It all depends on where you were born and where your parents came from, too. When I married a fellow from up North, I found out about things I had never heard of. Can you imagine swimming in the East River, the very same place where writers talked about the fabled Mafia throwing bodies that had not paid their gambling debts? When I asked him, in my rural Virginia ignorance, "Did you ever see any bodies floating?" he laughed and said that was not true. However, a few mystery stories later convinced me that, indeed, the dead did rest conveniently at the very bottom, tied to cement blocks.
When I talked about running barefoot in wet spring pastures, smelling penny royal and catnip, he thought I was crazy. He felt it safer to run barefoot on the cement street than a pasture, where possibly snakes roamed at will. I never saw a snake in the tall grass, except in the early spring when a lazy black snake warmed himself on the rocks at the river edge, glistening in the sun.
I talked about shooting cans in the backyard on a Sunday afternoon with my new .22-caliber rifle. He was shocked: a gun in the hands of a child. Sure, I said, we all were good shots.
"Did your parents know?" he asked.
Never miss a local story.
Of course, my dad gave me the first rifle I ever owned, and I hunted rabbits and squirrels with him in the late autumn. I had a pearl-handled cap pistol, endorsed by Gene Autry himself, and I "pistol broke" my little mare, Sweetie, so well that I could canter and shoot, yelling at imaginary cowboys, all wearing black hats, across the mountains of Virginia.
In a way, I really felt sorry for that fellow. He, never, in his whole life, woke up early on a May morning and smelled the first blooms of the lilacs or understood the wonderful mystery of the little crocus that peeped through the bright green grass of spring. He honestly did not know what forsythia was and the part it played when the long branches were cut, put in water and expected to bloom, although it was really too early. We "forced" them to decorate our living rooms and kitchen windows. Those long branches did exactly what they were told to do; it must have been the magic of the spring water. I knew the bewitching time was there when I saw the first lavender crocus and the bright tawny shade of the "yellow bells."
As the weather got warmer, I was warned not to go to the river alone and not to think about soaking my feet before the middle of June. That was a prize treat on a warm afternoon. The horse would wade out in the water and soak, and I would paddle barefoot in the deep Virginia mud. Sam, one of the men at the stable, had taught me a song that was in style then; sung, I later discovered, by Bing Crosby with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra.
Well sir, boys, I'm telling you
It's a dance that they do
They don't need no band
They keep time by clapping their hands
Just as happy as a cow
Chewin' on her cud
When the people beat their feet in the Mississippi mud.
I sang and imagined myself on some lonely radio show singing to the people of Bath County. Then, the lovely days of summer came along with peaches from the Carolinas. Berries were delivered to our door by the mountain pickers, who spent their summers selling fruit and berries. The house smelled like blackberries, and lovely little jars of jam and jelly were proudly displayed before being placed on the basement shelves in preparation for our winter joy with hot biscuits and sugar-cured ham. Cool mountain evenings when the older family members told stories about their childhoods and how they had raced across the very place where we were now sitting.
We sang hymns first, and then "Golden Slippers" and "Isle of Capri." I didn't know where it was, but the song was a great love story. I knew something was up when the male sang, "She wore a plain golden ring on her finger." Poor fellow, I was sorry for him. When I mentioned the sadness of the song, my father told me not to worry, and I stopped.
Then came the dark period. I remember well the first time I heard the word "polio." No more permission to go to the river -- water was a dangerous carrier. No one knew what was true and what was made up by some health maven. Simple little parties were not held, since there were no gatherings of people. Movies were out, and trips to the only drugstore in the county were over. We stayed at home and washed everything that went into our mouths. Every afternoon, in season, I sat under the grape arbor at my Aunt Alice's house and ate those lovely concord grapes. However, when the "sickness" came, they had to be washed and eaten in her kitchen. They were not the same. She even put some of that old yellow lye soap that she made in the backyard in the water. I gave up on grapes.
We all knew the first frost would kill the dreaded disease. But, by that time, I was back in school, and those blessed summers were months away.
Even to this day, some 75 years later, I still remember the smells, the weather, the water and the lovely evenings when fireflies played all over the pastures and tempted even adults to place them on our fingernails and wave our hands in rural ballet rhythms. It was too much for me to give up. I had no life without the sounds and customs of my home. And my greatest wish was to pass that magic on to my daughter. Even today, although she lives in that great city where the East River flows, she knows what it is like to smell the lilacs, or to run through wet grass, or to taste the pungent flavor of mint that graces every water spigot below the Mason-Dixon. She has that Southern heart and appreciation and she, too, would beat her feet in the river mud.