My 90-year-old brother Michael, still "Buddy" to me, was looking for an old photo of himself as a young boy. I remember the photo well. It was taken during the Great Depression before I was born. I had a similar one taken of me years later. I told Buddy I'd look for it in the oldest family album I had that went back to the '90s - 1890s, that is. I couldn't find the original but remembered scanning it once for Facebook. In the photo below, Buddy is sitting on a pony with our sister Jean standing next to him.
An enterprising man with a camera and a pony showed up periodically on Conselyea Street. For 25 cents he would take your picture sitting on the pony. It was a thrill for middle-class city kids, many of whom had never been out of the city or rich enough to get a pony for Christmas. We were fortunate. Grandma Normandia's brother, our granduncle Salvatore Tuorto (Uncle Sam to us), owned a 92-acre farm in Kerhonkson, a small hamlet in the town of Rochester, in the Shawangunk Mountains in Ulster County, New York. It was only a little over two hours away by car, but to me it felt like a million miles away from everything I knew and loved. I was being taken to a whole new world where there were animals that were not on leashes.
I must stop here and thank my mother for instilling enough fears in me to last a lifetime. I know she did it out of love and her own fear that if she didn't, as she used to tell Dad, No telling what this kid of ours might get into next! I was really a good little girl, eager to please, and polite, but not complacent. I was born curious about everything and must have driven my parents crazy with my unceasing one-word plea, a whiny Why? Because I said so was never a satisfactory answer for me and often elicited a followup Why! It would be years before I earned my favorite nickname, C.P., for Curious Priscilla.
I remember the summer when I was six and we were visiting Uncle Sam and Aunt Jennie in the country, actually Kerhonkson, New York. One day, Buddy and Uncle Sam were going mushrooming and I was allowed to go along as long as I promised not to wander off and get lost. Uncle Sam knew where all the best mushrooms were hidden, and more importantly, which ones were poisonous. He was explaining to teenage Buddy how to find them. It was the first time I had ever been in such dark, dense, and damp woods and I morphed into Little Red Riding Hood. I was afraid a big bad wolf would jump out at me at any moment. My brother and uncle weren't paying any attention to me, and I was too little to enjoy learning about the propagation of mushrooms, so I wandered off the path like any curious six-year-old would do.
The next thing I knew for sure was that I was lost and scared and couldn't find my path back to the men. I had forgotten the part of Hansel and Gretel about leaving a trail of breadcrumbs. I just kept walking and walking and finally arrived at a farm. I remembered my mother's warning never to talk to strangers. I didn't know what to do. The farmer's wife was outside and asked where I was going all by myself. I had to risk talking to a stranger, but she seemed like a nice woman, so I said a silent Hail Mary and told her I was lost because I didn't obey my mother and stay with my brother and uncle like I was supposed to. Then the tears started to flow. She knew I wasn't from around those parts and asked what my uncle's name was. I had no idea.
All I knew was that I was told to call him Uncle Sam. Then I told the Nice Lady what little I knew about my uncle hoping it might help her figure out who Uncle Sam was and which farm he owned. I told her my uncle had a big horse and some goats and Aunt Jennie made cheese out of goat's milk. She put it in a fancy round basket and when it was done she put a dinner plate over the basket and turned the cheese upside down onto the plate. It seemed like magic to me because when the basket was gently lifted off and I could see the bottom side of the cheese, it had the exact pretty design of the basket on it.
I guess those clues I gave Nice Lady were good enough hints because she didn't have that scrunched up look on her face anymore that made her seem worried. She told me she knew my family and they would come and get me soon. After giving me cookies and milk, Nice Lady asked me if I had ever fed chickens. I said no, I live in Brooklyn, as if that was an appropriate answer. No one in Brooklyn could have possibly been exposed to the dubious joy of feeding chickens.
The closest I had ever come to a live chicken was when Mom and I walked to the chicken market to pick out a live chicken for supper. They asked her if she wanted the head off or on. She said, "On." She carried it home in a brown paper grocery bag, still alive and fussing. Little me thought I was going to be able to play with the chicken in the back yard for awhile.
It was not to be. I was sent to my room and told not to come out until I was called. Mom didn't want me to watch the gruesome murder that was meant to be and I definitely didn't want to anyway. I went to my room but the curious part of me peeked from behind the curtains to watch how it was going to happen. Gram came downstairs to be co-executioner by holding the chicken's head down on a tree stump or something and with one chop of a sharp ax the chicken was no more. Then Gram and Mom sat down and talked about the events of the day as they pulled the feathers out of the poor dead chicken. Who knows what else they had to do to turn it into supper, but one thing I knew for sure was that there was no way I was going to eat chicken for supper that night and they couldn't make me.
Eventually the most delicious breaded chicken cutlets appeared on the kitchen table next to perfectly smooth mashed potatoes dripping with butter and cream off the top of the bottle of milk. Mom always used the tines of a fork to carve lines down the pile of mashed potatoes on my plate to make it look like a little volcano. She scooped out a not very deep opening on top for an extra lump of real butter. The butter would melt and lava-butter would race down the sides. She made a game of it to entice me into eating. I had recently broken my clavicle and my arm had been in a cast for a few weeks so I couldn't feed myself. During that time, Mom fed me, or I should say overfed me, so I wouldn't lose weight.
Back at the table, the chicken cutlets really smelled good. I convinced myself that eating chicken might not be a bad thing after all and since it was already dead, I would thank the chicken and apologize and eat it. I've often wondered if that whole experience of the death of the chicken is why I don't eat chicken now. Or veal cutlets, for that matter. I didn't find out where veal came from until I was older and that was the end of eating veal for me forevermore. I don't want my memoirs to be about animal rights, and I am not judging people for their food choices. I'm just trying to figure out what childhood experiences were at least partly responsible for my choices in the present moment. Nevertheless, should you want to read a simple page written for children about what veal is, you can find it at www.pleasebekind.com/veal.html .
Back to Nice Lady. Looking back, surely she had to know my family must have been worried sick but would eventually find me because there weren't many houses around there. I guess she was trying to keep me busy because she asked if I would help her feed her chickens that lived inside a chain-linked fenced area. I just had to toss some food out that looked like seeds or pellets and they would come to eat. When the bucket was empty I turned to leave and the chickens decided to chase after me and start pecking at my sneakers. They probably just wanted more food but I thought they were going to kill me before I got out of the gate.
This story has a happy ending. I was not pecked to death as I feared, and two very relieved relatives found me and took me back to the farm, no doubt dreading the tongue-lashing they could look forward to from my mother. I was never allowed to leave the farm after that unless my mother went along and that suited me just fine. In the 1942 picture below, I can't figure out what that is that Mom is pretending to drive. Anybody know?
1. Stay away from the big horse so it won't accidentally step on you and break your ankle because that's what happened to poor Cousin Terry and she had to wear a cast.
Mom added a few New Rules for me after that episode which I shall attempt to quote as best as I can remember.
2. Don't play with snakes. They have rattlesnakes here and they are not pets. Do not touch them under any circumstances. Do you understand? Do you? Say Yes if you do.
3. Keep away from all the goats. One of them gored cousin Sonny right above his eye and could have made him go blind. (I was pretty sure Sonny teased the goats when he got tired of teasing me.)
And that's my most memorable story of a little city girl going to the country for the first time.