We were just living. We didn’t know that we were creating memories, and we weren’t trying to anyway. And if anyone had told us that we were making history, we’d have laughed outright at them. How do you make history by just living? We’d have thought it was absurd, to say the least.
It was right around this time of year when the great chestnut trees of the northeast, those utterly majestic giants, would release their booty. Thousands upon thousands of chestnuts hidden away in thick, spiky, green shells would fall to the ground, and we’d compete with the squirrels to get them. There was plenty for everyone and then some, but it never hurt to collect several bags more just in case. Our eyes gleamed with the prospect!
First, we’d fill up large brown paper grocery bags right to the top with “horse chestnuts” and we’d sell them to Old Tom, a farmer who came to town at this time of year to get chestnuts collected by children. He’d pay us $1 a bag. We didn’t have plastic grocery bags then, so we had to double-bag the big brown paper bags and then bring them to him in a wagon because the bags were so heavy we couldn’t lift them. Old Tom would use them to keep the deer busy and happy and away from his orchards. Contrary to popular belief, horse chestnuts aren’t for horses.
After we made our $1 a bag—and believe me, that was a LOT of money!—it was then time to make different crafts from the chestnuts. Everyone would steal the awl from their father’s tool chest (no sense in asking because he’d just say no due to the stickiness left on his awl) and we’d pierce each chestnut right through the center until we had a nice even hole straight through. Then we’d grab twine and make necklaces and bracelets with the chestnuts. The twine was rough and horrible and would rub our necks completely raw, but we’d rather bleed to death than take off our chestnut necklaces. We would go door-to-door in town, selling our wares and making even more money. Oh, the kind-hearted people who bought our goods.
One year, I made a rosary for my mother. It was absolutely enormous, and the cross at the bottom was made from two popsicle sticks I had glued together. But it was an authentic rosary in every way, just not very practical, I guess. You certainly couldn’t discreetly hide it in your pocket. My mother hung it up on a wall in the house, and there it stayed for many years. The chestnuts shriveled and gathered dust over that time, but their appeal was still undeniable.
Then the blight came and wiped out all of the great old chestnut trees. One by one, they were cut down, and the scent was terrible. I’ll never forget it. To this day when I smell it, I know the blight is right around the corner, even if the trees in the area appear healthy. I know what’s coming. So we lost them all, and now the old enormous chestnut trees are part of history. Some newer ones still grow, but they never reach the majestic size of the old trees because the blight finds them every time. Still, there are some trees here and there.
The chestnuts in the photo come from an old graveyard, quite fitting. The tree is quite big. It’s not as big as the old trees were, but for a modern-day horse chestnut tree, it’s huge. It has the blight, though just mildly. I still collect some of the chestnuts, just for fun, really. Old Tom died over 25 years ago, and no one cares about a bunch of old chestnuts. Although, the squirrels still fancy them.
It wasn’t memories we were intending to create or botanical history we were trying to make. We were just in the right place at the right time. We were just living.