Farm life in the early to mid-1900s in Walton, N.Y.

Living on the Allen family farm in Walton, N.Y., Helen, the youngest, was surrounded by family and friends. Nellie and Arthur Paul, her mother’s brother, were nearby. The Benton family – Hugh and Mary, her mother’s sister, lived just down the road. Her mom’s sister Ethel and George Emery moved back from Wisconsin when Helen was 11, to live on the family farm in Berry Brook. Her mom’s brother Ben completed that side of the family.

Mom and Vernon

Helen and Vernon

Add in the children and you had quite a brood. The Allens had five – Sarabel, Paul, Coralie, Vernon and Helen. Aunt Nellie and Uncle Art had three – Joyce, a year younger than Sarabel; Frances, a couple years older than Helen; and Bill, a couple years younger than Helen. Now add in three Emerys – the oldest, Fred, was younger than Paul. Pauline was Coralie’s age, and Mary was Helen’s age.

“The Bentons had a slew,” Helen recalled. Bob was the same age as Fred Emery. Ben was Coralie’s age. Bill was the same age as Helen. Then there was Winnie, a couple years younger. (She was named Sara Winifred, and  though she grew up as Winnie, she later went by Sally and then Sara). Paul and John were the youngest.

“Paul was born at our house,” Helen added as a side note. “We were shut out in the dining room while all that was going on, then we heard the cries.”

“We were in a great neighborhood,” Helen said. “We’d meet at someone’s house and have a square dance. We’d learned the Virginia Reel in gym, and that started it.” Helen would ask her mom, “Can we have the party here tonight?” “You can if you clean up,” was the inevitable answer.

Calls would go out, and the party would come together. “My brother used to play harmonica and guitar,” Helen said. “Some of the boys knew the calls for square dancing. If adults were included, there was a fellow who fiddled.” The neighborhood was full of kids. “There were a lot between the ages of high school and just out, from Coralie’s age on down to my age,” Helen said. She listed off: “Three McCoys, three Van Burens, three Armstrongs, two to three Allens. It was our school district,” she said. “District 18.”

The school served as a community center of sorts, for “not just the kids, but the adults too.” And at no time was that more apparent than Christmas.

Celebrating Christmas

“The whole neighborhood was invited” to the school Christmas program, Helen said. “They’d all bring food; it’d be a big party. Santa would come. That was the highlight of Christmas.” All the students would perform, from the youngest on up. Helen recalled her first performance, at age 3: “The Christmas tree is tall, and I’m small, and that’s all.”

Two or three students would sing a song. “We’d put on a play,” Helen said. “Some of the older ones were more into putting on the play. Everyone who wanted to could be involved. There were the practices…”

Family would gather together on Christmas day, “just for the day. I don’t think we were more than 20 miles apart,” Helen said. “We’d take turns going to the different houses. Everybody brought something.”

When it was their turn to travel, Helen’s family would pile into the car – they got their first car, a Model T Ford, when she was a baby. “Sometimes when they were going over Walton Mountain, they’d have to back down and go up backwards,” she said.

Once everyone was together, the fun would start. “Quite often we kids had a table all ourselves and we had a great time,” Helen said. “Nobody paid much attention. “We filled up a table by ourselves,” she said, counting heads. “Growing up, we probably had four Bentons, three Pauls and five Allens.” The meals were something to remember – turkey, Waldorf salad “because everybody had apples,” mashed potatoes and gravy, vegetables, Hubbard squash. “And pies for dessert – mincemeat pie, apple and pumpkin.”

After the meal the kids would head outside and play all kinds of games as the men sat and talked, while the women would do the dishes and talk. “One of the best things was I didn’t have to do the dishes,” Helen said, smiling at the thought.

Neighborhood Fun

District 18 in Walton – defined by the local school, “was a fun neighborhood to grow up in,” Helen said. “Not all the neighborhoods were like that, but ours was very congenial. There was a real community spirit.”

Sarabel, Coralie and Helen

Sarabel, Coralie and Helen

It manifested itself in many ways, including neighborhood parties. “We’d have sugaring off parties” when the sap started to run, Helen said. “They’d make jackwax on snow. You’d get a dish of syrup and you’d stir and stir ’til it hardened up and you’d have maple candy.” There was a summer picnic at the end of school. “One family had a cottage on a nearby lake,” Helen said.

Outside of school, there were the friendships. Helen recalled playing with Virginia McCoy, one of her best friends. “We’d ride horses around, walk up to the woods and pick flowers.” The McCoy kids “would come down and we’d play. Red Light Green Light, Simon Says, Hide and Seek, Pompon Pullaway.” They’d all play word games, like homonyms – “finding words that could be used two ways, like stationary, and principle.” Hanging out with Virginia, “We’d sit on the porch and talk,” Helen said. “We’d look at the moon and wonder if that was green cheese up there.”

Sickness and Strength

Sickness and disease didn’t skip the farm in Walton. Helen’s brother Vernon was 4 when their mother knew something was wrong. “He started coming in and lying down because he was tired,” Helen said. “And he was always thirsty.”

There was a distant cousin whose daughter had diabetes and died, so Edith Allen knew about diabetes, and she didn’t ignore the signs. “She took him to the doctor and insisted he do a blood test,” Helen said. “She knew something was wrong. Then they took him to Albany Hospital. That’s where they treated him. Insulin had just been discovered that year.”

It changed the way the family ate – Edith served lots of healthy vegetables. Vernon’s milk intake was limited, because doctors feared the sugar in it would make things worse for him. “They were just starting to figure things out” about how diet affected diabetes, Helen said, and later, when Vernon was allowed to drink more milk, he put on a growth spurt.

Still, he didn’t grow to be much taller than Helen. Vernon lived to be 25 years old, and at the end his vision was failing. Doctors found that “his organs were like that of an 80-year-old man,” Helen said.

Visits to Aunt Mary’s house were always fun for Helen. “She wasn’t fussy about things,” she said. “We did what we wanted to do and nobody complained.” When Helen was 17, she went out to visit for Christmas, and ended up in the hospital.

“Bob Benton always wanted to be a doctor, and he told his mother to call the doctor because I kept putting my hand on my side,” Helen said. “He probably saved my life.”

Her appendix ruptured as doctors were removing it. “Sulfa had just been discovered, and that helped prevent infection,” she said. She remembers being under the care of Dr. Wiesenthal. “He was a refugee from Germany who worked here for another doctor,” she said. His professional papers hadn’t made it to America with him, “but he was very good,” she said. “He called me Miss Helen.”

Doctors told her they saw signs she’d had previous problems with her appendix. That didn’t surprise her. “I’d always had a sensitive stomach,” she said, adding that if her appendicitis had flared up at home, she probably wouldn’t have survived. “Nobody every thought about it if I had a sick stomach.”

Measles took its toll on the Allen family when Helen was young. “My Dad had a beautiful tenor voice,” she said. “Then he had measles when I was 5.”

Since Vernon had diabetes, “He’d taken him down and they only had one shot, so he had Vernon get it.” Helen’s dad Merton caught the measles, “He had to be in a mental institution,” Helen said. Paul, the oldest Allen boy, was a senior in high school at the time and had won a scholarship, but “he stayed home that year because Mom needed help at the farm.”

Paul took a teacher training course and taught in the local school so he could milk the cows and help with the farm work. Life on the small dairy farm was demanding. There were 30 cows to milk, plus calves and horses, and Merton was handling it on his own. “He was the only one,” Helen said.

Merton was sick at home for several months. “My mom had to watch him for fear he would hurt himself,” Helen said. “I remember going in the bedroom where he was, and he took hold of my hands and wouldn’t let go. His eyes were glassy.” When his condition worsened, “they put him in the hospital,” Helen said.

“He came out of it alright,” she said. “My mother took long walks with him. … He still had a good singing voice afterward,” she added, “but he couldn’t reach all the high notes.”

“My mother was a very strong person,” Helen reflected. “She dealt with my father’s illness, dealt with all the work on the farm, dealt with all us kids, and managed to survive.”

An Ode to Fall

Soft morning sun backlights the clouds, making their edges glow. The warm light sets the burning bushes on fire, and highlights the gold on the stalks of corn. Poison ivy’s red vines and leaves wind up the trunks of oak trees, providing just the right pop of color.

Another beautiful fall morning in west-central New Jersey.

Fall’s always been my favorite season, ever since it meant shopping for back-to-school shoes and supplies and reconnecting with friends I hadn’t seen much all summer.

Eight years of living in Vermont and New Hampshire honed my appreciation for the season – nature’s flamboyant celebration before going to sleep for the winter.

When we moved to New Jersey – can it be more than 20 years ago now? – we weren’t sure what to expect. Settling in Hunterdon County, we felt right at home. Deer browse through the hedgerows and fields. Hawks circle overhead, competing for air space with the geese that are forming their Vs now and winging from one field to the next.

As the days shorten and temperatures start to drop, it feels as though things are winding down. It’s time to take a deep breath and relax. Let the excitement and rush of summer go, and embrace the introspection and peace that await.

Fall, in all its glory, surrounds us.

Floating at Forty

s 40th balloon ride
We live in ballooning country, and almost every evening hot-air balloons take off from small nearby airports, floating overhead. As my dog dedicatedly defends her air space, my thoughts float up to those people in the baskets, getting a unique view of this rural landscape.

I think back to one particular year at the New Jersey Festival of Ballooning, held in nearby Readington.

It so happens that the annual festival comes at the height of summer: my birthday weekend. And one year when our kids were little, events conspired to connect the two: I won the company raffle for tickets on a balloon flight. It would be the perfect way to celebrate turning 40, I figured.

It was one wet weekend that year, and that meant the field on which the festival was held – a hay field most of the time – was quite mucky. No matter. I had a great time standing in mud up to my ankles, enjoying a performance by The Band. Levon Helm singing “The Weight.” Could there be a better way to launch a new decade?

The following morning was our balloon flight, and I must have been a bit nervous. My kids still remember me pointedly hugging them close and telling them I loved them before heading off for the flight.

It was something, watching those big balloons inflate, and then stepping into the basket as it strained at its tethers to take flight.

Up in the air, what a strange feeling – moving, but silently, except for the occasional whoosh of the gas-fueled fire heating up the air inside the balloon. The tops of trees look quite strange from above – they brought to mind broccoli florets.

In moments, it seemed, we were descending to land in a field. Bumping along for a bit until settling. Climbing out of the basket to touch land again, I felt I’d truly celebrated.

Headline Here

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There’s nothing like working in a newsroom, for those of us with ink in their veins. And soon, there will be nothing for those who like working in a newsroom.

Reading the posts on the virtual wall, it doesn’t take a math genius (and I defy anyone to find a math genius in a newsroom- that’s one of the perqs of going into a writing career) to deduce that newspapers, and by extension newsrooms, are becoming extinct.

I’ve always been a community journalist, writing about the interesting, terrifying, inspiring things my neighbors are doing with their lives. And writing those stories from a newsroom filled with interesting, quirky, obsessed, demanding, soft-hearted colleagues.

The police scanner on the desk next to me is a way of life. Its staticky outbursts blend into the background until something catches my ear. It must be a tone in the dispatcher’s voice that alerts me to the latest emergency.

Times of crisis are when a newsroom surges to life. One reporter takes on the job of writing up what’s happening, while other reporters yell across the room with details gleaned from their contact. Someone heads out the door with a camera to capture the action. In minutes, it all comes together.

In calmer times, the camaraderie sustains us. If you ever want to find a bunch of word groupies, go to a newsroom. It’s a rule: if someone asks a spelling or style question, everyone else checks dictionaries or style guides for the answer. Never fails. We’re all too curious, I guess, and words are our currency. Find the perfect word you’ve been looking for, and it makes your day.

What a collection of personalities a newsroom offers. I cut my journalistic teeth in a Vermont daily newsroom sitting next to a chain-smoking, crusty reporter in her 60s at least. She had bottle-red hair and a “cut the crap” attitude that brooked no dissension. When she went after a story she got it.

I’ve had the luxury of working with skilled photographers whose photos brought my stories to life. We’d go out as a team to a feature interview. I’d engage people in conversation, capturing their enthusiasms and passions in print, while photographers documented their animated faces as they shared what made them tick.

Editors, with their varying styles, taught me more than I can recount. There was the mentoring executive editor who had me sit by his side as he read through my story so I’d develop an editor’s eye and see where my mistakes were. There was the news editor who challenged me on everything from my approach to stories to my commitment to my career as a journalist. And it amazes me how much I’ve learned by listening to the people I’ve interviewed, seeing the world through their eyes.

And always, there have been my unselfish co-workers, ready to pick up the slack when I was overwhelmed, quick with a suggestion when I was stuck on an article. It takes a special mindset to want to cover local news, forfeiting evenings at home for municipal meetings. Yet that yearning to share with others the news of the day has always kept the news teams I’ve been on going.

It’s become increasingly challenging to find that team feeling lately. Rigorous budget cuts have kept salaries even and furloughs constant. I’ve seen so many promising journalists come into the newsroom, only to leave within a year for some kind of publicity job paying twice what they were making, with regular hours to boot.

With cyclical layoffs, the dwindling staff that remains takes on more and more. Being spread thin diminishes that ‘helping colleagues” tendency, instead encouraging a myopic, self-preservationist attitude. And the feeling of community that’s been at the heart of my career for decades is waning.

Perhaps the most symbolic result of this: I’ve gone from being surrounded by colleagues to being isolated in a group of vacated desks. No more turning to my side to run an idea past my coworker. No more two-minute chats to break up the steady pace of editing. Yet the scanner’s still there, accompaniment to the new newsroom status quo.

Welcome to the Winter Ice Follies

winter drive Franklin Hunterdon County

Facing yet another dire prediction of snow and ice, the Vermonter in me is surfacing. Mother Nature can just go ahead and do her worst: I’ll be ready.

Having lived in the frigid North for eight years, I acquired many skills that have gone to waste here in New Jersey.

I can change a tire at 3 in the morning during a snowstorm. I can shovel cinders with the best of them, having coped with iced-over, hilly curves on a logging trail of a driveway.

Sadly, much of my winter know-how has come through painful experience.

I was seven months pregnant when my Mazda 323 wagon slid on an icy curve and got stuck in our primitive driveway — at a 45-degree angle at the bottom of a curve, nose-down, heading into a stream.

I was a bit freaked out. One wrong nudge and it’d be all over. But cinders saved the day, adding enough grit to allow me to back up out of harm’s way. Lesson learned: Slow isn’t slow enough, on a hilly, icy stretch.

For one winter we lived with a back door that would only open six inches onto the back porch.

It all started with the first snow in the fall. It wasn’t that heavy for New Hampshire — maybe six to eight inches. We just shoved the back door open to get out to the wood pile and didn’t bother shoveling away the snow.

Well, that snow never left until spring, and it got lots of company over the course of that winter. After the second snowfall, the first layer had frozen into place and there was no hope of moving it. All the snow that followed piled up on that nice mound we had behind the door.

It got to be a long walk around the building to the wood pile by the time spring rolled around.

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Heating with wood is a completely separate topic, but let me just say here that if you’ve got a wood stove, you should measure the opening before you order wood. We spent another winter sawing off two inches of every log.

I’ve learned to leave lots and lots of room between me and the driver ahead of me when the roads are slippery and hills are involved. Keeping a good, steady, slow pace I can make it up most icy hills.

But I’ve gotten stuck when the car ahead of me is going too slow to maintain momentum. Likewise going downhill: slow and steady wins the day. Down-shifting is a godsend, rather than braking and thus skidding.

There is one problem with overcoming stressful winters in New Hampshire and Vermont: Six inches of snow here doesn’t seem like it should be an issue. That’s what got my car stuck in my straight-as-an-arrow, level driveway in Kingwood Township. I figured I could just drive through the measly snowfall, not realizing there was ice underneath.

I must say, the ice in New Jersey is pretty impressive. It looks so insignificant compared to heavy snow. Needless to say, my car got good and stuck.

My husband and I couldn’t believe it. The car looked like it was just sitting there. We had the brilliant idea of trying to nudge it with our other car, and that second car now has a nice dent in it as a reminder of our folly. And we still needed to call the tow truck to get us out and on our way.

Between the lesson of the back-porch door and the icy, snowy driveway, I’ve finally gotten to the point where I take six inches of snow seriously. Now when it snows half a foot, I’m out at the end of the driveway with a shovel, making sure I’ve got a nice, wide path to drive through.

So let it snow and sleet. Bring on that freezing rain. I’ll battle back with a shovel and grit.
But no one will be happier than me when spring gets here.

flower pot ice DSC_0247

Captive Audience

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I found myself stuck in a checkout line recently and, as happens quite often, the person in front of me struck up a conversation.

It started harmlessly enough, with talk about the weather and rushing to get things done, and I found myself nodding and commiserating. Then the conversation took an ugly turn. This person shared elitist views I found shocking and offensive, all while still smiling at me and assuming I would agree.

I couldn’t let it ride, so I stirred up some gumption and said something like, “I don’t think I’d go that far.” But I know my point was probably missed.

I left the checkout counter feeling abused for having had to listen to such poisonous thoughts. What gave this person the right? But I also felt guilty for not doing more, for not objecting more strongly. The liberator in me felt I should have tried harder to educate the speaker about the hurtful things said. And I didn’t so I wouldn’t make a scene? How weak is that?

But I didn’t ask to be put in that position, did I? Maybe, in my effort to connect with the people around me, I opened myself up for assault.

In quiet moments, the scene keeps playing out in my mind. How could I have handled it differently? Certainly I could have refrained from participating in the conversation at the start, but must I deny myself many pleasant interactions such as I’ve had with other shoppers because of the few uncomfortable ones? When the comments started making me uneasy I could have turned my head to study the batteries in the display next to me and indulged my desire to fade into the scenery.

Conversely, I could have objected much more strenuously to the hateful words left floating in the air, leaving no doubt where I stood. Maybe that person would think twice before spouting such offensive views again.

I didn’t go to the store to fight moral battles. I went to buy a few things for supper. What is it that makes people assume their hateful views are welcome? Do they think they’ll convince others to join them in their misguided beliefs?

I’m not sure what the answer is. But as I’ve aged, my tolerance has worn thin. The next person who, unbidden, accosts me with their unwelcome views, better be prepared for some fireworks. It’s just too bad if that causes a scene. Maybe a scene is warranted.

A Tree for All Seasons

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For our first Christmas in New Jersey, we were renting a house on Second Street in Frenchtown, and one thing that house had going for it was huge windows. The room you walked into from the front door had 10-foot-high ceilings. High enough to give you the idea that this was the room for the Christmas tree. It was made for it. And since we didn’t have a dining room table to work around, we had all the room in the world for our first really big Christmas tree. That was my thinking, anyway.

It was enough to get my mind set on a nice big tree, and I was committed, if not obsessed, about getting that tree early in the Christmas season, so we’d have all December to enjoy it. The first weekend in December was going to be tree-hunting weekend.

When it poured all day that Friday, my husband suggested that maybe the next day wouldn’t be the best time to tromp through the woods for a tree. But when Saturday dawned cloudy but dry, I would not be deterred. What was he worried about? It would be an adventure!

The first sign that the outing might not match my idyllic mental picture came when we drove to the cut-your-own place, only to find no one around. But wait, there was the owner, coming out of the woods. He was he was really closed, but if we wanted to walk on out into the grove of trees and cut one down, it’d be OK. He was going to be around helping some friends cut a tree, so he didn’t mind, as long as we could handle it on our own.

Hey, no problem! That’s what we were there for, right? We headed out. It was misting by then, but what was a little mist? We were adventurers, heading out into the elements to claim our tree.

We had to walk a ways to get to where the big trees were. None of those little 5-footers would do. They’d look silly in that big room! Rubbing our gloveless hands together in the chilly, now heavier, rain, we slogged through the mud from tree to tree until we found it. The tree was perfect. Nice and big and full.

The work got trickier then, with my 10-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter trying in vain to steady the tree as their dad sawed away at it with our pathetically rusted, dull hand saw.

The tree resisted. The saw bent. Finally, the tree fell into the mud.

By now it was pouring. Maybe 40 degrees. The kids had a “this is not fun” look on their faces. My husband’s expression was worse. But there was no turning back now. As the lot owner drove by on his tractor-pulled wagon with his friends, we hauled our tree up the muddy path. I was in front, putting up a brave front as the trunk of the tree scratched my bare hands raw.

We were making progress, until I slipped. Like dominoes, we all fell down. OK. We stood back up. Onward! But no, my boot decided to stay behind, stuck in the muck. Now I was a nice mess, but I got no sympathy from my family. After what seemed like a year, we got back to the car.

It never looked so good. Or small. The tree was the same size as the car! How would we ever get it home?  My husband walked away at that point, leaving me to mull the options as he paced.

There was a baler nearby, that machine where you stick the tree in one end and it comes out the other, all encased in plastic mesh. Perfect! Until the tree got stuck in the baler. Just a tad too big. We struggled for a good half-hour until the lot owner drove back up on his tractor, his friends all laughing and having a great old time riding in what looked like luxury to us.

With four people pushing, we got the tree through. Hauling it over to the car, we knew it couldn’t go on top like we’d been thinking; we’d never be able to see past it to drive.

It’d have to go in the trunk. It ended up only sticking out about 3 feet from the right side of the car. With our flashers on, we drove slowly home in the downpour. In silence.

The tree sat on our front porch the rest of that day. We couldn’t deal with it. We all raced each other for the shower instead.

On Sunday, we shook all the water off the tree, dragged it in the front door and stood it up in the room. Almost. Seems it grew overnight, and was a good foot too tall.

Suffice it to say we got the bent, rusted saw out again, hacked off a foot, and got the tree up. Maybe it hadn’t been the adventure I’d planned, but it did turn out to be a memorable experience. And the tree was beautiful.