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 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.)