INN KITCHEN COMFORTS

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More than 40 followers of my blog took a readers’ poll that I recently issued.  Although the responses indicate a diversity of interests, the message was clear: you want to read more tales about the Combes Family Inn, and you want me to throw in a bit about my travels, past and present. And, you want me to move past my “dry year” and associated diet and exercise journaling. Accordingly, I’ve put the innkeepers on notice that they need to dust off more of their apocryphal stories.

Blog Reader Poll Results

(The top vote-getters from the reader’s poll were Vermont Inn-Trigue, Travels, and My Memoir.)

While we await a few more “Vermont Inn-trigue” inn-keeping stories, I’ll share several of Mom’s famous comfort food recipes that she recently made for a dining room full of skiers. The menu included three of her most beloved winter recipes: broccoli soup, pork schnitzel, and homemade apple sauce.

Perched on the precipice of spring, we’re alternating between days of snow melt, mud, and rain, and nights (and some days) of freezing temperatures, ice, and snow flurries. This is a great time of year to enjoy comfort foods, in winter’s last hurrah before spring fully arrives, bearing both warm weather and fresh fruits and vegetables.

For the first course, what else but Ruth’s famous broccoli soup, a dish that has been on the menu since the inn opened in 1978? This treat, coveted by both family members and long-time guests alike, has transformed through the years.  The original recipe featured cream, butter, and chicken stock, and had relatively little actual broccoli.  The new one, as you’ll see below, is decidedly different, but it still tastes absolutely delicious.

Mom Dad soup

(Vermont inn keepers Bill and Ruth Combes are still dishing it out in the inn’s kitchen after 37 years.)

CFI’s Original Cream of Broccoli Soup

Ingredients:
2 tablespoons butter
1 medium onion, chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
3 cups of vegetable or chicken stock
8 cups of broccoli florets

3 tablespoon butter
3 tablespoon of flour
2 cups of heavy cream
pinch of ground pepper

Method:
Melt 2 tablespoon of butter. Sauté celery and onions until tender. Add broccoli and broth. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes.  Puree, using an immersion blender or a regular blender. In a small sauce pan, melt 3 tablespoons of butter, and stir in flour and cream.  Stir until thick and add to the soup. Season with pepper and serve.

My mom explains the transformation of her broccoli soup this way: “About 10 years ago, I switched to my current recipe, because our guests were looking for healthier food and, frankly, so was I. My current recipe is all broccoli, basil and garlic, with a little olive oil. I actually got this recipe from Joe, the inn’s refrigerator repairman, who happens to have a large garden. Many of his recipes feature garlic, because he grows a lot of it; this recipe is no exception. My only modification from Joe’s original recipe is that I typically use only olive oil, whereas Joe preferred butter.”

Broccoli soup has always been Mom’s signature soup. Now, it’s just healthier and more flavorful. This is Joe’s recipe, which, as Mom notes, freezes very well.

Joe’s Basil and Broccoli Soup

Ingredients:
5 cups coarsely chopped broccoli
2 cups chicken stock
3 tablespoons of olive oil (Joe suggests a combination of butter and olive oil)
¼ cup fresh chopped basil (when fresh basil is unavailable, tubed basil paste works just fine)
3 cloves garlic, chopped
Salt & pepper
Lemon juice

Method:
In a saucepan, bring broccoli and stock to a boil. Lower heat and simmer until broccoli is tender, about 45 minutes to an hour. Purée broccoli and stock with an immersion blender, food processor or blender, until smooth. Heat oil and/or melted butter in small saucepan and sauté garlic and basil briefly, until garlic turns brownish. Blend with about 2 cups of purée and process until smooth. Stir into soup. Season with salt, pepper and a squeeze of lemon. To serve, sprinkle with Parmesan cheese or a dollop of sour cream.

Broccoli soup

(The leaner, meaner version of Ruth’s broccoli soup, served with a dollop of Cabot sour cream.)

The entrée course featured pork schnitzel, simple noodles, and homemade apple sauce. Unlike the broccoli soup, Mom never made schnitzel when I was growing up in the inn, so I asked her to tell the story behind this recipe.

“We went to Germany in the early ‘90’s to visit [our son] Wayne, who was stationed there in the Air Force,” Mom said. “When we got back home, your father said we could write off the whole trip on our taxes, because we had brought back this schnitzel recipe, which we’ve been making ever since.”

She also explained that, in addition to being absolutely delicious, this is a very cost-effective, high-protein main dish. My father buys the pork in very large loins when it’s on sale and then slices it into several thin cutlets, which can be used immediately or frozen. The recipe below has its roots in the dinners my parents enjoyed in Germany while on vacation and is a modification of the pork schnitzel in a German cookbook purchased on that trip, combined with the method Mom uses to make her famous “Frenchie’s Chicken.”

Dinner is served

(The main course of pork schnitzel with homemade apple sauce, simple pasta, and green beans about to be served.)

Pork Schnitzel

Ingredients:
4 pork loin cutlets – either boneless pork chops or slices from whole pork loin, about 1/4 in. thick
¼ cup flour
½ cup panko bread crumbs
1 egg beaten with a couple tablespoons of milk
¼ cup butter
¼ cup vegetable oil

Method:
Pound pork loin between sheets of plastic wrap until 1/8 inch thick. Melt butter and shortening in frying pan. Put the above flour, panko and beaten egg each on individual plates. Dip both sides of pork cutlets in the flour, the egg, and the crumbs, in that order. Fry in pan until golden brown on each side about 2-3 minutes per side.  Keep in slightly warm oven until ready to serve. Or keep cold and put in 400 degree oven for 5 minutes or so before serving. Serve with apple sauce.

When asked about the secret to the recipe, Mom dished out three: “Cut and pound the pork as thin as you can. You have to use panko and not regular bread crumbs. And, it’s the homemade apple sauce that absolutely makes the recipe.  Also, the secrets to my apple sauce are: apple cider, extra cinnamon, and using a food mill, to crank through the apples. Oh, and there’s another secret to the apple sauce:  I use the whole apple with the stems and everything.”

Mom for apple sauce

(Inn keeper Ruth Combers shares some or her cooking secrets, including a German cookbook purchased on a trip to Germany and her trusty hand-operated food mill.)

Ruth’s Home Made Apple Sauce

Ingredients:
5 lbs. of regular McIntosh apples
1/4 cup water, apple cider, or apple juice
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon

Method:
Slice apples. Do not peel or remove cores. Put apples and liquid in large covered pot and cook over medium flame for about 1/2 hr. or until apples are tender. Put apple mixture through a food mill. (“This is a great kitchen gadget, especially for pureeing soups and vegetables,” says Innkeeper Ruth.) Add lemon juice, brown sugar and cinnamon. Apple sauce can be frozen.

Needless to say, dinner was absolutely delicious. That’s all…for now. Tune in next week to find out how Innkeeper Bill fared after two, individual, day-long bread-baking classes at the famous King Arthur Flour’s Baking Education Center, up in Norwich, Vermont.

Breakfast with the Vermudgeon (cont.)

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Above: If you see this man in the Combes Family Inn’s kitchen, enter at your own risk!

Last month, I caught my father in such a rare moment of weakness that I not only managed to get a number of great photos of him cooking breakfast, but I also learned several of his breakfast tips and secret recipes. I weaved all of that great material into a blog post that closed with a promise to later explain why I call him “the Vermudgeon.” Now, a month later, let me fulfill that promise.

Facebook guest comment

Above: A classic response from “a guest” to the original “Breakfast with the Vermudgeon” blog post.

In response to the original blog post, one loyal guest commented on the inn’s Facebook page with these simple words: “We all know why he’s called the Vermudgeon – a guest.”

For those of you not familiar with the inn, here’s the deal.

I coined the phrase “Vermudgeon” shortly after I moved back to Vermont in 2007, after more than a 20 year absence. At the time, my husband Bruce and I were staying at the inn for four months, while our house nearby was in the final stages of construction. During that time, we both got a close-up view of my parents’ lives as Vermont innkeepers. I can’t say whether my dad’s humor has gotten more dry and his general demeanor more cantankerous over the years or whether I just didn’t pay that much attention when I was growing up at the inn.  But I can say that some of his comments to guests, especially when they venture into “his kitchen” during breakfast service, are bona fide sit-com material.

As you probably guessed by now, “Vermudgeon” is merely a mash-up of the two words “Vermont” and “curmudgeon.” Vermont has more than its fair share of curmudgeons – I’ll bet they have the most per capita – and, I have referred to several of them as “Vermudgeons” these last several years. My dad earned his stripes with comments like, “You’re in my kitchen,” to a guest who wandered in looking for more half and half for her coffee, not to mention the countless times he’s declared the grill retired for the day on the dot at 9 a.m. in the winter and at 9:30 a.m. in other seasons.

Mom insists that not much has changed since I left home at 18, as far as my dad is concerned. “He’s always had a dry – even acerbic – sense of humor,” she explained. Rather than providing me her own examples to illustrate her point, she encouraged me to call one of her employees to get a few classics. When I say “encouraged” what I really mean is that she dialed the woman’s number and handed me the phone when she answered.

Here are the three short stories she told me.

There was a large ski group staying at the inn that included several teenagers. My mother had set all of the tables in the dining room with a large table in the middle and a bunch of smaller tables for the teens along the periphery. When it came time for dinner, all the kids came in first and immediately sat at the big table, leaving the adults to scurry around to sit in small groups at the other tables. Evidently one of the adults wanted to sit with a specific group but there weren’t enough chairs at that table. He popped his head into the kitchen and asked my dad where he could find a chair. Deadpan, Dad replied, “There’s plenty of room on the front porch.”

In addition to not liking to be disturbed when he’s busy in the kitchen, Dad is also infamous for not wanting to answer the phone. When I call and he answers, I don’t even ask for my mother, because it’s obvious she’s not home. As you might imagine, his phone manner is also Vermudgeonly.

One guy called to book the walking tour from inn to inn of which my parents are founding members. The gentleman was confused about whether or not he could bring his car to the inn, if he and his wife were to be walking.  My dad’s response, “Oh, you can certainly feel free to bring your car and we’ll just sell it on eBay.”

Strangely, that guy didn’t make a reservation. Then there’s this other guy who called for a room and took a bit too much time to debate whether he would book it B&B or the Modern American Plan, which includes dinner. He seemed concerned about the quality of the food and asked my father, “Do you eat there?”

Dad’s reply: “Not if I can help it.”

LET THEM EAT CAKE (AGAIN)

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A few weeks ago, we were visiting some of my husband’s family in Maine. For brunch, my sister-in-law made an amazing lobster eggs Benedict. She had made way too much hollandaise sauce than we needed and mused out loud about what could be done with it. I immediately suggested that we call my mother and reached for the phone.

Why call her? You might ask. Because, after serving to dinner guests for over 35 years, my mom knows her way around the kitchen and has many useful tips for saving and re-purposing leftovers. If there’s anyone who knows if hollandaise sauce can be frozen and re-served or repurposed in some other way, it’s my mom. And, the answer? “Hollandaise freezes very well. When you heat it on the stove, stir constantly and add a bit of lemon juice and warm water to help re-constitute it,” Mom advised my sister-in-law.

Lobster Eggs Bennedict

In last week’s blog post, I alluded to two of mom’s other secrets:  which cheeses freeze well and what to do with leftover cake.  As promised, here are all the details, as well as my mom’s recipes to make the most of them.

Just like you might not expect that hollandaise sauce can be successfully frozen and reused, many people shy away from freezing cheese. It is true that the texture changes when you bring it back up to room temperature. For that reason, my mom exclusively uses leftover and frozen cheeses to make her legendary macaroni and cheese recipe. A favorite of kids and adult guests alike, mom is continually asked for this recipe. However, it is truly never the same dish twice! The only type of cheese that my mother won’t freeze is fresh goat cheese. As for the others, she reckons that she’s frozen them all: American, Swiss, Cheddar, and even Brie.

Macaroni & Cheese

Ingredients:
7 ounces elbow macaroni (about 2 cups uncooked)
3 tablespoon butter
3 tablespoon flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
dash pepper
2 cups milk
2 cups shredded cheddar, American or both (or whatever other types of cheese you froze!)
1/4 cup bread crumbs
1 tablespoon melted butter

Method:
Cook macaroni, following directions on package. Rinse in cold water and drain. Melt butter in saucepan, blend in flour, salt, and pepper. Add milk, cook on stovetop, stirring frequently until mixture is thick. Combine 1/2 of cheese mixture and macaroni. Then fold in remaining shredded cheese. Pour into a greased 2-quart casserole dish. Sprinkle the top with crumbs and melted butter. Bake 350 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes, until bubbly and lightly browned on top.

Saving leftover cake to make the dessert called “trifle” is another one of my mom’s guilty secrets.  You can save pretty much any cake and freeze it. Once, she even drove over to another inn to take home the leftovers of an entire wedding cake, when she heard the bride wasn’t keeping it.

According to my mom, “The key is to remove all of the frosting. I think vanilla cake makes the best trifle, but I’ve also done it with chocolate and other flavors.” After removing the frosting, just freeze the chunks or slices or whole pieces of cake in gallon sized freezer bags. You can keep it this way for up to one year.

The recipe for my mom’s cake trifle has never been written down before. That makes this the world premiere of the written record for this most excellent dessert.

Ruth’s Leftover Cake Trifle

Ingredients:
1 pound leftover cake
1 cup fruit-based liquor (mom suggests this cassis from the Putney Mountain Winery)
1 cup jam (mom uses her homemade peach or strawberry jam)
1 package vanilla pudding mix
2 cups fresh berries
Fresh whipped cream

Method:
The day you plan to make the trifle, take the bags of frozen cake pieces out of the freezer and let them come to room temperature. Be sure to wash your hands well and use them to break the cake into approximately one inch cubes and set aside in a large bowl.

Use a large square or rectangular cake pan to assemble two layers of the dessert. Cover the bottom of the pan with cake pieces (only using half of the cake). Add half of the liquor. A fruit-based liquor like cassis, which is made from blackberries, is what mother usually uses. Then layer in the jam. Mix up a package of instant vanilla pudding with one cup of milk or half-and-half, making a custard. Put half over the layer of jam. Repeat all steps so that you have two layers, substituting the fresh fruit on the top, instead of jam. Use whatever fresh berries are in season. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Just before serving, top each serving with freshly made whip cream (1 cup of heavy cream whipped with a table spoon of powdered confectioner’s sugar and a teaspoon of vanilla). If you don’t use up all of the whipped cream, remember that it also freezes very well!

Although it doesn’t involve previously frozen ingredients, another of Mom’s extremely popular time-saving dessert recipes is her “paper bag apple pie.” She’s been making this for over 25 years. During my interview with Mom this morning, I was so captivated by this recipe, that I goaded her into making it with me today during half-time of the Patriot’s game. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the prep time for this delicious rendition of apple pie is less than 10 minutes.

Paper Bag Apple Pie

Ingredients:
4-5 apples, cored, peeled, and sliced
1 pie shell
1 cup sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon cinnamon
5 tablespoon flour
3 tablespoon water, apple cider, or apple juice

Topping:
½ cup brown sugar
½ quick oats
1 stick of margarine or butter
¼ cup chopped nuts (optional)

Method:
Place apples in pie shell. Sprinkle with remaining ingredients. Combine topping ingredients to make a crumbly mixture. Spread on top of apples in pie. Place shell with all ingredients in large brown paper bag. Use either paper clips or stapler to bind airtight. Bake 1 hour at 375°. Serve with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream. Serves 8-10.

Mom making bag apple pie

  Into the bagSeal the bagFinished pie

You can find several of the inn’s other recipes on their website here. If you have any questions about these recipes or the inn’s other kitchen secrets or cooking tips, please post them as comments and we promise to get back to you.

Dinner Is Served

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Six weeks ago, I added a new thread to my blog to give voice to the rich lore resulting from my parents’ 36 years as Vermont innkeepers. There’s only 62 weeks until their expected retirement, so it’s time to get cracking on documenting these stories.

First, I want to explain my process. I rely on a combination of my own memories growing up in the inn and recollections of my mother’s re-telling of events to come up with the subject for each post. Then, I interview my parents, usually over dinner, to fact check my memory, gain more context, and add dimension to each story. At last Sunday’s dinner, a few questions about serving dinner at the inn yielded so much material that this post only includes stories from the first year.

CFI Menu Cards and Ads

(Above: Saved menu notes and weekly newspaper ads from the inn’s first year of serving dinner to the general public.)

In a previous post, I explained that my parents started renovating the property that became the Combes Family Inn in March 1978 and we hosted our first inn guests that August. After working out some kinks in the rooms business and making additional renovations, the three innkeepers were finally ready to serve dinner to guests by October. In the inn-keeping world, it is much more prestigious to serve dinner, in addition to offering bed and breakfast (“B&B”). As my mom explained: “Before moving to Vermont to become an innkeeper with us, your Aunt Nancy had taken a commercial cooking class on Long Island, so we thought we were hot shit.”

The very first dinner guest of the Combes Family Inn was a gentleman in his 80’s who booked a week by himself during the October foliage season. The first night of his stay, Aunt Nancy decided to make a recipe from her cooking class, Beef Rouladen in Burgundy Sauce.  “It came out so rich,” my mom recalls, “we thought we had killed him.”

Beef Rolade

(Above: My Aunt Nancy’s Professional Chef Cook Book, open to the page with the recipe she and my mother served their first dinner guest.)

The following month, the inn-keepers were getting ready to start preparations for Thanksgiving dinner and discovered that they had run out of propane and couldn’t light the stove. My dad frantically tracked down the guy at the local gas company. Unfortunately, after listening to my dad’s sob story about needing to cook for a house full of people, he replied: “I have my own problems.”

Undeterred, Dad made a few more calls and came up with a plan. He jumped in his Blazer with the turkey and headed down to our friend Jerry’s restaurant, the Winchester. Jerry had cranked up his stove to 500 degrees and proceeded to cook our turkey for the hour that it took my father to drive to and from Chester, where he picked up a hand-held drum of propane, something he wasn’t even sure was legal.  

In spite of the drama, Mom swears it was the best tasting turkey they’ve ever served.

Bill’s Super Quick Thanksgiving Turkey Recipe

Unstuffed 20-pound turkey.
Salt and pepper rubbed inside.
Place in turkey roasting pan with an inch of water.
Cover.
Cook at 500 degrees for one hour.

The day after Thanksgiving, Dad made two phone calls. First, he called a different propane company to promptly switch-over the inn’s service. Second, he called the original company and left the following message: “This is Bill Combes from the Combes Family Inn. I’m disconnecting my service. Now, my problems are your problems.”

What happened that New Year’s Eve is a story I remember like it was yesterday. We had a large group of 5 or 6 Japanese families who stayed at our inn, while they were skiing at Okemo Mountain. My Mom, Dad, and Aunt Nancy put together this impressive menu: roast beef, twice baked potatoes, Yorkshire pudding, glazed carrots, home-baked bread, and chocolate mousse.

When Dad took the beef out of the oven to get drippings to make the Yorkshire pudding, there were no drippings and the beef looked like a huge leather shoe. That’s when he discovered that he had bought a pre-cooked roast beef (usually used to slice off luncheon meat) and not a raw beef slab. Lacking other alternatives, they reluctantly served the beef, carrots, bread and potatoes, without the Yorkshire pudding. The guests were so polite that nearly every one of them asked for seconds. I am the only member of my family who entertains the possibility that our Japanese guests actually liked the beef.

Bill’s Yorkshire Pudding Recipe

Eggs, whole 20.
Milk 2 qt.
Bread Flour 2 lb.
Salt 1 oz.
Butter, melted 24 oz.
Drippings from Roast Beef (fat only) 24 oz.

Break eggs in mixing bowl; beat well. Add milk; mix well. Add flour and salt; beat until smooth. Beat in melted butter.

Place 12 oz. drippings in each of 2 15- x 18-in baking pans. Place pans on range and when smoking hot, divide batter evenly between pans.

Place pans in 375 degree oven on shelf in bottom half. Do not open door for 25 minutes; total cooking time, 35-40 min. Remove from oven and drain excess fat by tipping pan. Cut in squares to serve, 25 portions per pan.

The following summer, my parents and Aunt Nancy decided to serve dinners to the general public, in order to generate cash flow to help keep the business going through the slower summer season.  I should explain that the Combes Family Inn has always had one seating each night for dinner (7pm Thursday through Saturday and 5pm Sunday) and serves the same three course meal to each guest, unless there is a prearranged special request. The menu changes nightly.

The innkeepers promoted their new dinner service throughout 1979 and 1980 with ads in the local weekly paper which included the dinner menu for the three course meal planned for that Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night, as well as a Sunday buffet. Each night, the meal was $5.95 complete with dessert and coffee. BYOB.

One night, they had 12 reservations for outside diners. The menu included stuffed pork chops with homemade apple sauce, corn chowder, scalloped potatoes, green beans, and apple crisp. At about ten minutes before 7pm, Mom was just about to go into the sitting room to chat with the guests before ringing the dinner bell, when she checked the progress of her pork chops and discovered that she had never turned the oven on. Instead of grabbing the dinner bell, she cranked the oven up to 450 and went into the sitting room and said “Good evening, I’m Ruth Combes, the innkeeper. Dinner’s going to be a few more minutes.”

Ruth’s Apple Sauce Recipe

5 lbs regular Macintosh apples.
1/4 c. water, apple cider, or apple juice.
1 T lemon juice.
1/2 c. brown sugar.
Cinnamon (to taste).

Slice apples. Do not peel or remove cores. Put apples, sugar, and liquid in large covered pot and cook over medium flame for about 1/2 hour or until apples are tender. Put apple mixture through food mill (this is a great kitchen gadget, especially for pureeing soups and vegetables). Add lemon juice and cinnamon.

It may not seem like it based on the stories I’ve told above. However, my parents are both excellent cooks. And, needless-to-say, dining at the Combes Family Inn is a truly one of a kind experience. 

Casualties of Childhood

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My husband Bruce and I drove to his hometown last weekend to attend a poetry reading by one of his high school mates, the poet Tom Lux. Tom has published more than a dozen volumes of poetry in his illustrious career, including New and Selected Poems, 1975-1995 for which he was a finalist for the 1998 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize and Split Horizon for which he received the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. Two great online articles about Tom and his writing can be found here and here. He is currently the Bourne Professor of Poetry at Georgia Tech.

At White Square Books, a charming little book store, on a Sunday afternoon, Tom read poems that he had selected for the occasion that were autobiographical of events and people in his hometown of Easthampton, Massachusetts. Most of these poems were nothing short of extraordinary. One of his newer poems, which I believe hasn’t been published yet, is haunting. Tom called it “the most autobiographical” of all his poetry. It’s a recounting of a time as a 15-year-old, when he used his shot gun to kill a small brown bird. Through the narrative and detail of the poem, it was evident that he had researched the habitat and habits of the type of bird to show how much he had thought of this bird in the more than 50 years that have passed since the day he killed it.

The poem ends with the bird’s talons and little legs remaining attached to the tiny branch, after the rest of the bird had been blown to smithereens. Tom watched the result of his mischief and saw the talons still clinging eerily and upright on the branch and, after a bit of wind, swinging down, still attached.

You could have heard a pin drop for more than a few moments after Tom had finished reading the poem. Everyone in the room was shocked into thinking about Tom’s dead bird and then, perhaps, some casualties of their own childhoods. I briefly mourned this bird, and then recalled one my brother Billy had killed with his BB gun when I was 6 and he was 8, at our Pépère’s hunting camp in Tinmouth, Vermont.

I think it was my cousin Kelly who dared him to shoot the young woodpecker which was in the tree down behind the outhouse at the camp. In the dense fog of childhood memory, I had thought that it was my more mischievous brother, Wayne, who was the bird executioner. To my surprise, the answer to my text to Billy this morning “Do you remember at Tinmouth camp the time Wayne killed a bird with a BB gun?” was this: “That was me. A small woodpecker. I cried. It was very traumatic for me. I still think about it.” And, then, he added in a second text: “Pépère consoled me and taught me the importance of not aiming a gun at something you do not want to kill.”

I see it vividly in my mind now. Billy killed it with his first shot and it fell dead with a thump. We all ran over to it. Kelly and I immediately began crying and ran to find the adults to tell them of Billy’s mischief. I also remember clearly that Billy and Wayne both cried too, as they followed behind us up the hill. When I shared these memories with Billy this morning, he replied: “It is funny about childhood memories, I don’t remember anyone else being around. It was me. My BB gun. A live woodpecker. An excellent shot. A dead woodpecker. Me crying because of what I had done. Pépère imparting that valuable life lesson. The burial ceremony.”

The incident was so memorable for my brother that he had saved photographs from that day and knows the exact date, October 20, 1974. Incredible. A few of those photos are below.

Pepere and deer Motley Crew Hunting Camp in Oct 74 Oct 20 1974

In the moments after Tom had finished reading his poem, I thought more about the old hunting camp. More than a few of Tom’s autobiographical poems involved boys with their hunting rifles. It was easy for me to relate to these childhood stories. I had grown up in a similar fashion in New Hampshire and Vermont, although a few decades after Tom’s upbringing in Western Massachusetts.

My brother came up to Vermont a few months ago and we decided to tool around a bit and found ourselves heading through Wallingford on Route 140, on our way to Tinmouth. Billy hadn’t been out there since childhood. I, on the other hand, had gone out a few summers before with Bruce to show him the land that was a part of so many childhood memories. I used to call the annual rite of going there as a very young child, “going to Vermont.” When I was nine, we moved to Vermont. Pépère died shortly thereafter and the camp lasted just a few years following that, until Mémère died when I was 12.

When Billy and I pulled up to the old cemetery in Tinmouth, we parked the car on the opposite side of the road, jumped the gate, and headed into the field, in search of the old camp and the outhouse. The trailer was there, a caved in pile of trash, and the outhouse was nowhere to be found.

Camp as trash

Cat School

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I enjoyed putting together my last post, “My Sibs and Me.” So much so, in fact, that I have to tell one more sibling story.

As I’ve mentioned many times in the past, I am writing a memoir. In the process, I have dusted off several boxes of old books, letters, journals and photographs. The last box I opened had several reports and personal mementos from my primary and secondary school years in Ludlow, Vermont.

Among these items was a typed, untitled, one-page story with an “A-” in red ink at the top. I have no idea how old I was when I wrote it, or what my assignment was. The story, however, is one that I have told many, many times through the years, even very recently. In all of those recountings, though, I never quite told it the same way that it was typed by my young self on a nearly transparent sheet of typing paper.

The story takes place when I was four and my brother Wayne was five. At the time, our older brother Bill was six and in first grade. I was in my first year of a pre-school program, and was very worried about how my cat passed his days while I was away at school. My mother eventually found my many nagging questions about my cat—“Gimpy”—tiresome and finally told me that Gimpy also went to school. She explained that, as soon as we three kids went off to school in the morning, Gimpy went to “Cat School.”

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(Above: This photo was taken about the same time that the “cat school” story takes place.)

On the morning of the story, the pre-school was closed, but the elementary school was still in session. This meant that Billy went off to school while Wayne and I stayed home. Shortly after Billy had left, I looked out the window and spied Gimpy walking around outside. I ran to Wayne and told him to come with me and look, because “Gimpy must be on his way to Cat School!”

Below is exactly what was written on the typed page that I found.

___

When I was about four, my family lived in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Our house had some woods and a swamp behind it.

One day, my brother, Wayne, and I decided to follow our cat, Gimpy, around to see where he goes during the day. The cat started to head for the woods, so Wayne and I chased him. I don’t remember how long we followed Gimpy, but somewhere in the middle of the woods, we lost sight of him.

I started to cry and Wayne said, “I know how to get home from here.”

We started heading back the way we came and came to the swamp. Wayne walked right through the water and when he got to the other side, he said, “Sharon, come on, it isn’t that deep.”

I said, “I don’t want to get wet!”

Finally, I went in the swamp and got wet all the way up to my chest. After a bit of walking we reached a place we’d seen before.

I said, “Our house is this way.”

“No, stupid, it’s this way,” Wayne said.

Wayne went his way and I went mine. When I couldn’t see Wayne any more, I started screaming and (then turned around and) caught up with him. I followed him through the woods and finally we were out of the woods and in our back yard. Mom was standing next to the house yelling at us. We ran to Mom and hugged her. I think she was crying.

Mom said, “Oh, I’m so glad to see you! If you ever run away again I’ll give you both a licking!”

By: Sharon Combes

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Finding my old school essay allowed me to see this childhood episode through my own eyes as a child. I imagine myself being too embarrassed at the time that I wrote it to acknowledge that I believed my Mom when she said that our cat went to school. Therefore, I completely left that part out, despite it being a fundamental part of the story.

This tale is a special sibling story to me, because it’s a microcosm of my relationship with Wayne when Billy wasn’t around. We had our differences, but we still turned to each other and, ultimately, bonded.

I’d love to hear other childhood sibling stories. Please comment on this post with one of your favorites.