from inadequate nutrition. We meet several times on the mansion porch to compare our plunder (Brother lashes the dogs to a post while he catches his breath). When no one can walk another step and even the dogs seem subdued, we finally head back to my house for coffee. Everyone agrees this has been the best Country Living Fair Day yet.

This is a wonderful day for me, and I look forward to this "holiday" all year long.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

K*therine is 21

K*therine was born on October 12, 1985, about 12 months and three weeks after her sister Sarah. We weren’t planning on another child, especially this soon, but we adjusted quickly to the prospect of having one more to round out our family.

With Sarah being born in the E.R. the previous year, I spent most of this pregnancy worried about delivering the baby at home, suddenly and without medical assistance. The obstetrician’s nurse assured me that in such an emergency, babies will more or less birth themselves--we would just have to cut the cord, wrap the baby up and wait until the ambulance arrived. I wasn’t reassured.

We weren’t sure when K*te would be full-term, but September 22nd (Sarah’s birthday) came and went, as did 23rd (the date I wanted for K*te’s birth) and the 24th (Julia’s birthday). My neighbor, Kathy, had her baby around October 1, and still I waited…and waited…and waited.

On the morning of October 12, I got a slight pulling sensation in my back, followed by a few more spaced regularly over the next half hour. “That’s it,” I yelled to my husband, “Off we go! ” I was not going to have this baby at home! In just three hours and forty-five minutes, we got our K*te. She more or less birthed herself—the doctor cut the cord, did the requisite procedures for newborns, wrapped her up and handed her to her Dad. Our third daughter didn’t want to open her eyes; she was comfortable and warm and just wanted to sleep.

From the beginning, it was obvious K*te had a unique personality. She was quiet and introspective as an infant, with her own special outlook on life. As she grew, her personality developed into a Day/Night pattern of unrestrained laughter alternating with cool detachment. She was either acting out in shameless comedic performance or she was coolly reserved, letting no one inside her head. K*te was an expert at mimicry; she could always make us laugh, which got her out of a lot of trouble growing up. She had a stubborn streak, however, which worked against her in relations with her parents and teachers.

I wish I could say K*te grew up happily and uneventfully. I can’t. As with all of my children, K*te was “different” from her peers. Wickedly intelligent and disdainfully observant, she found no common ground or fast friendships while growing up. She spent a lot of time lonely and isolated until a series of unfortunate alliances in her late teens sent her on a fast descent into a world of misfortune. For what seemed like an endless, torturous time, we could not communicate with our little girl. As with Julia, we could do nothing but wait until she came back to us.

Finally, finally we got our K*te back, all 5 feet, 1-1/2 inches, 106 pounds of her. She has had to work hard at understanding where she’s been and where she’s going. She’s a good daughter, a good employee and a good friend. She’s grateful for her renewed relationships with those she loves.

K*te’s 21 going on 41, frequently showing a lot more common sense than people many years her senior. She’s assertive and opinionated--a force to be reckoned with--but her intentions are usually toward helping others with compassion. K*te suffers no fools, though; she’s been down that path and can read the signs.

Happy 21st birthday, K*therine, our surprise baby. We celebrate this day with much happiness.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Incoming! Incoming!

Hi Grandma!

Hi! I was told that you have cornbread. I have not been fed in weeks. Really. My sisters say I'm fat but really I'm just big-boned and I need cornbread. My mom says that you have an empty cage and that you have cornbread and you take care of special-needs rats and that I'm a special-needs rat. What are special-needs?

Did you get the cornbread yet? I'm dying of starvation. Really. I really am.

Love, Krimpet

Hi, Krimpet!

Yes, I have cornbread and ice cream and cookies and all kinds of stuff. You can come stay with me tomorrow! You mama said so! Grandma won't starve you. You will have all you want to eat and you can play on the couch every day! Remember how we played on the couch?

Special needs means you are big-boned and need more cornbread. So, you come over here with your mama tomorrow and stay with me so you won't starve any more, OK? I have a big cage with a platform just for you, and you won't have to share your food with anyone. Sound good?


Hi, Grandma With Cornbread!

Thank goodness! They wouldn't believe me when I said special-needs means I get to have all the food. And cornbread. Playing on the couch was the best. There were crumbs there. And a dish of milk. And they were all my crumbs. And my milk.

I am ready to go to Grandma's house! Where there is cornbread! Come on, mama! I will see you tomorrow, Grandma. I will try not to starve to death before then.

Love, Krimpet
P.S. Cornbread

Sunday, October 08, 2006

R.I.P. Pokey

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Ready or not, here I come!
Pokey - 2004 to 2006

My daughter, Junket, was working at a pet store when she started bringing home rats. Not the ugly, snarly, sharp-toothed, nasty-tempered sewer rats we see in horror movies. No, these were pet rats, in a variety of pretty colors and coat styles.

I don't know how Junket got around my policy of "absolutely no more critters will be brought into this house!" She must have worked on me for weeks, but eventually
Sniffy, a brown agouti rat, came home with Junket one day. She had a ruffly, brown/gray coat, sparkling, fiery eyes and tiny pink ears. Her long tail made me instinctively react with aversion, but when I saw her holding a bit of cracker in between her tiny, star-shaped paws and nibbling at it resolutely, I began to fall in love.

Sniffy's long, twitching whiskers, constant lithe movement and comic antics won me over eventually, and I didn't object too strongly when Snowflake and Hambone came home to live with Sniffy. (Rats are social animals, and they need cagemates, preferably from the same litter they were born into.) Some time later, Sprinkles and Pokey came home as well.

When Junket had her own apartment, the first three rats went with her, but I kept Sprinkles and Pokey. (Rats only live from three to five years, and all of Junket's rats eventually succumbed to mammary tumors and old age. It was hard to lose them.)

Sprinkles, our bad luck rat, had been lost for two days in the pet store, attacked and severely injured by one of her sisters after she came home, removed from the original community because of aggression and suffered a bout of "head tilt" last year, which is a common rat ailment resulting in sometimes irreversible circling, off-balance movements. Sprinkles is perfectly healthy today, having recovered almost completely from the illness. Pokey was not so lucky.

Pokey was a sleek, soft rat with a gentle personality. Unlike her naughty, 90mph, always-in-trouble sister, Pokey preferred to climb up Mr. Pseudonym's chest and get petted and fussed over while she chewed the buttons on his shirt. She loved cornbread, melted ice cream and watermelon. After her snack at exercise time, she would sit on a convenient human shoulder and groom herself fastidiously, washing her face with her little paws, licking and smoothing down the fur on her flanks. She wasn't the smartest rat, but she was photogenic and totally cuddly. She was a little doll.

About four weeks ago, Pokey slowly developed the classic symptoms: an awkward, slow, circling movement with the head tilted to one side, falling over frequently, having difficulty eating and difficulty keeping herself clean. By the time she saw the vet after we realized what was happening (and after a holiday weekend), she was far advanced in the illness. The vet did not know if she could be cured, but she prescribed antibiotics and told us to hope for the best. We helped Pokey eat, bathed her and administered her medicine, but she went downhill steadily. By today, she had lost a lot of weight and her fur was sparse and matted. Her left eye was halfway closed and she was showing symptoms of blindness. Unable to clean herself, she was dragging pure├ęd food and feces all over her cage. It was time she was given rest, since it was apparent she would not recover enough to lead a normal, active life.

I fed Pokey some ice cream, sponged her off and held her close before she was put down. As I rubbed her head, she closed her eyes and ground her teeth--a sign of affection or contentment. I said goodbye to her and wished her well in her next assignment: give back to the Earth what was given to her, nourishing the lifeforms who could use her body and transforming into all she could become.

I feel honored to have known Pokey.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Traffic Noises

It's 12:00 midnight, and there's still intermittent traffic, the occasional trolley car and neighbors talking to each other down on the sidewalk in front of Jul's new bachelorette pad. The apartment is just outside downtown Philophilus, my daughter's street marking the dividing-line between Snooty Terrace and Pit Bull Commons (which is why she had her car desecrated three times in as many weeks just for parking a block over the line). Jul and J.Q. are sound asleep, but I continue looking out the window and listening to all the sounds below.

The pervasive lonliness of suburban living seems so far away when I'm in the city. At home, I keep the television on all day, just to hear human voices. With all of my kids grown, I now have the "peace and quiet" I wanted so desperately when they were little. I must admit, these days I would gladly trade my "peace and quiet" for a little human interaction. With Mr. Pseudonym off to work early each day, the walls have a tendency to close in. I so look forward to hopping the train for Philophilus each Tuesday afternoon and babysitting J.Q. each Wednesday.

Since Jul's separation, it takes an hour less travel time to get to her new home in the city each Tuesday. I stay overnight and wake up on Wednesday mornings to J.Q. grinning at me and throwing his little arms around my neck for a long hug. After he's diapered, dressed and has slugged down a quick bot-bot, he grabs for my keys, toddles over to the front door and yells, "Key! Door! Go!" while nodding his head in a "yes" motion. We hurry downstairs for our morning stroll.

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In the new neighborhood, some of the people walking around are obviously distressed, but most are friendly and polite as I smile and wish them a good morning. Last Wednesday, J.Q. and I met the man with two kitties in his front window and the man with the guitar and the strong blues voice two doors down. Sometimes we walk to the BP gas station store to pick up some milk, juice or a box of crackers. The man takes our money through a small opening in the bottom of a large, thick plexiglass window. He shoves the change and a plastic carrying bag back through the hole.

It is amazing how many people have dogs in the city; we see all sizes and breeds out for their morning walk. Unlike their country cousins, who are just let out into the back yard to do their business each morning, these dogs must be walked twice a day, minimum. And their owners must carry a supply of plastic bags to pick up their animals'...uh...butt flingings for proper disposal. Twice a day! Ewwwwwww! These people must surely love their dogs! Once in a while, we see a somber-looking person being pulled around by a huge, lumpy, drooling canine who looks as if it should be guarding the gates of Hell; J.Q. and I omit the greeting and cross the street when we see these couples.

There are more flowers and plants in most of the container gardens outside the row houses than I put in my large, suburban yard this year. Morning glories climb up iron handrails, and long, trailing plants complement the colorful annuals in the window boxes.
"Look, J.Q., pretty flowers!" Predictably, the little hand shoots out to grab a fistful of impatiens from a container, but I learned to keep baby at a safe distance from the plants the first week I went up to the new apartment. J.Q. must content himself with chewing on my keys while studiously absorbing all the bright sights and loud sounds of the city.

The bay windows at the front of most row houses seem to be decorated in themes: patriotic, angels, imported glass, floral arrangement, religious icons. Once in a while, we come upon a house decorated with thousands of mirror fragments or having an ornate, custom-built stairway to the entry. Any house in any row may be painted or decorated in a completely different manner than the rest of the houses in the row. The occasional failed attempt at artful decoration pops out like an outhouse in The Hamptons.

We conclude our morning walk with a 20-minute stair-climbing session outside J.Q.'s apartment. He loves stepping up the four stone steps to the entry door and then stepping back down, over and over and over, clinging tenaciously to the handrail while Gramma keeps a firm hold on the back of his overalls for added stability. His little legs are so strong, and he could keep this activity up for another 20 minutes, but I remind him that there's grapes and waffles and milk upstairs. His little arms shoot out toward me, and he demands to be picked "Up! Up! UP!"

I have fond memories of visiting my aunts' row houses in the city when I was small. My parents had their own business, and they frequently shipped us off to stay with my aunts during the busy holiday seasons. My brothers and I had so much fun racing Sparky, my Aunt Shirley's dalmation, up and down the two sets of interior steps. We worked out a nifty, multi-floor communications system using slips of paper, a hat and a long length of string. (Sparky ate some of the handwritten notes, but it didn't seem to hurt her.) We listened in on my Aunt's telephone calls when she couldn't see where we were. There was a playroom on the third floor, with an electric train set and a doll house. There was a tiny back yard with a grape arbor in one corner. We were allowed to pick the grapes as they ripened, and I can still remember the thick skin and sun-warmed sweetness of the fruit.

I've asked Mr. Pseudonym a few times if we might someday live in the city for a few years, but he's no more keen on this idea than on any of my other ideas. His parents moved down to the Pine Barrens when he was small, as did my parents. They wanted the acreage of a rural setting, since both fathers had a background in farming and animal husbandry. My in-laws went into poultry farming, and my father kept chickens and tended a huge garden. My husband cannot imagine walking back into the noise and confusion of urban life.

We will probably remain out in the "country" after Mr. P retires. We no longer live in as rural an area as our parents did, but we have a big lot with trees we planted ourselves and much grass to mow during the summer. Everyone drives everywhere. Our neighbors may or may not see us as they hop in and out of their cars, there are no corner stores with familiar faces and we cannot walk to the local library. The night sounds are different here: cicadas instead of trolley cars, loud music from a teenaged neighbor's passing car instead of people coming and going at the corner pizzeria, rolling thunder from miles away instead of the honking horns of irritable motorists.

There are advantages and disadvantages to living in both settings, I suppose. But the city pulls at me, especially since my daughter's move to Philophilus. I'll stand at the window and watch the traffic lights changing for a long time before going to sleep.