I wore my running shorts and shoes three times during my four-day vacation to Virginia. Not once did I actually run in them. Twice I was hopeful, and the third night I used the shorts for pajamas. By the morning of our return trip, I knew better than to make running plans with my sister again.
I am not going to look on this run-less vacation as a series of failed attempts. Rather, the period was more like a sudden, short fallow season in which the body wasn’t so much inactive or dormant but taking a breather from the usual self-imposed stress.
Our trip began with a drive up from Greensboro, N.C., that helped us acclimate to the scent of moist, fresh-tilled earth; leafy mountainsides still smothered in kudzu and Virginia creeper; and cruddy radio reception.
Life has thrown my sister some serious curve balls in the past couple of years, and there are just so many times that someone who’s always ill prepared at the plate can strike out before being toss out of the game. Our first full day might have looked to the outside less like a homecoming than a humanitarian relief mission, but we quickly turned the corner when the second night I went to bed with dishes on the countertops and woke to a spot-free kitchen – a hallmark of my sister’s OCD-like ode to order and cleanliness.
So instead of hiking in a favorite woodland, or even doing our customary run along the Huckleberry Trail, my husband and I were absorbed into the daily routines and rituals of family. I drank tea and talked while my 11-year-old nephew graciously ate my breakfasts before his bus came. We helped with the drop-offs and pick-ups for soccer practices and cheered on the Sharks during their first game. We picked up some items at the grocery store for dinner, and we ran a missing notebook up to my nephew’s school on our way into town. We played Kerplunk and a state board game and learned how to master Guitar Hero. We killed time in an indie record store, where my 6-year-old niece introduced me to The Kooks. We said nothing when my 8-year-old nephew snuck a Pop Tart at 3 in the afternoon. And I did loads and loads of laundry, but only because I love washing, drying and folding clothes and my sister knows it.
Colleen took us around campus to show us how much it had grown. Virginia Tech has always been the centerpiece of this rural Southwestern community, but its reach has expanded well beyond traditional borders – as has its fan base. I’m going to put together a slide show that reflects what it’s like to be in Blacksburg during a college football season. Let’s just say that it’s impossible to live here and not bleed maroon and orange.
We actually made several trips to campus, each time seeking familiar surroundings. Many of the buildings that opened some 30 years ago when we were new students are now overshadowed by huge structures that to the uninitiated look perfectly fit for that space. But it’s jarring to two alumni to see verdant fields and open spaces now consumed by buildings all bearing the same quarry’s rock, known locally as Hokie stone. Several of those stones were used for the newest addition, a memorial to honor the 32 people killed on April 16, 2007.
Friday evening I accompanied my sister to a friend’s birthday happy hour, where some wonderfully animated women, most now middle-school moms, strategically position their chins before saying cheese for the camera. There, I also was introduced to a “grape shot.” It was my first time combining grape liquor and Red Bull. It also will be my last. From there, we did a little bar-hopping before ending the evening at my sister’s favorite hangout. Now, as we arrived, my sister assured me this was a quiet little restaurant-bar filled with loving, caring people who sometimes just happened to drink a lot. Imagine then pulling up just as some guy is literally tossed out on his face by bar hands and told never to come back. Inside, the women’s room is off-limits because a girl is hurt and she’s now refusing treatment. “They’re going to be talking about this night for weeks,” my sister said.
When we went out, I almost always treated and, yes, some mornings I immediately went online to view my pending charges just to see if last night’s bar tab was for real. And we bought the unusually cheap Busch beer – in cans, no less! – for Saturday’s tailgate before the game. Strangely, it was still widely available in the cooler at the tailgate after the game. Hmmmmmm.
So in some ways, we felt no longer of this place. Years of living in a big city have taken their toll, and not just in the way we drive now. I’d forgotten that people here are welcoming by default. And spiritual. Prayer is so pervasive and so powerful in these parts that it bathes you even when you refuse to wash. People wave as they pass by, and don’t know what to make if you don’t respond in kind. Immediately after Saturday’s game, I was left alone while my husband used the restroom and my sister was
There are so many other anecdotes that I want to share, and someday soon I will. Just know now that by the time I waved good-bye to my sister and to her children on their way to church, I immediately started crying. I went in and cleaned up a final time and started one more load of laundry before my husband told me it was time to go and I reluctantly did. I wasn’t ready to close the door. So before I did, I made sure to leave something behind in the hope they’ll be of use soon. My running shoes.