I was born in Orlando, Florida, in 1947, but I only lived there for about six months. There are 8mm home movies from that time of my Uncle Harold and Aunt Gertrude passing me around while Barbara, my 12-year-old sister, constantly tried to insert herself between me and the camera. Because my Dad was in the Air Force, my earliest childhood memories are full of moving and changing houses and meeting new friends, so most of my life, up til the age of 24, I never lived in one place for more than about two or three years. Needless to it had an effect on me, living in Alabama, then in New York, California, Texas. America was and is a varied place, and if there was one thing I learned from all that traveling it was simply to realize that there was no, ‘normal’, one-way of doing or saying anything. From table manners to the use of the English language, what was acceptable in New York might be considered weird in Waco; and an accent that was perfectly ordinary in Alabama, could just as quickly turn into a source of mortifying derision in California. I lived through a series of cross sections of the United States, where there was very little that actually grounded me apart from the love of my parents and the fact that they both came from West Virginia.
West Virginia was the home away from home, the source, the place where ‘the family’ lived, and just about every summer when I was growing up we’d made the journey back to Fairmont and Grafton to visit my grandparents. My mother’s father lived in a big old house up on Sterling Heights outside of Fairmont, and my Dad’s parents, Grandma and Grandpa Marshall as they were known to me back then, lived in a big old weatherboard house over-looking the Tygert River at the far end of High Street outside of Grafton.
In those days, Grandpa Marshall kept the trees cut down between his house and the rive so that there was a clear view of the water. We used to sit on the swing bench on the front porch, Libby Jean and Jimmy Jnr and me, wiling away the summer afternoons, or sometime Jimmy and I would descend the embankment down to the river and throw our fishing lines in. I don’t remember ever catching anything, and we never swan either, owing to the fact that the coldness of the water.
When I think about the times I stayed in Grandma and Grandpa Marshall’s place, I always remember the oddest details. Like the glass eggs that Grandma Marshall had up in the chicken coup behind the house. There was something strange and mysterious about them, and I remember asking why she had glass eggs and she said it was to encourage the chickens to roost and lay more eggs. AT the time I’m not sure why a glass egg would make them lay real eggs but I didn’t question her about it. I didn’t question Grandma about much; she always seemed so formidable. Not to mention the fact that she was the only one in the family, apart from my Mom and Dad, that would complain to me about my biting my fingernails.
Summertime in Grafton was usually hot and humid, and the nights balmy and fragrant, full of fire files, which we’d catch in jars with holes poked in the lids so that they could breathe. The idea was to catch enough fire files so that you could read by their light in a darkened room, but I can’t remember ever doing that. I do remember how we used to get earthworms out of the backyard by turning the sprinklers on and how we used them for bait when we fished in the river. Jimmy said that they had to come up for air when the ground was so wet from the water, and there were always hundreds of them coming up after the sun went down.
Another memory I have of those long hot days of summer, were making ice cream, peach ice cream, in a hand-cranked ice cream maker just outside the coal storage. The peaches came from Grandma Marshall’s orchard which was at the far end of the back part of the property (as I remember) up near Ross Street, where my uncle, Floyd, lived with his family. My first taste of home-made ice cream was outside Grandma Marshall’s house. “Don’t eat it too fast,” my Dad would warn me, “or it’ll give you a headache.” It was that cold and that delicious I usually ended up with a headache despite what he said.
Grandpa Marshall was an entirely different story. He was mostly a mystery to me. Strange and powerful and silent – I remember him mostly as a man that didn’t give very much away. I also remember him in overalls, and I waving to him from the front porch when his train passed by on its journey to or from Grafton. Grandma Marshall would know when the train was due and would call to us kids and we’d pile out onto the front porch and wave. He was still an engine driver for the B & O Railways in those days.
During my childhood summers in Grafton, We’d sleep in the bedroom straight at the top of the stairs. Grandpa and Grandma’s bed room was to the left as you went up the stairs, and there was another to the right. Bath time was conducted in the only bathroom in the house, which adjoined the kitchen downstairs. I was always a little shy about having a bath there, cos it seemed like anyone might just walk in, but I remember that tub very well, especially the spout, which a curious shape with a smaller than usually nozzle.
Because my Dad was in the Air Force and traveled everywhere, from the time he left for his first duty assignment right up til the time he retired, my Granddad kept a world map on the wall, with different colored map pins stuck in it, showing where my father had been posted, or where his various flights had taken him, Even when I was 8 or 9 the map was already full of pins. That map spoke to more than I was able to comprehend as a child. When I visited Aunt Gertrude in the mid-1990s, she was living in the house and the map, faded with time, was still on the wall. I remember staring at it, but this time with different eyes. It seemed that it was Grandpa Marshall’s way of seeing the world and expressing his pride all at the same time.