Personal Essays

The Radio & I
By Nicole Knapp
May 18, 2009

I loved my radio.  I remember being in middle school and listening to my radio all the time.  I would sit in my room and do nothing, or write stories, or look at magazines, and I'd listen to the radio.  I'd clean my room and listen to the radio.  As I would fall asleep at night, I'd listen to the radio.  When I got ready for school in the morning, I'd listen to my radio.  However, I mainly listened to what everyone else my age was listening to at the time: rap, pop, hip hop, recent rock.  I did like it, as I've always loved music.  But I was yet to discover a type of music that would touch me in an entirely different way.

It was an ordinary boring night, and I was doing what I usually did on ordinary boring nights: talking to my best friend, Lizz, on the phone.  We were around twelve or thirteen years old at the time.  I was sitting on my bed, Indian-style, after closing my shades like I did every night because I was paranoid of burglars, creepers, and things that went bump in the night.  Lizz said to me something along the lines of, "Hey Bone! (Bone was my nickname).  I just discovered this awesome new radio station, Rock 102!  You should totally check it out."  She proceeded to tell me how it was all "old stuff," how she had been staying up all night, every night, just listening to it.  I didn't want to at first because I did not like stepping out of my comfort zone and besides, the radio was on the other side of the bed.  But she was so excited, so I switched my radio station from the main-stream Fly 92 to Rock 102, Springfield's classic rock station.  And looking back, I'm sure glad that I did!

I stayed up most of the night (not the entire night, since I was not an insomniac like Lizz), just sitting on my bed, listening as song after song came on.  A lot of them were familiar, as I had probably heard them before in the car with my parents, but it felt like I was really hearing them and actually listening for the first time.  At least, hearing them and appreciating it.  All night (as well as in the days to come), I would listen and if I heard a song I especially liked, I'd grab the nearest writing utensil and rip a piece off of the nearest paper-like item, whether it be a homework assignment, a letter, or a receipt, and jot down some lyrics.  By the next morning, I had several little pieces of paper of which I had jotted down random lyics I heard, so I could look up the song, who sang it, and then proceed to download it.

It's pretty amusing to me when I think back to being a little pre-teen and being so utterly blind to this fantastic genre of music.  Somewhere in the night, they played this little tidbit about John Lennon, mixing interviews with song clips.  I easily recognized "Come Together" from his time with the Beatles.  I teared up during "Imagine."  I laughed at the bizarre yet catchy "Give Peace a Chance" and listened intently as he was interviewed with Yoko Ono about staying in bed for a day for peace.  Well, after soaking this all in, I just about fell off my bed in amazement.  I had only dipped my toe into the sea of classic rock by taking a mild interest in the Beatles (thanks to Lizz, who had Beatles memorabilia all over her house), and at this moment it clicked for me...ah, The Beatles aren't old...they're classic rock!  I like this!

I remember hearing an amazing ballad by The Rolling Stones that night called "Angie."  "All the dreams we held so close seemed to all go up in smoke, but let me whisper in your ear..." floated from the radio; it was dramatic, it was beautiful, I loved it.  I was struck as I usually am with a favorite song, jotted down some lyrics, and concluded (not knowing it was the Stones at the time) that it must have been sung by a very deep voiced female.  A few songs later, I heard the sixties classic "Piece of My Heart" by Janis Joplin, and while jotting down the lyrics, made a mental note that it must be a very high-voiced male...perhaps it was Mick Jagger from the Rolling Stones.  Looking back, this astounds me.  My assumptions were really rather embarrassing.

I got so into the music, that I would often just lay on my bed and daydream, which is what I did most of tht night.  I saw myself as a hippie in San Francisco in 1969, with flowers in my hair and a "Make Love, Not War!" sign in my hand.  I saw myself in the seventies in bellbottom jeans, buying classic rock records and listening to them while sitting serenly on my shag carpet.  I saw myself in the eighties, with huge Cyndi Lauper-like hair, breaking out a lighter for a power ballad at a Journey concert.  I become increasingly disappointed that I was living in the new millennium.

Many people may thing it's a bit of a stretch saying that I listened ot the radio for one night and it forever changed who I am.  But I believe it because whenever I think back to that night, I get the most overwhelming and nostalgic feeling.  It was a pretty great time; a time when I was too naïve to know that "Casey Jones," by the Grateful Dead, was about drugs.  A time when it was an adventure just getting a ride to Wal*Mart every week so that I could collect every Beatles album in existence.  A time when I couldn't listen to Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" alone because it literally gave me chills (not only because it was hauntingly beautiful, but also because Lizz and I had decided to play it backwards one night and heard some pretty creepy stuff).

I believe that on that one boring summer night, I began to change.  It was more than entertainment and good music; I loved the attitude.  I was always a very anxious person, who would worry about every little thing, and I would make myself miserable.  But when I listened to classic rock, I felt carefree and confident.  I would think, these people don't worry about what they look like.  These people don't worry about things that haven't even happened yet.  These people believe and have a sense of self and a sense of freedom.  And I sincerely beleived that I could be like that.  And from then on, classic rock began to mirror my beliefs in life.  All you need is love.  Don't worry, be happy.  Dream on.  And from that moment when I was thirteen years old until now, I've never turned back or thought otherwise.

A Nature Essay
By Nicole Knapp
May 26, 2009

When one steps out into nature, four of their five sense are all hit at once.  Although civilization is a mere few minutes away, one can get lost in what could be an entirely different world from the one full of hustle and bustle that everyone is used to.  There is nothing more splendid than natural beauty, especially the kind that surrounds your own town.

The first sense that is hit when one steps into nature is the sweet aroma of nature, the kind that one smells on a perfect sunny, breezy, spring day.  It is a familiar scent that instantly pleases the brain and does a plethora of other things all at once: energizes, relaxes, calms, brings back memories.  It is one of the things that make nature so appealing: the smell of the flowers, the grass, and the air.

The cool breeze that carries this particular sweet aroma and makes the grass sway to the left is the next sense.  It either cools one down or makes one want to bundle up.  The sun when it breaks from the clouds is warm and satisfying but during the rare moments when one feels both the sun and the breeze at the same time, it's simple splendor.  The sound of many different kinds of birds is surrounding, some twittering to each other, others singing in a high-pitched whistle above the rest.  Some other birds trill, creating a natural and ear-pleasing harmony.

The views that are experienced hold the major sense, sight, and they are extremely calming.  From every which way, a person is surrounded by colorful and vivid views.  That person easily becomes aware that they are not the only living thing there, as everything around them is alive and well, from the tiniest ant to the largest oak tree.  All of them are immersed in their own activities, very much like the human race is.  A tiny ant makes his may downhill on the pavement, deciding suddenly to switch over to the mountains of grass and just as quickly as he has come, he is gone.  An oval-shaped, metallic beetle swims over this grass, turning this way and that with some difficulty, and it makes one wonder - perhaps this is its biggest trial in life.  What are these two tiny creatures doing?  Do they have families and are they the providers?  Red-breasted robins, small and brown, flitter among the trees while others peck and scavenger through the grass as the songs of their friends echo in the background.

The grass is a vast sea of at least three different shades of green and is short and trim in length.  Tiny leaves pop up here and there, as if they are unsure if they really belong.  Long dandelions line the edge of the woods, some already having lost their wispy tops to the wind or perhaps to a curious child.  Dainty white lilies and buttery yellow daffodils pop up in unexpected places; they are the early risers, only a small taste of what will be in the summer when their fellow species will join them and spread in every direction.

Every tree is different; in fact, not one is alike and they range from every size imaginable.  Even the ones that have been knocked over by the previous winter's ferocious ice storm are budding and represent a fallen, haunting beauty.  White trees mingle with different shades of brown and all have uncountable amounts of leaves, just like snowflakes, no two being alike.  Some are oval, some are tiny and slim, some are bell-shaped, and some are half eaten.  They, too, are different shades of green, some of them borderline yellow.  Branches tangle together for a jungle-like appeal.  A few tall oaks loom seperate from the rest of the forest; they are thicker, taller, and wider than the other trees, the unspoken leaders.  There is an eerie forgotten stump of an oak that is no longer there.  Like the trees, we are all different (in size, shape, color, type), we all age, and some of us are more dominant than others.  The only real difference is that we have the luxury of speaking and moving.

The landscape in itself is art, as the slope stretches on, rising and falling.  Wispy, white clouds stretch on forever, forming a coverlet over this one spot in nature, and the light blue sky stretches even farther beyond that.  The rhododendrons are in bloom, the plump purple bushes scatered among the forest lines.  Random stones of every natural color in existence are embedded in the grass, making one wonder how long they've made their home there.

Ther is no sound but the birds and the slight breeze; it is a still moment in time, as if time istelf has stopped.  It is relaxing and calming in every way and could easily lure its visitor to sleep.  All one can see from every angle is trees, forming a forest, making one wonder where exactly do they lead?  And furthermore, who has sat here in this very spot pondering the same thing since time began?  Many people do not realize how similar to nature we really are and how nature is very much like its own community.  Every tree, every animal, and every insect does their own part every single day, just like humans do.  We are all born, we all grow, we all live, and we all eventually die.  We essentially need the same things to survive: water, air, food, care, and life.  They all reside somewhere and have a home, like us.  Not to mention that we all share the same planet.  It is truly larger than life; people do not take enough time to soak in all that is available here on earth.

And now there is one lone robin left behind among the grass and the clouds are starting to turn in, as the afternoon grows late.  The twittering of the birds will soon turn into the steady hum of crickets and the sun will set, taking the warmth with it.  The little ant and the little beetle will find their way home and the old oaks will watch over this scenario that they have seen countless times before, and will see many times more.

Journey to Windigo
By Nicole Knapp

Being in high school and not having any job responsibilities is what I would call the good old days. And even better, my best friend Lizz Ziter and I had the freedom to drive around our little town of Savoy; something actually quite monumental, since we never had the freedom to walk around like our Adams, Cheshire, and North Adams peers. With all of the bears, coyotes, and potential creepers wandering around, navigating Savoy on foot had never been an option.

One March afternoon after school we found ourselves pulled to the side of the road in front of our old school, Savoy Elementary. The large, brown building didn't hold as many memories as the little white schoolhouse did and we had leaned against my red Chevy blazer for at least fifteen minutes, reminiscing.

Lizz was flipping through the yellowed pages of an old Savoy guidebook that she had found in her house. We had decided this uneventful day would be a good day to drive aimlessly around our little town and visit random familiar and unfamiliar landmarks.

Like fascinated tourists in the tropics, we scrambled back into my vehicle and prepared to go wherever the ancient roads of Savoy would take us. The town was our personal white winter wonderland, even in March. We drove along Loop Road and although the roads were covered in wet, brown slush, the fields and trees beyond were covered in pristine, clean snow that even sparkled in the sun, if you caught it at the right moment. I barely ever traveled this road anymore but when I did, I got a mystical, nostalgic feeling.

Two right turns later, Loop Road turned into the wide Main Road. I was prepared to drive to the tiny general store but Lizz suddenly told me to take a left turn onto Windigo Road. I became a bit suspicious as my best friend's eyes lit up and she practically bounced on the edge of the seat, but I turned anyway.

Lizz announced that there was an abandoned, haunted campground in Savoy called Windigo and that we were on the road to it. This didn't surprise me, since she had recently gotten very interested in the paranormal (and I'll never understand why since her own house was haunted and that was enough to unnerve her). My better judgment told me that this was a bad idea; I had experienced enough haunted journeys with Lizz to last me a while, including the little old cemetery located in the forest behind her backyard and a family friend's farmhouse that was thoroughly haunted (you could even feel it the moment you stepped into the house).

My mind quickly backtracked...the little old cemetery located in the forest behind her backyard. I resisted the urge to smile. That was one of my favorite memories with her.

We had been around seven years old. After a sledding accident in her backyard that resulted in us crashing into a well, her father, Jeff, had decided to take us exploring in the woods. We had trudged on for what was probably only thirty minutes, but what felt more like a day to my distracted, seven year old mind. After a while, we stumbled upon a small nineteenth century (and maybe older) cemetery that looked positively ancient. It thrilled me to see something so secret and sacred hidden that deep in the woods.

The gravestones were so old that most of them were practically unreadable. We began to regret that we had not brought chalk and paper so that we could do the shading trick and discover what was written on the tombs. One of the only names that we could make out was the name Simon on one particular stone.

Jeff had spread his arms, motioning to the thick forest around us. "Years ago," he announced, "this was a road. You would be able to see people in carriages riding this way and that, maybe even good ole' Simon over there." Lizz and I giggled. Her father was usually either impersonating Elvis or singing the YMCA and to see him so serious about history was fun. But I was also fascinated. We were standing in nothing but forest and yet, this had been a road one time, with maybe a little town? Where had everything gone? Surely, this location was haunted...

Lizz and I would speak about Simon, the name on the grave, for years afterward and wonder what his life had been like...

I was brought back to reality by a slight bump in the road. A brown sign with neat yellow lettering on the side of the road informed us that we were in the vicinity of Windsor State Forest. The road continued to get narrower and snowier as we drove on and as we crossed a tiny wooden bridge, I held my breath, hoping the bridge wouldn't collapse and plunge us into the tiny, black river below. Not even the sounds of classic rock floating out of my speakers could distract me now.

After what seemed like hours (but was probably only minutes), Lizz instructed me to take a left hand turn and as we entered the uneven, snowy terrain and looked to our left, we saw two figures and two large dogs walking down the hill, away from the Windigo location that we could see clearly in the background.

I looked over at Lizz, whose alarmed expression mirrored my own. I knew this had been a bad idea. I could tell that even my adventurous friend was having her doubts. I asked her if they looked like creepers and she said she couldn't tell. I asked if they were the police and she said probably not. I asked her what we should do and she said she didn't know.

It was just then that I saw the large black van parked a few feet away. I knew we had to make a decision but it was difficult. As much as I would have loved to turn around and head back, I didn't want to run away from a potentially interesting experience. I also wanted to get it over with, because I knew Lizz would insist we go back later if we didn't go now. And later, it would be dark out.

Surprising even myself, I told Lizz that we would stay - and after all, we had driven all of this way and I didn't want to waste precious gas. Lizz pulled out her camera and we agreed that if we were asked what we were doing there, we would say we were documenting for a school project.

Windigo consisted of three buildings and I was momentarily dismayed to see that it still seemed so far away. We began to trudge through the knee-deep snow, Lizz fumbling with her camera and mumbling to me about our "project" as we passed the two men and their two ferocious looking dogs.

And to our immense relief, they didn't even acknowledge us.

Now that that obstacle was overcome, I could take in the scenery. It was mid-afternoon and so I told myself that nothing too strange could happen to us, but I couldn't ignore the unsettling, strange feeling that took over (and didn't lift until we left the site later); that feeling that something was just wrong.

The first building was the main house. It was white but the paint was peeling everywhere and the windows were boarded up. The chimney was made of stones and looked like something out of the nineteenth century. The second building was a boarding house and looked much like the third building, only it was longer in length. The third building was an old barn, with one wall knocked down and the rest practically falling apart.

And beyond, through all of the trees, an ancient, small cemetery sat on the blanket of untouched snow. The old-fashioned looking stones stood straight, lined up in a tidy row, each holding the information of a separate identity; an individual who was no longer. Lizz eagerly rushed forward with her camera to explore this interesting discovery and I followed slowly, lost in thought. At that moment, I didn't see us as the teenagers we currently were, exploring a creepy, old campsite in the woods.

Rather, I saw two little girls, seven years old all over again, running through the cemetery in the forest behind the Ziter house. Smiling at the memory, I ran to join Lizz, catching her enthusiasm like the plague.

On My Routes/Roots
By Nicole Knapp
Around four times every year I travel a certain, familiar route and think of my own roots on the way: I make the three hour commute from Massachusetts to Connecticut to visit with my father's side of the family.  The fact that I can make this trip is quite revolutionary because, not only am I hopeless with directions, but also because I am at an age where I can drive now and therefore, drive myself there.
The first half of my route is in Massachusetts and it isn't until the second half that the route to my grandparents' house begins.  This route is old, like my family roots that go back far enough.  I am not yet fully acquainted with my family history, just like I am not yet fully acquainted with my route.  Each time I journey to Connecticut, I find out a little bit more about both.
I've been told that my ability to get lost comes from my father's side of the family and sure enough, every single time I do get lost on my route.  Sometimes it's my fault, like when I zone out or miss a turn.  Sometimes it's not my fault, like the time they changed my route into an unknown highway.  Often when this happens, it make me feel a bit deflated, like I've lost touch with my family roots. If I were more in touch with my family roots, wouldn't I know this route inside and out?
However, this route never fails to interest me, just like my own family roots never fail to interest me.  The route is scenic and my roots are vibrant.  For a good hour I travel alongside the large Connecticut River, which is surrounded by fresh, green trees everywhere.  My uncles are tree surgeons; that's the family business my grandfather started years and years ago.  They can work wonders with trees, from working with them in the springtime to dressing them with lights in the winter.
Eventually, I pass Kent Falls, a beautiful waterfall that cascades down a hill in a state park.  This always reminds me of another particular family route: the route to Saugerties, New York.  This is where the Farm, which has been in the family long before my grandmother's time, is located.  My father's side of the family suggests that I learn to drive it and once I become map savvy and get over my fear of highways, I think it's plausible.
The Farm is big enough to be a farm but isn't a farm at all.  It's a cute little farmhouse with acres and acres of land and fields, and a waterfall.  My family roots are planted firmly here and when I walk through the fresh cut grass, I can sense that.  When I stand and look at the Falls, I remember a home video I once saw.  This is where my ancestors swam.  This is where my father learned to swim.
Back in Conneciticut, I see more landmarks on my route that are connected to my family roots.  Among these is the gigantic grocery store, Stu Leonard's, which I've christened my favorite grocery store ever because of the childhood memories, the smell...basically everything.  Unfortunately, it was also one of the last places I saw my father.
I pass the hospital where I was born and where my mother used to work.  I also pass the Sycamore (a 50's style diner, where they have old car shows and waitresses that wait on you on roller skates), a place my family likes very much.  I pass what I know only as "Grandpa Hane's Factory" - my grandmother's father's factory.  Everyone knows the story about this but I don't.  I intend to find out.
Once I am on the back roads again, there is nothing but trees.  I've traveled these roads numerous times, when in the car with relatives, but only by myself a few times.  And I like this route to my grandparents' because it reminds me of something planted deeply within my family roots: Christmas.  Everyone loves Christmas, and my father especially loved Christmas, and this brings back childhood memories of riding through these back roads in the winter at night, looking at the Christmas lights and listening to "Snoopy's Christmas" (my family likes Peanuts, too).
The very last landmark I pass before I arrive at my destination is my father's house on Lonetown Road.  It is now occupied by my older cousin and for that I am glad, because it means it is staying in the family.  I don't think my route would be quite the same knowing it was in someone else's family.  Everytime I go by this house, I flash a peace sign at it in my father's memory.
I know my roots are deeply ingrained in this area, especially when two minutes down the road I turn into my grandparents' driveway.  This really isn't where the beginning of my roots started, but it's the beginning of where the family roots that I know started.  This is where my grandmother and grandfather began their journey fifty years ago.  This is where my father and his seven siblings grew up.  This is where my seven cousins and I come together to reunite and where my large family comes together to celebrate.

My most recent discovery in this house was the Panic Painters.  In the cellar, there are two wooden doors.  One is a huge pantry with appalling stashes of chocolate, lipstick, Woodstock lotions, and other random things.  The second door has an old sticker on it that says "Panic Painters."  When my father was a kid, he and one of his brothers created their own little business, where they would go paint things, to have some extra cash.  And this is where they stored their supplies.  That fascinates me.

This route that I have grown to love hasn't changed that much in the twenty years that I've traveled it but I have.  This route still holds all the familiar and comforting landmarks, but I've grown from a child to a college student.  But even if it does change, I know that my route will always lead me somehow to my the living room full of photo albums, the house full of history, and the family members full of memories.

How Monkey Man and the Police Taught Me To Appreciate Life
By Nicole Knapp

Anxiety was my forte.

Everything and I mean everything, made me anxious.  Going to school made me anxious.  Meeting new people made me even more anxious.  Ordering my own hamburger at McDonalds made me extremely anxious.  And so it was no surprise that when I scrambled out of my mother's gigantic blue Ford Expedition one chilly September afternoon and saw the frightening looking creature in the window across the street, I felt that anxiety go through the roof.

My mother honked the horn, waved enthusiastically, and pulled away while I looked in horror at the freaky ape-like dummy that stood staring back at me, grinning.

"What is that?" I asked as my friend, Kristina, ran out of her house to join me, her reddish hair glinting in the fall sunlight.

"Monkey Man," she replied, as if it were absolutely no big deal.


"Don't even worry about that thing," she assured me, pulling me away and towards her house.  "The people across the street place it in their front window every Halloween, like some kind of demented trophy.  They love that thing."

My mind was still on Monkey Man when I stepped into Kristina's cozy home.  Three more close friends were sandwhiched on the sofa with a family sized bag of Lays potato chips tucked safely between them.  There was a Johnny Depp movie in Kristina's hand.  Had she been carrying that around?  It wouldn't have surprised me.  We were all thirteen years old and to us middle school teenagers, potato chips and Johnny Depp were thee greatest things ever.

Kristina and I managed to cram ourselves onto the couch and I tried not to look out the large window, across the street at Monkey Man.  But what if he was gone?  What if he was out terrorizing the neighborhood?  How was I ever going to sleep?

I looked over at my friends, all engaged in pre-movie rituals.  Brittney was applying mascara carefully to her already dark eyelashes, using a can of Pepsi as a mirror.  Shauna had traded her science textbook for a magazine and was clipping out coupons for shoes.  And Kaci was poking me in the side, handing me a catalog that was turned to a specific page displaying a set of plastic pink lawn flamingos...on sale.

The movie didn't happen. The thing about Kristina's house was that there was never a dull moment, and concentration and a task as peaceful as a movie was simply not an option, at least not at that point in the late afternoon. 

We padded to her room to brainstorm and the best thing we could come up with was a silly string and shaving cream fight.  We didn't want to exhaust her father's supply of shaving cream, so as the autumn sun retired for the night, we crept out onto the dimly lit streets of Adams.

Monkey Man, complete in a plaid green shirt, was still in the window, but he was now illuminated by the soft light from the living room.  I felt relieved to get away from him as we made our way down past the neat and prim houses on Kristina's street.  The fact that we were walking around the town made me nervous, as well.  I lived in the tiny hilltown of Savoy, where people didn't walk around for fun and especially not at night.  The risk of getting eaten by a bear was simply too high.

I wondered vaguely if my mother would approve and decided to immediately put the thought out of my mind.  She would never know I was out creeping around Adams because what would she be doing driving around town at night?  According to my calculations, she should be safely tucked away on the mountain, watching the Red Sox game with the rest of my family.  And besides, I had more pressing matters to concern myself with, like a certain primate haunting a certain window.

We made our way to the local drug store via a road with a dangerous intersection, where there were usually frequent car collisions - a road ironically named Friend Street.  By the time we made it to the drugstore called Brooks (that has since then been unnecessarily renamed Rite Aid) it was pitch black out.  Buying shaving cream and silly string was quite the adventure and it got my mind off of things.  After making our purchases, we gathered outside the store on the sidewalk, giggling and whispering among ourselves.

At that moment in time, two loud and obnoxious boys (who just so happened to be Kristina's younger brother and his best friend) leaped out from behind the building and began pummeling us with silly string and shaving cream - our very own weapons used against us.  Shrieking, we ran down the street, covered in the sticky, messy debris.  Instead of going back the way we had come, we took a detour and began to climb a tiny hill; broken down apartments on our right and Adams Memorial Middle School - our school - on the left.  And that's when things took a turn for the worst.

A suspicious looking black car inched up the hill, its headlights paving a path, and the driver of the automobile stuck his head out the window and yelled to us.  But since I was the first one in his line of sight, it felt more like he was speaking right to me.  And that terrified me.

"If you kids don't get back down there and clean that up, I'm going to call the police on you!" he growled, his tone threatening and his obnoxious orange shirt glowing in the dark.  We just stared at him, because really, what could we say to that?  We watched as he took off up the hill and disappeared.  We stood completley still, staring at the mess outside the drug store.  Although we were halfway up the hill, we could still see the scene clearly.

We looked back at each other and at exactly the same time, we all broke into a frantic run the rest of the way up the hill.

"Split up!" Brittney yelled to the others, grabbing my sleeve and pulling me one way, while Shauna and Kaci ran in the opposite direction.  Kristina had already disappeared.  I didn't know quite how to deal with what was happening, so I followed Brittney as we ran, like the refugees that we most certainly weren't.

I didn't know the streets of Adams and I especially didn't know them in the dark.  Brittney was from Savoy just like Iwas, but because Kristina was her very best friend, she knew these streets like the back of her hand.  She led me on right turns, left turns, and around bends, as the eerie moonlight followed us through the thick darkness.

We stopped on a street, under a large oak tree, and caught out breath.  My side burned from the cool air and fear repeatedly stabbed me in the gut.  Would we get arrested?  What would my mother think of this?  I would never have a social life again if she found out - not that I had one to begin with, but still.

We heard the police sirens before we saw them.  I looked urgently at my friend and we began to run again, although I felt like I was going to die from exhaustion and fear.  I looked at each house as we ran past, trying to decide which was the least suspicious looking if we possibly needed to beg someone to hide us.

We quickly scurried down a hill I had never before seen and just like that, we were back at the beginning of Kristina's street.  We crept up the road gratefully and approached her house, my eyes traveling to Monkey Man's window immedately.  Thankfully, he had not gone anywhere.  Or if he had, he returned in the nick of time.

There was a rustle in the bushes and Shauna, Kaci, and Kristina emerged.  They were itching themselves irritably and that's when I realized that my skin was burning.

"I didn't know that shaving cream burned," Shauna said and Kristina led us into the house, muttering furious obscenities under her breath.

We took turns getting into the shower, fully clothed, to wash away the shaving cream, silly string, and burning sensations.  We plotted revenge against her brother the entire time, but as it got later, our anger faded and we dutifully retired to Kristina's bedroom floor to a pile of sleeping bags and pillows and that's when we began to laugh.  Despite my initial terror, my friends helped me to realize a few things that night.

Life is too short to worry about everything and it's okay to be a bit scandalous sometimes.  It's okay to run from the police, especially if the situation is not your fault, and it's okay to have fun doing so.  Monkey Man will not kill you in your sleep, in fact, he isn't even real and in a month's time, he will be back in the attic where he belongs.

Perhaps we should have stayed on Kristina's couch that night, eating potato chips and watching Johnny Depp movies.  And although I do still think potato chips and Johnny Depp are the greatest things ever, I now also think that a little adventure every once in awhile is healthy.

However, despite these new liberating discoveries, I was weighed down with illogical guilt.  I told my mother about our adventure a few days later, expecting a scolding. 

But she just laughed.

"Nicole," she said lightly, pulling burnt Halloween cookies out of the oven.  "You have to learn to relax and appreciate all moments in life - no matter how nerve-wracking, terrifying, or plain crazy they are."  While trying to drown out the sound of my stepfather chasing our little dog with the vacuum cleaner in the background, I thought about this carefully as my mother cheerfully threw the burnt cookies into the trash.  "After all, those are the moments in life that will make the best stories."
Tom Petty: A Woodstock Experience
By Nicole Knapp
September 16, 2010
August 27th couldn’t come soon enough.
It was going to be the perfect trip in so many ways.  My boyfriend, Matt, was taking me to Saratoga Springs, N.Y, to see Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.  I had recently become a full blown Tom Petty fanatic that summer and I had gone through an enormous amount of trouble to get tickets.  Yes, it was going to be a marvelous experience, I could tell.

It didn’t matter anymore that I had gotten tickets late and that I paid a ridiculous amount of money to get even somewhat close to the stage; if I was seeing Tom Petty, he wasn’t going to be an ant.  It didn’t matter anymore that my family thought I was crazy; Tom Petty was 60 years old, after all, they said.  Yes, I argued, but he was still Tom Petty.

Everything worked out and I knew the concert was going to work out perfectly, too.  In fact, I already had my annual concert ritual all planned out.  Every single concert I went to, I was nervous until I got a parking spot, got my ticket scanned, bought a t-shirt, put that t-shirt on, and used the bathroom.  Only after those five activities were complete and I was safely in my seat did I calm down and enjoy the show.

I didn’t know at the time that I was in for an extremely unpleasant surprise.  We got stuck in bumper to bumper traffic for four hours.  I knew that the traffic was going to completely mess with my head and with my whole concert routine.

We were approximately four minutes away from the arena the entire time.  To make my experience a bit less anxiety-inducing, I began to compare our situation to the Woodstock Festival of ’69.

Yes, I convinced myself, this was like my own personal little Woodstock.  Crosby, Stills, and Nash had played at Woodstock and they were opening for Tom Petty at that very moment.  We were so close that when we rolled down the car windows, we could hear them playing.  A man a few cars behind us began to shout obscenities because he was missing “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” 

There had been an enormous traffic jam at Woodstock, as well, although I knew that traffic jam had been ten times worse than the one we were in at that moment.  I began to brainstorm and think about how it would solve everything if everyone would just pull a Woodstock and park where they were on the road so we could all get out and go see Tom Petty and live happily ever after.  After all, everyone was already using the woods as a restroom, with the sounds of Crosby, Stills, & Nash as background music.  I couldn’t have felt more like a hippie.

Although I had been comparing my experience to Woodstock, I also couldn’t help but compare my experience to the Titanic.  Tom Petty was going to come out at any minute.  The lucky people already in the arena were the people in the lifeboats.  The people in the traffic jam, like Matt and myself, were sinking.  Didn’t the arena staff know that half of the sold out audience was sinking (trying to park)?  They had to do something.

In those four hours, I was forced to drop my concert routine and become an entirely different person, who had to convince herself that the world would not end if she missed Tom Petty’s entrance.  I became a person who was actually having a bit of adventure in her life, a truly memorable experience.  I became a person who fought through mobs of people to find her seat when she actually did get into the arena.  I became a person who had to laugh in the face of adversity.

I became a person who had to wait to get her concert t-shirt until after the show.

At 9:00 we were in our seats and Tom Petty came out.

I watched in breathless, ecstatic happiness as he came on stage, waving and smiling, and began to play his guitar and sing.  Bewildered, I wondered if he had come on so late because he knew that people had been desperately trying to arrive. Or had it merely been his plan all along?  And the only crazy explanation I could think of was that it had been a miracle.  Two hours of driving, four hours in traffic, crippling anxiety, four restroom trips, a parking place in the middle of nowhere, and Tom Petty, right on time.

The car ride there plus traffic equaled a six hour car ride.  What could I have done in six hours?  I could have worked an entire shift at the Big Y, I could have watched Woodstock or Titanic in its entirety, or I could have driven to Connecticut and back. But about six hours of anxiety and bumper to bumper traffic?

I would, no doubt, do it all over again.

The Journey Into Beatlemania
By Nicole Knapp
October 28, 2010

Looking back at my early teen years, I usually saw myself as a pioneer.

I lived on the mountain of Savoy, a twelve minute drive from the nearest town, and the only thing even remotely close to civilization that we had was a tiny general store.  I had no license and no car, and I wouldn’t for at least another three years.  One thing that always seemed like a worthwhile thing to do was go to Wal*Mart.

When I was that age, going to Wal*Mart wasn’t a nuisance, like it is now.  It was downright exciting.  Going to Wal*Mart in North Adams was literally like being a pioneer, descending into town from somewhere in the wild boondocks.

I was thirteen years old the night I went to Wal*Mart with my best friend, Lizz, and her mother, Sherry, and bought a DVD.  It seems like a relatively unimportant and normal scenario, but it would lead to a whole lot more than that.

One Christmas around that time, I had bought Lizz a mini calendar of The Beatles and she had hung it right next to her bed.  As the days passed, I would often look at that calendar, and over time, I became fascinated with Ringo Starr.  I think that was in the back of my head when I bought that certain DVD.

We walked out into her driveway that night and when I looked up at the sky there was a bright, white, full moon in the sky. I remember that it was the most comforting image.  And I had always thought driving at night was a comforting feeling as well, and so with Ringo and the moon filed somewhere in my memory, we were off.

We entered the familiar North Adams Wal*Mart, complete with retail scent and the “Welcome to Wal*Mart” greeter who handed out smiley face stickers.  We did not have jobs at the time and so any money that we did have in our pockets was rare and special.  However, I was the kind of kid who only left a store feeling completely fulfilled if I bought something, and that was how I ended up in the electronics section, picking out “The Beatles: The First U.S Visit,” a DVD from 1994.

Sherry had left us in the electronics section while she went to finish her shopping and probably with the instructions to stay put until she came back.  And so we meandered around that section of the store, knowing it would be stupid to try and brave the maze that was Wal*Mart to find her.  And during that time, I couldn’t just impulsively buy the DVD before I changed my mind.  I must have asked Lizz at least nine times if it was a good idea to buy it, and finally, that’s what I did.

At the time, The Beatles did not hold any special significance to me.  In my sixth grade music class, I had watched Beatles movies and learned about the clues to the “Paul Is Dead” Hoax. Lizz’s parents also had some old Beatles records at their home that I had seen here and there.

But by buying this DVD, I was beginning my own journey into the discovery of The Beatles.  And it was honestly one of the best discoveries of my life and if I could, I would do it all over again.  The memories that were created at that time were just so much fun, a representation of a time when I was pretty much carefree and the only responsibility I had was making sure I arrived at middle school every day.

When I was thirteen I watched that DVD constantly, getting so much joy out of watching The Beatles perform, seeing them interact with each other, and hearing their British accents.  I watched that DVD before every dreaded babysitting job, because I needed some kind of happy image to get me through it.  I begged my mother for a ride to Wal*Mart every week so that I could collect every Beatles CD I could get my hands on.  I was lulled to sleep every night to the sounds of Abbey Road.

I wrote a Beatles research paper in 8th grade and beamed when it was handed back to me with a note that said, “Nicole, this was clearly a labor of love.”  I huddled around a computer screen in the dark with Lizz, playing Beatles songs backwards and being thoroughly freaked out, to the point where I couldn’t sleep.  It was a time when hearing a Beatles song randomly on the radio was a literally a sign of good things to come for that day.

And what makes this so significant is that around that time, I discovered my favorite genre of music, and The Beatles led the way and guided me to that.  They were part of the reason I plunged into a sea of classic rock that I had never cared for when I was a kid.  And it all began with that one DVD, something that I had bought for fun and because I had felt I just needed to purchase something.

I think the greatest significance of the DVD is that it made me so happy.  It made me happy as a kid, and The Beatles (and classic rock) continue to make me happy now.  They entertain me and inspire me.  They make me want to be push myself and see what I can be.  They get me through tough times.  They remind me of a better time and a better place.

And the wonderful thing is that the journey never ends.  It was only recently that I began to collect their solo music, although now I need to turn to the internet to do so.  I’ve seen Paul in concert twice and I’ve seen Ringo three times.  To this day, whenever I hear the music of The Beatles, it genuinely feels like coming home. And people still tell me that whenever they hear The Beatles or see something Beatles-related, they think of me.  I couldn’t ask for a greater compliment. 

And furthermore, it represents a strong sense of nostalgia and things that I miss.  Buying that DVD represented the good times I had with my best friend, the experiences I had as I became a teenager, the beliefs I would come to develop, and the little things that always mean the most.

I’ve been a Beatles fan for almost eight years now and since then, I have proudly told my mother that it wasn’t a phase after all.  No Mom, the Spice Girls may have been a phase, but the Beatles never were.

The Ever Dramatic Adventures of Kenny Girard
By Nicole Knapp
November 23, 2010

“Bone, your car is missing,” he once said.

It was a fairly ordinary Saturday morning when I set myself on the couch, next to the window, to do some homework.  My fifteen year old brother, Kenny Girard, had been floating idly around the kitchen, when he suddenly came over to me.

“What?” I had asked, knowing perfectly well that my car was in the driveway, where it always was.

“No, I swear, your car is not in the driveway.  It’s gone.”

After at least five minutes, he finally came over to the window and pulled up the shades.  And there, parked in the grass at the side of the house where it definitely should not have been, was my car.  My brother went and did a victory lap in my Jeep around the back yard, leaving tire tracks in the precious grass in his wake.

This is most definitely an indication that my brother loves a good joke, like any teenage boy would.  I suppose we all should have known, since it started at a fairly early age.  At a young age, he subscribed to Playboy magazine as a joke, probably just to see my mother’s reaction, and it mysteriously arrived right on April Fool’s Day.  Our mother, appalled at what the mail lady must have thought, made him cancel it immediately. 

There was also a time when I “forged” a note for him when he was in middle school, not realizing he was actually going to hand it in to the teacher.  But hand it in to the teacher he did.  And more recently, I was driving him home and he led me down a dirt road.   There was an orange sign blocked by a grouchy old man, and after braving the bumpy and downright dangerous dirt road, my brother revealed that the sign had said, “Road closed.”

It’s very strange to me that he is no longer the little boy with the buzz cut and the chubby cheeks.  Now he’s the teenage boy who looks like he could belong in an 80s hair metal band.  He enjoys growing facial hair, and getting a haircut is a sad occasion because his bangs are usually right down to his eyes.  He looks like the complete opposite of me; although our facial structure is similar, his blonde hair and blue eyes are very different from my brown hair and brown eyes. 

He is probably one of the tallest people I know, towering above our parents and our sister.  The top of my head only reaches his chin.  I can still remember how, not long ago, I had reunited with my best friend, Lizz, who I hadn’t hung out with in quite a few years.  And when she stepped into my house and saw what used to be “little Kenny,” she expressed her absolute shock and humor at the fact the top of her head only came up to his chest.

“I would concur, I think hump day (so to speak) is the longest,” he said recently.

For some reason unknown to me, he occasionally enjoys using words and phrases that people his age don’t usually use. He calls me “Bone,” his father “Twigs,” his mother “Hog,” his little sister “Skip,” his friends “Dawg,” his girlfriend “The Honey,” and everyone else in general, he calls “son.”  He is quiet and shy around other people, but around us, not so much. 

He loves Subway and he always wears shorts and a t-shirt, even in the winter when we are all bundled up and frostbitten.   He has a strange fascination with cats, especially obese ones.  I suppose he is still a kid at heart, such as the time when he and his girlfriend sported matching Elmo shirts, and the time he thought it would be comical to pose next to a Big Bird poster for a picture (even though I’m pretty sure he has never watched Sesame Street in his life).  He still plays baseball, but now it’s on the Hoosac Valley High School team, not t-ball. 

“Bone, can we go driving in the cemetery?” he asks all the time.

My brother doesn’t turn sixteen until April, but he often asks this question, and one time, I actually let him.  And speaking of driving…he is absolutely obsessed with it, most likely because he cannot do it yet.  He tells me that I am going to be the one to teach him to drive, and along those lines, I am also proud that I bought him Metallica tickets for his fifteenth birthday and therefore, took him to his first concert.

My brother has often told me that he enjoys our car rides, where we “bond.”  And I suppose by bonding, he means telling me he isn’t listening to my hippie crap and breaking out his extension cord, plugging in his IPod, and singing at the top of his lungs with his head out the window.  This is where he likes to be dramatic and practice his falsetto.  He sings everything from KISS to Lady GaGa to his personal favorite, “Hey Soul Sister.”

I guess this highlights the fact that I am an outsider in my very own car.  We listen to what he wants to listen to, but if a particularly beloved song of mine comes on, he will tolerate it.  And the entire time I am listening to this one allowed song, I am hoping he is grasping the magic of “Band on the Run” by Paul McCartney or “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen.  Needless to say, whenever he comes down to my room and requests to borrow one of my classic rock albums, I am so very proud and lend it to him for as long as he would like (generally around a week).  He has chosen certain favorites of his that have become our annual driving staples, such as “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” by The Beach Boys and “Mr. Blue Sky,” by Electric Light Orchestra.

Since I am the older sister and I would like to keep a relationship with him, I often spoil him, I suppose.  When I pick him up from his girlfriend’s at night, a late McDonald’s run is usually in order.  But he is kind enough that he doesn’t make me ask for a side of extra pickles, like he makes our mother do.   But it never fails to astound me how he can eat two Big Macs, or devour an entire party box of Taco Bell soft tacos, by himself.

“Bone, I think it’s time for your oil to be changed again,” he says every four months.

He believes that he is going to inherit my Jeep and so he keeps it in perfect working condition.  He cleans it and changes the oil and does all of the other odd jobs that I don’t know how to do.  He has actually begged me for a ride to Wal*Mart so he could buy oil to put in my car. 

We had no idea what kind of oil to buy and so we meandered in the oil aisle for at least fifteen minutes.   And after making a very educated guess, we purchased that oil, only to find out when we got out to the parking lot that I had locked my keys in the car.  He wasn’t too happy with me. On top of that, we had gotten the wrong oil.

“Bone, I wish I had a job,” he says constantly.

I don’t know how many times I have told him to enjoy high school and having no job responsibilities, or that he could have my job if he was eighteen.

He is in high school and it is a time where if I ride to school with him and Mom, I have to sit in the backseat because his “dawgs” would make fun of him if he didn’t get out of the front seat.  And I suppose that’s okay for me to occasionally sit in the backseat.  After all, I have given him hell for having to get dropped off in the Girard Plumbing & Heating van on some mornings.

But although he likes to cause mischief, he has his moments, such as the time when our dog ran to the neighbors across the street.  While I was still running down the driveway barefoot with the leash, he was already at the neighbor’s, restraining the dog and apologizing sincerely for the trouble. 

I like that we don’t fight anymore; he doesn’t chase me around the house with a baseball bat like he used to. I can’t count how many times I used to lock myself in the bathroom in genuine fear, because although at the time, my brother was five years younger than me and half my size, he could wreak havoc with a baseball bat.

And furthermore, I don’t hit him on the head with the remote anymore.  It was back in the “good ole’ days” when we had dial-up internet and if someone was online, you couldn’t use the phone.  And my brother would never get offline so that I could use the phone, and so I bonked him on the head with his remote control one night.  I feel bad now when I remember the loud thump and how it had made his head sound hollow.  In fact, I used to call him Charlie Brown because of his particularly round head, which made him extremely frustrated.

Somehow, we went from terrorizing each other, to Guitar Hero buddies, to the “bonding” driving siblings that we are now.  He is an interesting personality, to say the least.  And I’m sure the future has a lot more in store for the both of us, minus the deadly baseball bats and remote controls, but certainly with the addition of rock favorites and driving lessons.

Ode to Big Y
By Nicole Knapp
December 7, 2010

“Don’t be afraid of anybody,” Anne had told me one day over the summer.

By that point in time at Big Y, I had come face to face with rude customers and frustrating employees, and I had made some ordinary mistakes here and there.  I had almost gotten run over by cars in the parking lot and I had sliced my finger open on a broken microwave plate.  I had cared too much and I had cared too little.  I had sampled liverwurst.

Some of these experiences were expected and some were not.  But furthermore, hearing the advice of the deli manager to fear no one was something I wasn’t expecting at all.

Everybody in the store was anxious because the Big Y “sanitation lady” had come as a surprise and was going to inspect everything and watch everyone like a hawk.  I had never before encountered this sanitation lady and I don’t like people watching me (and especially not closely) and so this made me very nervous.  I didn’t want to be the one to do something unsanitary and get our department into trouble.

I spent the better part of the morning cleaning things until they sparkled and anxiously changing my gloves every two minutes.  I paced the floor and made silly mistakes and that is when Anne’s profound statement had burned itself into my brain.

Once the sanitation lady arrived, I made customers my top priority.  I was very cheerful, foolishly hoping that if I was pleasant enough the customers would stay and chat, or at least order some more deli meat. That way I wouldn’t have to turn around and see the sanitation lady staring me down with her dark, eerie expression, watching me closely for any opportunity to catch me in some kind of wrongdoing. 

But I must rewind back four years.

I did not want a job and I especially did not want to work at Big Y.  I wanted to be a waitress at the Freight Yard Pub…just because.  And what happened on my very first day at Big Y in Adams should have been a sign of things to come.  My first day of employment was October 13, 2006, but furthermore, it was Friday the 13th.  And that morning, I backed into my stepdad’s truck.

My first order of operation at Big Y was as a service clerk and my job consisted of collecting shopping carts from around the parking lot, bagging people’s orders, and putting random things back on the shelf.  A few weeks later, I became a cashier, where I scanned items all day and delighted in the “beep” noise, until I eventually became numb to it.

I encountered mean people, pleasant people, and downright strange people.  I never before realized what an amazing population of intoxicated, grouchy, and suspicious people Adams held.  I somehow learned to not let things bother me; if anything, I tried to laugh more.  I made friends, including a boy who introduced me to Taco Bell and Chinese food and who taught me how to pump gas and brave the Pittsfield intersection.

Lesson learned from my service clerk and cashier days: don’t let people bother you. 

Two years later I was trained in the courtesy desk, where I spent my days merrily handing out scratch tickets and cigarettes.  If I thought I was an anxious person before, it was nothing compared to what I was going to experience at that desk.  I took my position very seriously, and got it into my head that I had to abide by every single rule of Big Y, lest I get in trouble.  I experienced more frightening types of people…not just the silly, drunk kind, but the truly angry and spiteful kind, and I began to loathe the courtesy desk.  I thought that everything I did was wrong and I questioned every decision I made.  And after only about a year, I got myself out of there.

Lesson learned from my courtesy desk days: don’t let people bother you and don’t over think things.

Next, I was placed in the deli, but also did a brief stint in the bakery. 

I wanted to get away from the anxiety I was experiencing in the deli and that’s why I tried to get into the bakery department.  And I did, but the problem was that the only way to get into the bakery department was to train as the 4 AM baker.  Nevertheless, I was excited.  I believed completely that I could do it and that it would be easy and life would good again.

I had never been so wrong before.  Constantly changing my sleep schedule, combined with getting up at 3 AM and sometimes only getting two hours of sleep, and school on top of it all…pretty much reduced me to a nervous wreck who could barely function day to day.  Needless to say, I knew pretty soon I would be on my knees begging for the anxiety of the deli and so after two and a half weeks, I said goodbye to the bakery.

Lesson learned from my bakery days: don’t let people bother you, don’t over think things, and don’t try to work at 4 AM ever again.

And so back at the deli I went and back at the deli I stayed.

It was here that I was put to the ultimate test.  I had always been afraid of people, but for the most part, they had been customers.  And now I was faced with being afraid of the very people that I worked with.  For here, in the deli department, were a set of individuals so unique and so independent, that I felt almost like I couldn’t hold my own.

And with the deli also came a plethora of new experiences.  I held a sort of sympathy for animals, but that didn’t explain why I could skewer a chicken with no problem, but feel an enormous amount of sadness when selling a live lobster to a customer.  Every Halloween I wasn’t sure what to be, and so I ended up being a hippie every time.  I learned to barter, deli-style (“You mop my floor, I’ll mop yours.”)  But from that department alone, I learned a lot about friendships.

The friendships that one comes across at their place of employment are remarkable.  You would think that you would just go, work, and leave – and essentially, that’s what happens but it still doesn’t explain the trips to Chee’s Chinese, the late night hour long phone calls, the wedding showers, the baby showers, the road trips, and the overall family bond that occurs there.

Lesson learned from my deli days: don’t let people bother you, don’t over think things, don’t try to work at 4 AM ever again, and have some fun at work.

And so the day that the sanitation lady came to visit, I went through the rest of my shift as cheerfully as I could, slicing turkey for unsuspecting customers and not letting the sanitation lady bother me, although it felt like her presence was everywhere.  And when it was time for me to leave for the day, I rejoiced in relief and escaped from the sanitation lady who, with her blue jacket and blonde hair, was still roaming the store in search of germs and unsanitary situations.

And Anne’s words have stayed with me.  Don’t be afraid of anybody.

And so, I’ve made some friends.  I’ve found support.  I’ve dumped a bucket of chicken grease on myself and I’ve sung Christmas carols.  I’ve met a boy who would become my boyfriend of four years…the same boy who brought me Chinese food and taught me to pump gas in my cashier days.

But finding a sense of belonging? I hadn’t been expecting that either.

Food Ethnography: A Recipe for Pot Roast
By Nicole Knapp
May 12, 2012
When we were first assigned our food ethnography project, I immediately knew that the person I wanted to cook with was my grandmother, Elizabeth “Betty” Knapp.  Ever since I was a child, I remember her cooking and I remember during recent visits sitting in her kitchen, talking with her and watching her cook. 
Grandma learned to cook when she was young by watching her mother and three aunts, Kate, Ida, and Elizabeth, cook at The Farm (family property in Saugerties, N.Y with a beautiful white house, acres of green grass, a waterfall, and a slightly hidden cemetery at the end of the driveway).  She was allowed to stay and watch as long as she was quiet, and so she kept out of the way and did a lot of watching.

One weekend recently, I traveled to Connecticut, where my father’s side of the family lives, and made pot roast with my grandmother.  I’ve had this dish many times at her house and I love it, but it also has significance.  It’s a German dish that Grandma grew up with and that is traditional to her family.  Her grandmother was a cook in Germany and she told me this is probably how the dish came into her family.  She also still has a watch on a big chain that her grandmother used to time things with and wear around her neck.   

The pot roast can be made with specific German noodles and Grandma has made it with noodles from Germany she buys at a nearby store.  In fact, her family mostly used noodles but Grandma started using potatoes and carrots because it was easier; she had eight children, along with herself and Grandpa, to feed.

That Saturday, Grandma brought out a big Bel Q pot that she bought years ago (she doesn’t like to use crock pots, although she still thinks they are a good invention, especially for busy women).  I learned that it’s important to have the pot warm before I begin cooking because the meat will never brown in a cold pot.  The cut of meat used for this dish is a rump roast, which Grandma rinsed and patted dry, explaining that it shouldn’t be wet; if it’s not dry, it won’t brown as well.

She began by putting a little bit of oil in the pot and then it was time to add the ingredients, which included Lawry’s Black Pepper Seasoned Salt, paprika (used in a lot of German dishes, I was told), Herbes de Provence, and white pepper.  Grandma said her family always used white pepper (which is the inside of the peppercorn) and on the plus side, it doesn’t make you sneeze like black pepper does.  Also, she likes the brand Penzeys Spices, LTD.  She said most people would say it’s not any better than the commercial brand McCormick in the supermarket, but she thinks it is better (and even has a whole rack of them!).

The roast was beginning to brown at this point (cooking on medium), so it was turned over and allowed to sit for a few minutes.  Grandma then turned the roast on its side and added a little knob of butter for flavor. 

Next we added the chopped onions for more flavor (Grandma never uses garlic) and turned up the oven a bit, because the onions do slow the browning (“Watch it doesn’t steam!”).  Grandma also added a few Bay leaves (warning me never to eat them because they will kill your intestines), and turned the rump again.  This is also when Grandma told me that she never makes this dish after she has gotten her hair done; the smell of the pot roast can easily get in hair and her aunt used to wrap a turban around her head when she made it at The Farm (where they didn’t have fans) because she believed it kept the smell out.

Grandma then stood the rump up and leaned it on its side and added a can of Campbell’s Golden Mushroom – something that she herself added to the recipe when she began making it.  She taught me a trick: rinse the can out and fill it with water to add to the pot; by reusing the can, you get more of the contents out that way.  She also added two cans of Campbell’s beef broth, a small bottle of merlot wine (any nice red wine will do), and two 32 oz. containers of Swanson Beef Broth (100 % fat free, no MSG added, 100 % natural).  By now there was a lovely, dark broth that entirely covered the rump roast.

Then it was time to bring it to a boil; Grandma mentioned that she doesn’t like doing a “walloping boil.”  The roast should be kept covered and fluid - she doesn’t put the top on entirely; rather, she tilts it.

The next step was to peel the carrots and potatoes (red potatoes, because they keep their shape) and let them soak in water, before adding them to the pot.  I had only ever peeled potatoes once in my life, with a knife and I think it was only one potato and definitely not a successful peel. Grandma taught me the proper way to peel a potato, with a peeler.  The tip of my right pointer finger was numb for a few days after, but I loved it and I thought to myself that I really need to get myself a peeler when I move into my own house one day.

We turned the roast over once more and as the afternoon went on, checked on it periodically.  Eventually, Grandma added mixed corn starch and water to thicken the gravy and spooned the fat off the top of the broth.  That night, Grandma, Grandpa, and I enjoyed it.  There were even leftovers and I took some home to share with my boyfriend; the pot roast did survive the three hour car ride back to Massachusetts!

"You can learn to cook 'til the day you die," Grandma told me that day, explaining how after learning to cook, you can add some of your own touches and make things your own way.  I think this is exactly what Grandma did with the pot roast; although her family made it with noodles, she began making it with vegetables because it suited her lifestyle better at the time.  I am so glad I got the opportunity to cook with my grandmother; I don't get to visit as often as I'd like because of work and school and so it was a great experience to spend the day with her, learning to cook a dish significant to our family.  Pot roast is a dish that Grandma suggested I learn to make and I do look forward to making it myself one day, just like she did and, and like her grandmother, mother, and aunts did before her.

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