I grew up on a family plot of land in West Virginia. To get to our house from the one main road that went up Armstrong Creek Hollow (pron. holler), you took a left at the hump and went down a dirt road over a creek. The road ran along the creek and then turned left again. Fields and gardens stretched out to the left, ending abruptly in a mountainside. There was a plot with a trailer on it that my grandpa rented to another family, then there were the four houses that made up our little family community.
Gin, Boo, and Glenna were the three sisters making up the “village” that helped raise me. Gin was Virginia, my grandmother. Her sisters called her Gin or Ginia. Her house was the first you came to. She and my grandfather Len had twelve kids, ten who lived to adulthood, so she was understandably the least patient of the three when it came to my antics. There were always people coming and going from her house: so many aunts, uncles, and cousins I couldn’t even keep up with the ones I didn’t see very often.
Next door to Gin was Boo’s house. Boo’s real name was Cleota, but she was high-strung, and that was where her nickname came from as far as I know. She had no children, and lived with her husband Cecil and their dog. For years and years it was Rags, a white terrier. Rags always had a chocolate mustache because every day Boo fed him a fudge-cicle.
Boo had some sort of anxiety disorder, possibly OCD. In addition to being high-strung she had a lot of routines. She loved soap operas and did not like to be interrupted when her “stories” were on. Every day she laid lunch out on the ottoman in the living room at noon sharp, and it was a variation of the same theme: sandwiches and cookies. She liked puzzles and gardening, and she really loved cards. She was partial to solitaire and taught me to play so I would leave her alone for the soap operas, but if I pestered she would play War with me for hours.
Our house was at the end of the road, a couple gardens away from Boo’s house (all four families had their own vegetable gardens) and right against the side of the mountain. Behind our house, there was another garden, another field, and Glenna’s house. The road didn’t go to her house; she had two footpaths. One went by our house and the other went between my grandma’s and Boo’s to the road. Glenna and her husband Paul parked their car across from my grandparents’ house and just carried their groceries and everything else up or down the hill.
Glenna was like my hillbilly fairy godmother. I think she shaped my character more than anyone else. She was completely devoid of pretense and full of fun, for one thing. Or in layman’s terms, she was country as hell.
By the time I knew her, she looked and acted like a character out of a children’s story. Even though she had an attic full of pristine clothing gifted to her by others, or purchased at some point in the past, it all stayed in boxes while she wore a holey gray striped housecoat (or some variation thereof) most of the time, held together with safety pins. In the summer sometimes she and Paul sat on the porch in their undies. Why the hell not? No one could see them except family, and we all just kind of expected it.
Glenna did dress up in her unholey outfits when she went out visiting or to town. “Town” was Montgomery, WV, and back then it actually had more than a handful of stores. Glenna and her sisters usually went to town twice a week on Wednesday and Saturday. Paul always drove, until he passed away in 1986, then my grandpa took over. My sister and I took turns going with them. It was the highlight of my week to go to town with the old people.
Glenna and Paul lived in a mansion of wonders by childhood standards. It had three floors: a basement, main floor, and attic. There were odd doors going nowhere from the time when multiple families had lived there. A large concrete sitting porch overlooked the creek. A smaller side deck led to a row of flowering bushes, a rock wall holding back the hillside, and a waterfall. Two other doors led to the path going down the hill, one from the kitchen and the other from the basement. A child could disappear in that house for hours. When my sister was chasing me (we never got along very well), I would weave in and out of doors and sometimes even windows like a villain on Scooby Doo.
Glenna didn’t care if I made a mess. When I didn’t have school, I would load my wagon up with whatever I wanted to take to Glenna’s house and pull it up the hill. Past the well where they drew their icy drinking water in metal buckets (Paul fished copperheads out of it every spring and killed them, but there were still giant hopping spiders under the well cover, ready to spring when it was lifted). Past the pump-house that brought their running water to the house from the well. Around the side to the cement slab entry porch off the kitchen and I’d knock on the door, if it was closed. Only the screen would be closed in warm weather. She’d exclaim “Well! Look who it is!” and “Come in, Izzy!” I can hear her saying my childhood nickname so clearly in my mind to this day. Her voice lilted upward at the end and made it sound like a birdsong.
If I came to visit in the morning, she would be making breakfast. Biscuits, which she let me help make, or fried ham. Toasted Roman Meal bread slathered in molasses. Or shredded wheat she let me add the sugar to myself, which meant a bowl of sugary milk with some hay on top.
There was a tin canister on her gas stove to store bacon grease, and it had a strainer on top to catch all the burned bits. I liked to eat them. She would let me fry my own ham until it was popping and burned to a crisp in places. I still have a taste for burned meat. I would wash my pile of ham down with a cold “Co’ cola” and there would be a rainbow oil slick on top from the grease. That lady sure knew how to feed a kid.
Having lived through the Depression, she kept everything. She washed meat trays and cool-whip containers. Coffee cans, oat containers, empty jars and bottles, half-used make-up that she’d bought before I was born but couldn’t throw away because the kids might want it to play with (it’s a wonder I didn’t go blind from an eye infection). She sold Avon for years, and there were stacks of Avon boxes in the attic from floor to ceiling in some places. If anyone was moving or needed a box they’d ask Glenna and her stash would temporarily decrease but it always built back up.
All these riches were at my disposal. I carved whole villages from the boxes with a blunt kitchen knife and scissors. I had an entire mud-pie factory on the hill outside the kitchen window; she could see me from where she sat on the porch or at the table to drink her coffee or beer. I spent hours digging, mixing, and shaping mud into pretend bakeries full of pies and cakes.
She had a couple of those giant metal wash-basins in the basement, and in the summer if it was too hot to play in the creek I would fill one with cold well-water and use it as my personal splash pool.
Glenna never had pets until someone tried to gift us a white kitten one year at Christmas and our parents said no. Glenna said yes, and her experience as a cat-lady began. A year or so later there were two more our parents wouldn’t let us keep, so she ended up with them, too. She didn’t like cats, but she grew slightly fond of those three. Still, she called them “little assholes” when they killed a bird or puked on the rug. “One of them little assholes killed a robin and left it on the porch. You’d think I didn’t feed them enough but look how fat they are!”
Although I saw less of Paul—he wisely disappeared outside sometimes when I came over—he was no less wonderful than Glenna. He had this way of smiling with his eyes closed, as if he were totally at peace with the world and soaking it all in. He had a great imagination and liked to tell me stories about the Yelpinstretcher that swung through the trees at night and would drop down to gobble up little kids who stayed out too far past dark. He was a master at checkers, and he never let me win. If I got mad he’d just stop playing. But I became a damn good checker player, and I realized as I grew older that it was part of why I appreciated him so much: he treated me like an equal, not a kid who didn’t know anything.
Both of them had so many wonderful stories. Paul was a medic in World War II, and had played minor league baseball. Glenna grew up near an even more rural place called Arbovale, WV, and she would tell us stories about the farm back then. Or about when her family moved near Montgomery and she would ride the train to school. When we stayed the night with Paul and Glenna, she would tell me her stories until I fell asleep and dreamed I was living them.
Now that I have children of my own, I channel Glenna when I start to lose my patience. I remember how she used to say “Found somethin’ you ain’t tore up yet?” when I got in trouble at her house. How she’d laugh at my cleverness or deviousness instead of getting mad.
I honestly don’t ever remember her telling me to go home. I remember her hinting by saying she and Paul were about to do something boring, or offering to walk me down to my house on her way to visit one of her sisters. But more often than not, I stayed for hours and left of my own accord, or my mom would come and get me for dinner.
Glenna and Paul didn’t go to church, and I liked that about them, too. For the most part, I hated going to church when I was a little kid. Eventually my mom gave up fighting with me every Sunday and most of the time she let me go hang out with Glenna and Paul instead. But even though they didn’t attend, Glenna was a believer in God. She had a recipe box full of filing cards where she’d written down her favorite scriptures. When anyone tried to tell Glenna she should go to church, or how she should behave, she’d pull out her file and quote scripture to them to show them she was doing just fine according to the Bible.
All of them, particularly Glenna and Paul, made my childhood magical. But it came at a price. I bonded with them so much more than I did most friends my age. I spent as much time with them as I did my own parents and sister. So when they passed away it was devastating. I was eight years old when Paul died, and his was the first death in the family that gutted me. But I still had Glenna. We became even closer to her after Paul’s death. She refused to cook, saying it was too much trouble for just one person, so my mom made a dinner tray for her every night and one of us carried it up to her. I was fourteen when Glenna was diagnosed with cancer, and fifteen when she passed away.
All these years later, remembering them and thinking about them can still bring me to tears, I miss them so much.
I didn’t understand much of what Glenna believed, but I knew that part of it was when the Rapture came, everyone would rise up out of the grave and just go back to living their lives where they’d left off. Only there wouldn’t be any sickness or death. She said “That will be a great big day.” My parents had that engraved on her and Paul’s headstone.
She would tell us one day we’d hear a knock on the door and she’d be there with us again. I still wish that part was true. That’s one of the many lessons I learned from knowing her: try to live a life where your idea of heaven is just coming back to what you left behind.