Welcome to Your New Home – Enjoy the Mites!

When I was ten, my parents decided it was time to move from the suburbs of Mobile, Alabama and our comfy suburbanite home where I had lots of friends, a great school, and an active social life at church, to the relative quiet and serenity of the country out in Semmes, Alabama. If my wife turned to me today and offered me that opportunity, I would jump at it. But, as a ten-year-old, I was less enthused.

We didn’t have a house yet to move into, but we had some land. My father had purchased five acres of property from a family friend and the plan was that we were going to build the house ourselves, or as much of it as unskilled labor can, and on the cheap. What fun!

Perhaps sensing less than a complete lack of buy-in on my part, my parents thought it would be fun to spend an evening at the property, camping. We owned five acres on the outskirts of a much larger parcel and at that point, the only access to the property was a bare-dirt road leading from the very end of a connected neighborhood, served entirely by its own dirt road. That dirt road would be the bane of my existence for the next decade. The county graded the road now and again, usually right before it rained, which meant that every time it rained, the loose red dirt turned into a two-inch-thick quagmire that meant a disgusting, red, muddy mess on my bike ride to the school bus stop. Ironically, the county paved the road the year I left home.

But, once you turned off the neighborhood road and went about 1/10th of a mile into our property, you were literally on the outer edge of approximately 100 acres of woods, which, to my knowledge, had never been logged and was generally pristine, virgin forest.

As years went by, I explored the surrounding woods tentatively. Past one side of our property, I built a lean-to fort. Meant for showing off rather than stealth, I cleared a walking path leading up to it and put down pine straw I gathered from the forest floor, and then edged the path on both sides with fallen tree logs. In another part of the woods, I found a roughly 60×60 slight depression full of ferns that held water anytime it rained. Many times I’d go back there and wade around in the ankle-deep water reveling in this strange, natural pond in the middle of nothing. And then, if you went far enough in a couple of directions, the land gradually turned downhill towards a creek you could hear through the thicket. But, the woods got so dense and creepy that I never actually went down to the water. Looking back on my time there, I realize what a magical place it was for me even if it didn’t exactly start out that way.

Back at our camping adventure, we arrived at our new home site on a Friday evening and dutifully unpacked the car; sleeping bags, meager groceries for dinner and breakfast the next morning. There were no bathroom facilities, and though we never actually discussed the scenario, I assumed the idea was if you needed to go #2 you either held it or found a log somewhere, preferably a long way from camp.

I’ll spare you the minute-by-minute, but suffice it to say that we ate, looked at the stars and hit the sleeping sacks. It was pretty uneventful. The next morning we rose early as we always did, stiff and slightly chilled. We packed up the car and headed back over to my uncle’s house where we were staying since we’d sold the old house and didn’t have a place to live right then.

Later that day, I started getting an itching sensation all around the lower part of my body. At first, I didn’t pay it much mind but it finally got to a point where I was scratching so often and so hard that I was raising welts on my skin. And then, I noticed I was actually getting bumps on my skin; inside my pants and behind my knees. As the hours passed, my itching and scratching became almost intolerable. The worst of it was all around my groin. As a young boy, I’d yet to have any experience with anything having to do with my groin, so I was quickly getting pretty freaked out.

Finally, in a fit of despair, I found my mom and told her what was going on, only to find out that she too was suffering the same as me. Turns out, we both had chiggers. If you don’t know what a chigger is, it’s a very small bug that burrows into your skin. The warmer the location, the better, which is why they prefer your nether regions and behind your legs.

There is no cure for chiggers, but there are plenty of home remedies. And we tried them all; vinegar baths to drive them out; clear fingernail polish to suffocate them. Nothing worked, except time. In about four days the little devils had digested enough of our skin that their lifecycle was complete and they began dying off. The relief we felt when finally the itching starting subsiding was palpable.

Throughout this, my father maintained he didn’t have any chiggers and never had in his life. Whether that was true, or whether he was just trying to be the big man, I’ll never know. And I’d love to say that we learned our lesson and never got chiggers again, but we did. Never as bad as that first time, but we still got them. Or rather, I still got them. I don’t think my mom was ever really out in the woods like that again except for in the winter cutting firewood with us. But, chiggers don’t survive in cold temps, so winter usually offered a reprieve.

We never did really find a sure-fire method of killing the mites once you had them. No, your best bet was prevention and that meant liberally spraying your socks and waistline with repellant anytime you knew you’d be in the tall-weeds.

But, it was an auspicious beginning to our new life in the country. It did get better. We eventually finished the house, though we did move in literally as soon as it was habitable, which meant we didn’t have carpeting and not all of the rooms were sheetrocked in. In truth, the house was a work-in-progress the entire time I lived at home.

Then again, when you have a DIYer in your house–like my dad and like me as it turns out–is any house ever really “finished?” I don’t think so.

Bored at Granny’s – A Holiday Story

Christmas 2020 was an altogether different experience for everyone, I imagine. For our family, it meant far fewer of us gathering and eating, laughing, and holding our tongues at something someone on “the other political side” said over the never-ending election ads here in Georgia.

Despite the fewer numbers, we still managed to get a couple of families together–properly distanced of course. One family did end up with two COVID cases, but it didn’t spread to the other four in their house (including a 6-month old) and none of the rest of us who were around them caught it either. But with less going on, I noticed that, by and large, everyone spent less time at my in-laws’ house. We all showed up; sat around a bit while lunch was finalized; ate; sat around a while until it seemed that we’d done all there was to do short of an activity that might put us all at a COVID risk; and then we all went home.

My wife and I left earlier mostly because of the kids. They didn’t have any cousins to play with this year so it was basically just like being home with each other, only, with a lot less to do. And who needs more of that? Amiright? Amiright?

While sitting in the living room desperately trying not to engage anyone in conversation–thereby avoiding any unnecessary drama–while watching my kids very nearly melting into the carpet from boredom, I was reminded of my own childhood spent at my Granny’s house during the holidays. “Granny” as she let me call her, lived alone. Her husband (a pastor and a drunk) had left her and their five children decades earlier and by the time I was in the picture, all of Granny’s kids were grown with families of their own. Granny spent the next two decades with just herself and Jesus to keep her company and she seemed almost jealously happy with the arrangement. She was a prayer-warrior of a woman, but boy did she love her daytime Soaps!

Granny lived in a tiny modular home on a great space of land adjacent to one of her daughters and their family. Having lived alone for so long, her house was decidedly not child-friendly. In fact, the only entertainment to be found was a 30-year old pail of tinker toys and some cards if you were lucky. The rare times my Uncle Buddy, who lived across the way, invited the older boys to go snake or dove hunting on his 30 or so acres of adjacent property, approximately five acres of which held water well enough to qualify as a swamp, were a treasured rarity and not something you could count on happening. If there was any fun at all for a kid to have, it usually required making it yourself.

At Thanksgiving and Christmas, 15 or so of us would all pack into Granny’s tiny home, heated by a single, gas-fueled space heater, which, when combined with 15 additional bodies and four roaring gas burners and a stove, more than amply heated up the home at the holidays. So it was, that, after the meal, your options were to either fall asleep in the drowsy heat of her living room on twenty year old couches that sucked in bodies like the softest memory foam, or do what my cousin and I did, which was escape outside and make our own fun.

My cousin Tamara was my age, so we got along pretty famously for two kids thrown together by marriage rather than blood. When we were much younger, we played “Kitchen” making mud pies out behind her mom’s hair-dressing shop, which was behind their own house out in Tanner Williams, AL. As we got older, we spent more time indoors just hanging out, or if it was summer, shucking corn or shelling peas at her parent’s behest before they’d allow us to go swimming in their above-ground pool.

Once we’d escaped outside where you could take a deep breath of fresh, cool air, our entertainment of choice during family gatherings at Granny’s was, “Whose car is it?” It’s a very simple game where two or more players (but it was only ever the two of us) sat on Granny’s front porch and waited for cars to come down the lonely stretch of road that ran into a four-way at the Alabama-Mississippi line about 1/4 of a mile past Granny’s, eventually running into Big Creek Lake if you kept going straight, or dead-ending into even lonelier parts of “the country” if you went right or left.

The rules of the game were as such: Each car that came down the road belonged to the next player whose turn it was. There were two options for the car: it was either yours (by turn), or if you didn’t want the junker, you “gave” it to another acquaintance of ours, a girl we both knew from school and who drove us both bonkers. Oh the hours Tamara and I whittled away laughing at the junkers we gave to our mutual annoyance, and the rare sports-car gems that came down the road made every disappointment worth the wait.

You wouldn’t think such a simplistic game would offer much of a diversion on wintery holidays in Alabama, but when the options were that or the snooze-fest going on inside, yelling, “That’s my BUICK!” wasn’t a bad way to spend an afternoon. We both usually sat on Granny’s porch-swing while playing, which added an additional benefit of movement.

I was reminded of this while looking at my own kids at their grandparent’s house at Christmas. There, they had a big backyard. They’d brought balls to throw to each other. There was a trampoline–not to mention they each had their phones–and there they sat, bored as anything and ready to go home.

What I wouldn’t have given to have had half their entertainment options growing up. I suppose every generation of parent has those moments where they look at their offspring in a bewildering combination of disgust and amazement over the opportunities wasted. It’s a rite of passage generations old, I guess. Doesn’t make it any easier to accept as an aging adult, though. I wonder how it will be for my children? Likely, their kids will just be sitting there in a near-vegetative state while playing video games in their heads thanks to the internet-connected cybernetic implants making it unnecessary to ever move.

Then again, we all thought we’d have flying cars by now too.