A jar stuffed with the cucumbers, onions and dill.

Last days of summer

Goldenrod, jewelweed, bee balm, black-eyed Susans, purple loosestrife—the back-to-school flowers are blooming.

Instead of enjoying the blooms in all of my favorite colors, I get a sense of dread, a panic…it’s back-to-school time.

Maybe it comes from my traumatic first day of kindergarten. I started at the Edgemont School in Montclair, September of 1959. The walk to school was beautiful; up Chestnut Street, down Valley Road, through Edgemont Park and up to the stairs of the kindergarten annex of the Edgemont Elementary School.

A jar of freshly made pickles sits in the warm summer sun.
A jar of freshly made pickles sits in the warm summer sun.

My teacher, Mrs. Novak, a petite woman with a warm smile and brown hair drawn up into a bun, greeted my classmates and I at the door. Inside, there was that smell of new reams of paper and freshly sharpened pencils. Sunlight streamed through the tall windows.

My mother and brother kissed me goodbye and then, despite the cozy surroundings, pure fear set in. We were grouped at low tables and Mrs. Novak gave us an assignment: to draw a picture of our families.

She distributed sheets of blank newsprint paper and gave each of us a box of crayons. Big, bulky rounded crayons with flat bottoms. Eight different colors: red, blue, yellow, orange, green, brown, black, and purple were supposed to be packed tightly into the big Crayola box, but not mine—my box shook suspiciously. I was missing the purple crayon! I was devastated. I didn’t know what to do.

Afraid to speak, not even knowing I was supposed to raise my hand, I blurted out “Teacher, I Don’t have a purple one!” and began to cry inconsolably. She gently corrected me: “My name is Mrs. Novak,” which made the situation even worse. Now I had called my teacher by the wrong name. I’m sure she gave me another purple crayon immediately, and, by the time we had our snack of graham crackers and milk and lay down on our little rugs for naps, I must have calmed down.

I knew one thing, though; I didn’t want to go back there.

Moving to Lake Hopatcong was another traumatic event for me. I had finally gotten used to my school in Montclair—after all I was in the fifth grade. I had come to enjoy my walk up Chestnut and

Some of the ingredients needed to make pickles.
Some of the ingredients needed to make pickles.

down Valley to school through the beautiful park, now with friends that my brother, Frank, and I would pick up along the way.

And, as if the move up to the “country” weren’t enough of an upheaval, we moved to the lake in the middle of the school year, in January. The trip to Ellen T. Briggs would have been about the same walking distance as from our home in Montclair to Edgemont School, but kids didn’t walk to school up here. We had to take a school bus. And the bus didn’t go straight to the school. We meandered all over the place picking up the few kids that lived on Nolan’s Point year-round before getting to the Briggs school—it was so irritating.

Having the entire summer off living on Lake Hopatcong made up for all of the misery I associated with the school year. There was swimming, sailing and water-skiing. There was boathouse tag. We spent the entire summer in wet bathing suits. There was lots of company, lots of fun and great food from my mother’s kitchen. It was paradise, but all the fun came to an end in early September.

Sensing the impending doom of the approaching school year and probably feeling sorry for us, on Labor Day, which was usually the day before school started, my mother let us celebrate our last day of freedom in a special way. My mother, Gertrude, would let Frank and I do whatever we wanted, all day long. We could watch cartoons all morning, we were excused from all of our chores, there was no set mealtime, in essence, there were no rules. We could have friends over, we could go out in the boat, and, if we wanted, we could eat candy and chew gum all day.

To this day, though, the old feelings of panic, fear, dread, and separation still haunt me at the end of summer. Inside, I am still a kid that does not do transitions well.

These last few summers, I have taken the edge off the onset of autumn by learning how to prepare and preserve the fruits and vegetables of the late summer harvest. I have learned to embrace the baskets of cucumbers, tomatoes and zucchini that have been showered upon me from friends with overflowing gardens.

My brother, Harry, taught me how to make these pickles last year. They require no special equipment and you can customize their flavor to your liking. I like using small Kirby cucumbers, but you can use store-bought cucumbers or even the fancy English ones that come shrink-wrapped in plastic.

You will need:

One 2-quart glass jar with lid

Pickles:

10 (about 6 inches long) Kirby cucumbers (about 4 cups, sliced)

1 medium-sized red onion, sliced into crescents

½ bunch fresh dill weed (more or less to taste)

Brine:

1 cup white vinegar

3 tablespoons kosher salt

2 tablespoons mustard seeds

4 crumbled bay leaves

a pinch of red pepper flakes (omit if you don’t like spicy pickles)

1 teaspoon sugar (more if you like sweeter pickles)

water

Slice up the pickles how you like them. Lengthwise in ¼ inch slices are great for layering on sandwiches, round slices are good for nibbling and spears are great for munching.

Cram all of the cucumber slices into the 2-quart glass jar. To see how much water the cucumbers displace, fill the jar with cold water. Pour the water from the jar into a 1-quart measuring cup for the brine, saving all but one cup. Pour the water into a medium-sized saucepan. Add in the vinegar, salt, mustard seeds, bay leaves, pepper flakes, and sugar.

Remove the cucumber slices from the jar. Start layering them back into the jar adding the sliced onion and sprigs of dill weed until the jar is packed full.

Bring the brine to a boil, stirring to dissolve the salt and sugar. Place the jar of beautifully arranged pickle slices with the onions and dill in the sink and pour the hot brine into the jar, covering everything. If necessary, push the bay leaves and mustard seeds down with the end of a wooden spoon to distribute the brine ingredients more evenly. Close the jar tightly. Let the jar of pickles come to room temperature before refrigerating.

The pickles are ready to eat in one day, but I like to give them two days to let the flavors bloom.

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