Monthly Archives: July 2014


Berries ripen in July – whortleberries, huckleberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries – and beg to be picked and made into pies.

"Berries," Carol Crump Bryner, gouache, 2014

“Berries,” Carol Crump Bryner, gouache, 2014

Tuesday, July 16, 1912 – “Very warm – showery nearly all day. Pauline [hired girl] went whortleburing in afternoon. Got nearly two quarts. Very nice ones.” – Lydia Jane Hall

You may, like me, wonder, “what in the world is a whortleberry?” Well, whortleberries are blueberries, but not quite. They are more like a wild bog blueberry, and I have no idea where they would have grown on the farm. Maybe someone can tell me.

My mother and her older sister Lydia were champion berry gatherers.

Wednesday, July 20, 1921 – “Fairly good day – still manage to get in some hay. Agnes went in town – brought Hattie out to go after berries with Lydia. She brought Lydia a small pail for her own, which she thought was fine. She picked it full up. A good little girl for work.” – Lydia Jane Hall

A few years later, my mother, Janet Hall, wearing plaid stockings and a necktie, went berrying with her own bucket.

Janet Hall (on right) with friend and berry pails

Janet Hall (on right) with friend and berry pails

My mother knew the whereabouts of all the best berry patches, and in 1986 she took my daughter and her friend Winifred into the back lots to gather blackberries.

Janet Hall Crump, Mara Bryner, Winifred Guidone with berries, 1986

Janet Hall Crump, Mara Bryner, Winifred Guidone with berries, 1986

That afternoon my mom made one of her perfect berry pies. We ate it with vanilla ice cream just as the fireflies began to flicker and glow in the warm dark Connecticut evening.

"Blackberry/Blueberry Pie," Carol Crump Bryner, pen and ink, 1986

“Blackberry/Blueberry Pie,” Carol Crump Bryner, pen and ink, 1986

On Friday:  August Window

Half-Remembered Rooms

From my sweet mother-in-law I learned that dinner could wait. She taught me by example how to fix the meal ahead of time and leave it on the stove to stay warm while we sat down together in the living room for some drinks and conversation.

On the farm and in my childhood home we ate when dinner was ready. My parents had parties that must have involved alcohol, but before a regular evening meal we never sat down in another room so our mom and dad could have a cocktail or a glass of wine.

Drinking on the farm was reserved for hired men, and my mother and her sister, sleeping in their bed in the room called Siberia, were sometimes woken up on weekend nights by the sounds of the drunken hired man stumbling up the back stairs to his room singing “Barney Google.” My mother had a life-long fear of becoming embarrassingly tipsy and accepted drinks with reluctance.

I have only vague memories of the two rooms at the top of the back stairs. The bedroom on the left we called “Charlie Warren’s room.” He was the hired man of my childhood, and, as far as I know, he neither drank nor sang. It frustrates me that I don’t have a mental image for either his room or the one at the other side of the landing. When I went up the back stairs I was mainly focused on the bookcase in the hallway. The two bedrooms were male territory. The boys and men who slept there over the years were my brother, cousins, uncles, great-grandfather, and the hired men.

Since I’ve found no photographs of this part of the house, I drew a picture of how I remember the upstairs hallway. I imagine this interior looking like a drawing by the artist James Castle, who used sharpened sticks dipped into a mixture of soot and spit to make depictions of his home and family. He drew on whatever surface was handy – an envelope, a piece of cardboard, a scrap of newspaper, the page of a book. His drawings evoke for me not just a rendering of place, but also the feeling of a memory not quite formed – a memory like my own of these half-remembered rooms – a smudgy suggestion of what might have been.

"Upstairs Hallway,"Carol Crump Bryner, pencil and charcoal on flattened cardboard box - after James Castle, 2013

“Upstairs Hallway,”Carol Crump Bryner, pencil and charcoal on flattened cardboard box – after James Castle, 2013

On Wednesday:  Berries

Farm Cats

Most of the farm cats had hard lives. They had full time jobs (catching mice) and not much food. Their diets consisted of mouse meat and cow milk. They lived in the barn and had litters of kittens in an incestuous kind of way. The gene pool of the Whirlwind Hill cats was pretty shallow. At some point, way back when, a cat with extra toes must have made an appearance, because by the time I paid attention, almost all the cats had what we referred to as “double paws.”

We were encouraged not to make pets of them. My sweet grandfather was in charge of “game management,” and must have hated to do what needed to be done to keep the numbers in check.

But my grandmother had a soft spot for cats and managed to find a way to keep a succession of kitties in the house.

"Agnes and her Cats," Carol Crump Bryner, drawing and collage, 1975

“Agnes and her Cats,” Carol Crump Bryner, drawing and collage, 1975

She talks about two of them in letters she wrote to my mother at college.

“Beautiful, the cat, is in my lap. He is gorgeous this fall.”

“I have a funny looking, dirty looking friendly cat from Aunt Annie. I call it Smudge.”

In my generation there was Sally Cat, a motherly calico with double paws. We played with her babies until it was their turn for barn duty. But Sally Cat stayed near the house. She was a smart feline. I found a photo of some of the barn cats. If that calico cat isn’t Sally Cat, it’s at least one of her ancestors.

Barn cat and kittens

Barn cat and kittens

The last cat on the farm was a grey tabby kitten rescued by my grandmother after he was hit by a car. The accident damaged his jaw, and from then on his bottom teeth closed over his top lip, giving him a sinister look. But he was sweet and loving, and he kept my grandmother company for a long time, especially during the two years she lived alone after my grandfather died. Grandma Hall named him Pussy Willow and claimed that he would eat nothing but “Nine Lives Tuna.” She told us to have Pussy Willow put to sleep after her death. She didn’t think the cat could live with anyone but her.

But he survived her by many years. My Uncle Francis and Aunt Glenna took him in and he thrived. Whenever I saw Pussy Willow after my grandmother died I felt that a little bit of her was still there with him. They had given each other so much comfort and companionship. He had a very good life.

Pussy Willow on the lounge

Pussy Willow on the lounge

On Monday:  Half-Remembered Rooms

Ellsworth’s Room

My brother and I had the best possible babysitters – our two sets of grandparents. Sometimes we stayed with our grandparents who lived in town, but more often we would stay at the farm. Our parents dropped us off before dinner on Friday evening, and we stayed until Sunday.

When I was eight and my brother almost four, our parents went to Florida for a week. My brother stayed at the farm, but I went to our town grandparents because they lived closer to my school. They did their best, but I was unhappy. I missed my mom and dad, and because I’d been reading a book about an orphan, I was convinced they were dead and never coming back. I cried every day. I cried at breakfast, I cried in school when I tried to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and I cried at night in the little bed in my father’s old bedroom. Because I was afraid to tell them what was wrong, my bewildered grandparents took me to the farm at the end of the week to be with my brother. There, soothed by the familiarity of the place and by my Grandma Hall’s ample lap, I told her my fears. After reassuring me that my mother and father were coming back, she fed me dinner and sent me upstairs to bed in Ellsworth’s room.

This small bedroom at the top of the front staircase had been my grandfather’s bedroom when he was growing up. The bed was in an alcove and sported an enormous number of blankets – I once counted ten. When I snuggled under them to read my comic books, I was pleasantly stuck in one position by the weight of the covers. The pillows were soft, and there was a light over the bed that I turned on and off by pulling a long string. I don’t think I’ve ever again slept in such a comfortable and comforting bed.

But the two attic doors at the opposite end of the room were not comforting. There were rat holes in both doors, and I was scared that the rats themselves would come out while I slept. It was a legitimate worry, but minor compared to the fear of losing parents.

"Attic Doors with Rat Holes," Carol Crump Bryner, 2013

“Attic Doors with Rat Holes,” Carol Crump Bryner, 2013

It’s hard to tell what children are thinking. When my daughter and son-in-law spent the night at the hospital after the birth of their second son, I stayed at their home with my four-year-old grandson. We read books, took a walk, went out to eat Chinese food, brushed our teeth, and put on our pajamas. But as we were climbing onto his bed to read stories, he began to sob so hard that it caused a “spill” (his word for throwing up) of the wontons and the soy sauce all over the bed covers.

While my lap is nowhere near as ample as my grandmother’s was, I try to be a reassuring presence for my grandsons. So after the cleaning-up, and the drying of the tears, and the calming-down, I asked my grandson if he wanted to sleep with me in the big bed. He did, so we went upstairs, tucked ourselves in, and watched a cheerful cooking show about making cupcakes. He was fast asleep before the cupcakes came out of the oven.

Carol with Aubrey and Henry, 2011

Carol with Aubrey and Henry, 2011

On Wednesday:  Farm Cats

Watermelon Pickles

A cold watermelon on a hot summer day is a glorious treat, especially when eaten outside where seed spitting is allowed.

Francis and Janet Hall eating watermelon, 1921

Francis and Janet Hall eating watermelon, 1921

Whoever invented watermelon pickles must have had the bright idea to preserve the memory of this sweet, watery, cold, pink, and green fruit for a dark winter day.

My uncle Francis loved these pickles, so my grandmother kept jars of them in the basement and put the sweet sticky blobs in a glass dish to go along with the big Sunday dinner. But watermelon pickles are a disappointment. They don’t look like watermelon because they’re actually watermelon RIND pickles. And during the pickling process they become translucent and kind of slimy. I think someone should figure out a way to make watermelon pickles so they look like the ones my grandson and I painted on a recent July afternoon.

"Watermelon Pickles," Carol and Henry, 2014

“Watermelon Pickles,” Carol and Henry, 2014

On Monday:  Ellsworth’s Room

The Creamery

The creamery was a refreshing oasis on hot summer days at the farm. Until the late 1960’s, when milk cans gave way to bulk storage, milk from the cows was poured into metal cans and stored in the creamery tank.

You may be picturing a sterile-looking refrigerated room when you think of “creamery.” This was not the case on my grandparents’ farm. The milk cans were carried out the back door of the barn to a wooden shed built over a spring. Entrance to the building was through a tall sliding door. On the right side of the room stood a long cement tank filled with cold, cold spring water. My uncle or my grandfather immersed the cans in the water and, using pulleys and counterweights, lowered a heavy lid onto the top. Even with the tank covered, the air inside the creamery stayed deliciously cool and made for a peaceful respite from the heat of the midday sun.

"The Creamery in 1972," Carol Crump Bryner, pen and ink, 2013

“The Creamery in 1972,” Carol Crump Bryner, pen and ink, 2013

On Friday:  Watermelon Pickles


In 1888, my grandmother, Agnes Maud Biggs, came to America from England with her parents, Joseph Biggs and Maud Pawsey Biggs. She was six months old. A photo of her taken before they sailed shows an eager and well-dressed little baby perched on a fur rug.

Agnes Maud Biggs, six months old

Agnes Maud Biggs, six months old

The Biggs family settled in Glastonbury, Connecticut along with other Pawsey relatives. My great-grandfather got work in a woolen mill. On the back of a photograph of the mill building my grandmother wrote, “This is the factory where Joseph Biggs spent all his working days in America.”

Agnes was always a good student. In one of her report cards from 1900 she ranked first in her class. She went to nursing school in New Haven, Connecticut and graduated with honors. Her specialty was maternity, and I’m fairly certain she met my grandfather when she was nurse to one of his newborn nephews. When Ellsworth Hall and Agnes Biggs married in December 1913, she gave up her nursing career and her life in Glastonbury, and went to live at the farm on Whirlwind Hill.

Agnes Biggs, (right) in the maternity ward, New Haven Hospital, 1910

Agnes Biggs, (right) in the maternity ward, New Haven Hospital, 1910

According to my great-grandmother’s journals, Agnes was up to the challenge of living in a large house with her in-laws. She entered into marriage, not only to my grandfather, but also to his aging parents, a large house, and a busy farm. During her courtship she was referred to in the journals as Miss Biggs. “Miss Biggs has gone back to her home in Glastonbury. We like her more and more each time she visits.”

Agnes and Ellsworth had three children by 1918. Nine years later, when she was forty years old, my grandmother gave birth to twin boys in the downstairs bedroom of the farmhouse. My mother, who was nine at the time, described the event like this. “I didn’t even know she was going to have a baby. And suddenly there were two little babies, and my mother hadn’t made a peep.”

Agnes with the twins, Luther and Aaron, 1927

Agnes with the twins, Luther and Aaron, 1927

How tired my grandmother must have been all the time. She rarely had a minute to herself. She was responsible for keeping the whole show together. She was the nurse, the mother, the grandmother, the daughter, the bookkeeper, the chauffeur, the cook, the veterinarian, the letter writer, the stockbroker, and the babysitter. And she was the go-to person in any emergency.

She treated sick cows, put gentian violet on their wounds, gave my uncle emergency shots when he got stung by bees, rocked new-born grandbabies, herded cows, and lifted my two year old brother up by his heels one day to dislodge a wayward cough drop from his throat. When something went wrong, we called Grandma Hall, and she answered on the big black telephone in the dining room. She embraced new technology, and would, I’m sure, have bought herself an ipad if they’d been invented during her lifetime.

That my grandmother was smart I have no doubt. She was the adult I went to for help with math homework. She called a zero a “cipher.” She kept the farm records, did the driving, and the planning of the meals and activities for her children. When she became a grandmother she often took care of as many as seven grandchildren at one time.

It’s nearly impossible to describe my grandmother Agnes in a few paragraphs. Families are often strengthened by the addition of outsiders, and my grandmother brought new life to the two-hundred-year-old farm. Along with her dark brown eyes, her magnificent hair, and her sturdy body, she brought a desire to educate her children and grandchildren and send them out into the world. My grandmother and I were close. I loved her with a fierce attachment, and I miss her every day.

Agnes Maud Biggs Hall

Agnes Maud Biggs Hall

On Wednesday:  The Creamery


When a cousin visited me recently, we talked about the gardens on the farm. Most of the large crops of hay, corn, alfalfa, oats, barley, etc. were planted in fields away from the house. But near the house my grandparents grew all kinds of shrubs, flowers and vegetables.

My mother and her brothers and sister started their interest in gardens when they were very young. In this photo of them from Children’s Sunday, 1921, they hold tiny potted plants received that morning at church. All the Hall children went on to have “green thumbs.” My Aunt Lydia studied animal and plant life and raised orchids, Uncle Francis worked his whole life on the farm, Uncle Aaron tended a beautiful yard and garden, and my mother made striking bouquets from her flowers and then did paintings of them.

Francis, Lydia, Ellsworth, and Janet Hall, 1021

Francis, Lydia, Ellsworth, and Janet Hall, 1021

The visiting cousin, Skip, spent many years working on the farm and for our Uncle Francis and my grandparents.  Skip never understood how anything could grow in the vegetable garden behind the farmhouse – it was so very full of rocks. I pulled up carrots from that garden and wiped them “clean” on my pants before taking a gritty bite. They tasted of sunshine and earth, and I don’t think there is any better way to eat a carrot.

"Garden Carrot," Carol Crump Bryner, watercolor, 2014

“Garden Carrot,” Carol Crump Bryner, watercolor, 2014

At the foot of the hill leading to my Aunt Glenna and Uncle Francis’s house my grandmother grew flowers, and around the front of the house and across the street near the barnyard fence my grandfather planted hollyhocks. When they bloomed in the heat of summer he brought single hollyhock blossoms into the kitchen for my grandmother. They looked like dancing girls in brightly colored skirts balanced on the tips of his fingers.

Iris, hostas, peonies, and phlox are what I picture when I remember my grandmother’s gardens. Maybe that’s because the plants lived on for many years after she died. In 1986, sixteen years after her death, my grandmother’s flowers were plentiful enough for a bouquet. During a summer visit that year, my mother and my daughter picked an armful of phlox and hostas to put into a pewter pitcher for the dining room table. Most people grow hostas for their foliage, but I’ve always loved the pale lavender-colored blossoms because they remind me of Julys on Whirlwind Hill.

Mara Bryner and Janet Hall Crump picking flowers, 1986

Mara Bryner and Janet Hall Crump picking flowers, 1986

On Monday:  Agnes

The Back Staircase

My mother didn’t like me to read too much, especially when there were more active things to do. With a shake of her head she’d say to me, “Carol, you’ve always got your nose in a book!”

I loved having my nose in a book – especially books about Nancy Drew. She solved mysteries, and I was fascinated by mysteries. Again and again I read the books in which Nancy Drew discovered secret rooms or passageways.

Cover of "The Hidden Staircase" by Carolyn Keene

Cover of “The Hidden Staircase” by Carolyn Keene

My grandparents’ farmhouse reminded me of houses from these books. It had endless doors, strangely shaped closets, and stairways that we were not always allowed to use. The main staircase, just beyond the front door, was wide and light and had a beautiful banister and landings at the top and bottom.

But the back staircase – behind a door in the living room, was different. The closed door made it seem almost like a hidden passageway, and I was sure there must be a secret panel somewhere in its dark walls. We were discouraged from using this stairway because the painted wood steps were steep, narrow, and slippery. A knotted length of rough and scratchy rope served as the only handrail. My grandmother grew nervous when we wanted to go up “the back way,” and now that I have grandchildren of my own I can understand her fears.

To discourage their use, the door at the bottom of these stairs was kept shut, and when I got permission to climb them I had to go up two steps in order to reach the latch that opened the door toward me. This pushed me back down a step before I could get over the threshold and begin my ascent. The staircase led to three of the five upstairs bedrooms, the landing, and a bookshelf-lined hallway. On the shelves were storybooks, comic books, atlases, and nursing textbooks illustrated with drawings and photos of horrific and fascinating wounds and diseases. (My grandmother was a nurse before she was a farm wife.) My brother claims there were Playboy magazines hidden there too, but I never saw them.

I wanted to climb the back stairs for two reasons. The first was to find a hidden panel. (I never found it.) And the second was to sit on the floor in the silence of the dimly lit and almost hidden hallway and spend the afternoon with my nose in a book.

"Door to Back Bedroom and Door to Stairs," Carol Crump Bryner, colored pencil, 2012

“Door to Back Bedroom and Door to Stairs,” Carol Crump Bryner, colored pencil, 2012

On Wednesday:  Gardens

Independence Day

On July 4th, 1776, one of my ancestors added his signature to the Declaration of Independence. Lyman Hall, a grandson of John the Immigrant (I wrote about him here) was born in Wallingford, Connecticut, but as an adult he moved to Georgia and became a Congressman. Celebrating Independence Day took on more meaning for me because someone in my family had played a part in its making.

For the past few years we’ve celebrated the Fourth of July in Portland, Oregon at our daughter’s house, where her very careful husband sets off a modest, but still impressive, display of fireworks at the end of the driveway, followed by sparkler waving in the wet grass of the back yard.

When I was growing up we had picnics at the farm. Mostly I remember quiet feasts outside in the yard.

Farm Picnic, 1948

Farm Picnic, 1948

But one year in the 1950’s, someone in the family brought to the farm a car load of fireworks. After the day’s celebrations, when dusk turned the night sky a deep blue, we rode in cars and pickup trucks down the lane toward the cow pond and up the hill to the field with the lone tree. On blankets spread over the stubble of mown hay we waited for the men to start the show. One minute we were sitting in the dark, and the next the sky lit up with one burst after another. Under the “rockets’ red glare” we shared together a magical evening marking the birthdate of our country.

Happy Birthday America!

"The Rockets' Red Glare," Carol Crump Bryner, 2014

“The Rockets’ Red Glare,” Carol Crump Bryner, 2014

On Monday:  The Back Staircase