An Alaskan in Alabama continued…(May)

It’s May, and that makes me remember childhood trips to England. I recall traveling with my family to the north of England in May, taking advantage of lower airfare and arriving before most of the other tourists were there. Going in May also meant we could arrive in time for the bluebells down in Sherwood Grove: a name that always made me think of Robin Hood. I’d imagine Robin and his men camping high up in the oak trees and slipping into the small gulleys covered with soft falls of leaves, escaping the Sherriff and his blundering men. In the forest, bluebells carpet the floor: a soft sea of tossing blue and purple. There are so many small bells along the long, thick green stalks that I lose track counting, and when we pick the bluebells the sap drips down our fingers and arms. Bereft of color, scent, and anything vivid and living from the long Alaskan winters, we pick too many. We return to Granny’s with our arms full of bluebells. Granny, ever practical, protests that they fade too soon, even as she moves quickly around the house to find makeshift vases for our plunder.

The tiny forest is at the bottom of the hill, right by the canal. I love to see the boats going through the locks built on the river Aire, as people push back the black and white beams that control the locks: the water slowly rushing in or rushing out as the boat is lowered or raised. It looks like great fun being on the boats, though it must be slow work going through all those locks. Further along the river is old Salt’s Mill, from which the town of Saltaire gets its name. Sir Titus Salt made his money and title in the woolen trade, like many northern entrepreneurs. He was so rich he built his own town, a model village, built along the lines of Victorian ideas of civic order and goodliness. The town has a church and a lending library with stately stone lions outside it: supposedly the models for the much larger lions in Trafalgar Square in London. The model village was supposed to model a perfect society, but it was certainly not one in which class and hierarchies were erased. In the village, the row houses were for the workers, while the larger houses at the corners were for the foremen. Sir Titus’s family had a house some miles away, and Sir Titus’s son, also Titus, build a grand house a few miles away from the model village called Milner Field. The house was a grand affair at the end of a long tree-lined avenue, a good carriage ride from the village. However, the house was destroyed in the 1950s, and very little remains except the gate house at the end of that long avenue, and some piles of broken rubble. In my imagination, I return to the house, as it was long ago, a Victorian palace with maids with starched aprons, pheasants under glass, and coal fires in each stone fireplace.

When I think of visits to Granny’s, I think not only of these sights, but smells: the smell of the coal cellar, lime-washed walls, the clover in the garden. Granny doesn’t have a fridge, so there’s a hutch in the corner of the coal cellar that holds her groceries and keeps them cool: inside, I find cheese, tomato, watercress, and other groceries she buys in the local shops, safe in brown or white paper bags twirled at the corners by the local merchants to keep them tightly closed. I think of the smell of pie crust, full of butter, baking in Granny’s Rayburn: the pale yellow ceramic stove, coal-filled, that not only cooks Granny’s dinner but heats part of the house. I remember Granny’s jam cupboard, a magical old wooden cupboard, its shelves full of jam jars some going back a number of years—their labels faded, tops slightly dusty. My favorite was Damson jam, made from Damson plums—not something we had in Alaska. You had to watch out for the stones, but Damson jam was wonderful on Nutty Cobb, the brown, yes, nutty, loafs that Granny bought at the local bakers, and not bad on the long crimpled cylinder-shaped brown bread also from the bakers, especially with fresh farm butter, slightly salted. The cylinder-shaped bread fascinated us: they were long cylinders, fluted up and down the roll, the fluting creating perfect indentations for the knife’s blade. Sometimes Granny would make sandwiches by slicing apart the long cylinder, filling it with Marmite, butter, cheese, and meat, then joining it together again in one perfect, delicious loaf. We often took part of a cylinder plus some of Granny’s Cut-and-Come-Again cake (we always did) up on the moors when we walked over to Ilkley. We’d sit on some stones and watch the shaggy yellow-eyed sheep, always just out of catching range, and breathe in the smells of heather and sheep, the sun dancing in and out of clouds, a bit of wind against our necks. Later that night, I’ll sleep under my pink counterpane, dreaming of catching those sheep or soaring high above the moors like a lark, over to the next village and the next, all the way north to Scotland.

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