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Sally Evans Sovilla: Old Charleston still exists in memories

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Every July my husband, Sam, goes home to where he grew up -- Charleston, W.Va. On the third weekend of the month, the graduates from his old high school, Charleston High, gather for an annual classes-of-the-1950s picnic, so every year one can reconnect with classmates and friends.

The local men and women provide delicious and plentiful food for an indoor picnic. Former band members march in and take the stage to play the school songs and favorite songs of the '50s. My husband and I go every year from our home in Cincinnati, and after so many years it's like I am one of the graduates too.

This annual picnic also is a chance to revisit places that evoke memories both for him and for me. This past summer, the 58th since he graduated, we made our usual driving tour of those old familiar places -- well, the ones that are still standing.

We always begin by going to the house in Kanawha City where his parents lived after their family was grown. The Cape Cod house has been remodeled, and long gone are the garden of delicious produce, the yard abloom with black-eyed Susans and canna and a swing set our children spent many hours on. But we see it as it was when we visited with our family. We drive down the street to the railroad tracks, "seeing" our children running down whenever we hear the whistle of a train. We point out homes of neighbors we used to know, all with new owners, and maybe stop at the Biscuit World by the old barbershop for a biscuit sandwich. Other restaurants we liked are gone, and we especially miss the Southern Kitchen.

The first house my husband lived in was just a few blocks away. It too is gone. He talks about a big field next door where all the kids played. At the familiar railroad track he showed our children how to put a penny on the track, wait for the train, and then have a souvenir flattened penny. In his day, he and his friends also went to the tracks and climbed on the standing railcars.

Another nostalgia-filled area is the East End, where my husband's family moved when he was in third grade. The Interstate replaced the both his old house and the street. Some of the homes of his buddies in the East End still stand, and he points them out with an accompanying story of those carefree days of youth.

We get out of the car at nearby Laidley Field, where my husband used to run track and go to football games. Sam tells me of making a ladder of discarded lumber and climbing over the fence to get into some of the games, his older sister at times being an accomplice.

Continuing toward downtown, we pass many dilapidated buildings and deserted storefronts. They stand like ghosts -- a once familiar local diner, a paint store, the Valley Bell, the pool hall, the Sugar Bowl, Haddy's Market and the State Theater, where Sam spent many a Saturday afternoon. On one corner stood a little diner where, after delivering the morning newspaper, he'd stop for a hot muffin. The neighborhood my husband remembers riding to on his bike to hang out on street corners with his buddies now exists only in his mind.

One of our favorite stops is the Capitol. As a boy, my husband played on the grounds, sometimes challenging himself to make his way all around the building going from windowsill to windowsill. Imagine that in this day and age!

We always took our young children to play at the Capitol. How they enjoyed tossing pennies into the big circular fountain, chasing squirrels, sitting next to and pretending to ring the huge Liberty Bell on the Capitol steps.

The downtown Sam remembers, and the one I remember from 1954, has changed a lot. Gone are two favorite department stores, The Diamond and Stone & Thomas, places my mother-in-law loved to shop. My husband still talks about going to town as a boy with his mother and having lunch in The Diamond's fifth-floor cafeteria.

As we drive through town, Sam points out Estep's, a men's clothing store, and the Peanut Shoppe, both still in business, but places of his past are few and far between. This trip we found the Blossom Deli had closed.

We're always happy to visit an old-time drugstore still in business in Kanawha City. They're always busy at lunchtime, definitely still a favorite with the locals. We make sure every trip we have a Charleston Hot Dog or two, and often order that or a "Long Bob" at Trivillian's.

Whenever we go back, we always take flowers to Sunset Memorial Park for my husband's family. We spend time at their graves, remembering, and as we drive through the large cemetery my husband sees familiar family names on many of the tombstones.

Our last stop before heading home is always Capitol Market, a downtown market my husband remembers his father going to. The indoor vendors and the farmers have almost anything you could hope to find. One year I found very small plums, the likes of which I haven't seen since I was a child and a neighbor had that kind of plum tree.

We leave with the backseat full of our purchases, knowing, of course, we can find the same fruits and vegetables at farm markets back home, but here they seem a little more special. Still, we have yet to find tomatoes that taste as good as those my Italian father-in-law used to grow.

Hometowns change over the years, but you can go home again. Go to those long-ago places and let your memory do the rest.

Sally Evans Sovilla, of Cincinnati, may be emailed at blueeyedsally@yahoo.com.


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