By Bethany Jarmul
I’d left it all behind—the sun-faded trailer and asbestos-filled house with broken-teeth windows at the entrance of the dead-end street; the man with pit-stained tank top, cigarette hanging from the corner of his lips, cat purring around his legs; the dogs, one or two in each yard—barking, howling, whining; the rusted cars—some in spots, others all over; the smell of burning wood and the distant gunshots in the woods; touching our neighbor’s house with my fingertips and ours with my toes; hills so steep you can scrape the bottom of your car on the cracked asphalt; neighbors that know when your mail piles up, lawn mower breaks, when you’re sunbathing or laughing or fighting with your sister over a borrowed sweater found balled up beneath your bed; the way the houses start to peel or grow moss or lose their shutters; the Appalachian Mountains as both beautiful backdrop and formidable, omniscient jailers.
I’d left it all behind at 18 when I accumulated enough scholarships to attend an out-of-state college, a few hours north, a state away, far enough to feel like I’d escaped. I’ve visited my parents a few times each year, but each time with a rubber-band ball of dread bouncing in my gut, lurching up my throat with each pothole that I hit or swerve to avoid.
I’m 30 with a family of my own, we’re visiting my parents for the July 4th holiday. The next town over, Stonewood, West Virginia, where my mother grew up, is celebrating its 75th anniversary with a festival. We’re at the festival, sitting at folding tables inside the local fire station—me, my husband, and our two-year-old son who is enjoying a purple-grape snowcone. My mother is nearby chatting with someone.
“Bethany, I want you to meet Willa Jean. I taught with her at Norwood,” Mom leads an older woman over toward me.
Willa Jean—I’ll soon learn—is 88. She wears glasses, sunspots, make-up in the creases around her mouth. She smiles wide as she talks, standing so close that I can see her nose hairs when I look up at her from my seat.
“You know, I went to Norwood from 1st through 9th grade. Then, I taught there for 30 years. And I didn’t even go to college until after my kids were in first and second grade. When I went to Fairmont for college it was 99 dollars per semester!”
“Wow!” I say, realizing she’s lived her entire life in this tiny town.
“I have my great grandkids over every Sunday and feed all of them.”
“How many do you have?” my mom asks.
“13,” she says.
We chat about her children, grandchildren, community activities. I cut off a few of those rubber bands on the ball inside my gut.
“I see her out-and-about all the time,” my mom tells me after Willa Jean leaves. “She’s 88, but she doesn’t let that stop her. She always says, ‘The Lord has been good to me.’ She’s volunteering here cleaning off the tables all day; bless her heart.”
More rubber bands dissolve.
As we explore the festival, the smell of pepperoni rolls and kettle corn hangs in the humid air, clings to our clothes and the sweat under our arms. In my suburban, near-city life, I’m accustomed to seas of unfamiliar faces. Here, my mother stops to greet an acquaintance or friend every 10-feet, getting pulled into conversations, greeted with handshakes or hugs.
My son sees a booth selling cake and cookies. “Cake. I want cake!” He runs over and reaches toward the table.
“No, no. We’re not buying cake,” I say.
One of the young men who is working the booth says, “Would he like a cookie?” and pulls out a bag of peanut butter cookies. “Here, reach your hand in there and grab one. You can have it for free. It’s our snack.”
My son reaches his hand in and grabs two.
“Oh sure, you can have two.” The man smiles.
I thank him, feel the ball in my gut shrinking to the size of a marble.
During the rest of the weekend we splash in a blow-up pool, hang out on a deck with neighbors and sip flavored water, swing on the porch swing, read books, sit in the sun, discuss theology with my dad late into the night, light sparklers.
On our way home, the ball of dread is gone. I turn to my husband and say, “Something was different this time. I don’t feel the angst that I used to feel when I went back home.”
Home—I hadn’t thought about it like that for years.
Porch-sitting; pepperoni rolls, hoagies, hotdogs with chili sauce, blackberry cobblers with vanilla ice cream, apple juice popsicles; neighbors who watch you grow, strangers who offer cookies, share stories; fireflies and firepits and fireworks; bare toes in mossy grass, sunshine and shade and splashing in the creek; folksy fiddle music that plays between my ears long after the musicians are gone; $10 in my pocket for a festival meal; the earthy smell after a rain, earthworms emerging from warm soil, robins feasting; being known by a place and the people of that place, feeling that place reverberating in your chest, soaking into your pores, pickling your heart; growing deep roots—I’d left it all behind.
About the Author: Bethany Jarmul is a writer, essayist, and editor. Her work has appeared in The Citron Review, Brevity blog, Gastropoda, Literary Mama, and Sky Island Journal among others. She earned first place in Women On Writing‘s Q2 2022 essay contest. She lives near Pittsburgh with her family. Follow her on Twitter: @BethanyJarmul.