No words ever evoke such memories of childhood for me as do these two words. My parents are both from West Virginia and the same holler. My Dad moved the family out to California before I was born and later the family would relocate in South Carolina and Florida, but the one place where I always felt at home and had an amazing sense of belonging , was in that holler. Every summer we would go back and the country roads would still be there. The grand parents and Aunts and Uncles with the many cousins would all be there, seemingly as if time had stood still in my absence and now the art of real living would begin for me anew after my a long delay.
Those were the days! Long, hot days full of adventures and games in which a child could delight. The day would begin with the slow opening of my eyes and the quick dawning of the realization that I was in the holler with my family. I would bolt up into action as no time should be wasted in sleep while in this paradise!
Breakfast would be waiting and it would be eaten under the watchful eyes of one of the aunts. A large plate filled with the fluffiest biscuits, smothered in butter and homemade jam, and lots of milk gravy. My dad taught us to cut this all up and mix it together into something he called a 'rock pile'. This dish may not have scored high points for presentation, but the flavor was there!
As soon as humanly possible, we children would scramble, barefooted , out the door. And now the real day could begin. Cousins were conveniently located close by, all within walking distance, and all of whom were more than willing to come out to play. Our little gang would grow as we went tramping from house to house until we would gather 10 - 15 cousins. A nice number to play just about any game.
Usually we would run around and climb trees or do anything which would get us covered in dirt and sweat requiring a trip to the slow moving creek. This creek was a second home to us youngsters. We would start collecting rocks in order to build a dam to trap the water enough to form a swimming hole. We knew if we worked hard enough, one of the uncles would see our efforts and join in to help get the job done. These swimming holes would last us all summer!
Lunch was usually eaten on the run. Someone would run into a house and ask the aunt for a bologna sandwich. Then we would all ask for one and there seemed to be a loaf of white bread and a package of thick, sliced bologna in every kitchen. I do not recall ever being denied this request.
Once our stomachs were contented and we had drunk our fill of the slightly sulfur smelling water, we would be back out the door and off to play. The long afternoons would often be dedicated to our favorite games. Red Rover, Red Rover, Statues and one game which involved calling out 'rotten egg' or 'salt' and 'pepper'. I can't remember the rules of this game which would be supervised by one of the unmarried aunts.
As the sun would slip down behind the ridge of the mountains, we would slow our play and sit around talking and sharing our childish dreams with one another. Slowly, the air would cool and the sun would disappear into its nightly bed.
Eventually, we would see, coming slowly down the dirt road, the forms of the uncles. They would be returning from a long day of work in the coal mines. I would be mesmerized by their dark forms. Strong men covered head to toe in the black, coal dust. Their helmets on their heads and their miners lights pushed atop. Each uncle would have a large metal lunch box swinging on his arm.
As they approached us, we would see that the only part of their faces not blackened by the coal, was around their eyes, creating a mask looking like a negative copy of a giant raccoon. As tired as they were from working in the dark bowels of the earth, they would play the game we all expected. They would come lumbering towards us with a wild, bear like growl and chase us around the yards. This game gave me such a delicious fear. The hair on the back of my neck would stand out and a scream of delight would escape my mouth as I ran to hide under the porch.
Once the full darkness had settled upon us, we would run back inside to bring out our collection of old jars. We each had a jar of our own in which we kept a variety of insects. Every night we would collect these critters and fully expected them to live but they almost always died. Oh well, we would catch more. The best thing to catch were the lightning bugs which twinkled around us in the evening. Once we had a jar full, we would begin to be terribly cruel to them, I am afraid to say. We would pinch off the lighted parts and smear the yellow, glowing goop on our arms, wrists and necks to make jewelry which would shine brightly for awhile. Of course the boy cousins were not interested in jewelry, but they would make grotesque mask of glowing war paint upon their faces. Sometimes we would catch chunky june bugs and, begging a spool of thread, we would tie this onto a leg of the bug allowing it to fly around in circles above our heads without escape.
Eventually, some adult, usually one of the aunts, would call us in for bed. We would all claim that we were not in the least bit sleepy and we had so much more to do. We could usually postpone the inevitable bed time until we were caught yawning and then, we had to go inside. And beside, we would be ravenously hungry by now. Good food was always to be found at the kitchen table of one of the aunts.
Since we were visiting, we had no permanent beds and would end up sleeping on the floor on a cozy pallet made of old quilts. I was always sure I would not sleep at all and would be surprised to find my eyes opening in the morning to the light of day! Where had the night darkness gone? I had only closed my eyes for a moment!
In those long gone days, many of the houses had no indoor plumbing. This was convenient during the day as we could easily run into any of the out houses without worrying if we were tracking in mud or dirt, something the aunts did not like for us to do, but at night, it was not so convenient.
Every house had a small, white, enameled pot which was politely referred to as the 'chamber pot' but which we children dubbed the' pee can'. This perhaps explains why I have never been fond of pecan pies as I assumed the ingredients came from the chamber pot. Evey morning one of us would be told to take care of the contents. This involved carrying the nearly full vessel slowly, so as not to have it slosh upon our feet, to the out house where it would be dumped. Then we would take it to the creek for a quick scouring and leave it in a sunny spot as we were told the sun would sterilize it. I loathed this chore.
And then, a new day would begin which would follow the expected routine of the previous day. Lest you think we found this boring, I must tell you that each day was full of its own fun and we could never get our fill of the glorious days of summer in the holler.
As things must be, we all grew up and began our own families and lives. Although most of my cousins still live in the vicinity of the holler, I would be transplanted to South America where I have lived for the last 27 years. I do not get to go back to the holler as often as I would like and I have feeling of regret that my own children did not get to spend their summers in this wonderland. They did enjoy some visits and did many of the things I had done as a child and now I wish to take my grand kids to the holler to experience the wonderful thrill of a summer's day in my mountain home.
Even to this day, I know, without a doubt that I could walk up the path to any of the homes of my aunts and uncles or of my cousins who are now adults, and knock on the door and be accepted. I would be invited in to 'rest a spell' and visit. After the rounds of hugs from young and old alike, the inevitable question would be asked, " Have you eat yet?"
My answer would be unnecessary for whether I was starving or had just left another table, food would be placed before me. I could almost be guaranteed to find a plate of pinto beans and corn bread for starters. And as I ate this I would hear one of my cousins in the kitchen cooking away. Eventually, newly made food would make its way to the table. Probably fresh biscuits, fried potatoes, sliced garden fresh tomatoes, and if I was lucky, a side of greens. Then there would be a fried pork chop or two, and maybe a cobbler for desert. If at Aunt Carol Jane's I knew a slice of moist home made yellow cake would be available. She always made them and wrapped each piece in plastic wrap which kept them deliciously fresh and on hand for days. Little Debbie's Snack Cakes have nothing on my Aunt Carol Jane!
And I would be home. The warmth of love and belonging would be such a sentiment that it would be almost physical; Just as the comfort one feels when slipping into a warm tub after a cold outing, the warmth of belonging would creep into my soul and light a fire of love that neither time nor distance could ever quench.