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Building Memories in the Dirt

Some poeple save bride dolls or model B52's as tokens of childhood. I may be the only kid on the block who holds fond memories of dirt.

On Sunday afternoons at the edge of the porch of my Aunt Thelma and Uncle Joe Hester's house on South Cline Avenue in Newton, my cousin Tom generously shared his wooden cars, for which I excavated superhighways and overpasses under, around, and through the wisteria roots.

Tom was a master at imitating motor and gear noises. My specialty was heavy earth moving, whether with kitchen spoons or fingers.

Long summer spans passed with the Hester cousins and me loading toy trucks with nature's most flexible raw materials-dirt and chinaberries, which doubled as whatever our imaginations wanted them to be, from corrugated pipe to green peas on tea set plates.

I don't want to give the impression that we wasted these afternoons. While I opened Highway 321 from the brick underpinnings to the front steps, Grandma, a stickler for programmed play, sat on the swing above.

Authoritatively, she thumped her foot on the porch floor and called out the next word from the blue-back speller, a text she revered second to the Bible.

(Yes, children, once-roughly about the same time that Laura Ingalls slogged across the prairie to class-families took pride in rearing the best speller, the best at in-the-head sums or map-reading, the most adept at florid handwriting. Then somebody invented television.) 

Cousin Joe and I competed for the family championship; cousin Tom, a lackadaisical speller, opted for champion traffic controller on the chinaberry Express.

Split-channel sessions brought a peculiar mix of responses:

Joe: Annoyance-A-N-N-O-Y-A-N-C-E.

Tom: Coming through, coming through.

Grandma: Correct. Now try meddler.

M. E.: M-E-D-L-E-R.

Tom: Crash at the intersection.

On all fours, we crawled about our under-porch playroom, moderately oblivious to Grandma's stumpers, stopping only for chicken and biscuits.

Sunday dinner concluded, down to the banana pudding, we cranked up the turnpike and filled truck hoppers with more dirt and berries.

I don't recall any of our playthings being molded of plastic or bought at K-mart, which hadn't been invented yet.

There was just the luxuriant slip of powdered earth under hand, softened heaps and sand bucketfuls of soil, generously scooped, packed into shapes and deposited on our miniature roadways.

Delicious in its variability, lavishly gooey on rainy days, good old Catawba County dirt suited our creative needs, matching tactile pleasure with the kid need to dig. 

In other words, we loved grubbing and placed no value on the psychological stimulus thereof.

Days ended too soon. Returned to my home in Hickory, I sat in the tub and put cloth to Ivory in an effort to undo the grime. Scrubbage of knees preceded an overall drench, from grainy scalp to red clay toes.

It was a pay-for-play scenario, repeated in my cousins' bathrooms. The lesson I learned was simple-simple as dirt.

Charlotte Observer
"Catawba Valley Neighbors,"
May 16, 1993




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Mary Ellen Snodgrass Tel/Fax: (828) 324-0155