by Regan Sands
I take a deep breath before stepping out of my car, onto the familiar pavement leading up to my grandmother’s single wide trailer. I adjust my blazer as my eyes sweep the expanse of farmland that was my playground most of my childhood. It had never occurred to me back then how little we had, but my grandmother ensured that I never went without necessities or adventure. Memories from my childhood flood my mind with every step I take on the pathway to the trailer- summer days spent sending water bottle Viking ships racing down the creek; fall days playing in piles of leaves sizeable to the mountains surrounding me; spring days planting a garden.
I walk slowly up the porch steps, thinking about the innumerable times I raced up those steps and barged in- into my home. While one would think these memories would be a blanket welcoming me home, but my hand shakes with the discomfort of a stranger as I knock.
I am greeted by a warm, smiling old woman, my grandmother. Her small stature wraps me in a tight embrace, reminding me of a much simpler time when all my problems could be solved by her presence. She welcomes me in, and I take off my shoes; my (admittedly last season) Louis Vuitton pumps looking out of place by her muddy work boots. She helps me with my bags, her tired eyes and wrinkled skin reflect a lifetime of hard work, while her smile radiates light and beauty. Looking at the woman who raised me, I notice the tired in her eyes. I wonder how long it has been there, and I just hadn’t noticed.
“Ivy!” She hugs me once again, as her soft, melodic voice draws out the beginning vowel sound of my name, as if she is savoring each syllable. “It’s ‘bout time you youngin’ came back up this holler to visit yer Mawmaw! Honey, I ain’t seen you since you was headin’ off to that there university,” her tone waxes and wanes as the sound of her voice dances over each word. Her accent feels like a familiar, yet uncomfortable, web connecting her to the same kind of magic and history that floats among the mountains and trees, as if she is communicating with them. Her voice is that of many generations of women before her, their struggles and triumphs ringing through her Appalachian drawl.
“Grandmother, I appreciate your hospitality. I have been meaning to visit, but I have been extremely busy as of late. You know how those court cases go, with the…” I trail off, sparing her of my career induced rambles that she probably would neither understand nor be interested in. I felt a little anxious about coming to visit, not to mention more than a little guilty that I had been away for so long, but I had come to help her sort out some legal matters with my grandfather’s will, as he had passed recently.
“Don’t you worry ‘bout that Ivy darlin’, Mawmaw’s just glad you’re here, and can help me sort out all this legal whatnot. Why, your Pawpaw’d, bless his heart, he’d done been ashamed of all this confusin’ talk in his last will.” She shakes her head as she picks up one of my bags and carries it back into the master bedroom; I follow with my suitcase and final duffle bag after her.
I use the term “master bedroom” loosely, as it is a quaint little room with barely enough space for a bed and night table. This had been my grandparents’ room, but since Grandfather passed, Grandmother had been sleeping in my old room. She said that it was too sad to sleep in their old room anymore. “Now you can stay in here, Ivy honey. Mawmaw’ll sleep in your old room, if you don’t mind,” I can see the sadness in her eyes as she looks around the bedroom.
“Of course!” I smile and take her hand, walking her towards the kitchen, wanting to distract her from the sadness of being in the old room. We walk through the living room to get to the kitchen, the TV playing an old western movie, my grandmother’s favorite. Growing up, she would always try to get me to watch them with her, but I was never interested. “Do you have anything to drink? If I remember correctly, you’re quite fond of your tea,” I inquire.
My grandmother lights up at the request. “I’ll get us some tea. Then we can come on outside and sit a spell,” my grandmother offers as she pours two glasses of sweet tea. “It’s real nice out today.” I listen in awe to the sounds I missed. Believe it or not, I used to speak just like my grandmother, if not worse, from the long, drawn-out vowels, fluxing pitch, and the infamous dropping of the “g” in “-ing” words. My schoolteachers would always get a kick out of role on the first day of class because I would introduce myself as “Ivy,” drawing out the “I” sound as long as the history of The Mountain State.
My grandparents always prioritized my education. Growing up, they made a lot of sacrifices to ensure that I could get whatever tutoring I needed (usually math) and could take ACT prep courses. Between our hard work and hours spent perfecting applications, I managed to receive a full ride to Harvard, and then get accepted into Yale Law. My whole family was ecstatic. Growing up in rural West Virginia, meant that everyone in the holler had full details to everything about my achievements. Neighbors bragged about me as if I were their own child, but no one was as proud of me as my grandmother was. She would swell up with pride whenever she talked about me. Her eyes lit up, and she wore a huge grin when people asked about me. “Honey, my granddaughter is goin’ up there to that Harvard school with all them folks to get an education! She’s gonna make it, thanks to them books and the good Lord,” she would declare.
An old, beat up Chevy truck comes up the driveway, interrupting my reminiscing. A young, smiling woman gets out of the rusty truck and walks quickly up to the porch, stopping at the bottom step. I recognize her as my cousin, Grace. We are the same age, but I haven’t seen her since before I went off to college. “Afternoon, Aunt Hattie. Sorry ‘bout your loss, Uncle John was an awful good man,” her voice dancing the same old dance as my grandmother’s. “Momma wanted me to come over and check in on you and all-,” she stops midsentence. “Ivy? Is that you up there?”
“It sure is, Grace, honey! Ivy done came all this way just to help me. Now quit all this actin’ like a stranger and give us a hug!” Grandmother stands as she invites Grace up. My cousin walks up the steps and gives my grandmother a hug, and then gives me one. “You goin’ stay for dinner, Grace? I’m fixin’ Ivy’s favorite- chicken and dumplins and all the fixins!”
“Thank you, ma’am! I’d love to stay! And Ivy, I’ve got a great idea! How ‘bout you and me go take a walk round the property? You ain’t been down there in ages, and we used to play down there together all the time when we was youngins.” Grace smiles at me excitedly.
“Umm, I don’t know. I’m not really…” I stammer, not really wanting to go. Sure, I had spent a lot of my childhood playing with Grace in the field, but that was a long time ago. I’m not the outdoorsy type anymore. “Plus, I’m not really dressed for it, and I didn’t bring any old clothes,” I add, silently hoping they would accept my excuse. Sure, it might be interesting to explore, but I was planning on getting straight to work going over the will so I could get it done.
“Oh nonsense, Ivy! You go play with your cousin.” My grandmother jumps up and grabs my arm, leading me in the house. “Now, we’ll have to do something about them clothes and shoes of yours,” she looks over at my pumps, shaking her head. “Them ain’t practical at all, my dear.” My grandmother giggles as she goes into her closet. “Here, hon. Here’s ya some boots and clothes to wear,” she hands me a stack of clothes and boots.
I walk into the bathroom and close the door, placing the clothes on the counter. I take my blazer off, folding it carefully and running my fingers along the buttons. I pick up the t-shirt my grandmother gave me, and immediately recognize it as my old softball team. My grandparents had been so proud when I made the high school softball team. They didn’t miss a single game, and my grandmother would try her best to pitch to me in the yard after dinner, so I could practice batting. That had been so long ago. It’s amazing she had kept this shirt for so long. I change into the tee, and put on the old jeans in the stack, as well. I chuckle as I notice that my grandmother had thought of everything and pull socks out of the old boots she gave me.
“Aww, so there’s still a country girl in you after all,” my Grandmother chuckles as I walk out of the bathroom dressed in the t-shirt, old jeans, and boots. “Now you girls take your time and have fun out there. I would go with y’all, but I’m fixin’ to start on supper. Them potatoes ain’t gonna peel themselves!” My grandmother walks Grace and me out the door, waving goodbye as we head down the steps.
“So, Ivy, we haven’t seen much of each other since you went off to college. What’s new in your life? You’ve changed so much! Why, I hardly recognized you!” Grace links her arm in mine as we walk towards the wide field, lined with trees. I’m overwhelmed with the amount of nature around me. It’s such a change from the packed city streets I’ve grown accustomed to. What amazes me the most is the sky. It seems so clear and open, like I could just take off into it and escape the troubles of the world forever. I could be the modern-day Icarus, free to soar to wherever I want, fulfilling my dream of getting out of here. I could travel to far away places, where I could start over, creating my own identity and destiny. However, unlike Icarus, I would be armed with my education and could resist making his mistakes.
Snapping out of my daydream, I respond to Grace, “Well, I’ve just been really busy with school, and now work. Everything is so different up there. You wouldn’t believe the cities. They’re beautiful, but there’s hardly any green,” I smile and drag my feet in the grass. “And the smell and the noise. I think that’s the worst. You don’t notice it until you’re away from it. I guess you just get used to it, but it’s so peaceful here.”
“You know, your mawmaw would go on and on about how well you’re doing, and I’d always be a little bit jealous. I used to dream about going off to some big city.” Grace chuckles and looks at the ground as she walks. “I mean I love it here. I couldn’t leave, because my family is here. I belong here.”
Grace’s last statement struck me as powerful. “You know, Grace, I miss it here. I had a really hard time when I first moved up to Harvard. Pretty much everyone made fun of me. I remember standing in front of my mirror, watching accent reduction videos and trying to mimic their mouth shapes,” shaking my head in disbelief of the extent to which I had tried to fit in. I had always been proud to say that I am from West Virginia, but when I got to school, my heritage became more of a badge of shame, rather than honor. What I (and probably the admissions board) saw as hard work and close knit, rural community overcoming adversity, my peers saw as “white trash” and “hillbilly.” “It feels so weird being back here again though, like it’s home, but at the same time, it isn’t,” I admit to Grace.
“I sure am sorry you had to go through all of that, Ivy,” Grace puts her hand around my shoulder as we walk. “But you’re home here. And you ain’t gotta act like nobody but yourself. We’re your family!”
“It’s just,” I take a pause and stop walking, “I feel like I can’t be the Ivy that you know and the Ivy who is a lawyer, if that makes any sense.” I look at the trees around me, marveling in their size. They’re smaller than the skyscrapers I’m used to, but for some reason, their presence is more prominent than even the tallest of buildings. The mountains, steady and wise, are calling to me, like they did many years ago. “I want this to be home again, but I don’t know if it can be, Grace. It’s like I tried so hard to lose my accent, dress like everyone else does, and act like my peers, that I don’t know how to be myself anymore. I’m too city for here and too “redneck” for there.”
“I understand, Ivy. How bout we go home and talk to Aunt Hattie over dinner? Dinner is bound to be almost done, and you know how she is about dinner being late!” We both laugh, knowing far too well that my grandmother can’t stand dinner being late. We walk back to the trailer in silence and sit down at the dinner table.
“How was your walk, girls?” My grandmother smiles as she sets her homemade biscuits on the table. My mouth waters at the sight of the feast in front of me- fried chicken, green beans, mashed potatoes, biscuits, and salad, all waiting for me. It is definitely a big change from my college and early career diet of ramen noodles and spaghetti from a can.
“It was really good,” I begin, “Grace and I ju-…” Grace interrupts me midsentence.
“Aunt Hattie, Ivy done told me that she don’t feel like she belongs here,” Grace shares quickly. “She says she ain’t like she used to be and doesn’t know who she is anymore since she went to school.” My mouth drops at Grace’s outburst. I start to stammer in defense and embarrassment.
“Come here, child. I think I have something that will help, Ivy.” My grandmother wraps her strong arms around me and slips something into my hands. I look at it, and it’s an old book. The cover, yellow and tattered, with a proud, yet humble, Chinese youth standing in front of a beautiful, rural countryside. The title of the book is The Good Earth, and the author is Pearl S. Buck, a name I think I vaguely remember from West Virginia History class.
“What’s this?” I inquisitively flip through the pages, well-worn with time and use. I know my grandmother is an avid reader, but I don’t remember ever seeing this particular book. She was usually more a fan of mysteries and sappy romances.
“Now I want you to read this, Ivy. I think it’ll help you sort out what you’re thinking. My momma done gave me this when I was about your age, and it made a world of difference. The woman who wrote this did an awful lot of soul searching too. You’ll find your place in this world, dear. Read this tonight, and we can settle the will matters later.” My grandmother gives me a big hug once again, and I walk into my grandparents’ old room. I sit on the bed and turn on the lamp; I have a strange feeling that what my gra-, mawmaw, said just might be true as I flip to the first page.