Remembering When…

Nostalgia can be a bitch. I’ll just get that out there right now. Memories, especially those from childhood, can play with our minds.

Take Harper’s Ferry in West Virginia for example. Wow, what a segue, right? But it makes sense, trust me.

When I was a kid, my family visited Harper’s Ferry a few times. We liked it so much, we even took extended family members when they visited us.

Harper’s Ferry, for those who don’t know, is where John Brown had his fort and it was a key site in an 1859 abolitionist raid. It’s a historic park and while I haven’t been there recently to know if they still do this or not, back in the day, people could stroll through the town, visit decorated “shops” and businesses and homes that hearkened back to the town’s heyday, and watch reenactments of blacksmiths in historic garb fashioning something awesome, soap-makers/story-tellers creating soap in the same way they would in the 1800’s all while discussing the history of soap and the town, and people roasting peanuts.

My favorite was the freshly roasted peanuts. I remember burning my fingers on them because I had no patience whatsoever and wanted to eat them straight away.  You could have your picture taken in old-fashioned dress, with the picture itself made to look antique. There was even a nifty wax museum about John Brown.

In addition, and this part is spectacular, it’s home to The Point, a place where the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers meet, and while standing in West Virginia, you can see – quite clearly – Maryland and Virginia.

View of Harper’s Ferry (photo credit: Harper’s Ferry National Park) 

When I was a kid, there was a picnic area down by the river that ran through the town. My mother always brought fried chicken (and sandwiches, I think) and snacks and we’d go down there to have our lunch. While wading out into the water one time – I was young, that’s important to know – I walked into an unexpected dip in the riverbed and ended up in water up to my neck. Fun and games. Made my family laugh though as I spent the rest of the afternoon soaking wet.  Nowadays, that part is blocked off. I can’t imagine why. But you can’t get to the river from the public portion of the town anymore, and I found that disappointing.

Too many years ago, I took a trip to Harper’s Ferry with my kids. In my excited state of nostalgia, I reminisced and told them about some of my favorite memories there and all the cool things they were about to experience. I probably built it up more than I should have, but then again, in my mind, it couldn’t be built up enough… if that makes sense.

When we made it to the town proper, I was surprised to find that it wasn’t nearly as “grand” as I had remembered. It seemed “smaller” if that makes sense. Maybe that’s because I was “bigger.” It was certainly not the bustling hub of activity it had once been.  Whether due to budget cuts or lack of volunteers, there were no reenactors dressed in historical garb, there were no blacksmiths or storytellers.  It was too quiet. Too still.  History had come alive in Harper’s Ferry when I was a kid, and when I visited with my own children, it was a ghost town.

All I knew was that the view in my mind’s eye was at odds with my current surroundings. And I realized my mistake almost immediately… I had waited too long to bring my kids. This was confirmed by my children’s reaction – an utter lack of enthusiasm in the place I had talked up so much.

I started to ask myself a few of the more complex questions. Have times really changed that much over the years? Was I only in such awe of Harper’s Ferry as a child because we were simply more easily impressed then?

Oh, it’s easy to blame video games and a generation that favors a computer screen to The Point, but let’s be clear, society helped speed them on that path. Our society panders to the Gods of Technology and then has the audacity to complain when our kids are overly involved with electronics.

I’m not sure where I’m going with all this except to say once again, nostalgia is a bitch. But what do we do about that?

Maybe another visit to Harper’s Ferry is in order. It’s high time I gather my kids back home for a road trip. They can even drive so I can be the one to sit back and enjoy the ride. Maybe now the view in my mind’s eye will win out. Or better yet, maybe there will be a new view altogether.

Tasteful Memories

Have you ever thought about the powerful connection between smell and memory? One whiff of a food or perfume and, boom, you can be instantly transported back to a specific point in your life. Maybe childhood, maybe a person you knew, maybe a trip abroad, maybe the college dorms.

Well, it’s not just smell that can flood your brain with memories. Taste can do this as well. I realized just how true this is a few days ago when I was at an old-fashioned diner serving a full, honest-to-goodness country breakfast.

As the waitress brought out the plates, piled high with freshly baked biscuits, pancakes, fried eggs, and fried potatoes, I breathed in deeply, and when I dug into the food in front of me, I was transported back to breakfast at my grandmother’s.

As my regular readers know, both of my parents are from West Virginia, and we’d spend summers there – with both sets of grandparents. My mother’s mother, Grandma Jimmie would make a full country breakfast with everything made from scratch: biscuits, bacon, eggs, fried potatoes, beyond amazing gravy.

As I sat there, in this country diner, I felt a wave of nostalgia so intense, and I swear I could see that old kitchen, the coal stove, and envision myself sitting there at their table with my grandfather and the rest of the family waiting impatiently for breakfast to hit the table. And when it finally did? Oh boy, pure heaven!

That breakfast – not just any breakfast, mind you, but my grandmother’s breakfast, is a comfort food from my childhood that stands above all the rest. My own mother’s gravy and biscuits (not to mention her fried potatoes – to die for, yum!) summons up the same memories, and well, it’s more than just food, really. Although, it’s some damn fine food, I must say!  It thrills me to no end when I walk in my mother’s door to those delightful smells, knowing what I’ll be sitting down to when it’s time to eat.

It’s not just fresh-baked biscuits or the smell of bacon that reminds me of West Virginia, though. (And while I say these things remind of West Virginia, and I guess they do, it’s just a place – what they really remind me of are childhood, of growing up, and family. When I say West Virginia, to me, it encompasses so much more than just a place.) The taste of raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries remind me of West Virginia too. Raspberry and blackberry bushes grew on the side of the mountain at my mother’s old stomping grounds. Blueberries flourished in the pastures where my father grew up. I had the best of both worlds and believe me, I tried my best to eat myself sick at each place.

Sadly, this is a memory that I’m hard pressed to duplicate these days – store bought berries are just not the same, they lack flavor and what flavor there is, is just…different. But luckily, I’m in a rural area and have options, so sometimes when I see them at local farmers’ markets, I’ll stock up on homegrown grown fruit, and all is right with the world again.

Speaking of fruit, I have yet to find a peach that will rival the fruit from my mother’s peach tree from our own backyard, but I try…oh trust me, I try. But for just an instant, with that initial bite of each one I try, year in and year out, it throws me back to a carefree time when that tree still stood. Why is it we don’t appreciate these things more when we actually have them?

Comfort foods are a wonderful thing. The warmth from the nostalgia and emotions they inspire runs deep and a world of hidden memories is just waiting to be unlocked with a smell or taste.

The Man I Knew as Grandpa

I never got the chance to meet my biological grandfather, Arbrie Emil Mills. He was killed when a coal car cut off both his legs when he was working in the mines of West Virginia in 1942. It was the definition of a tragedy. My Grandma Jimmie was pregnant with my Mom at the time and it took my Grandmother many, many years to recover from her loss and move forward. Eventually, Grandma Jimmie did remarry — my mother was married herself and had a family of her own by then. My brother was 7 and I was 5 the year we met the big hulking bear of a man we knew as Grandpa Walker. Everyone called him Clark but his name was Champ. And he was as big as a mountain. He must have really loved my grandmother to plunge headfirst into the craziness that was my family. That, or he was already crazy to begin with.

I can’t say what kind of man Arbrie was since he had passed long before I ever existed, but I can say with certainty that Clark Walker seemed tailor-made for my Grandma Jimmie. My only wish is that they had found each other sooner so my grandmother wouldn’t have been alone for so long. She was a firecracker who loved to argue and thanks to her sharp mind and quick wit, she was good at it. Clark put up with all her quirks and shenanigans — in fact, he seemed to enjoy smoothing her ruffled feathers. The household walked on eggshells — make that quilt-covered eggshells — all morning until she woke up, which was usually around noon. (I tell you what though — looking back on it now as an adult with kids, my Grandma Jimmie spent the better part of her life busting her ass to put food on her family’s table, shoes on her kids’ feet, and did everything she needed to do to keep her family together in the mountains of West Virginia, so if she wanted to sleep till noon later in life, I say, more power to her.)  But, my Grandpa never questioned her need for sleep, never tried to change her routine. He just accepted it as the way things were and put up with it because he knew it made her happy. The sun rose and set around my grandmother as far as Grandpa was concerned.

Need an example? How about this…ever heard of a Jimmy truck? They don’t make them anymore, but they did back in the day. Grandpa bought one of these trucks (in cash!) just because it had my Grandma’s name emblazoned on the back. Well, slightly misspelled, but still. His heart was in it.

Perhaps the clincher that proved just how much he adored my grandmother was the fact that on top of living with her and her persnickety ways, he also lived with my great-grandmother, Grandma Mooney. I’m sure you remember her. Yup, Grandma Mooney of the Vinegar Valentines and the Spooky Charades was in the house as well and she had quite the attitude. She was also a little instigator. No, really!  Nothing pleased her more than starting something between my grandparents and then sitting back to watch the resulting chaos, coffee cup in hand and a smile on her face. In spite of all this, my grandfather took damn good care of her when she got sick later on. All because he loved my grandmother with a love that was fierce.

Grandma Jimmie and Grandpa Walker looking cool

Growing up, I thought Grandpa Walker was IT. I remember he gave me a kitten when I was little that I wasn’t supposed to have. (He gave my brother one too, but my brother was deathly allergic — which made shoving the kittens in his face really, really fun, but I digress.)  We couldn’t take them home of course…thanks Keith, for that. But we enjoyed them each summer.

While I was small, most summers found me by his side, when I wasn’t chasing lizards or looking for crawdads or swinging from grape vines. When I was still a little girl, it might’ve been the first summer I met my grandfather even — so maybe 5 — I remember trying to cut my fried eggs with a fork and knife just like my dad. My dad was amazing with a knife and fork — he could cut anything and everything slick as butter while being quiet as a mouse. It was truly impressive, and I always wanted to be like him. But, I could never come close to being as fast and neat as he was and most of the time I just ended up making a big racket. It was certainly annoying for everyone in the kitchen. So anyway, here I am cutting my fried eggs like a maniac and my father ummm…chastised me, yeah, we’ll go with that, chastised me for making so much noise. And sitting in “my spot” next to my grandfather as I was, he yanked my chair closer to him and told my dad in no uncertain terms to “leave her be and let her cut her eggs however she wants” — which was awe-inspiring really because I was little and my dad was…well DAD. You simply didn’t talk back to him.  Clearly Grandpa didn’t get THAT memo. Or if he did, he didn’t care one bit.

As I’ve written about before, for a part of his life my grandfather drank beer like some people drink soda, or coffee. He basically just drank the stuff all day long. It took an enormous amount (about the size of a silo) to give him a buzz, but eventually he would start feeling the effects, and when he did, he’d get on a musical bent. When this creative urge came across him, out came the banjo which he was really quite good at playing. The tunes he chose? Yeah, well, those started out pretty good too, more on the bluegrass side but that was okay, and then it would slide into gospel, getting faster and zanier the more he drank. Verses would eventually repeat themselves, words would slur or get mixed up. Sometimes it was an outright free-for-all of different songs thrown together as one. What verses he couldn’t remember, he made up on the fly.

I remember my mother made a recording of one of his more off the rails lively sessions and took it to my Aunt Bunny for her to listen to — back when cassette recordings were still the rage. I got so angry because by the end of the impromptu concert they were in tears laughing at his madcap musical antics. I snapped at them over it and ended up paying the price. And of course, looking back on it, it WAS funny…hilarious even. But this was my grandfather they were laughing at! No-one was supposed to be laughing at him!

Hey, he had my back – I had his.

my favorite picture

 

The Best Room Ever

Okay, I need everyone to pay attention because what I’m about to tell you may be the single most important argument to ever be made in the history of debate…

The kitchen is the best room in any house. Period.

Now I know I’ve started a frenzy among all the “man cave,” “she shed,” “bedroom” loving people, but I hereby stick to my claim that the kitchen is the best room in any house ever.

Think about it! The kitchen really is the focal point for all the activity inside any house or dwelling. It’s where all the action takes place. Sure, the living room sees a lot of feet shuffling through and a lot of butts on furniture but the entertainment is mostly derived from the television. All the *real* action is happening inside the kitchen.

I’ll break it down for you because I’m not leaving until I’ve convinced every single one of you that I’m right… Okay, granted, you could close this blog at any time so I guess I can’t really enforce that… so… I’ll just let it go and continue with making my point… hopefully you’ll stick around.

Let me start with a little background –

Growing up, we would visit my grandparents every summer. Both sets of grandparents, as loyal readers already know, lived in rural West Virginia, my parents’ old stomping ground. My maternal grandparents (Grandma Mooney and company!) had a pseudo-living/sitting room set up where the dining room should have been – but it was more of an extension of the kitchen. It’s just how the old farm-house was made. The first floor was just one big room basically, with the kitchen proper to the right and the dining room/sitting room to the left – no walls in between and close enough that you could fling a coffee cup from the sitting room and hit my grandmother in the head as she made breakfast (not that I would suggest doing that, however, if you wanted to live past the first serving of eggs). The centerpiece of the sitting room was a huge, round dining table made out of solid wood that I remember always had a green gingham vinyl, felt-backed tablecloth in place.

If you ever peeked in the windows, you would find everyone sitting around that table, playing cards, chattering up a storm, eating fried eggs, or watching the smallest t.v. I think I’ve ever seen. I’m not even sure it was in color. It got maybe three channels. There was a living room in the house – but it was on the second floor. And I never once saw anyone up there, except for me when I was playing house. No, being near the kitchen was the place to be.

In my childhood home, there is a family room and my parents are quite happy there whenever they’re watching t.v. But when company comes – including my grownup self – we sit at the kitchen table, coffee cups in hand, hopefully potato soup (if I’m lucky) or some other gastronomical treat from my mother’s massive repertoire in front of us, and talk the day away.

Like my parents, a great-aunt (Grandma Mooney’s daughter) of mine moved from West Virginia to the concrete jungle of the city, Baltimore to be exact. My parents eventually opted for a more suburban route, but my aunt and her family stayed in the city. My aunt kept her country ways though and sure enough, life took place in the kitchen. Visiting her every Sunday saw us sitting around the kitchen table, eating homemade crab cakes, polish sausage, and drinking coffee or sweet tea.

Now, speaking of kitchens, West Virginia women know how to cook. Between my great-grandmother, my grandmothers, my mother, and my great-aunt…these ladies took comfort food to a whole new level. So who wouldn’t want to hang out in the kitchen and be a taste-tester or gobble up the so-called rejects of whatever meal they were preparing? Or if you were brave, sneak something off a serving plate before it made its way out to the table?

But there is more to it than food, so much more. For me the heart of the house is the kitchen. We’re a family in the kitchen. Good news, bad news, shared joys and sorrows – all happened in the kitchen. Oh, we had food, we’re a family that loves food, but in the kitchens of my childhood, we also had camaraderie – we shared laughter and gossip, tears and heart to heart talks. Life was lived in the kitchen. Still is, in so many ways.

So, for those of you trying to make it work in that cramped two-bedroom apartment the size of a photo-booth, and especially those of you with lots of room to spread out (you know who you are…you can go a full day and not see another member of your household or family) – here’s a piece of advice for whatever it’s worth.

Hang out in the kitchen. Maybe cook dinner together every once in a while, or throw together some snacks and play cards or a board game at the table – whip up something awesome, and I’m not just talking food.

Phone Home

I was visiting my mom recently and relaxing, when my eye fell upon her hallway phone. it’s a land-line; an old-fashioned, on-the-wall phone, with an incredibly long cord so my mom, back in the day before the advent of cordless phones, could make her way from the hallway into the kitchen for a cup of coffee and never have to hang up.

mom-phone-1

behold! the hallway phone!

I remember when she GOT this phone. At one point too many years ago to admit to, it was the ultimate in telephone technology – a push button dialer in the most modern cream color which replaced a black, rotary dial phone that had hung in that very same location but with a much, much shorter cord. Not only did the push dial make life a breeze, but the longer cord sure made catching wayward children who, at the sound of the phone ringing, were off like a flash to engage in some nefarious deed or other figuring Mom would be occupied for a few minutes.

at one time, the latest and greatest in communications technology

Would this modern generation even recognize a rotary phone, I wonder? I suppose they would have at least seen them in movies – if not the homes of their grandparents. And speaking of movies – just how many movies have been rendered obsolete by today’s technology?  I mean, there could never be a movie made in the present day called “Dial” M for Murder, since phones don’t have dials anymore! “Press” M for Murder just doesn’t carry the same weight or suspense if you ask me.  But I digress.

Just that one look at my mom’s phone and I found myself awash in nostalgia. Of course when we wax nostalgic we usually think about the good things of our childhood…being able to watch 5 straight hours of cartoons on a Saturday morning at a time when there were only 3, maybe 5, channels to watch, for example. Hell, I remember when cable t.v. first made the scene opening a veritable vista of programming possibilities.  Yeah. I’m that old.

Dressing in my pajamas and going in the car to see a drive-in movie (okay, don’t roll your eyes, I was little at the time)…or just being able to lay down in the back seat to take a nap while we made the long drive “home” to West Virginia – no seatbelt needed!

I can remember when I could turn off my car, then decide that I wanted to roll down the window – and then do it! Imagine that!? Today of course windows are electronically controlled and you have to start the car again if you want to crack a window…and parents nowadays can “lock” the windows so kids in the backseat can’t even open them. Couldn’t do that back in my day. No tossing your brother’s stuff out the back window while on long trips or sticking your head out the window one last time even after dad has warned “I’ll turn this car around!”  Sheesh. Kids have no fun these days.

But nostalgia is a two-way street, of course.

I remember waiting in line for gas during the 1970s when there was that gas embargo. Of course, this was much harder on my parents than it ever was on me. I just went along for the early morning ride – I didn’t have the stress of worrying about having enough gas to get to work for the week.

Going to the library to do some research – and needing to look through the card catalog for hours and then reading book upon book upon book till finding just the right passage to quote for that handwritten ten-page essay. Oh, yeah. Good times.

I remember having to actually get up to change the channels on a TV, instead of using the remote control…even if I wasn’t the one watching it.

I go to my mother’s house quite frequently and of course the hallway phone is there each and every time – being cemented to the wall in all of its permanent glory as it is. It’s hard to miss. I’m not sure why this particular visit affected me so.  But it seems like once one memory is triggered, a flurry of others start to fall through one’s mind like confetti. Not an entirely unpleasant experience I’m happy to say.

Kid in a Candy Store

Went to a very cool candy store the other day with my daughter…in addition to the upscale staples like Godiva and Lindor, this place had all sorts of “retro” candy. While it sent me into a vortex of memories and constant outbursts of “I remember those!” I was also left explaining to Sarah that yes, kids did in fact eat those sugary, often wax covered, messes that passed for candy in our day.  And with a smile to boot.  Oh, and if we didn’t have a smile for whatever reason, we always had wax lips to give others the impression we were smiling. Or vampires. Or old men. Or had some serious lip plumper surgery. Changing our identity through candy products was easy-peasy back in the day.

I was surprised to see candy cigarettes.  I thought those would’ve gone out the window when the powers that be stopped showing people smoking in movies and ads.  But nope.  They were there too.  Sarah actually remembers playing with and eating those.  Not sure what that says about me as a parent.

This fit of nostalgia was well-timed. I needed a little boost in my day and besides being surrounded by candy, which in itself is always uplifting, the trip down memory lane succeeded in making me smile.  When he was younger and through the teenage years, my brother played Little League baseball.  He was a pretty talented pitcher (don’t let him know I said that) and my Dad often coached. Not to be left behind in a boring house, my mother always attended the games which meant my attendance at these weekly games was forced as well.  A family affair.

Most of my time was spent with a friend who also had a brother on the team and if we weren’t at her house swimming in a green, stagnant pool or roaming the surrounding area for free puppies to bring home, we were at the concession stand.  I loved the concession stand. Hot dogs, cardboard pizza, snowballs. And candy.  Gigantic pixie sticks which I have no doubt had my mother shaking her head upon my return to our seats as she imagined the meltdown sure to come once the sugar rush wore off.  Wax lips?  Of course.  Wax soda bottles filled with some unknown liquid that tasted nothing like soda and I wouldn’t touch with a broom stick nowadays? Yep. Those too.

My favorite, which also happens to be Sarah’s favorite, were candy necklaces.  Although my friends and I had bracelets too.  I didn’t see those at the store Sarah and I recently visited. Ahhh, the memories. I tell you, there’s nothing like wearing bits of candy against your 10-year old naked neck or wrapped tightly around a filthy wrist in 90-degree weather as you run chaotically around a park that’s made up of busy, red-earth filled baseball fields and where even the parking lot was made of loose clay, thus having clouds of red dust and dirt continually blooming up into your face, on your hands from being an “active kid,” and every other exposed body part (and from the looks of my socks after a game, even some body parts that weren’t exposed) that mixed nicely with the inevitable sweat to create a thin (or not so thin) sheen of grime along your skin, then eating said candy.  Oh yeah.  Good times.

those were the gum chewing days

those were the gum chewing days

 

not even sure what the hell that liquid inside even is

not even sure what the hell that liquid inside even is

 

excuse me while I change my identity by gnawing on bits of colored wax

excuse me while I change my identity by gnawing on bits of colored wax

 

dots of ...sugar flavored sugar, always a good idea

dots of …sugar flavored sugar, always a good idea for small children

 

teaching bad habits early...that was apparently the idea

teaching bad habits early…that was apparently the idea

 

oh yes, always a yummy treat

oh yes, always a yummy treat

My Son (or Paul Bunyan Redux)

A carnival gypsy once told me that the love of my life would be tall, dark and handsome.  Somehow she failed to mention he would arrive on the waves of excruciating labor pains.  Now, 23 years later to the day, my son can legally buy alcohol, towers over me, and resembles Paul Bunyan.    He’s out on his own and I couldn’t be more proud of him. Still, whenever we talk, I oftentimes offer unsolicited advice.  No, really, I do.   Other mothers do this too, right?  Right??  Well of course Jake’s response is usually one borne of frustration because, according to him, I’ve not kept up with his birthdays all these years and therefore don’t know just how old he is.  My response is one he will never understand until he has kids of his own – he’s always my baby regardless of how old he may be.  Or how tall.  Or how thick a beard he decides to grow (I mean really, you do own a razor after all Jake!).

And many times during these mutually frustrating conversations, a mental picture of him will pop into my head.  Like when he and I went outside to play in the yard like maniacs during a freak midnight snowstorm when he was 4.  Or when he was a very convincing snowman in a school play at the age of 5.  Or as a 6 year old on a trip to Luray Caverns….which is actually a pretty cute story and one that I go to often in my mental rolodex of memories because it never ceases to make me smile.

We used to make the trek to Luray Caverns every year, sort of a family tradition.  These trips were always a great time.  For those not familiar with the area, near Luray is another set of caverns touted as “The Endless Caverns.”  To me, that sounds sort of horrible. The idea that you could possibly get lost and never find your way out of the dark, stone tunnels, eventually succumbing to starvation with your body going undiscovered for maybe centuries didn’t fill me with a great amount of intrigue.  Sort of like an “always erupting volcano” or “constantly snowing tundra.”  Okay fine, maybe that’s a bit melodramatic….but hey, it could happen.

Well, on this particular trip when we passed one of the billboards emblazoned with “Endless Caverns” Jake asked just what “endless” meant.  Remember, he’s only 6 at the time so he was still trying to figure out the intricacies of the English language which can be tough on anyone.  Being the vocabulary nut I am, I was thrilled to explain to him “Well, Jake, endless means that something doesn’t have an end…. never-ending.”

This is where I have to take a small sidebar and let you know that my husband’s running compliment for me at that time was “hot.”  It could also be interpreted as a running joke.  And having the goofy mentality that my husband did he was always coming up with a “you’re so hot…” comment.   As in “You’re so hot you make lava look cool.”  I know, I know….but what can you do?  I married him anyway.  Not sure what that says about me, all things considering.

So, back to the story….as the meaning of “endless” registered with Jake, he perked up and said, “Oh, so it’s like you. You’re hotless.  Never-ending hot.”   Why yes, Jake.  That’s exactly what it means.

To this day I hold that small, innocent remark in my heart as one of the best compliments I’ve ever received.  Not because it’s true and certainly not because Jake fully understood “hot” as it related to women,  but because it came straight from his beautiful, ever loving six year old heart as meaning something special.  Jake will never understand that when I look at him, I still see that wide-eyed, precocious boy who stole my heart the day he was born.   I don’t think that will ever change.  And quite frankly, I hope it never does.

Although seriously…. a razor wouldn’t hurt now and then.

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jake pier

jake and shaylee

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