By Karen Dill • Guest Writer
July brings warm and often muggy weather to the usually cool mountain glens. It brings hot sultry afternoons with thunderstorms and the smell of snakes in the damp air. July brings the occasional mosquito and, worse, relatives from far-off places who are longing for a cooler (and free) vacation for a week or two.
Although no one that I knew in Bethel had air conditioning in the late 50’s (and wouldn’t for a couple of more decades), our beautiful mountains became the mecca for savvy tourists who discovered that green trees and cool mountain streams provided relief from the hot city streets. It was cheap relief, especially if you had relatives who would willingly put you up without complaint. And though entertainment was limited, the visitors to our mountains seemed to find contentment in our evening rituals.
Most summer evenings were spent sitting in the front yard after supper watching lightning bugs dot first the ground and then the night sky. This marvelous form of entertainment was satisfying for both adults and children. Some families even allowed their children to capture the bugs in Mason jars as an extension of this entertainment. The holes punched in the tops of the metal lids might assure their existence until the wee hours of the next morning.
My mother did not approve of the capturing of the bugs and their ultimate demise. “It just seems mean,” she’d say and I passed on her disapproval of the practice to my own children. Lightning bugs are meant to enjoy in the wild and to remain free, I’d tell my children. They are living creatures, after all and deserved our respect. My daughter carried this noble principle into neighborhood squabbles over the imprisonment of lightening bugs in our own small town of Webster and the catch and release practice became part of the July tradition of growing up in the mountains.
When July rolled around, the summer seemed almost perfect. The days were warm and long; the nights cool and clear. School was out. The summer air permeated with the smells of outdoor cooking, newly mowed grass and sweet honeysuckle is a memory that is forever etched in my mind.
But alas, the bucolic mood did not last for long. For during the week of July 4, the relatives came and tranquility was suspended.
The relatives came from New Jersey. My father’s older brother who had grown up in Bethel had relocated up North after World War II when he married a Northern woman and proceeded to sire two children who were New Jersey northern-bred through and through. It was during these annual visits that I came to understand the origins of the Civil War. Northerners were just different (strange actually) and certainly did not understand our Southern ways.
When Uncle Charlie came for the annual visit, he did not come alone. He brought his two children and his wife, Aunt Margaret. I suspect that Aunt Margaret quickly tired of these visits as her sister-in-laws were as different as night from day from her. Aunt Margaret was a razor-sharp, quick, outspoken businesswoman who had little in common with my sweet, docile aunts. I loved her brazen remarks, but I suspect she was content to stay in New Jersey and work (free of husband and children) for a couple weeks rather than make the pilgrimage south. I missed her.
The cousins, however, were a different story. They were quickly bored with our “hillbilly” ways. My family had neither television nor telephone, so my entertainment consisted of reading books borrowed from the Canton Library.
The cousins laughed at our mountain accents, ridiculed our neighbors who used an outdoor toilet — we called it their “Johnny house” — and were generally disdainful of our food, our outdated clothing, and our lack of any real entertainment. But worse, they thought that lightning bugs should be captured and imprisoned (without trial) in glass jar jails. They just didn’t understand our mountain ways.
And so, while the first weeks of July were spent accompanying the relatives on mountain hikes, picnics, and fishing trips that my Uncle Charlie organized, I was also secretly freeing lightning bugs. By the end of visit, we were all ready for the grand finale — the family reunion cookout. The uncles would gather early on a Saturday afternoon to light charcoal for the grilling. All manners of meat would be cooked over the hot coals — pork roasts, chickens, hamburgers, hot dogs and freshly caught mountain trout or catfish. The aunts would supply endless bowls of potato salad, baked beans, deviled eggs, banana pudding and more vegetables and desserts than I could name.
Conversation would start and stop as it does with families who have the past in common while the present is filled with jobs, children’s activities and friends. The joys of aging are many (wisdom, experience, self-confidence), but few rival the joy of entertaining people that you truly enjoy spending time with in your own backyard. “Family” becomes a redefined term. It not only encompasses the blood relatives but close friends of our own choosing.
At this year’s July 4 cookout, we had both.
Our son, Zach was here for a short visit from his home in St. Petersburg, Fla., and he was in charge of grilling the main dish — pork roast — and making fresh mozzarella cheese. Unlike the relatives of my childhood, Zach grew up here in Webster and respects our rules and our mountain ways. He is also a spectacular cook who understands the chemistry of beer and cheese making and prepares pork with skills that his parents have yet to master.
Zach begins the evening before the cookout. He labors throughout the evening and into the next evening to bring the wonderful smoked pork to our table. I prepare bourbon baked beans, slaw, grilled vegetables, fresh tomatoes with the mozzarella cheese that Zach has prepared and in honor of the 4th of July, a simple sheet cake decorated with fresh fruit. I decide to dub it the “peace cake” after constructing a red and blue peace sign with blueberries and strawberries over white icing on the cake. It does take on a patriotic flair when I place candles that sparkle when lit. These candles (along with the lightening bugs) will be our fireworks.
The meal comes together through a communal effort. Everyone pitches in and shreds the pork under Zach’s careful watch. The vegetables are guarded around the grill by a revolving staff of guests. Everyone carries a dish to the patio as we prepare to dig in and enjoy the meal.
As our family and friends cookout winds down, we grin across the messy meal at each other in a familiar way. With family (both chosen and blood kin), it is acceptable to eat heartily and make a mess without apology. Silence is not uncomfortable and a quiet belch is blessing for the good food shared.
The peace cake is delivered to the patio amid cheers and I light the candles that sparkle like fireworks. It is not a pretty cake, but we make an optimistic toast nevertheless to the prospect of future world peace. For when family and friends can join together for a cookout, chat comfortably around a fire and share in the preparation of good food on an ordinary neighborhood patio, then maybe peace is possible. The seeds of hope seem to flourish in the quiet warmth of a July evening when simple acceptance of family (warts and all) is honored. The mosquitoes as well as annoying relatives have stayed away. Even the lightning bugs (free from the confines of a glass jar) blink their approval.