Fade to Black by Jennifer Waggener

She can’t remember the last time they met, though it was only three years ago this third of July, a hot, moonless summer night, when she’d spent the final moments holding his hand, alternately speaking to him in hushed tones and singing “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” ever so softly into his ear, her cheek meeting his where it lay on the stiff hospital pillow.

She can tell you how they met, in vivid technicolor detail; about the pouring rain that day some seventy years ago when her big brother brought him to the house, a drowned rat by all appearances. But even so, she couldn’t take her eyes off of his; they way they twinkled and danced! Just one look, and before she knew it she was following him down the yellow brick road of his dreams, into happily ever after.

She can’t remember the name of the nice lady who fed her lunch yesterday and breakfast this morning; the one who cajoles her into taking “just one more bite”; the one who brings the styrofoam cup of too sweet lemonade to her lips to wash it down; the one who is a mere child herself, but inevitably crows about what a “good girl” she’s been to eat so much of the tepid, pureed gruel that passes for a meal these days.

She will ask you, though, about your babies, and even about Ms. Stinky-son, her great grandson’s not-so-favorite kindergarten teacher. Did “that woman” ever give him back his truck? she’ll ask, recalling an incident long forgotten by the parties involved, a glint in her voice as she stands ready to defend the shaggy haired five year-old with the tear stained face of a decade or more ago, standing in living color before her mind’s eye, in its own twisted version of the here and now.

She can’t remember why she doesn’t see you everyday, or, perhaps more aptly put, that she doesn’t. Where has everybody gone? Why is she in this awful god forsaken place? She hates it here, she says, without saying a word, but still, you can read the indictment on her face. She wants to go home. Can’t you take her there? Sit on the big flagstone back porch and gaze across the river, have a glass of tea and talk about remember when? The pleading that goes unsaid is enough to break a soul in two, jagged edges still piercing and pinching long after the visit is over.

She won’t remember that you’ve been here, almost as quickly as you go. Tomorrow, today will be just yesterday, those short term memories the first attacked by the cruel, unforgiving scourge that wipes the surface of her mind clean each night.

But you’ll remember.

“I have to go, Grandma. I’ll be back soon.”

Her face turns, seeking yours.

“I love you,” you say, nearly choking on the swirl of emotion you feel welling up from the depths of your suddenly fragile heart.

Her cloudy eyes find yours, and lock there in a long, present moment.

“I love you, sweetie,” she states with all the authority of the grandmother you’ve always known. “And don’t you ever forget it.”

Jennifer Waggener says, “I discovered the world of blogging in February of 2004 and have been addicted ever since. I’ve met the most amazing people through this little hobby of mine. The entire journey has proven more rewarding, more time consuming, more thought provoking, more immensely pleasurable than I ever dreamed it would.”

Fade to Black first appeared on Jennifer’s blog on June 27, 2006. 

Image creditCover art from Twelve Below Zeroby Anthony Bukoski. Painting by Gaylord Schanilec.

This World Is Not My Home by Jeremy Paden (part 7)

VII.

My apprenticeship in learning to love this world has been long and slow. As animals, we all love the physical world, some with more suspicion than others. When this love becomes inordinate, excessive, the church calls it sin – avarice, lust, gluttony. Animal appetites that must be kept in check. Heaven has a way of doing this. Still, our bodies pull us.

I would love to be a gardener, to learn how to love and care for the land that feeds me, but I’m not. Moving as my family did left no time for gardening. A year and half in Nicaragua, before mother’s blindness, before the Contra began to kill foreign medical personnel; a year and half in Costa Rica, before my parents were caught in the middle of the UN and the Costa Rican government; a year and half of living in north Louisiana as my parents tried to get visas for Colombia, before deciding on the Dominican Republic. A year and a half leaves little time for a garden. And, when each of those year and halves are divided between three houses, there is no point even to try.

I’d seen gardens; eaten from them before. Neighbors in Rome, Georgia gave us tomatoes, okra, carrots grown in their backyards. The bungalow-style hotel we stayed at when we first arrived in Nicaragua had a banana right outside our front door; our first house, a mango in the patio. In Santo Domingo, an avocado. But these were not gardens to be tended, cared for. Other people did that; or, as in the fruit, it was there for the taking.

My father standing, machete raised, in the acrid smoke of plastic, dead rodent, human feces, and weeds is my first memory of a garden. An alley, that had once been a park with trees and benches, ran the length of our first house in Santo Domingo. Out of desperation to control the rats, to keep the path clean, and to shame the drunks who used the alley as their voiding ground and the neighbors who dumped their trash in the weeds, Dad decided that part of his mission was bringing civility and order to the alleyway. As I remember it, the work of civilization, of slashing and burning, of debris removal, of purifying fire took the full year we lived in that house. But it wasn’t all fire and sweat. At some point plants were introduced: Spanish Sword and Purple Heart. We children were enlisted to tend the fire, to move the broken, discarded cinder blocks, to water the plants.

How we hated the work; after all, we’d be moving soon.

Though an introduction to something like a garden, it did little to teach love of land and place. It taught duty. It taught toil. It taught vigilance against weeds. I’m sure that had we stayed in Costa Rica, things would be different. I remember, still, the drive down from the mountains of San José to the eastern coastal jungle. We went to visit a young Honduran agronomist, also a missionary. It seemed he knew every plant, that he could walk out into the growth and chop down a young palm to harvest its heart, barely checking to see if it was the right kind of tree. Had we stayed in Costa Rica, we might’ve gotten to know Carlos and Roxana better, might’ve learned to care for land in a different way, and might’ve lived in a country with no historic connections to the U.S. No William Walkers. No multiple Marine invasions. No puppet dictators.

If there was something in our family that always called us back to this present, physical world, if there was something we celebrated, it was food, sensual, fragrant food.

Father loved the food of his childhood and mother didn’t simply oblige him, she lavished him with Bolognese from carrots, celery, garlic, and onions chopped and sautéed with ground beef, then stewed for hours in tomatoes, wine, and herbs. But it wasn’t all Italian all the time. Mother found a way into the cultures of those countries we moved through by learning to cook their food. She knows how to prepare green and ripe papaya, knows how four different countries turn avocado into dip, knows what to do with plantains depending on their ripeness.

The foods served at the family table are home, are comfort, are love and care. As a child, food is not something you think about. You instinctively accept it or reject it. I’m sure there were many meals beyond Omar’s hot dogs that we kids rejected. After all, mother worked hard to broaden our palate. What I remember, though, are not the struggles to get us to eat new food, but the hours spent learning how to make Nicaraguan tamales, the way she would ask questions of cooks, watch them to learn how they prepared foods like gallo pinto or picadillo. In our home, it was routine for lunch to include three, four, five extra guests – people who would appear at the door for a visit or consulta con el médico right as lunch was being served. If the fare were local, they would praise mom for her prowess. Otherwise, they would receive a culinary introduction to another country’s food. At the end of the meal, even the most tentative and shy of eaters would be won over.

Mom taught me to love saffron, cilantro, bread fruit. Taught me to cook, taught me only to barely ever follow a recipe, should instinct or lack of ingredients dictate otherwise. And she has passed on to me this love of food and cooking, this adventure into the world of the senses.

This World Is Not My Home by Jeremy Paden (part 5)

V.

Many missionaries deal with culture shock by pining for the golden land of the mother country, dreaming of a place that no longer exists. It is a potent mix of nostalgia and present discontent. Back home everyone’s always on time. The lights never go out.  The water’s always potable and cold, straight from the faucet. The roads. The police. The cellophaned meats. Back home it’s not rice and beans every meal. Everything’s better and all the food you ever loved as a child is there.

True and real civilization.

When we lived in Nicaragua one of my Dad’s best friends was a salesman. I don’t remember if he sold meat before the ‘79 Revolution or if “the government” decided that his product would be meat. Because he refused to pledge allegiance to anything but Christ, he got poorer and poorer product. We hated his hot dogs. They tasted like rancid fat and sand. Dad, though, would buy them. We would spit them out.

He took us once for supper to The Purple Cow, a diner with coke floats and hot dogs. We were certain it wouldn’t have those nasty red sticks Omar peddled. This was a fancy place. We drank our floats and fidgeted about the booth, talking of nothing but hot dogs. They came. We sniffed. We whined, “Omar.” Eventually, Omar was given only bones to sell. Soon after we left Nicaragua, he found his way to Mexico, crossed the border into the U.S., and worked to bring his family north. Sometime in the mid “80s he was granted amnesty and residency.

Parental memories form so much of a missionary child’s sense of home. This inheritance of myth and nostalgia mixed with growing up in another country explains the dislocation of so many missionary children.

If Dad longed for anything, though, it was Italy. He didn’t share much with us, however. His mother died of cancer while he was in college. Childhood memories were hard. And, though his dad remarried, his mother wasn’t there to pass-on family history, to tell us stories of his childhood. When the family gathered, however, siblings would reminisce. Most had to do with “the family mission,” like how he, his siblings, and his cousins torched a roadside shrine in some northern Italian village, thinking they were advancing the cause of Christ.

Mom hardly ever spoke of her childhood. In part, I suspect this is because she too grew up out of place. Her mother, a Puerto Rican war bride, desperately tried and quite succeeded in raising her two children as anything but Puerto Rican. Dark-eyed, olive-skinned, and black-haired in Texas, she was terrified they might be taken as Mexican. Mom did tell us, though, that her own father had her trained to come on a whistle. And, once my wife and I had kids, she told me she was quite headstrong until three, when her father finally “beat it out of her.” At times I’ve wondered if this is why she doesn’t speak of her childhood. Then again, I’ve never asked.

As children we were not fed a diet of Halcyon days in the U.S.A. Our parents spoke of college in Texas and California and those first years of marriage in Italy. We, too, worked hard to keep our scraps of memory: prancing about a Milan apartment with underwear in our butt-cracks pretending we were Sumo wrestlers while Dad studied, the time it snowed and he made a sled out of cardboard and plastic trash bags and pulled us all the way home from preschool, walking down a street in Milan with Mom on a winter day looking for a lost car that had fallen through a hole in her coat pocket, a woolen rust and brown and beige plaid coat.

Furthermore, Mom had learned to cook in Italy. Home food was always homemade Italian. Also, she dutifully learned a repertoire of national dishes wherever we went. Thus, in Nicaragua our fare was Italian and Nicaraguan; in Costa Rica, Italian, Nicaraguan, and Costa Rican; in the Dominican Republic. Neither our food memories nor our deep family memories ever linked back to the U.S., unless it was a family reunion.

In which case, we were singing about heaven.

I’m around two and we are visiting London, it seems. I’ve always thought this was in Italy. But, the sign on the tower says, Bloody Tower.

This World Is Not My Home by Jeremy Paden (part 3)

III.

Patriotism has always made me uncomfortable. Growing up as a U.S. American in Latin America where ancient, local oligarchies and modern U.S. corporations collude for power and wealth, I distrust the Puritan national myth. Though my family’s whitening was much too successful for us to claim Native American heritage (though this did not keep my grandfather from telling all about his ¼ roots), I know enough to disbelieve the myth of the moral foundation of our country. I avoid church on holidays like July Fourth and Memorial Day. I can’t tolerate the religion of nation; it seems idolatrous to me. This discomfort comes, I suppose, with the territory, with being raised a wanderer.

I don’t fault Pat her love of country. We’ve all been taught to love our homeland. And, when asked, “Where are you from?,” most of us answer without hesitation. Some of us, though, simply don’t know how to respond because we are truly from nowhere.

During college and the few years after, I would reply, “I’m a citizen of the world.” I stopped when a friend told me she thought I was one of the most pretentious persons she’d ever met, solely based on my answer to that question. No one likes a cosmopolitan; especially of the braggart kind. For me, though, that answer was shorthand. It got us quickly to “born in Italy, raised in Latin America” without my having to respond with questions rather than answers. However, there have been times, when asked, that I’ve responded with a barrage of my own, “What do you mean? Do you want to know where I was born? Where I last lived? My ethnicity? Where I consider home? Whether or not I am citizen of these United States and whether I was naturalized or born one?”

People want simple answers. In my case, simple is specious.

Now when it’s asked, I cut to the chase and say, “Italy… Latin America… American parents.”

Regardless what answer I give, more questions follow.

“Were you military?”

“No… medical missionaries.”

The curious will further ask, “In Italy? Aren’t they already Christian?”

“Yes. Well, we’re Protestants; my grandfather fought in Italy in WWII; he felt he had to go back.”

Some will then inquire about denominational affiliation. Those that know something of American religious groups forged in the 19th century, will, when I tell them, further ask, “Are you instrumental or noninstrumental?” We were noninstrumental. To this some will add, “Y’all can really sing… four part harmony and all.” And, it’s true; we can.

We still do, when the whole family gets together, sing, and sing, and sing for hours. This is the case whether at my parents’ house with my siblings and their growing families when they come up from Chile or Mexico or down from Oklahoma, or with my aunts and uncles and cousins, the lot of us gathered from Alaska, Austria, Brazil, the Caribbean in the mountains north of Santa Fe. Songs, gospel songs, are how we spend our time. No session would ever be complete without the family breaking out into a down-home, countrified, low-church, a cappella, tent-revival version of “This World Is Not My Home.”

I am the son of the son of the son of an itinerant church of Christ preacher. Yes, with a small “c.” Yes, we are the ones who do not dance (and we did not), do not drink (though our family, going back at least to my grandfather, did), and we do not sing with instruments. We are the group who throughout the 20th century debated Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and any other Christian denomination foolish enough to think they were going to heaven.

Being from nowhere has always been a point of pride in my family. Church, not nation, has always been our true home. Though biography certainly does a play a part (neither parents nor siblings were born in the continental U.S.), our cosmopolitanism is principally theological in nature. Christianity has always been cosmopolitan. “Paul did not go to hamlets and villages but to cities: Rome, Corinth, Athens,” my father would remind us. “Jesus did not kneel before Caesar or Herod, but in the garden, in prayer.” That we all are positioned at an angle to national, patriotic narratives is one of those felicitous accidents where belief truly did organize biography in such a way as to reinforce the conviction that this world is not our home. No, we are just a passing through, and it doesn’t matter where we live. Our treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue, and those are the ones that matter. And let’s not forget, we simply can’t feel at home in this world anymore.

In fact, we never have.

For the Love of Music by Lisa Lewis Smith

Following our dinner with my dad’s family, once we force that last piece of pumpkin pie into our bellies, we hang around comatose (if we can find a place on one of the couches).  We ache and moan, and then we push ourselves down the road to the Prichard’s place (now called the Carter Farm)…just a short waddle down the way…to see more family, more cousins, and listen to some incredible bluegrass music.

Family music time with the cousins

I experienced the power of music, the way it works on the mind and heart, early on in life.  Although my brothers and I received the shallow end of the gene pool when it came to musical ability, my second cousins are very talented musicians.  Because of their capacity to perform so well on stringed instruments, we were all exposed to some mighty fine live music in our childhood.  (Don’t get me wrong… my dad sometimes took to the ukulele and was witnessed on numerous occasions performing “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “If You Don’t Like Peaches Baby, Quit Shaking My Tree”…I do not want to take away from his style and enthusiasm. The Prichard boys, on the other hand, they were the real thing!)

It was, and still is, a family affair. Cousin Fred Prichard picked the banjo, his brother Lew is brilliant on the mandolin (My dad always said “best mandolin player in Rockbridge County”), their daddy Fred Sr. entertained on the piano.  Cousin Will joined in on guitar or stand up bass.

Bluegrass to me represents the core values of family.  The stories told reflect both happy and troubled times. When I went to college in South Carolina, I sometimes babysat for a young family.  The daddy went to Episcopal High School, a boarding school in Virginia, and coincidentally was roommates with my cousin Will Carter.  He told me about his trip to Lewisburg once, his first to West Virginia, with Will to meet his family.  He remembers driving into a beautiful piece of property, open and lovely in the spring green, and as they pulled in closer to the Prichard house, a young man, not much older than he and Will, was standing naked….buck naked…in the open field. It was Cousin Fred playing his banjo.  What a memory of his first visit to the mountain state.  I smiled and, although a little uncomfortable, I was thrilled to hear that story of my extraordinary Cousin Fred, as I was hundreds of miles away from home.  He is a beautiful, one-of-a-kind character with a remarkable sense of humor.

To this day, music transforms me. It promotes clarity, peace and tranquility in my life.  It evokes feelings of joy and happiness.  It soothes my mind and soul. The joys and sorrows of life expressed through music is a healthy and healing avenue to deal with life issues.  Music has a magical effect on the mind.  It can be almost supernatural in the way it transforms you from one mood to another.

The feeling of warmth

I remember early teenage years…sitting in an old cabin in the woods on Smithover, listening to Fred and Lew picking away, and sipping on some scotch that was being passed around the room.  The feeling of warmth was three-fold:  the fire, the whiskey, and the music.  It was a memory that I will never forget.  I was in a familiar place with familiar people, but having an experience really of a lifetime.  It was my family and my music that I loved.  It was the place that I loved.  I felt safe and ever so grateful to be part of it.

Tomorrow:  For the Love of Marriage

For the Love of Family by Lisa Lewis Smith

Being the youngest of four and the only girl, Lewisburg helped open my eyes up to the kind of family that we were.  We moved around a lot.  We lived life with great enthusiasm.  We took it all in.  We were not the “armchair” Smiths.

My Uncle Bill would drive with his two young children over from Charleston on most weekends to stay in his log cabin in the woods. He built this cabin single handedly and with great pride (this fact was listed in his obituary many years later).  It had, and still does have, an outhouse and no running water.  My cousins Margie and Will would stay in their zip up pajamas all weekend.  They lived and enjoyed the simple things in life.  (By the way, I was devastated when this man we so lovingly called “Uncle Bill” died.  He was a special force, a gentle giant, a kind soul that you dreaded to see leave this world.  We all miss him to pieces.  He was one of a kind.)

The writer's father (2nd from left) with his 3 brothers, 1950s.

My other uncle once drove to Lewisburg for Thanksgiving (for one night) with his four young kids from Jacksonville, Florida.  They made the long, thirteen-hour drive in their two-door white 1970’s Cadillac Eldorado.  This was the first time my cousin, Curly Caroline, ever saw snow.  She and I were both in the 3rd grade.

These are our people…living life fully – driving from Florida for a family meal and keeping your onesies on.  Living life to the fullest, taking it all in.  I try to practice this today.

My dad’s passion for Lewisburg spilled over onto his children.  He always talked about this “sacred land” and, being of the Scotch-Irish descent, how the “land was the soul of the man.”  Mowing grass on my granddad’s red 1948 International tractor was his peaceful infatuation.

Sometimes we’d spend Sunday nights and my parents would drop us off at Fernbank just in time to start the school week on Monday morning.  Sometimes we slept in our school clothes for the next day, so we could easily be carried to the car early the next morning and make our way to Charleston to start the school week.

If we weren’t there to stay, then we were en route to and from that place that we loved so much. We were always on the run, going to football games in the fall, lacrosse games in the spring, and wrestling matches in between.  It was almost like we lived and traveled with Lewisburg constantly on our radar screen. It was our hub.  We came and went so often, and I’m so glad we did!

“I’d rather be in Greenbrier County” – that was our family motto.

With four kids, there was always some kind of chaos taking place.  Disorder was the normal way of life.

My parents hosted many gatherings in Lewisburg.  Lots of Bloody Marys and bluegrass music. I remember one particular party when my brother Lyle showed up with smut on is face… “Would you tell my mom I need her…my motorcycle just blew up!”  I will never forget the look on that lady’s face.

The writer's father with 5 of his 10 grandchildren, Thanksgiving 2011 at Smithover

When I was about five, we arrived to Lewisburg late one night following a Virginia college basketball game with some close family friends whose oldest son was playing. We pulled into our dark driveway after the long travel.  Our woody station wagon was full with two sets of parents, two of my brothers, two of our friends’ sons, and the only girl (me) sat up front between my mom and dad.  We were all talking about where we were going to sleep…”I want the top bunk”…”I get the couch.”  “I get the comfortable bed.”  All the boys declared their sleeping location.  My dad, being protective, grumbles loudly…”Lisa, you sleep with me and your Mama!”  I proclaimed confidently that he did not have to worry…that I was a lesbian!  Our friends like to bring it up often with a laugh, and I am proud of my quick thinking strategy at five years old.  It worked.  I got the bottom bunk that I loved so much.

The youngest generation of Smiths "clearing land" in Greenbrier County, Thanksgiving 2011

Some other specific memories:  rustling in the leaves in the fall, riding motorcycles, sled riding, bluegrass music, and “clearing land” at Thanksgiving, driving up for the new oasis on Snowshoe Mountain.  (My mom still has her awesome full body ski suit.) Our dog Muskin running into the woods as soon as we arrived…often not coming back for hours, but always returning with the strong smell of spring woods or the pungent stink of going into battle with a skunk (still today, that smell evokes wonderful memories of my childhood in Greenbrier County).

Chaos is not uncommon in a big family.  During a televised football game at one of the many Thanksgiving holidays we spent at Smithover, my older brother surprised us all during the half time show.  He pulled out his shotgun (safely, but without warning) and struck a buck from our back deck, out of nowhere.  The younger kids jumped for joy.  Once the gun was locked away, they ran to inspect the kill.  It was not a customary family event. One of my cousins left with her young child and did not return on that trip.  But she did eventually return.  Your family can really turn you off…but it always amazes me how you come back home for the holidays.  That is the beauty of family.  They say you can’t pick your family….but I sure would pick mine if I had the chance.

Dysfunctional, but fiercely loyal and never boring.

The writer (front row, blue scarf) with layers of Smith family.

Tomorrow:  For the Love of Food

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.

Grandaddy

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.