There Stood an Old House in the Catskills

 

There stood a wise old farmhouse that faced a cascade of green hills, which reached all the way to Pennsylvania, nestled in the Catskills of NY.  The walls inside have hummed along to nursery rhymes, shed tears alongside those who wept, yawned with the sleepy mother nursing her newborn, listened intently to the prayers over clasped hands of the faithful, and brimmed over with joy and tireless love.  This old house has raised generations since the mid-19th century.

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Dense morning fog lingered in the valley, geese sashayed and honked their marching band down to the pond, while heaping stacks of waffles beckoned me back inside from the front porch, where I’d sat swilling my coffee.

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I’d come very close to missing this treasure of a visit, pressured to rent out our house back in WV and crunched for time. We’d camped in Carlisle, PA, and I’d hardly recuperated from a long cruddy drive, and was still reeling with aggravation from being forced upon endless miles of state turnpikes, and their forced stops at wastelands of travel centers when Abbey and Eric with their families pulled into our campsite. Bacon and eggs, oatmeal and marshmallows were gobbled up and it was one happy bout of chaos. We’d stopped for the briefest visit at Hershey Chocolate World, and then met Daddy, Leandra, Alex and his girlfriend, Nancy, at Panera.

While Nikos and I were driving to meet everyone, I mentioned that I felt called to make the trip to the farm. I had to go. Nikos shrugged his shoulders and said, “Sure! By the way, happy anniversary, even though I’ll never know how long we’ve been married.” Eye roll, “Eighteen years, you big ding dong!” A monstrous bagel later, I was riding in Eric’s car with the boys, and Nikos with the girls, all headed for the farm in the Catskills.

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Aunt Alice was making a mountain of homemade waffles, heaps of sausage smoked from the shed out back, and fried eggs that Nikolas and Arron had gathered ten minutes prior.  My cousin Adam had just returned from milking cows in the barn, and we all haphazardly gathered around the all familiar table with tummies growling.  We chowed on too many waffles, lathered in the Diehl’s Maple Syrup, tapped from trees that towered on their land by Adam and his family.  It’s the very best, and you can even purchase it online.  You better believe I’m putting in a plug!

Uncle Pete sat in his chair at the head of the heavy farm table, with his twinkling eyes and humble smile.  Aunt Alice and Uncle Pete used to have a dog named Smokey who spent most of his days underneath the table, waiting for scrumptious morsels to be dropped.  I used to warm my bare feet in his thick fur as he dozed his days away.  I don’t remember the dog ever being awake.  Aunt Alice’s back was to us as she labored in the kitchen, just as I remembered her forty years ago, whipping up some of the best food ever ingested.

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My dear Uncle Pete has multiple myeloma, despite being one of the heartiest, hardest working, and ironically, healthiest men I’ve ever known, as well as the kindest, most warm-hearted uncle a girl could have.  Aunt Alice mirrors all that’s said about Uncle Pete, with her enthusiasm for life, sincerest love for others, and taking the very best care of her grand/children/neighbors and spouse.  Aunt Alice’s role as the farm matriarch has never been easy, crazy close calls with raising three boys and a daughter.  Still, there’s a young girl’s light spirit that emanates from within, her girlish laugh and nature is as light as a trickle of water flowing down the rock after a spring rain.

Just before lunch, the Gain crew walked to Villa Roma to play some tennis.  It was unusually warm and muggy, and I didn’t really feel much like chasing even one missed ball after the hilly trek. Leandra is the tennis talent, has even qualified for the Senior Olympics. Daddy suggested that Eric (my brother) and I run back to the farm to get the cars so everyone wouldn’t have to walk back.  So there was Eric, suddenly turned insane personal trainer, encouraging me up the ridiculously steep hills.  I yelled up to him that I moved to flat MN, and far away from stupid hills!

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I’d begun to regret eating that third slice of delectable pizza from the night before.  Uncle John and Aunt Pearl had generously paid for what resembled a wedding party, filling up half of the back room.  Come to think of it, we had celebrated my second cousin’s birthday.  What a sweet kid he was, turning eighteen, just beginning his adult life. Three pieces of delectable pizza at Michaleangelo’s was more like six, but hey, I skipped dessert!

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A bunch of us headed off the hill to downtown Jeffersonville, a town so cozy, it looked straight out of a Norman Rockwell piece.  Aunt Pearl invited all of the kids to pick out a ceramic piece to paint from her ceramic shop on Main Street. Just beside the shop stood my great-grandparent’s home, built at the turn of the twentieth century, now turned bed and breakfast.

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The home was immaculate, with photographs and memorabilia throughout.  My dad had lived in the guest house as a boy until they’d built the house on the hill.  Throughout each room, my dad shared his memories of once having appendicitis and how cool the sheets felt on his feverish face, my great-grandfather taking Daddy along on visits, as he’d been the town doctor, the river that flowed across the street, in which Daddy would catch trout.  Up in the attic, I couldn’t believe that the ancient doll houses that I used to play, were still there! My dad was overly cautious about disturbing anything and nervous with the kids romping about, but the very nature of the estate prevented any misbehaving, even though Leandra had taken an impressive shot at the number #5 ball on the antique pool table. We all sat on the front porch, a little too warm of an August afternoon to do much else. Sweet Sally, a family friend for life, had driven up the following morning just like we lived there.

Once we’d returned to the Diehl farm, my cousin Tommy’s wife, Jennifer, instructed me to hop on the four-wheeler with her to check out the piece of Heaven/land they’d purchased and planned to build a house. I decided their future home could boast the best views in all of Sullivan County!  Jennifer is a wonderful addition to the family, very intelligent and caring, and their sweet son is the epitome of all that is little boy.

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My favorite cousin (I still love the rest of you!) Brenda, who looks identical to a young Meryl Streep, pulled up and even though it had been twelve years, we were instant friends again, like always.  Sophia, Ashley and Katerina were  playing dress-up and making messes, and Nikolas and Arron had taken off somewhere on the farm, cousins repeating history.

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Cousin John, an aspiring country musician showed up, and I’d be meeting up with his sister, Cindy and her son Brett, in Hershey after our visit. Uncle Tom and Aunt Sandy pulled up, along with one of their sons and his adorable fiance.  They were the cutest most hopeful couple, who belong on some sort of ESPN fishing show.

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My heart sang watching my dad laughing and chatting alongside his brothers and only sister, Aunt Pearl’s miraculous ability to gather all of the kids and keep them entertained painting ceramics for a good two hours, and Uncle Pete sitting on the porch, with his quiet smile as he waited for the feast that would be had soon enough.

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What I remember most about that wonderful evening was Nikolas begging for just one more ear of butter-slathered corn, Daddy telling Nancy and Alex to knock it off with their young public affection, Elizabeth and the girls dancing, the guys cussing a bit more and telling what they thought were funny jokes, hearing the roar of Uncle John’s glorious laugh, the kids romping around and causing a proper ruckus, Aunt Alice instructing where the food should go with her soothing voice, Uncle Tom cracking jokes with Daddy and Uncle Pete, Brenda and I giggling and remembering, friends from the moment she was born, the crackle of the bonfire, cousins-first and distant, grown and toddling, the sweet chatter of family seeping in my soul, fully aware that this was the very essence of life.

Elizabeth thoughtfully said in the car, “Mama, I’ve never seen you happier being around all of those people up on the farm.”  She continued, “No offense,but you’re an oddball around most of your family, and you always seem to try too hard, but not on the farm. I’ve never seen that side of you before, and it warms my heart that there are people who love you that much.”

I could have spent the rest of my days up on the hill and it would have been a life richly lived.  Aunt Alice handed over the milk jug to Nikolas and told him to finish it off.  She knew my son! Little Ashley, Katerina’s twin, asked her grandma for a tuna fish sandwich for breakfast, and Katerina enjoyed one too.

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Time can be sinister, as humans bumble about unknowing and distracted. When the hours turn into years, and our wrinkles grow deep from meaningful smiles, when Uncle Pete is no longer at the head of the table waiting for his lovely bride to finish frying up some eggs, and the sizzle of the pan dissipates into lingering whispers of days long ago, a forlorn ache will become as much a part of this dear old home as its familiar creaks.

Dishing out goodbyes made my eyes burn as new and old generations stood on the porch steps, the same steps that held those who waved to great-great-great-grandparents and visitors, steps that saw my mother off, pregnant with me, one last time before she passed away.

We continued waving on down the hill, my heart seeped over with wonderful and cherished memories.

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