Thursday, February 28, 2013

Cinnamon Toast, JP Newberry's and A Sycamore Tree

When I was a little girl, I traveled to visit my grandparents regularly. I was lucky to have two sets of grandparents who lived relatively close together. My Mom's parents lived in a city with museums and malls and movie theatres and cool cafes and a set of cousins to play with.  (That's a story for another time.) My dad's parents resided in a small town.

I loved both places. But I find myself thinking so often about that small town. It's odd really because the me I am today revels in her proximately to city life. But there was something about Martinsville that fascinated me. Something special about visiting my dad's parents.

I loved the house. It had character. The very first thing I did when I visited was to pull out the magic drawer where my Grandmother kept all the kid books. Titles I only glimpsed during my time in those hallowed walls. And then I'd run to the kitchen to check two things ... One: the candy drawer ... and Two: the Pie sitting on the counter. No matter what she baked, Grandmother always made two small personal pies ... Chocolate Creme for my brother. Coconut Creme (meringue top!) for me. She was an amazing cook.

Then there was the Cinnamon Toast that my grandmother used to make for breakfast. It was always perfect. And she would cut it into bite size pieces or strips and serve it to us on a tray as we watched our Saturday morning cartoons. I think my brother and I ate a loaf between us every morning we were there.

I loved the adventures that took place when I visited that small town. For many years, there was this corner Dime Store called JP Newberry. We would visit there within the first day or two, my brother and I packed into my Granddaddy's car and driven to a downtown that actually featured a "square" with a courthouse in the middle. Newberry's had a dark dusty wood floor with aisles full of priceless treasures waiting to be discovered. My brother and I would take our time examining every possibility before selecting the one special present that our grandparents would purchase. I remember some of my treasures ... a mini baby doll who would cry real tears, silly putty, quiz magazines that would reveal hidden pictures  when colored with special pens, toy figures where you would press the bottom button and they would collapse like broken marionettes.

Even now Newberrys glistens with perfection in my mind.

There was also this place called the Candy Kitchen. My Grandmother would take me there for home-made milk-shakes and candy goods. You know the kind of place ... one that made the Chocolate Chip Milkshake with honest-to-goodness real mini chocolate chips. We sat in a chipped green painted booth that was better than anything the Plaza Hotel could offer waiting for a teenage waitress to "pull" a real Cherry soda from the fountain. Then, before we'd leave, we went next-door for a bag of penny candy. Licorice bites for me. Orange slices for my brother. And cinnamon pieces for my dad.

There was a park in Martinsville. The kind of park where you could explore and also play on metal play structures  -- years before plastic took over. There was a rocket ship with multi-levels and slides and monkey bars and a wooden merry-go-round that would spin and spin and spin. And next to this park was an enormous hill. One you just had to roll down. And we did!

I remember outings in my Granddaddy's car to a state park about an hour south of Martinsville. Grandmother would make a fried chicken picnic lunch. We'd sing songs all the way there. My Granddaddy had a powerful voice. And he loved to sing. Granddaddy would take us hiking while Grandmother took care of the picnic preparations. Then we'd sit together and laugh and talk and just spend time. No matter what we were doing ... we were interacting together. I don't know if I noticed that then. But as I ride along today and my kids play nintendo games or "apps, " watching movies and sit silently enraptured by electronic entertainment, I recognize the power of those moments now ...

And there was this Sycamore Tree. I think it had been there long before the land it sat on became a town. And I loved it more than any other thing in Martinsville. I visited it every time I traveled there. My Granddaddy and I would go for lots of walks and we'd always stop by to visit this tree. It was like a friend in a way. It was So big and had been there for so long.  The stories it could tell ...

Did you know that Sycamore trees, as they age, lose all their bark? Well this tree had absolutely no bark. It was ancient. And it absolutely fascinated me.

It's been a very long time since I've been to Martinsville. My grandparents both passed away in the 1990s. Both goodbyes were difficult, but my Grandmother's was harder. I expect that was because she died after Granddaddy. And that closed a chapter in a book that had reached its final pages.

After her funeral, my brother, cousin, dad, mom, husband, sister-in-law, aunt and I went to the park ... you remember, the one with the Rocket Ship. My brother and I climbed inside that rocket. At 29 it was as wonderful as at age 9. All the memories came alive and made it so I guess. But the very best part of that awful day was when we all rolled down that big hill, laughing and remembering my grandparents and all the times they brought us to these hallowed hills. And then, my daddy and I walked by ourselves to see that Sycamore tree. I gazed at it, still in awe. It had been struck by lightning and was soon to be pulled out. But it was still standing proud and strong and as magnificent as it had always been. I knew I was saying Goodbye to it that day.

One day at a Birthday Party my daughter attended, I was talking to a new friend of mine I'd met at church. I'm not sure how we got on the subject, but we discovered that we were both from Indiana. Then she told me how she was from this small town in southern Indiana that I probably had never heard of. I laughed and said that I had family from down there ... It turned out she was from Martinsville.

She remembered JP Newberrys. And the Park. And the Rocket Ship. And the Square and Candy Kitchen. She remembered my Sycamore Tree.

Well, JP Newberries closed its doors ages ago. The Candy Kitchen was sold and went out of business during one of the economic downturns that affected small towns. The Park replaced all the dangerous metal equipment with plastic play-scapes. And the Sycamore Tree was taken down ... in its post-lightning strike state, I guess people thought it might fall down and hit a home or business or something.

But that tree was so strong. I know it would have survived. It was simple. Pure. Like those childhood days in Martinsville. Just spending time. Playing games. Singing songs. Taking walks. Enjoying popcorn that was never cooked in a microwave ... but prepared with care on the stove. Savoring meals made lovingly from scratch and served around the same table on which we played card games late into the evenings. We didn't spend long hours before the TV. We read books and played outside. The music came from the radio or record player. There was a grandfather clock to tell us the time. And One bathroom we all shared. But it was the simple joy found in being together that resonates strongest with me. It was never the big moments that made my time with my Grandparents so special ... it was the little things we did together that stand out in my mind even decades after they occurred.

I still hear my Granddaddy's voice when I think of the songs we would sing as we drove.

 I wonder what my kids will remember when they think about special moments growing up. Is there still wonder today in the midst of high-tech, TVs with hundreds of channels, iPads and Nintendos? The Game Days of Sunday afternoons have been replaced with Wii tournaments and only the occasional Board Game marathon. But we have Movie afternoons and the kids and I bake and frost cookies together....

We still make special moments today. They are just different. We take the time to enjoy family and remember what is important. I think about what I remember from childhood and I bring that into my actions today. I share my passions with my kids. Oh, I'm not sure everyone is as sentimental as I am ... and I don't know if my grandparents truly realized the long-term joys they would provide with their simple outings and sharing. I like to think they knew though .....

That giant Sycamore may not stand in Martinsville anymore but it survives strongly in my mind.  It's a symbol of strength and perseverance. Of laughter and family outings. Of game nights, and singing on long car trips and drawers with books and cinnamon toast and personal coconut cream pies.  It's a symbol of how powerful the littlest moment truly are ....

                                                                                                                                                               -- Jenni