In June of 1978, the year my parents divorced, I had my first Kentucky Summer. I suppose no one knew quite what to do with me since school was out and my mom had gone to work, so Mama Adams, my father's grandmother, took me in for a few weeks. My mom bought me new white pants, a pink blouse, and Charlotte's Web to read on the plane, because not only was I going on a big plane, I was going all by myself! It was a grand adventure for an almost-9-year-old.
Mama Adams lived in a large white Victorian-style home on the corner of Highland Street and Lexington Avenue. The wide front porch boasted a swing and an ancient glider, from which we watched the traffic go by every evening after The Dating Game (Mama Adams' favorite show) was over. Mama Adams kept an immaculate yard, with roses, snapdragons and all sorts of flowers in the front, and a vegetable garden in the back. The yard had a wire fence with a gate that was perfect for swinging on- even though I wasn't supposed to do that. I had to settle for swinging around and around on the street sign pole instead. Mrs. Allington, who was even older than Mama Adams, lived across the street, and I often visited her in the afternoons. Mama Adams would send her a frozen Swanson's pot pie, and after we had chatted and watched traffic for a half hour or so, Mrs. Allington always sent me home with a bright new quarter.
Mama Adams' home was a fabulous old house, full of nooks and crannies filled with fascinating treasures: antique wash bowls and pitchers on beautifully carved antique dressers; Tiffany-style lamps; a glass Christmas tree filled with orange and pink coral; necklaces made of buttons and intriguing beads; drawers full of old photos; silk flowers from the dime store; wooden souvenir boxes with scenes from the Natural Bridge or Shaker Village; shimmering carnival glass bowls... there was always something to investigate. In the old bookcase, I found the Little House on the Prairie series and Baby Island, and in the kitchen, Mama Adams always kept a stash of root beer, ice cream sandwiches, Vitamin C and Juicy Fruit gum.
My favorite room was the big middle bedroom, with its high bed, polished floors, chenille bedspread, and beautiful Victorian dresser with the round mirror. I never spent much time there though, because in the corner there hung a picture of The Yellow Lady- a large oval portrait of a somber Victorian lady wearing a yellow dress. I could feel her eyes following me every time I crossed the room, so I scurried through as fast as possible whenever I needed to use the adjoining bathroom.
I loved staying in the front bedroom the best, with its high ceilings, pink-patterned wallpaper, floor-to-ceiling windows, two double beds, and beautiful fireplace (even though the fireplaces had been boarded up years earlier and made into gas heaters). It made me feel like Scarlett O'Hara. At night, Mama Adams and I sometimes shared one of those beds, and if she wasn't too tired, she would tell me stories as we listened to the cars on the road or the crickets in the garden.
We had a routine down: Mama Adams got up at daybreak to garden, and when I finally rolled out of bed, she cooked me eggs and bacon in her sunny kitchen. Next, we wrote letters before the mailman arrived at 9:00, and then it was time for the laundry: Mama Adams washed real clothes, and I washed all my Barbie doll clothes in the bathroom sink and hung them out to dry on the wooden clothes rack on the front porch. Every day. No Barbie dolls have ever had cleaner clothes than mine. When the stores finally opened, we walked downtown-- all of maybe three blocks away. Sometimes we went to the Bethany Bookstore where Aunt Helen had a kids' craft area in the back; sometimes we went to the dime store (a real dime store, with everything you could imagine, from goldfish to ladies' girdles- the small town precursor to Walmart); or sometimes we went to Kroger or to Belk's (the only real department store in town). Trips to Kroger were especially exciting because we took a taxi (!) back home with all the groceries. Once Mama Adams let me go all by myself to Kroger, do the shopping, and take the taxi back home! It was an exciting day.
Even more exciting were the days when one of the aunts would come: Aunt Ruby, who refinished antiques and lived on a farm with Uncle Vernon in Lexington; Aunt Stanley and Uncle Gene, who built a cabin on the foundation of the old family farm up in the holler during their summers off from teaching; Aunt Marie and Uncle Doc, who owned a Woolworth's store in Ohio and built a beautiful home in the country which smelled like sulfur; Aunt Mattie, who owned an enormous house in Kentucky coal country and another vacation house on the lake in Tennessee (if we were lucky, Uncle Frank would fly in on his helicopter!); or even Uncle Johnny, who kept beautiful vegetable gardens out at the holler, delivered mail in Lexington and was always glad to see me even if he seemed a little gruff. Best of all were the days when Granny and Grandad would drive down all the way from Maryland. There was no shortage of family, and Mama Adams' house was Grand Central Station.
That was the first of many Kentucky Summers to come. The aunts graciously passed me around from house to house, and Mama Adams was always glad when I returned. Best of all was the sense of belonging that I felt when I was in Kentucky. My immediate family back home in Alabama was often full of tension and turmoil, but my summers in Kentucky gave me roots. Mama Adams and the aunts loved me, fed me, bought me books, clothes, tennis shoes, Barbie dolls, and dime store trinkets... they made me part of the family.
But nothing stays the same. When Granny and Grandaddy eventually moved back to Kentucky to retire, Aunt Mattie and Uncle Frank built Mama Adams a beautiful brand new home in the lot across the street, and the wonderful old house was sold. Mama Adams died in the spring of 1988, during my freshman year of college. Aunt Marie and Uncle Doc passed away too, as has my grandfather, and Aunt Ruby has Alzheimer's. John and I drive our family up to see everyone for a brief weekend each July, and sometimes my children get to swim in Aunt Mattie's pool, ride through the cow pastures in the back of Uncle Vernon's pickup truck, or pick pawpaws and cuddle Aunt Stanley's kittens out at the holler. I still love Kentucky Summers.