“The Junebug” is an essay I wrote for my grandmother’s birthday. It was published in the apparantly short-lived Fortitude Online Magazine.
That’s what I want for my birthday,” you said, your eyes crinkling as you smiled at me. “I want a story about the Junebug.”
Oh boy, I thought. What have I gotten myself into now? But I just nodded, because after all you’ve done for me, that seemed the least that I could do in return.
You have given me so much. In a literal sense, there were the bags filled with presents you and Granddad always brought to the house on Christmas morning. You’d be red-cheeked and laughing, and those bags filled with surprises were bigger than me. Of course I loved those Christmas mornings, and those presents. What little girl wouldn’t? But they aren’t what I mean when I speak of what you’ve given me.
I mean the long evenings in your little house on Third avenue, making terrariums with colored sand, or sugar cookies with equally bright candied decorations. I mean the weekend trips to see our family in the secluded mountains of Tunnelton, West Virginia. I mean those endless nights sitting by the campfire and looking out over the Cheat River while you and Aunt Fuzzy told ghost stories. I’m talking about the whoopee cushions in Uncle Don’s bed, the weekly jaunts to Sunday School even though I really hated dressing up, and the two of us singing “El Vira” at the top of our lungs in the car as Granddad navigated those winding mountain roads.
I’m talking about life.
You and Granddad moved from that little town in West Virginia, away from the endless stretches of mountains and farm houses and pastures, long before I was born. You moved from wooded privacy and quiet country nights to a row home in Baltimore City, and it was there you raised the freckle-faced boy who would grow up to be my father. So of course, since he was born and bred in the city, that was where he would meet my mother and make his own life.
If it wasn’t for you, and how willing you were to take me on your frequent trips “home to the hills,” I never would have known that quieter way of living. My childhood world was a good one, a suburban slice of happiness with a stay-at-home mom and regular trips to the roller rink and long lazy summer days swimming in the little above-ground pool that sat in our postage stamp of a backyard.
It was good, but you made it even better when you loaded my bags in the back of your car and hauled me along with you on those trips you and Granddad took back to West Virginia to see your mothers (your fathers were both long-gone), your siblings and their children. Every moment of those trips made me who I am, from our chorus of “take me home, countrrryyy roads” in the car (poor Granddad’s ears must have bled – I realize that now) to those fleeting days of horseback rides, traipsing along the creek in search of salamanders and crawdads, and happy evenings of sitting in Great-Grandma’s kitchen, surrounded by the chatter of family and the smell of fresh-baked pepperoni rolls.
I would have had a good life if I’d just grown up a city girl. But it has been wonderful because of the gift you gave me when you showed me another side of living. Although I’ve never been able to leave my bustling city existence, knowing the peace and closeness to family that kind of rural life brings has made me try to put just a little bit of country and slower-paced living into my own home and routine.
Doing so is what has kept me sane, and I can’t thank you enough for that. So your simple request, a little story about your Junebug, surely isn’t too much to ask.
But ever since you mentioned it, I’ve been stumped.
I’ve written stories for you since I was a little girl. You’d tell me tales of your life, of growing up with my great-aunt and great-uncles in those mountains, and I’d listen all wide-eyed and excited, because your experiences were so different from mine. There were stories of squirrel hunting with Uncle Wade, and of racing past the old cemetery when you walked your best girlfriend home after dark, the graveyard where most of the headstones belonged to our long-gone relations. There were the tales of meeting Granddad in a one-room schoolhouse when you were all of fourteen or fifteen, something I couldn’t begin to imagine. There were the stories of you and Aunt Fuzzy choking back your laughter when Great-Granddad got drunk and tried to sing. Those in particular always had me howling with laughter, since I didn’t have to worry about offending him myself.
You’d tell me those stories, and I’d take them home in my mind and mull them over. The pictures your words painted were so vivid I barely needed the help your old photographs gave me. I could picture all of you, what you said and what you did, and the words flowed quickly.
My first batch of stories was nothing but a little girl’s chicken scratch illustrated with some stick figures. As I got older, the penmanship improved, and the stick figures disappeared. By the time I tried seriously compiling your memoirs, sometime in my twenties, I could no longer bring words alive with pen and paper. Like so many my age, I had become so accustomed to using my computer that I needed the tapping of my fingers on the keyboard to weave words into stories.
From that first pencil-smudged booklet I gave you when you still pulled my hair into pigtails to that more recent collection carefully compiled by a grown woman who loved your life, I have to admit that those stories came easy. Writing them was fun, and felt so much like a stroll down memory lane that I might almost have been writing them about myself.
The Junebug is another of the true-life stories you told me, time and time again. It never made it into my compilations.
For those who weren’t there to hear you tell the tale, The Junebug is a boat. Just a small rowboat really, painted baby blue and created to set sail, as much as rowboats do such a thing, on the Cheat River. She’s made for two people, three or four if all but two happen to be little children. She is made for lazy days of fishing or just enjoying the view along the river, where endless mountains stretch up to meet the sky, a clear fine blue in the spring and fall and a murkier haze in the dead of summer. In the heart of autumn, those mountains flare up in a blaze of color that puts any fireworks display to shame.
The Junebug was where you and Granddad spent some of your finest hours, which is saying something since the hours that the two of you have grabbed life by the tail together are so numerous. I can picture him, still young and sporting a handsome head of dark, slicked-back hair, trolling you down the river in the Junebug on a crisp October day. You are all springy chestnut curls, bright green-blue eyes, and a perfect smile that rivaled even the autumn mountainside in its brightness. Perhaps Dad is there with you, years before he’ll even think of being a father. His only thought that day might be the mischief he’s creating with Granddad’s fishing bait. Or perhaps it is you and Granddad alone on the river, because after all, the Junebug was his gift to you.
Today, many such little rowboats dot the waters and shores of the Cheat River. As boats go, they are among the cheapest, and even those without big bank accounts can own them. In the mountains, where there are no movie theaters and strip malls and take-out joints, where it is still common for a home to have just one television if any, and for that television not to be hi-def, there is absolutely nothing more fun than to take to the water on a warm day. I’m sure such little boats were common in your day too, that on your jaunts along the Cheat in your Junebug, there were many other couples in their own small crafts who smiled and waved as you coasted by, all of you sharing your slice of nature with each other and the trout and minnows.
But the Junebug was unique. She was yours, a gift of love from Granddad to you.
Other men buy flowers and chocolates, or sparkly rings and tennis bracelets. Other men put on stuffy suits and take their wives to theaters, or perhaps ignore them altogether unless they need a fresh beer from the fridge in the middle of Sunday’s game.
Not Granddad. Granddad built you a boat.
He has always been a carpenter. That was never how he earned his living, but it was always how he soothed his mind, showed his creative spirit, and one of the many ways he left his mark on the world. So when he thought the two of you should have a boat, a vessel for him to row you along the waters and take you places he couldn’t take you otherwise, he didn’t go and buy one. He built her.
He built her, and he painted her baby blue and named her after you. You’re his Norma June. She’s your Junebug.
When you left the mountains of West Virginia and moved to the bustling streets and clustered row homes of Baltimore, you couldn’t take Junebug with you. But the wonderful thing about family, at least when they are what they should be, is that they look out for you and yours. Your brothers kept the Junebug for you, and she was there for your return visits.
Those visits don’t happen anymore. It isn’t out of lack of desire. But time can be cruel. The two young teenagers who met in a one-room schoolhouse are now in their eighties, the freckle-faced boy is closing in on sixty, and his own daughters are sailing into their thirties and forties without their own Junebugs to row.
That’s not the cruel part, of course. That’s just life. The cruel part is that long before you greeted your 80th year, Granddad suffered health issues that confined him to a wheelchair and took away the use of his arm and his voice. Granddad was never big on words, but his love was shown in what he created with his hands. For me, it was a dollhouse. For mom, it was a beautiful, gently rocking swing.
For you, it was the Junebug.
Yes, it has been far too long since you’ve been with your family in the mountains, and even longer than that since you and Granddad set sail in your baby blue bug. So I can only imagine how it pulled at your heartstrings when your youngest brother – youngest meaning he’s now seen 70 – called to tell you that when cleaning out some old property, he stumbled upon the Junebug.
She still looked almost like new, he said, still baby blue and ready for a ride.
You were flooded with the urge to go and see her, to grab your oars and row down the river with Granddad as you did so long ago. Since you can’t, you decided that the next best thing would be a story about her.
Ever since you made that request of me, over coffee in your living room during one of my too-infrequent visits, I’ve been stewing in what I’d do. I wondered why I’d never written about the Junebug before. After all, she is a big part of our family history, and I’ve certainly done more than my share of jotting the rest of it down. Why had I always left her behind, and why even now did I struggle with putting her into words?
That question has lingered in my mind these past few weeks, as your birthday grows near. I thought about it while slapping on the makeup that creates my work-face. I thought about while sitting in longwinded meetings in stuffy conference rooms. I thought about it at night, when my boyfriend was dozing beside me but I couldn’t seem to find sleep.
Then it hit me. I’ve written just about all your stories, but left the Junebug untouched, because I wasn’t ready for her.
She’s just a little blue rowboat, not a yacht or a cruise ship. What in that simplicity is something for which I don’t yet feel worthy?
Every other story I’ve written for you had a punch line. Your brothers scared you in the cemetery when you and your girlfriend were walking home, making you run like the wind in your feed-sack dresses. Your father croaked like a bullfrog in a pond when he found his front porch and his whisky. Your youngest brother earned his nickname, Hop, from reminding all of the older children of a little toad. Your sister’s future husband tormented your father with a whoopee cushion, since he hadn’t yet been trained like the rest of you to not poke fun at the patriarch. My father was a little boy who had never had indoor plumbing when you transported him to Baltimore, and he invited all his new neighborhood buddies to your house so he could show them how the toilet flushed, not realizing that to them this miracle was old news.
These slices of life were real, and raucous, and funny. They were family snapshots at their finest. They had a start and a finish. Woven together, they told a larger story, but they also each stood on their own.
The Junebug, quite frankly, is a lot bigger.
The Junebug is an expression of love that until recently, I probably just didn’t understand. Granddad created her because the thought of coasting along the river in something cozy, bright and blue reminded him of you. She was his tribute to the woman he wanted to raise his family with, the person he wanted to sail into middle and then old age with, in much the same way you’d float down that river on a calm day.
She was how he saw you in the bloom of your twenties. She’s still how he sees you when he looks at you today.
I could not quite grasp that kind of love. I’m still not sure I can. You and Granddad have made marriage look like an adventure, a carnival ride that might get scary at times, but one that you’re glad you’re experiencing together. You’ve made meeting as just-barely-teens and standing by each other’s sides into ripe old age look like a cakewalk, and I know it isn’t. I struggled to make my own marriage last ten years, and I thought then that I understood love. I’ve been lucky enough to find love again, and on the day I turned 40, the one I found it with presented me with a song.
Granddad’s art was woodwork. Lee’s is music. But the realization that someone loves you enough to use their artistic spirit to tell you so is pretty much the same.
The Junebug is love, not in its first thrilling blushes but in a sturdy and lasting kind of way. I’m still learning that love, myself, although you and Granddad had pretty much figured it out when you were half my age.
The Junebug is endurance. After countless excursions, loaded down with passengers on the river, she was put away. She lay waiting on the floor of some dark and most likely dank building for years. Her journeys had stopped. If she could feel, she would have been bored and aching for sunlight.
Perhaps you and Granddad have felt much the same way in the years since Granddad’s stroke. The earlier, better times were spent on the river of life, sometimes coasting along easily and sometimes rowing fast and furious, but always together and always surrounded by beauty if you just looked high or deep enough.
These last few years have felt like a stalemate, more confined and with far less room for each of you to stretch your wings. Perhaps, like the Junebug, you’ve felt trapped in endless days of sitting, wishing and waiting.
But that’s the thing. Like the Junebug, you have remained beautiful and bright, yet simple and sturdy. She came out of that shed looking like herself, and although the world you and Granddad live in now is much smaller than the one that took you down winding river bends, you both still glow so warmly within it.
Your commitment to each other through these rougher, leaner years has been something that many will never know. There are not many that have the strength in their love and the perseverance in their spirits to face challenges that change their whole lives and still stay side-by-side, able to look to the sky together and still appreciate its soft, warm blue, even though the world sometimes feels so much colder.
When people write about love, it is often the tale of young couples on the brink of a new life. But that isn’t what I think of anymore. I think of a man in his wheelchair, in his own small postage stamp of a yard on a warm September day. And I think of the woman beside him in her own chair, her legs sometimes aching and her eyes more often tired, but still shining with love when she looks at him.
He is the creator of her Junebug. And she is his Norma June.
I think that’s why I never wrote about the Junebug. I may be forty, which I know sounds young to you but sometimes feels quite ancient to me, yet I am still a novice at many things.
I am a novice at writing, and do best with stories that have beginnings and ends. But I am also a novice at enduring love, and a writer writes best about what she knows.
The Junebug is a story of enduring love. That is a story I am still learning to live and to write. With the example of you and Granddad to follow, I don’t think I can fail.