Appalachian June Bugs And the Way Back Home

HOLDING my jar of June bugs, I sat on the steps of the mission's emergency home for children, children whose parents could not care for them in the difficult days of the Great Depression. The summer home was about five miles from downtown Charleston, W.Va., and the mission where my parents lived and worked. They assisted transient adults who came for help. My mother particularly enjoyed caring for babies in the mission's emergency nursery.

Day after day, I perched on the home's steps, hoping to see my mother and father drive up in the familiar family car with a hug and a ``How are you?'' for my two younger sisters and me. We had been in the home only a few weeks, but were to stay there the whole summer. The relatively rural setting in the Appalachian Mountains offered a better place to run and play than the inner-city surroundings of the mission.

Days and nights passed. My parents did not come, did not write, did not call.

``Why do you sit on these steps all the time? Why don't you play?'' someone passing by would ask. I'd shrug. I was only 9, but my pride was sizable. It wasn't easy to admit that I feared my sisters and I weren't as important to our parents as the people they helped in the city.

Sometimes I unscrewed the lid of my jar and let one of the five June bugs I'd caught crawl out onto my finger. I loved the way its feet seemed to cling to me, and I liked to see the tissue underwings fan out like a dainty petticoat. But before the June bug could lift away, I would ease it back into its home and secure the lid, then continue my road watch.

``I could walk to that mission,'' I assured myself. I knew the way; I had memorized it carefully when we were brought to the home. I worried, even then, that I might have to go back to the city to see whether our parents had completely forgotten about us. I wondered whether they'd driven away forever.

Until a few months earlier, when my family moved to Charleston, we had always lived together in one house or another. Never before had I been with children who were homeless, and I told myself that my sisters and I were different from them. We were in the home simply because our parents were busy helping people in need.

But the truth was that my sisters and I were scarcely different. Our family was not intact.

There is an image that describes the lurking fear I felt. It is of a child standing in front of a brick wall, gazing out at the world, dazed, disconnected, and disoriented.

I considered ways to slip away from the home and into the city. I could go up into the woods, walk a distance, then return to the road. But copperheads and rattlesnakes slithered around up there. I'd hate to come upon one in my bare feet. If I wore shoes, someone might ask, ``Why the shoes?'' Everyone knew I usually went barefoot.

Weighed down with homesickness, I privately told my sister, nicknamed Bogie, ``I'm going to see if they're still there.''

Bogie was 7. Her full face was serious, and she nodded, promising, ``If anyone asks where you are, I'll say I don't know exactly. That'll be the truth 'cause I won't know exactly. Be careful.''

We'd been warned that there were still black bears roaming those Appalachian Mountains. But concern about a bear pouncing upon me came nowhere near my worry about desertion.

The next morning after breakfast, after I'd made my bed and helped dry the dishes, I settled on the steps with my June bugs. Children ran past, intent on their own play. Bogie suddenly appeared beside me.

``Are you going now?'' she asked softly.

I nodded.

``Good luck. Don't get lost.''

Holding the jar so everyone could see it, I pretended to search for June bugs and paused along the road beside violets, buttercups, daisies, and black-eyed Susans.

Glancing back, no longer able to see the home and my sister, I walked quickly. Stones rudely surprised my bare feet. Around me in the lingering morning mist, mountains rose one after another, covered with thick and mysterious trees.

The road led to a highway, just as I remembered. The highway followed the Great Kanawha River. Across it, the gold dome of the new state capitol soared fresh and promising.

I walked along the highway, hoping no one from the mission would pass by in a car and recognize me. At the bridge, I climbed high steps to the sidewalk, hot under my feet. Below, a cluster of barges carrying coal slowly disappeared under the bridge.

As I neared downtown buildings, my apprehension grew. My father was not one to tolerate foolishness. I would have to account for my behavior - if he were there. But it was too late to turn back.

Moving through the streets, I noticed familiar details. I'd rollerskated around some of these blocks. Yards were small. On one front porch, clothes hung on a line. Uncurtained windows revealed the inner life of a house.

At the mission door, I took a deep breath and then pulled it open. The floor felt cool. On the left was the room where my father prayed with people in the mornings; on the right, the office with a telephone. My parents did not have a phone of their own.

A woman behind the desk stood, looking displeased at the sight of me. Her ample figure seemed to emphasize her authority. I would not let anyone stop me now and darted away to look for my parents.


She stood in the nursery. I buried my face in her flowered voile dress and breathed in her scent; it was so reassuring. She put her arms around me. She understood. She had not forgotten me and my sisters. Nor had my father, who had been unusually busy preaching a nightly service in the mission's chapel.

I was not allowed to stay and visit that day. My father drove me back to the children's home with repeated warnings about the danger of walking alone on a mountain road. Rules must be obeyed. I must set an example for the other children.

Listening to him, I pushed my thumb hard against the lid of the June-bug jar. The grass I'd placed in it had wilted. I decided to let the June bugs go when I got back to the cow pasture where I'd caught them. They deserved to fly free and live as they pleased.

Fortunately, my mother convinced my father that it was better to bring up youngsters in a home of their own if at all possible. We moved from Charleston later that year. I was able to develop a rooted sense of self. That rootedness came not so much from living in one location, but from being with my family.

Today, when I see children wrenched from their families, I long to extend a caring hand and not let go until they tell me to do so. They seem to be part of me.

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