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A Mother for All Seasons
The arrival of my sister Amy, the third-born child in the lineage of four that made up the Davisson pecking order, was a most auspicious occasion. The year was 1958. I was seven years old at the time and my big sister, Donna, was fourteen years old. We never really knew why there had been a gap of seven years between Donna and me, and then another gap of seven years before Amy was born. My mother always told us it was because she wanted to savor the first seven years of each of our lives. Two years after Amy's birth my parents conceived a fourth child, allegedly by surprise. That was my brother, B.J.—also a Bernard Joseph like Dad—who was considered to be a change-of-life baby.
While having their kids so spread out kept my parents busy, it was a bonus plan for me. The idea that I could just adore my younger siblings and watch them grow from infancy to childhood, with me getting to help raise them too, was thrilling!
So on that day when news came from the hospital that Mother's baby had been delivered—whatever that meant—and Dad told us we could go meet our new sister, I could barely stand still. That was me—energetic, active, a tomboy, and Daddy's little girl from the word go.
"Stand still, Susie," Dad told me, using my nickname rather than the more proper Deborah Sue—or Debbie, as everybody else called me from as far back as I can remember. He began to fuss with my hair, puzzling over how to put it into a ponytail. As he set his strong jaw with determination to get the job done correctly, I detected the pleasant smell of tobacco from thepipe he smoked only in those strategic areas of the house where Mother allowed it. Back then I usually wore my long, naturally curly dark hair neatly pulled back in a ponytail—thanks to Mother's agile fingers that could brush it and remove tangled knots in no time.
Dad didn't have the same hairstyling ability or, for that matter, patience. He did his best and then gave up, reminding me and Donna that if we didn't get going, hospital visiting hours would be over and we'd miss our chance to see Mom and our new baby sister. I guess my ponytail had gone askew by the time we got to the hospital, but I wouldn't have known it if the ladies who worked at the check-in desk hadn't asked, "Who did your hair?" "Daddy," I said matter-of-factly.
Everyone laughed heartily, including my father. For my part, I was just being honest. But it was also my first taste of being the center of attention, and I must say it was a great feeling. It was almost as memorable as the first sight of baby Amy Jo, who couldn't have cared less about my hair. I absolutely adored her from the instant I saw her in my mother's arms. Needless to say, I felt that way all over again when B.J. came along to complete our happy family.
And truly, when I think back to all my years of childhood and adolescence, they are filled to the brim with just about nothing but happy memories. That was the world that first shaped me—in a time and place I can't help but miss at certain moments, every now and then. However, when I visit the small town of Westernport, Maryland—one hundred fifty miles southwest of Baltimore and a hop, skip, and jump from the West Virginia state line—I wonder if it's really the same place where I grew up.
Of course the street names are the same, and it still has its equal mix of industry and nature, with the steady stream of smoke rising from the Westvaco paper mill, alongside the natural beauty of the mountains and the rich foliage. But in many respects Westernport today is a dwindling spot on the map, like so many other small towns in the United States, places where time and interest seem to have passed by as if lost to a bygone era. Few of the younger people stay around anymore; instead they grow up, go off to college, marry, move away, and put down roots elsewhere. That was true for me and for my siblings after we graduated from high school, as it pretty much has been for the generations who followed us.
What hasn't changed about Westernport, however, is the kindness, the decency, and the warmth of the community that has remained and that shares the same spirit of home and family that's at the heart of the wonderful memories I cherish of where I come from. Indeed, the farther I've traveled, the more I've come to see how fortunate I was to grow up in the kind of supportive, friendly atmosphere that thrives in the Tri-Towns, as we called Westernport and Luke on the Maryland side of the state line, and Piedmont on the West Virginia side.
Interestingly, our region of Allegany County has a proud and patriotic past going back to the time of George Washington, who successfully led his troops against the British at Fort Cumberland, which later developed into the biggest city in the area. The "Fort" part was dropped as Cumberland grew into a major trading post. About twenty miles south was the area that became the Tri-Towns. In the late 1700s, after the American Revolution was won, war veterans and their families were given tracts of land along the Potomac River, where they could build homes, and farm and raise livestock. Apparently, the settlers who came to our part of the region didn't have an easy time of it; they called our town Hardscrabble, after the thorny soil that was so difficult to cultivate. But as soon as a few industrious citizens realized they'd landed smack-dab at the intersection of the Potomac and George's Creek—an ideal stop for the riverboat trade transporting coal and timber—they quickly claimed this spot as the last, westernmost access point to the Potomac. And that's how our forefathers and foremothers shed the unlucky identity of Hardscrabble and took on the new name of Westernport.A Mother for All Seasons. Copyright © by Debbie Phelps. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.