During the early years of the 20th century, the poet-historian Gertrude Ryder Bennett (1901-1982), who lived her entire life in the landmarked Wyckoff-Bennett Homestead (built around 1766, it stands proudly at 1669 East 22nd Street), went with her parents one Thanksgiving to deliver a charitable wagon-load of food and winter supplies to “Old Saar,” a woman thought to be a surviving Canarsie Indian. Old Saar was supposedly over 100 years old and lived in a dirt-floored shack in the section of Gravesend Neck called “Hog Point Cedars,” or sometimes just “the Cedars,” located in the marshy reaches east of Sheepshead Bay near Plumb Beach/Gerritsen Beach. Here is Gertrude’s poignant remembrance of that long-ago day. (FYI: “the cove” = Sheepshead Bay.)
My parents took me with them when they drove
To Hog Point Cedars. Long ago that name
Sank to oblivion. Beside the cove
Our Blackie jogged. We knocked and Old Saar came
To ask us in her weather-beaten shack,
Her long, white hair in braids, her placid face
Like my dried apple doll. Her eyes were black
And keen. One single window pane. The place
Had only earth for floor. Her feet were bare
Although, across the dunes, the wind blew cold.
I had been told she always had lived there,
That no one knew her age, she was so old.
She wore a wrapper, with a brilliant stripe,
Of summer weight, and smoked a corn-cob pipe.
She spoke to me through wrinkled lips. Her hand
Caressed my hair. My parents brought the food
Out of the carriage and I watched her stand
Bright eyed. “My son’s out back. He’s choppin’ wood,”
She said, “and he’ll be eighty come next year.
He’s just been clammin’.” Then she proudly chose
The best to share with us while I could hear
Ax upon driftwood. When the inlet froze,
They would have staple food that bleak November.
“Canarsie Indians,” folk said. They were
The last. Though long ago, I still remember
A certain air of mystery in her,
Her walk, slow but erect, kindness to me,
And childish wonder at her dignity.
[From the chapter “Basket for Old Saar” in Turning Back the Clock in Gravesend: Background of the Wyckoff-Bennett Homestead (Francestown, N.H.: Marshall Jones Company, 1982), 25-26.]
Copyright © 2011 by Joseph Ditta (firstname.lastname@example.org)