June is often a bit of a struggle for me. I blame it on the abrupt change in the temperatures. One day, I’m enjoying May’s warm days and cool nights. Then, as if the hot weather has an alarm clock that schreeches and bleeps it awake when June arrives, things turn steamy seemingly overnight.
Those who know me are familiar with my term of not-so-much-endearment for those kinds of summer days. I call it “Swampass weather.”
June and the months that follow it, the Swampass Season, are a time of vacations and long lazy days on the beach, family trips and parties and endless summer fun. All around me, friends are talking of their vacation plans, of oceans and boardwalks and sleeping in and staying up late.
I haven’t been able to afford a vacation of that nature in about 6 years. Because I’m not an entirely evil and bitter person, I smile as I listen to the excited talk about margaritas delivered by cabana boys or salty air and boardwalk strolls. I try to give the soon-to-be vacationers my undivided attention instead of thinking about my reality – which is that the summer is one of my busiest times at work, a time when an 8 hour day feels like working part time. I console myself with the reminder that even if it wasn’t, my budget won’t buy more than a pack of hot dogs and pitching a tent in my backyard anyway.
But that douchebag of a self-doubter that lives in my brain can’t help but take advantage of my weak moment and whisper “Hear that. Vacations. THAT’S what people who did life up right get to do. Aren’t you sorry you’re such a la-la-la-la-loser?”
Then I think back to my childhood, a time when vacations were handed to me on a silver platter. Well, not exactly. It was more like I was packed up in my father’s truck or my grandfather’s car, driven to the mountain farmland homes of my relatives in the Tunnelton, West Virginia area, and left to spend several weeks with my great-aunts and uncles, great grandparents, and second cousins.
During that time, I was a true country girl. I worked in cornfields. I waded in creeks and caught crawdads and salamanders. I rode horses and listened to campfire ghost stories. I didn’t see a restaurant or fast food joint, and everything I ate was either plucked right off a vine or cooked fresh by a doting great-grandma. I got dragged to church on Sundays and went fishing in an uncle’s backyard pond. I milked cows and rowed a boat and hid out in the rafters of a barn. I played with the tame raccoon who sometimes strolled into my uncle’s house.
I don’t think I’ve ever been happier. By the end of the summer, I was sun-browned and had callouses on my feet from running around barefoot. I said “crick” instead of “creek” and “pop” instead of soda, and my classmates looked at me funny when I went back to school in Baltimore come September.
My two great grandmothers lived probably 10 miles from each other. To get from one house to another, we drove over winding mountain roads. There was no traffic. If you did see another vehicle or someone walking along the road, you waved. If you didn’t, you were a stuck-up city asshole.
Somewhere around the halfway point, we turned and went up a slightly steeper mountain road. For about a half a mile, the street was dotted with small shacks and trailers. Between them were the inevitable cars and trucks on cinder blocks. Dogs, cats and chickens milled about the houses, as did a seemingly endless supply of fair, redheaded, freckled faced men, women and children. Like everyone else in the area, these people would wave as you drove by. But sometimes, some of the younger ones would come running up to the street and point, too.
Once, I was riding in the back of a pickup with my cousin and little sister – who was probably barely kindergarten age at the time. A band of redheaded boys who looked between the ages of 6 and 15 jogged to the road, all wide eyes and dirty scabbed knees. One of the older ones pointed us out to the younger boys as we drove by, and because we were trundling along at a slow pace we could hear him say “Them’s girls.”
This little enclave had a matriarch who was usually outside too. She was a large woman, proof that poverty doesn’t mean starvation if you’ve got a garden and a gaggle of boys to send out hunting and fishing. She always wore bright colored patchy housedresses, and would usually be sitting on the rickety stairs leading out of one of the trailers. She’d have a big bowl of something – usually corn – in her lap, and would grin and munch away happily as we rode by. Sometimes she’d have a spoon. Sometimes, she’d just be using her fingers.
Dad and my grandparents always called that stretch of road “Hollywood.” I called it “Hillbilly Road,” and so the woman became “The Corn Lady of Hillbilly Road.”
If The Corn Lady is still alive and kicking (or eating), she’d plant a big bare foot in my ass for my whiny thoughts about vacations or lack thereof. I’d bet my last dollar that she’s never been out of Tunnelton, let alone to a beach or on a cruise ship.
I’ve lived near or in Baltimore City all my life. In spite of that, the most fierce poverty I’ve ever seen was there on Hillbilly Road. But you know what? I don’t ever recall The Corn Lady or any of the others on that road looking bitter, angry, frustrated or unfriendly. I remember wide-eyed wonder, and children playing inventive games, and broad, friendly faces. I remember mothers holding babies and toddlers tussling with puppies and a lady in a patchy dress eating corn and looking like she wouldn’t trade her lot in life for all the world.
Of course, you don’t see what goes on behind closed doors just by riding up a road. I’m sure there was tons of hardship and family bickering, drunken brawls and health problems that couldn’t be cured by mountain remedies in those shacks, too. But there’s still a lesson to be learned there, because in spite of all that, I saw more welcoming smiles on Hillbilly Road than I ever see walking into a convenience store alongside all the other harried urban worker-bees on a Monday morning.
I don’t have much. I work like a plow horse but still just makes ends meet with the most frayed of threads. I miss vacations and travel and the feeling of not stressing when I look at my bank account. But I also have my writing, and a thread of hope that maybe someday it will help me change that. I have love and a nice home and a hell of a lot more security than the Corn Lady. Yet she always managed to smile.
You never know what lessons the people who cross your path have to teach – sometimes you don’t grasp them for decades. But looking back at Hillbilly Road, I know I’m blessed to be spending any little snippets of summer vacation I get right here at home.