Summers at Mini and Papa’s Virginia Farm

Remembering childhood summers spent at grandparents’ Virginia farm.

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Getty Images/Jacqueline Nix

Memory is a funny thing. We can forget what we did last weekend, but we can remember with sparkling clarity a conversation from 40 years ago. Some events, and some places, just seem to have a grip on us, rooted in our minds forever.

That’s what my grandparents’ farm in rural Virginia is for me.

We visited it every summer of my childhood, for two or three weeks at a time. It took hours and hours of driving to get there. However, once we drove up the gravel driveway, smelled the green of the boxwood bushes, pulled open the door of the screened-in back porch to be greeted with the smell of Mimi’s vegetable soup and homemade rolls, my parents, siblings, and I felt like we’d stepped into another world. It was so different from our Connecticut home in the suburbs.

The Old Farmhouse

Mimi and Papa’s farmhouse had been built in the 1920s. When the upgraded road came through a decade later, the house was lifted, put on rollers, and pulled by horses about 50 yards up the hill. The floorboards creaked, the water in the bathtub smelled rusty, and there was a pantry right off the kitchen that was dark and scary. Somehow, though, that old farmhouse was magical.
Upstairs, my sister and I shared the bedroom that had belonged to my mom and her sister, Alice, when they were young. As kids, we couldn’t pronounce “Alice,” so instead, she became “Li” (pronounced “Lie”) to us. Mom and Li’s vanity, a low dresser with a large mirror and a hassock perfect for primping, was still in the bedroom.
A floor grate in the corner brought up heat in the winter, but in July it was the ideal contraption for stealthily opening and eavesdropping on the grown-ups below, when we were supposed to be sleeping. A fan in the window hummed through the sweltering summer nights. Sometimes the air felt heavy and had a special smell. That’s when you knew rain was coming. Oh, the sound of rain on a tin roof!

Fun & Adventure

Our visits always coincided with haying season, and Papa let us ride on top of the bales that were stacked up on the wagon in pyramids. Perched up on top of the world, swaying at every rut as the old tractor crossed the fields, we felt like royalty — even those of us with hay fever (me), who sneezed through every summer.
Sometimes while my three older siblings were off exploring the farm, I’d stay back at the house with Mom and Mimi. I’d sit on the floor doing mazes and dot-to-dots in my activity books while they talked. Mimi had six brothers and five sisters, and nearly all of them lived within an hour’s drive — most were within about 10 minutes — so there was never a shortage of topics.
Sometimes we’d move to the screened-in back porch, which housed the ripening parade of homegrown tomatoes along the long sill. Mimi would sit in her wicker rocker, shelling butter beans into a metal bowl, and I got to help. When we were done, I’d climb up on her lap and we’d sing, “Oh, where have you been, Billy Boy, Billy Boy? Oh, where have you been, Charming Billy? I have been to seek a wife, she’s the joy of my life, but she’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother.”
My brothers and sister would come back, breathless with adventure. But I knew the real adventure, the true adventure, had been staying back and spending time with Mom and Mimi.
I also loved going with Papa to pick blackberries.

Social Activities

On Sundays, it seemed like we spent all day at church. In between services, there’d be visiting. One of the great-aunts or great-uncles would come by in the afternoon, or we’d go to one of their homes, for iced tea and plenty of food.
Once a week, we’d pile into the back seat of Papa’s old 1953 Plymouth for a trip to town, and because he used the car for hauling hay as much as passengers, we’d share the seat with stray tufts of hay and a few dead bees. That trip to buy groceries for the week was as festive as any carnival ride. Papa usually slipped us each a dollar, against Mom’s protest. That kind of money at the five-and-dime store could buy you just about anything.
The town had no stoplights, and was just one main street that was a block long. Across from the five-and-dime store was the brick jailhouse, with the grocery store just up the road. The newspaper office was in there somewhere, too, and Papa would lead us like ducklings into the office every year. He’d take off his hat, and with a twinkle in his eye, he’d announce the “news” that his grandchildren were visiting all the way from Connecticut — and a few years later, from California. It seemed unbelievable that we were “news,” but when the paper came out that week, our names would be listed within the pages, with our arrival documented like we were the mayor.

Family Reunion

The high point of the season was the annual family reunion. It was held outdoors at Uncle Ellis’s place, just a few minutes away from Mimi and Papa’s. Like everyone’s house, to get there you drove down a dirt driveway until you reached the wire gate, and then someone would hop out to unlatch it, and then close it behind the car to keep the cattle in.
The main attraction for us kids was the swimming pool — a large, cement-lined, rectangular hole that was filled each year for the occasion with a pipe fed from a spring. It took multiple days to fill, and along with the water invariably came some frogs and maybe a snake or two. But for us, no Olympic-sized pool could’ve been more beautiful.
On the big day, the place would be crawling with family. Great-aunts would arrive carrying mysterious dishes of food that they’d set on long picnic tables, which eventually looked like they were about to collapse under the bounty. Fried chicken, salty Virginia hams cured in a backyard smokehouse, homemade biscuits and rolls, salads, pickled watermelon rind, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers from the garden, ice-cold slices of ripe watermelon, and pecan pies were just some of the dishes. And of course, the queen of all dishes, reigning above all, coconut cake — triple the height of any ordinary cake, and covered with glossy white frosting and freshly grated coconut pressed onto the top and sides. It was perfection on a plate.
While the kids played in the pool, the adults visited, standing in clusters at first, and then, as the day wore on, giving way to the slanted-back Adirondack chairs. It was the one day of the year when my little family of six had more relatives than we could even identify, with more cousins than any human had a right to. We had kin, and it was glorious!
I guess that sense of family helps explain the magic of those Virginia summers. Here was a place everyone belonged. Strangers came up and embraced you, just because you were related. You didn’t have to earn it, you were simply accepted.

Never-Fading Memories

It’s been more than 40 years since I’ve been to one of those reunions — I don’t think they’re held anymore, since the original 12 siblings have passed away — but when my siblings and I get together, our memories
bubble like it was last week. The farm represents, to all of us, permanence and stability. We may have moved a few times, but Mimi and Papa were always there on the farm. We could count on them. They were fixed and steady, like the sky. And, oh, those rolls! Mimi’s yeast rolls (recipe below) were heaven on a plate.

Mimi’s Homemade Yeast Rolls

Yields 2 dozen rolls.

  • 2 packages (0.25 ounce each) dry yeast
  • 1-3/4 cups warm water
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • Scant 1/2 cup shortening
  • 1 egg
  • 6 cups flour, or more as needed, divided
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  1. Dissolve yeast in warm water. Add sugar, and dissolve thoroughly. Add shortening, egg, and 3 cups flour. Mix with mixer for 2 minutes on medium speed. Add 1 cup flour, and mix again.
  2. Dump mixture out onto a floured surface. Add 2 cups flour, and knead until smooth. Add additional flour if needed to form a stiff dough. Add salt.
  3. Let dough rise until doubled in size.
  4. Punch dough down.
  5. Pinch off 24 pieces of dough, and shape into round rolls. Place about 1 inch apart on 2 greased baking sheets (Mimi greased them, but I just line them with parchment paper.) With a paper towel, daub tops of rolls with a little additional shortening. Cover with a clean towel, and let rolls rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 hour.
  6. About 15 minutes before rise is complete, preheat oven to 375 F.
  7. Bake rolls for 16 to 20 minutes, or until tops are golden. (Halfway through baking, I rotate the baking sheets, and I don’t use the lower two rack positions, as I don’t want the bottoms to burn.)NOTE: I usually mix the dough in my bread machine, rather than mixing it by hand.

Lynn Bowen Walker is a DIY enthusiast and author. You can find her book, Queen of the Castle: 52 Weeks of Encouragement for the Uninspired, Domestically Challenged, or Just Plain Tired Home-
maker, on Amazon.