I am sure I remember the first time I visited Thomaston. It was when Franklin Roosevelt was challenging Herbert Hoover for the presidency. It was Nov. 8, and the year was 1932. I was 6 years old and could sing, without missing a word, "Happy Days are Here Again, the skies above are clear again, so sing a song of cheer again, happy days are here again." Today, the Democrats sing it at every gathering, and Barbara Streisand made it famous as a ballad.
I was in Thomaston, Va., to visit my Aunt Lola and Uncle Rob Hart. They had the first house on the right as you entered the little village. It was a two-story model, and by the standards of that day, a shinning example of modified Victorian architecture. It had a bathroom with a tub and a toilet that flushed when there was enough water in the cistern, which, in turn, depended on how much rain had been captured and saved. Importance was placed on the rain barrel that caught all the water that ran off the pumphouse roof and was used exclusively for Mondays. The washtubs were filled, including the one that held the beautiful blue water for the sheets and Uncle Rob's white shirts.
I remember a Philco radio in the corner of the dining room, right off the kitchen, where a polished black stove cooked up meals that delighted my taste buds. There were three culinary delights of which I never tired -- macaroni and cheese, stuffed cabbage and biscuits. Biscuits have played a major role in the geographic destinations of my life, and I am convinced that I reside in the Deep South simply because of them.
Biscuits have that delectable taste only below the Mason-Dixon.
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We stood together looking at the radio as my father searched the static-ridden airways trying to find news of the election. I asked about Hoover and Roosevelt, and he, with perfect patience and logical simplicity, explained the whole system. Surprisingly, I remember a lot of what he said. He told about the financial difficulties the people were suffering and how FDR promised to make huge changes. He said he knew that people were aware, that indeed there had not been a chicken in every pot, nor a car in every garage as had been promised by President Hoover in his previous campaign for the presidency.
I, too, remember some of the fictional names, developed by the staunch Republicans, for the newly developed presidential departments, the WPA (Works Progress Administration) was translated by detractors to "We piddle around." The NRA ( National Recovery Administration) became "Nuts Run America." But as I look back, I marvel at the families who had a small pittance every month because their sons were living and working in the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corp).
Oh, it was an amazing time to live, to watch and to learn. There are beautiful examples of WPA projects where conspicuously placed bronze markers note the date and the project name. The curvy mountain road from Covington to Hot Springs, Va., is perfect example of the WPA's grand stone barriers that protect the traveler from falling soil and trees. It honors the men who, without Roosevelt's financial imagination, would have been on bread lines that fed millions of out-of-work Americans.
There was one event, in that small town, that took place on gentle summer evenings when men in worn overalls and scuffed work shoes tapped out country rhythm on old wooden porch floors. The sound of that music wafted across the rooftops and introduced into my life a profound appreciation for folks who could pick a banjo, strum a guitar and follow the lead cadence set by the mandolin. This was all done by the McElwees and their mother, who called out songs as they played, without hesitation.
Their music taught me to love country sounds and acknowledge the talent of that family who played from the sheer genius of finding a melody that must have floated around in their accomplished heads. No printed music, no lessons, just God-given talent that could seemingly pluck chords and notes out of the air, where they had been left by angels, and then use their fingers to pass along those heavenly sounds.
This family was remembered on long-ago Saturday afternoons when we listened to the Texaco Opera Company perform musical dramas of great tragedy. It was then I recalled the poetry sung by the McElwee family and their magic voices when they sang about country dramas that told stories of sorrow, love and suffering. Some of those songs were short and simple. However, they actually were grand operas done in country style.
The taste and the smells of Thomaston stay in my memory. I can almost remember the flavor of the delicious butter that was churned by the lady who lived at the top of the hill.
Every Friday morning, Aunt Lola would tell me to hurry, so we could leave for our shopping trip to buy butter shaped in a round with a shaft of wheat imprinted on the top and a large bowl of cottage cheese. We would always go to the back pasture where the little tan cow, who was responsible for all of these culinary treasures, stood at the fence and accepted our compliments with pure humility, and then home to hot biscuits baked in that old black stove, slathered with the wonderful butter and sometimes even a little touch of apple butter made from the fruit that grew at the back door.
I remember these things because I was treated to a culture that no longer exists. Imagine, if you can, I lived before the onset of the microwave.