Personal Histories

Gert and Bess

My elderly great-aunts decided I should serve the cherry pie. The sat expectantly at their seats at the table while I stood and nervously inserted the pie knife as dark red juice bubbled over the golden crust. I think my main objective was to make sure I found the exact center point of the pie so the slices wouldn’t be irregular. Having done so, I made one straight, clean cut from the center to the edge of the dish. Next I sought to complete the first slice, making a second cut away from the center. In my mind I must have been dividing the pie neatly into eighths. Little did I know, I had already screwed up.

A hand came to rest on top of mine. “That’s not an Orr piece,” Bess scolded me as her eyes twinkled. She lifted my hand and the knife it was gripping, bringing them to rest at almost double the angle of my original cut. Now the two of us dragged the blade through the pie until we had completed a slice that equalled almost a quarter of the entire pie, and I lifted it carefully onto Bess’s plate. “Now that’s an Orr piece.”

In my laundry room at home I have a small wooden chest of drawers, not much bigger than a milkbox, with a name stenciled on each of its four drawers: “SPOOL COTTON,” “BEST SIX CORD,” “SOFT FINISH,” and “CRESSY’S.” It is a hand-me-down memento from Grandpa Orr’s general store in Fort Miller, NY. I never knew my great-grandfather, Leslie Nelson Orr, or his wife, Emma Van Benthuysen. But their four daughters loomed like benevolent guardian angels over the early lives of my siblings and me, and also of our cousins, the DeGroots, who are the grandchildren of Frances Orr and Henry DeGroot. My own grandmother, Ruth Orr DuBois, is a chapter unto herself. Ruth and Frances each had two children and lost one young. Gertrude and Bess married late, had no children, and filled up our holidays with smiles and stories—and pie.

I remember plenty of times from the earlier years when their husbands, Harold and Tom, were still alive (especially Harold’s deadpan holiday routine of breaking the news to me that the baker in Fort Edward had run out of his signature finger rolls—only, when I looked as if I’d burst into tears, to reach behind something and produce a bulging, butter-streaked bag of them). And I remember that house in Fort Miller, on the east bank of the Hudson River, next to the Reformed Church where the Rev. Charles Bailey preached for 42 years and, eventually, presided over the Orr sisters’ funerals. When I was young, we gathered elsewhere for the cold-weather holidays, but there were plenty of summer picnics at the Fort Miller homestead, where Gert lived her entire life, and where Bess stayed many nights of her later years even though she maintained an apartment in Schuylerville.

The house itself was ramshackle and irregular, with a maze of connected upstairs bedrooms with creaking doors and crooked floors. There was a back staircase that was so narrow and steep that my mother forbade us to use it (of course we did, when she wasn’t looking). There was a pungent odor to the bathrooms because of the local sulfer water, which we did not drink. There was an old pump organ in the front sitting room. And there was a spacious dining room where the aunts would lay out huge Labor Day picnics on the broad wooden table (I never ate so many deviled eggs). Of the many details of the house I liked, my favorite was the hallway to one side of the front entryway, where rows of cubby holes spoke to the hallway’s earlier incarnartion as the local post office, where Gertrude served as postmistress.

I stopped by to see Gert and Bess on my own a few times as a young man in the early to mid ’80s. Tom and Harold were gone by then, and Bess had moved back from Newark, where she had taught math in public schools for decades. (When she talked about getting her degree from Albany State Teachers College, I realized that her apartment had been right around the corner from my current house.) Catching the sisters away from my own grandmother was interesting, as they could speak a little more freely about Ruth, and of the fallout from the tragedy of losing her only son (my mother’s brother) to a fall in the home. They said nothing unkind about their sister, but I could sense the sibling rivalries—no more so than when I mentioned I had successfully baked a devil’s food cake with vanilla cream icing following my Nana’s beloved recipe. “Ruth isn’t the only one in the family who makes that cake,” one of them snapped almost reflexively. “And I’m pretty sure she wasn’t the first,” the other one added. And of course, the next time I made an announced visit to Fort Miller, there was a fresh devil’s food cake waiting for me.

One gorgeous summer Sunday, I was on assignment to review the Grateful Dead at Saratoga Performing Arts Center; my friend and Dead fan Steve Hunt was tagging along, and our first stop was an early-afternoon soccer game my men’s team was playing somewhere in southwestern Vermont. I had noticed that it would make sense at game’s end to cut across rural Vermont and New York toward Saratoga, and when I saw how much extra time we had, I asked my very easygoing friend if he wouldn’t mind a quick stop to see my great-aunts. “Sure,” he said, and soon Steve and my surprised but always accommodating aunts were regaling each other with stories. Only gradually did I realize that Gert and Bess, while artfully keeping the conversation moving, also were desperately trying to get dinner on. We hadn’t asked to be fed, but in Fort Miller, you got fed whether you asked or not.

Steaks and burgers were found and quickly thawed; a charcoal fire was lit; potatoes were boiled; frozen vegetables were steamed. Steve, recently a vegetarian, respectfully chose not to dampen the unexpected hospitality, and ate with gusto. Then there was pie, because there always was pie. Finally, we pushed our plates back and got ready to go; the sisters seemed genuinely pleased, and assured us both we were welcome to come anytime, expected or not.

I stayed overnight in that house a couple more times in the eighties, probably again using nearby assignments as an excuse. And I certainly didn’t mind staying there and sitting up late with my great-aunts, eating pie, watching Johnny Carson, and listening to their stories. They told me about Grandpa Orr’s store, which sold everything from grocieries to feed to whatever else a farmer might need (I never did find out what “Cressy’s” was, and all Google has to offer is a small brewer’s-grain company in England). I learned how, as girls, they went to Saratoga Springs to shop for clothes and to Troy for dances. They told me how once there were two hotels in their little village, which I found difficult to believe until I stumbled upon both of them in a historical record, and also learned that the time frame of their operation coincided with the construction of the Champlain Canal, which bypassed a non-navigible section of the Hudson near Fort Miller and connected the river to Lake Champlain.

When I arose one morning and came downstairs to the smell of frying bacon, I noticed that the aunts’ radio was tuned to a local conservative call-in show, probably out of Glens Falls. In 1984, Ronald Reagan had won reelection in the last bona fide landslide in US presidential history, beating Walter Mondale by almost 17 million votes. Just coming of age politically, I couldn’t believe that the Reagan administration’s ultra-conservative domestic agenda and anti-democratic foreign policy were accepted by so many people around me who responded favorably to the Gipper’s outward optimism, patriotism, and general good nature. It is an interesting contrast to the dawn of the Trump era, in which the vocal and supportive liberal/progressive opposition feels like a majority. In 1985, it did not feel like most Americans shared my values.

And certainly not up in the rural southern fringes of the North Country, where conservative Republican Gerald Solomon represented the district in Congress, and talk radio was a love fest among the like-minded. The on-air host repeated the number for live call-ins, and as Gert and Bess sat by mortified, I picked up the rotary phone. Going live almost immediately, I nervously challenged some Reagan policy or other, and was promptly dusted into the liberal looney bin by the host. It must have come as a welcome change of pace for the audience, like a hapless mouse suddenly running into a circle of sleepy cats, as the next caller immediately joined in the gleeful swatting of the ill-informed liberal who clearly didn’t appreciate what his country had done for him.

As far as my own hosts were concerned, the only way I could have made it worse was if I had gone on the air and said, “I’m sitting here at breakfast in Fort Miller with my dear aunts Gertrude and Bess, worrying about what Reagan is doing to our country …” They scowled at me after I hung up the phone, and I think one of them might have spoken her displeasure before asking me if I’d like another biscuit and a warm-up of my coffee.

I learned to fight my political battles elsewhere, and enjoy what little time I might have left with my great-aunts. And I really did enjoy just listening to them talk, whether about their father’s store, or his driving, or the things they did growing up (swimming in the Hudson!), or their memories of my father courting my mother. Or the current neighbors, and their small scenes of what remained of small-town life. During my last overnight in the house, Bess, over pie, described how after a recent snowfall, the younger children in town had made an impressively large snowman. Once assembled, he was decorated appropriately: large black charcoals for his eyes, a pipe in his mouth, a long orange carrot for his nose, a hat, and a scarf tied around his neck. The children must have gone to bed mighty pleased with themselves, Gert remarked.

But the teenagers came out later. And of course they had additions and changes, a few of which Bess noted. She then cast a mischievous glance at Gert, who had just finished an “Orr piece.”

“And you’ll never guess,” Gert said, maintaining a perfect poker face as she pushed her plate away, “what they did with that carrot.”

Copyright 2017 Stephen Leon