Monday, June 11, 2012

The Cottage

I usually don't post photos this large but the cottage that my grandfather built deserves a full screen because despite its obviously downtrodden look its story is a delightfully happy one.

Actually when it was full of us, meaning my dad and his two sisters and their families or various combinations thereof, it looked just like this. That would have been the late 50's through mid 70's, and slightly beyond before the families grew and dispersed toward other summer vacations and slowly the cottage as we all called it was no longer needed.

My grandfather called Other Dad by me and the grands that came after hailed from this part of Virginia being born just down the road into a family that has tromped these woods since the mid-1600's. Indians thinned those first Jett's that came from England but nevertheless they grew and thrived and continue on today.

Other Dad wanted family property at the end of the lane on this quiet peninsula where the cottage sits but a cousin sold it to someone else and so he contented himself with three lots facing the Chesapeake Bay. He sold two lots to other ministers, Reverend Loving, a Methodist minister like himself, and Reverend Lewis, an Episcopal priest, to raise money for materials to build the cottage.

My grandfather's great plan for his cottage to last as long as possible was to build at the back of the lot and let erosion nibble away as it would. No one did anything about erosion in those days but put up with it.

One summer the Lewis family who had built their tiny cottage before my grandfather, and not so wisely, found themselves literally teetering on the edge of the choked with undergrowth and tall pines but otherwise sandy, cliff to the beach which was not exceedingly high but high enough, I'd say about ten feet. I thought this most exciting and loved to visit them more than ever that year. They wisely decided to abandon that cottage before the next season and build  a new one farther back on their lot.

Our cottage was built with cinder blocks that my uncle got from some job site and that was pretty much it. The window openings had screens and the heavy creosote shutters that were tied back when we were there and hooked tight on the last day.

The inside was t-shaped with a common living area to the front and two bedrooms on either side, at the top of the t there was a dining area in one direction and fireplace sitting area in the other. Along the back wall was the kitchen, a bath and two bedrooms. The open rafters attic with a drop down ladder finished the 900 square foot design.

We loved our minimalist cottage. One of the first things I did when we arrived from Ohio for the summer was to make a type of dresser out of orange crates Mom got from Barnes Store just up the road. More times than not the septic or toilet, or both, were broken and so we had to pee in the woods mindful of chiggers and once a day all pile into the car for a trip to the gas station in Reedville for other needs.

My cousin Jett and I always shared a room and I can still feel the stifling heat as we struggled to find any breath of air during those muggy, buggy days. No one had a fan, or for that matter a radio, much less an air conditioner or tv.

We were on our own for entertainment. And it was never a problem. Days were spent on the beach after Dad fashioned steps down the embankment by digging holes in the sandy soil. Our beach was totally private save an occasional wanderer from the public beach up the way. We owned that world.

Fallen pines stretched from the hill top to the water or lay flat already eroded down to beach level. Somehow our beach was always fairly clear which suited the moms just fine but to either side were the makings of our pine tree playground.

We were pirates or explorers or sometimes just ourselves. We would try to go up the beach as far as we could in that wilderness by climbing over and under the pines but great patches of blue slippery clay scattered along the way in the sand or water made that more than exciting. None of us liked falling in the smelly stuff.

The tides were very subtle and so playing in the water was always fun unless the sea nettles were around. In that case we would take to our freshly patched black inner tubes that were salvation from those stinging beasts.

The inner tube was bad enough if you forgot to flip it over before getting in and suffered from a hot surface or worse scrapped your back on the valve. We would float from sandbar to sandbar and around those never ending fallen pine trees.

We were in paradise and knew it.

Next time the story of the graveyard and the wasps.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Good Eats

When growing up I had two, no three, favorite breakfasts. Salt Roe Herring with homemade biscuits was one. Another was Red Eye Gravy with biscuits. And the third was Salt Rising Bread with mashed up hard boiled eggs on the side.

None are available any longer. The fish has been fished out. The hams all have too many preservatives or are cured differently than my grandmother's method which produced the gravy of memory as well as ham to be cherished. The bread I could bake but none of the recipes I find have the right ingredients, they all have corn meal. Both my aunt and I do not recall any corn meal flavor in this dense bread. No one in the family can locate a copy of the recipe that was used by my grandmother and mother to bake the bread.

Now lest you think this a maudlin post it is not, it is a thank you to the breakfast gods for some really good eats.

This is the way the Salt Roe Herring breakfast went down. The fish were set to soak in brine months before consumption. They were sold that way. When you were ready to eat them, you soaked your quantity overnight in fresh water to lessen the salty flavor and then fried the fish up fresh while the biscuits were baking. Some folks ate the fish but I found it too salty even after the soaking. But the roe, ah the roe, cooked inside the fish was just right. You would remove the entire row of roe, mash it up with butter and spread it on the warm biscuit. And no, canned roe would not do. Mom tried a few times through the years but canned was a poor substitute.

Red Eye Gravy heated and poured over fresh from the oven biscuits was just as heavenly. Mother Leigh made her gravy by adding just a bit of the ham fat drippings to the red gravy base which was of course what was left after cooking her perfectly cured ham. She discarded most of the fat drippings keeping just enough to mix in with the red juice to produce just the right amount of salty gravy. Since the ham had been cured with a good amount of sugar and black pepper those subtle under flavors mixed with the salt were divine.

And lastly Salt Rising Bread. If you have never eaten Salt Rising Bread you are possibly going to laugh at this writing. The somewhat heavy salty bread was sliced, toasted and then dipped into hot boiling water for the briefest moment to cause it to become soggy but not to the point of falling apart. Yes, wet bread. This dipped bread was scooped onto your waiting plate where you slathered it with butter and dug in. The side dish of warm mashed with a touch of butter hard boiled eggs completed a delicious breakfast.

Add to any of these amazing breakfasts a cup of Mother Leigh's (my name for my grandmother, Branch Leigh Arthur Jett) double drip coffee and you were in breakfast heaven. For the children she would modify the coffee by adding lots of sugar and cream and call it coffee milk.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Santaland Revisited

Restoring my Parisian inspired illustrations to their original state this past week caused me to ponder just how far astray they roamed.

The initial verbal agreement was to create illustrations for an 11x11 children's book. Knowing myself full well and my normal tendency to draw way beyond the border I cut specific paper for this project allowing no room for overflow.

And draw I did, learning how to put legs and antlers on reindeer that looked whimsical yet real. Giving a jolliness to Santa that pleased me and my always helpful but honest judge, Donny. The body of work looked really good.

Back in the states and issues with the author and token support from the editor aside for the purpose of this post, I learned that the book was now reduced by an inch all around. Disheartening but still workable from the aspect of the impact of the illustrations.

Then after negotiating (thanks Holly!) and signing a contract that protected the art satisfactorily, I learned that the book was not a square any longer but a rectangle and smaller still. The drawings done were not meant for a smaller children's book. I would have done completely different illustrations for such a small book. Totally different illustrations. You might be able to reduce drawings for an adult book (which I knew was the real market for this book) and still keep your audience but children demand more to keep their attention.

And so the lesson learned is to include the book size in all illustration contracts, or if the publisher insists that the size be changed in any way, sufficient time be allowed for redraw. Non-negotiable.