In the beginning my hometown of Schuyler, Virginia, was a company town, the home of The Alberene Stone Corporation that quarried and milled soapstone. We lived in company built houses and bought our goods from the company store. Schuyler had been a prosperous little village but when the Great Depression came the mill closed. My father found work in Waynesboro and could only be home with his family on holidays and weekends.
I remember a Thanksgiving from those years. Mornings were strangely quiet because the whistle calling the workers to the mill was still in observance of the holiday. On this Thanksgiving morning the sound that woke us was that of my father, home for the holiday, building a fire in the wood-burning cook stove. He drenched the wood with kerosene and when he lit it with a match the flames mad a whooshing sound as they roared up the chimney.
Shortly, he called down the hall to my mother, “Sweetheart,” which was his name for her till his dying day. My mother answered, “I’m on my way,” and joined him in the kitchen. They spoke quietly to each other, sharing private moments. Soon the sound of coffee percolating and the aroma of sizzling bacon would drift up to our rooms.
We descended upon them, eight red headed brothers and sisters, crowding around the stove to warm up. Breakfast was served at a long wooden trestle table my father had built and while we ate he would admire his brood and call us his “thoroughbreds.”
Each of us was assigned chores. The girls helped our mother wash and dry the dishes, make the beds, washing and iron the clothes. The boys tended to outside chores. There was the cow to be milked. She was a brown and white Guernsey. My father had bought her from Miss Dolly Hall for forty dollars. Miss Dolly had named her Chance because she gave a “good chance” of butter. The chickens had been up before us and were waiting for the grain we tossed to them on the frosty ground. Feeding the pigs was a melancholy chore. They had intelligent eyes and looked up trustingly as we poured slops into their tough. I knew, and it pained me, but they were unaware that they did not have long to live.
Our Father had brought home the turkey the day before. He had shot it over on Wales Mountain and my mother was already preparing it for the oven when company began to arrive.
We were part of two great clans. My mother’s family, the Gianinnis, was of Italian descent and came from the town of Lucca in the Tuscany region. The earliest to arrive in our country was Antionio and his wife. Antonio had been brought over by Phillip Mazzi, a neighbor of Thomas Jefferson’s and eventually he became one of Jefferson’s gardeners. They were tall blond people for the most part, God fearing Baptist with strong family bonds.
In addition to my mother’s family, most of whom lived close by, my father’s people, aunts and uncles and cousins would arrive from Richmond and Petersburg. We were in awe of the city cousins. They used slang words that were new to us such as “guy” “jerk” or “kiddo” which made us feel naïve and countrified. We children would travel in packs, playing the old games of Hide and Go Seek, Olly, Olly Oxen Free, and in the nearby school yard we would shoot baskets or play baseball, or find a plowed field where we searched for arrowheads and fools gold.
In the house the conversation grew in pitch and volume as everybody talked at once. Hardly anybody heard what the other was saying but everybody knew what was going on. We are a family of storytellers. No event is without significance to us, and all that happens becomes a part of our history. We keep and share every detail. Our reunions become a verbal history of birth and death, of failures and accomplishments, of hardships and good times and just celebrating the joy of being together again. Being an aspiring writer I shamelessly kept notes!
At one point everybody piled into cars and went to the graveyard where we paid respects to our dead. The more recent graves bore markers with names and dates carved or engraved on them. In the older section we came to earlier graves marked simply by a single primitive stone with no lettering to tell the name of who rested beneath it.
On the way home one of the uncles made a detour down to Esmont to visit the Staples Sisters who made bootleg apple brandy. He brought a bottle back with him and it was surreptitiously passed from one of the uncles to the other. If she caught sight of it one of the wives would disapprove but her scolding did not last long for someone moved to the piano and soon all the grown ups had their arms around each other, swaying back and forth while singing “In the Garden” or “Down by The Old Mill Stream” or “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.”
In the late afternoon dinner was served. If my Grandmother Gianinni was there she would say a proper grace, but if she was not my father said, “Look out, Lord, we’re gonna eat!” A grace that Miss Ora looked upon with great disfavor. What a feast ensued! The turkey, golden brown, had a minimum of birdshot left in it! The applesauce was made from fruit we had gathered from an abandoned orchard down on Mt. Alto. The butter beans, the corn, and the peas came come from our summer garden and canned by my mother. The potatoes flavored with Chance’s rich butter were not mashed but creamed. Finally desserts. The sweet potato pie, still warm from the oven, was encased in a crust so crumbly and sweet that it alone could have been a dessert. And then came the pumpkin pie, steaming aromas of brown sugar and nutmeg, and all laced with generous portions of whipped cream. All of it was accompanied by milk for the children, coffee for the adults and if requested iced tea as sweet as sugar cane.
At sundown out-of-town guests drifted off to whatever relative had taken them in for the night. Others, sated with food and companionship, gathered around the radio for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Thanksgiving message. Sleepy, exhausted children were carted off to bed. It was a family custom that we would call goodnight to each other from room to room and finally, we would drift off to sleep secure in the knowledge that we were home, safe and loved.
They were challenging times, those Depression Years. They seem so distant now. We thought we were poor, but in them we were richer than we knew.
The house where we lived fell into disrepair for a while, but happily it was bought by someone I respect and admire and am most grateful to, a fellow Virginian, Pam Rutherford. She has restored the house from top to bottom. I was afraid that when I visited there after the restoration I might be disappointed but Pam has paid such incredible attention to detail that when I was there a couple of weeks ago I walked thought the door and I was home again.