Friday, December 14, 2007

"Over the River and Through the Woods" - Christmas Travel

Of my childhood Christmas memories, some of my favorite recollections involve travel to see family. Every year on December 26th we'd pile into the car and drive the 100 miles to see my paternal grandparents on Virginia's "Eastern Shore." This was always an adventure - as was any winter trip to see them - because the bathroom in their house was unheated. (To this day I still don't understand why they didn't keep the door open so some of the heat from other parts of the house could warm the room up. I guess they were trying to keep the main rooms as warm as possible for a house that was underheated and had no insulation.) So any trip to the facilities involved putting on a coat. If you had to sit down, one's rear end was treated to a chilling awakening, perhaps similar to the icy grip of a hospital bedpan. Still, the Arctic bathroom experience couldn't diminish the occasion, an affair defined by a dinner that perennially included my grandmother's seafood recipes, supplemented by piles of buttery cornbread. (The giant pile of clam and oyster shells in the back yard was testimony to decades of delicious meals.) At the end of the day we'd load up the car and drive the two hours back home, with my brother and I usually falling asleep to the rhythmic thump of the car tires bouncing over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel's pavement sections.

Within a few days of that trip - at some point before New Year's Eve - we'd bet back in the car to visit my great-grandmother. This excursion, involving a three-and-a-half to four-hour drive, always began in the dark. My maternal grandfather, whose mother we were going to see, would arrive at the house around 5:00 a.m., his Ford Galaxy 500 loaded with food, gifts, and my complaining grandmother. We'd load our car and then start across Route 58, which runs along the southern border of Virginia.

We would drive west through little towns and burgs, finally stopping for breakfast around Emporia or South Hill, finding one of those "mom and pop" family restaurants that once flourished along America's byways before the fast food franchises wiped them from the map. Then off we'd go again, heading for South Boston and eventually Brookneal, in the heart of Virginia's tobacco-growing counties.

My great-grandmother's house in winter was, unfortunately, like my grandmother's house - a study in contrasts between icebox-like rooms into which no heat was allowed, and sweltering rooms that could have doubled for saunas once large pots of food started boiling on the kitchen stove. I remember dashing outside to cool down and breathe fresh air, playing on the giant millstone of pink granite that rested in the front yard, a great stone circle that I guess served as a lawn decoration near the front porch. I would also brave the cold bedrooms upstairs to peruse the nursing textbooks left behind by my great aunts, several of whom had served in the Second World War. For a nine-year old boy, these dusty volumes offered photos of every imaginable medical malady - from cancers to wounded soldiers missing various body parts. Oddly, I'll never forget the photos of goiter patients, something so rarely seen today thanks to our diets rich in iodized salt.

I remember one year we drove in the snow and got to the intersection for the country road down which my great-grandmother lived. At that point, the snow became too deep to drive, so my grandfather parked the car right there, grabbed some bags of gifts, and marched a mile to the house to see his mother. We waited - my grandmother and I in the Ford, and my parents and brother in the Dodge. An hour later, my grandfather returned, we all turned around, and drove home. (I don't know why we all didn't get out and walk. If this happened today, I wouldn't hesitate to bundle the kids up and have them march a mile in the snow, particularly if I had just driven three or four hours. As New York City kids they're accustomed to walking long distances in all kinds of weather. I guess my parents thought it would be too much for us.)

Sleepy, and fortified with another incredible holiday meal, we'd pack up the car in late afternoon and start on the long drive home. Passing back through those little Virginia towns, paralleling the old railroad line that once linked these communities. Seeing the little abandoned stations in these towns, I always wondered what it would have been like to take the train out to my great-grandmother's, an experience my mother has always mentioned with fond memories. (Years later I would discover the photography of O. Winston Link, who spent countless hours in the 40s and 50s photographing the last of the great steam trains in this very part of Virginia.)

Now most of my family in that area is gone, most dead, the rest having followed my grandfather's lead and abandoned the life of the tobacco farmer. Still, I have those magical Christmases when we almost literally went "over the river and through the woods" to visit grandparents.


jblack designs said...

What a wonderful post.

Brings back fond memories of my own, being a native Tar Heeler. My immediate family moved across the globe, so planes (and sometimes trains--when we lived "down the road" in Atlanta) were coupled with cars, but I still remember pulling into Siler City in the dark, seeing the old-timey Christmas decorations, and knowing we had only 20 or so minutes left to get to my grandparents' 200-year-old house, which, when I was really little, didn't even have a bathroom. Yep, we had a johnny pot in the closet. Thank goodness they built first one inside bathroom (to get to it, you had to go out onto the side screened-in porch) and then a second inside. Cold, but inside.

Thanks for the memory trip!


One Wink at a Time said...

Wonderful memories you have. I was thinking I would gladly drive 100 miles the day after Christmas for seafood and homemade cornbread. But maybe not with the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel involved. That thing freaks me out.
I was amazed to read of your grandfather's hike on foot to deliver gifts to his mother.
As I was growing up, my grandparents lived much closer to us and we often did the visiting on Christmas day. Usually fell asleep on the short trip home after a day of crazy excitement and too much candy. I'm still in awe that my parents managed to get through the holidays at all with six of us kids. But the memories are wonderful.

Isabel said...

This is "saudade", Brian. :)