When the scent of freshly cut cedar drifted into our car’s open window, I knew we had arrived.
My family had been visiting my grandparents’ farm every summer for as long as I can remember, three weeks every July. We made an annual trek south from our suburban New Jersey home to my grandparents’ farm in Lebanon, Tennessee, just outside Nashville. Our journey was an odyssey with five children in a car – some years with one or two in diapers, multiple stops for carsickness and emergency bathroom breaks. We spent at least two nights in a Howard Johnson’s motel, all of us in one room. It was an adventure every time.
This year would be our last visit, 1962.
My grandparents, both in their late seventies, had decided to sell their farm since they were no longer able to keep it up. They planned to move “up north” later in the year to be with our family, as my mother was their only child.
As we drove up the unpaved country road, dust swirled around our car, depositing a thick dirt coat on every exposed part. Tater Peeler Road – so named because when farmers had trucked their potatoes to market along the very bumpy road, they were “peeled” by the time they got there – was where my mom had grown up. She was embarrassed for anyone to know the actual name of the road; she just said she lived on rural route 2.
I usually felt excitement as we approached, inhaling the country air and sweet fragrance of cedar kindling recently dropped in the farmyard. This summer, as a teenager, having just finished seventh grade in June, I was looking forward to my final year in elementary school. Starting in kindergarten, I had been with the same classmates. Soon I would be traveling by bus to a regional high school where there would be a different set of kids. Part of me wanted to be here, where we always were every July, but a very big part of my thirteen-year-old self did not. Puberty, apprehension about high school, and daydreams of cute boys and romance filled my every thought. My emotions were in high gear.
As soon as we pulled into the gravel driveway, I recognized the one-story farmhouse on the right, garage straight ahead, and barn beyond. It was as if I’d never left. All the familiar sites – the water pump, the huge maple tree in the yard, and the long front porch and its coveted swing – gave me comfort.
Cedar kindling was delivered once a week for my grandma’s stove and dumped in a haphazard pile at the back of the house. The aroma from that Tennessee red cedar cast a spell on my senses. Grandma cooked every meal on the cast iron mammoth fueled by the cedar kindling, even in the heat of summer. Her waist-length hair was swept up in a gray bun, sweat pouring off her brow. Yet, she always smiled and handled each day with grace.
Grandma had finished twelve grades of school, an uncommon event in the late 1800s. She had taught in a one-room schoolhouse in Lebanon around the turn of the century where most of the children had come to school barefoot. Her own mother had died when she was just two years old and her stepmother when she was fifteen, leaving her the job of raising three younger stepbrothers.
Grandma made a point to explain the differences among the various insects around the farm, the butterflies, the wasps, the tumblebugs, and more. That was probably after my brother John said he got stung by a butterfly when he was about four. She caught a butterfly and pinned it to some cardboard so we could see that it could not sting us.
My brother John, sister Pat and I would often sit in the driveway and watch the tumblebugs (scavenger beetles) roll up balls of cow manure. We marveled at their turtle-like persistence in rolling them to their nests. I found it hard to believe that cow dung was their main food source.
The back porch was grandma’s domain, where she shucked the corn and fed the cats. She often doled out a bit of dried corn to each of us to feed the chickens. Even my youngest sister Mary, then six-years old, scurried around the yard trying to get the chickens to pick up her offerings.
Granddad was a tradesman, contractor/bricklayer, and part-time farmer. He taught us how to whittle one summer from shards of cedar kindling. A sharp knife was used to peel away the wood in thin curls like a vegetable peeler with carrots, safely away from your hand in a downward motion. I kept my rough-sculpted letter opener for years.
One time we drove into town, and there was Granddad with his buddies sitting on the steps of the county courthouse, all of them chatting and whittling at the same time. As a northern girl, I was amazed at this pastime, having never seen anyone in our suburban neighborhood doing anything like that. Mom just said whittling was a custom, something they did here in this place where she grew up. Granddad often drove us into town in his old Studebaker, stopping at the local ice cream shop or to pick up fresh water, as my mom no longer trusted the water they pumped from the well.
My siblings and I fought for our time on the porch swing. We loved feeling the sultry breeze and the swing’s soft cushions, but only three could use it at a time – and there were five of us. So, like everything else in a large family, we took turns.
This summer was different for me, as I sneaked a few moments on the swing by myself and dreamed of all the yesterdays here – the sweet scent of cedar, the country air sharp with chickens and cattle, the rich, pungent scent of ripening hay, and the whip-poor-will calls late at night. It is fair to say my experiences here were unlike anything I could compare to suburban living.
My sister and I used to play “Chopsticks” on my grandma’s player piano, the same one my mother had played as a child. Although she had taken lessons, she always said she didn’t have an ear for music. This year, old enough to tear up with nostalgia, I touched the keys differently, noticed their yellowed hue, and tried to memorize the feel and mustiness of the old player. One more look at the funeral parlor fans that decorated the piano top, ones we used to fan ourselves with in the midsummer heat, now made me wonder who my grandparents knew who had died.
Just the summer before, my eight-year-old brother Kevin, always curious, uncovered some old treasures in my granddad’s garage – as well a hornet’s nest. As he raced around the property with the hornets in hot pursuit, his screams could be heard miles away.
That summer of ‘62, a few neighborhood kids came to visit our tribe of five, and we bonded with the country boys, a Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn duo. Mark and Lance took turns showing us how to box with their new pair of gloves, probably recent acquisitions from their father’s salvage company. We spent countless hours playing tag and talking under my grandma’s front yard maple tree. My parents, cautious of any bad influences,” kept a vigilant eye on this friendly pair, who, like us, were just starved for kids to play with. The oldest boy Mark was thirteen and his brother Lance, eleven – same ages as my sister and me.
Before we left that summer, Mark gave me a letter as a parting gift, and I kept it hidden deep within my pocket, adrenaline and fear oozing through my pores.
After bidding farewell to the old farm and waving madly to grandma and granddad, with shouts of “See you soon,” we boarded our Chevy Impala bound for New Jersey. Smitten by an early crush, I held tight to Mark’s letter in my pocket. After a final wave goodbye, we slowly accelerated, kicking up a whirlwind of dust along Tater Peeler Road.
The finality of this last visit struck me as I swallowed hard against the rising lump in my throat. As the oldest of the five children, ages ranging from six to thirteen, my memories of past summers here were more numerous and my connections deeper. Tears welled up as I struggled to keep them in my eyes and away from my peering siblings who would tease and torment me, seeing such sentiment from their oldest sister.
When we got to our motel that night, somewhere in southwest Virginia,
I tried to find a moment to open my secret letter. The bathroom was always busy, so I ducked behind the small space between the bed and the wall and ripped open my letter. As quickly as I could, I scanned the boyish writing inside, but there was no privacy. As soon as I started reading it, my 12-year-old brother John caught on to what I was doing.
“What’s that, Betty, huh? Got that from Mark, did you? A love letter, ha, ha, ha!! Let’s see it!” With a quick jump onto the bed, he tried to grab it away from me.
I barely had time to absorb Mark’s message. It was sweet and innocent, thanking me, all of us, for spending time with him and his brother. He said he liked me and wished we lived closer. He even said I was his first girlfriend and signed it, “Love, Mark.”
But now with all four siblings on the attack, like jackals circling, I had no choice but to declare, “It’s nothing! He just thanked us for spending time with him and Lance – no big deal. And no, it’s NOT a love letter!” And to prove my point, I tore it up, into bits that could not be puzzled back together, while my two brothers and two sisters just stared at me.
In bed that night, I regretted my hasty decision to destroy my first “love letter.” All the way home in the car I pined for my Tennessee summers that were gone forever, and for the boy Mark who had made this last summer better than any other.
Betty Naegele Gundred has enjoyed writing since high school when she was editor of her school’s literary magazine, though she taught middle school science for twenty years. Her work, fiction and non-fiction, has appeared or will soon appear in publications such as The Union, Current, The Heron’s Nest, Frogpond, Last Leaves and Months to Years, She is currently writing a series of memoir stories. Betty lives with her husband in the Sierra Foothills of Northern California.