Summers at Red Wing
The cookie jar was never empty for long.
My job was to see that it was never full for long.
All the cookies had chocolate chips. It was a rule.
Jelly didn’t come from the store, you could tell
By the wax on the top and by the way Grandma
Would always apologize for its alleged imperfection.
The fudge was never perfect either.
Intense dark creamy chocolate spoonfuls
Individually lined up in rows on wax paper to cool.
Flawed as she promised it was, there was none better.
My sister found the recipe after Grandma died,
“Start with a sufficient amount of cream, add sugar….”
Every summer my father would put me on the Hiawatha
Slipping the porter a buck or two with instructions
To make sure that my suitcase and I got off the train at Red Wing.
Grandma and Grandpa would be waiting and we’d drive home in the big Pontiac.
Grandpa would invariably point out that it ran so quietly
He couldn’t hear the engine. Of course Grandpa was a little deaf.
My sister would come visit every summer as well
But almost always separately
We tended to fight a lot and the Grandparents were to be spared
I think it did us good to get away from one another back then
Now it would be nice to get together more often
At the time we hadn’t figured out how much we liked each other.
The first summer I was there I got lost
And ultimately confessed my problem at the corner drug store
When the druggist very kindly asked where I lived
I told him that if I knew that I wouldn’t be lost
Of course he knew Grandpa, set me straight
And quoted my impeccable logic for years to come.
Grandpa was the local dentist with an office in the Bank Building
When they bombed Pearl Harbor he went down to the local recruiter’s station
To join up and be a dentist for the Navy
He was profusely thanked and admired for his patriotism
But they said at sixty-five he was just a little too old to serve
F.D.R. sent him a nice letter which got lost before I could read it.
Grandpa’s dog “Duke” was some kind of water spaniel
Great for duck hunting but by the time I showed up
Grandpa had pretty much given up hunting and fishing
And Duke spent most of his time sleeping in the back hall
Except in the evenings when Duke was allowed in the front room
Where he’d thump the floor with his tail next to Grandpa’s rocker
I had a few cousins who were often there at the same time
And they had an Uncle Lester, who was the sheriff, or at least a deputy,
So we got to go visit the town jail and its most regular prisoner William
Who was never really locked up. He might be painting the office
or cutting the grass in front of the courthouse or fixing the plumbing
Making amends for his gettin’ hauled in so often for being a little too tipsy.
And then there was Aunt Carrie, not related, just a friend of Grandma’s
Who was ninety something, with no family and failing faculties.
She’d come to visit when she remembered. Always wore a hat with a veil.
A frail thing in black with little old lady whiskers on her chin.
Toward the end she’d forget to get dressed and stroll downtown naked
Someone always took her back home to see her made decent. No big deal.
The John Deere Tractor dealer was only a block away.
I used to go sit on the biggest tractor on the lot and pretend I was driving it.
One day a salesman came out of the office and started that sucker up.
I couldn’t reach the pedals but he stuck it in low gear and I was off.
I could’ve walked faster but I was driving and I was proud and I was happy.
About a half hour and three laps later he shut me down; we’d made each other’s day.
Through the back yard, between ours and the neighbor’s garages, down the steps,
Across the alley, and right on into the back of the Main Street Dairy Queen,
I’d go as often as I could score the nickel it took to do business there.
The stuff oozed out of a spigot onto a cone and with a twist of the wrist it curled on top.
For a dime you got a double and a quarter would get you a hot fudge sundae.
Always just the right consistency, you could almost suck it off the cone.
Red Wing was a big change from suburban Milwaukee.
Everybody knew who I was, and I was only visiting.
Downtown was four blocks away, the river just three.
Grandma’s brother drowned in the river.
She never spoke of it; for many years I didn’t know,
But I was forbidden to go anywhere near that river.
They did let me go on the Mississippi Queen.
A big old paddle wheeler with a steam calliope
That you could hear for miles downriver.
I got to play it once, on keys sorta like a piano, only much bigger,
And you hit them with your fist, not just a finger.
I played “shave and a haircut, two bits.”
Dinner was the big meal of the day and was served just past noon.
Grandpa would walk home and preside over a formal meal
Where sitting up straight, using proper utensils properly,
And generally minding our manners was absolutely mandatory.
Grandma’s culinary expertise got very little of the praise it deserved,
Save my enthusiastically going for seconds of all but the vegetables.
The house had a big screened in porch next to the front door
Connected to the parlor by French doors and equipped with a glider
That squeaked when you sat on it, and all the cushions still had those tags
That shouldn’t be removed under penalty of law.
We’d often sit out there in the afternoon, rocking back and forth and chatting
With the occasional passer-by, who was never unknown or unrecognized.
Sometimes we’d play cards for hours on end.
Canasta was the game of choice in those days.
It took two decks of cards which in the beginning
Was too much for me to shuffle so they got this machine;
You load half the cards on one side, half on the other and turn the crank.
For years I thought my winning so much, had something to do with skill.
In the evening I’d listen to the radio in the living room.
One of those big floor standing things with a green eye
That squinted at you if you were tuned in just right.
Fibber McGee and Molly, The Lone Ranger, Mr. Keen
Tracer of Lost Persons, and one called Lights Out,
Which somehow always prompted Grandma to send me to bed.
The local movie theater was architecturally magnificent,
Which as a child I was totally oblivious to.
The important thing was that they showed movies.
Going to the movies was beneath Grandpa,
And Grandma couldn’t stand sitting next to anyone eating popcorn,
So I generally went to matinees without benefit of chaperone.
I spent a lot of time up in the attic.
Mostly because it was off limits and I’d get especially dirty up there,
But also because it was full of treasures that needed investigating.
I’d haul things down and make inquiries as to their provenance,
Completely forgetting that to do so was to get caught off limits.
Going out the second story window to get up on the roof was fun too.
For a kid from a family where the parents aren’t getting on so good,
To spend a few weeks in the summer with not a whole lot to do
Except be loved and spoiled and pampered and fussed over by grandparents,
Who don’t have any issues or agendas beyond looking out for him,
And who don’t seem to change much from one year to the next,
Can establish life goals that transcend all the paradigms of capitalism.