Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The First House

This wasn't the first house we owned, or the second, but it was our first house in West Virginia. Very briefly. Overnight actually. The house was in Walton, West Virginia. The next day we moved all the way back to Virginia again. I saw the house today as I traveled US 119 North to Spencer, and had to stop and take this photo and smile in spite of myself.

Maybe I'd better start at the beginning of the story.

I first saw West Virginia when I was twenty. It was my first husband's 21st birthday and we went on a little road trip. He kept talking about buying beer and I could not see why that was so important. For a guy, I guess this is a rite of passage, but since I didn't like beer I couldn't see the point. I suggested taking a picnic to Skyline Drive. He could get a beer on the way home.

So off we went in our little red Volkswagen Superbeetle with our two young sons, George and Jon, in the back (This was August of 1971). We got to Skyline Drive and found the traffic was terrible; apparently we'd hit a hot tourist day. We took off down Route 11 towards Harrisonburg, VA, then turned onto another little road, looking for a likely spot to spread our picnic cloth. The road became one lane, then dirt. We continued driving, up and up into beautiful mountains. We found a picnic table on the side of the road and had our very late lunch looking out over the green hills. We had no idea where we were and we didn't care.

After lunch we continued driving. And driving. And driving. The road snaked across the ridges and eventually we saw that we were descending into a little village because we could see rooftops below us on the mountain. Then we saw the sign: "Sugar Grove." I consulted my map and realized we were in West Virginia. I had never seen such a beautiful place and I vowed then and there that I would move to this state no matter how long it took.

It took three years. When my husband was finally able to get his job with Xerox transferred, it was not to the eastern side of West Virginia but to Charleston, many more hours away. I didn't care. I wanted to move so badly it didn't matter where in the state we lived. Now I see how reckless and uninformed we were. We didn't know about floodplains or coal mines, mud roads or unemployment. We didn't know how hard it could be to make a living here. We just knew we wanted to get out of the DC area and into the mountains.

My husband moved first, living with my uncle while looking for a place for the rest of us. I stayed in Manassas with our by then four sons, taking care of the house and hoping it sold fast. I couldn't drive so being there alone was a little difficult, since I was about five miles out of town. But I managed.

After almost two months, my husband called to tell me he'd found a house. It wasn't fancy, he warned, but it was only $50 a month. I called my brothers and sisters and got a caravan of pickups together to help us move.

We drove across Rte 60, then took what looked like a shortcut on the map across Clay County. Remember I said we knew little about West Virginia? We knew nothing about the roads of Clay County and we traveled some wild and lonesome country before arriving, just after dark, at our new house.

The moving-in began immediately. It was a bit later, when I got to the kitchen, that I saw what this house really was. A dump. No sink, no fridge. Old, old faucets sticking out of the wall. You had to unplug the hot water heater to plug in the light. The toilet didn't work. There was no water. Windows were missing. There was no source of heat. There were roaches.

I blew up. Now, I'm usually a pretty calm person and see most problems as challenges. But after a 10-hour drive with four restless boys, I could not deal with what I was seeing. I yelled at my husband, he yelled back and we had a right big argument with my brothers and sisters looking on, mouths agape. Poor things, they'd worked so hard. And now I was saying that absolutely I could not live in this house and we'd have to move everything back to Virginia?

They finally settled us down and everyone dropped wearily into sleeping bags. During the night it rained. It poured, actually. We loaded everything back into the trucks in the morning before eating breakfast. The first truck pulled onto the dirt driveway and immediately got stuck because by then the dirt was deep, rich red mud.

I will spare you the cussing, screaming, and yelling that ensued. It became funny after a while though, and we had a regular mud bog with three trucks and a van all getting stuck and eventually getting out. We were all soaking wet, covered in mud and hungry. Where was the nearest place to get breakfast? The map came out again and we drove south to Clendenin.

In Clendenin we found the only restaurant--closed. It was a Sunday morning and everyone must have been at church. We stopped by the old iron bridge that led into town and dug through our stuff to find anything edible. We found bread, peanut butter and warm beer. I made sandwiches and handed them around. Nothing had ever tasted so good.

My brother Tom popped a top on a beer and chugged it. He wiped his lips and looked at me. "Man, there's nothing better than a warm beer before breakfast on a Sunday morning in Clendenin, West Virginia." I stared at him; it took a minute for it to sink in that he was joking. We all doubled up with laughter and all the bad feelings, anger and frustration disappeared.

On our way back to Virginia, I asked my husband why in the world he'd rented the place. He explained that he'd looked at it at night and it didn't seem too bad. He'd had a terrible time finding anyone who would even talk to him about renting a place to us when we had four children. So in his defense, he thought it might be okay, and if I'd been older and less tired perhaps we could have made it work. We moved again the following weekend, to Ravenswood, a small town on the Ohio River where we rented a townhouse with three bedrooms for $91 a month, utilities included.

Every time I travel 119, I look for the house, my first home in West Virginia. It's been abandoned for about 20 years now, but the little place still stands, and I still wonder if we could have made it comfortable. It sure had some lovely flat bottom ground for gardens. And enough mud to have kept us stuck and spinning for years. I think in the end we were better off not staying there--even if it meant drinking warm beer in Clendenin on a Sunday morning before breakfast.


Angela said...

I'm glad that you finally found that little old house after all these years! I couldn't imagine a man renting a house that was in that bad of a shape! I don't think I would have stayed there either! lol

Anonymous said...

Uncle Jay regaled me with this tale about a year ago. It was the first I had ever heard of it...


Granny Sue said...

I can't believe that, Aaron! Surely we must have mentioned it...although it was quite a sore spot with your Dad ;-)

The place where the little house is is actually very pretty, a big creek in front, a long narrow garden areas behind, a meadow along the creek and trees all around. But access is terrible and that's probably why the house has been empty so long. You can see it from the highway but you can't get to it without great trouble or expense.

TheresaandJay said...

I remember that trip, probably my first real interaction with WV roads and WV mud. Susie, you are a wonderful person, but what I remember of that house, no way could you have made it comfortable! It was a mess, I think what threw me was where the walls didn't quite meet the floor in the kitchen! :) It is a great memory for us, on the way home Jay and I drove right under a rainbow stretched across the road and lots of beautiful scenery. Of course, I was also a little relieved that you wouldn't be moving away just yet...or so I thought, since you moved to Ravenswood almost immediately! love you.

Nance said...

I enjoyed this entry so much -- and identified with it! My father's family often had to "make do" in some pretty poor and trying situations. And they always ended up laughing at the "old stories". I admired my Grandmother's sense of humor after "all that".

Brighid said...

Thanks for a great story.

Granny Sue said...

It didn't take long for this to become a funny family story. Theresa, I'd forgotten the banana peppers! Lovely meal, warm beer and banana peppers.

Maybe a wiser person would have taken this as an omen and not moved at all--but we were already committed since he'd taken the job transfer, and in the end I am glad we ended up where we did because it got us to the place we live now.

Jason Burns said...

Wow that is some story. I'm now inspired to blog about the houses my parents moved us into when we were little. I remember we moved 7 times - all in a very short span of time.

And honestly, I don't blame you for moving. WV is a nice place to live, but there are some hellholes that aren't fit for man nor beast.

Tipper said...

What a wonderful story-I never knew someone who lived in a house for one night : )

Anonymous said...

We lived in Clay 'til I was 6 years old, with Grandpa and Grandma Smith in their brick house on the main street there...Went back "home" to visit every available weekend along the winding, twisty roads from Columbus to Charleston, through Clendennin where we knew we were almost there. When I saw the picture of your house-for-one-night, I was sure it would be a ghost story. It was a neat surprise to find out where it was.
Sorry it was in such terrible shape and you couldn't live there, or you might have met my grandpa, Dr. Arthur Archibald Smith, Physician and Surgeon, M.D., who practiced medicine until he was 82 years young; slept in his Lazyboy recliner if he was expecting to be called out to deliver a baby.
He frequently had to treat patients for "alkeyhol poisoning"...Your friend, Adele Browne

gigihawaii said...

horrible house!!! Who could possibly see potential in such a place???

Jai Joshi said...

What a hilarious story! I can just imaging the screaming match that took place in that little house. I'm betting that little house has been the scene of lots of screaming matches. How cool that it's still standing.

It's always a good thing to have brothers who are willing to make a joke out of a bad moment. He sounds like a hoot.


Granny Sue said...

Jai, you are probably right--just looking at it, it has a dark feel to it, doesn't it?

I agree with you Gigi--no one should have to live in such a place.

Janet, said...

Susanna, I don't blame you one bit. I would not have stayed either. It reminds me of a motel we stayed in one night when the kids were babies.

Twisted Fencepost said...

What an interesting story. I'll bet I've driven by that house many times.
I wonder if it was ever made liveable?

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