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.)

Essays on Childhood: The 2011 Writers, Part Two

The Essays on Childhood project recently introduced you to 6 of the 11 writers this year.  Cue the drumroll…………here are writers 7-11!

It bears repeating that the entire collective is multi-talented, courageous, and impressive.  We hope you will spend some time “getting to know” these fine people and anticipating the pleasure of reading their essays.  Their stories and reflections will open your eyes and stir your heart with new ways of thinking about childhood experience and the way it shapes our adult lives.

Margaret Ward McClain

Margaret was born in the miasmal swamp of Charleston, South Carolina.  She spent her childhood dividing time between the Holy City and Greenville, SC, the red dirt capital of the Upcountry, where she was raised and attended school.  She says, “At Davidson College I learned how to be a better human being, and also received a B.A. in English.”  She earned a  J.D. from the University of North Carolina School of Law, went on to practice domestic law, and finally landed at I.B.M. Today she is a recovering lawyer residing in Chapel Hill with her wonderful husband Tim.  Professionally she is the mother of a 13-year-old son, two grown stepdaughters in-residence, and three very spoiled dogs.  The working title of Margaret’s essay is, “The Simons House,” centering on the house where her family spent two weeks each summer.

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.

Lisa Lewis Smith

A native of Charleston, Lisa was born on June 9, 1973 (the day Secretariat won the Triple Crown).   She received her B.S. in Biology and minor in Environmental Studies from the College of Charleston in South Carolina.  She worked as a fisheries and wetland biologist in Washington, Alaska, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia before transitioning in 2002 from environmental consulting to outreach and education.  She currently serves on the board of the WV Land Trust and is an elder and lifelong member of Kanawha United Presbyterian Church.  Lisa grew up spending her summers and weekends at her family home in Lewisburg, West Virginia where she developed an early connection with beautiful and unique outdoor environments.

Jennifer Irene Kayrouz

Jennifer moved to West Virginia just prior to starting 8th Grade. Some people thought that her family moved to West Virginia on a dare.  That was over 22 years ago and she now claims she would give her left pinky toe to be considered a West Virginian by her hillbilly peers.  She went off to college once or twice, but always happily landed right back in Charleston. She now works for the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine and loves most minutes of it, getting to travel and constantly learning and being challenged. She lives in Kanawha City with her husband, who, while being 7 years younger is still decades more mature and light-years ahead of her in his intellectual and emotional capacity. They are delighted to be the parents of one precocious 4-year-old girl.

Christi Davis Somerville

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 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.  Christi’s essay will explore her experiences growing up next door to her grandmother.