Blood, Bones & Butter

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WE THREW A PARTY. THE SAME PARTY, EVERY YEAR, WHEN I WAS a kid. It was a spring lamb roast, and we roasted four or five whole little guys who each weighed only about forty pounds over an open fire and invited more than a hundred people. Our house was in a rural part of Pennsylvania and was not really a house at all but a wild castle built into the burnt-out ruins of a nineteenth-century silk mill, and our backyard was not a regular yard but a meandering meadow, with a creek running through it and wild geese living in it and a Death Slide cable that ran from high on an oak to the bank of the stream and deposited you, shrieking, into the shallow water. Our town shared a border so closely with New Jersey that we could and did walk back and forth between the two states several times in a day by crossing the Delaware River. On weekend mornings we had breakfast at Smutzie’s in Lambertville, on the Jersey side, but then we got gas for the car at Sam Williams’s Mobil on the New Hope side. In the afternoons after school on the Pennsylvania side, I walked over to the Jersey side and got guitar lessons at Les Parson’s guitar shop.

That part of the world, heavily touristed as it was, was an important location of many events in the American Revolutionary War. George Washington crossed the Delaware here, to victory at the Battle of Trenton, trudging through the snowy woods and surprising the British in spite of some of his troops missing proper shoes, their feet instead wrapped in newspaper and burlap. But now my hometown has become, mostly, a sprawl of developments and subdivisions, gated communities of small mansions that look somewhat like movie sets that will be taken down at the end of the shoot. Each housing development has a “country” name—Squirrel Valley, Pine Ridge, Eagle Crossing, Deer Path—which has an unkind way of invoking and recalling the very things demolished when building them. There is now a McDonalds and a Kmart—but when I was growing up, you had to ride your bike about a mile down a very dark country road thick with night insects stinging your face to even find a plugged-in Coke machine where you could buy a vended soda for thirty-five cents. Outside Cal’s Collision Repair in the middle of the night that machine glowed like something almost religious. You can now buy a Coke twenty-four hours a day at half a dozen places.

But when I was young, where I lived was mostly farmland, rolling fields, rushing creeks when it rained, thick woods, and hundred-year-old stone barns. It was a beautiful, rough, but lush setting for the backyard party my parents threw with jug wine and spit-roasted lambs and glow-in–the-dark Frisbees. The creek dividing the meadow meandered and, at its deepest bend, was lined with small weeping willows that grew as we grew and bent their long, willowy, tearful branches down over the water. We would braid a bunch of the branches together to make a Tarzan kind of vine rope that we could swing on, out over the stream in our laceless sneakers and bathing suits, and land in the creek. That is where we chilled all of the wines and beers and sodas for the party.

We were five kids in my family, and I am the youngest. We ran in a pack—to school, home from school, and after dinner at dusk—like wild dogs. If the Mellman kids were allowed out and the Bentley boys, the Drevers, and