A white wooden structure intended only as a weekend retreat, the house rests on the banks of the Beaverkill, in the cool blue shadow of the Catskill Mountains. From the porch, through the haze of the wire mesh screen, you can see past the narrow road to the tangled banks of the river and then across the shallow gray water to the brown blur of the far bank. My great-grandfather used to fish in that water, wading all day in his thigh-high boots. I never actually saw him fish, but I think of him that way because of one of his paintings. The painting shows him (disproportionately large because he was not skilled at drawing people) in his black boots; spread out behind him are a lime green manicured lawn, a sturdy entrance arbor blooming with morning glories, and the house: neat, compact, pristine white.
His wife, the great-grandmother I call Aunt Alice, does not appear in the painting. But I have my own picture of her, the picture I see whenever I read one of her letters. I see a small, smiling woman who bakes banana bread and then brings me out into a dewy purple morning to feed peanuts to the burnt orange chipmunks that gather daily on her stoop. One of them nibbles from her hand. Behind us the kitchen glows like melting butter.
I first wrote those paragraphs 20 years ago and I've been thinking about them since starting this blog. Alice was my step-great-grandmother, which could seem three steps too removed except it was not. She remains vivid in my mind and alive in my home in so many ways. Her china--some gold-rimmed, some swirled white--fills my cupboards and gets used every day. The cast iron skillet from her yellow kitchen is, hands down, the best piece of cookware I've ever used. And the sense of place I carry from that small white cottage continues to influence my thoughts on home.
"Use the good china for breakfast."