Episode One: Ghost Memories.
I am about a year old, old enough to finally join my parents in their love of road trips. The year is 2003. I am a blue-eyed baby with a cone-shaped head. My parents are Cornelius the Third and Hilda Holgate.
There is a baby seat in my family’s Subaru Outback, but Hilda takes no shame in breastfeeding me in the front seat while Cornelius drives. That is how it is done in Pakistan, my mother’s birth country, where twelve people drive in a car meant for four and everyone else’s auntie knows every officer that may pull you over. This is how Pakistanis avoid traffic fines.
We leave our home in Brambleton, Virginia one morning when the magnolia tree in our front yard is preparing to blossom and the ivy threatening to overtake one corner of our house is too happy. Destination: Florida! Sunny beaches and palm trees. Fresh oranges.
It is a long drive. Slowly, the scenery changes in ways I cannot remember or appreciate. There are no healthy food stores to buy organic produce at. It disgusts Hilda to eat anything soaked in pesticides, but inquiries in the towns we pass through for healthy food stores direct us to smoothie and dieting establishments.
In the movies people avoid Florida cops. They are renown tough nuts. At 28, Cornelius thinks himself a tough nut too. He turns left at a red light. Immediately he is pulled over by a young policeman who delights in flashing his lights and bellowing his sirens.
Cornelius insists eloquently that in Virginia it is quite legal to turn left at a red light. He is so eloquent he believes himself, but he is still is repaid with an order to wait for the K9 unit to arrive.
It is plausible to this policeman that my parents, who use only cloth diapers and smoke organic cigarettes, are hippies transporting drugs from redneck country to the beaches.
The K9 unit arrives, consisting of a seasoned officer and an eager dog, and Hilda and Cornelius leave the car so the dog may do its work. Cornelius lights a cigarette to stop himself from saying anything rash and Hilda sits down on the curb to feed her daughter.
The year is 2003. The officers turn beet red the moment Hilda’s naked breast appears.
The dog is interested in a plastic bag in the trunk of the Outback. It is full of dirty cloth diapers fermenting in the heat.
Hilda and Cornelius are wished goodbye. Enjoy your stay in Florida. The officers load up their dog and drive away, too flustered to remember to give Cornelius a ticket. We finish our trip. Sunny beaches? Strolls in the sunshine? Fresh oranges off the tree? All done.
Sunburn? Dehydration? No-see-ums? Also all done. There I am, dehydrated from the heat and burned blazing red by the Florida sun. My mother uses a frivolous bonnet from her childhood to cover my face and head. Somehow, I survive.
The no-see-ums swarm and bite, worse than mosquitos, and force Cornelius and Hilda to cut their trip short by two weeks and flee to North Carolina to couch crash at a friend’s house and take shelter in the smoke from campfires, where they beat drums, tell stories, and roast more than marshmallows.
We come home to Brambleton and the moonshine distilling in the basement. We come home to the only healthy food stores we know of: a place called The Coop tucked between an ice cream shop and a small hotel, and a place called Valley Springs out on the skirts of the city.
Cornelius is on the board of The Coop. It is stocked with farm-fresh produce from the farmers erecting green houses and plowing fields in the valley. It is stocked with brands and foods that flavor my growing lifetime.
The Coop lasts for the births of my four younger siblings and seeps our life in the meaning of organic. It goes bankrupt one day when we are living up on Peach Mountain, one of the two mountains that look down on the valley where Brambleton sprawls.
The Coop fades and dies behind our backs; it turns into a ghost in my memories. I only remember its bins of sesame candy in colorful wrappers and the ginger candy that came in packs quite like cigarette cartons.
I used to ask for ginger candy every time we visited The Coop. Its taste is a ghost on my tongue now too.
Photo by Reiseuhu on Unsplash
Episodes of Stoney River are stories inspired by my life growing up in rural Virginia.
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