green beans and the mandolin

It’s hot as a brick oven and for probably the second week in a row, save for two NyQuil-induced comas, I’m awake and overtired.

Ever since I can remember, summers have always posed a particular challenge for my routine and well-being. My ratio of sleep:awake is completely thrown off, my to-do list plays on a feedback loop in conjunction with whatever random song my head’s stuck me with, and the sheet isn’t enough and the comforter is too much. Maybe it’s to distract myself from the heat, but lately I’ve been remembering what summers used to be like for me growing up, and now that I’m in the Pacific Northwest, days like these are nothing compared to what it used to be like.

I was snapping the ends off green beans this morning, and I found myself in a familiar, quiet corner of West Virginia again. I was maybe eight when those trips began, and would spend a few summers in my aunt’s vast acre of land picking green beans in the dead of heat. Days would reach 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43 C) and the moist heat would make everything stick to our skin and make our saliva dry up before we could spit it. We were poor back then, and our way of cooling off was to jump in the creek running alongside her property and catch crawdads for soup. My aunt V was a churchgoing woman, well-respected in our meek community, and evenings we’d see at least ten different locals come through with corn bread, fried ocra, wild rabbit, and six different types of casserole. We might have been a poor community, but poor doesn’t always mean you go hungry; sometimes it just means you can’t change your meal plan.

My cousin and I narrowly avoided a spider’s deadly bite in here, but after enduring my aunt’s wrath for breaking in to begin with, we almost preferred the spider.

We used to have big family reunions where two hundred of us would gather for a week of storytelling, forest-intoxication, and singing soulful music until damn near five in the morning. We stayed in the campground’s barracks and spent our afternoons running through the woods with no shoes on while the adults played cards and cooked all day. I remember that was when I learned mandolin from one of my old cousins, but I haven’t played in years and don’t remember more than a song or two. My uncle got killed working in the coal mines, and church was a small, white structure with an angled roof and one room. I was no stranger to poverty, having lived in it most of my life, but there were moments I didn’t feel so poor when I was there.

I don’t remember as much as I’d like because most summers were spent in Florida in a beaten down part of the city with more criminals than fire ants, and I don’t like to travel back to those times. But in those nights of quiet comfort and arguing with obnoxious cousins, our West Virginian community, birthed from poverty and Jesus, was almost peaceful enough for me to regret that I hid my southern roots for so long.

I’m no longer the little girl carefully avoiding Copperhead snakes in the mountains of West Virginia, nor do I have to fight to stay warm in the New York winter when the unpaid heat shuts off. Though we lead a modest life, comforts of marriage and income have made those distant and rarely-missed memories. But when it’s hot, and I’m snapping green beans in my modern kitchen, I can hear my clumsy mandolin playing. And I can almost remember the words.


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