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August 2017

Love and Challah

Summers with my grandparents at Sacandaga Park

As my feet touched the steps of the old cottage, the magic of my childhood returned. Now painted blue, there were remnants of the former dark sea green visible under the rails of the porch and around the roof. Memories came easily: my bubbe in the kitchen preparing a meal, my zayde swaying back and forth in his canvas rocking chair, my brother and me sitting on the screened-in porch waiting impatiently for the milk truck and secretly planning how to cajole Bubbe into buying us cartons of orangeade.

Each summer until I was 11 years old, my brother and I were released from our parents’ rules of order back home in Gloversville and allowed to spend two freewheeling weeks with my grandparents at their cottage in Sacandaga Park. 

My summer refuge was a small town on the Sacandaga Reservoir with only two or three main roads. Legends from the 1940s and ’50s such as Charleton Heston and Joan Fontaine came down from the silver screen and appeared at the Sacandaga Summer Theater.  They stayed in the Adirondack Inn, a beautiful Victorian hotel. 

Gracie Boland, the youngest of a rambunctious family of nine, was a major catalyst of my summer escapades. Only a year older than I, Gracie fascinated and frightened me all at once. But I willingly followed her as she led me on walks through dirt paths or behind other cottages where we peered clandestinely through the windows. Occasionally someone on the inside would see us and we would take off, shrieking with laughter all the way. 

Days at the cottage always seemed too short. In the mornings, I awoke wrapped in a thick quilt on one of the many iron-frame beds. After I pulled on my shorts, T-shirt and sneakers, I ran eagerly down the narrow steps to the dining room. Zayde sat at the table sipping hot tea and reading the Yiddish newspaper. Bubbe whisked out of the kitchen, bringing all sorts of scents and textures for breakfast: herring, challah, bagels, cottage cheese, fresh fruit and prunes.

Then my brother and I were ready to explore. One of our more exciting jaunts was a five-minute walk to pick up the mail at the Station, which housed the post office and several shops. This long brown-and-white building was a wonderland, with each doorway an invitation to possible intrigue. One led to pinball machines I watched people play for hours, another to a jukebox playing top-10 hits. Sometimes vacationing teenagers were dancing and I allowed my imagination to envision the glorious life that would someday be mine.

Shortly before noon, Bubbe was back in the kitchen preparing another feast: chicken soup, salmon salad, rye and pumpernickel bread, sour cream and herring, fresh fruit and noodle kugel. Sometimes I entered the kitchen in the middle of her cooking frenzy and she would proudly offer a sneak preview of the meal.

Bubbe was an immigrant from Warsaw who, like many Jews, sought an escape from harsh living conditions and the brutal pogroms during the Russian regime. She told me how my zayde arrived in the United States first to find a job and a place for them to live. A few months later, Bubbe, pregnant with twins, was on a boat sailing to join him. My father told me that Bubbe lost two sisters in World War II but she kept those stories to herself. Instead she spoke about her baby sister Sadie, who she helped to bring to the U.S. and who was married at 15.

After lunch my mother drove up from our home to take us to the beach each day. My mother, with her strict rules of conduct and constant worrying, was transformed at the lake. She looked like royalty with her beautiful green eyes and olive skin that turned golden brown in the sun. We sat on the beach with Annie and Nat Schwerner, an older couple from the metropolitan New York area and summer residents of Sacandaga. They were exotic compared to my parents’ other friends: Nat had a thick, bushy black beard and Annie was tall and artistic-looking with her hair pulled back in a bun, earrings that dangled like raindrops and a woven rainbow-colored shawl draped over her shoulders. The Schwerners became particularly animated as they talked about politics. They were ardent supporters of civil rights and the words “prejudice” and “oppression” came up frequently in their conversation. Because of them, at an early age I became aware of the deep meanings behind these words.

Later, in the heat of the afternoon sun, I often joined my brother and his friends Peter Ebstein and Bobbie Reich and assisted them in building an elaborate system of sand castles and aqueducts. 

In the afternoon my grandparents played cards with their friends. They all spoke Yiddish and I created a game of guessing what they were saying by interpreting their dramatic gestures and colorful tone of voice.

Before dinner, Gracie and I would take our long walks. Gracie went to Catholic school in Troy, and in hushed tones she spoke to me about nuns, rosary beads and the frightening repercussions of committing a sin. 

Bubbe’s final culinary feat for the day was a dinner of soup, brisket, boiled chicken, potatoes, vegetables, challah, fruit and ice cream. After, my brother and I sat on the porch with Zayde or watched Father Knows Best in the den. Before we felt even close to yawning, Bubbe was pushing us up the steps to bed and covering our small bodies with thick quilts, expressing her worries about whether we would be warm enough. With one kiss on the keppie, our day was over.

Shortly after my 11th birthday, a letter arrived from Bubbe, who was living in Florida for the winter. She hadn’t been well and her letter revealed something unexpected: “I am afraid I won’t live long enough to cook another meal for you.” I denied her premonition, believing the aromas from her kitchen and her firm and gentle way would heal her. She died three months later.

My quiet and now grief-stricken zayde could not bear to stay alone in the cottage, so my father and his brothers quickly sold it, and my idyllic summers at Sacandaga evaporated into memory. We still went to Sacandaga Park to swim and see our friends, but gradually we went instead to less familiar vacation spots.

As I matured into a young woman, change also came to Sacandaga and its summer inhabitants. Both the summer theater and Adirondack Inn burned down. The Station was closed and eventually an artist bought the building and turned it into a studio. The Station now houses small cottages. Annie and Nat’s son, Mickey Schwerner, was one of three civil rights workers murdered in Mississippi in the ’60s. Bobbie Reich the sand castle expert became Robert Reich, a prominent and well-respected author and economist, and a Secretary of Labor. Gracie remains a mystery.

As I continued to walk up the steps of the cottage, I saw a portly woman in front eating potato chips on what had been the screened-in porch. I introduced myself and told her about my history in the cottage. She smiled politely and proceeded to describe her plans to renovate and modernize it. I asked her about the iron-frame beds that we’d left behind, hoping she might invite me inside. She laughed, clutching her potato chip bag, “I have never seen so many beds like that in my life. I hope I’ll be able to sell some of those old frames.” I knew at that moment it was time for me to leave, and I also knew this would be the last time my feet touched these steps.

As I get further from the cottage and my summers with Bubbe and Zayde, I continue to struggle with life and its polarities, from the sadness of losing parents to accepting the passage of time. However, I am often warmed by closing my eyes and feeling the presence of Sacandaga Park: the lively conversations, the thick quilts, the icy lake water, the beach, orangeade and the comforting feeling of adoring grandparents.