Not everything was bad.
I talk so much about my weird and terrible childhood, and I’m right. But you have to understand that it wasn’t all bad. There’s something wonderful about being buried under a bunch of eccentric parents hosting family reunions in the mountains. I will miss this togetherness for the rest of my life.
Here I am in January, the darkest time of the year, the homesickness of city life in Columbus but also the homesickness of summer in Pocahontas County, Virginia State Park- Western where we all played together. We did the most exciting things: stage plays for grown-ups, bake huge tin cakes and decorate them with candy, our escapades with the crayfish in the cricket, before they got violent . One year we had a wedding shower for Aunt G, the youngest of my grandmother’s daughters, the one who was a teenager when I was in kindergarten. She was the last lady of this generation to marry. The wedding was going to take place two days after Thanksgiving. We held the shower in August during the family reunion.
It was going to be a wonderful party – no men or little ones were allowed; they would all be relegated to another shack to do other things. All the adult women in the family, my aunts, my great-aunts and my first cousins, came to shower Aunt G with presents. I was allowed to come because I was almost an adult, as were my next two younger cousins, on the condition that we help out by preparing the refreshments ourselves and decorating the larger cabin. It didn’t seem like a rough deal to me, because I loved decorating and cooking. Baking huge amounts of miscellaneous cookies quickly was one of the only things I really had a knack for.
On the day of the feast, we got to work in the early afternoon. I made a batch of “plain” batter and a batch of “chocolate” batter as the skies outside were getting hazy and the humidity was getting worse. The next two younger cousins helped me mix chocolate chips and white chips and butterscotch chips and nuts into different mini batches of dough and shape them into circles. Some of the “regular” dough we left unmixed and just rolled in cinnamon sugar, and some we dusted with white sugar to make sugar cookies. We kept tearing trays of cookies out of the oven and putting more and more on and on and on, a nice efficient assembly line. Between batches, we decorated the main room with pink streamers and small dollar store candles. The younger cousins played outside in cricket. The teenage cousins were off doing all the rowdy things teenage cousins did.
Finally, we took some of the chocolate chips and put together three disposable chocolate nut fudge pie pans, and put them in the fridge. My teenage cousins took their costumes and went for a break at the state park pool, to take a break from the humidity in the kitchen, but I kept cooking because there was still some dough left . One batch then another. Entrance and exit of the oven door. I check this fudge to see if it settles. Pay attention to the decorations. Lay out a bunch of sparkly garland wreaths.
The air was oppressive, like swimming in soup.
And just a moment later, the sky turned black.
Have you ever been in a thunderstorm in the mountains?
Being in a cabin in a small hollow between the mountains is like being inside a giant cup. Mountains rise and block your view, so you can’t tell a weather front is forming until it’s overhead. So it went from humid and sweltering with hazy skies to black with high winds within minutes. The trees outside whipped aside, loud, insistent. Thunder sounded. And then all that terrible humidity turned to liquid water, and it rained.
It’s one thing to be in a severe thunderstorm in a residential area with only a few trees. But a storm like that in the middle of the woods is an air raid. Branches descend everywhere. The trees come down. Debris blows. It is absolutely necessary to take shelter.
The noisy young cousins fled to the other cabin across from the one I was in. The boys fled elsewhere. My teenage cousins ran back inside with wet towels, laughing in shock, telling stories about the branches that had fallen in their path as they ran back.
And then the power went out.
We sat in front of the fireplace in the dark, waiting for it to go out.
It all cleared up in less than an hour, but by then it was almost evening. My cousins and I had a party to throw, but the power wouldn’t come back for at least a day. It takes a long time to drive a truck up the mountains and find all the places where the lines have fallen.
We lit a fire in the hearth. I don’t think we originally planned to light all those ornamental dollar store candles in the jars, but we did after the fire started: about ten little twinkling lights. My uncle came out with his big Y2K lantern and put it on the picnic bench so the kids could play outside in a halo of light while the women partied. Another emergency lantern came inside over the chimney. I took out the cookies and arranged them on plates. We made lemonade.
The fudge hadn’t set up as the fridge was getting warm due to the power outage. I poured the thick goo liquid into bowls and put a bowl in the middle of each cookie plate.
The ladies arrived one by one, carrying flashlights; each was presented with a wreath of garlands at the door. Aunt G had the most adornment, because it was her special day.
It was my job to direct everyone to the refreshments table.
“It’s a dip,” I told my great aunt Tate, my grandfather’s sister, pointing to the failed fudge bowls. “To dip your cookies. It was supposed to be fudge but it didn’t take.”
“High on the stuff,” said Great Aunt Tate. “Aunt Vossie used to try making fudge, it never worked, but then she would put the pan on the table and give us each a spoon. This is delicious.”
We huddled around the lantern and watched Aunt G open her shower gifts. Some were conventional shower gifts of nightgowns and tableware. Some were trinkets bought from the state park gift shop by people who had forgotten about the party. Great Aunt Tate presented Aunt G with a brightly painted papier-mâché giraffe.
“You don’t remember that,” said Great Aunt Tate. “But when you were a baby, your mother brought all the girls to visit me when I was working in the library. It was my day to showcase. I was trying to make a giraffe but didn’t have a frame for the face. You came with your bottle and when you got home, your mother left the plastic cap that goes over the nipple. So I used the hat to make the giraffe’s nose. It’s still in there.
Aunt G cried.
At the end of the party, after the real guests were done having fun, my grandmother opened the door and called. My little cousins who had been playing by the lantern light ran inside; just like my teenage cousins. They descended on the refreshments table like grasshoppers until all the cookies and fudge were gone.
The next morning, one of the park rangers showed up with a portable generator in a truck, so we could grab some light and make some coffee for breakfast. “My gracious,” he said in his thick West Virginia accent. “I couldn’t let you go without coffee.”
In the evening the power was on.
It’s an evening that I would like to see again.
I wish everything was like that.
Image via Pixabay
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Stations of the Cross and Stumbling in Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.
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