March 19, 2019
Beacon, New York
This morning at 6:45 I rolled over and reached for my phone to look up the difference between sentinel and sentry. It turns out they are both soldier-type people who watch and guard a place, but sentries are more often at gates, passages, entries to delineated space, while sentinels could be anywhere, on the lookout.
Enlightened, I proceeded into my day, Day Three of a brief vacation to the East coast. Not a sensible March destination, but I had come to help friends get settled in a new house. That plan was foiled as soon as I got my plane reservation receipt via e-mail — the usual delays in building, an unexpected septic glitch, a bulldozer breakdown. Thus I went instead to their old house. It will be another few months before the move, so I couldn’t even help them pack.
We went out to the new place with measuring tapes and camera, though, to do some recording so when I’m home I can still help them make choices about furniture placement and curtain fabric. It’s a stone house, stones collected by my friends’ sons from the fields nearby, so it looks as though it’s grown out of the ground in a lovely way. I’m not an interior designer, but I’m good with spatial relationships and choosing colors for inside a house that won’t clash with the ones outside.
March in the Hudson Valley is brown, gray, and pale yellow. In July, it will be many shades of bright green with blue and purple in the distance, and in October, red, orange, brown, and a stronger yellow. The floor is mottled amber and pale gray tile with random touches of maroon and will look good with the landscape in all seasons. Since I’m not a professional, I suggest things and then step back while my friends decide. I’m not selling anything and I won’t be living here.
We drove over to a little joint for lunch called Elsie’s, which was indeed named after the famous Borden Dairy spokescow. The capital E on the sign had fallen over but her cartoon face was completely recognizable, overlooking the parking lot. Elsie was introduced in 1936, to represent the dairy. I’m betting you don’t know, as I did not, that in 1940 a cartoon mate was drawn for Elsie named Elmer the Bull. He was the mascot for Elmer’s Glue, which was made by Borden’s chemical division (not out of cow hooves, though, the important ingredient was casein, a form of milk protein and an ingredient in cheese). The name is familiar to every American schoolchild, and Elmer’s face is still on each bottle of Glue-All, but his history as Elsie’s paramour has mostly disappeared. White glue is now made exclusively from petrochemicals, according to Google.
Back at the new house, my friends had a long talk with the back-hoe contractor and I wandered around looking at the view across fields and over the local river to a bank of hills we call the Gunks. This is short for Shawangunks, which locals pronounce in a mysterious abbreviated way that sounds like a sneeze. Seven or eight beautiful branching trees are scattered near the house — oaks and maples. They’re the sentinels, watching in every direction, and today were filled with blackbirds. Out by the road, flanking the in-process driveway, my friends will plant symmetrical trees or shrubs or something, to be sentries. I may begin, in my own mind, to ditch the military metaphor and call them the welcoming committee.
On our way home we went over the Hudson River, which is two miles wide at that point and had that metallic gray sheen water takes on under storm clouds. A false threat of snow, as it turned out, but glowering all afternoon. The three of us talked about everything we could think of: shelf height in kitchens, flooding in the Midwest, our first jobs as teenagers, legroom on Jet Blue, the National Portrait Gallery (since I had just been in D.C. and seen the Obama paintings), and sewer back-ups in local restaurant basements. Ours is a long-standing, all-purpose friendship, so we cover a lot of ground.
We’re also great hands at looking things up on our phones. After making and eating a dinner of broccoli rabe lasagne and doing the dishes, we sat at the table drinking red wine (them) and ice water (me) and discovered that not only did Elsie the Cow have a sweetheart named Elmer, but in 1957 Borden’s marketing department gave them two calves together, named Beulah and Beauregard. I kid you not.