Thursday, March 13, 2008

Precious Memories for Pennies

I am very thankful to have had a mother and grandmother who understood that treasured memories don't have to cost much of anything. It doesn't take much to impress children. They act as though it does sometimes, but I promise that they will always hold you in fond memory if you participate in these frugal outing ideas.

One of our favorite pastimes was going for a country drive meandering slowly along the dirt roads in rural Central Illinois where I grew up. It didn't seem like Mother knew where she was going, but when we mentioned any concern that we might be lost, she consoled us by saying, "All roads lead to home."

Any time we passed through a wooded area, she would slow way down and whisper to us excitedly, "If you're real quiet, we might see a deer!" You can't imagine our sheer delight whenever we actually caught sight of one bounding through the trees.

She always slowed down for old, abandoned farm houses, too. Sometimes we would stop and get out to explore, peeping through the broken, dusty windows. "Watch out for old wells and cisterns!" she would warn us as we tramped through the overgrown grass around the buildings. Mother always lamented the fact that someone was letting that "perfectly good house" go to waste. She was always on the look out for a cheaper place to rent, so maybe that was why we made so many of those little country jaunts.

One time, when Mom was visiting me while I was extremely pregnant with our youngest son, she took me on a drive just to cheer me up and get me out of the house. She spotted an old apple tree on the side of the road and stopped to see if she could find a worthy piece of fruit to enjoy. There were no buildings anywhere around, but Mom was certain that, because of the tree, there had to have been a home there at one time.

As she chomped on a lovely, little specimen, she asked if I wanted one. I pointed to one nearly at the top of the tree just to give her a rise, but she stooped down and picked up an apple from the ground and with one motion threw it at the very one I had pointed to. To my great delight and amazement, she knocked it right down on the first try! My hero.

We sometimes found lovely old cemeteries on these drives through the countryside. Believe it or not, we used to have picnics in cemeteries. I know, I know. How morbid! But, it really is a very precious memory to me. Mom and/or Grandma would pack a picnic lunch, usually consisting of whatever was in the fridge: bologna and cheese sandwiches with Miracle Whip on white bread (yum!), potato chips, bananas, and Little Debbie snack cakes or cookies, all swallowed down with soda pop of some sort (no wonder I'm fat!!!!). Then we'd all load up in the car and take off.

It didn't matter to us which cemetery we went to as long as it was secluded on some rural back road. We liked to eat in private, or maybe we were just a little embarrassed about eating among the dead. I don't know for sure. Since my sisters and I would all try to hide when a car passed by, I suppose it was the latter. An old quilt would be spread on the ground or we might just eat off the hood of the car. So lusciously primitive!

After our meal, we'd stuff all the garbage in a grocery sack in the trunk and head off for a stroll. Have you ever read the inscriptions on the tombstones in an ancient cemetery? There is so much history to be uncovered. There were husbands buried with multiple wives (eight, I believe -- married to one at a time) and many, many babies. Grandma always cried when she read them.

I remember a cemetery just west of Ellisville, Illinois, which was filled with children under the age of sixteen who all died the same year. I can only conclude that it was a terrible plague of some kind.


You know how on some tombstones there is a picture of a hand with a finger pointing toward the heavens? We found one in a tiny cemetery just off of Illinois Route 9 just south of Ellisville which had a finger pointing downward. The same had an Odd Fellows symbol (three rings in a chain), so I can only imagine what it symbolized.

There's a monument in a cemetery near Armington, Illinois, which has an inscription telling the story of how a mother and her daughters who are buried there were ax murdered by their hired man back in the 1800s. Our pastor lived across the road from it, and he used to take a pass around the monument on the hay rack ride when our church had our fall weiner roasts. Mother would always tell the story as we passed by. Then, the pastor's son would jump out from behind it and scare the daylights out of us...at least, it was scary the first year.

Another favorite spot for our outings was Funk's Grove just off of Old Route 66 between Bloomington and McLean, Illinois. There's a cemetery there, a picnic shelter, an old church, and a chapel in the woods. The gravel path back to the chapel has ancient, varnished wood placards with Scripture verses engraved in calligraphy on them nailed to trees on either side. There are large tree trunks for pews, shaved smooth and lying on their sides, with a middle aisle between the two rows. At the front facing the pews is a massive trunk carved out in back for the minister to step up into to preach from. In more recent years, they have added a wooden pallet platform with an electric outlet for musical instruments for weddings.

These precious memories didn't cost anything but a few dollars in gas. Yet, you can save on gas simply by doing some research online for cemeteries in your area and for little off-the-beaten-path places you can explore with your children on foot. Even metropolitan areas have trails and picnic areas in secluded little nooks of larger parks. Do your homework first, then pack up whatever you have on hand and head for somewhere green.

Thanks for the memories, Mom. They are more precious to me than gold.