Memories of Childhood at Its Best

Over fifteen years have passed since my last child’s eye view of the mountainsides of Ripley, West Virginia. Captured visions linger in the back of my mind, and during an occasional nocturnal trip beneath closed eyelids I revisit the primitive log cabin and the property upon which it sits, both which are nestled in that secret valley created by two mountains. A long-awaited right hand turn from Route 21 onto Sycamore Road commences our journey. The parched sycamore trees, whose bark is crisp sheets of peeling paper, adorn the banks of the creek, quietly following the amble of the road. My sister in her car seat and I in my seatbelt sit in the back seat of our small car, nearly piggy-back to our parents sitting in the front. We pass sparsely scattered houses and farms; deer in the field are more common than cows and my face presses against the window, taking only an occasional break to wipe my breath’s remnants from the glass.

My heart quickens when the macadam stops and the gravel begins. The crunch of the tires and the down-shifting of gears add to my building excitement. At one point, we pull over into the overgrown brush along side the road to let a truck, begging for retirement in a salvage yard, barely slide by. We all wave at the man who sits in the smoke filled cabin of the truck. Mom shares his name as well as his family tree and history, as it is her childhood home that we are visiting. Knowing that she grew up here in this quiet, undiscovered place fascinates me.

Cresting the last hill, the gravel begins to give way to dirt. As we descend on the other side, I glance over to the left where mom used to keep her horse on the wooded hillside. To my right, I see butterflies floating in the meadow, directly across from the log cabin. I’m always relieved to see that the crooked swing hanging from the oak tree in the front yard has survived yet another winter. Grandma has been beckoned by the tire-crunching-gravel doorbell and is waving from the front porch. Grandpa’s tired ‘coon dog’ Osha lies beside her, giving the warped floorboards of the porch a few hollow ‘thwacks’ with her tail. I scramble to be the first out of the car. Mainly, because I want to be the first to greet grandma, but more importantly to avoid the tenant goose that is lurking around the corner, waiting to chase and hiss at me.

We usually spend only one good, full day here, so I excitedly contemplate what I will do first. I scurry out back for an egg hunt. A good place to find the goose’s nest is over by the small crick running through grandma’s yard. Walking along the bank several times, I’m soon distracted by the sight of crawdads, scampering away from my shadow. Barefoot, I walk in and out of the crick, alternating between diving at the miniature lobster-like creatures, and stealthily sneaking up on them, both to no avail. Giving up, crick water drips from locks of already sweaty hair as I walk further along the crick. I follow it until I need to squeeze through the second and third line of the barbed-wire fence that protects both the yard and the garden from the neighboring deer. The grass is taller on this side of the fence. Grass and sticks crackle and snap beneath my feet, revealing to the deer and squirrel that their space has been invaded. Dancing out of my way, I catch only glimpses of their tail ends playing hide and seek among the trees, bushes, and brush; I am at the base of two mountains and I hear my destination.

My grandma’s crick merges with another, and they empty the total of their sums into one large bowl of swirling, dancing water. I lie on my stomach on the large flat rock that precariously hangs over the basin and slide across the rough granite to peer over its edge. Staring at the reflection in the water, I spy a little girl looking back at me whose hair is free of the influence of a comb, and whose face has been autographed by the morning’s adventures. The cool stone presses upon my sweaty cheek. I hear the stream falling apart, diving into its own pool, and then traveling towards its new future. I could lie here and watch this water ballet for hours, the wildlife orchestra accompanying in the background.

My mom’s distant voice beckons me out of my daze and I run back toward the house. All along the way, I grab tufts of tall grass, and white wild flowers sprinkled with yellow centers. This time when I reach the barbed wire fence, I use the lopsided gate, latching it behind me. Scoping out the yard, to see which territory the goose is currently claiming, I opt for the side that takes me past the burn pile and the shed. At the shed, I notice a new litter of kittens with their slinky momma eating scraps out of an old tin pie plate. Grandma swears she hates that the strays always pick her shed, but I always notice the pie plate is never empty.

When I run into the house, the wooden screen door announces my arrival with a slammed exclamation that is echoed by my skipping feet on faded linoleum. Grandma’s table for two requires that we all take turns sitting down and eating. Grandpa is finished and has returned to the black leather rocking chair with the worn, cracked seat that sits in the corner of the living room. He rocks in his flannel shirt that’s tucked into pants held up by suspenders. Slowly milking his pipe, he extracts what remains of the tobacco. Somewhere under the layers of time is a man whom I remember walking back into the depths of the ‘holler’ to go ‘coon-huntin’, his shotgun tucked beneath his arm. After placing my dish in the single bowl ceramic sink, I return outside.

I pause by the coal pile, to crack open four or five pieces of coal with a rock I found laying nearby, searching for a diamond. The gander and her hiss sneak up behind me, and I toss my rock down, clambering towards my swing. I jump on the half-split piece of firewood that is held to the lowest tree limb with the length of worn yellow nylon rope, pump my feet a few times, and end the ride with a jump into the air, finding the ground with an ungraceful roll. The tinkling of the wind chimes on the porch follows me as I run across the dirt road to the meadow. The grass in the meadow is as high as my waist, and each of my steps discovers a new shimmer of butterflies, grasshoppers, and insects.

Eventually, I get to the gate at the end of the meadow; behind me, the cabin is as big as the crooked circle I can make with my thumb and forefinger. I climb over the red metal gate, using cow patties as my compass to find their owners. When the bull swings his large horn-topped head in my direction, I run back to the meadow, where I can watch the bull and his friends from a seat on top of the gate. In the dusk, I make my way back to the illuminated cabin. Inside, I will be bedded down for the evening on the green leather sofa that comforts me, despite its cold, hard skin that clings to and confirms my every move. I will be lulled to sleep by the steady ‘tick-tock’ of the grandfather clock, and in the morning the snapping and cracking of bacon frying will beg my stomach to awaken. As morning is replaced by a hazy afternoon, our bags are too quickly packed inside the car, and I mumble a “good bye,” and “see you next time,” before climbing into our car for our six-hour drive home. The departure forces me to open my eyes after perfectly remembered moments.

Today, the reflection between the ripples of water is that of a woman, baring fine lines, drawn by much laughter, many tears, and a spattering of long-abandoned cigarette smoking. My daughter’s laughter at a cartoon rerun that even I have memorized startles me out of my reverie, and prompts a wistful thought tugging from behind, begging me to tuck her into her car seat for a weekend trip to nowhere in particular. Somewhere that she may find amusement within herself.

Somewhere between my “then” and “now” I have left footpaths that I will lead her away from, and footpaths that I want her to take. Watching her walk in my footsteps that I left in Ripley would be worth far more than finding that coal-covered diamond. Laughing out loud, I imagine the contest between my daughter and the hissing gander. In contrast to me, she is so bold and contrary; I believe the goose would surely lose. That damn goose.

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