I imagine that when most people around the United States think of growing up in West Virginia, they would conjure up a rural mountain setting, complete with chickens, cows, and a big family farmhouse, but that’s not exactly the scene for my childhood story. As a child of the 1970’s, I lived a small unincorporated neighborhood called Loudendale, winding its way through the “holler” of Cane Fork Road, just 10 minutes from the capital city of Charleston, West Virginia. It was the kind of place where you knew almost everyone and everyone knew you. It wasn’t at all unusual to be related to your neighbors either by blood or marriage, and everyone knew your business through the local gossip lines at the Nazarene Church or the elementary school. Sometimes that was a bad thing, but most of the time, it was good to have a sense that someone, whether you knew it or not, was looking out for you.
By all accounts, I had the perfect childhood. My young high school sweetheart parents, being married only 4 short years, began construction on our house in 1969 on a piece of Cane Fork property they purchased next door to my dad’s childhood home. My grandparents, Papaw Charlie and Mamaw, had built their own first home on the same property and shared it with Papaw’s brother Alvin and his wife Nora. The land was a flat area of about 4 acres that followed the creek, and we jokingly referred to our home place as the “Davis Compound.” I never knew any other home until I was out on my own as a young woman.
Considering we were a one-income family at the time, our house was large and modern: a split-level with all amenities including a large front yard, a long flat driveway just right for bike riding, the creek for fishing, and endless hills and valleys to explore.
My dad, Bob, worked for the DuPont chemical plant in Belle, West Virginia, as a pipe fitter alongside his father and older brother, Mike. He left work early in the morning and came home at the same time every day. In the summer, no matter how tired he was after a long, hot day of work, Dad would change his clothes and play baseball with my younger brother Bobby and me in our front yard until dinner time. First base was the front porch, second was the fence post, third was the black walnut tree my dad had planted when he was a boy, and home plate was anywhere on the driveway you could touch before someone would get you out. I am thankful to have inherited my dad’s sense of humor, playfulness, and duty to family that inspired me to be the parent that I am today. Time with family was always most important time.
My mom, Kay, a “city” girl from Kanawha City, was a stay-at-home mom until Bobby started Kindergarten at Loudendale Elementary School. She then decided that she wanted to be a “working mom”–a novel idea at the time in the 1970’s. She first worked in women’s clothing retail, then went to college at Morris Harvey College (now the University of Charleston), became a real estate agent, and finally an executive secretary, all the while raising two small kids. She was the epitome of the 1970’s women’s revolution. I am again thankful to her for the gift of her sense of self and independence, mixed with her devotion to family. I am proud to be a working mom myself, as I had the best example.
One of the best things about growing up the way I did was living next door to my grandparents. Their house was just an extension of my own, just a short jaunt through the swampy grass by the garden, past the crabapple tree and the orange daylilies, across the driveway, and up the concrete stairs. So many times, too many to count, I made the trip from my back door to their front door. At night when I would leave their house, Mamaw would always hand me a flashlight and say, “Watch for snakes!” Then she’d watch every step I took until I was safely in my own house again.
The house my dad grew up in was what I would refer to as the “wood house”—chocolate brown wooden shingle siding, a long wooden porch with a 4-seater swing at the end. The front porch was a gathering place for laughter and tears, a place to say our hellos and good-byes, a place to play and a place to rest. My love of porches developed there as a youngster. I have fond memories of singing and swinging on the porch with Mamaw, as well as catching the occasional “daddy og legs” to play with on the banister. Inside the front door was a long wood floor hallway that led to the back of the house where the kitchen was located. To the right was a small living room, wood floors, knotty-pined walls and all. It was a dark but comforting room. The kitchen, from what I remember, ran the length of the back of the house.
As children, my older cousin Shawn and I would chase each other down the long hallway and would end up crawling through the window in my grandmother’s bedroom that led to the laundry room made from a converted back porch. It was so much fun to crawl through the window and land on the washing machine that we would sneak through time and time again even when we were told not to do it.
Sometimes when we were really wound up, we would also run down the long hallway that led from the front door to the kitchen in the back of the house to see how far we could slide. We’d start at the front door, pull our socks out way beyond our toes (for some reason we thought this would make us slide further) and then take off running at full speed, dropping to the floor and sliding our way onto the linoleum in the kitchen.
When we would spend the night with Mamaw, Shawn and I would sit up late at night and watch “Chiller Theater” on TV. I was always such a big chicken and didn’t want to watch, so I would hide under the covers on the couch. Mamaw would then shoo us into bed and the three of us would giggle and tell stories by the light of an eerie green colored night light.
When I was about ten years old, Papaw renovated the apartment above the detached garage next to the old homestead. The double car garage served as Papaw Charlie’s woodworking shop and my uncle Ted’s garage band’s practice studio. Since Ted was just a teenager when I was young, I always liked to listen to his band rehearse. One Halloween, when I was in the third grade, I remember dressing up in my costume, a character from The Planet of the Apes, and standing in the garage door as the band practiced their rendition of CCR’s “Rolling on the River.” To this day, every time I hear that song I think of standing there in my ape costume, wanting to just listen to the music as long as I could.
Mamaw and Papaw eventually moved into a new place and rented their old home to a family friend. The new house was a place of comfort, laughter, and life lessons that I wasn’t even aware that I was learning. A house with another great porch, this place is where most of my memories of growing up with grandparents were made. The house was unique in that it had two front doors, one to the left and one to the right. Family and friends entered to the right and those who didn’t know any better usually went to the left. The family door led directly into Mamaw’s laundry room that smelled like Gain laundry detergent and mothballs. A small bedroom was to the right and the hub of the house—the kitchen–was to the left. This is where, I’m sure on many occasions, we exceeded maximum capacity for such a small room. Mamaw would say every time we had a family dinner, complete with cousins and aunts and uncles and anyone else who showed up for some good home cookin’, “I need to send this kitchen out and have it enlarged!” Of course she never did, and it wouldn’t have been the same if she could have. The best part about the kitchen, besides all of the food, was the fact no matter where you stood, you were in the way and you had to be creative if you were looking for a place to sit and eat. But somehow everyone would find a spot, in the bedrooms, on the porch, on the living room floor. We’d pair off and talk over each other. Kids would clamber down the hall and for anyone who came in the right door, Mamaw would say, “Get you something to eat.”
And they would!
(See Part 1 of Growing Up in the previous post. Essay continued, next post.)