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Essays

A Child’s View of Tooties Mountain

KMB Johnson

 

Grandma Tootie’s house was on a hill off State Route 629, named Douthat State Park Road, in Clifton Forge, Virginia. Tootie’s real name was Phoebe Virginia, but she earned the nickname Tootie sometime in her life, and this was what we called her. Wilson’s Creek ran alongside both her house and the two hunting cabins she and her husband, Ersel, owned on the other side of the road on Wilson Creek Lane. We called them the Red Cabin and the Green Cabin. Tootie rented those cabins to the hunter’s in the fall, but myself, siblings and cousins had use of them in other seasons.

We would travel from our home in Rockingham County in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley to the splendid views of Allegheny County with its steep mountain sides jutting out slate rock, where pine trees were seeming to grow straight up out of nothing. It was familiar to me seeing trees grow up from flatter land, and smaller hills in the valley so those mountains were magical to me as if they held secrets that only those who lived there would ever know.

We might turn to the right onto Wilson Creek Lane toward the cabins, where we stayed in one or the other. Driving a few feet further and we took the left to drive up the partially paved, and weather jutted holes in her driveway. Dad skillfully maneuvered whatever green-colored car we seemed to ride in those days. Dad called all his cars the Green Hornet. The wheels of the Green Hornet would crunch onto the gravelly, deep-rutted driveway to make the steep climb a swerve this side to that side manner until turning slowly in a sharp left at the top, safely depositing my mother, two sisters, and two brothers at the upper part of Tootie’s mountain.

Tootie, her real name was Phoebe Virginia. I’d heard she didn’t like her name, though I secretly thought it pleasing, would be on the porch, or standing in the driveway dressed in sensible pants, flannel shirts or simply cotton tops, a man’s jacket, and hats of varying styles, depending on the time of year. She wore boots sometimes which looked like laced-up working boots a man would wear, and most were of course. Sometimes the hat and coat of choice covered her nightgown when we would arrive early in the morning to make a full day of our visit.

Her husband, Ersel, my mom’s step-dad would appear, but I was more interested in seeing Grandma Tootie. Ersel wore thick glasses on his big bulbous nose that made his eyes look way too big. I didn’t know then it was the glasses, I only thought his eyes were too big for his face, and that bothered me. He only came in handy when rescuing me from wobbly Granddaddy Long-Legged spiders or spooky little twigs with feelers which he explained were called Walking Sticks, an insect whose looks made it blend into its surroundings.

I remember my emotions confusing me. I was so happy to be there, yet tears welled up in my eyes as we squeaked the doors of that large boat’s doors open and all ran at the same time to gather around Tootie like the Bantam chickens she’d throw seed to when she fed them. I never understood as a child the tears came from the personality traits I was developing. A child prone to empathy and sensitivities surrounding a heart with a significant capability to love, all good traits proving helpful to me in years to come.

Tootie’s house had concrete steps leading up to the wooden porch where a bird’s nest and a wooden figure of a man rested on a ledge of the high window. The wooden figure painted in hues of flesh color, red and black. Depending on how you looked at it, seemed like a wolf, or a hillbilly, hat pulled over his eyes with a pipe sticking out of his mouth, shirt and trousers a bit shorter than they should be, and this became one of the items from Tootie’s synonymous with her home. I still have it today, and it rests on a ledge in my kitchen a reminder of days spent exploring nature’s wonders on her mountain. I learned to relish a simple life there.

Tootie’s home was simple but cozier than the cabins across the road. Through the front door, we stepped on a rag rug to wipe our shoes, then onto a wooden floor. She had an old sofa, a pillow or two, and a throw blanket for chillier days, or for taking a nap. Tootie’s home was spare of furniture. She had a sofa, recliner, rocking chair, and a small table and chairs sitting at the front window where we could eat and look out as far as the sharp turn. Many a time, the car of a family member or friend of Tootie’s would make the same bumpy ride of the driveway to the hilltop.

A wood heater vented to the outside through a paneled wall, Tootie’s home smelled of wood smoke, Sulphur water, and Pine-Sol®. It smelled of cooking pinto beans, or chicken and noodles, or potato soup, and I was happier when it was a huge stock pot of chicken and noodles, always my favorite.

Tootie’s Bible was always out near a chair she occupied that day, and you could see she read it daily by the worn out look to its pages and cover. Seeing her Bible well used told me it was her favorite book. Sometimes she would want to prove a point or to tell us a story and would show us where in those thin onion-skin pages where something had happened to someone in the Bible that related to something in which we were talking. She had a way of explaining those stories using her facial expressions, and the point of her fore-finger that made us listen up to whatever story she wanted to tell.

She would always have an odd assortment of books around, she liked to read westerns, and horse and wildlife magazines, and there might be a few women’s magazines like Good Housekeeping or Ladies Home Journal, but mostly the magazines were about hunting, fishing, wildlife, and horses. A small radio and a record player to listen to her gospel or country music nestled between the bedroom and kitchen of her tiny one-bedroom home. She had a Singer sewing machine tucked in that room near the kitchen and the entrance to the back screened porch, and it was almost always open at the ready.

Tootie’s house was small, but it was complete with its linoleum covered scant kitchen with a wood-burning cook stove and a gas range. The pint-sized home had a partial basement, dug out with dirt walls and old board shelves for canned vegetables and homemade preserves and pickles. Tootie made the best dill pickles, and those were my favorite. The floor was concrete or packed dirt, my memory has faded, but it was in this place where she washed her laundry using an old wringer washer.

The basement was also a place avoided as I didn’t like the steps that had no backs, and my fear was falling through them, though I don’t recall that anyone ever did, yet no one could persuade me otherwise. I would always sit down and scooch my way to the bottom one step at a time even though I’d get a warning of getting a splinter in my fanny coming down!

The bathroom was outside, back beyond the house. The outdoor toilet built with rough wood latched with a hook and eye closure outside. Inside, a hook and eye and small board on a nail fastened it from within. There on those rough and grayed walls, Ersel had penciled the dates and temperatures from many years both inside and out.

The outhouses, both behind her house and those at the cabins across the road, were always clean and smelled of sprinkled lime and Pine-Sol®. The outhouses also had webs and creepy spiders who miraculously rebuilt their homes seemingly overnight. I didn’t like this part, nor did I like lifting the toilet lid where my little girl fear was to be sucked down into that hole, never discovered. In case I couldn’t use it, Tootie also had a chamber pot at the ready when those fears nearly caused me to pee my pants. Nevertheless, those fears of spiders and dark murkiness never dampened my delight of those visits.

Everywhere were the towering pine trees, all types of pine and native Virginia trees, and tall weeds grew into what looked like trees. I imagine they were Choke Berry, Hawthorne, Virginia Creeper, and yes, Poison Oak and Ivy. I loved the smell of pine needles dropped from the trees onto cool, damp, rich, dank earth, mixed with fallen leaves and the sounds of the creek below. So many different specimens of leaves with varying colors to collect, pine cones, and acorns. None were the same, and we always toted so many of these playthings home, but none lasted past a thorough cleaning at home afterward by my mother.

Tootie kept a salt lick on the property and fed apples to the deer. Grandma Tootie was also a hunter, and she didn’t hunt for sport, but for food, and always got her bucks during hunting season. We’d walk the trails into the woods behind the barn, and she’d show us her practice targets for shooting and for her bow and arrow, which she was also very adept.

She was the smartest, wisest, and most active grandma I’d ever met, and this made me proud. Her simple life wasn’t free of heartache, but her simple way of living, her practical sensibilities taught me a love for the word of God, and that life could be comfortable even when simple, and most often we are happiest when we appreciate even the smallest things in this world. I have aspired to be like her though I feel I will always be somehow short of the unique quality that made Tootie who she was.

Alongside her house, there was a Shanty building. Inside, a black potbellied Franklin wood and coal stove, an old piano purchased from a church basement for a couple of dollars, and tables containing many bolts and remnants of rough, soft, silky, and shiny materials in all hues, patterns, and different sewing notions. Also, a concrete block garage which housed one of the two vehicles she and Ersel drove, a 1940’s Chevrolet with the neatest push button starter, and an early 70’s model white and red Ford Explorer.

Oh! That 40’s Chevrolet! It made a wah, wah, wah, wah escalating noise causing boisterous mockery of the sound from us children whenever we rode in the back seat as it climbed her potholed driveway coming home from the cabins. Tootie didn’t like us to make fun of her Susie Bell.

Past the garage and toward a thickly wooded area sat an old barn where Tootie kept her Quarter horses. I knew the other cousins could and had ridden them, but though I secretly desired to ride the horses alone, I never did. Tootie kept her Bantam chicks in a teeny log cabin turned chicken coop out back. The colorful Bantams could wander around on top of the hill. One of the most unusual pets Tootie kept was a rescued, defumed skunk named Stinker and we could feed her cheese.

There were many weeks and weekends spent at her home and cabins. On occasion, our cousins would join us to play in the creek bed below the cabins, lifting river rock and building dams to raise the water to play in, the fish nibbling at our backs, legs, feet, and toes. Sometimes, when we were old enough, we’d go down and take a bath or wash our hair with ivory soap, or on occasion, a shampoo smelling like strawberries.

Our visits were always too short. There never seemed to be enough time to hear Tootie’s hunting stories, or stories of who had visited, and other gossips we didn’t understand, but her laugh, her slow and precise way of telling a story, so enthralling. Too soon, our Green Hornet would back up and start toward the bend that led down the hill. My throat would swell, and my tears would form again. Though asked what was wrong, or told I was silly, I don’t believe anything was wrong, nor that I was silly. The heart in my chest was always too sentimental, too big for a small child’s understanding. I know I secretly worried whether she would be there the next time our car maneuvered up that hillside driveway.

 

I see her waving until the trees, and weed growth drowns out my line of vision, and I cry until I can swallow hard enough to stop.

aerial photography of pine trees on the mountain
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