My deep and abiding love for West Virginia has been a lifetime in the making. The result, no doubt, of countless weekends and vacations spent in the Wild and Wonderful state. I learned everything I needed to know about life during those long and lazy trips, all courtesy of my father.
I learned to slow down and listen while snapping peas and shucking corn with the old timers after supper. Learned to appreciate the simple moments while listening for woodpeckers, whippoorwills, and bullfrogs. To enjoy solitude through hiking, fishing, and driving proudly away on my first four-wheeler. I learned a sense of community over infinite hands of Uno and rounds of horseshoes with distant cousins, neighbors, and friends. I learned that hard work pays off in the garden, and teamwork pays off in a canoe. And I learned from the generations of military in my family and others that freedom isn’t free, but it is worth fighting for.
My dad’s devotion to his home state, his people and their legacy is profound. His disposition reverent. It was through his insistence and enthusiasm that I slowly came to understand the beauty of the region. Not just the jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring views, but the slow and steady pace in which everything seems to move. The courtesy in the people. The size of their hearts. The rich sense of history and pride tucked into everything from the home-cooked meals to the lilting drawl of a native West Virginian’s tongue.
I grew up on the twang and truth of country music. Not just the current hits heard on the radio, but the songs that paved the way for those. The sounds of Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, and Patsy Cline. Kenny and Dolly duets and many more. Folks often pulled up a chair to join us, sometimes with a spittoon and frequently with a guitar. In fact, some of my favorite artists probably never performed for an audience larger than the one on our front porch.
We watched reruns of Hee Haw, Red Skelton and Rawhide on a black and white tube television, well into the 1990’s, enjoying the connection to times long past I realize now. As a teen, I’d wondered why Dad and all his people were so content to be behind. Like the Bellamy Brothers song, I thought, old hippies who didn’t want to change. Where was their internet? Where were their cell phones? The logistical answer was that the most populated areas get things like cell phone towers and internet availability first, and those services simply hadn’t made it to Smithfield, West Virginia yet. Even today there isn’t a cell tower close enough to my parents’ home for anyone to get a signal, but at least there’s internet now. Those things matter to me, but the general attitude from Dad and many others nearby is still Who needs it? And What’s the hurry? In their day, people came to visit or wrote letters. If you stop by and sit a spell, they’ll tell you all about it.
Conversations at mealtimes are the best. You never know what you might hear, at home or at the local diner, but it won’t be exactly the same story twice. After all, it’s hard to keep the details of a fish story straight, and no one wants to be caught exaggerating. I suppose those things were easier before everyone carried a cell phone with a camera and measuring app in their pockets. Now a six-inch bass is only that, and “Pics or it didn’t happen,” is the cry of the people. I guess it’s not all bad news that cell service is spotty and the towers far between.
The food, like the conversation, is the stuff dreams are made of. Burgers are made with real meat from local cows. Venison and catfish are on every menu, and carbs come with every entree, usually in multiple forms. Folks drink Coca Cola, even when it’s actually Pepsi or Mountain Dew. And the only way to enjoy an iced tea is old-fashioned and sweet, preferably served in a mason jar.
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Respecting history and upholding traditions is a way of life in rural, small town West Virginia. They pass around old photos and tell their favorite stories by the hour to keep the memories, and their loved ones, alive. Because people matter. The past matters. And remembering both creates a foundation on which to build a quality future. West Virginians want the best for this world. They are hard workers, lovers, fighters and patriots. They farm the land. Care for their animals. Love their children. And unlike many folks in busier, more populated locations, these communities are present in their lives.
At eighty-years-old, my dad still hunts, fishes and farms. Though, his garden is smaller these days (it’s just him and Mom). And he doesn’t stay away quite as long during deer and squirrel seasons (his favorites), mostly because he doesn’t need the meat, and he won’t intentionally create waste. He’s never killed for sport alone. But he goes nonetheless. To enjoy the peace, the freedom and the solitude the forest has to offer. He goes in remembrance and appreciation of the skills and wildlife that once fed him and his many hungry siblings. To recall long days of his youth, when hunting meant eating, and coming home empty-handed meant going out tomorrow already hungry. He goes to acknowledge the abundance that makes it possible for him to stay home if he wants today.
He still fillets every fish dumb enough to take hold of his hook, and he’s kind enough to share those with anyone he can. Same with the foods from his garden. And on Veteran’s Day, you’ll find him at the local cemetery, putting flags on graves and visiting the fallen, whose families couldn’t be there. He hoards old photos and records like they are gold, because to him, they are. They are his history. His legacy. His heart. My dad is West Virginia, and I am his little girl. So, while it’s true, I was born and raised in Northeastern, Ohio, I grew up in West Virginia. I take my kids to him as often as I can now, and when I’m away, I carry all he’s taught me in my heart.
Julie’s latest cozy mystery, Apple Cider Slaying is set at an apple orchard in West Virginia. Learn more about her and her writing at her website, and then follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram.
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