Stafford: Little ones are magical, no matter the era

Thirty years ago, when our kids were small and we visited Young’s Jersey Dairy on weekends, I developed the habit of reaching into my pocket and dropping loose change into the small, unused ashtray attached to the back seat of our Corolla.

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We called it our Goat Food National Bank.

Two weekends ago, to economize on goat-related expenditures, I had my grandson Atticus pluck a red plastic container holding the discount size of goat pellets from a shelf at Young’s. This hasn’t slowed the loss of pellets when he too quickly withdraws his hand from the tongue of a licking goat – a happening that’s made me wish goats could be trained to bleat out the words “hand sanitizer.”

Because the purchase has given us a measure of control over one line item in our budget, it represents my craftiest financial move of the decade.

Last week, on a solo visit to Young’s, I stood near a coffee urn as a friendly woman whose name tag read Julia opened a fresh carton of cream to refill the canister I was waiting for.

As she pushed back the carton’s flaps, a memory linking five generations of our family emerged from behind the slight headache I was hoping the coffee would relieve.

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We called him our uncle.

But Villa Salli – pronounced VEE-leh — was my grandfather’s older brother, so he was either a grand uncle or a great uncle.

Because Finnish was his first language and English ran a distant second, our communications were slightly limited as I grew older. They were sustained, however, by the strength of smiles and his friendly tone. Like the brightness in his pale blue eyes, those required no translation.

He had lived with my grandparents since before I was born. His wife had died when their three daughters were young. They moved in with my grandparents, and my grandmother, barely an adult took on three daughters to raise in addition to her own, my mother.

At the same time, the supervisory skills she used in thoroughly managing my grandfather were expanded to Villa (Resistance would have been futile).

Although always respected for his skill to fix farm machinery – a skill also used in maintaining the whirl-a-gig on the fence post next to the Farm Bureau membership plate – the first thing that comes to all our family’s mind when we talk about Villa involves a ritual from the kitchen table.

It was often displayed at mid-morning or early evening when whatever guests were in the house gathered there for “coffee,” a ritual whose dietary elements include most of the foods that have fueled the incidence of Type II diabetes.

As I told Julia while she twisted the lid back on the cream pitcher, for Villa, a coffee cup was not something to drink from, but a mixing bowl.

Into it, he’d pour one measure of coffee and a nearly equal measure of cream – cream that in my early days was skimmed from the tops of the gallons of milk drawn out of cows in my grandparents’ barn with the help of electric milking machines.

Often while his daughters and my mother exchanged smiling glances across the table, Villa would pour the coffee-cream mix into a saucer for cooling and then would slurp it down through the cube of Domino sugar he’d placed between his, by then, false teeth.

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Some of you may remember reading this story before. If so — and if you’ve still made it this far — today I’m tacking on a bonus ending — one that comes from a time before I had teeth, a time my brain cannot recall.

I know about it because of the sharp black and white photos taken at my grandparents’ home during the mid-1950s. The photos show Villa, whom I always remember with a day’s growth of beard, sitting in a wood rocking chair I recall had a red plastic seat cushion.

In the photos, he smiles while holding, rocking and feeding a bottle to a well bundled, light-haired me in the way I once held and rocked Atticus and now hold and rock his 6-month-old brother, Finnegan.

Look, it’s not that I didn’t love babies before. But the coming of grandchildren has made me love almost every young child I see. Last month, at another one of my regular haunts, a little toddler who was passing by paused and looked at me.

I asked her mother if it was OK for me to pick her up. After she’d said yes and thanked me for asking, I impolitely suggest it was my way to avoid a kidnapping charge, a remark I regret.

The holding I do not regret.

Little ones are, of course, magical. And that got me to thinking.

However implausible it seems — against all odds, I’d say — I have to entertain the possibility that in the moments those black-and-white pictures were taken at my grandparents’ home, my Uncle Villa felt that same magic as he was holding me.

It’s an odd thought, I know, but it’s one I find as warm as sweet and heavily creamed coffee drunk with a sugar cube held between the teeth.

Generation after generation, we can’t help but slurp it up, like mother’s milk.


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