Letters from The Cooper
The Amphitheater and Gershwin practice cabin at Chautauqua. Postcards by Jane E. Nelson
It's the summer of 1962. With an inflated inner tube across the handle bars I pedal my bike to the lake and spend afternoons paddling around in the water. After supper, along with other kids in the neighborhood we play kick ball in an empty lot next to a railroad line that leads into the locomotive plant, or roller skate or whatever it is we think up to amuse ourselves. There chores as well: weed the garden, help hang out the wash, weekly ironing and that summer I remember an endless round of helping my mother can green beans: wash the beans, trim the beans, pack the beans . Jars and jars of beans waiting their turn for the canner. What a snooze! On those days, I waited anxiously for the mailman. It was the bright spot in a ho-hum day if he delivered a letter from my friend Shirley.
I had met Shirley the previous fall, in eighth grade, my first year at public school and at graduation we promised each other to be pen pals. She was leaving town to help her mother run their guest house called The Cooper at some place called the Chautauqua Institute. She promised to write and I swore I'd write back.
I didn't know a thing about the Chautauqua Institute. I didn't know the full scope of what it meant to spend summers at a world class cultural center. I'd never heard of it, nor been there. I first learned of it through her letters and fell under a spell.
"Dear Sophie," she'd write, "Today as I was walking past the practice cabins, someone was playing Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2." I had no idea who Rachmaninoff was. I knew Chopin because his Polonaise (in A Major, Op.40 No.1 Military, I was to learn later) was the opening number for the radio program we listened to every Sunday but I'd never heard of Rachmaninoff. Just to say the name was something exotic.
Another day, another letter : "Dear Sophie, the amphitheater was packed tonight. Mischa Mischkoff
performed Brahms. Wish you were here." Then, as a way of bridging the miles between us, she copied out the entire program for my perusal and edification. I didn't even know what an amphitheater was and, truly, I wished I was there, too, but I had about as much chance of getting to Chautauqua as Chekhov's Three Sisters, stuck in the country, had of seeing the bright lights of Moscow. We didn't even own a car and even if we had I doubt my mother would have spent the money on gas to satisfy my longing for a glimpse of an amphitheater. As the saying goes: she had other fish to fry.
Writing back was hard work for me. It's difficult to dress up canning green beans. What do you say? They're a lovely shade of green? Can't wait to taste them in the winter? It certainly lacked glamour but write back I did because I wanted her to write back, to hear more magical names.
At dusk , our family sits around on the front porch, waiting for the house to cool down. My parents are happy to just sit. We kids play Monopoly or I listen to my brothers trying to outdo each other in naming the make and year of the car coming down the road. Sometimes I'm enchanted by the golden, pin-point flashes of the fireflies and try to capture their glow in one of the (amazingly) empty canning jars from the kitchen. Soon, another day of that summer is gone.
You can go to the Chautauqua Institute and work on your novel like Kurt Vonnegut( I wouldn't know where to begin), or write a new musical score like George Gershwin( I know a treble clef when I see one), or scribble in your journal which is something I could and did do years later.
"Dear Shirley, Chautauqua is as wonderful as you described it all those years ago. Why did you never mention that cars aren't allowed on the grounds?"
"Dear Shirley, tonight the amphitheater was packed. The symphony played Mahler's 9th."
"Dear Shirley, I can't remember. Did you ever mentioned that the police here ride bicycles? Verdi's La Traviatta was wonderful last night. Wish you were here...miss you. "
8/7/2017 02:11:24 pm
Growing up in the Kaisertown areaof Bflo., I too did much the same chores & enjoyed my summers w/a bike & roller skates (clamped onto my B&W Saddle Shoes). I enjoyed exchanging letters w/ a Pen Pal in Japan, an Aunt in CA, & a Green Beret (who sadly, was killed in Vietnam). I learned of different cultures & places through them, which added to my interest in people & places around the world. I "discovered" Chautauqua in my 30's & have spent many lovely days there since. It is the most peaceful & charming place I know. (My favorite activity is sitting on an old, wooden rocking chair on the porch of the Athenaum & feel the breeze off the lake.) I would leave a blanket & bag of lunch under a tree, go to a lecture or concert & find them untouched later. It's my little piece of Heaven on Earth.
8/7/2017 02:54:38 pm
Thanks for writing, Renee. It was a good childhood - a mix of fun and responsibility that has served me well. I finally went to Chautauqua as an adult and found it to be just as magical as the letters I received from my friend. It truly is a wonderful place.
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One of the biggest moments in my life was being able to sign for my very own library card. When I'm not reading, researching and writing I'm riding my bike, sewing or gardening. I love flea markets, folk art, and traveling to Poland.