Essays on Childhood: “Staying” | by Anne Clinard Barnhill

Anne Clinard Barnhill

Anne Clinard Barnhill grew up in West Virginia and graduated from Alderson-Broaddus College in Philippi.  Her debut novel, At the Mercy of the Queen, was published by St. Martin’s Press in 2012. Her second novel, Queen Elizabeth’s Daughter, is forthcoming in 2014. She is working on a third and as-yet-untitled novel, set in West Virginia.

She is also author of At Home in the Land of Oz: Autism, My Sister and Me, a memoir about growing up in West Virginia in a time before anyone had heard the word ’autism.’ What You Long For is a short story collection published in 2009 that also contains stories set in the mountains.  Books are available from Amazon, www.jkp.comwww.mainstreetrag.com or, if you’d like a signed copy, from the author directly at acbarnhill@yahoo.com. Her first chapbook of poetry, Coal, Babyis available from Finishing Line Press.

Read Anne’s 2011 essay, “Winter Solstice,” and her 2012 essay, “Melungeons and Mystery.”

Anne’s essay is inspired by her early experiences camping in West Virginia. Editor’s note: Anne allowed me to title this essay. My choice reflects my favorite element of this piece, the patient but firm and final voice of a loving father.

Staying | by Anne Clinard Barnhill

When I was seven years old, my father took the family camping for the first time. We had no equipment that I can recall. There’s a snapshot of my mother, my sister and me all looking groggy as we stretch from sleep in the back of a 1960 station wagon. The wagon had been Dad’s idea. Since the back seat folded down, he figured my mother and he could sleep back there, I could sleep at their feet and my two-year-old sister, Becky, could sprawl out on the front seat.

His plan didn’t work quite the way he’d hoped. It took about two minutes for my little sister to crawl back with the rest of us; then, I wormed my way between my parents soon after.  No wonder my mother looks exhausted in the photo — her black hair is all messy and my sister looks like a wild child. I’m not exactly the picture of perfection either.

In spite of that inauspicious start, however, our whole family fell in love with camping. Over time we acquired a camp stove, a lantern, sleeping bags and one of those tents that attached to the back of the open station wagon. That covered area became the ‘bathroom’ for my sister who was in the process of potty training.  It was also my ‘dressing room’, providing more space than the crowded tent.

We bought camping dishes and silverware, pots and pans, a coffee pot (the kind you had to brew over an open fire) and many other outdoor accessories.  My dad built an enormous black box with drawers and shelves in which to store said items. This behemoth, which could have housed my sister and me, rode on top of the station wagon.  My father, standing at 5 feet 6 inches, somehow heaved the black monstrosity onto the car and secured it in its place. He must have been incredibly strong to be able to lift that box.  We never had any problems with it moving or falling off. The black box stayed with us, useful as ever, for at least a decade. It retired to ‘Pop’s Place’, a camp my dad bought at the Middle Fork River where he later put a trailer. The black box took its place on the deck, holding all the supplies needed for a picnic.

I often felt sorry for my dad, the lone male among us three girls. He had to do the hard work mostly by himself. Such things as setting up the tent, hoisting the black box, starting and tending the campfire — these were his chores. He also had to put up with our feminine desires about where to set up camp. Since we usually camped in West Virginia state parks or national forests, there were campgrounds set up with bath houses, playgrounds, picnic tables and sometimes, even a pool. My mother invariably wanted to locate nearest the bathroom.  I, on the other hand, wanted a woodsy view with atmosphere; my sister always desired a place close to the pool.  Around and around the campground we’d drive, looking at each available spot, sometimes lamenting that someone else had beaten us to the absolute best area.  Poor Dad would circle and circle until finally, we came up with a place to please everyone.

When we’d graduated from tent to trailer, this search for the perfect spot finally drove my dad to lose his patience. Dad had planned the trip of a lifetime — two weeks at the Outer Banks in North Carolina, then up to DC where we would see all our nation’s capital had to offer. After that, we’d head to New York City for a couple of days. The pinnacle of the trip would be onward to Montreal, Canada, to the World’s Fair where we would spend a whole week. He’d planned this six-week trip with great precision and care.

Somewhere in Canada, we found a rustic campground. As was our custom, we drove all around to find our little niche. We finally located a good site but there was one small problem. Dad had to back the trailer between two large trees to arrive at the designated trailer position. He did so with extreme caution. Once things were settled, Mother and I got out of the car and roamed around. We decided we didn’t like this spot. We told Dad we’d have to move. He mentioned that it had been hard to get in, but we were convinced this would not be a good space. So, he very reluctantly and carefully pulled back out and around the camp we went again. We tried another area but didn’t like it as well as the first.  Dad took the wheel yet again and we returned to our original lot. Those two trees were still there and Dad gingerly maneuvered the trailer back into place. Mother and I were still not satisfied.  We complained and begged and were convinced there was a better location.  After much pleading from the three of us, Dad once again agreed to drive between those trees in search of the perfect lodging. He twisted in his seat to look back, put the car in reverse and gently stepped on the gas.

A terrible crunching sound.  Dad hopped out of the driver’s seat and ran to the trailer.  The doorknob was on the ground.  He didn’t say a word, but backed the trailer into its original space.  He began to repair the door as the other three of us got out of the car.

“We are staying right here,” he said in a low voice.

And we did.

His Eyes: Some Thoughts of My Father

His eyes are pale like old glass, flecked with bits of sandy spots, and often they appear lonesome. His eyes are the eyes of an Appalachian descendent of Polish immigrants. His eyes carry the weight of more than his own years. Some evenings his eyes seem to carry the weight of all of the occupations, depressions, and ruined dreams in Eastern Europe, and in those times there is little comfort anyone can bring, save a willingness to sit and drink wine and sit some more.

– from Small Things in My Hand, an extended semester project for WV Wesleyan

Committed to Memory by Kathryn E. Brown

“Your father is homeless.”

Katy Brown

There are certain announcements in our lives, both good and bad, that leave us speechless. I want you to be my wife.  It’s a boy! You’re hired. You’re fired. Not guilty. But none has stirred my life quite as much as being told by a hospital social worker that my father was, in essence, homeless.

Nursing homeless, that is.

For several years, I was the primary caregiver for my father, who suffered from vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. After a series of strokes over 10 years, my father’s confusion made the simplest of tasks nearly impossible. When his condition deteriorated into the final stages of the disease, I was faced with the unthinkable. Not only could I no longer care for him in our home because of the extreme nature of his needs and behaviors, but there were very few skilled facilities willing to accept such a severe case.

Many nursing home admissions teams quickly rejected my father’s application without much consideration. Nursing home administrators and clinicians refused to accept a mentally ill patient who was combative, angry, incontinent, unable to speak or walk, paranoid, visually impaired and deemed “a threat to staff.” With red flags waving throughout his medical records, I was left wondering how other families handled similar situations. Surely I was not alone in this fight, and surely my father was not the only man in recent time to be afflicted with the worst of all possible byproducts of dementia.

There was no time to join a support group and there was no time for talking.  I had hours to find a solution. My father and I were equally alone. The illness had robbed him of the voices, faces and memories that were so much a part of his 78 years, while “the system” as it is referred to, had abandoned me.

Only one local skilled nursing facility accepted my father directly from the hospital where he had been attempting to recuperate from another stroke. Within the first week of his rehabilitation stay, he fell six times. Shortly thereafter, several members of the nursing staff reported in a care conference that my father needed help they could not provide, despite advertisements claiming that they specialized in disorders of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. The proposed solution was to send my father to a mental hospital offering geriatric services geared toward finding medications that would curb the unwanted and inappropriate behaviors causing problems in their nursing home.

It was difficult to decide whether my father was being punished or helped. There was a nagging fear that if I did not agree to the mental hospital proposition, then he would be kicked out of the nursing home because I, the daughter, was difficult to work with.

After several frustrating telephone discussions, it became abundantly clear that as his guardian, I was no longer in control of his care.

Eight weeks in the mental hospital produced a domino effect of problems. The nursing home that suggested this route to make him a more socially acceptable resident of their facility discharged him and released his bed. Word had spread that he was not doing well medically, and that his condition had entered a terminal state. Given the nature of his condition, it was viewed as highly unlikely that he would recover from the infections and circulatory problems, which had left him bedfast.

I received a telephone call one morning from a social worker at the mental hospital. She was curt and steely with the delivery of one line that will forever be etched into my memory.

“Your father is homeless.”

The very sound of her words made me nauseated. In no way was my father homeless. I had cared for him nearly all of my adult life. I would never allow this to happen to him.

She went on to explain that my father’s situation was dire. Due to the stigma attached to the mental hospital’s reputation, few nursing homes will accept patients with mental therapy as part of their skilled treatment. It is much easier to return a patient to a nursing home in which they still have residency than to find a new one.

My best option, I was told, would be to look into Alzheimer’s disease care centers in Ohio, or to seek admission in an end-of-life home.

Multiple rejections followed with responses ranging from “we don’t accept mental patients” to “although he is terminal, he isn’t actively dying.”

Personal care homes wrote that he was unfit for assisted living because of his required need of total care. Though no one would make a commitment that he would be kept in a care home for an extended period, monthly expenses were estimated at $6,000, not including personal hygiene items and prescription drugs.

With one last facility to interview, I was preparing to find a way to care for my father in our home once again. I wasn’t sure how I was going to manage a home-health situation with two small children to shelter from the violence of his illness. I knew I couldn’t lift the six-foot-three- inch, 190-pound man, with stubborn strength that never seemed to weaken despite his body’s degeneration.

The nursing home admissions director listened to me as I poured out the history of his illness and recent care experiences. She gave me a tour of the facility and explained the process of applying for Medicaid, should all of my father’s resources be depleted during his long-term stay. When I asked her if this meant that the facility would accept him, she nodded and told me they would care for him, and that I was not alone. Only recently, her father had passed away from the disease, and she, too, had to succumb to placing him in a mental hospital. Our stories were nearly identical.

A little over a month later, my father died of pneumonia in the one nursing home that accepted him unconditionally. The level of care was beyond my expectations in his last days. Critical care nurses checked on him every 30 minutes. Nursing assistants repeatedly asked if I wanted something to eat or drink. They brought in comfortable chairs for my family. We were given a private room that resembled a hotel suite so that we wouldn’t be reminded of where we really were.

After he passed away, I was flooded with exhaustion. The last four months had felt like a never-ending nightmare. After the funeral, I began to go through a checklist of things I no longer had to face. I no longer had to worry about the expense of his nursing care or whether a facility could manage him. There were no more worries about spending down his assets and selling off all of his possessions before government assistance stepped in. There were no more fears that someone would be rough with him if he suddenly became combative. I was no longer afraid of experimental drug treatments that might or might not help his agitation. I wasn’t afraid to hear the telephone ring anymore. Above all else, I no longer feared where he would rest his head at night.

He was home.

Kathryn E. Brown is a regular contributor to the Charleston Daily Mail. A native of Charleston, West Virginia, she is the owner of The Write Word, LLC. Her life stories have captured a loyal following, and this year she published her first book. To find out more about Katy, visit www.thewritewordllc.com or her blog at www.katybrown.wordpress.com.

The Brain Anchor by Valley Haggard

It’s not until I’m on 95, driving out to visit my dad, that I realize what to do with the fur hat tied by ropes to a cinder block in the trunk of my car, a “brain anchor” used as a prop by a friend in a surrealism creative writing class. My father not only introduced me to the world of surrealism when I was a child, he currently inhabits one of his own.

I’d called him the day before to ask his permission to write about him because, I tell him, there’s nothing else right now I can imagine writing about. Still, I feel like a vulture scavenging for blood. “Oh, of course you can,” he says, surprising me as he always does with his generosity. “I would be honored.” And then he suggests I write an even longer article for a national magazine, because people love to read about other people’s dying parents.

“But, Dad!” I say horrified. “You’re not dying!”

“I’ve had another home invasion,” he tells me. “It’s time to stop driving. I’m deteriorating, Valley,” he says.

“What kind of home invasion?” I ask, but I already know. After suffering a series of micro strokes two years ago he began to undergo a string of MRI’s and psychiatric evaluations which have turned up the words inconclusive, abnormal and dementia. 

Valley Haggard

Perhaps I’m biased, but I prefer my dad’s definition of his shifting mental state to anything I’ve found online. His first extended hallucination he described as a “cosmic, horrific supernatural freak show of southern holiness.” A tall man with lobster claws for hands and his very short 300 pound wife, who, together looked like a period and an exclamation point, were the leaders of the pack. “They were hungry and fat and wanted peanut butter sandwiches,” he told me. “I thought I was going to be killed, maybe eaten.” Between trying to beat them away with pillows and making them peanut butter sandwiches, my father called my stepmother and begged her to call the sheriff. She’d assured him it wasn’t real and asked him to hang on until she got home. “I know they’re hallucinations,” he tells me. “But the real question is, are they still there when I’m gone?”

When I sob to a friend on the phone, the gravity of the situation finally hitting home, she says, “It’s like watching a redwood fall in the forest.” And she’s right. My dad has always been fit and tall and handsome but I think it’s the largesse of his imagination she’s referring to. Growing up, he always kept an open house, an open mind and a tendency to regard the lines between reality, dreams, poetry, fiction and fact more like suggestions than absolutes. As a child, he opened up for me the world of story. Now, at 63, his mind is writing a whole new chapter.

The characters that populate his imagination visit his waking life as well. Civil War soldiers ride up to him on horse back; furry white animals streak the yard; pterodactyls soar through the house. But it’s the confusion, the memory loss and the fat illiterate family of rednecks, the home invaders, with whom he’s had to make his peace. “I’m much more welcoming to them now,” he tells me. “Which makes them go away faster. The lesson here is that no evil can stand up to humor!”

When I pull into my dad’s driveway he’s bright eyed, holding a riotous fistful of purple irises from his garden. I drive him around to do the things he can no longer do by himself and when we’re done, because I don’t know what else, other than my time, I can give him, I pull the brain anchor out of my trunk. “It’s perfect!” he says and shows me a sculpture in the front yard made of bits of metal and discarded scraps of wood. “I call it stacking,” he says. And he explains to me his new art form, one that takes on different shapes and unexpected dimensions, becoming more bizarre and more beautiful each day.

The executive director of Richmond Young Writers, Valley Haggard teaches creative nonfiction classes for adults at the Black Swan Bookstore, Chop Suey Books and the Visual Arts Center of Richmond. You can read more of her wonderful writing on her blog, www.valleyhaggard.com. This essay first appeared on her blog on May 31, 2012.

In a Man’s Voice: Daddy Used to Whistle by Steve Alberts

Steve writes faith-based stories about “God’s grace throughout (his) life.” He dabbles with song lyric writing, is attempting to write a novel, and enjoys acting, photography, hunting, fishing, and woodworking.

Born in Charleston, West Virginia, raised and educated in Spencer, and having Bachelor and Master Degrees from WVU Steve says, “I now live in Tennessee and love it here, but West Virginia is my forever home…until I get to the other side.” Visit his blog, On Steve’s Mountain.

Daddy Used to Whistle | by Steve Alberts 

I love wakin’ up in the mornings!

It’s just starting to break dawn, but I‘ve already been up here for an hour or so… I was way up on top of tHis mountain before I ever woke up this morning…could hardly wait to visit the past…up on my mountain.

Lookin’ down on the little community of Speed…near Spencer…Roane County…West Virginia.

Moved there in ’47.  I was just barely two years old at the time.

We lived there until we moved to town in ’56.

It hasn’t changed much since we lived there in the late forties and early fifties.  O.O. “Double O” Casto’s horse show arena and barns are gone from the field beside Charleston Road, but our old house still stands on up the hollow… it’s the next to last house.

My bedroom was on the left just at the top of the stairs.

When I was real little I didn’t sleep there often ‘cause most nights I had dreams that would awaken me. Most nights I would slip out of bed, sneak down the hall and into the bedroom that Auntie and, my sister, Roylene shared…slip to the sanctuary of Auntie.

Never did figure out why Roylene got to share a bedroom with Auntie and I had to have my own bedroom.  After all, I was the one who woke up every night imagining the bears and wolves from Grandpa’s stories coming to hunt me down. Even the Roy Rogers bedspread with its six shooters and lariats woven into the fabric wasn’t the sanctuary that Auntie provided.  But, that’s another story.

When I was perhaps 5 or 6 years old … and sleeping in my own bed more frequently, early summer mornings I would often awaken … bedroom windows open…the humid summer air barely stirring…and just listen to the sounds.

…songbirds

…the grey fox barking up near the barn in the hill meadow

…the rooster crowing

…the feed buckets clanging

…the barn cats meowing for their breakfast

…and, daddy whistlin’.

It was comforting to hear the sounds of those routines being repeated.  It meant my world was safe and solid.

I could tell when daddy had just fed and milked the old Jersey ‘cause I knew the sound of the stall door opening and the gentle lowing from her little bull calf as he was “turned back in” to nurse the last of her milk.

I knew the barn cats would get a portion from the milk bucket as daddy made his way back to the cellar to set the milk to cool before he finally made his way back to the house.

If daddy stayed with his normal routine next would be the sound of the chickens contentedly clucking as the grain was scattered and then the sounds of the trace chains clinking along the floor of the barn as he began to harness which ever work horse he was going to use to skid logs to his sawmill across the run.

The little grey horse was more tractable, easy to drive, stood well when being hooked, but was lighter framed and best when skidding the logs down the mountain.  If there was to be a long haul or if the logs had fallen in the bottom of the cove and had to be skidded up hill the bay was used as he was a little stouter ‘though a little more difficult to handle.

Lying there in my bed in the early morning I could even tell which horse he had harnessed just by listening to the rhythm of the trace chains as the horse pranced across the barnyard…then I would know whether daddy and Bud were cuttin’ on top of the mountain or somewhere around in the cove … in case I decided to test my resolve by hiking up the mountain later to share his cheese sandwich and drink from his water jug at lunch.

I guess it was part of my growing up to leave the sanctuary of the house, wander up the mountain through those scary woods, find daddy, sit with his arm around me as I ate part of his sandwich, then have to return down the mountain by myself.  I knew each end was safe, but the journey in the middle was sort of scary… at that age.

Once I got near the top of the mountain I always knew what final path to take through the woods by listening for the gentle rhythmic sawing of the cross cut, the sound of the horse skidding the logs toward the landing, or …daddy whistlin’ his way through the day.

The little sawmill is long since gone, but I can clearly see it in my mind’s eye sittin’ on the bank at the south side of the run…the motor and drive train from some old truck providing the power…the large circular blade slicing through the white oak and red oak…the sawdust piling up beneath…the slab pile…the ricks of lumber being air dried…Daddy and Bud Nichols using the peaveys and cant hooks to sort and align the logs to get the greatest yield, the straightest grain… and daddy whistlin’.

Cuttin’ red oak and white oak logs with a two man cross cut saw, skiddin’ it to the mill, sawing and stacking was all hard work.

Most days the routine was the same except for Saturdays when we went to town or Sundays when we went to church, visited with neighbors and rested in preparation for another week probably just like the last. 

And, … most days … daddy would whistle all day long.

Daddy used to whistle

…as he wandered through the day.

‘Till now I hadn’t even realized I had heard him

…I’d been young … busy with childhood play.

Whistlin’seemed to make daddy happier

as he made up a brand new tune.

The tunes were seldom ever alike

Whether ‘twas in the early morning, or

late

…in the afternoon.

Except that “Rock Of Ages”

or

“Amazing Grace”

would sometimes just appear.

I guess those hymns were thrown in to keep him grounded

…humble,

…grateful

…to help keep Jesus near.

‘Till lately I hadn’t realize just how much that whistlin’ stuff

had stuck there in my mind.

But, now I think of daddy’s whistlin’

often

And,

…now

I whistle

…from time to time.

I see daddy when I whistle.

I see him driving his old truck.

I see him working at his little sawmill,

…skidding timber

…and,

…doing other stuff.

But most times when I see daddy

He’s standin’ in the creek

…waiting,

…white shirt,

…dark tie,

Easter Morning,

…lightly snowing.

Standin’ up with his friend Carl

… the Reverend Raymond Straight’s just startin’ to speak.

Daddy “standing up” with his friend Carl Cutright – Roane County, Spring Creek along US 219 south of Spencer – “out Charleston Road” – an Easter baptizin’ – probably around 1950 or so.

Friends and neighbors from the church

were watchin’ from the bank.

Most had already been baptized

but, some were waitin’ their turn.

And, still a  few others were dunkin’

…for a second time

…just to reaffirm

…the cleansing of an Easter baptism

at the shoal along Spring Creek

between Watson’s barn

and the Hickman place

with the neighbors lookin’ on.

I see daddy when I whistle.

It puts a smile upon my face.

Don’t know if it’s seein’ daddy,

the baptizin’

or,

if it’s the whistlin’ that’s takin’ place.

But, more important,

Whistlin’ taught me

at an early age

…to listen

…by now, I guess you knew.

That whistlin’ reminds me of daddy,

…of Jesus,

…of life’s lessons,

the ones we should daily do.

And

…every time I whistle

whistlin’ make me a little happier, too

There’s a whole lot more to this whistlin’ than a man would have ever thought

First there’s

…the whistlin’,

then there’s

…the listenin’.

that leads me to

…the thinkin’

about the sanctuary of my earthly and heavenly homes

…the sometimes scary journey in between

about grace and faith along my path

in things I have not yet seen

I think about my daddy

standin’ in the creek

I think about the cross

about

…our eternal sanctuary

that through God’s gracious act of love

our savior, Jesus, bought.

Thank you Lord for another dawn, thank you for giving me another beautiful sunrise, thank you for those memories of growing up, thank you for a family that taught me Your ways, thank you for not giving up on me when it perhaps would have been easy to do, and Lord, thank you for a daddy that whistles…today up on tHis mountain.

Steve Alberts

                                                                                                            Bethpage, TN

 September 3, 2007

© 2007 Steve Alberts

You can read more about the 2012 Essays on Childhood writers here.

Essays on Childhood: Pick a Little Talk a Little by Susan Byrum Rountree

Susan Byrum Rountree has been telling stories ever since she understood the power of the Show & Tell stool in kindergarten. Words have always held a sense of magic for her, and she parlayed that magic into a 35-year career of bending them this way and that. She is the author of Nags Headers, a regional history set on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, and In Mother Words, a collection of essays about family life. Born and raised in Scotland Neck, N.C., a tiny town in the Tar Heel State’s northeastern corner, she studied journalism at UNC Chapel Hill. She is now Director of Communications for St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, in Raleigh. The mother of two grown children and two very precocious granddogs, she has written for a number of national and regional newspapers and magazines. These days she blogs about the magic of daily life on her blog, Write Much.

Pick a Little Talk a Little | by Susan Byrum Rountree

My father was an amateur magician. With a sleight of hand, he used to pull coins from the ears of grandchildren, use his nimble fingers to shuffle a deck of cards into a magic trick. He could separate inseparable rings.

He was a busy man when I was growing up. One of only three doctors in my hometown, he was up and out early, and though he most always was home for supper, often in the middle of it, the phone would ring, or people would show up at the back door, and he was gone again. My mother, brother, sister and I shared him all those years, waiting at home as he delivered babies (12 in 24 hours once), treated hearts — both broken and diseased — mended bones and emotions, nurtured families as they took root, grew old, died.

Susan on her mother’s lap

I’m child #3, so my alone time with Daddy was limited when I was little. I remember him teaching me to bait a proper hook with a blood worm while the waves of the Atlantic lapped at my feet. A walk in the woods one day (with my brother and sister), I think because my brother was working on a merit badge. A day he came home from work to sew up a tiny injured rabbit my sister found in the yard. And a day he pitched the softball to me in the back yard so I wouldn’t embarrass myself during recess. (It didn’t work.)

But one of the many things Daddy shared with me in those times when he was home was a love for banjo music. We watched the Arthur Smith Show and Hee Haw and Porter Wagoner, Daddy tapping his size 13 wing tips against the ottoman as I clapped along.

Daddy loved Earl Scruggs. Somehow back then I felt like Earl and Lester Flatt were neighbors, they came so often into our family room. I’d watch as their fingers flew, coaxing sweet music out of those strings, and it was pure joy.

Daddy had a banjo, too, and every now and then he and I would sneak away into the living room while my siblings were bent over homework, and I would sit beside him on the dressed up sofa — my feet not yet touching the floor — and he would play for me. I’d watch as those same magical fingers that shuffled the cards and stitched up that rabbit plucked the stiff wire strings until Bill Bailey filled up the whole room. Joy again, to have Daddy all to myself, for him to be singing just to me.

My kindergarten class performed a play when I was five. It had something to do with Valentine’s Day, and I played the role of “a girl.” In the picture, I stand next to a boy wearing a cowboy hat and a sly grin as big as the waxing moon. I don’t remember a thing about the play except one of the boys played Pinocchio, and that I wore a pink dress my grandmother had made and white cotton gloves. I hated that I had to stand next to the boy with the grin, who sang the theme song to the “Beverly Hillbillies” because he told our teacher Earl Scruggs was his cousin.

Susan’s kindergarten class

When I learned that Earl, the sweet man who used to visit with us often and played his five-fingered magic had died, I remembered that boy, and my Daddy playing for me, and how much banjo music meant to me once upon a time.

Wouldn’t you know that the brother of that boy is a Facebook acquaintance? So the news hound in me couldn’t resist asking if the story was true.

Not true, exactly, he wrote to me. But his uncle played in a band with the father of Bluegrass when Earl and Lester Flatt performed live for the radio. And wouldn’t you know? He and his sly brother, along about the time of our kindergarten play, sometimes sat on the stage with Earl and Lester when they performed. If I imagined them as neighbors, to be sure to a five-year-old, sitting on stage with the performers meant you were kin.

I’ve thought a lot about my banjo memories since then and have even played a little Foggy Mountain Breakdown as I worked. Though I thought my father’s banjo long gone to history, come to find out that my brother has been keeping it safe for awhile, and two years ago gave it back to Daddy, all cleaned up and ready for picking again.

“Get him to play you a song,” my brother told me.

Well, I just believe I will.

What would this world be like, if every single one of us took the time to coax our gifts out and into the world —  like the unassuming Earl, or Daddy with his magic for healing, with medicine or music? Small gestures can become great magic, when shuffled with the right hands.

You can read more about the 2012 Essays on Childhood writers here.

A Girl with a Gun by Devin McGrew

Devin was born in Charleston, West Virginia. She was raised in a farm house in a little town called Liberty.  At the age of eleven years, she moved to Sarasota, Florida, with her mother and stepfather.  A decade passed before she returned to her hometown in West Virginia.

Devin has decided to attend Marshall University to obtain her Regent’s Bachelor of Arts degree and then further that with an MBA.  She works with her father in his business, Don’s Plumbing, Heating & Air. She is a single mother to a beautiful daughter named Lauren. They live in a small town in rural West Virginia with their two dogs, Foxy and Molly.

In her essay, Devin explores how her life in Liberty influenced her lifelong passion for shooting guns.  I especially am grateful to Devin for her willingness to write openly about something many people outside of West Virginia do not understand:  A cultural significance to firearms that is both family-oriented and in many ways nonviolent.  There are different takes on the role of guns in society, and Devin’s honest evaluation of the strength, family history, and parental connection she inherited from having guns in her childhood will be an eye-opener for many.

A Girl with a Gun

BOOM!!!

My ears are ringing; the smell of gunpowder lingers in the air. It’s a beautiful fall day and there’s a nice chill in the air. I anxiously await the results of my shot. Dad trudges up the hill to the giant log we use to line the cans up for target practice. “Nice shot!” he says in his slow, deep voice. A smile spreads across my face. I notice he’s smiling as well on his walk back to the porch. He climbs the porch steps with ease using his long legs from his six-foot frame. His huge hand comes down to gently pat my back for a job well done.

I have Dad’s approval and that is all my little childhood self needs.

We must have been a sight on that porch, Dad standing tall, towering over me, and me gazing up towards the sky to look into his big brown eyes.  I often had trouble keeping up with him when we were walking together.  My little legs would be at a dead run to keep up the pace.  When holding hands, his hand would engulf my tiny one, and most of the time I would simply hold onto his fingers.  Dad is part Native American and definitely looks the part. He has dark brown hair, dark brown eyes and is somewhat dark skinned. I inherited the dark brown hair and olive skin from him and I often wore my hair in pigtail braids (a.k.a. Indian braids) as a child.

I was introduced to guns literally the day I was brought home from the hospital.  Dad took a picture of me lying on a bed next to a pair of binoculars and a rifle.  This photograph is now in a small frame on my bookshelf.  I realize now that this image might be quite scary to some people, this small infant girl lying near a firearm.  It was definitely normal in our household, however, and guns were not anything to fear.  They were simply an extension of who we were and part of how we lived, almost like family.

We used guns for both pleasure and survival.  We enjoyed shooting guns for target practice and to set-up contests to see who could make the best shots . We used guns to go out into our property to hunt animals so that we would have food on the table during both good and bad times.  There was no question about whether I would learn how to use a firearm when I was born.  Whether I was a girl or boy, it was happening. Dad definitely wanted a boy.  I mean what father doesn’t want a son?  Right from the start, I had a lot of proving myself to do for Dad.  Thankfully, I didn’t mind becoming a tomboy.

By five years old, I’d become quite the marksman.  My trusty .22 rifle didn’t have much of a kick to it, which is how I was able to fire off a precise shot.  The fact that we spent  most evenings on the front porch practicing also helped.  One of the joys of living on ninety-plus acres is that you don’t have to worry about your neighbors complaining.  The only ones bothered by our gunshots were the animals in the woods wondering if the shots were intended for them.

Liberty is located in Putnam County, West Virginia, and definitely is considered rural.  We lived on nearly one hundred acres of which about two were cleared off for the house seat. The rest of the property was woods.  The old farm house, where grandfather grew up, was located on the right side of the cleared property.  On the left side, he built a new house for his wife and kids upon moving them back here from Manassas, Virginia.  The old rutted driveway split the property.  We moved into the house after Grandpa died and Grandma moved away.  The road to our house was a gravel road barely big enough for one car.  Our nearest neighbor was about a mile down the road.

Ranson’s General Store was on the corner of the street by the post office.  Mom and I often walked down to the store during the day to visit with Mr. & Mrs. Ranson and to pick up any necessities . It was a small store similar to the ones you see in older movies. They sold the basics such as bread, milk and canned goods.  I can still hear the ringing of the bell over the old wooden door with the glass panels when you would enter.  Every time we went in to pick up something, I came out of the store with some sort of candy.  Naturally, I loved visiting that little general store!  There was an elementary school at the top of the hill off the main road. I attended school there briefly for first grade. The school was so small, they combined the classes there.  Kindergarten was on its own, first and second grade were together, and third, fourth, and fifth grade were combined.  Dad used to drop me off there around 6:00 AM on his way to work.  The cooks would unlock the doors for us and allow me to help them prepare breakfast in the kitchen before school started.  There was nothing else in Liberty except beautiful hills, friendly people, and the smell of fresh air.  It truly resembled Mayberry from The Andy Griffith Show, or even some places from Little House on the Prairie.

I spent most days playing outside from morning until dark. I had a swingset, a loyal dog named Ginger, and not much more but wide open space and a wild imagination.  Ginger was my sidekick.  My aunt Libby found her abandoned behind a 7-11 store.  She knew we had plenty of room for her to roam, so she gave Ginger to us.  We found out that Ginger was part German Shepherd and part wolf.  She was an interesting mix of animal for sure! I would sit up late at night and watch her howl at the moon from my window.  Most of the time she stayed near my window at night to guard me.  I truly believe she felt I was one of her cubs from the pack.  She never let me out of her sight and even made sure I stayed within my boundaries while playing in the yard.  When we took walks in the woods together, she would gently pull on my clothes to put me back on track when I wondered off the trail.

Our yard was so big to my childhood eyes that when I stood at the edge of the woods, the house seemed miles away.  Mom would often pack sandwiches, Kool-Aid, and snacks in my blue Tupperware picnic set and send me out for the day.  I would spread out my food under the big tree and share my lunch with Ginger, and then we would set off on an adventure created in my mind.  One day we were hunting giant deer, the next we were spies.  I kept myself occupied in my imaginary world until Dad got home from work.

Then it was time for guns!

I became fascinated with guns at an early age.  Dad had TONS of them!  There was an entire room filled with them in our house.  I was never allowed to go in that room or to touch a firearm unless he was there.  Of course, I always wanted to sneak in that room to marvel at all the beautiful guns. There were so many different types of guns and each one was beautiful in its own way.  There was the .22 rifle which was one of my favorites.  It had a sleek, single, black barrel and the wooden butt of the gun was worn from many years of use.  It seemed to fit like a glove when pulling it up to aim.  I was always responsible with guns.  Gun safety was crucial.   Every time we handled a gun, Dad spoke of safety and showed me how it’s done.  If there was ever a time I was unsafe with a gun, I knew there would be consequences, the most severe being that I would no longer be allowed to handle the guns.

Dad had quite the collection of guns, which combined the newest models with old ones that had been handed down through the generations.  There’s a story behind each and every one of those guns and he’s happy to tell you those stories.  Some are funny, some are bittersweet.  I love to listen to them time and time again.  One of my favorites is the .357 pistol which was handed down to him from his father. That gun was one of Grandpa’s favorites and he often carried it for protection when they lived in Manassas, Virginia. They lived in the inner city there and often dealt with people that weren’t the best.  I’m sure there have been many times that gun gave him a feeling of safety like nothing anyone can imagine.  Dad has it now and I’m sure every time he looks at it, he is reminded of Grandpa and how he would do anything to protect his family, just like Dad has always done anything needed to protect his own family.  That collection has grown over the years and he still loves to tell those stories.  Every time we are together, we always seem to make our way back to those guns.

These days I don’t have much time to spend with guns.  Other things always seem to get in the way.  However, my love for shooting has never faltered.  To me, there is nothing better than holding that cold metal in your hands and feeling the power released by pulling the trigger.  The sound, the smell, the end result of seeing your bullet hit the target is all so amazingly beautiful.  Each and every time I am able to go out and shoot, I am reminded of my childhood days.  The memories come rushing back to me:  I can smell the sweet mountain air of Liberty, West Virginia.  I can see Ginger lying on the porch watching us.  I feel the happiness of childhood.

Once again, I’m that little girl standing on the wooden porch at the house in Liberty waiting for Dad’s approval on my shot.