Saturday, March 20, 2010

Stepford Deer, Designer Boots and Harvest Gold Toilets

I am not a cold weather person. I’m a Southern California girl and cold weather has never appealed to me. Ask my sister whose sole job in high school was to preheat my car if she wanted to avoid riding the bus to school. Ask my friends about my Christmas caroling method of staying in the car with the heat blasting and the window down. I use my heated car seats year-round and I live in the Deep South! So call me crazy when I decided to spend a long January weekend in the mountains of Virginia. Despite the cold and the snow I learned a few things:

1. It’s true…I still don’t wear practical footwear. Yes, boots are great for hiking. Mine have three-inch heels and were not meant for hiking the Appalachian Trail or snowy mountain paths. Even so, I didn’t let a little thing like that stop me.

2. Frozen paddle boats abandoned in the woods do not paddle and the ice covered seats are very cold but it does make for a fabulous photo shoot and a story. Who leaves their paddle boat in the woods?

3. The wind sounds different on the top of a mountain. Cold, hollow, and eerie. It truly makes you feel alone.

4. I forgot how the snow can form a crust on top like crème brûlée. I remember as children my friends and I would challenge each other to walk across without breaking through the surface. If I was careful, I could clutch a piece of the crunchy surface in my mitten like snowy peanut brittle.

5. It is not easy taking frozen fallen rocks from the side of the road, especially when they are stuck to each other with layers of fast-holding ice. A hatchet helps. Good thing I carry one around with me. I’m so Lizzie Borden.

6. The back roads in West Virginia are narrow and scary. Okay, everything in West Virginia is scary.

7. Just because the passengers in your four-wheel drive truck insist that you hit some West Virginian’s crazy dog who was trying to chase you off the road does not mean you actually hit the dog. So it is not necessary to stop and meet the West Virginian mountain man, especially if you distinctly remember not feeling a large bump in the road. It is permissible to stop if you have the hatchet ready.

8. Deer are creepy. Especially fields of deer. No cows, no horses, no goats, just creepy Stepford Wives’ deer. Pull up next to the fenced-in field of deer and they all stop eating at the same time, turn their creepy little deer faces to stare at you while twitching their gremlin ears and flicking their tails. Totally the stuff of horror films.

9. A port-a-potty in the middle of a snow covered field is apparently not unusual and is quite serviceable. Do not attempt to use the harvest gold 1970’s toilet on the side of the road in West Virginia. Back away.

10. I may have mentioned my habit of impractical footwear. I also have a similar habit of packing unsuitable clothing for winter weather. With that in mind, the best place and only place in town to buy a sweater is at the Goodwill. $3.50 is a bargain in my book!

11. I can still climb trees. Even in a cemetery. Even in designer boots with 3-inch heels.

12. The best coffee is at the Courthouse Café. A bottomless cup and they don’t care if you serve yourself or stay all day. I was sad to learn that the café closed and is now a snow-cone shack. I’m already cold! I don’t need snow cones.

13. Never drink a bottle of “J” wine and then attempt to follow the storyline in a movie. Even a movie with such a complex plotline as Tomb Raider. Along the same lines, do not drink a bottle of Spellbound’s Petit Syrah and attempt a thousand piece puzzle.

14. My grandmother is always right…wear a hat!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Let Me Call You Sweetheart

During my senior year of college I met the most interesting classmate in my historical geology class. He was 88 years old and a bit of a dinosaur himself! He decided that he would be my lab partner that semester and we studied rocks, fossils and topographic maps together. Because of the class, Francis and I formed a friendship that might have appeared unusual to others but didn't concern us in the least.

I would visit him at his old Southern Antebellum home in Montmorenci and we would play croquet in his back yard. I helped him separate his candy-stripe amaryllis plants and he gave me bags of the plants to take home. They have since multiplied many times over and I enjoy the antique blooms every year. He gave me a tiny Magnolia tree that was an offshoot of a much larger one in his yard. A few years ago, the tree finally displayed its large fragrant blooms in my parent’s yard.

I would drive his ancient blue car with only lap restraints along Highway 78 to Blackville, SC each Thursday just so he could eat at the local Mennonite restaurant. Although I would fret about the lack of updated seat belts, Francis would just smile and tell me stories about the towns we passed along the way. He would point out the old farms that had long ago been replaced by newer structures and housing developments. He explained that when Highway 78 had been widened many years before, they didn't do it properly and that is why there is the annoying "crack" the entire length of the road on either side. Even to this day it is an awkward decision as whether to attempt to straddle the gap and risk running off the road or avoid it by hugging the center line as close as possible. Francis's stories always made the drive to Miller's Bread Basket pass by quickly and pleasantly. Years later, when I taught school in Blackville, some of my teacher friends would boost me out of a classroom window so I could pick up our lunch orders that we had placed via my cell phone. One of our favorite rules to break was the "do not leave campus rule".

Francis told me about the day he had arrived in the tiny town of Williston, SC. He had driven all night from his home in Maryland and visited his friend's home just to meet the girl he would later marry. When he reached his destination, he learned that she was on a date with another fellow. Somehow, it still worked out and they were married a few months later. He spoke fondly of his wife who had passed away many years before. She achieved multiple degrees and even worked for a prestigious government agency in Washington, DC.

My fondest memories of Francis involve the piano. Francis was an incredible piano player and loved to play duets. The two of us would share a bench for hours playing all of his favorite tunes. He preferred the lower keys and I played the higher ones. His favorite duet was a very old tune entitled "Let Me Call You Sweetheart". He wanted me to know how to play this song so much and he didn't have sheet music for it. I remember the day I arrived at his home for one of our "jam sessions" and he excitedly waved a few sheets of paper at me. Francis had carefully drawn lines on the paper with musical notes. Across the top in his shaky spidery handwriting he wrote "Let Me Call You Sweetheart". He did this for me.

Several months ago I was organizing my sheet music stash and came across the familiar pages, now more than fifteen years old. As I played a few of the notes on my piano I became a bit sad. He never wrote down his part of the music - just mine. I guess he figured that he would always be around to play it with me.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Apple Dumplings

Mom and I were heading back to South Carolina and decided to avoid the drudgery of the interstate and ventured onto a backroad following the rail road tracks. Still without a GPS and carrying along my bad sense of direction, this could have turned into another tale of Lost in Georgia; however it became more of a venture down Memory Lane than either of us could have imagined.

Trees with foliage turning gold and red with bits of summer's green lined each side of Highway 278 and we drove past fields of hay, cows and horses. A small abandoned town boasted dilapidated shacks, barns and an old two story house, desipte broken windows and sagging roof, that must have really been something long ago.

The road spilled into small town after small town. We drove into downtown Crawfordville and I pointed out the old bank, still in use, that my former college roommate used to work at during the summers. It still had gleaming wood counters with the "cages" that the tellers would perch behind, ready to assist with transactions. It was sad to see that the downtown area had become so deserted over the past 18 years. As Mom and I talked about my roommate's father, who owned a dairy farm, she wondered if he was still there.

Mom started to reminisce about her childhood in New England, a time when her best friends were also her cousins and the best place to be was her grandmother's old farm. Years later, when my best friends, who were also my cousins, would play on the remains of that farm, we had no idea that the ghosts of our parent's childhood had already been there first. The trees in the apple orchard that we climbed, or the gigantic rock in the side yard that we dared each other to jump to the soft grass below, or the patch of woods to explore at the property line...other children had been there before us.

Mom revealed that she and Kathy used to climb the apple trees and described how each of them had their "own" tree. I smiled because my friends and I did this in New Jersey when we were younger. As my mother continued, I realized that the similarities in childhood tales ended there. She and Kathy had designated "rooms" in each tree. One tangled area became the bedroom, another the kitchen, and a third area the dining room. They would play "house" in their respective trees which were located side-by side. But they had also designated one gnarled branch the "bathroom". From that branch they would perch and would pee and watch it dribble to the ground. But my six-year old mother and her best friend cousin did not stop there. If the urge came over them, they would also perch on the "bathroom" branch and watch each other's dumplings fall to the ground below. With tears in her eyes, my Mom laughed and speculated that there must have been a shortage of apple leaves in that area of the tree.

My grandmother sold her portion of the farm and her house six years ago when she left Boston for the warmer weather of South Carolina. And with the death of my aunt in the summer, the original house and remaining land was sold. The apple orchard has been gone for years, buried beneath the planting of a new house as the city and suburbs crept into what once was the country. It has been a long time since I drove up Granite Street and I wonder if I would be able to recognize anything tangible from the past. But now, thanks to my mother, I have one more memory from that apple orchard to share, courtesy of the original Apple Dumpling Cousins.