It’s odd the trivial things in a day that can bring a rush of childhood memories. Tonight on my way home the knob on my truck lights came off in my hand. Until I can get it fixed, I now have to install and remove it anytime I turn the lights off or on.
As I drove down Midlothian Turnpike, my thoughts turned to my great Aunt Clara.
Aunt Clara was the youngest of my grandfather’s siblings. Born in 1905 in rural Southwest Virginia she lived in the family home place her entire life. No electricity, no indoor plumbing. Water was either from the well or from the mountain spring that ran into the zinc tub on the porch.
Since I was one of the youngest of the cousins, my memories of Clara are vague. I’d visit there with my grandfather as we walked “around the mountain” picking blackberries along the way. We’d often come home with butter that Clara had churned, made from the milk of the cows she raised.
Fiercely independent, chopping her own wood, growing her own vegetables, Clara had no need to go into town. In that small frame house she cared for her mother, my great grandmother, until she passed in 1955, three years before I was born.
Clara lived on in the house, stubbornly refusing to move to a more convenient home. Cousins tell me of her remarkable memory. She knew the names and birthdates of all the great nieces and nephews without ever having to write them down.
In her later years, family finally convinced her that she was eligible for Social Security payments. Several months after she was deemed eligible, they had to convince her to cash the checks. She had no need for the money.
But they helped her use the money to put electricity in the house. She didn’t think she needed that either. That’s where my memory came tonight.
Visiting Clara after the electricity was installed a cousin asked her why she didn’t have the lights on, but was still using an oil lamp.
Clara said, “well, I can turn the lights on.” So she went to the fuse box, installed the fuse and threw the switch.
When skin cancer spread from her forehead to her eye, Clara finally left the mountain for the first time in decades to go to town. What a strange new world it must have been for her as the doctor tried to explain to her the concept of radiation treatments.
Clara died in 1979. The family home place was destroyed by fire a few years later.
But the memories of this simple mountain woman linger and sometimes, like that single fuse, or that broken switch shed a little light and a little warmth on a cold winter day.