I was raised in Suffolk, Virginia, a town unheard of to most, but when I proudly proclaim it’s the PEANUT CAPITAL of the WORLD! I’m sure they’re impressed.
Growing up, my bedroom windows provided views of the sun setting over the corn, in the summer, a herd of cows grazing in the winter, and a forest reflecting the season, by the color of it’s leaves. In high school, my window also provided an alarm clock, as my horse pranced over at 7 am on the dot, to neigh for her breakfast. When I told this to my boys, one of them wanted to know if I grew up on the frontier, and my oldest laughed to think a horse can tell time. Believe it or not, they can.
My parents were quirkier than most. (I hope they’ll talk to me after this) My father pinched the copper so much, we didn’t have air conditioning, until I was preteen. An attic fan blew hot air through our windows during the day, and allowed us to fall asleep to the music of cicadas, at night.
My mother had her share of quirks as well, especially when it came to food, it was all natural, no preservatives or artificial colors. Early mornings and sundowns we’d find Momma in the garden, and she was as dark skinned as her Cherokee ancestors.
Duncan Hines or store bought birthday cakes never cast their scary shadows on our kitchen counters, for everything was wholesome and pure. Years of homemade cakes later, my PaPa admitted he took double the antacid after our birthday celebrations, because our cakes were hard and dry.
Momma feared microwaves would make us glow in the dark, so she wouldn’t try one, until we were well in our teen years. I believe she waited to see if anyone died of radiation, before she relented. She also went through a wheat germ phase. As our mouth watered over our dinner plate, along came the spoon full of wheat germ.
“No, not the wheat germ!” I’d protectively cover my mashed potatoes.
“It’ll move your bowels,” she said, while prying my hands away. I probably lost a few pounds during the wheat germ phase.
Some days desert came from the woods. Daddy searched for sassafras root, while Mom put a bowl of sugar on the table. We dipped the root into the sugar and chewed on wood. We’d smile at each other, our teeth full of bark. I bet your mouths are watering now.
Blackberries grew wild in our woods as well. Momma would give us a basket, and we’d start off eating one, put one in the basket, then, eat two put one in the basket. On and on it went, until our baskets had nearly a handful. We’d try to slip past Momma to the bathroom, so we could clean up the evidence of our theft, but she always caught us black handed and black teethed..sort of speak.
The quirkiness of my parents fell into areas of education as well. I can’t remember a time, when my parents sat with us, while we did homework, but I remember many lessons they taught us, outside of text books. Each night, my father read the Bible to us, and family devotions ended with us kneeling by the sofa and saying our prayers. My sister’s prayers dragged on, as she thanked God for everything down to the dirt. Brandon (my brother) nudged me, and then I nudged her, to get her to wrap it up.
Music fell in the lap of my mother. She bought us the musical instruments, carted us to lessons after school, and made us listen to everything from gospel to Motown, depending on what mood she was in. Just like her wheat germ phase, she had music phases too. She’d pop an album into this furniture stereo which we’d turn sideways to get passed in our narrow hallway.
It was on the hallway floor leaning against that stereo, where I stared into the squinty eyes of John Denver. A man I knew could afford me a microwave and air conditioner. I decided I’d marry a blonde headed cowboy who could sing twang with conviction. “Rocky Mountain High…High… Colorado!” Thank goodness my taste changed.
Many nights, we gathered around the piano, with our instruments and jammed out on some gospel. (I would’ve denied this as a teenager) My Dad proudly proclaimed we are the “Carters!” as if we were the Gospel Griswolds.
As teenagers, we learned to dance in my mother’s bedroom, to movie soundtracks like Footloose and Flashdance. Momma was going through her midlife crisis at the ripe old age of 36, and let’s just say that girl could still move. During my high school years, we opened the windows and polished furniture to the compositions of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky. I still smell lemon oil in the air, when I hear classical music today. I know my wide range of musical taste, is because of my mother’s musical moods.
My art education came walking the sacred halls of the Chrysler Museum side by side with my father. Through his instruction, I learned the difference between Impressionism and Realism. He pointed to the old Masters and explained light, shadow, color, depth, and composition. I didn’t realize how much I remembered these mini lessons, in art, until I stood in front of my own easel and canvas.
He also pointed out the modern canvases with blobs of paint splashed on, and stated rather loudly, “Now that’s junk! Where’s the talent in that? My dog could paint that.” While astute admirers of what I’ll call “paint splotch” gave Daddy the look, I ran to catch up with Momma, leaving him to fend for himself.
On the James River, aboard Dad’s fishing boat we learned history. He pointed to the shorelines and islands, and told us the stories of settlers, Indians, colonists, and the Civil War.
Not only did we learn history from a boat, we also learned in a peanut field. After church, our family dug for artifacts in a field, where a Spanish trading post used to be. Here, Native Americans traded animal skins for Spanish glass beads. We’d plop dirt in a screen and sift all day, until a glass bead shimmered in the sun.
Other than glass beads, we found arrow heads, bullets from the Civil War, and Peace Pipes with intricate designs. Throughout my childhood, my favorite past times usually involved dirt, so I found it exhilarating to uncover history there too. Today, in Suffolk, Va. behind the Farm Fresh, there is a playground and tennis courts, where our sifting grounds once were.
Responsibility was learned through pets. My mother adopted any little animal she could find and declared it a pet. It could be a wild animal, but if Momma held it up and gave it a name, it was suddenly tame. She instructed us to keep it in our room, where it was a secret from Daddy, as if we could keep Noah’s ark a secret.
Whenever she brought a turtle home, we’d look it up in the encyclopedia to find out what type it was, and how to keep it alive. At any given time, we’d have up to 6 animals (let me clarify..not all in my room) from a guinea pig to a horse, and everything in between. Saturdays we spent a couple of hours cleaning out cages, aquariums, and a stall.
My mother loved animals so much, she took off her shoes right outside church, one Sunday, to chase a mouse across the churchyard. Everyone gathered on the sidewalk to see what Priscilla was up to, when she let out a blood curdling scream. The thing bit her. I assured her, I didn’t want a wild mouse in my ark anyway.
We learned many things about nature. At the peak of mountains, Dad spoke of God and His creations. He’d point out eagles, hawks, and crows, explain the types of trees, and why they grew larger on this side of the mountain, than the other. Momma thanked God for the beauty she beheld.
At the ocean we learned about sea life, currents, planets, and stars. No matter where we vacationed, we were learning.
My love of reading came from my mother. I could read and walk at the same time, not without my share of stumped toes. When my mother announced we were going to the library, I sprinted to the car. I loved books, but the library was air conditioned.
My father didn’t read well, when he married my mother. After he became a Christian, she taught him to read, and her textbook was the Bible. Night after night, they plugged away at verses, until he read proficiently. I guess you could say my father was home schooled. After learning to read, he became a self-educated man. Anytime I read a president’s biography, I try to stump him, but rarely do. If I ever have a question about anything, I normally ask Dad. He is a walking encyclopedia.
My favorite subject was writing. Weekly, my father came home with a writing assignment for me. He’d come to my room and say for example,“Tammy, write a poem about how you can look across a field, and see a patch of daffodils and know that’s where a house once stood.” So, I tossed my homework on the floor, and got to work. For any teachers of mine, the mystery of the missing homework, has been solved.
I’d write each story or poem, and he’d edit it and I’d rewrite and rewrite. A smile would light up his face over the final version, and he would declare, “Tammy, God made you a writer!” Hearing his praise was better than store bought birthday cake.
Although, there were many times my parents quirky ways embarrassed me, as I’m destined to embarrass my boys, I’m thankful for all the lessons they taught me along the way. From healthy eating to history, our time together covered a broad and vast amount of subjects, so I’m admitting I was home schooled, even though I rode a bus to Chesapeake, Virginia every day. For my lasting education didn’t come from a textbook or a classroom, it came from life.