Nightingale’s Nest, a Catskill Summer Story

This delightful short story was offered to thebaronhirschcommunity.org by the author’s daughter, Nora Fischer Kisch, and the author’s niece and nephew, Tamra Hope Miller and Jon Meyerson. We are very grateful for their generosity.

An Ulster County farm in 1922

The Nightingale’s Nest takes place in 1920 on a Jewish farm in Ulster County NY, in the Catskill mountains, 100 miles northwest of Manhattan. You can read more about Jewish farming in the Catskills and the Baron Hirsch Fund’s support for these efforts right here.

Many Jewish farmers in the Catskills,, like the family in The Nightingale’s Nest, rented rooms to summer visitors from crowded New York neighborhoods. These paying guests frequently were on the kuchalayn plan, cooking their own meals, offering the farmers a ready market for their products. Like the Lippman – Miller family, from Belarus, described in this story, these Jewish farmers often obtained financing to purchase these farms from the Baron Hirsch Jewish Agricultural Society.

In 1936 the author and her mystery writer husband, Bruno Fischer, returned to the idyllic landscapes north of New York City where they became founders of the Three Arrows Cooperative Society , a 125 acre vacation colony based on socialist ideas. Located just south of the Catskills in Putnam Valley, NY , Three Arrows is still active and homes are for sale.

The Catskill’s Nightingale’s Nest

by Ruth Fischer
The author, Ruth Fischer, about the time when she wrote the Nightingale’s Nest. ( courtesy of Nora Fischer Kisch)

Nobody cared for animals more than Grandma, if they met her simple specifications of giving milk or eggs. She tolerated a cat for necessary service, but it was only grudgingly given house room.


For as long as I can remember, there was a running battle between my grandmother and grandfather because of his affection for a horse. During the summer when the horse grazed on the open fields and required no greater expenditure than labor, she could overlook his absurd extravagance. But in the winter it was a different story; she would make life miserable for poor Grandpa when the feed bills came in.


The Farm was a Jewish farm in southern New York State, which meant that its main business was provided by summer roomers. There were never more than five or six cows, and the planting was limited to a few fields of fodder and a vegetable garden. More than half the garden was a potato patch; the rest provided the roomers, at a fair price, with tomatoes, cucumbers , saleratus [baking soda], cabbages and corn. Then there were the chickens of which Grandma particularly approved. Their profitable career of supplying eggs to the roomers was inevitably climaxed in a roomer’s pot at so much per pound.

The Summer Roomers


The· roomers, almost all from New York City, a hundred miles south, were crammed into the huge farmhouse. One of the larger rooms would accommodate a double bed for the parents and three single beds, dormitory style, for the children. Sometimes for a poor relative Grandma would permit a crib to be added somehow, but generally five human beings would be the maximum permitted in any one room.


If I ever find myself complaining of my lot when I prepare three meals a day for my family, I can immediately change my mood by picturing a dozen mothers literally broiling over the enormous wood stoves in the summer kitchen, which represented all the cooking facilities at the Farm.

The kitchen was a true democracy run on a strictly cooperative basis. The mothers arranged a schedule as to what part of the day each would have the hottest part of the stove. Most stuck to the schedule, but as in all societies there were some who had to be watched lest they shoved somebody else’s pot of chicken to the back of the stove where it wouldn’t be done in time for supper.

Occasionally in that sweltering summer kitchen arguments became so violent that they might have resulted in hair-pulling had not Grandma intervened. “Ladies, ladies,” she would shout above the din, “out of the kitchen–everybody! You’re all on vacation. Go swimming. I’ll watch everybody’s pot.”

Grandma had never heard such words as introjection, sublimation or diversion, or would have understood them if she had; but when it came to business she was a born psychologist.

From the time we were born until we were dating, my two sisters and I spent all our summers on the Farm.

Grandpa

S.S. Washington Irving, launched in 1913. Carried 6000 passengers.


Grandpa waiting for us at the Kingston pier of the Hudson River Day Line when the S . S . Washington Irving docked was the symbol of a joyous summer to come. My heart would suddenly become too big for my scrawny chest when I spied him standing beside his horse and buggy.

Grandpa was thin and wiry and not very tall. Bushy eyebrows, like unpruned hedges, almost obscured his deep-set gray eyes. His nose might have been too prominent on any other face, but the competition of those eyebrows and his mottled gray-and-black curly beard made it seem entirely well-proportioned. And he had such a beautifully fringed surrey, with a tall dashing whip-stand.

Ida Lippman Miller with her three daughters (from left to right) Rhoda, Molly and the author Ruth, around the time this story takes place. ( courtesy of Nora Fischer Kisch)

My sisters and I were always the first off the boat. After many summers of travel we had learned how to manoeuver for position at the gangplank. Mama, the anchor man, would straggle after. I, being the youngest, would rush straight for Grandpa’s waiting arms, nuzzle into his chest and inhale deeply of that strong, wonderful, barn-like aura he always carried with him. To this day I can’t pass a spot where a horse had been any length of time without being reminded of him. I loved Zadi. (Yiddish for Grandpa), and I still love the smell of a newly fertilized garden.

“Zadi,” Rhoda would squeal, “new horse!”
“Zadi,” my oldest sister, Molly, would demand, “did you fix our garden?”

Zadi always had a small patch of marigolds planted for us. They required little cultivation and made perfect heads for the grass-babies Zadi taught us to fashion out of weed-stalks bound together.


“Kinder, quick, into the carriage!” He’d swoop me, the smallest, up beside him. My sisters piled in front, too. The luggage he’d toss into the back with my mother. “Hurry, hurry, the train will start and frighten the horse.”
.
Grandpa pampered his horses more than did any of the other farmers. Somehow they seemed to frighten more and weren’t able to pull heavy loads. Grandma complained he spoiled them. “Let a horse come into his hands, then it’s goodby, ” she would sniff with a disdainful wave of her hands. My father, who always sided with Grandpa, explained that whereas everybody else paid at least a hundred and fifty dollars for a good horse, Grandpa could bid only as high as forty dollars at the horse auction, so
of course he always got an animal that had something wrong with it, either physically or mentally.

To the Farm

We were off for the Farm before the train whistle could frighten the current horse. Tensely we sat at the edge of the seat, waiting for the familiar landmarks on the four-mile drive. Along the route we trembled and squeezed each other in our excitement.

“The quarry is steeper” Rhoda cried.

The sand quarry at Kingston Point was only a mile through the woods from the back of the Farm. It provided the most thrilling slide imaginable, Mama, I’m sure, used to picture her three little ladies playing sedately and safely with the sand at the foot of the quarry rather than sliding down the sheer sand cli!f that was at least two hundred feet high.

By the time we had passed Kingston Point Park, Mama was holding three pairs of shoes with neatly rolled socks tucked inside. That was the last time we wore shoes until, the summer over, we made the return wagon-ride back to the pier.

Mama hated our going barefooted. When she was a child in a small Russian village you wore no shoes through necessity, and it hurt her to see her children do the same when they owned good shoes. She still chides us for letting her grandchildren run around barefooted in the summer. “It’s not not nice,” she insists.

Grandma

Bubi (Grandma) would be waiting for us in front of the house. It’s hard for me to describe her. Her image is not static in my mind. It’s like a photo-montage, shifting from picture to picture as she changed over the years. I can remember her as a tall, slim, bronzed-skinned woman, almost as dark as an Indian, with small, deep-set, flashing black eyes, and I remember her in her later years as a huge hulk of a woman whose drab brown wig sat queerly on her head and her leathery skin criss-crossed with wrinkles. The weight piled on her when she retired from the Farm with its endless milking, reaping, painting, patching, to her ideal of old age, plenty of time for reading her Bible and praying and earning a little money by preparing the dead for burial and sewing shrouds.


But whenever I think of the Farm these days, I can see only the tall, slim Grandma in the dark percale dress with a wine-colored sweater thrown over her shoulders as she waited in the yard for us. We would line up for our share of hugs and kisses and then dash before her into the house to look things over. We would partake of the inevitable orange soda and sticky iced baker’s buns which were set up on the table in the huge winter kitchen and which were Grandma’s idea of American hospitality and her concession to the new country. For her contemporaries she always set out homemade grape wine and honey cake.

Grandpa’s Surprise

From the way Grandpa hung around with a sly grin as we gulped the orange soda, we knew there was something special he wanted to show us.


I don’t know how we had missed it on our arrival. He led outside and there, suspended between the two oak trees that flanked the porch, hung a beautiful two-seater buggy seat, resplendent in shiny black leather. There was room for all three of us to hop on and swing gently back and forth as we beamed at him and he beamed at us.

“You’re the most wonderful Zadi in the whole world,” I cried, hugging him and breathing deeply of that lovely horsey odor.·

I truly believed it then. I know it now.

The type of two-seater buggy the girls loved so much.

Suddenly an appalling thought stuck me. I jumped off.
“Zadi, but the two-seater buggy—” My mouth became too dry to finish.
“Little fool,” he chided me, “Do you think I could do without the two-seater buggy? A dollar and a half this seat cost me at the auction. Believe me, I got plenty of curses from the Bubi for such extravagance already,” he told us in Yiddish.


The double-seater swing was sporty to look at, but it really wasn’t so good for swinging. The highest you could make it go was like the old cat dying out on the regular board swing that Zadi put up later. But what a wonderful place the old buggy seat was to curl up on with the Sears catalogue, and turning to the fashion pictures play, “This is me, this is you, this is Molly,” or the variant, “This is yours, this is mine, this is Ruthie’s.” Could anything be funner than having Rhoda come out on one of the stylist stouts with the laced-up corsets?

Farmyard Friends

Plymouth Rock chickens

The chicken house received only perfunctory glances. Grandpa bad already told us there were no baby chicks and the Plymouth Rocks in their tweed coats were too familiar a sight to hold us before feeding time.

“How’s Edith?” I asked Grandpa on the way to the barn.


This rated a grin from him broad enough to reveal bis small tobacco-stained teeth. Edith was a family joke. None of the other cows had names. She was a brown and white Jersey that had been named by Grandma in a fit of pique after a difficult roomer famous for the size of her bosom.

During the long winters at home in New York City, we would solemnly discuss and select names for the other cows; but inasmuch as we kept changing our choices with each new book we read, how were we to remember, come summer, whether it was the red cow or the one with the black patch on her forehead that was supposed to be Rosamund?

But there was never any question as to the horse’s name.


They came and they went, but each was called Ferdy by us girls– a name derived from “Ferd,” the Yiddish word for horse .

Fresh Milk, Anyone?

Cows waiting to be milked by Edward Purcell, courtesy New York Public Library.

We were still in the barn when Grandma entered with the milking pails. I doubt that we ever missed the late afternoon milking time except when we were ill in bed. With a sound accompaniment like rain on the roof, the magic of milk being squeezed from the rubbery, finger-like teats was endlessly fascinating, If we became too absorbed, Grandma would playfully shock us back to reality with a squirt of warm white liquid in our faces.

“Bubi, let me try,” I pleaded. It looked easy. My fingers would strain at the udder, but nothing ever happened. Even when I became much older, I could never bring forth a single drop.

“It’s not strength you lack,” my mother told me when I complained of my weak fingers. “It’s all in the technique. I was milking when I was smaller than you. If you had to work on a farm, you’d learn, too, but believe me, it’s easier getting it from the milkman.


Often we brought glasses to the barn and Grandma would milk right into them. The foaming warm milk looked like a frothy vanilla malted milk, and was always disappointing when we sipped it.

“Borden’s tastes better,” we city kids would complain to Grandma, our faces screwed up with distaste.

Grandma’s small black eyes would wither us. “And Borden’s got it somewhere else, I suppose, not from a cow?” she would intone in Yiddish.

Pre-Season Freedom

The roomers left the crowded streets of the Lower East Side for the bucolic pleasures of Ulster County

Every June we were taken out of school two weeks ahead of time to accompany our mother to the Farm where she helped Grandma get the house ready for the season. The roomers, being paying guests, generally waited until the day after school closed before arriving in a noisy, chaotic horde from the environs of Pitt, Ridge and Ludlow Streets on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Those two weeks leeway before the coming of the roomers were in many ways tbe best. We would start the season off regally in a large, airy room on the preferred ground floor. This was only two hundred feet from the bathroom facilities– a three-seater outhouse sufficiently concealed from the eye in mid-summer by massed heavenly blue morning glories.

Occasionally some unfortunate family would be held up by measles or chicken pox, and then for a few days or a week longer we would have a real room for ourselves. But sooner or later, usually sooner, the last of the paying guests would be there and our three cots were moved up to the attic and placed side by side next to our grandparents’ big double bed

Fortunately Grandma was no stickler for a rigid bedtime. When we could no longer force our eyes to remain open, we went up to bed, usually some time after she and Grandpa had retired. By then we were too sleepy to notice how hot the uninsulated attic was. We slept soundly and woke bathed in sweat, eager to start another day.

The Nightingale Nest

The year that I was nine and Rhoda eleven and Molly thirteen was the memorable year of the Nightingale’s Nest.

The little unpainted clapboard shack had always sat there midway between the house and the barn, not far from the chicken coop. It had two tiny rooms, each with a window and a door leading out to a wooden platform. Unmistakably it had once housed animals, but not even Grandpa could tell us its original purpose. He used it to store gra1n and chicken feed.

All the many children on the Farm used to be lured to the little house by the sunflower seeds (polly seeds to us} scattered none too lavishly in the chicken feed. Almost anytime of the day you could see a pair of legs sticking practically upright out of a feed barrel; eventually the whole child would emerge, face flushed with effort and victory and a dozen polly seeds clutched in a fist.

The idea of turning the feed house into a clubhouse for us girls evolved out of desperate need.

That elegant, ebony-black, piano with its beautiful mother-of-pearl inlaid front must have been a masterpiece of incongruity amid the long oilcloth covered wooden tables and benches. It was another of the two-dollar bargains that Grandpa hadn’t been able to resist at the Farmers’ Auction. He had wrecked the movement and irrevocably jammed the keys when carting it home on the hay-wagon. This was just as well, for the dining room was bedlam enough on rainy days without additional clamor.

On rainy days or evenings too cool to be spent outdoors there was nowhere for us to go except the dining room. As all other space was given over to bedrooms, the same held true of everybody else on the Farm. A pinochle game went on endlessly at the largest table; mothers chattered everywhere; younger children rampaged and yowled and other children tried to play jacks and card games on the floor. The din was as great as the confusion, and the only place for us three to share our endless secrets was the top of the grand piano,

But we children loved the piano. We were not only impressed by its beauty, but where else could you find such a huge flat surface on which to play jacks or Old Maid and be out of the way of both adults and the pesky smaller children? And it was on there, huddled together one wet, chilly afternoon, that we three Miller girls breathlessly hatched the plot to ask Grandpa to let us have the feed house for our very own.

“Ruthie, you ask,” my sisters urged me. “You’re Zadi’s favorite.”

It was a cinch getting anything from Grandpa. All I had to do was nuzzle into his tangled, tobacco-stained beard.

Thoughtfully he played with one of my spring-like black curls for a moment before answering. “I guess it’s all right, little zhobe {frog). Tomorrow I’ll move the feed to the barn.” I turned to fly back to my anxiously awaiting sisters. He pulled me back by the curl he still had wound around his finger. “Better not to tell the Bubi,” he cautioned me with a finger to his lips.’Then with a swat on my rear he sent me tearing to the piano with my good news.

The Decorators

What the young ladies gave up to create the Nightingale’s Nest, swimming in a Catskill brook (1922)

The little house looked dirtier and quite disheartening after Grandpa had removed the barrels of feed which had partly covered the filthy walls. We sought reinforcements–three girl cousins who conveniently fell into our age groups. For a full week the six of us slaved. We even gave up swimming in the brook, which was the highlight of any day, but my cousin Annie and I saw more water during that period than we cared to. Being the youngest, we were assigned the task of supplying the other four with water from the pump which stood at least a hundred feet away.

“I bet they wouldn’t be so fussy clean if they had to lug the water,” I said bitterly to Annie. But we didn’t dare complain openly. We were the victims of our youth and lived in fear of being excluded from The Club by the older girls.

We ransacked the attic. Except for the part where our beds stood, it was piled high with what Grandma tartly called the junk Grandpa brought home from the Farmers’ Auctions during the winter. You could depend on that attic for anything. It reminds me of our own attic where just the other day we found the fixings for an extra leg my husband required for a macabre little skit in the mystery writers’ annual caper.

Vintage wallpaper like the kind used to decorate Nightingale’s Nest


My sister Molly, who today is a professional interior decorator, of necessity used a decor which was to become popular many years later. Although there were dozens of rolls of wall- paper stacked in cartons, no two rolls matched, so one of the walls bore a striped design, while the others carried floral patterns, with no two flowers matching. It was attractive once you got· used to it. Thus was born Molly’s technique for daring originality for which she is now famous.

We begged an old sheet from somebody on the Farm and fashioned curtains out of it, elaborately decorated with dolls Molly sketched out on the cloth and which the rest of us filled in with colored crayon.

Presently our clubhouse was finished down to the last detail, which was a nameboard proudly proclaiming, “The Nightingale’s Nest,” the name we agreed upon·only after hours of heated discussion. The board also carried a picture of what Molly imagined a nightingale should look like, for she could find no illustration to copy. My protest that the bird looked like a bluejay was received with disdain by the older girls. Anyway, the name was sufficiently romantic, and we had followed through the theme by hanging a tarnished bird cage (also from the attic) in a corner of one room.

Grandma’s Approval

Grandma surprised us with a visit. We waited breathlessly for her appraisal. Compliments didn’t come easily from Bubi, especially for work that showed no result in dollars and cents.

“Smell, Bubi, smell,” I said forgetting that Grandma, like my mother, had no sense of smell. “Could you even tell there had been chickens or–or–” I ended lamely, for we had never learned what other kind of animals had preceded us.

“Nice, nice, kinder,” Grandma said admiringly in Yiddish, “So you girls can do something useful if you put your minds to it. I’m going to tell Zadi to get you some paint for the outside.”

The dream come true, the Nightingale’s Nest ( drawing by Ricardo Merlo)

Grandpa brought us not only white paint from Kingston, but some dark green for the trim. He cut and trimmed birch saplings and fixed a railing for the little porch. Everybody on the Farm came and looked and applauded,

It was a dream come true. our hearts swelled collectively whenever we thought or spoke of the Nightingale’s Nest.

“Just like a fairy tale,” Rhoda. said. “Like the pumpkin turning into a coach in Cinderella.”

The Dream Dissolved

We should have left well enough alone.

We had orange crates to sit on and an old beat-up kitchen table. But ambition rode us. Six heads constantly bent over nail-studded spools, knitting endless yards of horse-reins for two rugs. And Molly should have known better than to ask Grandma whether we could move our beds down to the Nightingale’s Nest. That gave Grandma ideas.

She had real furniture moved in, but not for us. By the following weekend she had rented one of the rooms to a honeymoon couple, and the other to a couple with a baby.

When we stormed and wept and appealed to Zadi to intervene for us, Grandma really couldn’t understand what the fuss was about.

“But I got fifty dollars for each room for only a short season-six weeks left,” she protested in bewilderment. “I’d be crazy not to accept.”

Grandpa tried to intercede for us, but Grandma never gave him a chance to get started.

“Big earner,” she said contemptuously, “if it were up to you, we’d eat grass all winter.”

Usually we discussed the days events before we fell asleep, but that day we were silent.  I thought of that beautiful orange rooster with the reddest coxcomb, and that beautiful cascade of iridescent green feathers; we will never see him again. As we slept, we shared a sadness that only sisters could understand

3 thoughts on “Nightingale’s Nest, a Catskill Summer Story

  1. Very detailed and what I remember my mother, Rhoda, telling me. I also remember Rhoda saying her Bubi would tell them in Yiddish, “When you go swimming, watch out for the snakes.” This resulted in Rhoda and Molly rarely going swimming as they grew older.

  2. It’s after midnight in quarantined Buenos Aires, on July 20th, 2020, and I have just finished reading this delightful story, sent to me by our dear friend Merrie. It has really made my day, I mean night! But I also have gotten a bit of a melancholic feeling: those were slower times when small items had so much more of a meaning, something I often miss.

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