Hiraeth – by Rhonda E Carper

I read somewhere—and it has remained in my consciousness—that there are years that ask questions and years that answer; I’m pretty sure it was Zora Neale Hurston who wrote that. For me, last year, 2022, was one of the latter years.

In my mind’s eye I saw the panorama of my life. I revisited those I loved and those who loved me. I lingered on memories, seeking different perspectives and struggling to conjure voices. After forty years, I had forgotten my grandmother’s voice.

I heard the tumbling of dice inside of a tan and yellow Yahtzee cup, and I was back on the beige damask sofa in Aunt Virginia’s living room. She was happiest with extended family all around her, eating, drinking, talking, and playing: casseroles on TV trays, sweet tea in that stainless steel pitcher of hers, Dixie cups, Harveys Bristol Cream, toys, yard darts. It all came flooding back to me, to my heart, last year.

I saw Aunt Mary Jo, driving her chocolate brown station wagon with Aunt Virginia in the passenger seat navigating. The creases in the Rand McNally fought Virginia every mile of road. “Well, piddle,” said Aunt Virginia in resignation. With her right hand at one o’clock on the steering wheel and left hand deep into a one-pound bag of Mister Bee potato chips, Aunt Mary Jo remarked, “We’ll just keep going until we get there.” These were, of course, the times before cell phones, DVD players, or iPads. Yet Aunt Mary Jo managed to entertain a-station-wagonful-of cousins from one scenic overlook to another, on both sides of the country.

Aunt Virginia, for her part, scoffed at convention. More than once, she introduced me to and escorted me—I was younger then—into forbidden territory which may have involved a lido show or two. Decades before some advertising agency invented the slogan for Las Vegas, Aunt Virginia may have been the first to say, “What happens here, stays here.” She was, to all of us, camp director, and Aunt Mary Jo and my grandmother were her accomplices in mischief: Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer.

When one of my aunts bought a particular pair of shoes, before you knew it all of her sisters had bought the same pair. And if the original store didn’t have the right size, they’d just get in the car and check out the Belk the next city over. The same went for blouses, housecoats, and accessories. In old family photos, my mother, aunts, and grandmother unfailingly appear in matching blouses and shoes.

In summers, my own mother and father were working, so I would spend my time in a carload of cousins trying to contain chaos. I knew, even at the time, that I was part of something extraordinary, something idyllic. Aunt Mary Jo and Aunt Virginia—and you couldn’t think of one without the other—shared a love like the calm before and after the storm. In their adulthood, they rarely weathered the same storm until Mary Jo had the temerity to leave West Virginia: first to Maryland, then to  Pennsylvania, then to New Mexico, finally to Utah.

As the coal mines of West Virginia shuttered, Mary Jo’s husband had shepherded his large family to wherever he believed there was work for him. The family’s wanderings didn’t go without comment, and their regular visits home, like swallows to Capistrano, gave birth to a family ritual. Sheets were laundered, quilts were spread across beds, floors mopped spic and span, beans simmered on stoves, chicken fried golden brown, jello moulded, and pies and cakes at attention underneath Tupperware domes and sheets of Reynolds wax paper. Those of us who had remained behind in West Virginia looked forward to Mary Jo’s regular returns, to that chocolate brown station wagon rolling around that big curve.

They say that opportunity, exposure, and education shape how children view the world. But I say that the heart lays a lens across those experiences and focuses the sight. My heart had—and has—so many people in it.

In summer 1981, with five kids in tow, my aunts embarked to Colonial Williamsburg. I remember Aunt Virginia’s suggesting to my cousin Marybeth and me that we consider working at Colonial Williamsburg the following summer. “Wouldn’t that be fun?” she said, more than once. (Did she get that, I wonder, from Yahtzee, the FUN game that makes THINKING fun?) While I could not picture myself in apron and bonnet, Virginia presented us with job applications on parchment paper. (To this day, I have it in my scrapbook.)

Aunt Virginia wanted us all to have experiences, to get out into the world. She rarely missed one of my school events. My formal acting career began and came to its conclusion at four years of age.  I was, of course, an angel in the Springfield United Methodist Church’s Kiddie College Christmas pageant in 1969.  While “Ginny” as I called her then arrived on opening night early to ensure our family’s seating on the first pews, she suggested that I present myself with the humility of an angel, but with flair.  “Twinkle, honey,” she said as she adjusted my tin foil halo.  At four years old, I was doing well to walk onto the stage and take my position behind the manger. Through the cacophony of kindergarten voices singing approximations of the lyrics to We Three Kings, my Ginny stood outside the pew with her instamatic camera.  Except for the starkness of the sudden bursts of light coming from the flashcubes, the audience may have mistaken the blinding light for the Holy Ghost. Like most amateur starlets, I wasn’t sure what happened on stage that night, but my stage debut was followed by an after party.  All special occasions ended with spumoni ice cream at The Peacock Inn.  More than fifty years later, I can still hear my Ginny ordering my Shirley Temple and spumoni ice cream as if we would have nothing less on such an occasion as this. 

On my sixteenth birthday, she drove all the way down from her home to take me to get my driver’s license; she was miffed my parents were away on a business trip rather than celebrating my birthday with me. Aunt Virginia, who following an accident died in 1994, always loved me and she spoiled me.  She was one of those special people in life who loved me unconditionally.  When I got into an occasional scrape, she looked me right in the eye. “Well, Hellfire,” she’d say in disgust as she punctuated the remark with a reference to me being headstrong just like my father.  Whatever the infraction, it became part of the past never to be mentioned again.

Shortly before Christmas last year, I arrived home one day to be greeted by a FedEx package leaning against my garage door. As I knew I had not recently ordered anything, I was curious as to its sender might be. It was from Aunt Mary Jo’s oldest daughter, all the way from Utah. Mary Jo, who had died a few weeks earlier, had left the oldest daughter in the family specific instructions for the contents of the package.

Inside the package were two pristine quilts stitched by my grandmother. On one quilt were designs made from scraps of clothing my grandmother made for me. The other quilt replicated the one I used to sleep under at my grandmother’s home all those many years ago. And wedged in between the two quilts, a tiny snow-white jeweler’s box. The box cradled a ring that had belonged to my grandmother. 

I am certain the images in my mind’s eye would make more sense if I made them linear. In 2022—the year that answered—I came to understand that all those summer miles sitting behind my aunts in that chocolate brown station wagon and all those Yahtzee scorecards I touch every once in a while have forged who I am today.

Soon, my cousins will be coming back East to welcome another daughter into our family. When she settles into life, I hope she senses all of the wonder and love coming from those who came before her. May the scraps on quilts stitched by her grandmothers convey to her their stories. May we teach her to honor them by investing her heart in her family and ensuring the roots on our family tree remain planted for generations to come.

If she takes after the other women in her extended family, she will be an adventurer and have a love for potato chips.

As a native West Virginian who comes from a rich tradition of storytelling, words have always held particular value to Rhonda. She earned a degree in Broadcast Journalism hoping to tell stories through words and video, but soon realized it was the written word she loved most. As a twenty-something, she began a career in public education first as an English teacher, then as an administrator. Now in her retirement, she spends her time teaching literature to young people in a cottage school setting and contribute to a non-profit organization that helps young people find their voices through an in-school writing program.

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