Going to the Farm by Melanie Foster Taylor

Melanie claims she is “not a real writer’s writer, except for trying it now.”   She is a classical pianist, and piano teacher who has been inspired to write her childhood story by her former piano student, Elizabeth Damewood Gaucher. Forced into really early retirement by the economic crash in 2008-9, this former college music professor now has plenty of time to reflect and write. Oh what a blessing. Melanie is presently trapped in South Carolina, but visits the family in Charleston, West Virginia two or three times a year. She breathes anew whenever she sees the mountains again.  Her essay, “Going to the Farm,” recounts memories of trips to the jointly-held family vacation farm in Monroe County, West Virginia, from Charleston. Model-T’s, grand pianos, and wildlife ensue.

Going to the Farm

It was about 1956-7. I don’t remember exactly because I am now 59 and three-quarters. Most of my memories are smeared right about now in my life.

But my memories about Going to the Farm are spottily some of the most vivid in my pickled memory bank.  I remember Mommy packing the red and white vinyl Coca-Cola cooler with ice and snacks for the long (?) trip to the farm, putting them into the backseat of our 1950’s Chevy, two-toned red with a white top.

(I’m the one on the right, presagging belly-button exposure that will of course become popular later in the century.)

We were going rural! We went to the farm every year in hunting season, about October 15 from what I remember. The whole extended family, aunts, uncles, cousins and all would converge for awhile to bond, eat, and for the fellas, do some serious hunting. The big prize might be a turkey for Thanksgiving.

OR maybe a squirrel dinner. That’s Grandaddy there with his gun and three or four squirrel stew ingredients.


Now I get confused because my most memorable trip to the farm was in Granddaddy’s Model-T Ford. I remember him worrying about making it up Pike’s Peak. No, really it was the big uphill grade going to the top of Flat Top Mountain! Chunka-chunka-chunka. We made it.  I remember the problems with the “choke” on that Model-T. I’m not sure but I think the West Virginia Turnpike MAY have been there then, newly opened.

We got off of the fancy Turnpike to make our way through Hinton, heading toward Union, passing the beautiful Greenbrier River on the left of the road. Going through Hinton was significant because Grandaddy and his five kids had grown up there during the Depression. Mommy liked to talk about her legs cracking and bleeding into her white socks from the cold as she walked to school. She also told me that Grandaddy set out shots of hot-toddies (Yes, Bourbon) on the stove in the kitchen for all the kids to keep them warm as they walked to school in the morning. This may be why none of the children graduated from college! But he had a job the whole time; He was a conductor on the C&O railroad. They were pretty flush for those times.

Once in Union, it was just a few miles to Gap Mills, population about 50. In Gap Mills, we had friends who kept our Jeep. The Jeep was the only vehicle that could make it up the road to The Farm (except the Model-T; memory confusion remains.) The Jeep was a World War II reclaim, and I have no idea how we got it. Sometimes we stopped at Ralph and Arlene’s for the night to pick up the Jeep and drinking water. I still don’t know how we became friends with Ralph and Arlene, but these things just happen in West Virginia. I’ll never forget the smoky smell of their house  (cigarettes and a wood stove combined) and that they had a GRAND PIANO in the living room.  I am a piano player. I liked showing off on that old, out-of-tune grand.

The next morning, going from Ralph and Arlene’s house to the farm, we stopped at a house that raised chickens, hence fresh eggs, to supply us for the next few days. That is all I remember about that! But it was about 5 more miles up a dusty road until….

Eventually we turned right onto the dirt, rocky and overgrown road that was the entrance to the farm. The entrance was tough to spot from the main road. There was an iron gate with a padlock on the dirt road, about thirty feet in from the main road. The driver had to unlock the padlock on the gate, and then we were off into the wild! The back of the Jeep was absolutely packed with supplies, and we little cousins were holding onto the top bars of the vehicle, our feet delicately balanced on the bumper. We were actually hanging off the back of the Jeep. Here we go! Get ready for some serious bumps! “Hold on tight!” said the adults who were sitting up front.

Nobody had been up the road for many months, probably since summer time, so the ruts grooved by any bad weather were deep. As we descended into the Rain Forest, the driver had to make sharp left and right juts, avoiding the big pits in the dirt road. I remember flinging right and left off the back of the Jeep as the driver jigged and jagged along the path. Sometimes we had to actually stop and fill in the ruts with brush and stones in order to create a passable road. Sometimes we would stop and pick blackberries on the way in! (But wait: that was the summer trip to the farm. But a vivid memory.)

I think it was about two miles from the main road up the dirt jungle road to the farmhouse, but it took awhile and was always a beautiful adventure. OOH! I just remembered the adults stopping on the way to shoot some pheasants who were in the road. I think we ate them. I know I remember the sound of the flight of the survivor pheasants escaping with their lives. The Jeep persisted.

Once we saw the crosshatch fence, we knew we were just a short downhill jaunt to the farmhouse. The Rain Forest opened up and there was LIGHT ahead and a fabulous cleared hill on the horizon.

We descended the short hill and saw the always sadly neglected foursquare for the first time of this season.  (In summer time, we loaded up with an actual lawnmower to knock down the 2-foot tall grass in the yard. In hunting season, I think we just dealt with the leftovers.)

As we went into the farmhouse, “interesting” odors reared their ugly heads. What does a house smell like after five or six months of abandonment? Yes, this is it. Mustiness-wood. But that smell is still a happy memory. None of the wooden walls were painted in the house so all of the open pores of the wood absorbed the scents of nature. A musty memory smell is very vibrant when you are 59 and three-quarters.

We were into the house again, and the first job for the big people was to make sure that there were no snake nests in the beds or in the outhouse. I remember Aunt Gladys finding one in a bed one year. This was very creepy. But my favorite creepy memory is when one of the uncles or aunts found a rattlesnake sitting on the “throne” in the outhouse. Yes. We had to go to the outhouse for those bodily functions. According to legend, someone shot a rattlesnake right between the eyes when we got there one season. The outhouse was a two-seater, by the way. This was pretty much a Cadillac possession for the time. I will spare you the description about sharing this experience with my family members. I remember LYE was involved.

West Virginia Moon by Joe Moss, 1963 *

After checking out the farmhouse and outhouse for varmints, we unloaded the Jeep. It was backed up to the front porch and the big people hauled in all the supplies: Coleman lanterns, water, bags of food, sheets, clothes, ice! Oh ICE! Here comes the memory of getting a huge block of ice somewhere on the trip to put in the ICEBOX. I remember the big metal hook picking up the chunk and placing it into…something for its trip to the farmhouse.

There was no electricity and no fresh water at The Farm. At The Farm, I guess we were just lucky to have a rainwater barrel on the back porch, to be used for cleaning up, ONLY. The barrel was rusty but no matter. The water ran off of the rusty metal roof.

Each family had its own bedroom in the house, except for my little family. We had to share because I was an only child, so we shared with the cousins whose family had too many, I mean FIVE kids. There was a black metal wood stove in every bedroom and a chamber pot for mid-night trinkles. Going to the possibly snakey outhouse in the middle of the night was not an option! Besides, the outhouse was tastefully located about 30 feet from the farmhouse, too far for a mid-night trek. By the way, I remember that the ceramic chamber pot really crisped-up the buttocks in the middle of the night after the wood-burning stove had spent its fuel. My steamy pee was actually a welcome relief from the bitter cold. And, yes, I remember the scent. No. It was a really a smell.

Somehow, the next morning, the Mommies managed to put hot bacon and eggs and cold orange juice on the big table in the dining room. I never thought much about how hard that might have been until now. Where did they get the heat for the bacon and eggs? Why was the orange juice cold, just like at home even though there was no Frigidaire? We were mightily fed before our kiddy outdoor adventures began at The Farm.

Which adventure would be first? We cousins could explore any number of locations on The Farm; We could go visit the Bear Wallow, an ancient cluster of rocks in the middle of the woods, named thusly by the big people because they believed that Black Bears lived in there in the winter time. Of course, that was a scary place to go, but oh so exciting. We always felt very brave when we went there. We could trek through the long grasses up to the top of the “cleared” hill to view the long distance sight of Peter’s Mountain that was VIRGINIA. The mountain was so far away that it was blue.

The Blue Mountains of Virginia.

(There it is, on the eastern horizon. It really was blue.)

We could go out on the front porch and watch the older cousins shoot beer cans off of the split-rail fence that surrounded the house. In later years, I would be contributing to this activity with my single-shot 22-caliber gun. I was a pretty good shot, by the way. I killed a lot of beer cans. I wonder now where all of those beer cans came from?

We could go to the little pond that one of my uncles dug, thinking that it would create a lovely lake for our visits to The Farm. Needless to say, the “lake” turned into a mosquito- frog haven right next to the front porch. Brilliant! But the SCIENCE of exploring that murky pond was a creative experience for all us cousins. We spent our pre-teen years with a flashlight out there, shooting the frogs, piling up the little froggie bodies and then blowing up the piles of little froggie bodies with cherry-bombs. Most of my cousins were little boys, needless to say. Why did they (we) do that? I clearly remember dissecting some of those dead froggies with my cousins. It was fascinating. Because of this, I did not have any problems with the grossness factor in Biology class ten years later in high school. I guess you could say that I already knew quite a bit about life versus death.

* * *

Fifty-ish years later, is it any surprise that I now have created a water garden in my backyard that is also flush with rain forest foliage even though I live only two blocks from the center of town? I dug that water garden pond out myself a few years ago. I guess I did not learn any lessons from that dysfunctional uncle. I keep bug spray close as I throw the ball for my darling Golden Retriever because, of course, there is a mosquito problem out there. I bought some tadpoles a few years ago, hoping to create those nightly garumphing sounds that I remember from the froggies at The Farm. They all died. My yard is really trying to look like the woods of The Farm. Because I now live in South Carolina, I do not have West Virginia foliage; I have big sprawling pecan trees, one huge Magnolia, azaleas, very mature Camellias, and on and on. I love my yard because it is the absolute opposite of preened which means that it is beautiful to me.

Now I am 60 instead of 59 and three-quarters at the beginning of this recollection. What have I learned, writing this memoir?

I have learned that it is a blessing that I mostly remember the happy things.

I must have been a happy child because I am still trying to recreate the same scene for my life, fifty years later.

And dear parents, know that the experiences you give your children early in life will live on for them in vivid, Kodachrome colors.

My beautiful wild backyard garden

* Read about the famous and controversial painting, West Virginia Moon here.

Zip, Clank, Damp, Bite: Love in the Time of Twine and Bears by Cathy Nelson Belk

Cathy is an Ohio gal at heart, particularly so after walkabouts in various other, truly fabulous places. She’s taking advantage of this one wild and precious life by trying new things, which includes this first foray into creative writing (so be gentle).  In addition to family and friends, Cathy loves her work supporting entrepreneurs and blogs about it on the Idea Exchange, the blog for Jump StartJump Start is a nationally recognized nonprofit organization transforming the economic impact of entrepreneurial ventures and the ecosystems supporting their growth.

Cathy is also one of my dearest friends.  She won’t put this in her own bio, but she is a brilliant business person with an M.B.A. from Duke University.  (The Duke thing nearly killed me, but I have gotten over it.)  She is exceptionally funny and passionate, and a woman who likes to get down to brass tacks like no one I’ve ever known.  She loves a challenge, and her essay is an exercise in articulating some family trip experiences that were, well, a trip.  She and I have talked about how several of these episodes could become their own essays, each is so rich with sights and smells, fears and joys, characters and places.  Her essay reflects the rich mining territory of childhood memories.  One day I hope to convince her to write about the horses running off as its own story…..but that will have to wait.  She’s got a few hundred entrepreneurs to support!

Zip, Clank, Damp, Bite: Love in the Time of Twine and Bears

It began the same way every time: the somewhat unpleasant scent my sister and I called “trip”, a combination of stale, polyurethane-infused car air and the damp, musky greenness of a dewy morning. Our eyes were small, swollen slits, and our chubby bodies moved slowly, but our brains scurried to awareness with that scent. There were other signals that another summer trip was about to begin: the hard-boiled eggs and glazed donuts sitting on the kitchen table, the locked windows holding in the summer humidity, and the tense voices of my parents as they looked for the travelers checks that “I know are around here somewhere….”

It wasn’t until we walked outside in the pre-dawn morning, opened the creaky car door, and were hit with the smell of “trip” that the next journey was really starting.

My parents, both being teachers, had the luxury of time off in the summer, and with impatient hearts and a love of the outdoors, they took advantage of it. My home in July and August was not our modest colonial in Ohio, but the backseat of the two-door midnight green 1974 Dodge that took us and our camping gear to the great national parks in Utah, Wyoming and Montana, the Canadian Rockies and maritime provinces, and the Capes (Hatteras and Cod), among others. Home was also the various accoutrements of outdoor living, alive in my memory as sights, sounds, and feelings. The sound of an unzipping to allow escape from the tent, starting in one octave and reaching the next, as it curled up the zipper’s metal teeth from my shoes to my hair.  The clanking of the old suitcase of silverware, each bent knife with its own slot in the top half of the suitcase, with the remaining pieces jumbled in the bottom with the plastic plates and cups.  The damp feeling of my heavy cloth sleeping bag.  Even in my own skin, there was evidence of my summer home through the itchy mosquito bites and unpainted nails of a life lived outdoors.

We would be gone for four or six weeks at a time, winding our way across the country at 60 miles per hour. We didn’t see every giant ball of twine, but we saw a lot of them, and always stopped for any historically significant sites. Starting from Ohio, we often headed westward on a path well-travelled in our country; perhaps we felt a wayward kinship with the restlessness of settlers or explorers, or anyone seeking something different, better, or unexpected. There were always secrets and mysterious places, and while we were never in any one location long enough to unravel them, we pursued feeling those secrets around us, that mixture of discomfort and awe and provocation.

I  think we were living the uniquely American and ambitious value of searching; always  believing there was something to find, something different to see, something new to experience, without really caring what it was.

As with many travels, and generally with life and your home, there are all kinds of moments, and it’s in these moments that my sister and I walked away with our life lessons.  There were long, dusty hours in the back seat of the hot Dodge, where patience came as slowly as the car with a license plate we had yet to cross off the list in our games. There was the deep, pleasant sound of my mother reading The Good Earth out loud, either in the car, or at the picnic table over the buzz of the lantern and the symphony of crickets and frogs; with this, I learned the comfort and distraction of a good story.  There were always the routines, such as washing the plates and utensils from the meal, with me gathering, my mom washing, and my sister drying, all in a quiet row.  As if we were in our house, these activities were the basis of our family, the stability that anchored us no matter where we happened to be. I am very lucky; my home was my family, and the activities completed each day met our needs and enabled everything else to happen around them, as smooth as stones. This is why I still appreciate dull routines as much as the flashes of excitement around them.

I remember as well the adventures.  Perhaps, panic and adrenaline imprint themselves in our brains more vividly than mild routine.  Once we were stranded at the bottom of a canyon, our horses having run away, I walked away on my own two feet, a witness to resourcefulness and optimism as well as self-interest.  The night the bear ate our food as I lay trembling in my sleeping bag inside our tent, I learned how you can both laugh and cry at the exact same time.  My fear was lightened by my dad putting on his shoes, not to go out and wrestle the bear, but to keep his feet warm.

Oh, and the time I threw up raspberries all night long after a delicious hour of eating right off the bush, or when my eyeballs swelled up in the middle of a long hike from accidentally rubbing lotion in them? Well, those are just plain funny.

Most of all, I learned that home, that my family, was defined by interdependence as strong as iron.  The whole point of the trips – of the pursuit of the next thing, of the eyeball swelling adventures, and of the dull balls of twine — was to experience them together.

It’s the shared memories that we sought, and clearly we got them in spades.

Growing Up (part 4) by Christi Davis Somerville

The writer and her Mamaw 1976

My relationship with Mamaw was one of the best things about growing up next door to my grandparents.  It’s difficult to think of her now, since her passing has only been just recently.  My heart aches when I think about her and I miss her more than I thought I would.  In many ways, I was like the daughter she never had.  Mamaw was my security blanket.  She was my homemade quilt, frayed around the edges, but always comforting.  In many ways she was a complex woman.  Highly private and somewhat socially awkward, she was the matriarch of our entire family.  Being the eldest of seven, her job of caretaker followed her throughout her years.  She was a supreme worrier, and was able to conjure up bad happenings better than anyone I ever knew.  But where Papaw was inconsistent, Mamaw was consistent.  Always.

Not only was Mamaw my neighbor, she was also my elementary school cook.  I was fortunate enough to be with her at school every day at Loundendale Elementary.  School was another extension of home and I felt like we owned the place.  I was privy to places (like the kitchen) that other students weren’t allowed to go.  If I started feeling poorly and was sent to the clinic, I had instant sympathy beside me to make me feel better.  (Except when I was faking sick, and she’d sternly look at me and tell me to go back to class!)  In Kindergarten, my entire class called her “Mamaw.”  This upset me so much that I didn’t want to say her name out loud at school.  She was my Mamaw and I certainly did not want to share her with a bunch of other kids!  As I got older, I realized that having her at school was sometimes good and sometimes bad.  Good on days when we had mashed potatoes (an extra helping for me) and bad when I occasionally got in trouble (guess who took me to the principal).

Mamaw was well-known throughout the family and the neighborhood for her homemade hot rolls and cinnamon rolls.  There was no recipe, just lots of hard work and love put into everything she prepared.  Many times I watched her work her magic by turning a little Hudson Cream Flour, eggs, sugar, yeast, and condensed milk into a small piece of dough and roll it around on the kitchen countertop and, ta-dah!, the most perfect little roll of dough you could ever imagine would magically appear.  Twenty four of those little dough balls would go into the oven and a few minutes later, a smell would waft down the hall that would make anyone’s mouth water.  When the bread was done, she’d take it out of the oven and my job was to brush each roll with melted butter.  I can still remember the sound of the butter when it would sizzle on top of those rolls.

There are so many things I learned from Mamaw that I don’t think I would have learned had I not spent so much time with her.  She taught me how to tie a quilt (it is really the ugliest quilt you’ve ever seen—polyester stripes and patterns, brown flannel backing—it is referred to now as the “Tacky Quilt” but I made it!).  She taught me how to make lye soap, and what a science experiment that was.  Lye soap could take the paint off of a Buick!  She tried, really tried, to teach me how to make her famous homemade bread.  I failed miserably since I didn’t understand how to “feel the dough” to know when it was right.

Mamaw taught me other things too.  She taught me to always be prepared.  Whatever the situation, Mamaw could pull whatever we needed, from a wet washcloth to a cough drop, out her huge purse.  She taught me to save my money, but to spend it too on important things—not trinkets or toys.  She taught me to be compassionate, especially for children who had less than I did.  She taught me to always put my family first.  She taught all of this by example, not in words.

My grandmother and I developed quite a close relationship over the years.  We would sit at the kitchen table and talk for hours about nothing in particular, sometimes talking about several different things at once.  Every spring we would go to the farmers market and buy entirely too many flowers—marigolds, pansies, and impatiens–and wonder where in the world we would plant them all.  In the spring, we would count down the winter days to welcome spring at Watt Powell Park to be the first in line on opening day for baseball season.  Sometimes the cold spring air coming out of South Park hollow would make our teeth chatter, but Mamaw would fix a thermos of strong hot tea for us to sip on so we could cheer the Charleston Charlies, and later the Wheelers, and finally the Alley Cats, to victory.  We would read books, Anne of Green Gables, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Heidi, and talk about our favorite parts.  Sometimes she would tell stories about growing up just around the hill on Mt. Alpha.  She would tell me stories of how she met my grandfather and how he called her “chicken legs” when he saw her walking down the road one day.  We spent a lot of time together and I wouldn’t have had that opportunity had she not lived so close to me.

I’m sure my childhood would have been wonderful without living next to my grandparents.  I had, and still have, the best parents anyone could ever have.  I have a funny brother who saves lives for a living (a fireman—of which I am so proud).  I had a wonderful home, pets, good schools, vacations at the beach and camping.  But I really can’t imagine my life without having grown up beside Mamaw and Papaw.

Last April I received an urgent phone call from my brother.  Mamaw was in the hospital.  I heard the words “fatal” and “aneurism” as his voiced cracked to tell me the news.  I dropped everything and drove as fast as I could to the hospital to see her.  She had been having a hard time remembering things and getting around, but the thought of her dying just would not register in my brain, even though she was ninety one years old.

When I got to the hospital, I went directly into her room and knew in my heart that she was dying.  As I sat there with her alone listening to the beeping and humming of the machines, I held her hand and told her it was going to be okay, even though I knew it wasn’t.  She never opened her eyes, but I had to believe she could hear me.  I thanked her for all she had done for me, for all she had given me, for being there whenever I needed her.  I talked to her about our special times together and the memories we had…and then I watched her take her last breath.

It sounds so strange to say, but I’m glad it was just the two of us together when she passed.  I’m humbled that I was there to hopefully give her peace in her final moments on earth.  It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do, but I will never regret being there for her one last time.

As I continue my online research into my family’s past, I see my parents, my grandparents, and all my family in a different light.

I see them now as children running through the creeks and hills.

I see them as young adults falling in love and building a home.

I see them as parents and grandparents wanting the best for their children and grandchildren and all generations to come.

And I see myself…….

Making a good life for my future generations and passing on the best of my childhood memories to them.

(This concludes Growing Up by Christi Davis Somerville.  See Parts 1, 2, and 3 of Growing Up in the previous posts.)

Growing Up (part 3) by Christi Davis Somerville

My brother and I spent many after school hours and summers with my grandparents.  We developed lifelong relationships with them that to this day continue to be a blessing.  Since Mamaw was also the head cook at Loudendale Elementary, she would get home before us on school days.  She would sometimes bring home leftover food for us for snacks, my favorite being the peanut butter sandwiches on homemade bread, and a few scraps of food for our dog Spike.  Mamaw hated dogs, so she said, but I think she liked the fact that Spike was always standing at the gate smiling at her with his tail when she got home from work.

Another thing I learned growing up with my grandmother was that she was horribly afraid of thunderstorms.  She told me the story of the time when she was just a little girl, she was outside playing and fell asleep under a large bush.  When she awoke, there was a horrible storm and she was terrified.  After that experience, she became a nervous wreck any time the sky began to grow dark.  There were unwritten rules my brother and I had to follow if a thunderstorm was approaching on Mamaw’s watch.  First, we couldn’t use the telephone.  She convinced us that lightning would strike us dead if we were talking to someone during a storm.  Second, stay away from the kitchen sink.  She was certain the electricity would come right through the kitchen window and electrify us on the spot.  Third, we had to immediately go downstairs to the garage and wait for the storm to pass.  Many spring afternoons during a storm, the three of us would sit in the dark garage in Mamaw’s Chevette waiting for the all clear sign—no lightning or thunder.  To this day, I have a completely irrational fear of thunderstorms over which I have no control.  I don’t hide in my garage, but you can best believe that I won’t be near the kitchen sink talking on the telephone!

Papaw Charlie was quite a strange fellow–quiet and reserved at times, angry and rude at others.  The one thing about Papaw Charlie was that he was consistently inconsistent.  You never knew what he would say, what he would do, or where he would go.  One morning he got up, packed the car and drove to California to visit his sister Rose.  We didn’t even know he was going until he was gone.  I learned at a young age not to cross him, argue with him, or disagree with him.  It was his silence that bothered me most since I never knew where he was coming from or what he was thinking from day to day.

There were times of sweetness in my memories of him though. Many times I remember following him from his kitchen to the livingroom, hot on his heels as he carried his coffee cup, dripping hot drops of brown liquid on the floor of the hallway, all the way to the brown vinyl recliner in the living room.  He would settle in and I would hop up and settle in the crook of his arm, content to sit there with him as he drank his coffee and watched TV.  Papaw must have been quite at a loss as to what to do with me since I was the first girl born into his family after three sons and a grandson.  Some years after he passed, my grandmother found a bag in the back of his closet.  In it were two brand-new 1970’s style dresses, complete with tags, size 6, from JC Penney’s.

They were a gift to me from Papaw that I never received.

I don’t know why he never gave the dresses to me.  Maybe he didn’t think I’d like them, maybe he thought he wasn’t good at picking out clothing for little girls.  Whatever the reason, I’ve kept those dresses, in the same bag, with the tags still attached, so that I will always remember he was thinking of me even when I thought he wasn’t.  From Papaw Charlie I inherited my intelligence.  There’s no doubt in my mind that the man was some type of genius, who never really related well to his own family.  He once gave me a book, Smoley’s Logirhythms, a book of mathematical formulas and numbers that I was just as excited to receive as he was to give.  We couldn’t talk on a fashion level, but with math, we could relate.

Papaw Charlie passed away at home on Father’s Day 1994, just a few weeks before my wedding.  It wasn’t until he was gone that I realized how much I missed him.  Very few people had gotten to know him, mostly because of his quiet nature and sometimes scary demeanor.  But I knew he loved me and was proud of me, and I suppose I will always miss that side of him.

(See Parts 1 and 2 of Growing Up in the previous posts.  Essay concludes, next post.)

Growing Up (part two) by Christi Davis Somerville

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.)

Growing Up (part one) by Christi Davis Somerville

Editor’s note:  This essay holds a special place in my heart, as I spent a lot of time in my own adolescent years with Christi and her family at this homeplace in Loudendale, West Virginia.  I loved reading about the family history of the property, the incredibly funny descriptions of childhood antics, the portraits of Christi’s grandparents’ personalities and character, and the legacy of family ties that thrives in my old friend’s family today.  I was a “South Hills” kid and Christi was my only true friend in the Loudendale community.  I always felt that I had been granted a pass into special world when I would visit her home and her family, and so many years later I read her essay and realize that I was not imagining that.  This is essay is a gift that puts some of my own memories into perspective.

I believe you will love this essay, which is divided into several parts this week.  It surely had me recounting my own family blessings.

Christi grew up just outside the city limits of Charleston, West Virginia, in a middle class home with her parents and younger brother Bobby.   She graduated George Washington High School, obtained a BA in Elementary Education from the University of Charleston and an MA in Special Education/Gifted from Marshall University.

She married Rob Somerville in 1994 and quickly began teaching as an Itinerant Gifted teacher at Midland Trail Elementary. Christi confesses, “ I didn’t know what ‘gifted’ was at the time but I accepted the job any way!”  She taught Gifted for 6 years, serving  12 elementary schools from the eastern part of Kanawha County.

After a series of professional shifts within the education field to establish greater security for her growing family, she began teaching at Cross Lanes Elementary School (CLE) to be with her son when he started Kindergarten.  She now teaches first grade at CLE and her husband is the principal at Anne Bailey Elementary in St. Albans, West Virginia.  They live in Cross Lanes with son Brett who is in the 4th grade.

Growing Up

For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt a deep responsibility to preserve my family’s past, present, and future.  A self-proclaimed family keeper of memories, I dutifully planned and organized family reunions and kept meticulously detailed records of important family events, documenting each with lists of attendees and photographs.  I spent many hours hand copying a rudimentary family tree with sprawling branches in every direction, past and present, like wild lilac bush left unchecked.  However, my well-intentioned efforts all fell by the wayside when marriage, graduate school, my teaching career and a bouncing blue-eyed baby boy kept me from continuing my role as family historian.  Life happens whether it’s recorded for posterity or not.  Besides, the family tree, like the neglected lilac bush, kept growing and evolving wild as I lived my busy life as wife, mother, and teacher.

Not until just recently, a good friend introduced me to the world wide web of family tree research. Thinking this would be a great way to collect and organize all of my family collections, I jumped on the ancestry bandwagon, just to see what I had missed in those ten plus years of neglect.  In order to gain some insight into my own life, growing closer every day to what some refer to as “middle age,” I once again found my spark of curiosity and duty to preserve my family’s past for my family’s future.

I’ve researched for hours upon end the long-lost names, birthdays, marriages, and dates of death of past relatives I’ve never met, living in places I’ve never visited, looking for a connection with something I’ve never experienced.  I found myself wading knee-deep in scanned copies of birth certificates with strange yet poetic names, marriage certificates artfully hand-written in real ink, and death certificates stating causes of death I’ve never even heard of in this day and age.  It’s a daunting task really.  Trying to put it all in perspective—trying to match a name and face to my blood, seeing only hints of familiarity in foggy eyed photographs.  But, as I see it, without my relatives, without the sacrifices they made, I would not have had the tremendous opportunities I have had growing up in West Virginia.  In most of my research I discovered that once my relatives settled among the mountains, they never left.  Generations of my family have lived here—on all sides of my family—since the beginning, even before West Virginia was a state, and some, even before the United States had fought for its independence.  I feel somehow deep down in my soul that I owe them a debt of gratitude because, without my family, well, I simply wouldn’t be here now.

When I think of how I grew up as a generational West Virginian child, I can only imagine that my great grandparents never imagined the blessed life their great-granddaughter would be living.  I think about my poor great grandparents, Grandma and Grandpa Scragg, who worked all day long in the fields just to provide food for their seven children and a few others they had taken into their home to raise.  I think of my great grandfather Salvatore Scalissi, who came from Italy and spoke no English, who landed in a foreign world to make a better life for his family by working in the coal mines of West Virginia, alongside sons, brothers, and cousins.  These names and faces I see are so much more to me than just a wiggling leaf on my family tree.  They are my driving force to make my life the best it can be.

I owe it to them.

(Essay continued, next post.)

The Simons House (part 3) by Margaret Ward McClain

This is a story about a house.

Today, my walk in meditation begins as it did then, and I am as physically present in mind now as I was then in body.  I take a deep breath, then up the concrete step to the heavy wooden front door.  The door swings open to the ground level, a cinder-block and concrete first floor that anchors the wooden structure of the main house upstairs.  The air is still, slightly musty, cooling without the chill of air conditioning.  I start down the narrow hallway, past the laundry, past the dormitory-style ladies’ and men’s shower and dressing rooms.    A green beaded curtain separates the main living space from an extra fridge, a rusty freezer and piles of fishing equipment and hardware.  I pause to run my fingers across the smooth wooden beads, smiling at the click and shimmer of the absurdly avocado green strands.  Décor is a jumble of vintage yard-sale furniture and a cheery green-and-orange color scheme, best of the 1960’s floor-to-ceiling.   I move on past the brown-and-gold plaid polyester couch to the twin-bedded downstairs rooms:  sky-blue for my parents, orange for me and whichever itinerant family member would occupy the other twin bed.  Slightly curling posters and paint-by- number portraits of horses and ships line the walls.  A box fan sits in the window, turned backwards to pull the hot air out.  I turn the knob and a cross-breeze fills the room.   I sit for a moment on the narrow bed against the wall, drinking in the scent of salt, scrub pine and bay.

I would linger here, lay my cheek on the cool cotton sheets, drift off to sleep to the hum of the box fan and the murmuring ocean, but I have another place to go.

In the middle of the downstairs space sits the staircase.  The narrow wooden stairs are almost a tunnel, rising steeply and emerging abruptly from the floor on the second story into the main house.  My feet fall into the grooves worn on the stair treads by decades of flip-flops and sand.  Upstairs is a different world, all dark wood with bright borders of porches and windows.  To my left, three small bedrooms with creamy floor-to-ceiling bead board line up like soldiers, doors opening to the shotgun passage from front porch to back.  To my right is the small kitchen with its cracked linoleum floor and rickety butcher-block prep table.  Leaving the kitchen behind I turn for the open passage leading past the bedrooms to the great room and front porch.  The first bedroom has bunk beds (bunk beds!)  for the children, first me and my sister, later my younger cousins.  The middle bedroom, a room just large enough for the double wrought-iron bed, sheltered my aunt and uncle and let them keep an ear out for the children.  The front bedroom, for my grandparents, has twin beds and a window-unit air conditioner, then the only air conditioning in the house.

On my way down the passage I am caught, as I always have been, mid-stride, captivated.  A tall oak curio cabinet stands against the wall, honey-colored wood intricately carved, glass-front doors revealing shelves piled with a wonderment of shells.  There is a collection of hundreds, some carefully labeled with a Latin name on a tiny strip of paper, others stacked to overlapping.   Conch shells, purple striped urchins, varicolored mussel shells spread like wings.  Some are familiar, like an entire shelf of pale lettered olives, the South Carolina state shell, sometimes found on the island by the sharp-eyed and lucky.  Others are messengers from exotic shores:  giant conchs with porcelain-smooth pink centers, a curving cream-and brown nautilus, and tiny wentels spiked and whorled.   My mind is pulled past my horizon to another shore, where the life of these creatures begins, the thousands of watery miles of life and death between, the wave that carries them, the hand that carries them here.

I could spend hours here, gazing, but I move on.

Beyond the curio cabinet the passageway opens onto the great room, connected to the front porch by a door and a wall of double-hung windows.   It is paneled floor-to-ceiling with dark cypress furnished with white wicker, a Morris chair, and a lobster trap with a glass top serving as a coffee table.  I move to the center of the room, letting my glance drift across the walls decorated with netting spangled with shells,  yellowing Audubon prints of brown pheasant, a rowing oar above the passage to the upstairs bath and kitchen.  I step through the small doorway and let my fingers brush the knob to the pantry door, but I do not open it. Across the narrow passage is the upstairs bath, a small space filled with a pull-chain toilet and massive claw-foot tub perched on the bead-board on elaborate feet, enameled a spectacular shade of orange.

The passageway ends in the small narrow kitchen, connecting to the back porch with a door and a double hung window behind the stove.  Passing through the kitchen I end where I began, at the staircase.   Doors and windows honeycomb the upstairs.  Solid wooden three-paneled doors with round glass knobs connect each room with at least two others, windows open to the exterior, doors and interior windows open to the porches.  With doors and windows open, the lightest breeze has run of the house, ruffling bed sheets, stirring the sea-oats plucked and propped in containers for decoration, flipping cards on the table, sending paper napkins fluttering.  Closed up the house is a hollow tree, dark wood enclosing sturdy wooden doors and shuttered windows batten down to keep out the tropical weather.  In summer we lived with doors and windows flung wide, open to the light, open to catch the cooling breeze off the ocean, open to the beautiful sight of a distant storm.

I return through the upstairs the way I came, through the great room to the front porch.  I step through the door into bright space, gray painted wood under my feet, sky-blue bead board above, ahead a lattice of white-painted wood and screen and beyond it the ocean.  The hammock hangs at the far end, a white curve of rope and wood against the gray, the rope’s open weave casting a patterned shadow on the floor.  A small green lizard napping underneath startles and skitters off to a shady corner.   Inhaling deeply, I smell salt and the ozone coming off the water, wax myrtle and bay and sand baking in the sun.  Sheltered for a moment under the crooked eave of the porch, I allow myself to think of my son.  Already half-grown, his long-limbed body would span the length of the hammock on this porch he has never seen.  He won’t know this house.  The voices that flowed through me many long evenings on this porch are as still as the summer night.

The losses began one by one, far from here, and rolled on unrelenting for year after year.

Now dates file in like headlines:   1989:  My parents’ fragile marriage finally crumbles.  1993:  my aunt dies of colon cancer at the age of 44, leaving my uncle widowed, my two cousins motherless.  1998:  my grandfather dies a painful death from bone cancer; two weeks later, my grandmother suffers a stroke that takes her movement and her voice but does not kill her until two years later, 2000.  2003:  my own marriage does not survive.  2005:  retired five years and remarried for only four, my uncle dies of pancreatic cancer at the age of 61, and my cousins are orphaned.  My mother and her sister have lost their nuclear family, alone but for my sister and me and my cousins, now two young ladies they have pledged to love.

The Clan is much diminished, and we who are left will never be the same.

Many families have the same story.  For us somehow it should have been different, because of the Simons House.  The house remains, unchanged, a physical place of us, where we were and became.   It should have done as it always did:  stopped the world beyond, shielded us, sheltered us together .  Today, when I walk through the house in meditation, I am alone.  What story will I tell my son?  That the price of love is grief and loss?  That lesson will come unbidden soon enough.  That precious memories of time spent with loved ones can fill a hole in your soul?

No, my darling, they cannot.

I breathe in deeply again, place my hand on the screen door, and push it open.  In a step I am outside on the deck above the trees, facing the ocean.  The door bangs closed behind me.  I lean against the deck railing and see the view as it was:  no new road, no row of million-dollar mansions between the old house and the ocean.  Just bare dunes crested with sea oats, blooming with mallow and lantana; a wide swath of creamy sand beach curving to the inlet; huge vertical towers of white cumulus clouds over a slate-gray ocean;  low tide, a few whitecaps barely breaking, flat and calm to the horizon.    A splinter from the wood rail bites my palm.  Through layers of past, present and future, the tactile presence of living in this place urges me on.

There isn’t time; I have another place to be.

Maybe it is another beach house, on another island.  Maybe it is a house on a lake, cool and green and blooming with flowers in the summer heat.   Maybe it is a log cabin above the river, the slow-flowing water the very color of my son’s hazel eyes.   There is a house where there is a family, where my boy is a child for a  moment.   I must be present.   I must make sure:  when he is grown and lies awake at night, when the price of love is paid in grief, there will be a door for him to step through, a place he can enter body and soul, and breathe.

(This is the conclusion of The Simons House.  Thank you for reading!  Previous posts represent parts 1 and 2. Click here to read about Margaret.)