A Tale of Charlie and Mary

I mentioned in the previous post, the one about porches, my neighbors who used both of their porches. I didn’t tell you their names. They were Charlie and Mary. They had been married for more than 60 years when Charlie passed. Mary followed him a couple of years later.
When I was just a kid, probably six or seven, I began visiting and hanging out at their house. They lived just a house away, in a white block house that Charlie built. It was stuccoed on the outside, but you could still see the outline of the cinder blocks in some areas. They had a building just a few feet away from the back porch that they called the smokehouse. It had not been used to smoke anything in years, but it still had that smell that was somewhat offensive to your nose, but familiar to your senses. They had another building they used to smoke meats in. It was at the back end of their property. It was the old outhouse. I know, who would smoke meats in an old outhouse? Well, they did. It did not sit over the hole anymore. They had moved it thankfully. And, Charlie did not smoke too many meats as the years went by.
I’ll just refer to the building near the house as the smokehouse since that’s what we called it, and you can just forget about that smokin’ outhouse. So, the smokehouse was a bit of a catchall for garden tools. It also had the wringer washer in it. There was a workbench and a huge chest freezer. It was always dark in there. There was a small window and the old wooden door for light. Mary had curtains at that little window, even though it was just the smokehouse. You could see it from the road, so appearances were important.
There was a wash day to observe each week, and it was still a chore. They used that old washer every week. They never had a modern washing machine or dryer. All the clothes were washed with Borax and anything white was bleached regularly. The clothesline was up next to the huge garden, which was shielded from view by a row of boxwood. Mary would always be wearing her apron when she was working and she had a huge bag of clothespins.
The freezer in the smokehouse was full of wild turkeys, squirrel, dove and deer meat that Charlie would hunt. He never hunted for sport, it was always to provide. I went hunting with him once, and once was all it took. I think he knew before that day even came that he was not going to bag one single animal. This was just to take me out for the experience. I had shot a gun before. We had guns in the house growing up. Today I don’t care for them much and you won’t find one in our house. I respect them and they had their purpose back then. Anyway, Charlie had me out in the woods at 5 am and we had to wait quietly and patiently for the sun to come up. That old phrase “It’s always darkest before the dawn” is true when you are squatted down in the woods at 5 am and the temperature is hanging somewhere around freezing. It was one of the darkest moments of my life. I prayed that we would not see a thing. I appreciated the sacrifice but did not want to be part of it. I understood it, and I respected it, and I never went again. We left the woods about 7 am and headed home for some breakfast. Charlie never asked me to go again either.
Mary was always busy around the house. She never stopped much, until the evening. Then it was time for a cup of hot tea and a cookie or two. We could sit for hours talking then, or retreat to the living room to watch Jeopardy and Wheel Of Fortune. Mary taught me so many things. I had two incredible grandmothers, but being with her was like having a third. Charlie was a wealth of knowledge too, but he had strong opinions and they did not always match mine. Even as a kid, teenager, and young adult, we did not see eye to eye on lots of things, but I respected him and I rarely challenged him. It was not worth it. He was not going to change, and he was not going to change me.
I would help Charlie outside with mowing the yard and helping put out the garden. He loved passing on what he knew about growing corn, potatoes, squash and such. He taught me how to use the tiller, how to make a potato hill and how to tie off the rows to make them good and straight. They always had a huge garden. We would be working away and if he got tired he would always say “Whew! Boy, I am all petered out!” Rarely would we run the water hose up to the garden. Most of the time we would drop the watering can down in the cistern and fish out as much as we needed, which was always a lot. I would help him put the garden out, and I would help Mary put the garden up. She taught me a little about canning. Although when she used the pressure cooker, she wanted everyone out of the house. It was not until I was much older that she would trust me to stay. She passed on her Bread & Butter Pickle recipe to me. I make them every year now and there are some that wait for me to put a new batch up. I give her all the credit, but I have to admit, they are pretty darn good. She first showed me how to make refrigerator pickles. I made some that year and canned them myself. I entered a jar in the Shenandoah County Fair and won first prize in my category. I don’t remember if my category was just pickles or pickles made by a 13-year-old boy, but I won. Today I pickle just about anything that will hold its own in a jar of vinegar.
She also passed along her secrets to making fresh homemade bread and rolls. She would make it all the time and it looked so easy. She even told me how her grandfather taught her how to make bread and this was his recipe. She said that he made bread for the soldiers in his camp during the Civil War. Well, I was honored to learn the trade, but something got lost in translation. I still have that recipe, but I have tried it several times and I never got more than a door stop out of mine. She also taught me how to make pie crust. Now that I can do. The secret to that is ice cold water, cold fat, and even cold hands. You don’t want your dough to become warm while you mix and work it. Also, don’t overwork it. Be very careful to just knead it only as much as necessary to  incorporate all the flour, or it will be tough. Then chill it again before rolling it out on a cold surface. If the fat in the mix warms up while you mix it or it rests; your crust will be greasy. You want it flaky and tender. There now you have the secrets to the best pie crust in the world! I bet you thought I was going to pass on my prize winning refrigerator pickle recipe or my now famous Bread & Butter Pickle recipe. That might come, but you will have to wait.
Their cellar was truly a root cellar. They would lime the potatoes to keep them from going bad. They had wooden shelves that lined the right-hand side as you got to the bottom of the stairs. The shelves were always filled with jars of whatever she had put up. There were beans, corn, peas, carrots, squash and soups that she would make and can. To get all of that ready, we would sit for hours on the back porch snappin’ beans, hullin’ peas, shuckin’ corn; you name it. There was lots of work to growing and putting up your own food. But, it was a way of life that they knew. It was not part of a movement for them, it was merely what they knew for survival.
Charlie and Mary taught me lots of other things as well over the years. Things that you only learn by observation, not by doing. Well, at least not until doing on your own some time later. Like when Charlie was sick and in the hospital, just a couple of weeks before he passed away. I was there with his daughter and we were off to the side of the hospital room while Mary was by his side. He was about to go into surgery and he wanted to talk to her. He apologized for not building her a bigger house, for not giving her more things, for not… and the list went on. She listened for just a minute and told him she had all of those things with him. The house was bigger than they needed, and they never wanted for anything, that they had all they ever needed. As he went into surgery, they both said what they needed to say and heard what they needed to hear. He came out of his surgery fine. He just didn’t have the strength to come back home after that, and he passed the day before he was scheduled to go into rehab.
What they taught me there was that life is not about the what, but the who. It’s not about the how much, but what you need. I learned that even more when my parents were both gone and we had to clean out the house. My brothers and I each took a few things that meant something to us and the rest was just stuff at that point. It wasn’t useless, but it wasn’t necessary. For me, even a while after bringing stuff home with me, I found myself realizing that some of it was just more stuff. I packed some things up, to pass on one day. It does have meaning, and that is its usefulness now. The rest is all stuff, and you don’t cherish those things as much as you do the moments and memories that you have.

Sittin’ on the front porch….

There’s a song by Dolly Parton that has always painted such a vivid and realistic picture for me. It starts out “Sittin’ on the front porch on a summer afternoon, a straightback chair on two legs, leans against the wall. Watch the kids a playin’ with June bugs on a string, and chase the glowin’ fireflies, as evening shadows fall.” That’s what we did as a kid too, and it’s what we still do today. We may have called them lightnin’ bugs back then. You knew the moment you saw lightnin’ bugs, that it was summer. I can’t wait to see them in a few weeks.
The porch has always been a place to gather and to gander, relax and reflect, entertain or retreat, and many times its the best place to do a little work. That is where I am right now. We celebrate our warmest welcomes there and bid our fondest farewells. It can be a step, a stoop or an outdoor room, but it has forever been an extension of our home.
Growing up we didn’t use our front porch too much. Friends knew to come to the back door to visit. But, on a few occasions, we did roll out our sleeping bags on the front porch and sleep under the stars. It was a great camping spot. The dog would keep us company while she kept guard over us too. Bootsy, our collie growing up, also used the front porch as her watch tower. She could keep an eye on everything up there. If a salesman were to come by, they never knew she was around. They were not friends, so they didn’t know to use the back door. Once they got to the top of the stairs and knocked on the door, there staring them down at the base of the stairs was Bootsy. The porch was her lair and she would let you in, but you were not getting out without her permission. One of my brothers bought several books once because she had the guy’s book bag on one side of the railing while he hung from the other.

The house that I grew up in, just as my parents were building it. The porch was not huge, but we made good use of it. One of my brothers lives there today.

                                                                                                                                                              My neighbors back home would use their back porch for work and the front porch for relaxing. If they were on the back porch, it was to snap beans, hang clothes out on the line or make a batch of dandelion wine. The front porch had a great glider, a rocker and a cart full of geraniums all summer long. Everyone who walked by was welcome to stop and talk. Iced tea, lemonade or kool aid was in constant supply. I remember they had a set of green nubby glasses with matching pitcher to serve with. When their grand kids would visit, we would play out on the front porch for hours.
My grandmaw Barton had a sleeping porch. Today many people would think of it as a sun porch because it had three walls of nothing but windows. She would open the windows at night and it was always the right temperature for the best night’s sleep you’ve ever had. The back porch had been closed in and she would bring all of her plants in to winter. At Christmas it was like walking through a jungle sometimes to get into the house.
My great grandparents on dad’s side had a wonderful porch. It was big and had a swing or glider at one end. I don’t remember much about my great grandparents, but I do remember sitting on that front porch and great granddaddy smoking a cigar. I thought it made him look like George Burns. He was always dressed in a white shirt and dress slacks, at least when we were there. I also remember that the pockets of his white shirts had dark spots and burn marks in them from tamping out his cigar and sticking it in his pocket. Their house sat right on East Main St. in Buckhannon, WV. The strawberry festival parade went right by their house, so they always had front row seats. I think we were there for a festival, but I was so young, I don’t remember. I just remember being told about it. When my grand parents inherited the house, I went to visit for a couple of weeks one summer. I spent so many hours on that front porch. I thought of myself as an artist back then. I was taking art in school, so I decided to draw the house. I would sit a few hours across the street, just like a real artist would do, and look at the house as I would sketch. I also took Polaroids so I could sit on the porch and finish. I figured the lighting was best outside. I have no idea where that sketch ended up after that summer, but I sure would love to see it. I still have the Polaroid though.

The Polaroid of the house in Buckhannon, WV. Unfortunately the house is now gone. The horrific flooding in the mid 80’s did so much damage to this part of town, and the house was torn down.

As I said, I am writing this while I sit on our porch today. We love our porch. It serves as a living room, dining room, as a great place to have a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. We have family dinners out here as much as possible, gather with friends as often as we can and enjoy a meal just for ourselves too. We built is as a screen porch, so we make use of it about three quarters of the year. The cats enjoy it as much as we do, as we made sure to include a ledge for them to sit on and gaze out through the screen. We can see the skyline of our little town during the day and at night, the lights across town look like fallen stars in the distance. We hear the train whistle as it passes through town and the sound echoes up toward our porch. That reminds me of home too. I don’t see any fireflies just yet, but I do hear the crickets begin to chirp. The night air is turning crisp as I finish this up, and the stirrings of neighbors are slowing down.
Soon though, those fireflies…. and those June bugs.

The best inspiration in the world. Our porch today.

Home is where the heart is.

I’ve been a little tied up, so I haven’t been able to post as much as I wanted to this week. I am on a business trip for work. It’s my first official out of town business trip, and it’s taken me all the way across the country. In the past week; my feet have touched four states in one day, I’ve been in two different rental cars, walked through four different airports (and about to check out a couple more), and I’ve had the pleasure of meeting the nicest people from one side of the country to the other. I feel a bit like a politician running for office.
This trip takes me back. Back, to the first time I remember being taken to the “big city” as a kid. Now we lived close to what was called a city. It even had a mall. And, my grandparents on my dad’s side lived in places that were considered cities as well. But, the first time I was allowed to walk around among the skyscrapers was when I was 13.
We had some new neighbors who had come from Maryland about a year or so before. The father worked just outside of Washington, DC. In elementary school, we took a trip to DC nearly every year to see the museums or the zoo, but we were not set free in the cement jungle. Well, our new neighbors had a daughter, who was the same age as me. We became fast, lifelong friends. Her mother arranged to take several of us to Ford’s Theater. Yes, the one where President Lincoln was shot. We went to see a production of Peter Pan.
The trip to DC took about an hour and a half. We got to town early, so we would have enough time to explore. The buildings were so tall and some took up entire blocks. I remember going into Macy’s Department Store and the girls wanted to see the fur coats on the 5th floor. They were so enamored with the coats. I was so enamored with the fact that we were on the 5th floor itself.
The theater was so impressive, so much more than anything I had seen before. It was the first production of any kind, outside of a school play, that I had seen in person. The stage, the actors, the effects; all had such an impact on me. I think I talked about it for weeks afterwards. I’m sure my family got tired of hearing about it.
There were many more trips to Washington, DC over the years, and we’ve even vacationed there and got married there, now that I live in East TN. I don’t know that any other city could have prepared me for the shear mass of buildings  and staggering number of people here in San Diego, CA. It’s beautiful here. The hills remind me a little of the mountains back home, but they are not the same. The ocean air is intoxicating to an Appalachian boy. The waves crashing against the rocky coastline, which is peppered with sunbathing sea lions, just doesn’t compare to anything back home. That’s neither good nor bad, it’s just what it is in its own right.
The city is a nice place to visit. The coastline and beaches are beautiful, and I definitely hear the siren’s call. This trip was fun and it certainly was functional. I needed the training I received to improve my work. But, it’s not home. I can be comfortable for a while in this environment, to get done what I need done. That is all for now though. Home is where the heart is, and my heart right now is in East TN.

Good Night no more

Earl Hamner, Jr passed away just a few weeks ago. Now, some of you may know who he was, others probably know the characters he created. Most notably was John Boy Walton, which was also modeled after himself. The other family members and neighbors were made up of family and friends from his past.
Earl grew up in the mountains of Virginia during the depression. Like many families of that time, they had to survive off the land, make ends meet and keep faith alive. The rest would take care of itself.
He left the mountains to do what he did best; tell stories. The stories of the Walton’s resonated with people. They could relate, perhaps because they were part of a large family, or they knew hard times. But, some I suspect enjoyed the romance of a loving family that survived life intact. Not everyone did.
I remember many of the episodes. You knew right away that it was coming on when you heard the first few seconds of the theme song. You could see the house as the episode opened up and you always knew how it was going to end. Those two things always remained the same, while everything else in the middle would make you laugh till you cried or cry till you laughed.
Our grandparent’s, on dad’s side, lived in Scottsville, VA, during part of the time The Walton’s was on the air. Scottsville was just outside of Charlottesville, so we kinda felt like we had a connection to the Walton Family. Especially when we visited our grandparents. Granddaddy was a Methodist minister, so they moved often. But, I remember this house very well. It would have been closer to the Baldwin Sister’s house than the farmhouse the Walton’s lived in. It wasn’t as grand and I doubt there was any recipe tucked in a secret room, but it was a brick house. It had a central foyer and stairway. To the right was the dining room. Behind that was the bright kitchen, with windows under the sink and a half bath under the stairs. To the left was the living room, which took up the left side of the house and off of that was a huge screened in porch. All the bedrooms were upstairs, but I don’t really remember those. I guess we spent most of our time there, like we did most of our time together; playing, talking and eating. I remember a few occasions when we were there along with our Uncle Jim & Aunt Joan and their two kids. My Uncle David was just five years older than my oldest brother, so he was still at home then too. When we were all there, it was a huge family with three generations.
I remember Sunday dinner at their house always meant Grandmaw’s roast beef, gravy, mashed potatoes, slices of white bread and deviled eggs was going to be on the table. She would be up before any of us on Sunday morning, and before church, she had everything prepped and the roast in the oven. It seemed like we would only be back for 10 minutes and it would all be set. We all ate together too, no matter how big a group we had. They would add a kids table to the end of the big table, but we were there together. Grandaddy would get out the ice cream bucket on summer days too and we could take turns helping to crank it. It felt like that took hours before we would have anything to celebrate, and the celebration was that we finally had ice cream!
Every morning at their house meant waking up to the smell of bacon, toast and scrambled eggs. Grandmaw would be in the kitchen in her robe, with her hair wrapped. Granddaddy always sat at the head of the table and he ruled the meal. He would get mad at us if we used our knife to butter our toast and then stick it in the jelly too. Grandmaw was running around getting everything to the table. Mom would help her, but she would always have it ready to go. We all sat down together for meals at their house and we ate from sun up till right before bed, then we would have a snack. A sandwich and Ginger Ale. It was pure heaven. And, it was something we only did when we were there. I’m sure we had our own version of “Good Night John Boy”. It probably ended with mom telling us we better stop and to go to sleep!
Earl Hamner, Jr. was a great story teller. I was affected by what he wrote and the characters that he created. I honestly didn’t know that he was still living at the age of 92 in California, but I kind of miss him. It may be the nostalgia for it all, it may be because I had just started to write this blog when I found out. Whatever the reason, I will miss him just a little bit. It’s kind of sad to know that no one will write another good night.

This was Christmas at their house in 1973 or 1974. That was the living room that took up the entire left side of the downstairs.

A Tale of four siblings

Since today is #NationalSiblingsDay, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to write about the three other people in my life, that know as much about my growing up as I do. I am the youngest of four boys. I don’t know how my parents survived as long as they did. Both of them are gone now, but they did see us into adulthood, or at least past the age of 32. Being adults is something I think we are all still struggling with.
My parents had the four of us in the span of just five and a half years. We are probably closer now than we were when we were kids, but that’s just a part of being family. You don’t always appreciate what each other brings. After all they’re just family, what do they know! I think all of us being in a relatively small house, made us want to expand our own worlds a little bit. Now we can appreciate, even if we don’t necessarily understand, what we each bring to our relationships.
Our parents always made sure that whatever they did for one of us, they were able to do for all of us. One year for Christmas, we all got new bikes. Lots of Christmases we would get up to find each of us had our own pile of presents, with our names next to them, where Santa had written a note to each of us. And, both our parents came by it honest; the idea that we be treated equally. Grandmaw Edge once made us all robes for Christmas, and in the pocket of each one was a small Whitman’s Sampler. Grandmaw Barton didn’t often give us presents, it just wasn’t done. But, every now and then, we would each get a Kennedy Silver Half Dollar.
My brothers and I, at times, seemed to test the boundaries of life and limb. The registrar at the ER knew who we were when we came in and would simply ask “Which one is it this time?” There were sprains and broken bones, minor stabbings with an inanimate object or two, and trips over the handlebars of our bikes. Yes, two of my brothers did that.
There was one afternoon that I was playing in the front yard, when suddenly I felt something sting my knee. I looked down. I didn’t see anything, but man did it hurt. I started rubbing it and then I heard someone laughing. I looked up, only to find my oldest brother, hanging out of a bedroom window, laughing his fool head off. I also noticed the BB gun in his hands. A laugh and a point was all it took. I let out the most blood curdling scream I could manage. Mom didn’t know what had just happened either, until she looked up. My brother suddenly stopped laughing and hiding was not an option. She was in the house and at the doorway before he had time to pull himself back in the window. As I said, our parents believed in treating us equally. So, since I felt pain from the BB gun, so shall my brother. She turned that thing around and with one whack, the butt end met the butt end. It was snapped in two after that, but I think he managed to salvage it for a little while. He never shot me or anyone else again, that I know of.
We didn’t always try to hurt each other. Sometimes that was just part of the fun. We were there for each other when it counted. That is also part of being family. My brothers all have kids now and even as cousins, they treat each other like siblings. Hopefully not as intensely as we did, but as importantly as we do. So, Happy National Siblings Day to my brothers, and now to my sister-in-law and brother-in-law.

Lye soap is a true Tale

Growing up in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, in Shenandoah County, we didn’t think much about the fact that we were living in Appalachia. We knew we had the Blue Ridge Mountains on one side  the Appalachian Mountains on the other. But, like I said, we were in the valley. We considered ourselves, and everyone we knew, to be mountain folk or country folk. As kids, we just didn’t think too hard about it. I guess it really was a case of not being able to see the forest for the trees.

My three older brothers and I, were all born within a five and a half year span, which coincided with our parents first five and half years of marriage. As you can imagine, that kept them busy for the next twenty years. There were a few other kids in the neighborhood our ages. So, at least we each had a little bit of an escape from each other. Invariably though, somebody was always bringing a friend home to sleep on the couch for a night, week or month or more. My parents, and all of us, got used to lots of people in our little house. But, we liked it that way. 
Mom and dad showed us early on I guess, that no matter how little you had, you always had enough for someone else. Sometimes, that simply applied to bathroom time. Being boys though, we always looked for an opportunity to pee outside, so it wasn’t too bad. The dog may not have liked the competition though. 
I tended to roam from neighbor to neighbor, more than our old collie did.I would visit Mary Ann, in the old grey shingled house. She was different and I liked her. She would tell fortunes to people for a few dollars. If I was there and someone would come by to get their fortune told, I had to go sit in the other room. Some people said she was a witch, but I didn’t care if she was. I loved helping her get water in her kitchen. She still had an old cast iron pump and spout. I would pump away and you could hear the water come gurgling up. When it got a good flow to it, she would tell me to STOP! The water was always so cold. She would sing all the time too. I don’t remember any songs that she sang. I just remember her singing. When the weather would turn cold, I would help her get out the big wash tub, place it over the fire pit and begin filling it up with buckets of that cold water. Then she would get to making her lye soap. I could help up to the point that she added the lye. I had to stand way back for that. But, once it was all in, I could help stir again with a big ole stick. Now I get why people said she was a witch. I wonder what they said about me? They also had an outhouse. It wasn’t as cool as peeing outside, but it was kinda close. Sometimes the smell though was too much to take. Her daughter was a few years older than me, and I remember her as being a bit strange. Her husband was an angry man. Except for a little bit in between when he had just a little to drink and a little too much to drink. Outside of that, he was just a nasty drunk. I’m not really sure what ever happened to them. 
After they moved away, a man and his two sons moved in. Randall, Jason and I were inseparable for a while. But they moved back and forth between their mom and dad. Then one night, years later, their dad shot his girlfriend and killed her. She lived just three houses down from us. I hate to admit it, but we never liked her much either. Not that she deserved it, but being a little nicer could have helped her out. I’ve not seen or spoken to Randall or Jason since I was about twelve.
Now, this is not Mary Ann, but its pretty close to what we used to do. I may need to try making some on my own soon. That would be an interesting post! I think I’ll leave some of the other neighbors and tales of what I learned from them for another post or two.

And so the Tale begins!

Here it is. My first blog. My very own domain! The Appalachian Tale will be filled with stories of my life, my imagination, recipes, helpful tips, useful and useless information and I guess anything I feel like writing.
This evening I took my very first writing class as well. I’ve written little things, here and there, over the years. I’ve written for work, for pleasure and for things I’ve felt very strongly about. Now I need to work on writing more. This blog and the class will move me in the right direction.
Let me know what you think of the title, and as time goes on, what you think of the blog itself. I can write just for me, but that’s not really what its about.

The Appalachian Tale

Memories, recipes, and Tales of an Appalachian Boy.