OVER THE HILLS TO GRANDFATHER HUNT ‘S
“It’s a letter from Grandma Hunt,” said Mother, as she opened an envelope which Father had just brought up from the post office. “She writes that they are now all shoveled out of the snowdrifts from the last storm. Oh yes, she says that Grandpa Hunt is going over to get his boy (that’s you), on Thursday (that’s tomorrow), and for you to be ready by noon so he can go back the same day; says he thinks you’d better get over there for your long February visit before another big snowstorm blocks up the roads.”
I can still feel the tingle that shot through every nerve and muscle of my eight-year-old self as Mother spoke those magic words so long ago. By this time on the morrow I’d be encased in greatcoat and muffler, sitting in Grandfather Hunt’s sleigh, with my feet on a hot freestone, and a bison-skin robe tucked around me; and Old Nellie would be taking me over the hills as fast as her limited energy would allow. And, what’s more, I’d be sitting right beside the most wonderful grandfather in all the world, on the way to his most interesting home, where Grandmother Hunt would be waiting for me, as for a prince, with all sorts of good things to eat, new picture books to pore over, new stories to hear and old ones to hear again.
There would be haymows to romp over with boys from the neighborhood, and a spacious and well-stocked attic to re-explore.
How different are grandfathers! Of course everybody has two; that’s a biological fact. But if it so happens that you live with one of them, or just
across the road from him, as I did all through my boyhood, then there is a sort of exaggerated glamour attached to the other one who lives “over the hills and far away.” With grandfathers, as with other matters of the heart, distance lends enchantment; and although the distance in my case was a mere dozen miles, never the less, measured, not by the flight of an airplane or the speed of an automobile, but by the locomotive power of a work horse – moderate old Katy or a temperamental Flying Tiger who flew only when he had a jolly good mind to, the distance was formidable, so much so indeed, that the trip was made only three or four times a year. Its very infrequency made it a gala event on the calendar of a small boy for whom Father Time had a most stupid and incorrigible habit of dragging his heels.
So far as the mere journey to Grandfather Hunt’s was concerned, the time of year didn’t matter so very much; for the road, in itself, was a pleasant one. It led along rich meadows where the little river, in meandering sweeps, ran its leisurely course down to the Connecticut. It led up into forested hills where the same little river, now a mere brook, came in dashing torrents around huge boulders, and in picturesque cascades down over ledges, its banks all carpeted with ferns of every description, whose somber green was relieved in the springtime by clumps of the delicate hepatica and the nodding bells of the dog-tooth violet; and in the autumn by the glowing red fruit of bunchberry and wintergreen. It led up to the “height of land” where the horse always stopped to drink from a watering trough placed exactly on the town line, right under the shadow of Knox Mountain. And, finally, it led down a pleasant valley bordered on the west by little Knox and a lot of nameless peaks – children of old .Knox – that tumbled along in a straggling array almost to the home of Grandfather Hunt. These little mountains were always a delight to the eye, robed as they were in beautiful garments with colors according to the season: in spring, the rich mauve of bursting buds; in midsummer, green of every hue; in autumn, bright yellow, glowing scarlet, and deep crimson, accented by picturesque clumps of pointed firs; and in winter, “ermine too dear for an earl.”
But in another sense the time of year mattered greatly. The February visit was much to be preferred because it was longer than all the other together, coming as it did during the long school vacation which extended from the middle of February until the mud dried up in April. There was a long stretch of neutral season in late February and early March, just prior to maple sugar making, in which the round of farm labor didn’t necessarily demand the “mighty assistance” of a small boy. Chopping or splitting wood for next year’s fuel supply was too hard for him, and making soft soap for the family wash – well, it didn’t just appeal to his imagination. What could be more fitting, therefore, than that these sordid, colorless days should be made into red-letter days by a long visit at Grandfather Hunt’s?
Of course there was one important matter that had to be taken into consideration when planning the journey, namely, the condition of the weather. To be sure, that didn’t matter much, unless it rained or snowed so hard that the visit which had been planned for weeks had to be given up. No fate could be more cruel except the one that promised us clearing skies in the morning, allowed us to get started and even well on our way, and then sent cloudburst after cloudburst upon our heads until “we,” not I, decided that it would be best to turn the horse around and head for home. I knew then how lost souls in Tophet feel. Such occurrences were seldom, however; and if the weather was a bit inclement, the only thing that mattered was that Grandfather Hunt be at the other end of the journey. His shout of welcome would, figuratively speaking, turn any gray November into June, and entice the sun from behind the darkest clouds.
Doubtless to a stranger, there would have been nothing glamorous or unusual about Grandfather Hunt. He would have passed for a kindly, accommodating neighbor – one who minded his own business and did an honest day’s work at whatever task he turned his versatile hand to. It took a child to understand him best, for his whole heart went out to children. He was “Uncle” Hunt to all the children of the village. No wonder, then, that his grandson of tender years responded to his generous nature, or that other grandchildren and great-grandchildren for a generation thereafter, thrilled at his cheery greeting.
He could invent and create the most ingenious toys from the simplest and least promising materials. Nothing from the most expensive toy shop could give a child of the present day more pleasure than his clever handiwork gave me. And as to games for little tots he had a simple guessing game which he called hull gull, and for older children he was a most delightful contestant at checkers and fox and geese, not a formidable one, however; for his opponent, for some reason or other, always won fully half the games.
Besides his work at his village home, which included the care of old Molly the cow, old Nellie the horse, a dozen or two hens, and a large and bountiful vegetable garden, he owned a farm which he fondly called “Vermont,” a mile away in another township. A sparkling brook ran the whole length of “Vermont”; and many were the happy hours I spent with him fishing that brook, and sitting under a great maple while we ate our picnic lunch, and drank from a spring of clear, cold water that gushed from under a bank all covered with Christmas ferns.
Perhaps it was August. Then we filled our baskets with blackberries which grew in the hedges, or hung in clusters over gray, lichen-covered stone walls that surrounded “Vermont.” Then we took the blackberries home to Grandmother Hunt who put some of them into a pie for supper, and made the rest into rich, delicious jam to be stored away on cellar shelves, only to be brought up again on my long mid winter visit in February. Or perhaps it was October, with all the forested hills ablaze with the richest autumn colors. Then we filled our sacks with butternuts, while bluebirds fluted, and flitted about as they gathered into flocks for their journey southward. Then we took the butternuts to the attic for storage where they would remain intact until my February visit when they, like the blackberry jam, would be brought out in honor of the occasion. We’d crack their tough jackets on an old shoemaker’s lapstone by the kitchen fire, and eat the rich, delicious meats, or make them into maple-butternut fudge, while the February wind howled itself hoarse outside, and filled the paths and roadways with drifts of snow.
Thus far in this story Grandmother Hunt has done nothing but bake a pie, make some blackberry jam, and cook a stack of food against the arrival of her grandson of the ravenous appetite. The fact is, she could prepare a most appetizing “meal o’ vittles” as they used to say in the country around Knox Mountain, and her Thanksgiving dinners – well all I’ll say is that I ate them with gusto and remember them these fifty years with nostalgic fondness; but I won’t try to describe them I could not do them justice. However, if anybody is forming the opinion that Grandmother Hunt’s abilities were limited to cooking food, making blackberry jam, and running fancy stitches (of which she did many). there’s another guess coming.
In many ways she was the antithesis of Grandfather Hunt; nevertheless they lived long together – eight years beyond their golden wedding – in perfect harmony. Although she was born and always lived in moderately humble circumstances she was an aristocrat at heart.
I don’t mean she was snobbish; I mean that she loved the best things, literature, music, art, travel, flowers and good company. In her early teens she all but ruined her eyesight in reading and re-reading Shakespeare by the flickering light of the fireplace. There was no public library
in town in those days; but she borrowed books from the minister, the lawyer, and the old village doctor who had a library well stocked with general and current literature. She knew what books he had better than he himself knew; for she had read them all, and he hadn’t. She loved poetry, and even tried her hand at original verse. At every birthday celebration or wedding anniversary she was the poet-laureate.
And did she love flowers! Like a true garden enthusiast she began poring over seed catalogues in midwinter, and each returning spring found her trying out some new variety. Every Sunday until the frosts of late autumn destroyed her garden, there was a vase of flowers in the village meeting-house; and a local funeral without a bouquet from her garden was unthinkable. She shared her flowers with all who were sick, and she gave herself as well; for in her day there were no trained nurses in rural communities, and seldom, if ever, were registered nurses from city hospitals employed.
More than anyone else, she was the nurse of the village – the nurse who took her garden right along with her.
Then, when the snows of winter made outdoor gardening impassible, you should have seen that sunny corner in her kitchen made still sunnier with geraniums, fuchsias, and other cheerful flowers. Yes, and she could entertain a grandson, not merely by setting the best food before him, but in other ways less mundane. To be sure, she couldn’t take a jackknife, a stick of cedar, and some paint (red, white and blue), and make a mechanical toy as Grandfather Hunt could she didn’t need to – that was his job. But with some scissors and paste, an old Godey’s or Harper’s, a last year’s seed catalogue, and some bright-colored cards advertising Ayer’ s Cherry Pectoral, Hood’s Sarsaparilla, or Clark’s N.T., she could produce a scrapbook that not only would delight the eye, but improve the mind. For here and there, in little corners where the pictures didn’t quite fill the space, she would insert choice bits of poetry and other items of a cultural or intellectual order.
The very air around Grandfather Hunt’s home was charged with leniency. I could gather all the youngsters of the neighborhood and we could turn the barn upside down and no word of disapproval would ever be heard. We could play for hours on the haymow with no injury to the hay.
This was a rare treat, this romping on the hay. I couldn’t do this at home except when grandfather was taking his afternoon nap for Grandfather’s cows at home had weak stomachs, and didn’t like hay that little boys had romped over.
Many were the times when I wished that Grandfather would swap off his cows with their finical stomachs for some like Grandfather Hunt’s old Molly who thought (so I was informed) that hay was improved given an indefinable richness of flavor, and an appetizing aroma – if little boys tramped allover it.
The only time I could get my feet on the hay at home with impunity was when I helped “strow” it away in haying time, or pitched it down for
Grandfather to “fodder” the cattle in winter. But with the thermometer at 95 in the shade, building haymows was work, not play and pitching hay from a solidly packed mow where all the strands were crisscross, and every forkful I tried to pull up was held back by another, and that by another, and so on ad infinitum – well, that was work, too.
At Grandfather Hunt’s I had my first taste of the theatre. No, the show wasn’t in the village hall; that cramped little shell wouldn’t have held a tithe of the populace that the hills around poured into that spacious tent on Major Bill’s field, to witness the humor and pathos of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
I held my breath and squeezed Grandfather Hunt’s strong hand as Eliza skipped here and there on imaginary cakes of floating ice, with the cruel bloodhounds at her heels; and my ire still burns within me at the memory of the barbarous demeanor of Simon Legree.
There were other entertainments, too, in the village hall, that ran the whole gamut from Reynolds the Reader who “read” at respectable church benefits, to Comical Brown and his Brand-new Show which verily smacked of the world, the flesh, and the devil.
Shall I ever forget that grotesque face! We were passing the old Wallace Tavern Grandfather Hunt, Old Molly the cow, and I – on our way from the pasture; and there sat Comical Brown himself (to me as famous as President Ben. Harrison). Yes, there he sat on the Wallace Tavern steps, nonchalantly cleaning his fingernails. He looked up as we passed, and for some reason – I suppose it was because I was staring at him in wonder – he gave me an eyeful of the most grotesque facial contortions, a show all my own, with no admission charge whatever. Nowadays they’d call it a preview; but by whatever name, it was a hot introduction to the real show which Grandfather Hunt and I attended later in the evening, yes, sir, and we had a front seat, too!
I couldn’t begin to describe the hundred-and-one interesting things to see or to do at Grandfather Hunt’s on that long February visit.
All the cousins and second cousins and neighboring youngsters were stimulating play companions, and offered a healthy change from my school fellows at home. We would coast and skate and snowball in particular, and raise Old Ned in general. If the storm drove us in, we still had the barn and the attic – Grandfather Hunt’s attic. But that’s a story in itself. And the country store and post-office is a story, too. As regularly as the clock struck seven, and we had had our supper, and old Molly had been milked, Grandfather Hunt and I betook our selves to that unique institution of the long-ago, which the rural free delivery- of mail has effectually obliterated. There we’d await the arrival of the mail stages with their jangling bells, and strong horses all covered with frost, and with icicles hanging from their whiskers; and there we’d wait for the mail to be sorted – but I mustn’t anticipate.
Of course there were nice people to call on, especially when the village youngsters were not around for a romp. It was great fun to visit Aunt Delia, and Aunt Julia of the lovely face and aristocratic men who would bring out all sorts of toys and pictures to amuse me, and fill my pockets with fruit or candy when I went away. What’ s more, they were not mere aunts; they were great aunts! But calling on nice people with Grandmother Hunt as a mere social obligation had no exaggerated appeal. Every cloud has a silver lining, however; and the silver in this instance- or was it brass? was the tonic these nice people administered to my vanity by telling how much I had grown since Last February, or how much I looked like my mother. That was all to the good; for, like all other children, I longed to be big; and. as for my resemblance to my mother – well, I was very fond of my mother.
But the time when my ego took its greatest skyward flight was when Old Billy, a town “character,” accosted us as we were returning from one of those social calls. Addressing Grandmother Hunt, he remarked:
“Waall, Ca’line, I see ye got yer grandson with ye. Godfrey how he grows! Waall, d’ye know I wus a-watchin’ that young feller when he went past yistiddy, an’ I says to myself, says I, ‘That young feller is ‘Hunt allover agin; he walks jest like his Grandfather Hunt.”
If there was anybody in al the world that I admired and wanted to be like it was Grandfather Hunt. So I walked like him, did I? Then and there I resolved that, from that time forth and forevermore, there would be no doubt about it. Not only Old Billy but all the world would note my resemblance to my grandfather. Now Grandfather Hunt had a gait all his own. Neither old age nor rheumatism ever affected it; but for some reason or other, probably it was merely for greater ease in locomotion. He bent forward slightly and walked with a long easy stride, ducking his head a bit with each step. One might have thought that his feet were trying hard to keep up with his nose, but never quite accomplishing their purpose.
Now that I had a reputation to sustain, I practiced assiduously. I practiced in the attic. I practiced in the wood-shed, I practiced in the barn; and
when Grandmother Hunt sent me to the store for a pound of tea, I skipped the dress rehearsal, and put on the real show. In short, I paraded the whole length of the village street walking like Grandfather Hunt only more so. Indeed I spread it on thick. There were small groups of people standing by sleighs and hitching-posts as I neared the store; so I looked out of the corners of my eyes and sharpened my ears, if perchance I could ascertain the effect of my act, hoping of course, that Old Billy would be a part of my audience. I wasn’t long in doubt.
“What’s the matter with that kid?” asked a bystander.
“Dunno,” replied the other, and spat tobacco juice on the snow.
“Who is he, anyway?” asked a third.
“Dunno,” replied the other two in concert.
“Why, that’s Hunt’s grandson, ain’t it?” put in a fourth.
“Dunno,” replied the other three.
“Walks ‘s if he’d got the colic, whoever he is, “” remarked the first.
“Anythin’ the matter with ye, Bub?” asked Old Billy, emerging from the store just as I was about to climb the steps, “Ye walk kind 0′ funny.”
Old Billy, of all people! My ego fell, and no parachute opened to soften the thud!
“Yes. Uncle Billy,” I replied faintly, “I think I feel kind O’ sick!”