When I was 5 years old, my family moved from the only home I had known, near the mountains, to a new home in a place called "back East", near the "Big City". When we lived in my home near the mountains, we would often go up into the mountains to see my mom's family, who all lived in a high mountain valley. They were puritan stock. They didn't smoke or drink or gamble. They never swore. In fact, they hardly spoke much at all. Family get-togethers consisted of things like gathering around a table putting a jigsaw puzzle together, with an occasional comment about the weather breaking the silence.
Several months after we moved to my home near the big city my dad announced that we would be going to the mountains to see the family. I was happy because I knew what that meant. Or, at least, I thought I did. We all piled into the car and began driving miles and miles through wide valleys rimmed by low rolling hills. This looked nothing like the steep, bare sloped mountains I knew. There were farms and forests for miles and miles, but no mountains.
Hours later, as the sun was setting, we began to go up and down bigger hills, and through tunnels, but even in the dark, the silhouettes I saw didn't look much like mountains. I was tired and cranky and begining to think my dad had lost his marbles, when I heard the car turn onto a gravel road. This, at least, seemed promising, since there were lots of gravel roads up in the mountains I remembered. Then my dad said "We're almost there!"
Now I was sure he'd gone daft. The car was bumping along through a forest on a gravel road. My family all lived in a little town out in the wide open spaces of the high mountain valley. There were definitely no forests near where they lived! The car rolled to a stop at a small green wooden gate in the middle of the woods, and my dad got out to open it. Slowly the car crept through the gate, and then wound down the rutted and bumpy track through the forest and a few minutes later came to a stop in a clearing near a small cabin.
"We're here!" my dad said, as my sleepy younger brother and I tumbled out of the car into the crusty snow on the ground. Just then the front door of the cabin burst open and light from inside danced across the snowy meadow.
From inside a voice bellowed "Look! It's Tip and Barb and the boys! They made it!
Before my eyes could adjust to the glaring brightness that seemed to explode out of the cabin, I was swept up and carried through the door that seemed like some magical portal to a strange and different world.
"This is your Aunt Marion" someone said, as a strange woman with a walker bent over me to say hello.
Before I could respond another voice pulled me around. "Say hello to your Great Uncle Bill"
"Why 'ello thar. Who d'we got here, Little Timmy or Greg" a slurred voice warbled as I reeled from the smell of cigar smoke and whiskey.
The entire room seemed to whirl and buzz with people and noise and smells, and there in the very center of it was the one face I recognized, my dad's mother, Grandma Pug. "Geezy peezy, Ran! Don't just stand there, get them something to eat," she yelled, hardly looking up from behind her stacks of poker chips, as she barked orders to my Grandad Ran and anyone else nearby. "They must be half starved by now! Someone bring a couple of chairs over here!"
Before I could move I was swept up again by some cousin or other, introducing me to uncle so and so when I suddenly found my self and the tip end of an impossibly long finger. "Someone looks tired." a low gravelly voice intoned with the even pacing and diction of an English teacher.
This was just the break my mother had been desparately looking for, and the begining of a lifelong partnership between her and my Great Aunt Gert, the one member of my father's family my mother could count as an ally. "We stopped and ate in Breezewood, it's really late, I should put the boys to bed now. It's way past their bed time" my mother said.
My brother and I were whisked to the back of the cabin and tucked into chilly beds stacked with blankets almost heavy enough to smother us. I lay in the bed, watching the long column of light that peeped through the door, left open just a crack, and listening the steady rumble of the gathered clan, my grandmother's sharp cackle rising above the din as she regaled her guests with stories. Slowly the noise subsided, bit by bit, until there was only the quiet murmur of a television.
Now was my opportunity to explore a little; to get my bearings. I crawled out from under the mound of blankets and hopped down off the bed. The pine floor was cold. I tip-toed to the door. It creaked as I pried it open a little, and I stopped still, listening to my heart pounding. No one appeared, so I opened it a little further and slipped into the hall. The light emanated from around a corner in the hall, so I tiptoed down the hall and around the corner. I stopped in the shadows along wall, just before the hallway opened into the big room.
There, in the chair in front of the television, sat my Grandma Pug, dozing off, with a cigarette slowly disintegrating in the ashtray nearby. As I stood there, she suddenly started awake. I wanted to dissappear quickly back down the hallway into the shadows, but it was too late. I was trapped in her gaze like the Millenium Falcon in the Death Star's tractor beam. Slowly I walked up and crawled into the chair beside her.
"So!" she said, in her smoky rasp. "Tell me a story!"