Are you thinking there's no way I can wrap all that into a coherant story?
Appalachia, Christmas 1955. That's me in the middle, tasting my uncle's finger. More pertinent to this story, that's my favorite cousin, Pete, on the right. He's insisting to one of my parents that, yep, the baby sure does love moonshine!
Fast forward to Christmas 1960. Me n' Pete. No idea what we were up to, but whatever it was, no good came of it. At some point, he had decided I was actually his little sister, rather than his cousin, thereby taking up the burden of teaching me about life.
The suit was borrowed from our granddaddy, and the sleeves are too short. The flower in the buttonhole was bright red and this is the only time I ever saw him in Sunday clothes. Pete had ears like my granddad's, rolled his cigarettes up in his sleeve, and loved Elvis and fast cars more than life. Later this day after graduation, he would take me out to teach me how to drive (I was 13). He figured the best way to do this was on a twisty, mountain road, after dark. There may have been more moonshine involved. All I remember is him saying "just because there's an brake don't mean you have to use it."
I don't feel free to go into all the details of his life - he got the short end of the stick, actually the short end of several sticks. He consistently made poor decisions, and I have several letters he wrote me from prison. And once he got a extra-long car-carrier tractor trailer stuck in an S-switchback curve on the backside of Hungry Mother State Park, which,in retrospect, was clearly posted "No Tractor Trailers", but, hey, he thought he could make it.
In spite of all that, and maybe because of it, he was always my most beloved cousin. He was the sort that would always be there for me, no matter what. He was the one who always did something outrageous, and many times, probably illegal. I can still hear him saying "That's my baby cousin!"
So in 1997, a few days before our first Thanksgiving back in Virginia, my favorite cousin Pete died.
It was sudden. He had lung cancer that was trumped by a massive heart attack at the breakfast table.
Being Pete, he completely upstaged Thanksgiving Day with his funeral and everyone had to drop their normal Turkey Day plans to travel to West Virginia for the services.
The Paint Bank General Store was the only place to eat between Roanoke and Gap Mills. This is the new,improved version. Thanksgiving 1997 was several years before this version was available.
The general store had wooden floors with a pot-belly stove, the original display cases with dusty piles of faded merchandise, 1970's postcards, and the worst hot dogs I have ever eaten. It was a glorified bait shop.
Note*Someone has since purchased it and performed a miracle. It has a proper restaurant, and wonderful food, and is well-worth the trip. Not sure if they still carry bait.
Large buffalo. Large buffalo that come right on up to the side of the car. They do not care if you are funeral-bound. They do not care that you are in a car, or possibly, that you exist at all. They are buffalo. Very very large buffalo.
Driving around the buffalo, we eventually arrived in Gap Mills. There are only two streets, therefore we only made one mistake before we found the correct road to the church. This particular church has sat in these West Virginia hills since the 1800's, and its most sophisticated feature was the doorway. Inside, there were eight pews on either side framing a potbelly stove that provided meager warmth. The carpeting was faded and worn, and the original oil lamps still hung on the walls between the windows.
Various family members were there, including one aunt who was there hoping for nothing more than good food afterwards, the other cousins who weren't on speaking terms with Pete when he died (they may have been hoping for a meal too), four out of five of Pete's step-children (the fifth is in the service in Germany) and their mother (Pete's current and third wife), plus his first and second wives.
The remaining pews were filled with either friends or extended family of one of the wives, including several men in flannel shirts and a couple in ill-fitting black dress suits, more than a few women in blue jeans, and one woman in a pink-sequined floor-length prom dress.
Pete was laid out in a long-sleeve shirt, jeans and his favorite NASCAR baseball hat with his pouch of chewing tobacco tucked in the casket, right where he could reach it when he needed it.
When everyone else thinks of a Thanksgiving with a beautifully basted turkey, cranberry sauce, and an elegant tablesetting, I think of buffalo, hot dogs and pink prom gowns.
And my much-missed, favorite cousin, who has now left the building, and left it much emptier than I ever imagined it could be.