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Sometimes, the things left behind by a person are the only clues you have to who they were inside, and how they lived their life. Such is the case of Emma Cox, the sweet lady from whom my parents bought our little house on Madisonville Road. From even before I was old enough to process what my parents so often talked about, I definitely knew who they were talking about. I was born just two years after Mrs. Cox sold the property to my folks. It was as if she were still there some days. Like when my Dad would come back inside the house carrying his bowl of dry cornflakes. He has just been out back to the blueberry patch, and those cornflakes which are about to receive the milk he is now fumbling for in the fridge, are also topped with a healthy portion of big, ripe blueberries, warm from the sun. Now he and my Mom are having a conversation about the blueberry patch and everything else either in bloom or about to yield along the path from the back steps to those bushes. And at the center of the discussion, is Emma.
Emma was born in 1910 in Connecticut. I imagine her childhood a lovely one with playful siblings and loving parents. Of course, I do not know this, rather I’d like to surmise it. At some point, she wed and moved to New Jersey, as a 1940 US Census record shows her living at the little house on Madisonville along with her husband, Ray, and two tiny daughters. As I shared in the post Marjorie, the little house on Madisonville boasted everything a farm-to-table chef today would have planted and cultivated himself if he had his druthers. There were things so entirely coveted by my parents after taking the farm over in 1968, that they would not share with anyone; currants and quince are both great examples of this, and largely the reason Emma came up in conversation so often. My Dad revered her as a genius horticulturist, and my Mom simply assumed she had to have been the busiest woman in Basking Ridge in her time to have kept such an expansive piece of property, approximately five acres, continuously planted, fruiting, blooming, and abundant. During a recent phone conversation with her youngest daughter, Janice, now 79, she said of Emma “Mother always worked so hard to keep everything going, and I always remember it looking so lovely as a little girl.’ There was asparagus in the early, early spring, along with wild onion and chives. Rhubarb would begin a reddish-purple fervor emerging from beneath the soil once the thaw took place. Fruit trees in April and May bloomed so heavy with flowers that, from a distance, appeared to have been brushed with watercolor paint as if something out of a book of fairytales. In earliest July, July 4th Holiday to be precise, expect to have to help harvest blueberries. Late August, along with long shadows, brings an aroma to the air; Concords. And yet there was always so much more that the list could go on and on. And this was one woman, who, while rearing two children and keeping house with a man who she would grow old with, managed to sustain this homestead fete for over thirty years.
I came along in 1970, just a few short years after the passing of Mr. Cox, and Emma having put everything, lock stock and barrel, up for sale and moving away to Florida to live near youngest daughter Janice. When I am old enough to have a memory, among my first are random white crocus in the side yard, the smell inside the big old barn, and the man in the kitchen. Over my lifetime at the property, 37 years, I would discover so many intricate things about the little house on Madisonville, and new memories would take their place among old, weaving a fabric account of the life of a woman who cared for and loved the place so deeply. Just like that, I could be playing in the yard and come across a patch of white violets. I’d later learn of a chicken shed standing there once decades before. Perhaps Emma did her best to brighten its entrance, even if only for the chickens. Or the grape hyacinths at the foot of the big old barn…just popping up, no garden bed or orderly fashion, each and every spring. And the man in the kitchen who faded over time. I saw less and less of him the older I grew. It was not until I was ten or around that age, that I did learn Mr. Cox has passed away in the house. Too late for me to call him by name and say goodbye, as he was long gone now.
To this day, each time I look upon a snowball bush, I cannot help but think of her. I do not know why, out of all of the many hundreds of things that were left in her wake, should the snowball be the one thing that triggers the memory. But I am grateful each day for the things Miss Emma taught me, even if she were absent doing so.