Friday, April 01, 2011

Alphabet Meme: C is for Charlottesville, VA

My father was born and raised in Charlottesville, VA. When I wrote my post about my mother, I mentioned that she was living there when she started dating him. Although I grew up in North Carolina, we had no family in Winston-Salem. When my mother's father died (shortly before I was born), my mother's mother ended up moving to Charlottesville (to that very same apartment where my mother had lived when she and my father got engaged). My father's mother (long a widow by the time I came along) lived in Charlottesville, as did his sister (my aunt), her husband, and her daughter. My mother's brother and his first wife moved there, too, and so my cousins on that side of the family (a boy and two girls) also all lived there.

Since basically our whole family lived in Charlottesville, you can see why we visited often when I was a child. It seems to me that we made that long 4-hour drive about every six weeks or so, especially once my mother's mother moved into assisted living, then fell and broke her hip, and began to suffer from dementia. Typically, we went up for a weekend, but there were blocks of time in the summer when we'd go stay for a week or two. I think there was one summer when we actually went up for a whole month.

It was worth the interminable drive. I loved Charlottesville and visiting with my grandmothers and cousins. It was a far more exciting place than Winston-Salem. Everything was better there: swimming pools; overgrown box bushes at my aunt's house that made great "houses" to hide and play in; books to read that we didn't have at home; horses to ride and barns to explore at the farm where my cousins lived; my grandmother Michie's (Grandmic, we all called her) cool "modern" house (built in 1969. My parents live there now) nestled in the woods, with the Blue Ridge and Ragged Mountains as beautiful backdrops; even chocolate pudding that tasted far better than anything we could get at home. Also, it always seemed to be snowing in Charlottesville when it was raining in Winston-Salem, and, well, you all know how I love snow.

When we were really lucky, we got to go to my great uncle's house, which had a pond where we could swim and a row boat when we got tired of swimming (my father swam in that pond when he was a boy, too, and my guess is the often-leaky-and-frequently-patched row boat had been around just about as long). This old family estate was where my grandmother had been raised and was supposedly home to a ghost (a beautiful bride dating from the Civil War era. If I recall correctly, she and her husband had hidden in the attic, so he wouldn't have to leave her to go off and fight in the war -- or maybe that's just the romantic tale I made of it. Does it really matter? -- where she'd died). My grandmother had woken up one night to see that ghost brushing her long hair in the window and had mistaken it for one of her sisters, until she turned to realize her sister was in bed beside her. I haven't changed. I heard that story many times as a child, and every time we visited "Spring Hill," as it's still called, I both hoped I would and hoped I wouldn't see that ghost, just like I do when I enter the church here at night, all alone, and both hope I will and hope I won't happen to see a ghost from the nineteenth century sitting in a pew.

Is it any wonder that when it came time for me to go to college, I chose Charlottesville? My teenage years are full of memories of being taken to things like football games and homecoming parties by my father, who pretended he wasn't thrilled when I began to show a decided interest in attending his alma mater. I was convinced I'd never get in (mainly because my lousy guidance counselor had been terribly discouraging), and no one was more surprised than I when that acceptance package arrived in the mail (ironically, during a weekend when I was visiting my sister in Chapel Hill, NC, where she was in school, and where I had already resigned myself that I'd be going. My parents called to ask if I wanted them to open it. My father had a bottle of champagne waiting when I returned home).

Charlottesville was a whole new place for me during my college years, a place where I met dear friends who are still dear friends today. When you go to college in such a beautiful setting, it really is hard to be depressed too long, even when you think you've just failed an econ test (which I hadn't. I just thought I had), you walk out of the classroom building, sit on one of the walls that surrounds it, look up at Thomas Jefferson's magnificent Rotunda, the sky as "sky blue" as it can possibly be, the St.- Patrick's-Green lawn stretched out below you, and think, "I am so damn lucky to get to be in such a place." My days were spent studying all kinds of fascinating subjects, and my nights and weekends were spent doing things like going to parties; going to see classic movies, both at school and at the marvelous Vinegar Hill Theater (the only time I've ever really made an attempt to do something about my movie ignorance. There was just so much to see, and it was all relatively cheap); going to concerts (standouts were Talking Heads, UB40, and B.B. King, all of whom came to play at the school) , watching my team play football, and basketball, and soccer, and lacrosse -- and actually playing football and soccer myself, when I got roped into being on an intramural team (that was disastrous for our team, I promise you, but no one made fun of me the way they had during recess when I was a kid).

Once I graduated, Charlottesville was a place I went back to visit relatives (who'd been severely neglected while I was in school -- even the cousin who'd attended the university the same time I did. She and I "ran with different crowds") and friends who were either still in school or who'd never left town. Often, I was bringing other friends along with me, which gave me the chance to revisit places like Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's fascinating home (pictured above. So much of the Charlottesville architecture looks like that), and The Michie Tavern, a historic tavern that is distantly related to my family but is no direct connection. Unfortunately, by then, favorite spots from my childhood that had better food than the tavern, like The University Cafeteria, which closed after my first year in college, were long gone. They live on in my memory, though. I can still taste their fried chicken (the best!), mashed potatoes, and green beans, heavily salted and cooked in fatback (the way green beans should be served. Heart attack be damned).

Over ten years ago now (and I cannot believe it's been that long), my parents moved back to Charlottesville, so now it's the place I go to visit them. I still bring friends along when I can, which still gives me the opportunity to visit my old haunting grounds. Every one of them has a ghost of Emily at a different age -- 6, 12, 18, 25. She's smiling and skipping, stopping to admire the flowering dogwoods in the spring or to pick up a perfect, dark red leaf in the fall, or to make a snow angel in the snow. It's one of the few places on this planet where I feel at home, and if something horrible were to happen to Bob, you'd probably find me moving back there.

That's why C is for Charlottesville.


litlove said...

What a lovely post! I can see how full of wonderful memories this place is for you - isn't one of the greatest lures a place where you have been very happy? The memory of happiness past can often bolster the optimistic side of our natures when things are bad, I think.

Grad said...

Charlottesville is where my eldest son and only grandchild live. I is a lovely of the prettiest I've ever seen. I could drive around those mountains all day and never get tired of the scenery. Some pretty good vineyards, too, and of course, all the history.

Emily Barton said...

Litlove, how true that the memory of happiness past can bolster the optimistic side of our natures. It is a lovely place, full of all kinds of happy memories.

Grad, oh, so could I drive around those mountains all day and never get tired of the scenery -- and even bit to sit outside a winery, eating and sipping something yummy, and looking up at them.