The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

Visit us on FaceBookGenerations of Memories
from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Sourgrass and Buckeyes

By Sylvia Sampson © 1989

Issue: October, 1989

I was born in November of 1950, the fourth of my mother's ten children. My birth place was a mining camp called Arno, just outside the town of Appalachia, Virginia. My father was a miner then but just a few short years later he had to leave the mines. A disease, later called black lung, made it impossible for him to breath in the tunnels that ran through the surrounding mountains. I remember Mother working. She and my Aunt Lula worked in a small restaurant in Big Stone Gap, another mining town located less than two miles from Appalachia. The memory is special to me for when I went to town the owner would ask me to reach under wooden slats that lay on the floor behind the counter, and retrieve spoons or forks that had fallen through. For this I got a piece of pie or maybe a Coke.

Mother didn't work too long but my aunt stayed until it closed after the owner's death. My Father was never able to work again. This meant we were one of many welfare families in the area. Life was hard and there were times I wished our family was one of the lucky ones that lived on Poplar Hill.

Here the mine foremen and owners lived, and we attended the same school as their children. My older sister and brothers seemed content with their life but I wasn't. I wanted to be like those children. For hours I would sit in the swing on our front porch and dream about my family having money. Someday I promised myself, my children would have more than I had.

In the summer we had to work. A garden had to be put out that was big enough to take care of two families for our home and that of our Aunt's were together.

My Grandfather and Uncle took care of the tobacco fields and left the garden to the women and kids. I loved to walk through the barns in the fall where the large brown leaves were hung to dry.

When we could sneak away my brothers and I would run through the woods, swinging, climbing, and playing hide and seek in the tall grass. As summer grew hotter we would peel the birch bark off, and sit in the limb of the tree, and suck on the sweet wood. Sourgrass was another favorite of mine as were blackberries in the early spring, and collecting buckeyes and drilling holes for the string to tie around my neck.

When a family of ducks settled in the river at the foot of our holler we gathered duck eggs for mom when not floating down the river on car tops.

A small Baptist church sat high on the mountain side and each Sunday I walked out of our holler to attend Sunday School classes. I grew up in this church and I'll never forget the Christmas plays, or trying to be the first to look up Bible verses. Neither my mother or father attended church regularly, and when Mom came to see me in the Christmas play I was so proud. This was also the first time I won a dollar for looking up the most verses.

As I grew older I felt the lack of money even more. The worst memory of my childhood was the day my teacher gave me a bundle of clothes. I knew each year our school collected clothes for the poor but never had I felt that meant me. I was so ashamed I walked the five miles home that day instead of riding the bus.

It was then I made up my mind that when I had children they would never wear hand-me-downs or wish to live in a better place. I would give to them all the things my parents couldn't give us.

This was a promise that made me leave the mountains after I married. Moving to Texas was my dream of having something. I just couldn't see what I was leaving behind.

Now I have seven children of my own. They have nice clothes and their father and I always provide them with a nice home. Four of my children are married and have homes of their own, and as I listen to my children complain abut not having what they want, I think back to my days on the front porch. Wonderful memories of sourgrass and buckeyes, and I realize I had something back then I couldn't possible give to my children.

Those mountains I had turned my back on was home. They supplied the earth to grow our food, the play ground where we swung and hid. The memories that haunt me now as I grow older remind me of all the things I gave up when I went off looking for a better life.

As desperately as I once wanted to leave, I now want to go home. I am older now and like me most of my brothers and sisters are gone from there, but maybe someday we can return and bring our children with us. Then I can show my family there is more to living than just money, and those lessons are waiting for us in the mountains of Virginia.