Summer is well under way and with it comes a wave of nostalgia. Usually these memories stay happily dormant in the back of my head only to be brought up at family dinners where too much wine is flowing and too many “back in the day” stories are being told much to the embarrassment of my brother and me. I thought I would share a bit here with all of you. Bear with me as I know this is longer than my usual entry but I hope you enjoy it nonetheless.
So as luck would have it, my parents grew up together — so before they were even betrothed their families were close. It sure made visiting easier when my brother and I were young. Whenever we would spend summers with them in West Virginia, it was always a two-for-one deal. Two sets of grandparents in only one trip. Both sets of grandparents lived off the beaten path, to put it nicely. More like the boonies or boondocks, which made for an interesting time as a kid.
My paternal grandparents lived way down a gravel road that curved around past their house and into a darkened wooded area that was always creepy as hell even on the brightest of days. Their house was surrounded by over 20 acres of pasture with a very cool barn directly behind the house. I delighted in wandering through the pastures because it was so beautiful and quiet and reeked of adventure to anyone with an imagination.
My maternal grandparents lived in a “holler,” their home nestled cozily between two mountains. Let me tell you, it was no easy feat to get from the main road down to their place. You took a leap of faith off the hard road, onto a shale covered dirt road barely big enough for one car, over a rickety home-made wooden bridge to their house.
Oh, and I say a leap of faith because when you went from the hard road to the dirt road, the front tires of your car hovered in midair for a moment before connecting with the dirt road. Fun times. Then while one side of the car was snug against the mountain, the other side merely flirted with…well…nothing. Seriously, you could’ve opened the passenger side door and just stepped out into air. My brother and I used to torment my mother to no end by scooting over to that side of the car and jumping our little butts up and down to see if we could make the car fall over the edge. Honestly, I don’t know how she held onto her sanity sometimes.
My Mom’s childhood home (Grandma Mooney and clan) sat in the low center of the holler. The house itself was set up higher than the road. To keep the yard from simply eroding and falling into the road, it was shored up in the front with a rock wall that was even with the yard but about 3 feet high off the road – a rock wall from which my brother, in pure locomotive action, accidentally catapulted himself when he was little….hanging in midair like Wile E. Coyote before gravity overtook him and he finally fell to earth… waaayy on the other side of the dirt road. I still grin when I think of it. Not sure what that says about me.
There were distinct differences at the two places. At my Dad’s place we had a lot of freedom. My mother had only two rules really: 1)Always keep the house in sight (didn’t quite follow that one) and 2)Stay away from the bull (definitely paid attention to that one). When I got old enough to ride the ATV there was another rule: 3)Don’t wreck and run over yourself (fair enough, right?). And the only thing I can think of is that this must have happened to a cousin at some point in time because otherwise, why need that particular rule? Luckily I never did quite figure out how you could wreck and run over yourself at the same time.
Looking back, I think my mother gave me a lot more credit than I probably deserved. I don’t know why she thought I had more common sense than I did, but those three rules seemed to be enough for her.
Had she known what little sense I actually had she’d have made more rules. Perhaps one would have been centered around not chasing cars down the gravel road when you’re riding your cousin’s bike which is too big for you, especially when there’s a steep decline right by an apple tree that has dropped slippery decayed fruit onto the road turning it into a stretch of goo that bike tires can’t really handle. Maybe the rule would revolve around that. I don’t know, I’m just spit-balling here. Don’t worry, the scars didn’t last. And surprisingly, my mother’s sanity held.
Things were a bit more regimented with my grandparents who lived in the holler. The places we could go were more clearly defined. For instance, we could wander along the shale-covered road all we wanted but we couldn’t go up the hard road alone. We could go down to the creek to hunt for lizards and crawdads, but we had to watch out for water moccasins. What can I say, life in the country does involve taking into consideration that a poisonous snake might jump out and sink its fangs into your shin at any given moment. In an odd way I kinda miss that thrill.
The rules here were just as practical and served the same purpose as the ones for the “pasture house.” They were all instituted so we wouldn’t accidentally kill ourselves or be destroyed by wildlife.
The rules for the holler were: 1)Watch out for water moccasins, 2)Don’t go up the hard road alone, 3)Stay off the grapevines, and 4)Watch out for and avoid bears. The fourth rule only applied when we were going up the mountain back behind the house. Like the bull, this was a rule we all happily obeyed. Rule #1 was pretty easy to follow as well. Generally speaking, any rule where the punishment was an animal killing us, we stuck to it. Rule # 2 was another one we didn’t have an issue with… mainly because there was nothing to do up the hard road anyway.
The grapevines rule…well, not so much. The vines were thick and ran up the sides of trees. Most of the time, the vines could hold a person and you could use them as a rope and swing. But it was boring just swinging around the base of a tree…usually scraping the tree in the process or else boomeranging back and whacking the tree full force. Lucky for us, there was a spot up the road where the grapevines reached out over a ledge…we had our friend CW (may he rest in peace) to thank for the lowdown on the secret location.
Well, kids being kids, I’m sure you can guess what we did next. Yep, we’d use those vines to swing out over the side and into…empty space. Like Tarzan of the Jungle. It never occurred to us that they might break midair or that we could get seriously hurt as we leaped out into that void. All we knew was the sheer joy of feeling the wind as we flew.
As a parent myself, with the world as it is now, it seems like those summers are a lifetime away, and I guess they are. It never seemed like we were living life on the edge or putting ourselves in mortal danger but I suppose in a way we were. Still, we survived. We survived the wildlife and the angry bull, the ATVs and the unstable grapevines.
Not only did we survive, we thrived.
I wish my kids had been able to enjoy such freedom and fun as we had during those summers. I mean, nowadays, we warn our kids…look both ways before you cross the street, keep an eye out for strangers, stay together when wandering through the mall, take your phone and text me when you get there.
I would have loved just once to yell after them as a wooden screen door slammed behind them: “Hey! Watch out for bears!”