It was again that time of year. The fall color had had a go at confounding all eyes. Those leaves had danced down through the tangle of tree limbs and settled in to become food for future canopy, where birds would build nests and raise demanding chirpers of like feather. It was a good time to go back to visit Dale in his cozy West Virginia abode, where once his dad and I had set up housekeeping in an abandoned cabin and begun a family. Dale and Chris, his wife, who loved him enough to undertake this wilderness sojourn, had decided to follow his parent’s example. Dale grew up in Texas and California but never forgot his green hills home, his favorite song always John Denver’s “Country Roads.” It made sense that he return to find his perfect mate. Chris, like Dale, had been born in these hills, but she had stayed put. Chris was good at popping out babies, but even better, she enjoyed being with them, actually spending time in the richness of engagement with their play. Her favorite pastime was teaching small persons to illuminate coloring books, play with their dolls, roll their Tonka Trucks, and read their stories. In another lifetime, Chris would have been a genius educator. But in this lifetime, it is we, every one of us, who are gifted with having Chris as part of ours.
It was a good time to visit, to go back and remember those early days, to see the linoleum peeking out around the edge of the kitchen floor, where we had chosen that pattern from Giebel Hardware’s offerings and rolled it out over the oak flooring and it became our thoroughly modern place to cook meals and wash clothes. Paint colors, chosen from the linoleum’s color palette covered the old walls, making the room shine and suggest maybe we had an eye for décor. Grey, white, red, and black in intersecting diamonds inspired that old room to a life of its own.
In our cabin, each room blossomed. The nursery glowed as baby chick yellow, with the floor a washable pattern of pink, blue, and white baby building blocks strewn across a grey marbled substrate. The marriage bedroom took on the blue of a summer sky, the living room verdant like a green grass meadow welcoming any who would cavort through its blades and blossoms. The one-time hay shed became a home. My letters describing our interior refurbishing so inspired my Aunt Judy that she bought organza curtains which she dyed to match every room’s description.
That day those refreshed color choices remained even as when we first coated the old walls. It was a Yankee-frame house, one built with no vertical studs leaving space where insulation might be secreted in between them to keep cold at bay. Every wall was a row of vertical 1x planks covered with asphalt siding outside and wallpaper inside. It was verrrrrry cold. On freezing days inside moisture condensed and followed gravity, forming crystals as it went, to make of every peripheral wall a sheet of ice. It was a frightening place to raise little ones. Knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t have done it. It’s a good thing that ignorance allows us so many lively adventures. Otherwise life would be bland, and we would die without having yet lived.
Nostalgia must soften those memories that hide in the crevasses of the past, making them almost palatable in between the shadows of remember-whens. It was surely nostalgia that led me to visit Dale and Chris that November day, with the leaves already having given up and the snow just a promise to arrive on the tail of the North wind. Every visit to their domicile summoned murmurations of recollections. There were ugly ones to be sure, but they seemed to draw back, pressing their coquettish cousins to the fore, allowing only good times to be revealed. The sad were pleased to relinquish light in celebration of the happy.
There was plenty of time to linger after my sausage and gravy breakfast, nursing my cup of still warm coffee. Dale had left to deliver mail. It was cringe worthy to see him depart in his four-wheel-drive vehicle, a special edition Jeep that seat’s its driver, like a Brit, on the right side granting access to road-side postal boxes. I knew he would brave every brutal muddy hollow on his route in order that the mail will get through. He was one of our modern heroes, appreciated by the people who live in those forgotten places. For many, he is their only connection with the outside world of people and climes that reach out via postage stamp. Those patrons are not forsaken.
Eventually I lace up my hikers, head outside to climb my favorite hills and enjoy their discrete and separate views. Each has its own vision, saved for when I come again to scale its crest and ask, “Remember me?” I feel the stretch tugging leg muscles that remind me I am alive and a climber of hills and a celebrator of what difficult ascent can achieve—an honest prayer.
And now it is time to sing. This is the only place where I can vocalize with my whole heart, true and free. No one can hear me, so I can bare my throat to the sky. “Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high, there’s a land that I heard of once in a lullaby. Somewhere over the rainbow skies are blue, and the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true. Someday I’ll wish upon a star and wake up where the clouds are far behind me, where troubles melt like lemon drops away above the chimney tops. That’s where you’ll find me. Somewhere over the rainbow, birds fly over the rainbow, why then oh why can’t I?” (Yip Harburg)
Next came some trudging along a lateral crest and then another stop for “When you walk through a storm hold your head up high, and don’t be afraid of the dark. At the end of a storm is a golden sky and the sweet silver song of a lark. Walk on through the wind, walk on through the rain though your dreams be tossed and blown. Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart, and you’ll never walk alone. You’ll never walk alone.” (Richard Rogers)
I had called to the clouds and they came scudding across the sky dragging the wind after them in merry gusts. I sang back to the wind proclaiming “I love you truly, truly dear, life with its sorrows, life with its tears, fades into dreams when I feel you are near, I love you truly, truly dear.” (Al Bowlly) That old wind’s brave retort circled ’round to have my back, while the gusts and I marched the cliff-side’s rim.
I sought refuge in a copse of cedars, imagined an organ accompaniment, and sang, “I know a green cathedral, a shadowed forest shrine, where leaves in love join hands above to arch your prayers and mine. Within its cool depths sacred, the priestly cedars sigh, and the fir and pine lift arms divine unto the pure blue sky.” (Hahn/Johnstone)
There were lots of other songs. I was full to bursting with them, wanting to give blessing to the hills and the sky. I couldn’t head back without a verse of “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.” It was a time to stop and thank the wind and the sky for being there and for sharing my song. That meant singing all the verses I could remember, however imperfectly. “We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’ve first begun.” (John Newton) The wind didn’t have a care, but for me the singing was done. I had sung myself plumb out.
It was a flat trek along the river to the cabin, and I was looking forward to some lunch and revisiting the coffeepot. It felt good to climb the front steps with my achy legs. They were grateful to be home and looking forward to a spell of rest. It had been too long since I had climbed my West Virginia hills. While on the highest one, the best, I had sung the state song “Oh the West Virginia hills, how majestic and how grand with their summits pointing skyward like the Prince Emanuel’s land. Is it any wonder then that my heart with rapture fills when I stand once more with loved ones on those West Virginia hills?” (Engle/King) Emotion gripped my throat, a poignant memory, one never to be forgotten. Every time I hear that song, the teardrops gather to ask, “Will she cry?” Most often she will.
When I opened the front door, I was startled to see the front room full of hunters gussied up in camo and hunter orange. They sat ranged about the room, rifles supported against knees, their faces a spate of gloom and doom. Several of them also balanced mugs of hot coffee, thanks to Chris’ hospitality. They spoke in low tones, commiserating about how anybody could possibly decide to go out singing, on the first day of buck season—the high point of the year.
Drawn from all around the compass, they had stopped in to complain about all those songs that had surely chased every buck from Ritchie County into the neighboring jurisdiction. I stammered an apology, my face crimson, explaining that nobody had warned me about the start of hunting season. Those men, gentlemen all, forgave me. One went on to compliment me on my version of Amazing Grace. No wonder I had not heard any rifle shots. The deer had departed back at “Somewhere over the rainbow.” And then the hunters, too, drained their mugs and took off to see if there might be a laggard deer—somewhere.
IMAGE Ruth Scribbles