Old Things

glass liquor bottle 1890sI love old things. One of them you see here, a bottle from the 1890s or before, meant as I am guessing, for spirits of some kind. You can’t really tell with the label mostly effaced.

I came upon this and the item below while going through a nasty drawer full of junk under our kitchen’s utility sink. It was in the 1980s that these two items first came to our notice from their sleeping-place deep down in the earth . It happened when we excavated a portion of the yard to expand our antiquated kitchen.

I don’t know what the builder was thinking when he laid out the original room when the house was new in the 1890s. Even by that era’s standards, it seems a truly terrible space to for the preparation of food. I say this because in all the 90 years before we came, this kitchen had remained the same. Sure, the stove had been swapped out and the old stove still reposes, a slumbering whale in our basement. The refrigerators got swapped out too, from the original icebox to electrified coolers, like the 1920s-era version that also slumbers below stairs.

But the basic layout?  Unchanged in all that time by which I mean to say that when we got here, there were no cupboards above sink or stove or fridge. If you wanted a cupboard you had to walk in to the next room, a room grandly called, in those days, ‘the butler’s pantry’. I called it that myself  – I had grown up in a house with room we called the l pantry – until I realized my small children thought I was talking about a pantry without a butt. (It must have been my Boston accent.)

Additionally, there were no surfaces on which to set things in this kitchen we inherited in the 1980s. Not a countertop in the place. If you wanted a surface, you had to walk into another room called the larder, where there were wooden shelves, wooden drawers and a lone square of marble for rolling your pie dough on. If as the cook, you needed to pare the potatoes you stood at the sink. When you needed to whip the potatoes, you sat at the wooden table in the room’s center and worked with the bowl in your lap.

And when our family of four sat at that table, still situated in the room’s center, we were all squeezed in so tight that someone had to vacate his seat and push in his chair in order to open the fridge for a forgotten item, and another person had to do the same so someone could check the oven to see if the brownies were done.

We couldn’t wait for that renovation. It brought us not only a larger more airy space in which to prepare and serve meals to friends and family, but it also delivered to us this last old item: a railroad spike from… who knows when, as Its irregular shape argues for a vintage older still than the 1890s. Today I am thinking hmmmm: the old Massachusetts town of Concord lies only a few hills and laps distant from here.  Maybe this is the kind of spike driven in to the earth when they first laid that Boston-to-Fitchburg run in the 1840s, and the iron monster  so shattered young Henry Thoreaus’s peace of mind over there in his cabin on the banks of Walden Pond. Anyway, here is ‘our’ spike, seen against one of my cookbooks for scale.

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The past is all around us, no doubt about that! Now if I could just talk to Thoreau, or Emerson, or Walt Whitman, or my girl Emily D. over the road there in Amherst. Where do they go, the dead, the silent dead?

We’re a Bunch of Beauties – Sleeping Beauties

Sleeping-Beauty-1Here’s Henry Thoreau writing way back in the 1840s with some good thoughts for us all today:

“If you have built castles in the air your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

So he clearly believes that we should dream; that we should build those castles in the air,

Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t, I take his meaning to be.

And he goes on:

“Why level downward toward the dullest perception always, and praise that as common sense? The commonest sense is the sense of men asleep, which they express by snoring.”

He must have been a great teacher when he turned his hand to that fine art, together with his brother John founding a grammar school called Concord Academy, long before the famous prep school by that name was founded. He must have lit up the classroom with witty pithy bits of like that.

I bet he was kind to his pupils always.

But for sure he’s no fan of those who hardly know they’re alive, which let’s face it is most of us, most of the time.

Plus were always complaining. As Henry puts it, “Some would find fault with the morning red, if they ever got up early enough.”

Like his friend Emerson, Thoreau believed that the present is what matters. “All we have is this day, as my friend Gwen said yesterday in a comment on an earlier post of mine

I like the way Henry puts it too:

“The learned societies and great men of Assyria” he says. “Where are they now? What youthful philosophers and experimentalists we are! There is not one of my readers who has yet lived a whole human life!”

True enough. Now we see through a glass, darkly, as that famous letter-writer put it to his little band of pals in Corinth, but then one day face to face. And  who knows what glories we will look upon then?

I Went to the Woods…

Thoreau's cabin Walden Pond“I went to the woods to live deliberately…” That’s Henry David Thoreau in the opening pages of Walden, the little book he wrote after two years of living in the cabin he built on the shores of Walden Pond, just two miles from the town of Concord where Nathaniel Hawthorne briefly lived. Where Bronson Alcott lived too, with his high-minded ways and raised up the dark-eyed talented Louisa. Where, most of all in my mind anyway, Ralph Waldo Emerson lived, with his big nose and his kind face; Emerson, who helped support his far younger friend Henry, lending him the use of that patch of land by the pond, and even taking him into his house to live with his family and tutor his children..

Around these parts we all know Walden Pond over there in Concord.

I know it’s just ten miles from my house. I know it was formed by the retreating glacier a mere 10 or 12 thousand years ago. I know, or learned much later, it’s the place where my teen children went night-swimming with their pals behind all our backs and all in defiance of many laws.

I have read Thoreau’s Walden so many times that the things he says there and facts of his life come constantly into my mind, and I wonder always how he managed after losing his brother to John to lockjaw. It was about their trip down the Concord and Merrimack rivers that he was trying to write when he lived in that little cabin. I always assumed he was trying to bring his brother close again in the writing, as I have been trying to do with my sister Nan who, much to my dismay, moved to faraway Florida in the late ’70s and has been there ever since.

This week my man and I are away from our house that lies so close to Concord. Life chugs along without us there however, since four adults and an infant are living with us this summer – which means that I the worrier am free from worry over who will bring in the mail and papers. Free from worry over what lights we’ll leave on to fool those robbers in their cartoon robber-masks who we somehow picture making their nightly rounds, trying doors, as faithful as lamplighters of old ….

This week I’m free from all such worry. Free to hike and swim and read Walden in these soft New Hampshire hills, where we mean to spend our time.

Here’s something I read there just now, upon rising from my bed:

One farmer says to me, “You cannot live on vegetable food solely, for it furnishes nothing to make bones with”; and so he religiously devotes a part of his day to supplying his system with the raw material of bones; walking all the while he talks behind his oxen, which, with vegetable-made bones, jerk him and his lumbering plow along in spite of every obstacle.

Food for thought all right. I wonder: should it be crisp broccoli, rich butternut squash and good dark beans for our supper tonight?

thoreau's cabin artist's rendering