As a young child, I spent the summers with grandma in a little cabin in Shandaken, NY. which was three hours from New York City. Because it was a long drive, my parents who both worked, only came up every other weekend. But grandma and I were fine together.
The cabin was part of a complex that had been built by Joe Feitzinger and his wife Anne. There were 24 cabins in all, the majority of which were directly behind the town store which Joe and Anne owned and above which they lived.
In their store they sold candy bars and little bags of nuts and chips and had a big red Coca-Cola cooler. But mostly Joe sold lures and issued fishing licenses as he was the Town Clerk.
Our cabin was one of the five that were a little past the main complex. More secluded and in a heavily-wooded area, it was simple country living in the Catskill Mountains.
If you crossed the road which ran in front of the complex you were on the banks of the Esopus River. (Calling it a river was to elevate it’s status greatly. It was more like a creek – perhaps a total of 30 feet across at its widest). But as small as it was it was filled with life – trout and bottom-feeding catfish, frogs – and me!
After breakfast each morning I would go down to the river, having waited the obligatory one hour to digest my food, and go swimming or playing with the other guests’ children. (My parents required that I spend these hour-long breaks reading the books that we had selected for my summer reading list).
Somehow, I had a built-in clock and knew when it was lunchtime – and I would head back to the cabin for the noon meal. Another hour’s wait and back to the river until dinner. And so my summer days were spent – the exception being that on rainy days I really put a dent in my reading list.
After dinner, grandma, our cocker spaniel, Andy and I would sit outside as the sun began to fade, enjoying the beauty of the pine and oak trees and watching the birds wend their way home. There was no television in the cabin and the only music we heard was the chirping of the crickets as we watched the fireflies flash their lights on and off.
Although Joe and Anne were happy to drive us the seven miles into Phoenicia (the closest town that had a small grocery store), grandma never imposed on them. She planned her purchases to meet our needs until my parents came on their bi-weekly visits. And besides, we had Mr. Bertelli.
Three times a week, Mr. Bertelli would slowly drive his faded red pickup truck down the main road. As he drove, he clanged a loud bell to alert his customers that he was there. (Painted on the side of his truck was a sign that said, “G. Bertelli & Sons. Finest Watermelon in New York).
Grandma and I would go down to the truck and choose from the contents of the bushel baskets filled with so many different kinds of fresh fruits and vegetables.
As his customers made their selections, Mr. Bertelli would place them on the scale that hung from the back of his truck. He would put the produce in a brown paper bag, call out the price and with the pencil that he had sandwiched between his head and right ear, he would mark it on the bag after he had wet the tip of the pencil with his tongue.
“Mr. Bertelli. Do you have any watermelon?”, I asked. (I didn’t see any in his truck – but I was hopeful). I loved watermelon.
“Notta taday”, he said in his heavy Italian accent. “But Ima pretty sure we gonna havea next week.” And he reached into one of the baskets and handed me a beautiful large plum. He said, “Take – issa good.” I took the plum and thanked him. The plum was juicy and sweet.
Monday of the next week brought Mr. Bertelli back on his route. No watermelon. Wednesday – still no watermelon. Friday – it had to be the day. But as grandma and I went down to look at his produce, I could see from a distance there were no watermelons on the truck. Utter disappointment. I was sure that today I would enjoy the first watermelon of the summer.
“Mr. Bertelli”, I said. “I thought you were going to have watermelon this week.” He smiled at me and said, “I gotta. I gotta lottsa watermelon – butta not on dissa truck. My son, Vincenzo he a coming wid dem in about 10 minute. He gotta truck is nothing butta watermelon.” And sure enough Vincenzo came as promised, his truck loaded with huge, wonderful watermelons – $1.00 each.
Grandma and I selected one – but it was so big and heavy we had to ask Joe to drive it back to our cabin in his pickup truck.
Grandma carved the watermelon in quarters and then cut a generous slice for each of us. She put my piece on a dinner plate and I went to it, nibbling a bit off the top and working my way through the melon down to the rind, the juice from the delicious fruit dribbling down my face and chin. I was in heaven!
For the next six weeks we bought watermelons from Mr. Bertelli. And then the season was over. There would be no more until the next summer.
I still love watermelon. But now, no matter the time of year, I can usually find it in the store. It’s always summer somewhere.
Perhaps for that reason, it just doesn’t taste quite as sweet as when I was a child.