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  • Writer's pictureGina Greenlee, Author

Back in the Day Vol. 3: Virginia

White Pig
Image credit: Christopher Carson @Unsplash

During every summer of my childhood, my parents and I road-tripped to Clarksville, Virginia, the home of my mother’s foster family and the only maternal relatives I knew. I adored those vacations. For two weeks Uncle John, Aunt Jen and Aunt Hattie fawned over me and I spent time in an all-Black community I didn’t fear.

Aunt Hattie, the matriarch of the family, was in her 70s during those years. Although she wasn't blood-related to my mother, Hattie was family because she took my mother in and raised her from age four after her mother died and father ran off.

Uncle John and Aunt Jen owned a pig and vegetable farm. When I wasn’t playing with cousin Juney (short for Junior, which was short for John Junior) I was Dad and Uncle John’s shadow, except when they went to the hog pen.

My father would grab a fistful of bottled beers while Uncle John toted his rifle, warning me to stay at the house. Later, as I sat on the porch with my insect collection anticipating a big family dinner, I’d hear a single gunshot that vaulted me out of my skin.

Every other day, Juney and I fed the pigs after lunch. I sloshed through my watermelon slices so I could bag the rinds together with my nubby corncobs to carry to the pen. Once there, I hoisted myself onto the second slat of the wood fence. I hurled my offering toward the center of the pen, away from the fence, fearful of the grunting pigs that collided into each other for their bounty. With my hands grasping the top slat, my skinny arms outstretched for balance, I leaned backward and swayed while watching Juney toss the rest of the slop.

The first and only time Juney took me to the smokehouse, I enjoyed the familiar smell of Aunt Hattie’s kitchen, but didn’t like what I saw: bronzed, salted carcasses dangling from the ceiling by their feet, the eventual fate of the squealing critters I'd just fed.

Breakfast was a gastronomic celebration, a boisterous event filled with bacon strips, smoked ham, grits – which I'd glob with five pats of butter and several shakes of salt and pepper – eggs, which I refused to eat, scrapple, toast with more butter and Aunt Hattie’s homemade jam. Afterward, I hung around the house during those lazy, green-filled, smokehouse days of summer in Virginia, hoping it would never end.

Road between green fields
Image credit: George Hiles @Unsplash

Delightful as it was visiting the farm, the nine-hour drive from Manhattan was a nightmare: virtually non-stop, except for one or two pullovers at Howard Johnson's where I'd be too nauseous to eat, especially since my mother had a penchant for plying me with snacks of chopped egg salad on squeegee white bread.

Not much conversation on those trips. My parents looked straight ahead. And between bouts of turning green and hanging out of the window I’d play with games or puzzles but mostly, I was in my head. I imagined: how long it would take to get to the farm; how I'd run to the pen to slop the hogs; the endless array of southern home cooking and my two cherished activities – catching fireflies in a jar at dusk, and rambling drives with my father down lone, winding country roads, listening to the quiet as our rental car rolled up and down the hills. I'd watch the illusion of the sun's heat reflect like water, then upon the approach, quickly wash back into dry cement.

Image credit: Libby Pokorski @Unsplash

It was a free and easy time during those summer vacations on the farm. A time to forget. When only a sniff away from Hattie and Jen’s southern magic, I could forget that I'd never been hugged or kissed by my mother. I could forget how adrift and vulnerable I felt back home, fitting in with neither Blacks nor Jews. For two glorious, daisy-drenched weeks of summer, I could forget.

Black and Blintzes Book Cover


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