This past weekend was our family reunion on my dad's side. We do this about every 7 or 8 years, and invariably, not everyone can make it. But this year, everyone made it but one of my cousin's, and a few of the grandkids were missing (like Stinky Boy, who had to work). The cousin who didn't make it is from South Carolina, although his brothers and sister and mother did make it to the reunion. The opportunity to reconnect with my memories of a farm, my mischievous cousins, and wholesome (and high-calorie) foods was not one to be missed, for sure.
My husband and girls came with me, and I have to be thankful of their forebearance in letting me reminisce, drive them all over the little down, and drag them with me through the ramshackle house that was my grandmother's. They made friends or at least stayed occupied, and I got to catch up with people I hadn't seen for a very very long time.
My cousin Mary Ann, a year older than me and a prissy southern gal, has not changed. We were driving on one of the many gravel roads that intersect the area of the Ozarks where my family comes from and encountered a 4 foot long black snake slithering itself across the gravel in the afternoon sun. "Ew!" was her immediate response, while I stopped to get a closer look. That's my Mary Ann. Every summer for many years when we were young, a week-long "family vacation" revolved around a trip to grandma's. Mary Ann and her three brothers, mother, and father (my dad's brother) made their way from South Carolina with a tent camper. We did the same, but only had to drive a couple of hours from St. Louis. The tent campers would be set up neatly in the side yard of gramma's house in town, and the kids would commence to climbing the poison-ivy-infested hill behind the house or sweating it out playing "house" in the attic. My mother and my aunt Barbara (Mary Ann's mother) tried to occupy themselves with sewing projects using gramma's old Singer, or working in the little garden, or cleaning house, or taking walks around town. My grandmother was not the nicest woman when it came to daughters-in-law, unfortunately. We kids never felt or saw the tension; it wasn't until I was much older and had my own mother-in-law problems that I realized what torture that week of "family vacation" was. Halfway through the week, my mother and Barbara would pile us girls in the car along with the laundry and off we would go to Linn. We'd help with the laundry, and we'd stop and buy eggs from a house along the way, and sometimes there was shopping, but only a little. Mary Ann remembers the woman who ran the shop had a huge goiter in her neck. I remember that if we were good at the laundramat, we would get ice cream sodas at the drug store next door. I also remember when Mary Ann sewed right through her finger with the sewing machine one afternoon. She was probably 10 or 11 years old when that happened.
After a huge amount of eating at the reunion, Mary Ann, my girls, and my husband and I all piled in the car and drove to town from the farm where the reunion was held. We had been told that gramma's house was empty, that someone had started to rehab it but that no one had been working on it for a year. "You can walk right in," one of my cousins said. That's a dare neither I nor Mary Ann were going to deny. The exterior of the house had not changed a lot; there was a newer porch railing made of treated lumber, and the enclosed side porch had been un-enclosed and now stood like that warm-weather porch it had been built to be. If faced north, and even in its shabby condition, I could picture a pair of cushioned wicker chairs and a little table set upon it, the view leading up the hill to the little church. The little frame church that might hold a hundred people if they all stood touching each other now has air conditioning. Back in the day, the windows would be wide open and we'd turn the bulletins into fans and sweat our way through services. I spent many a Mass staring out the window and watching the mud daubers and wasps going in and out, buzzing around the stations of the cross that lined the wall.
We walked around and around the yard. The tiny garage is gone, but the tool shed that was on the back of it is still standing. I remember my grandfather parking a black, 50's era car in that garage, although there was hardly room for such a thing in it! The workshop built of concrete block nestled into the small rise in the back yard was still there, but falling down. Next to it was the outhouse, where my grandpa spent considerable mornings with a pile of newspapers and his pipe. It was a fancy out house, framed prettily and with a wide six-panel door. It had been painted in pretty pastel colors, still visible but faded. The garden and rows of concord grape vines were gone. I remember slinking through those rows of grape vines on a hot afternoon, sneaking ripe grapes and popping them in my mouth. The skins would burst in my mouth; the insides were sweet and delicious. I spit an awful lot of chalky, unchewable grape skins and seeds out along the fence behind the rose bushes where no one would find them. The picket fence is still there, although in very sad shape. When we were little, we always went through the gate. When we were bigger, we just stepped over the fence. It was only about 2 and a half feet tall.
The doors to the house were unlocked, so we went in. The kitchen was gutted, and a cat was spooked and made its way out through a gaping hole where the sink and kitchen plumbing had been. My husband didn't want me to walk on the floors, the boards were creaky, but walk I did, and made a complete tour. The dark, real-wood paneling was still up in the hallway and main room of the house. It was as beautiful as it had been all those years ago when I'd been small. The bedrooms were in stages of rehab, but the dining room had not been touched at all. It was filled with old furniture and construction supplies. You could still see on the floors where the rugs had lain, tacked down and the closest thing to wall-to-wall carpet my grandmother ever had. There was even a runner down the hallway, and you could see where it lay, the floor boards under the rug not having ever been varnished or stained. My teenager and one of my nieces investigated the attic, a place I remember with very fond memories.
"It seems smaller than I remember," Mary Ann noted when we stood in the living room. She is six foot tall. Everything looks small to her. But yes, it does look small compared to how we remember it. It didn't matter that it was empty and unkempt. It was full of our memories, and that was enough. I am glad that we made the trip to town to see the house, and that we went inside.
I hope to add more reunion memories over the next few days. There is still a lot for me to process. The Ozarks are beautiful, with rolling hills and untouched expanses of woods that have existed for hundreds of years. "Picturesque" is not a strong enough word. I am all the more blessed because these have been a part of my life.
And the day lilies part of my post? Mary Ann is enamored of the millions of day lilies that bloom in our area this time of year. They are everywhere, on every hillside, along every road, rural and non-rural, under the edges of stands of trees, around mailboxes, you name it. They are orange as pumpkins and don't care if it is hot, dry, wet, cloudy, windy, or still, they bloom and bloom for weeks. They will bloom for days outside, but once cut and brought in to put in a vase, they quickly whither and die. Their beauty must stay outdoors. Mary Ann wanted to take them all home!The front hallway of the house, looking from the main room to the front door. That is the original stained glass in the door. Notice where the edges of the floor have been painted, but the part where the rug lay is still bare as the day the floor was laid.
The glass on the front door. The etching is just as I remember it, a basket of flowers.
The front of the house. That's Tater leaping around (I have no idea why).
One of the amazing views that you drive by in this part of the world. This is one of my mother's favorite views, and many many pictures have been taken of it over the years.
Just a small patch of the millions of day lilies that line the roads of my state.