My childhood Christmases were often spent in Charleston, West Virginia, after a very long drive from Virginia or Mississippi in a crowded car. It was the 1970s. All seven of us squeezed into a station wagon and headed for the mountains.
Coming from Mississippi, we left in warmth and arrived in cold. And usually we arrived late at night. Please picture: a city of steep hillsides and winding rivers, a frigid night sky ribboned with steam and gray pollution from factory stacks. I pressed my nose to the cold car window, watching the hills. People had lit their houses and yards, and in the distant darkness, they rose into the air all around us, little old steep houses with steeper roofs, dotted in the evergreen mountains as we drove.
|An early photo of the house on Garrison Avenue|
It was the nicest home on the street, I believe. They blew dynamite to get the foundation set in the mountain's rocky face. My grandmother, proud of her home, lined the steps with azaleas. There were two apple trees, golden transparents, in the backyard hillside that cut sharply up behind the house. The shed along the back fence held my granddaddy's hunting beagles and it smelled strongly of them. My brothers played poker in the shed on warm summer nights.
I'm sure hauling all our suitcases, pillows, and presents up those steps took a long time in the cold, but it was no concern of mine. As the baby girl, I dashed up to the house, burst into the glowing living room and hollered my hellos. In spite of its grandeur (to me), it was not a large house. Only two bedrooms and a bath upstairs, but we five grandchildren piled on pallets and cots downstairs. Back then houses had large dining rooms because families still ate together and spent a bit of time doing it. And we had large living rooms for gathering together to watch TV. The bedrooms were just for sleeping, and the bathroom for a quick dash during the middle of the movie. Living space was what mattered.
|My grandparents, Ernest and Dama|
One Christmas we invented a novel scheme while we drove along the snowy highway to Charleston. We decided to surprise our grandparents. They knew we were coming, but they didn't know when, so we decided to pull up in a side street, sneak along behind the house to the back door, creep in through the kitchen, and scare them to death with loud grandchildren greetings. I don't remember their reactions, or even if we succeeded. So much of the joy, the pleasure, of childhood is in the thinking of a thing, the idea. It is my idea of Charleston in its Christmas dress, that I love. Very few specifics remain in my mind. But the image of the city, the frozen houses bundled up together in tidy rows, hunkered down along their steep mountain streets, that's what I remember. Visiting the Sears Department Store and standing before the massive square counter with sweets, chocolates and warm nuts. The aroma that filled the store as it did at no other time of year! The glow of street lamps that showed the way up the twisting roads as they disappeared into the deep mountains. Miss Inez's Christmas cookies, saved in stacks of tins in her closets, which tasted faintly of moth balls. I ate them anyway, they were so festive, so friendly.
I have searched for photographs of this Charleston in my mother's old photo albums that lie dusty around me here in her upstairs. The albums have been pilfered over the years by us children, always looking for those pictures that bring back the past. The best picture of all is in my mind's eye. We're grown now, and past grown, and our children's Christmases are formed in new mountains and newer homes. I still love my Charleston in its snowy mantle, its icy rivers, its houses that were small in size but large in heart.