Sunday, September 30, 2012

Voices From Before

Dinner is never as full an experience as it might be for me unless there is some kind of chopping involved. And not just a little chopping. A carrot here or an onion there is just enough to tease—not even worth getting out the cutlery. I need a full medley of veggies, maybe some garlic and herbs and meat to trim. Now that’s some good chopping. There’s always a glass of wine at my side and the ritual takes place at Great Aunt Bertha’s cutting board.

This is not your ordinary cutting board. It’s thick and heavy, almost like a mini butcher’s block. It has little feet and the wood is smooth and beautifully worn from use over the years. When Aunt Bertha died in her nineties many years ago, somehow my brother Rick, who hated vegetables and almost never cooked for himself, got the cutting board. I begged him for it. He wouldn’t budge. I chastised him when I would go to his home and see it sitting in the corner of his kitchen, piled high with junk and covered with dust. One time he actually cut up a tomato or something and called to tell me the board had not been entirely wasted.

Years passed and then our Uncle Bud died at age ninety. Come to find out he had a cutting board just like Aunt Bertha’s. Actually, Bud probably made both of them because they were identical and he was a master carpenter. There was a lottery among relatives and I got Bud’s cutting board. The fine china, the big furniture, the lovely jewelry…they were all great, but for me the cutting board was the prize.

As it turned out, one of our cousins also wanted the cutting board and asked Rick, who was Bud’s executor, if he would negotiate a trade with me. Rick knew the dark secret that lay beneath the grit and grime that had covered over Bertha’s twin to this new coveted heirloom, and he knew the futility of asking me to make the trade. It was a moment of soul searching for Rick, but he steeled himself to the challenge and found the strength to let go of Bertha’s cutting board. He gave it to me so I would give Bud’s to the cousin. After years of therapy and grief counseling, I was finally chopping my meals on Aunt Bertha’s cutting board. It was a long time coming.

The other night, as I sipped and chopped, I wondered why I love the old board so much and realized that, for me, it is a time capsule. The board sat in Bertha’s kitchen amidst everyday living nearly a hundred years ago. Now it sits in my kitchen and laces our lives together.

I wonder what Aunt Bertha and her husband, Uncle Bus, talked about as they made their evening meals. I know they weren’t Googling recipes or texting friends. Their phone wasn’t smart, if they had a phone at all. And, if they needed to pick up a few things for dinner, chances are they walked to the market instead of jumping into one of two or three cars parked in the driveway. We usually think of those times as simpler. As a child, I would hear stories and wish I could go back and live in “the old days.”

 Bertha was my grandmother Gladys’ sister. The two girls had eight other siblings, all of whom lived with their parents in a modest four bedroom house in Melrose, Massachusetts, which is a fifteen minute drive north of Boston. When Gladys eloped with a young Canadian named Lindsey Lantz, Lindsey gained U.S. citizenship and Gladys lost hers. She had to reapply and pass a test before she could belong to her homeland again. That’s how they did things then.

Gladys and Lindsey, or Nanna and Da as we call them, had three children, my mother being the last of them. Da was a carpenter; Nanna kept the home. They had no phone and walked to the drug store downtown if they needed to make a call. I remember hearing stories of how they stood and counted cars on the freight train as it passed before them. And how girls would stand on the side of the frozen pond in winter and wait for boys to skate up and offer their hockey stick as an invitation to go around the pond with them.

On Christmas morning, my mother would wake early, eager to dig into the sock that hung at the foot of her bed. Sitting quietly while her older sister slept next to her, Mom would pull out the candy and gum and homemade treats Santa had left for her, and flow over with excitement for all the lavish goodies. During her teen years, Mom would drive “all the way” into Boston to go to dances. Several couples would pile into a single vehicle because very few young people had access to wheels in those days. Some would ride in the rumble seat. Others sat in laps. They hadn’t yet heard of seat belts.

When Mom married my father, Nanna made the wedding gown and all the bridesmaids’ dresses, as well. The aunts cooked food for the reception, which was in the church hall out back. There was no bar, cash or otherwise. They just drank ginger ale.

As I look around my house today, I see several wingback chairs that came from Nanna’s house, and Bertha’s too. They are my favorite places to sit. When I am wrapped in their comfortable history, I travel back to the old living rooms where my ancestors sat sipping tea, knitting, and talking about politics of the day. I have Nanna’s silverware and some of her china. Paintings she did, or Bertha did, hang on my walls, alongside of photographs taken by Great Uncle Aubrey. Da’s tools are the tools we use, and tables Uncle Bud made give rest to our lamps.

I look ahead to the question of what tomorrow will bring, like anyone. But my life is also rich with tangible reminders of those who worked and laughed and loved and lost long before I was born. In their youth they felt the power of here and now. They, too, looked ahead to the mysteries of days yet to come. But now they are all gone. So quickly it is over.

Years from now my great grandchildren will sit at my kitchen table, chopping vegetables at Aunt Bertha’s cutting board, thinking back to the old days when Grandma Donna was still alive. They will wonder what it was like to live such a primitive life. They'll marvel at how I had to use a typewriter and paper and pencil in school instead of a computer, and how children actually had to learn this thing called cursive writing. It will fascinate them that a truck pulled up to people’s homes each day and delivered envelopes that we used to call mail. Landline telephones with cords attached will be museum relics. If I’m lucky, some artifact of mine will have made its way intact through the generations and will be considered precious. I wonder which thing it will be.

To my way of thinking, people as individuals don’t matter much over time. Collectively, we amount to more, though I’m not entirely sure yet what the greater purpose might be. It seems important that we carry forward old things that will thread the past into the future. And so I cherish Aunt Bertha’s cutting board for the rich memories that are layered into its wood, beneath those of my own that will be layered next for some distant relative of mine to ponder.

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