Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The New Mexico Years

(Click to enlarge.)
I remember this trip. We're all very tired as we journeyed the three-four day trip from New Mexico back home to WV. Looks like the cat in my sister's arms is even tired. That's me in the cowboy hat on the other side of my mom.

When I was six years old, my dad on a whim applied for a college teaching job in Las Vegas, New Mexico and got it. So we spent two years in NM and it was an adventure. In my first grade class I had American Indians and Spanish speakers. Not something I had come across in West Virginia. I learned to eat chili, which I'd never tasted before (and still love). I have my father's recipe from those days. 

We lived in a row of barracks up on a mesa (WV hill with the top naturally sheared off). Every little house had a horse or two roaming free and the horses knew which house they belonged to. Ours was named Blue because he was dappled. Sometimes he'd come to our door at mealtime and bang the screen with his nose until we gave him a snack. I also had a pony named Soapy that bucked me off once and my dad almost swore.

I didn't like the dusty desert, which was a shock after WV's lush green hillsides, but I loved the wild donkeys and the horned toads that skittered across our back patio. They looked like toads but lizardlike with a tail. I'd catch them and stroke their backs.

Lots of memories but that's another post.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Snowball and Me

(Click on picture to enlarge.)

Here I am riding Snowball again. AND I've got on my Davy Crockett  t-shirt. I'm on Grandma's farm and having a great childhood. It went like this. I'd get up in the morning and get dressed and do whatever I wanted for the rest of the day on 50 acres of beautiful countryside. So I'd hop on Snowball and ride him around bareback wherever we decided to go. I always let him stop and munch grass whenever he wanted.

We'd play imaginary games (well, I would). One of my favorites was Annie Oakley and he was my faithful steed. (I never did know the name of her horse.) Other times I'd be a harem girl and he'd be a camel or a circus performer and he'd be an elephant. He was my best friend those days and in my memory, it's always summer.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Ye Old Homestead

This was my grandparents' house in Nicholas County where I spent part of my childhood. It was on 50 acres and was the most beautiful spot in the world to me. Notice that the yard is fenced in to keep out livestock and wandering critters. Even the dogs were not allowed into the inner yard. The yard was filled with all kinds of flowering bushes and I especially loved the Snowball bush.

In the early morning, cows would gather around the fence and Mooooo trying to get my grandpa to come out and milk them. It was not the greatest way to wake up but maybe better than an alarm, although you couldn't shut it off. I loved the cows and the milk, cream, butter, cheese and cottage cheese they provided. I helped grandma churn milk to make butter and remember grandpa lugging around those big silver milk jugs. Happy memories!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Dashing Uncle Joe

Here's my Uncle Joe Creasy during WWII. I love the airplane with its ferocious painted teeth. A lot of the men in my family fought in wars.

A couple of my Creasy ancestors were in the Civil War and one was wounded, one killed. That's when West Virginia got its name, by the way: it seceded from Virginia, which fought for the South, and went with the North.

My dad was a naval officer during WWII, which is why I was born in Miami Beach, where he was stationed. Since the Navy was moving him around to various bases, my mom returned to WV and stayed on my grandparents farm in Nicholas County until the war was over and he came home. I was two when I saw him again. I think that was the experience of many children during that time.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Uncle Roy

Wow, ancient photo. This is my grandpa John Creasy and my grandma Rose dressed to the hilt for the picture. I notice that I have my grandma's deepset eyes but look at her clothes! Did everyone dress like this in WV for formal occasions at that time?

My Uncle Roy is the little boy in the shot and the little girl my Aunt Sarah. I'm especially draw to this because it shows my Uncle Roy as a young carefree boy, when later he had a lot of problems. (He was the model for Uncle John in my book Mountain Girl.) I only knew him as a withdrawn adult.

I always think that if he had lived today with all we know and do for problem children he could have lived a normal and happy life.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Family Gathering

Hey, this is such a great picture shot about 1950 at my aunt and uncle's farm near Calvin, West Virginia. That's me in the middle of the front row leaning against my Grandma Rose's knee. On either side of me is my sister Shirley and my cousin Clark. In the back row is my mom Katie, my Grandpa John, Aunt Luella and Uncle Silmon. My dad was taking the picture.

I used to love to go to their house...just getting there was an adventure. You turned off onto this little windy  dirt road that hugged the mountains and hoped you didn't meet anyone going the other way. I was prone to car sickness so it seemed a long way to their farm but probably was only a couple of miles.

Once we got there, it was a kid's paradise, though. There were my five boy cousins and all they were into (they had a box of comic books under the bed!). I especially remember my aunt's homemade mincemeat pie with whipped cream straight from the cows. There were animals and always kittens, it seemed. And there were the mountains (need I say more?).

Look how happy we all are! I'd like to step into the picture and relive it for a couple of hours.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Porch Swing

I just love this picture of my Grandpa on the porch swing. It is very typical of him and shows his strong, proud independence. I seldom remember him sitting down, though; he was a busy man with a 50-acre farm and 10 children and 25 grandchildren. Every time I saw him he was harvesting the garden, putting up hay, feeding livestock, shoeing horses and the like.

I also love the background of the photo: the simple, traditional use of wood in the house; the old screen door, no doubt with a hook latch; the WV vegetation crowding onto the porch from the right; the peg on the wall where Grandpa has hung his coat. The sunshine and the shadow of the photographer (who took it?). A classic.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Chicken Dinner

(Click on photo to enlarge.)

When my grandma fed chickens she would sometimes hold food up in the air and make the chicken jump for it like the one is doing in the picture. Chickens were just part of daily life on our WV farm - they were just always around. Some darn rooster was always cockadoodledooing in the morning and waking me up. Their clucking and squawking was the background for anything going on outside.

They could fly and sometimes flew over the fence and into the yard surrounding the farmhouse and I had to chase them out. All animals were kept out of the fenced-in yard but had the rest of the 50 acres to wander. I'd go with grandma to feed them each day and also to collect eggs from their nests. In the spring there were soft fuzzy little chicks that I loved to pet and carry around.

The building in the back with the open door is where they'd roost at night on wooden poles up off the ground; the lower half of that building was where they had their nest boxes. They had comfy little wooden boxes about a foot off the floor and filled with hay where they lay their eggs. Sometimes you'd have to sneak eggs out from under a wary hen and she'd peck you on the wrist.

We had chicken practically every Sunday dinner. I would watch Grandpa chop the head off after which the headless chicken would run and flop around for a while (probably why I have nightmares), then Grandma would pluck out the feathers and light a newspaper on fire and singe any down left on the body. Then I'd watch her in the kitchen cutting it open, removing the insides and frying it up. Living off the land!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Cemetery Visit

This is my grandma Rose and me (10 years old) in our church cemetery visiting my grandpa's grave. She has some tissue in her hand because she had been crying. She really loved my grandpa and still cried over his grave many years after he was gone. That kind of long-term marriage is almost unheard-of today and I think we've lost something.

It was always a comfort to walk in the cemetery by Alderson Church and see the headstones of my family (both Creasys and Browns). It made me feel near to relatives that were dead and gone. And often a stroll out  to the family graves after church engendered family stories, which I loved. I've always loved a story.

Monday, October 18, 2010

My Uncle Roy

This is a photo of my Uncle Roy with a duck; he loved animals and had a special connection with them I always thought. He was a mysterious person in my girlhood. By the time he registered on my consciousness, I was seven and he was a grown man and traditions regarding his treatment in my grandma's household had solidified. Something was "wrong" with him, I gathered, and always had been and no one wanted to talk about it. He was mostly left alone, not spoken to and he didn't speak to any one. But I was drawn to him and curious and guilty as I grew older over the way he was excluded from the family and the community.

But it was a different time back in the hills of West Virginia. There were no diagnostic tests to determine where he placed on the autism spectrum (if that was his problem), there were no special tutors, no medication, no enlightened counselors and teachers to encourage inclusion in the classroom and at home. So my family made do and he stayed home and muttered to himself in front of the fire and when he walked the hills. Sometimes he brought me horehound candy and gum from his treks to a small store in the next town. And I took it and said nothing and so did he.

Anyway, I've written a book Mountain Girl that fictionalizes this situation and the girl in the story does connect with her uncle and reconnects him with his family and community. Wish I'd been able to do that but writing the book was cathartic and consoled me somewhat.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Country Churches

Ah, the little country churches of my childhood... This is the original Alderson church in Nicholas County, WV. My great-grandfather James Frame Brown was the first pastor, I believe. I remember my grandfather John Creasy telling me he donated timber from his land and also helped build it.

I attended this church when I was living on my grandma's farm and have fond memories of Sunday School in its basement classrooms with Koolaid and cookies for a snack. I loved the felt board easel with characters from the Bible stuck on it. And Vacation Bible School was the event of the summer. Now at home in Chicago or traveling, I'm always seeking out a humble little church like my first one.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Baptism in the Creek

This is just an amazing picture of my great-grandfather Rev. James Brown baptizing in Beaver Creek in West Virginia. The picture was folded so there's a crack down the middle but  I kind of like the effect. You can see my great-grandfather with his head of white hair and his long beard and dressed in a suit (!) out in the middle of the water with a believer.

I have no idea of the year here but I'm betting it's in the late 1800s because of the way the women are dressed in long dresses and big fancy hats. What a contrast with the barren hills and the humble house in the back. A lot of my relatives (including my grandmother) are probably in this picture but I don't recognize anyone.

Faith has always been in my family and I'm grateful for that because it''s seen me through some tough times.

Monday, October 4, 2010


I've been thinking about my grandparents this year because I became a grandmother for the first time. This is my grandma Rose and grandpa John and I loved them dearly. They look to be in their 70s here in what is obviously a somewhat formal shot (no smiles), maybe taken on a Sunday morning on the front porch of their West Virginia farm.

I remember my grandma as always smiling around me, though, as I joined in with whatever she was doing. I watched her sew on the old treadle sewing machine that you made run by pedaling with your feet. I used to watch her string beans and peel apples, always trying for that one long curl of peeling. I'd climb up beside her in the kitchen and "help" her cut open a chicken and clean out the insides before she cooked it for Sunday dinner. Sometimes I'd follow her to the chicken coop and we'd steal eggs out from under nesting chickens.

My grandpa took me with him as he worked outside. I helped stomp down the hay in a haystack and dropped potato "eyes" in rows he had plowed. He'd let me sit up on the drivers' seat of the old wagon behind the horses and sometimes would hand the reins over to me and let me "drive." Once I was pouting about something and he did some Irish step dancing to cheer me up.

My grandparents had 25 grandchildren but each one felt he or she was special in their grandparents' eyes. I hope I can follow that example with my new little granddaughter.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Quilting Bee

Here's my Grandma quilting. Goodness knows how many quilts she made over the course of her life. This one was a "wedding ring" quilt with large ring-shaped circles that intersect. I have one like it on my bed now but it's machine-made, bought in a department store.

I do own one of Grandma's handmade quilts, though, called "around the world." It starts with a square in the center and all the other squares spiral out from it like ripples in a pond. It's gotten old and thin and I no longer use it, but cherish it instead. I think of her anytime I see a quilt--needle grasped in arthritic fingers, leaning toward the light from the window.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Farm Cats

Photo is of my cat Millie, taken in West Virginia on my dad's farm near Fairmont. She was his cat but is now mine because he passed away at the age of 93 (those West Virginians can live a long time!). I promised to take her when he was gone, so now she lives with me in the suburbs of Chicago. She has adapted just fine, thank you and expended a lot of effort training me to wait on her. She used to hunt moles, birds, rabbits and mice but now is content to lie on my patio and watch the traffic jam outside my condo. And she's learned to live with my dog (more another day).

Farm cats are great and served a real function in the past, when they kept "varmits" out of the houses and barns and granaries. If you had mice, you got yourself a cat. I loved the farm cat of my childhood Whichone, who wasn't allowed in the house (cats and dogs weren't). She patrolled my grandma's farm and had a litter of kittens every spring and every fall. She got her charming name because my grandma pointed her out in a basket of kittens and the owners said in unison, "Which one?"

Monday, September 27, 2010

Horses and Ponies

When I was a girl I almost always had a horse or pony around. The one in the picture is Snowball, a Shetland I had on my grandma's farm. His owners had "put him out to pasture" because he'd gone lame in one of his back feet. Lucky me! I pretended he was mine and rode all over the rolling hills. He limped a bit but I didn't mind and he liked the gentle exercise.
He was gorgeous (as you can see) with half of his face black with a blue eye and the other half white with a brown eye. Or was it the other way around? Like a Husky.

Friday, September 24, 2010

WV Rain

Here's a photo I dug up of my mom making apple butter (see yesterday's post). True it's an old picture but some of the gray is because it chose to rain that day and they moved to a semi-enclosed spot, so there's a lot of smoke from the fire.

It chooses to rain a lot in West Virginia. I would often wake to the sound of raindrops hitting a million leaves. I slept upstairs in the old farmhouse and the rain would pour down the tarpaper roof outside my window, rush through the gutters and thunder into the rainbarrel. It was a lovely sound and I would sigh and go back to sleep to its music.

Mom making apple butter on a rainy day

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Apple Butter Time

This time of year was all about the apples on my Grandma's WV farm. They ripened in September and October, depending on the kind of apple. We had apple pie every Sunday after church in the fall and it was to die for!

But making apple butter was the big event. I wish I had the recipe because I've never tasted any apple butter quite like it. Maybe there wasn't one, though, just apples (peeled, cored and sliced) along with sugar, water and cinnamon. All of this was put in a huge cast-iron pot over an open fire in the side yard of our old farmhouse.

Grownups took turn stirring all day to keep it from sticking and burning. At the end of the day, the apple butter was put in glass canning jars and stored in the cellar. Then all winter we had a delicious spread to put on biscuits and cornbread. Yum!

Do you have a favorite recipe for apple butter? I'd love to have it.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Field of Flowers

The background here reminds me of the WV fields of my childhood in Nicholas County. We didn't really need toys in the country; we had the fields. I remember the smell, kind of weedy-sweet, of all those plants.

Milkweed was fun. In the summer, my sister and I would break off a leaf and this white milky substance would come dripping out. We were both charmed and repulsed (ewwwww). We would break open the seed pods in the fall and blow the downy seeds in all directions.

We would collect a bouquet of goldenrod, Queen Anne's Lace and chicory (we called it corn flower) and take it to Mama or Grandma. We would make daisy chains and put them on our heads or do "he loves me, he loves me not" with the petals.

We would lie on our stomachs and watch all the activity down below - ants marching around carrying stuff (sometimes another wounded ant). All kinds of colorful bugs, pretty and scary. Who needed DVDs?