Oak Trees and Apple Butter

I come from oak trees and apple butter. I come from a land of blue rolling mountains, weighed down by the weight of generations. A world where grand abandoned farmhouses dot the hillsides, and red brick churches line the roads.

I come from the Appalachians.

Growing up, my sisters and I swung on grape vines in the forest that grew wild behind our house, fruitlessly dared each other to explore dark caves, and sledded down the neighbors’ hill when they weren’t home. My mother pointed out magnolia leaves that had dried into tight rolls and told us that is where the fairies slept, and we collected acorn hats for elves to use as bowls. When black walnut trees took over the land near the road, my Nana and I cracked their hard green shells and baked black walnut blondies. We were the only two  in our family who enjoyed their sweet bitterness, and we held that in common.

Winters were mercifully short yet snow filled. When the blizzard of ’93 hit, we danced for joy; it only took one glance out of the window to realize school would be out for weeks. We piled on layers of socks and undergarments, threw on pink snow suits, and ran outside to dig, sled, and play for hours. We bounced back, sopping wet, and ate Campbell’s soup and saltine crackers while we waited for our noses to thaw. When our power went out, my parents drove us to our grandparents in North Carolina. A week later we returned to find our house still dark and ice cold, and so my father lit a fire in the living room where we slept, huddled together in sleeping bags. The electricity came on the next morning, in a surge that burnt my neighbor’s trailer down. The firetrucks stood watch helplessly, the water frozen in their hoses, and no fire hydrants for miles.

Appalachian summers stretched long and gloriously, filled with fairs to attend. We would buy jars of homemade jam and fairy crowns, and in election years, seek out every candidate’s booth for the free balloons and popcorn. Quieter summer days were reserved for running through sprinklers until we were matted in grass clippings and making Kool-aid on the deck. Once every summer, twice in good years, we would pick blueberries at a local farm; the sound of the plunking berries falling into my coffee can is one etched permanently into my memory.

In the fall, the hills were ablaze with the fire of maples, oaks, and sassafras showing off their true selves. Pumpkin butter topped toast, and we bobbed for apples at the church’s Halloween party.

Of course, no time or place is as perfect as the picture memory creates. A struggling economy plagued the hills and brought the expected problems along with it – poverty, drug abuse, and the like. As I grew, I longed to leave. I pictured the hills replaced by skyscrapers and envisioned myself surrounded by culture and diversity, eating at restaurants where I couldn’t pronounce the names of the dishes I ordered, walking streets where I found new discoveries instead of familiar faces.

It is one thing to realize you love the place you are from. It is another to realize you love it only after you have already left.

Every time I go home, I realize I have traveled a little further away. The streets are slightly less familiar, and the faces are growing older or moving away. One summer visit home, I was surprised to learn my toddlers were scared of the cricket’s endless song and the call of the coal train, sounds that had comforted me when I couldn’t fall asleep on hot summer nights. They are growing up in a different world, and their home is not my home.

I will cook the boys apple butter, and teach them about the oak trees that do not grow on this side of the country. I do not regret my decision to leave, having found a home and grown a family in a different range of a mountains.

When my oldest boy developed croup, the raking cough that torments young children in their sleep and is best treated by cold night air, on our last night visiting home, I wrapped him in warm blankets and sat outside with his Papa on their patio. His crying ceased instantly when he saw the stars stretching over us. “Stars!” he hoarsely called out. I had missed the Virginia stars, so easily found in the quiet darkness of our empty hillsides, and forgotten how stunning they were.  He is little, and will not remember the stars, just as I did not remember, just as none of us can remember the homes of our youth with perfect impartiality. We filter out the trivial and the painful, making room instead for pails full of blueberries and star filled summer nights, oak trees and apple butter.

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