Before 1010 E. Orange St. and blazing AZ sunsets was West Virginia. Wild and green and wet.
I was born in 1985 in a small city called Fairlea before my parents moved to the outskirts of Lewisburg, a one-stoplight town in the southern region of the state. Deep in the mountains by the Greenbrier River, along an unpaved trail named ‘Snake Run Road’ lived the Holler’-the first home I can remember.
The Holler’ was a run-down house buried deep in the woods between two mountain ranges- no central heat, no running water. A six-mile round trip to the school bus stop where my sister had to report to each morning- carried on my father’s shoulders. My mother would crawl into our soft bed before dawn, coaxing my sister out of dreamland in a whispered hush.
I’d snuggle in the warm spot she left behind, content to doze while taking in the sounds of my family in the wee morning hours- Daddy putting on his boots, the pour of coffee into a tin mug. Mommy lighting the stove to heat water for a soft-boiled egg breakfast. If I peeked through blankets and foggy window panes, I could glimpse the corners of the pink and orange sky winking back at me, before shutting my eyes and falling back into dreams.
In the Holler’, my parents fetched spring water each morning from an outdoor well and our toilet was an outhouse down the hill. Bath-time meant pot after pot of heated water from the stove and standing cold and naked in a large metal tub, giggling and waiting your turn for the warm water to wash over you- wiggling down your hair and back. The coal-burning stove glowed hot during cold winter days where we would huddle close to for warmth- but not too close.
I remember climbing trees and catching tadpoles in the creek, picking sweet and bitter blackberries off the sticky bushes in the large meadow in front of the house. The sun would set and the fireflies would come out to greet us- soft glowing lights that danced, then flickered and flew away, always inches from our outstretched fingers.
In the evening, the black starry sky extended forever, and you could catch glimpses of the misty, silver Milky Way standing on our front porch.
Daddy grew his special plants out back behind the house and when ready, would bring them indoors to dry in the study. They filled the house with a sweet and pungent fragrance that I recognized years later in my mid-teens, catapulting me back in time. When his best friend Uncle Robert or other Snake Run Road outlaws came to visit the house would fill with smoke and music and raucous storytelling. My gorgeous Asian mother dancing to the Beatles and Bob Dylan and Steve Miller Band in her French beret, throwing her head back with a laughter that turned every head in the room. “Lucy in the sky, with diamonds”…
In the Holler’, before our baby brother came, my sister and I knew to be on the lookout for three big bad guys: copperhead snakes, wily woodland bobcats, and hungry vultures who might swoop down to carry off our kittens if we weren’t careful. And poison ivy, of course, but it wouldn’t bother you if you didn’t bother it.
One spring day Daddy watched me from the front porch, hopping and skipping along in the field out front of our house. I was chasing purple butterflies in the tall grass, squealing with delight at the way they clumsily fluttered about. I couldn’t have been more than three, but I can easily recall the remember the moment I took an aim and hearty leap to land directly on a soft butterfly- crushing its fragile body underneath my bare foot. I surveyed its broken wings with a silent curiosity, feeling shocked and powerful.
All of a sudden Daddy was behind me, scooping me up and setting me on his knee.
“Mary,” he said, looking right at me, his big straw sun hat blocking out the sun. Even though his face was serious, his eyes held a twinkle, like a hidden laughter despite his serious tone.
“How would you feel if a big, giant came stomping through the woods and saw us playing outside, then decided he might step on us, for fun?”
The picture of this struck me with horror. I looked back up at Daddy,
“That would be bad!” I whispered back, in hushed tones.
“Yes,” Daddy nodded in agreement. “That might be how those butterflies feel about you. They might not know you are my little girl- to those butterflies you must seem like a big, scary giant”.
With large eyes full of sorrow for the tiny purple butterfly that met its fate that morning, I looked across the field at the butterflies, and promised to never hurt another creature, taking my lesson to heart.
Daddy taught us a million things in his lifetime, some through words and wisdom, others through mistake and misstep. The West Virginian mountains was where his wild and gentle heart rested- where he wrote and came alive, before tragedy struck.
Now at 33, with his time on Earth 7-years departed, I am still uncovering how his poet-painted heart stained the West Virginian skies of my childhood, and shaped the person I am and am still becoming.