When my father was laid off from the Heinz factory in New Jersey
in the late 1970’s, my parents decided to move back to the state of their birth, West Virginia. I remembered it from former visits as a land of loving relatives, of dark, black coal, and nature in a way I’d never experienced: flowering dogwoods and wide-opened morning glories. And then there were the hillsides of trillium, still one of my favorite memories of the place. I couldn’t wait to move, especially when I saw how excited my parents were.
Before we moved, my father checked out books from our local library on how to build a house. I remember wondering how such a thing could possibly be done; I was eight and building seemed a kind of magic.
He also checked out some of the Little House books. Later, they’d buy a set, treating them, it seemed, as much as a how-to series as books that really were so, a remarkable feat.
Dad started right in on the house, because we were sleeping in two campers in the meantime. When Dad had done all he could to build the house with nothing by way of instruction but books and a little help from a neighbor, my mother’s brothers rushed to help roof the house, a show of familial unity that warmed our hearts. We had lived in New Jersey away from the family for a very long time, only visiting on occasion. This, too, reminded me of Little House books, where extended family was shown to be so very important, but distance kept them apart. Except it was the opposite in our case.
Many of my parents’ enterprises during my childhood after the move had the flavor of Pa Ingalls’s endless projects. But while the Ingalls raised and butchered a pig, my father bought a pig and couldn’t bear to kill it; he sold it instead. I was glad he sold it, because we had named it Jill. My mother didn’t care for chickens, so mercifully I, an anxious child, didn’t have yet one more animal to fear.
My father didn’t find a tree full of honey like Pa Ingalls did, but he
Much like Pa Ingalls and his propensity for building, my dad built whatever we needed: our house, even though he’d never had experience building one, a pen for that pig, outbuildings, a chimney from the ground up, a root cellar for storing the jars of green beans, tomatoes, and corn from our garden. We dug that cellar by hand, swinging out reused lard buckets now full of dirt until we made enough space to install shelves. Between the buckets and using a pickaxe, my hands were blistered, but the result was worth it.
My dad dug the earth for a garden with a tiller instead of with a horse and plough, but it required a pre-clearing similar to Pa Ingalls’ type, since the land around the house we built hadn’t been touched in decades. Axes and hacksaws and then, chainsaws for the bigger trees.
The lean years brought our family the most happiness; employment
Our family was very poor for a time, but my parents made miracles out of scraps: they took hand-me-down clothes and made cozy if not fancy quilts. Working side by side, my parents labored over the patches. Always I seemed to find a parallel, if I tried, between them and the Ingalls.
When refilling the propane gas tank became prohibitively expensive, my father put a wood and coal burner in our house, something I equated with the fireplace in Little House. He and my mother stayed up late nights literally keeping the fires burning. Even though I did not like working outdoors in the heat of summer (I was always susceptible to overheating), and though I’d rather have read than do pretty much anything else at the time, I found myself happily watching firewood pile up as my father split the wood from fallen trees and stacking up firewood, loading the arms of me and my siblings as we walked back and forth to the wood pile, though mercifully it not during a snowstorm like poor Laura Ingalls when she and her sister Mary had to carry wood during a snowstorm.
The well dried up, so my father ran a line of PVC from a spring to our house. When it froze or dried up, we used lard buckets again – albeit clean ones – to carry water from the creek for baths and cooking.
Snowy days found Dad making snow ice cream. He took the rawest of ingredients out of our low stock and created what seemed impossible foods: donuts, onion rings, hush puppies.
Every weekend was filled with projects, attempts to bring in money to cover the electric bill, to buy some gas, whatever. Somehow, though, they became adventures with no one saying how important they were.
My father believed in big breakfasts: pans of biscuits, huge skillets of gravy, sausage if we had it, maybe bacon, or plain. Or platters of pancakes with homemade syrup and sides of sausage. He would get up early on a weekend and sing and hum as he made breakfast, then call for us to wake up. My later teenaged self would groan and attempt to open my eyes, wondering why we had to eat before daylight. While the family used to tease me about how much I liked to sleep, no one ever mentioned to my dad how often he napped. I figure it equaled out. Thank goodness I didn’t consider using that bit of sarcasm at the time.
While perhaps his habit of cooking big meals (lunch and supper were often the same: pots of pinto beans, chili or vegetable soup, meatloaf, and baked beans with a side of green beans) differs from the Ingalls, Dad enjoyed cooking for his family. He baked cornbread, pone bread, and “fried” bread, the same recipe he used for pancakes. Cast iron skillets heaped with potatoes fried in lard were a treat.
Much as the Ingalls’ Christmas was supplemented by the care barrel sent them from back east, government commodities stretched our food budget: huge hunks of American cheese in plain cardboard boxes, powdered milk, honey, and butter, once luxuries, became important staples that added variety to our diet and options we didn’t otherwise have.
Pa Ingalls went away to work on the railroad; my father went to work for HUD, pulling back trailers that had been used as temporary housing for those caught in a flood years before. While employment made life easier financially, we missed him. He worked long days, long hours. But then the seasons of no work came, and he was home. Money might be tight, and we might have to give up phone service or sell the family car, but there would be Dad again, in the kitchen, cooking, singing Sixteen Tons. And the world would be right.
I took mental notes and sometimes even journaled during my childhood and early teen years, thinking maybe sometime, like Laura, I might write about my unique upbringing. I knew what was happening was a special period of time, one that, once I went off to college (and I knew that somehow, sometime, that would happen), nothing would ever be the same. Unfortunately, I don’t have my early journals anymore. We don’t always know what to value when we are young. That applies to more than just journals.
Drēma Drudge suffers from Stendhal’s Syndrome, the condition in which one becomes overwhelmed in the presence of great art. She attended Spalding University’s MFA in Creative Writing Program where she learned to transform that intensity into fiction.
Drēma has been writing in one capacity or another since she was nine, starting with terrible poems and graduating to melodramatic stories in junior high that her classmates passed around literature class.
She and her husband, musician and writer Barry Drudge, live in Indiana where they record their biweekly podcast, Writing All the Things, when not traveling. Her first novel, VICTORINE, was literally written in six countries while she and her husband wandered the globe. The pair has two grown children.
In addition to writing fiction, Drēma has served as a writing coach, freelance writer, and educator. She’s represented by literary agent Lisa Gallagher of Defiore and Company.
For more about her writing, art, and travels, please visit her WEBSITE