Living in The Real

Farms, Augusta County, VA

One of the pluses of living in the country is that one is required to live in The Real.

I had especially noticed this sense of living in The Real during my many visits “Back Home” to Ireland. Being of the first generation of my family born here in The States, Back Home meant the family place. For us it was the West of Ireland – County Mayo and in particular the then small town of Charlestown.

My first visit was a real eye opener. Despite stories of having descended from Irish Royalty (weren’t we all?) the reality was the family was materially poor.  My father and generations of family before him was born and raised in a single room cottage that was, upon my first visit, still occupied by my uncle and his family. No electricity, no running water, no plumbing. That was home.

Politically, it seemed the family was all over the place. Uncle Batty, when I showed up unannounced at his workplace, thought I was an IRA hitman that had “come for him”. I never asked why he thought that. But, the joy he showed that it was the son of his never-met older brother standing at his doorstep erased all need to explore the matter further. His wife, Evelyn, was a nurse, educated and trained in England.  Her political views, expressed only once, was that, Yes, things had been bad in the past. But, she said, “Without the English we’d all now be a lot worse off”. She was living in The Real. The world as it was right then, not what it had been, good or bad.

I’ve thought many times of Evelyn’s words and contrasted them with those of my father. Yes, he had seen a bit more of the brutality of an occupying army.  Not allowing even English Toffee into the house, however, seemed a bit much, even to a little urchin. But, the day that my eldest sister had a would-be “suitor” call at the house was a real humdinger.  Dressed in a tweed suit, he carried a gold pocket watch that he allowed me to hold.  Yet, the real treasure was a strange coin with some type of antelope stamped upon it.

South African Springbok coin

“Dad, look at this”, I blurted out. Examining the coin, my father seemed to enjoy the novelty of it as much as I. Until he turned it over. There it was. The image of Queen Elizabeth II in all her youthful beauty.

The “Sum of all Fears”…Elizabeth II

 First, his jaw went slack, and then his eyes started blinking out some type of Morse code. We had seen those telegraphing eyes before. Whatever was coming wasn’t going to be good.

“You’re a *&^)#%@*^# Limey”, shouted my father. “I say”, said my sister’s Caller. Well, he didn’t get to say much else, I can tell you that. The last we or my sister saw of him was the back of the tweed bending over to pick poor Elizabeth up from the sidewalk in front of our house.

It would be several years later before my sister would agree (with permission, naturally) to marry a very nice man. Of Irish descent, of course. All went well until the day before the wedding.  It was then that dad found out that while the young man about to marry my sister was indeed Irish, he wasn’t the “Right Irish”. His great-grandfather had come from…get ready…Belfast, Northern Ireland. My sister was marrying a “Collaborator”.  Neither I nor anyone else in the family knew what the heck my father was talking about. Which brings me back to the beginning of this story, living in The Real.

When I say that we live in the country it’s that we are surrounded mostly by farms. Dairy, goat, poultry, horse and agriculture farms abound here. Some are small, some quite extensive. Our immediate neighbors in this neighborhood come from different backgrounds and professions: teachers, technical engineers, business owners, medical professionals, skilled labor, etc. Many come from small towns or farms. And, of course, this city boy. Each of us have been drawn to this area for reasons, while specific to us, have similarities, too: the need for “elbow room” in order to have privacy or to have a garden, the need to escape the costs, congestion and craziness of large cities.  Yet, there is the tacit understanding that we would help one another. And will be kind to each other.  Perhaps it is by being so close to nature, to God’s abundant blessings, that we have become so aware of how beautiful life is.

And so, this past week, we celebrated our good fortune in two ways. First, we had a “block party”. Every family in our little hilltop neighborhood came to “the crossroads” to enjoy a beautiful, sunny day and sharing food, laughter and the feeling that, at least within our little community, all is well.

Caption on sign: A Farmer Learns More From A Bad Harvest Than a Good One.
Cattle grazing on hillside, Spring Hill, VA

Secondly, The Redhead and I ventured out for a drive yesterday that took us out beyond Route 42 into deep farm country and finally heading westward along Route 250 through the Allegheny Mountains into the small town of Monterey. Monterey is the home of the Maple Festival, drawing craftspeople and maple syrup product connoisseurs from great distances. Unfortunately, like most other festivals, this year’s was cancelled due to the pandemic.  Nonetheless, Monterey is a nice little town (really small) but it has several nice country- style restaurants, inns and spectacular scenery. I will say, that prior to yesterday, driving over the mountain was something beyond my comfort level. Do it slowly, carefully and in good weather and you could have a nice outing. Hint: Monday may not be the best day to make the trip – some things are closed. 

The Curly Maple Restaurant, Monterey, VA

Along this section of Route 250 you will also find the Confederate Breastworks and the battle field of McDowell, dating from 1862. Both locations, near one another, while relatively limited in scope, were where Confederate and Union troops clashed for control of this mountain pass. Standing at the Breastworks and looking down the valley where so many men had struggled, fought and died two thoughts came to mind: What a terrible tragedy that Civil War was, pitting neighbor and family against one another. And, later last night, after mistakenly watching a few minutes of the “news”, I thought back to the beauty, bounty and friendship we had seen all around us this past weekend and wondered, why this country is being torn apart.

Confederate Breastworks, Route 250, looking toward McDowell VA

Will we ever let the transgressions, real or imagined, of Queen Elizabeth, Stonewall Jackson, Columbus, Kit Carson, Junipero Serra and on and on stay in the past? Will we ever again live in The Real?

Ahead of the Corona Curve

While most of the Corona panic- buying here in the Shenandoah Valley has seemingly subsided for the moment, one item continues to be a semi-precious commodity: yep, toilet paper.

This continued depletion of supply has inspired some folks to come up with some, shall we say, novel solutions and some ideas not so odd. One of these is the slow introduction to the general American public of an appliance that has seemingly been in use in Europe for a long time: The bidet (that’s pronounced, Bee-day for folks raised in Duval County!). The other night a fellow blogger wrote a piece on just this topic and it brought back memories of my first encounter with this European marvel.

In March of 1973 I decided to take a trip to the place of my father’s birth, Ireland. This would be my first time on an airplane and my first time traveling to a foreign land – except for an accidental trip to New Jersey, which is another story!

I was well prepared for this adventure. Just before leaving I consulted with a cousin who had traveled frequently to The Old Country. He gave me a wealth of information: The Irish currency was called a Punt and was worth about $2.50 at the time. Cars drive on the left side of the road and the steering wheels are on the right and all cars have manual transmissions. I was told that upon leaving the Shannon Airport I was to drive kind of northward and sort of along the coast, but not too close! He also said when I arrived in the hometown to just ask for “Batty”, that was my uncle’s nickname, and for good reason, said my cousin. Loaded with this information (who would need more?), I set off.

I arrived in Limerick, rented a car and started out the parking lot. It must have been my unique driving style that caused the Garda (Irish police) to run to the exit gate, raise it and jump behind a row of concrete pillars. As I bucked passed them, one made the Sign of the Cross and the other uttered a phrase I would hear often during my “Journey Home”: Jaysus, Mary and Joseph! Off I went.

Like a homing pigeon, I did make my way to Charlestown, County Mayo and quickly found Uncle Batty, a gentleman through and through, but with an odd sense of humor, I was told. After visiting for a couple of days, seeing my family living in the same single room cottage as did their great- grandparents, I set off for Dublin, just in time for St. Patrick’s Day. I felt like a regular world-class traveler by now. Little did I know that I was about to have an experience not ever to be forgotten!

No reservations, no problem. God surely protects fools, I’ve learned. So, down Dublin’s main thoroughfare I drove (getting better by the minute, I was) and decided to turn onto a quaint side street. Now, Dublin at this time was not much different than during the time of Joyce and Yeats. Cobbled streets, the scent of peat from stoves and fireplaces, painted doors and stately stone buildings everywhere. It was a movie set, I thought. Pulling up to a stone-fronted hotel, a crisply uniformed young man greeted me and helped carry my duffle bag to the check-in desk and then up to the room. Now, I had also been advised to bring with me an ample supply of Kennedy silver half-dollars to use as tips. Apparently this was good advice because the bell boy was actually excited to get one: American money and an Irish-American president. Nothing better in Ireland during that Spring of 1973! Now, my long-remembered experience was about to begin.

 The room was huge, with a sitting area that overlooked the cobbled, narrow street below. The bathroom was expansive. Everything was marble – floors, walls, double sinks – the whole thing. After looking around and seeing everything to be in order, I decided to refresh a bit after the long drive. Wait, what is that? A toilet for a midget? These Irish think of everything, they do. So, I decide to give the “midget seat” a try. Before “doing” anything, I decided to give a side lever a tug – just to see what’s what, so to speak. A gush of cold water blasted my back and head. What the heck!! This can’t be right. So, I stood up and gave another yank to the handle. Old Faithful then gushes out all over the floor, turning the bath into nearly a pool. Something’s wrong here, for sure. Hmmm, I’d better get some help.

So, I go out to the hall and there stands a young girl in a heavily starched black and white uniform, wearing a lace cap, carrying an armful of clean towels. The Sherlock Holmes in me figures she must work here. So, “Can I ask you something” I say. “Yes, sir”, she replies. “Come in, please”. She follows and I walk into the bathroom with her, somewhat reluctantly, following behind. Pointing to the midget seat I ask, “Do you know what that is”? She stiffens and says, “I do”. We’re onto something now. “Do you know how it works”? A bit more stiffening and a hint of wariness is now in her voice when she again replies, “I do”. “Well, could you show me how it works?”  “I WILL NOT!”, and like a bolt she runs from the room. By the time I can get to the door she has run to the end of the hallway and met with another uniformed girl. I can hear that other one saying, “He didn’t!!”  “He did”, says the first girl. They both turn to give me the Short Eye and then hustle down the stairs. Odd girls, I say to myself.

So, after foregoing trying to give the geyser another try, I go out and have a wonderful evening exploring Old Dublin. When I return, I decide to have a drink in the hotel’s small, wood-paneled pub. Three or four older men sitting at the bar and the bartender, dressed in the customary white shirt, black tie and pants were the only other people in the pub. I sat at a small table. The bartender looked at me and said, “What will it be”? “A Guinness, please”. He pours it and puts it on the bar; I get up, take it and say, “Thanks”. “Ah, you must be the Yank staying on the second floor”, says the barman. “I am”, I say. The barman smiles and bends to whisper something to the men sitting at the rail. A burst of laughter. “He didn’t!” says one, “was it Mary?” “No, the new girl, Bridie”, says the barman. “Ah, Jaysus”, says another of the men. “Mary would be bad enough, but Bridie! Is she still runnin’”? Now, another burst of laughter. Odd bunch, these Dubliners, I’m thinking. On the way out, the barman says, “Yank, did ye’ figure out that thing in your room”? “No”, and I continued out and up to my room, but not before I heard more laughter and, “Jaysus, ye’d think they would have them in America, as well”. They’re a very odd bunch in this place, I thought. But, still nice.

A week or so later, up in Sligo, I told my uncle Frank all about the midget seat/ foot washer (cleverly, I figured this out on my own!), the cleaning girl running out of the room and the people in the bar laughing. Uncle Frank, not a drinker, nearly choked on his tea. “Well, Billy”, he said, “I’d say you should not plan on going back there again”. He then started to laugh just as hard as the folks in Dublin as he explained just what that little seat was for.

So, if these Bidet things ever catch on here in the U.S., I’m way ahead of the curve! And it’s a good thing that we’ve installed waterproof flooring in the bathrooms!

As always, pray, don’t worry, be careful.

Bill