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Jack Zaleski, Published August 10 2013

Zaleski: Memories drift out of old photographs

I found a stash of old pictures the other day. Black and white, some cracked or faded, they were of a 1950s summer outing at my Uncle Stanley’s farm in (at that time) rural Southington, Conn. Treasures, all.

I lived nearby in industrial New Britain. Just a few miles to the west, Southington might have been a world away, with its woodlands, small farms and the forested granite mountain that loomed behind Uncle Stanley’s rambling farmhouse, chicken coops, orchards and gardens. It was miraculous and mysterious for a city kid.

The ragged and forgotten photos showed Stanley and his brothers, Al, Chester and my father, John, mugging for the camera. Gripping brown-glass, red-label bottles of Rheingold beer, they clustered around a tall stone fireplace that was topped with a grate from a coal furnace. They were cooking steaks and corn on the cob. I gazed into the pictures, falling back in time and, I swear, I could smell the charcoal smoke and hear the fire’s pop and sizzle.

Summer back then was not structured. None of the kids I knew was scheduled into park or camp activities from sunup to sundown. We were, in a very real way, free in summer. Every day was adventure and happenstance. So it was with the outing at Uncle Stanley’s magical farm. It was never planned but seemed spontaneous – maybe because it happened only when my dad and his brothers were getting along, which wasn’t often.

The summer gathering in the photographs had to be in the late 1950s. It might have been the last one. By the early ’60s, my dad was gone, Uncle Al had had a stroke, Uncle Chester had moved to the mountains of western Massachusetts, and Uncle Stan went south to Florida, never to live in the North again.

The memories linger.

After the feed of steak, corn and iced Cokes, my sister and I would climb Uncle Stanley’s mountain. The trek alongside a tree-shrouded white-water brook eventually took us to the top, where the terrain leveled to hold a deep spring-fed pool that fed the brook. She and I would stick our U.S. Keds-clad feet into the cold water until our bones ached. We’d scramble up a bald outcropping high above the farm and wave and shout to our parents and uncles and aunts who were gathered far below around the fireplace and picnic tables.

Last time I drove past the place – years ago now – the farmhouse was standing, looking ramshackle and worn. Chicken coops were gone, as was the Baldwin apple orchard north of the house. Heck, the trees were old when I was a kid. Housing developments, a strip mall, traffic noise and a ski area marred the space.

But high above the house, glinting in the late morning sun that day, the big gray ledge, where my sister and I laughed and waved all those years ago, still stood sentinel – and if I looked hard enough, I could see us up there.

Amazing, what a few old photos can do. Hold on to them. Hold on to the memories.

Contact Editorial Page Editor Jack Zaleski at (701) 241-5521.