Generations of Memories
Heart of the Blue Ridge
By Sonja Roberts-Kinzer © 2001
Online: January, 2001
The familiar hum of locusts carried me back into my body after a long night of peaceful slumber. Lying there, hanging in a dreamy limbo, the sun seemed to find my face like an old friend. First warm, then hot and suddenly cool, I knew without even opening an eye that the sky was filled with lots of white cottony clouds...my favorite kind of day.
Walking outside, my senses came to life. I looked up and saw a brilliant blue sky making its way throughout the canopy of green. There was work to be done before my father got home, but it was early and I pushed those thoughts aside. Avoiding the pool house where my father had undoubtedly posted the "work list," I sleepily took a seat on our old swing and looked for signs of life over the hill.
I was lucky in the fact that my grandparents lived next door. Our house sat higher from the old dirt road, so I could see the occasional car go by or see who was stopping in for a visit and distracting my grandfather from his work. Afraid I would miss out on something, I always rushed down to his side if I saw he had company.
With a familiar squeak of the screen door, grandmother gave me her daily wave and yelled, "Whatcha doin there? Purty day, huh?" Jumping off the swing, I started down our winding driveway yelling back and forth about the weather. A genuinely appreciated topic, the weather was discussed daily. Living in rural West Virginia was magical as a child. The hills were so fertile and green. Everything flourished there. Up in the woods, I learned the meaning of retreat and the value of gentle contemplation. Little patches of sunlight made mesmerizing patterns on the dark ground and the cool breeze kept me playing there for hours even as the temperature climbed.
"Where's Pap?" I asked as I walked up the cool white cement steps in my bare feet.
"He's a comin. He had to go out to the garage to get sompthin." Quick as a switch, I ran out the back and headed off to the garage. Sure enough he was making a ruckus, no doubt knocking everything off the walls as he regularly did. My grandfather was big and strong and could do just about anything except be graceful.
"Hey dare!" he'd say with excitement. I would smile and he would tease me about sleeping in, even though it was well before 9am. "Oh, up to no good, I expect," he would say. "Up to no good at all."
We would talk about what kind of work we would be getting into that day. Even though I was a girl of ten, my dad insisted on making us "contribute to the success of the household," as he would put it. Posted on the door of the pool house would be a daily list of chores we were required to do before my dad got home from work. These weren't real easy jobs, mind you. Most of them made little if any sense to me at all. Moving piles of bricks from one side of the house to the other, or removing twigs and leaves from the two hundred and fifty feet of driveway were a couple of his more imaginative ones. As much as I genuinely hated those jobs, I loathed having to weed his garden. I hated my dad's garden. It was big and foul smelling. Every square inch was permeated with prehistoric looking bugs that made my skin crawl. It was nothing like the sweet smelling garden my grandfather managed. He managed it because "God owned it," he would say. And how he managed it. My grandfather's garden was my resting place, the refuge I sought when I wanted to be invisible. The best parts of my childhood were the memories I had created there.
When my father would yell down to him, "Sonja there?" He would always say, "Don't see her," although he knew exactly where I was. Being a Godly man he wouldn't lie...he really couldn't see me, so technically it was the truth. My body would freeze like a statue, straining hard to hear if he was coming. If he was, I'd soon know it. My grandfather would give me a heads up in the form of a lazy, "He'll be comin round the mountain when he comes..." More times than not, he would instead sing some made up verse, his favorite being: "Under the sunflowers That's where she'll stay... Under the sunflower My treasure lay."
When he would sing that sweet little tune, it felt as though he was taking a breath for me. I could lay back, hands clasped behind my head, and rest. I had often stolen away to that same spot, yet no matter how many times I would, I was amazed at his uncanny ability to know when I was there. Not one visit went by, except an occasional late night one, that he did not somehow sense my presence. Carefully finding my mark, I would snuggle down on an old blanket or coat, smiling wide and waiting for him to visit me. Usually within minutes I would hear the gentle swish of the parting corn stalks and here him say:
"Yes, Farmer Brown?"
"Little red tomatoes, three rows down."
As my grandfather and I discussed the day ahead, he smiled and asked what chores were on my list.
Eyes rolling in the back of my head, the injustice ripped through me. I continued to carry on about all the ridiculous things dad had me do and how he didn't love me because he always made me do more than my younger sisters, especially Erin who did practically nothing.
He would just give me his toothy smile and tell me it would put hair on my chest...about the last thing I wanted. With a quick kiss on the cheek, I headed back up the winding driveway, yelling that I would be back down later. I would see him at least five more times before the day was over. He was a constant presence in my life and it would shape me in ways I could never have seen back then.
Rounding the corner of the drive, I could see my sister Shana heading for the garden. My heart sank.
"You've got to be kidding me," I mumbled to myself. "It had to be at least 100 degrees outside," so I thought. My footsteps soon became stomps that sent my long braided pigtails whipping into the sides of my face. I yelled to my sister and demanded to know what she was doing?
"We're almost finished," Shana said in her Saccharine tone. I really didn't like that girl very much. In fact, I was getting pretty sick of everyone. Every day she would get up earlier than me in an effort to breeze through her chores. She would then gloat, shouting the occasional "work-slave-work," that I think I actually coined years before. Nevertheless, I hated hearing it used on me.
Walking past the pool, there it was...staring at me. The paper towel taped to the door read:
NO SWIMMING BEFORE CHORES
ERIN: 1/2 ROW
SHANA: 2 ROWS
SONJA: 5 ROWS
I couldn't believe what I was reading! What kind of idiot was he? In my throat grew an enormous knot of tangled expletives reserved only for drunken sailors and mental patients. I remember bits and pieces of a tantrum that eventually brought my mother out of the house, gazing in disbelief. I trembled and moaned like some kind of wild animal that had just been shot. I could not take it anymore! This was the last straw. Then I saw my sister Erin running towards the pool, throwing down a bucket and practically ripping off her clothes. She had on a bathing suit! Shana was following right behind her.
"Sure is hot out here, isn't it Erin?" Shana smirked. "I'd hate to be in the garden, now."
"Yeah, with the snakes!" yelled five year old Erin. They were taunting me. Picking up a bucket, I threw it in the direction of the garden. I reluctantly marched off, but not before talking it up about how I wasn't going to be pulling any weeds. With every step, the garden's angry buzz ridiculed me. Passing through my sister's neat little rows only rubbed salt into my wound. Five rows in that mess of a garden might as well have been fifty. The bean plants were infested with weeds that intertwined into a dark mass, so that it was virtually impossible to tell what I was supposed to pull. Leaves flopped all over each other and teamed with insects attempting to make a meal off the foliage. On my neck, the sun pressed down without mercy. The world seemed to have turned against me.
I sat down between the rows and searched for a way out. I was grateful that the buzzing insects and locusts drowned out the sound of the splashing that I could see with my eyes. I tilted my head, appearing not to see them swimming but I watched intently.
One hour went by, but I just sat there. I couldn't get past the fact that I was being forced to do something so unfair. I struggled to understand why I had to do all the work while only a little was expected of them. I hated my father and I knew he hated me.
Three hours had gone by and I still hadn't pulled a single weed. My mother came out a couple of times and yelled for me, but I wouldn't answer her. My arms and legs were bright red and I was sure I was starving to death. An hour before, I snuck into the house through the garage and took a can of soda and some cookies. But for all they knew, I was holding my ground, literally.
My mother eventually called us in for lunch. Running to the corner of the house, I slowed myself down to a respectable pace. I sauntered past the swimming pool and sat down at the picnic table, my arms folded across my chest.
I tried to ignore the fact that my sisters reeked of chlorine.
"Sonja hasn't done her rows," Shana tattled.
"Hush up and eat," my mother chided.
Her eyes locked on mine. I stretched my face upward and tried to seem unaffected. She gave me my sandwich and quickly went into the house, returning seconds later with a bottle of sunscreen.
"What is wrong with you? You're as red as a lobster." I sat there trying to eat my lunch while she slathered lotion all over me.
"You don't make it easy on yourself, do you?" she asked. "Your sister's have already finished hours ago, and look at you. I don't want to see you looking for me when your dad gets home! You're on your own."
I squirmed away from her increasingly erratic attempt at putting lotion on me. She was jerking me all over the place until she slammed the bottle down on the table. Putting her hands in front of her, as if instructing traffic to come to a stop, she took a breath and went into the house.
It was confirmation. She hated me too.
After lunch, I found excuse after excuse to stay out of the garden. I faked a bee sting, was thirsty, needed a Band-Aid, etc. My mother finally ordered me out there to finish my job. Reluctantly I went, mumbling the entire way.
I took my seat and waited. I thought back at the arguments my parents had over my father's military style work list. My mother knew he got carried away with them. I once overheard her crying, saying that he worked us harder than the Wolfe boys that lived next door. Still, why didn't she just say I didn't have to? Sitting there in the dirt, the only gardening I did was the burial of my soda can.
I heard my dad coming home long before I could see his big blue truck. It's rumble echoing throughout the hollow was the early warning sign we usually used to put the finishing touches on our projects. Not today.
Erin shot out of the garage like a bullet. She was running towards me, face red and crying.
"Dad's going to kill you! Whyyyyy!" she sobbed.
"Get out of here, or I'm going to kill you!" I screamed. "You're only going to make it worse."
She was stomping around crying, not knowing what she should do. Too late...my dad was home.
I watched him, knowing he hadn't seen me yet. It didn't take long for him to hear Erin, though. As he turned to shut the door of his truck, bucket in one hand, he looked over and asked, "What's wrong?"
She just sobbed. Inconsolably she cried.
"What have you done to her, Sonja?" he demanded.
He was coming towards us so there was no point in answering him. He'd know soon enough what was going on. The closer he got, the more sinister he looked. His face twisted like an angry branch. His eyes were little slits that flickered wildly in my direction.
"Go inside, Erin... NOW!" he said, punctuating the last word with a shout.
Erin just cried harder, mumbling broken sentences that equated to a plea for leniency. He physically turned her little body around and she took off screaming for my mother, who was standing at the edge of the yard.
"What have you done all day? I see two...two and a half rows!" He turned to my mother and asked her what the hell was going on. I sat there without saying a word.
"Bruce, she's been sitting out here all day. You're going to have to deal with her. I've had it."
"Traitor," I thought.
It seemed like a good hour before the screaming died down. I knew I was getting paddled, that was a given. The thing that worried me was that look in his eye. Then it was my turn. I started out slow and quickly blurted out how unfair it was and how everyone was against me. Over the hours, I had fully convinced myself how victimized I was. He was lucky that I didn't get taken away. I mean it was clearly abuse. Therefore, my boycott was justified. I tried not to cry as I finished stating my case. "I don't care what you do to me! This family hates me and I don't even care." I said, full of confidence. I waited to be jerked up and dragged off to the garage, but he just stared at me.
"Get out of my sight," he said. "Just go."
I couldn't believe it. It actually took me a moment to feel my legs and to know what just happened. I walked backwards just staring at him as he started pulling weeds. He was working on my rows. I turned and starting running to my grandfathers garden. Crying, I began to feel guilt and sadness take over my whole being. My enormous, mostly grouchy father was bent over in the garden pulling weeds, my weeds. He looked weak and it crushed me. I turned to see if he was looking, but he wasn't. I wanted to take it all back but it was much too late for that. I disappeared into the corn and found my spot, only this time I didn't want my grandfather to find me. I was too sad for a visit. I wanted to be alone.
Several minutes went by and my grandfather hadn't shown. I had stopped crying by now and wanted him to come. I finally screamed at God and told Him how much I hated my life. I wanted my grandfather. I wanted comfort.
It was a long time out in that garden before I heard my grandfather call me in. I hopped to my feet and slowly walked out, finding him standing there shaking his head. He pushed me towards the front of the house and we sat on the steps.
"Sonja, now you know pap loves you, right?" he asked.
"Yeah, I just..."
"You know I always tell you the truth, right?" he interrupted.
In silence I nodded my head.
"Okay, then. I know exactly what went on today, and I got to tell you girl, I think you were wrong."
Ouch! I started crying and telling him all about the mean things my dad did. He let me go on and on until finally he just covered my mouth and said, "Now Sonja, you can't tell me anything about that father of yours because he is my boy. I know he's hardheaded and doesn't like to be told anything, but you are just like him."
I was shocked. I was nothing like him!
"I want you to do something for me," my grandfather challenged. "Take a look at what your father is doing right now. He's in the garden doing the work you should have done today. Now don't interrupt.. . He's worked, well let's see...fourteen hours today in the dirty, stinkin mines. And now, he's working some more. On top of that, you've got your sister's upset and your momma too."
I was so ashamed that I couldn't raise my head. I couldn't look him in the eyes. My grandfather held me and I cried for a long, long time. Finally, he told me that if I wanted to make it right, he would help me.
"Now, you mean it don't you? Don't say it 'less you mean it." He told me to go inside and tell grandma I was spending the night. He said he'd be in directly, just to go on in. Eventually he came inside and he told me to get to sleep because making things right required much more energy than making things wrong.
My father left for work around 4am. At 4:30 or so, my grandfather woke me. "C'mon, now. You've got some work to take care of. Let's go." I complied, not really knowing what time it was anyway, and followed him outside. I knew what was in store. We were going to the garden. I hardly even remember getting there, just kind of waking up with weeds in my hands. He told me to do three rows and then come and get him. With barely enough light to even see, I pulled away but was surprised how quickly the work went.
"Now, keep going and I'll come check on you later, " he instructed.
Although I was a little less than enthusiastic, I knew I was doing the right thing. I couldn't believe all the work I got done and no one was even awake yet. Off and on, my grandfather would come up and check my progress. He would bring me a soda or a snack and nod his head enthusiastically in approval. He even helped me a little towards the end, and when it was all said and done, I had weeded 17 rows. Satisfied, I headed over to the house. Then I saw the dreaded work list.
NO SWIMMING BEFORE CHORES
ERIN - ASK MOMMY
SHANA - TAKE ANY TRASH OUT OF CARS
SONJA - PAINT POOL HOUSE DOOR, USE BROWN PAINT INSIDE GARAGE
After working in the garden, I hadn't really anticipated having to do a chore. But it was painting. I looked inside the window and saw my sisters watching TV while mom started breakfast. I hurriedly retrieved the paint and started painting. I had gone above and beyond the call of duty at this point. I felt so proud that I couldn't wait to do something else. I had finished before everyone! I eagerly wore my bathing suit like a badge that let the world know I was finished! I did an obnoxious dance outside the sliding glass doors and just when Shana got an eyeful, I finished with the "Nestea Plunge" right into the pool.
That day seemed to last forever. The anticipation of my dad coming home was almost more than I could bear. After several false alarms, we finally heard the rumble of his truck. I stood waiting at the pool house, but soon changed my mind as my sisters ran out to meet him. We ran to our tired, overworked dad who playfully asked, "Is that all you've got to do? Must be nice..." Then with a barrage of conversation, we painfully detailed every job we had accomplished and fought for an arm as we tugged him in the direction of our projects. He gave us all the nod of approval and tried to head inside as I begged him to walk out into the garden. Although I blurted out everything I had done before we even got there, he was touched and gave me his sweet teasing smile that let me know all was well with the world.
Now we just wanted him to play. And he did, in spite of just finishing a thirteen-hour day fire bossing in the damp and dirty coal mines.
The sun was low and it was breezy again. The locusts serenade was soft and peaceful. Catching a glimpse of my grandfather bent over his garden, I eagerly wandered down the path to be at his side. "Got somethin' for ya," he said as I got closer to the garden. He handed me a little miniature shaker of Mortons salt as he had done so many times before and told me to finish up, disappearing into his little white house. With a gentle breeze blowing through my long, messy hair, I feasted on little cherry tomatoes and couldn't wait for tomorrow.