Essays of a Camden native

To grandmother's house we go

By Paul Putnam | Nov 22, 2012

Some of my earliest memories are of Thanksgiving in the mid 1930s with my grandparents down at the Keag (pronounced “Gig”). We lived in Camden on Mechanic Street near the Knox Mill where Dad worked as a weaver, but on Thanksgiving all the family who were able went down to the Keag for a family gathering. Our mother died shortly after my younger brother was born; he was adopted by the Jackson side of the family, and I was adopted by the Putnam side. The older siblings were cared for by the family, but not adopted.

We would go early in the day, I suppose, to help with getting the meal together. I have often said that in my family, my mother cooked, but Dad was the cook, but at Grandma’s house, Grandma was the cook, and I don’t know if mother was that much help, and I’m pretty sure my sisters were no help at all. My folks did their cooking ahead of time and brought it with them, probably pies and pastries and perhaps some fresh cranberry sauce.

They always brought food, and looking back I realize my Dad was the only one working in those days during the depression. They would be sure to bring things that had to be bought from the store, but my grandfather, GaGa, kept a small flock of chickens and usually had a cow, and sold eggs and milk around the neighborhood. He often had a calf he was raising for beef. Much of that sort of things came from the family farm on Buttermilk Lane where he still had a third interest.

Even though it was in the depths of the depression in the mid 1930s, food was usually not in short supply. In rural areas like the Keag many still lived pretty close to the land. Even in Camden my folks always had a large kitchen garden, as did many others. I often took the surplus cucumbers from Dad’s garden and sold them around the neighborhood, two for a nickel.

One thing I always found interesting was watching GaGa shave. It seemed to me that the only time he shaved was on such special occasions, although I’m sure that’s not true, but shaving was an interesting ritual. He had two leather straps hanging behind the kitchen door, and he would go there first and spend some time “stropping” his straight razor until he was satisfied it was truly sharp, first on the coarse leather and then on the finer one. By that time the teakettle on the kitchen stove would be puffing steam from water at a rolling boil. This would be poured into an agateware pan. Then he would get out his little bowl of shaving soap and brush and work up a good lather which he applied to his face with the brush, utilizing a mirror on the inside of the cupboard door by the kitchen sink. Then came the interesting part as he worked around the folds and wrinkles of a 65-year-old face with that ultra sharp straight razor without drawing blood. I still have that razor.

Then he and my Dad would go off together, maybe out to the workshop in the barn, or in the garage while GaGa showed Dad his latest project. That garage was built for the Ford Roadster Dad had when he was in high school, but GaGa didn’t drive, so when Dad left home, the garage became GaGa’s workshop. Maybe he got Dad to help moving something heavy or whatever men do, all the while hashing over the latest politics, and pronouncements from President Roosevelt, or a news report from Walter Winchell. The news was always a major topic.

I don’t remember that we ever had turkey. Between GaGa’s chickens, and Aunt Jennie’s out at the farm, there were always plenty of chickens to be culled, so we had chicken, roasted and stuffed, along with all the abundance of a farm garden for vegetables with fresh homemade butter and cream, and farm kitchens for bread, pastries and puddings.

We all ate ‘til we all were as stuffed as the chicken had been; then Grandma brought out the desserts. Usually at least apple pie, pumpkin pie and mincemeat pie made with real venison. I think that was usually our contribution. Mother’s brother, Uncle Orrin Eaton usually shot a deer every year down on Deer Isle and would give us some homemade mincemeat. Grandma often made gingerbread and all were served with generous quantities of whipped cream made from fresh, unpasteurized cream.

We would all groan about how full we were; then proceed to eat so much of everything that we were liberally in pain. For an hour or so we would all find a place to just suffer in silence, with maybe a few trips to the little room out in the barn where they kept all the old newspapers and Sears & Roebuck catalogs, to try to find some relief.

Pretty soon us kids would come to life enough to go out and run off some pent-up energy with the neighborhood kids, like Elsie Norton or Marguerite Wiggins. After a couple hours of running around the neighborhood we would return to the house to find the dining room and kitchen all miraculously restored to order and would begin lobbying for a second round of desserts, which we got, along with more whipped cream. We didn’t know we were poor and there was a depression on.

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